Brash and Thoughtful

A Lover’s Quarrel: Essays and Reviews

By Douglas Rollins

A review of A Lover's Quarrel: Essays And Reviews by Carmine Starnino

Published on October 1, 2004

A Lover’s Quarrel: Essays And Reviews
Carmine Starnino

The Porcupine's Quill
$24.95
paper
304pp
0-88984-241-8

Carmine Starnino is a poet and editor whose lively and engaging critical voice has joined the small but growing chorus of anti-establishment writers dissatisfied with the state of Canadian literary criticism and challenging the accepted canon on a number of grounds.

A Lover’s Quarrel is divided into a long introduction, an overlong (64-page) title essay and 22 wide-ranging reviews published over the last decade, most pieces devoted to the work of a single author, e.g. Christopher Dewdney, Irving Layton, David McGimpsey, Anne Carson. Starnino’s title is something of a misnomer: what he clearly loves is good, honest poetry, the product of intelligence, hard work, craft, and inspiration. His quarrels are with the perpetrators and boosters of fashionable but inferior work.

The opening sentence of Starnino’s introduction establishes his tone: “I want to do this right, and the best way to begin, I think, is to fess up to reservations. Luckily, I have a few.” Lest the reader mistake his informality for a lack of serious intent, he soon says, with some pride, “Much of the writing…had its origins in anger: anger at the unmerited neglect of a poet, anger at the overblown fanfare attending a book, and anger at the circumstances conspiring to ensure that poems in this country continue to be crudely read.” He holds dull reviewers (of poetry, I hasten to add) responsible. Despite his cultivated brashness and conscious reliance on his own taste and prejudices, he is essentially thoughtful and fair but decisive in judgement, his disapprobation usually well earned.

In the title essay, Starnino takes on Dennis Lee for basing his criticism of Canadian poetry on ideological rather than literary concerns. While using Canadian poetry as evidence of a soul-damaging colonialism, Lee is “actually using colonialism to determine how to read Canadian poetry,” demonstrating what Starnino charges is “a pervasive rhetorical device in Canadian criticism”; making a point by falsifying the argument. He believes that our poets are not victims of colonialism: “the English language can be a powerful force in the hands of anyone who uses it well. It is a medium, not an ‘oppression’…Lee…is telling a lie, and a lie does not grow smaller when you turn up the Canadianist jargon, no matter how sincerely you raise the volume.” Starnino holds that extreme nationalism has profoundly damaged the cause of Canadian poetry, writing that it “reaches its most radical and appalling conclusion in Robert Kroetsch’s criticism.”

In the wonderfully titled essay “Vowel Movements,” Starnino considers the success of new star Christian Bök’s “book-length lipogram” Eunoia and explains the work’s Oulipian method, in which a number of constraints are prescribed, including the serial use of a single vowel in each “Chapter,” e.g. “lee sheets, when drenched, get reft, then rent.” While accepting the virtuosity of the performance, Starnino mildly observes that the “sentences – tonally trapped between Dr. Seuss and the Jabberwocky – come off a little silly” and “respectfully wonder[s] if it all amounts to something you’d want to call poetry.” Starnino then lucidly examines the purpose and function of form in poetry based on traditional principles. He insists that his quarrel is not with Bök, Bök’s book, or the Oulipian practice, but with the many readers and critics who have mistakenly lauded the book as important poetry.

Starnino brings his own fine critical sense to a discussion of the barely remembered Charles Bruce (1906-1971). His essay will introduce the Nova Scotia poet’s splendid achievement to a new audience after many decades of neglect and should stir a publisher to reprint Bruce’s The Mulgrave Road. mRb

Douglas Rollins is a Montreal writer.

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