Carmine Starnino: The "Difficult Sublimity" of David Solway
with anything that comes to the ear
to work into a difficult sublimity at last
a mountain speech
a hard extravagance
from "Prologue" (Bedrock)
Ever since the "difficult sublimity" that is today such an essential aspect of his poetry made its debut in 1976 with his first major collection, The Road to Arginos, David Solway's poems have been greeted enthusiastically ("lovely, tender, and spun with the hands of a master"), dismissively ("Technically, these are poems of a largely extreme conventionality") and with polite bafflement ("highly readable, companionable poems"). It would not be much of a stretch to say that this particular gamut of reactions is rehearsed every time a new book of his poetry appears (Solway's critical prose is now receiving the very same equivocal embrace). One can certainly try to draw comfort from Oscar Wilde's reassurance that "diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital" but the unhappy truth is that the continuing absence of any broad, organized critical endorsement has made Solway's ride through our literature a very rough one. "I sense that I am the Aesopian duck of Canadian poetry," writes Solway with characteristic wit in a letter to University of Toronto librarian Richard Landon, "the one that doesn't get invited to the party because the other animals can't decide what they are dealing with, beast or fowl."
But for a large number of readers in Canada (readers, shall we say, with a more discerning zoological eye), Solway is simply one of the best things to ever happen to English-Canadian poetry: a stylist of surpassing brilliance whose seriousness and authority is such that he executes every line as though - to borrow one reviewer's comment about Robert Lowell - "poetry were still a major art and not merely a venerable pastime which ought to be perpetuated." This is not to suggest that Solway is all conservative gravitas and fusty gloom; flamboyancy, in fact, is his most characteristic gesture. Indeed, it is unfortunate that so many misguidedly scold Solway for his "conventionality" when, in fact, Solway's only contact with tradition is through his skirmish with it. In other words, he is one of Canada's great innovators, and although he practices a kind of formal mastery which has lit up the work of some of Canada's best poets - George Johnston, E.J. Pratt, A.M. Klein, Irving Layton, P.K. Page, Robyn Sarah - there has been, to date, no Canadian poet who has so satisfyingly tweaked meter and rhyme in as many unpredictable directions. As Eric Ormsby eloquently writes of Solway's poems in Bedrock: "They sail in measured cadences across the limitless expanse of white space but they also respond to all the caprices of the winds."
Solway has managed to successfully split the expected single-cell aspect of his literary gift so that - and here I am adapting one of his own sly insights into Layton's originality - there is not one "Solway" but many "Solways." In a Matrix interview, Solway complains about being "constantly obliged to orbit one's own particular identity," and thus, eager to escape what Shelley calls that "burr of self that sticks to one so" and with the prevailing credo of Solway's efforts being "to make green religion in winter bones" (Shelley again) Solway has, in a very real sense, divided and subdivided himself in order to make green religion out a number of different winterized subjects. There is David Solway the educational theorist (Education Lost, Turtle Hypodermic of Sickenpods), David Solway the travel writer (Anatomy of Arcadia), David Solway the literary essayist (Random Walks) David Solway the cultural critic (Lying About the Wolf), and, of course, David Solway the poet (most recently Chess Pieces). One can obviously only hope to cup a little of his astonishing prolific ardor.
Yet it's hard to believe that it has taken nearly three decades for us to even begin to come to terms with a career whose singular presence should have been recognized long ago. In our current literary dispensation - where free-verse continues its ascendancy with the emphasis on "free" rather than on "verse" - a poet as genuinely gifted as Solway would seem to have little to offer. It must be said that Solway has himself shown very little patience for the forgetfulness-of-tradition that now proudly presides as a house spirit in our literature. In fact, he has gone out of his way to take sides on the issue. In "The End of Poetry" from Random Walks, he rails against a literary age where "poetry that honours the canons and attitudes of its masonic past, reveres the illustrious predecessor, recognizes degree and precedence, and deploys a complex, formally appropriate, and distinctive memorable language is dismissed as either hieratic snobbishness or creative senility." Indeed, Solway has happily fallen into the sin of yielding to the influence of powerful outside "predecessors" (most prominently master-craftsman like W.B. Yeats, Robert Graves, Richard Wilbur and James Merrill). In "Lampman Among the Moderns," Solway counsels his peers who have unthinkingly debilitated their poetry through the process of Canadianization:
Canadian poets, learn your craft
and celebrate the hundredth draft.
