Big four, beware!

Director’s Cut

A review of Director's Cut by David Solway

Published on April 1, 2004

Director’s Cut
David Solway

The Porcupine's Quill

David Solway is an angry man on a mission. He believes that Canadians, due to chauvinism and a native reticence to offend or appear politically incorrect, have acquiesed in the elevation of inferior writers. To remedy the situation, Solway has declared war: “I am ready to challenge the literary hegemony of what we might call the Big Four – Al Purdy, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Anne Carson – all of whom I contend are writers of such inferior quality that in a truly literate society they would be recognized as a national embarrassment.” Similar evaluations apply “to the little infinite of fellow travellers – some of whom I coffin within,” i.e., those who “populate the journals, reading circuits, chat rooms, granting corridors and minority festivals” and often conspire to give their “cogeners” (a favourite word) the juicy awards and prizes. Although Solway manages to name an amazing number of “plodders breveted above their proper rank,” he regrets the space constraints on bringing more to book.

A collection of sixteen essays, articles, and reviews, Director’s Cut is presumably the author’s preferred versions of writings which, except for the preface and long concluding essay, have all appeared elsewhere. Some of those writers savaged in Solway’s ad hominem attacks have already hit back in print; most seem to have ignored the provocation. The public, oblivious to the poetry wars raging about them, have doubtless continued on their daily rounds, which is unfortunate, because Solway is not merely a name-caller. He is steeped in poetic tradition, practice, and scholarship; his beliefs as to what constitutes superior poetry are solidly grounded and stated frequently with various nuances throughout the book, repetition being inevitable since each of the pieces deals with essentially the same subject. Palatable or not, his arguments and judgements, such as his necessary reassessment of Al Purdy, deserve to be engaged and debated.

“The Trouble with Annie” is a lengthy examination of the work and sucess of Solway bete noire, poet-scholar Anne Carson, whose meteoric national and international rise to fame and fortune has particularly outraged Solway on a number of levels. When he examines her poetry he finds “the docetic counterfeit of a production that is all surface and no body,”… and “absence of vision and marrow.” Poetry that sometimes seems “‘original’…is only eccentric, mannered or even freakish.” These and other observations lead Solway to wonder how Carson gets away with it. He turns to her scholarship and finds that it “merely exacerbates her overall performance.” He finds that an academic analysis of Carson’s has been “cribbed almost verbatim” from another writer and finds instances of “her various borrowings,” apparent poachings in her poetry, etc. He cites other critics who have faulted Carson for “intellectual appropriation and poor scholarship.” Solway ties these allegations to Carson’s poetic practice in a bid to strengthen his brief against her poetry, but he must know that implications of plagiarism are taken very seriously in the academic world.

Solway’s book is not an easy read: he clearly wants to impress the reader as a polyhistor and a playful word-hungry polyglot. Unfortunately for his cause, he needlessly alienates many potentially receptive readers by his flaunting of his knowledge. His text is an obstacle course of accurate but needlessly obscure words which too frequently cause readers to stumble or come to a dead stop. They are reminded of their inferiority as they search ever-larger dictionaries in search of enlightenment. (“Let me see now, ‘nguistic.'”)

Reactions to Director’s Cut will vary depending on whose hide the gadfly has stung. Solway’s contrarian views are frequently well supported by intelligent analysis, such that even those serious readers who strongly disagree will be taken back to the texts to reaffirm or alter their judgements. mRb

Doug Rollins taught English literature and jazz history at Dawson College, now supervises student teachers at McGill University.



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