I read Jacob Scheier’s more to keep us warm during some of the coldest days of winter and as I re-collect my thoughts today, the sun of mid-spring is doing a reasonable job of making those winter days a quiet memory. Scheier published the book in 2007 (eleven years ago!) and, according to Wikipedia, was named the Governor General English poetry prize winner for 2008. Apparently there was a bit of controversy in the awarding of that prize (what? controversy in a literary prize?banish the thought!). Sheier had at least one subsequent volume.
ECW press still promotes the book on its website. Despite the risk of an irrelevant sidebar taking over an essay, ECW incorporates this little bit of history regarding their publishing company on their organization’s “about” page
After three decades, we still get asked about our name, those three little letters: ECW. At first the acronym was self-descriptive: Essays on Canadian Writing (the name of the journal of literary criticism we started in 1974). But as the company grew and changed, our name, in our minds, also changed. We’ve heard the company called Essential Canadian Writing, Excellent Contemporary Writing, or, more recently, Extreme Cutting-Edge Writing. And these names have been, and still are, appropriate. But now we realize that each of those letters represents a particular strain of ECW Press’s diverse passions — Entertainment, Culture, Writing.
I publish my own poetry books and the short essays on this website have been largely, if not wholly oriented to Canadian poetry…so it entertaining to observe a publishing company which grew from a journal of literary criticism.
Now, how about those revisionist names for ECW? Do they reflect my impressions of Scheier’s book? Would I say more to keep us warm is essential, excellent or extreme? Well, not as a general characterization. In keeping with Sheier’s own injunction to be critical without being deliberately mean – the collection contains about 7 pages of poetry that were well worth the time. So let’s put that critical observation in context. The book is about 80 pages. I’m stating that about 10% was worth my time invested. I consider that a significant achievement, not a failure. I’ve read thousands of pages of poetry and there are much better known poets (contemporary and historical) who rank lower in my esteem. There are only a few poets by S.T. Coleridge’s poetry that I think worth the time. And, I’d be very pleased indeed if five or ten per cent of my poems were appreciated by an attentive audience. Few creative or intellectual initiatives will receive majority approval, let alone even a majority interest!
Not everything is going to be your cup of tea.
The first and third sections of the book did not impress me. I didn’t mark anything down that I might want to return to later. The first section, if I recall correctly is titled “quickly approaching the beginning”. Hmm. Clever, but that is all that I recall of the section.
I enjoyed the second section of the book. There was a noticeable shift in tone and approach. Much of what I found entertaining and worthwhile in this collection was in the second section. It was not tedious. The language was more free and engaging. I was encouraged by the second section that picking the book up wasn’t going to be a disappointment. I might want to read it all again.
That really is an important consideration. A book of poetry must offer the reader an opportunity to decide that it was all worth the first read…and even more importantly, worth a second look. I’ve read (and reviewed) several books that I doubt that i will ever read again. With some of those books, I’ve gotten the idea/experiment/point. With others, I doubt I’ll ever get the point. I expect I could read Scheier’s poetry again.
Let’s take an example. I think Sheier offers way too much approbation for Bukowski. I’ll readily admit that my exposure to Bukowski is very limited. That bit of exposure I’ve had leads me to the conclusion that I’ve gotten the point and don’t really need to look at it again. Thanks for raising your head, again Falstaff.
I am, however, glad that Sheier tips his hat to another poet. There are risks to a poet when they include a transparent name-drop or reference to another poet or artist. It could box the poet into the greater shadow of that other poet, so to speak. But I think it is a worth the time to recognize and acknowledge influences. I expect that few poets pursue their craft without having spent time in the words of their past and present peers. The name drop also provides an entree to how Scheier might want his book to be read. Nuances of humour or perspective that could help establish what he’s on about.
Should you read Scheier’s first book…now that the poetic dust has well and truly settled? Sure, why not. If ten percent of it sticks with you, it could be very well worth your time.