In Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction, Peter Babiak includes an essay titled Poetry Isn’t Elsewhere: Vancouver Poetry. The essay wanders through an exploration of poetics meaning, merit and value. The title is ironic insofar as one might consider that Vancouver itself is an “Elsewhere” for the billions of people who happen not to reside there. Said another way, for me Vancouver Poetry IS Elsewhere Poetry.
The essay is oriented to celebrate Vancouver poets and poetry and includes several local-to-Vancouver references. Babiak’s essay is an assertion that Vancouver is a verifiable and valid hub of poetic thought and ability. Babiak provides this local orientation as a response to what he perceives as part of the reason that poetry is not a more prominent feature of modern culture. He says of students, and implies of other readers that they
think poetry is unusually complicated writing by introverts and narcissists obsessed with producing cryptic lines that don’t go all the way to the end of the page. Or they just think that poetry is writing that happens elsewhere, like in Europe or in another century.
This notion that Elsewhere is a more valid wellspring of poetry (and perhaps by extension other forms of art and culture?) seems to be a characteristic view of Canadian arts academics. This view probably began at a time when Canada was a very new nation with very few local cultural producers. Clearly, a municipality formally established in the mi-1880’s will not have hundreds, let alone thousands, of years of local scribblers whose writings might be waded-into. Further, a newcomer status was bolstered by a slow-growing population compared to certain other Elsewhere newcomers. It would not be very convincing to assert that a community has a vibrant poetry culture with only a relative handful of poets.
By reason and history, Vancouver and other Canadian communities perceived themselves as provincial in the sense of being unsophisticated and regional. Far from the cultural hubs of civilization.
Encapsulated in the essay title is the coming-of-age notion that Canadian communities (and perhaps more significantly, coming-of-age recognition of localized Canadian academics) are beginning to focus on their own activity rather than the big noise and circumstance of longer-established traditions. Canadian cities and their attendant artists and intellectuals seem no longer feel a need to attend to the bustling cultural noise of New York or London, Paris or Berlin, Mumbai or Ankara, Moscow or Beijing. Though Canadian culture and literature seems to include memories of those places as requisite and inherited rhythms to establish the local noise.
Perhaps appropriately Babiak’s essay carries a capitalized P in Poetry. Is it that poetry may be found anywhere but Poetry as an authoritative cultural field of study may only be validated in the kind of hub that Babiak, as a scholar in the Vancouver academic community, has been a part of? Consider that Al Purdy most certainly wrote at least some of his poetry at Roblin Lake and North Saanich but neither of these communities seems to be spoken of as bastions of Poetry. Is it the poets or the scholars that define the field?
Poet as Maker
Generating a simile to a character in a George Bowering poem, Babiak asserts that a poet “isn’t a discoverer but a maker – of stories, myths, knowledge – who makes thought ingots out of words“. The poet as maker seems coincides with an etymological analysis of the word poetics where the Greek work poiein means to make. For Babiak, this provides a link to philosophy and the arenas of metaphysics and thought. This addition to the main theme of his essay readily leads to Heidegger’s The Thinker As Poet, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and even the developing field of biosemiotics.
Babiak’s conclusion appears to be that poetry defines human experience rather than the inverse. He goes so far as to asserts that this is what poetry is definitively “for”. Perhaps. Perhaps.
Thoughts on Poetics, Having Read Criticism by Peter Babiak
- The aphorism “Poetry isn’t Elsewhere” is a neat summary and rallying cry for individual and independent poets and poetics; it seems the discipline of poetry, the realm of the poet adapts to this idea more readily than the field of poetics, which is the realm of the academic.
- The poet who writes from their own time and places is the provider for the academics who will follow. The poet is a defining maker of cultural standards. Referencing the standards and history of other times and places does not make poetry qualitatively better – only perhaps more readily adopted and lauded for its familiarity.
- All poetry will be subject to the inherited rhythms of the poets who write because the are using the inherited language(s) which are their medium.
- St. Thomas (or any particular location) is a valid centre for a poet (just as Purdy was located at Roblin Lake) but a centre of poetics seems to require access to the larger centres and longer periods of time inherent in major cultures.
References and Citations
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- Original draft: July 20, 2018