Reading Sheila Stewart’s The Shape of a Throat put me in mind of a criticism of modern poetry that I had recently read by Camille Paglia (note my notes on reading Paglia’s Break Blow Burn). Particularly, Paglia wrote
I was shocked at how weak individual poems have become over the past forty years. Our most honored poets are gifted and prolific, but we have come to respect them for their intelligence, commitment and the body of their work. They ceased focusing long ago on production of the powerful, distinctive self-contained poem. They have lost ambition and no longer believe they can or should speak for their era. Elevating process over form, they treat their poems like meandering diary entries and craft them for effect in live readings rather than on the page. Arresting themes or images are proposed, then dropped or left to dribble away. Or, in sign of lack of confidence in the reader of material, suggestive points are prosaically rephrased and hammered into obviousness. Rote formulas are rampant – a lugubrious victimology of accident, disease, and depression or simplistic, ranting politics…
This focus on a body of work, let us say a full career, by our honored and gifted poets suggests the trend where books of poetry are generated as a group rather than with focus on individual poems. This is where I find my observation of The Shape of a Throat. There are some worthwhile poems, but I am mostly struck by how contrived and self-referential the book becomes.
On page 23 of the collection there is a poem titled Poetry is theory. The poem is a terrific example to use. On its own the poem is fine. I rather appreciate it; however the poem is echoed is so many other parts of the collection, it no longer stands alone. It is not allowed to be singular. Let me back that up a bit.
First, the poem’s title is readily continued into the reading of the first line. It is a clever design feature. But the design feature. But this design feature is repeated so often in the collection that it begins to appear, as observed by Paglia, like a formula.
Next, the premise of the poem…that poetry is a theory of everything…is countered (or, arguably, balanced) on page 92 where the claim is flatly denied. How you want to keep saying it, which is the title of the poem on that page, begins with the words…”poetry isn’t a theory of anything.” This entry is submitted on a page that rather resembles prose. In other words, as Paglia says, “suggestive points are prosaically rephrased and hammered into obviousness”. It is a point that becomes more painful, having read on page 91 the words “Let a poem from the beginning speak to one at the end.” This level of self-referential behaviour feels academically prescriptive rather than interesting.
Overall I am struck by a collection of poetry that suggests to me that the poet is intent on a career as a poet rather than the writing of a poem. And it is a shame because I had rather appreciated Poetry is a theory until the singularity was eroded. I also rather appreciated the recurrent imagery of birds that seems to be underdeveloped; the pictures of deep familiarity of family, home and community (in this case Toronto) that were begun but abandoned. Or unresolved.
I suppose it is inevitable for poets to produce collections of poems that integrate well with each other. And why not!? It is sensible that collections should be integrated, consistent and even share themes and imagery to achieve an overall design. And when that is done well, it is a joy. I adore William Blake’s Songs Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It isn’t that a collection of poems shouldn’t be integrated and designed well. What I object to in Stewart’s collection was outlined by Paglia. I object to the lack of confidence in the reader.
The Shape of a Throat is published was published by Signature Editions in 2012.