Scorn the sort who stumble into print
and excel by grace or accident,
or ply their patriotic pens
to show they are good citizens,
for the one thing that can make us great,
a tradition we can venerate,
is not in history, but in speech,
the language that each speaks to each.
We have no history, and the land
We glorify is only land,
alien loam and mineral,
but a thousand years must grow and fall
to fecundate the poet's dream:
responsive soil, a natural theme.
Another way to vivify rocks,
difficult and unorthodox,
is to take for country living thought
and all philosophy has taught,
a common literature and tongue,
the words and books we move among,
and take for countrymen all those
who write accomplished verse or prose.
For owing to our neutral race
we're most at home in time and space:
travel widely in both schemes;
stay clear of fashionable themes;
be conservative; don't rave;
and most, avoid an early grave.
Interestingly, we learn from his interview with Zymergy that Solway attributes the motivation for his extraordinary gathering of forces in The Road to Arginos to an unwelcome letter of praise from Al Purdy in 1972. "I do not want to write the kind of poetry that is praised by poets I myself cannot praise or whom I do not want to write like," answers Solway, "And the way I decided to learn was to go back to Beowulf and work my way through the whole tradition." One might even say that Purdy's "blessing" also vexed Solway into setting a large-scale polemical goal: to encourage a re-evaluation of our sterile literary vision and its patience-fraying concerns with identity and nation. At the beginning of Edward Mendelson's Early Auden, Mendelson makes the distinction between "vatic" poetry, focused on the psychological and the personal, and "civic" poetry, in which a poet speaks to an audience that shares similar values and concerns. I think it's fair to say that Canadian poetry is overwhelmingly vatic, while Solway is one of our few civic poets - with an important exception: Solway's poetry and criticism is the sort that, in Donald Davie's words, "envisages and addresses a public that does not exist, which by its exertions it intends to call into being" (italics mine). And what would Solway's ideal audience expect from its poets?
If the poet in Canada has one major imperative it is not to write primarily about Canadian themes, to describe, to lament, or to praise the indigenous, but simply to write well, about anything and everything. It is to smash the boundaries of out insularity, to take all place and all time as our province with a kind of Verulamien relish and ambition. Canada, after all, is not Zion. If we have a country its psychic equivalent is distance, the feeling for horizons; and really, as poets, we have more in common with Blake and Spenser than with Lampman and Roberts.This is from an early essay called "The Flight From Canada" and taken in tandem with "Lampman among the Moderns" ("Another way to vivify rocks, / difficult and unorthodox, / is to take for country living thought"; "For owing to our neutral race / we're most at home in time and space"). We can begin to see the shape of a motivating credo: Canadian poets must abandon the search for Canadian content in order to free up critical and creative vitality. In other words, Solway has committed himself to challenging Canadians' version of themselves, which, of course, gives his ongoing contest of Canadian poetry's aesthetic terms and values special urgency: whatever a poem gains in pre-programmed cultural definition it loses in aesthetic discipline and independence. It's unfortunate, however, that Solway's willingness to become the lone bearer of high seriousness has condemned him to occupy the undersurface of Canadian poetry. It's not a fun place to be, I imagine. And yet his voice hasn't been darkened by any smash-and-grab curmudgeonness. In fact, nowhere do Solway's convictions reveal themselves with more enthusiasm and exuberance than in his critical writing (Louis Dudek is often puffed as English Canada's true man of letters; I suggest that Solway has been the first to reach that mark).
In fact, let me say right way that I love Solway's criticism. I love its adversarial qualities (Solway never backs away from a fight), the audacity of its opinions and the profundity of its conclusions. I love it for its subversiveness, for its interpretive prowess, for its sublime (and sometimes not so sublime) arrogance and for its modesty in the face of the mystery of art. Mostly I love it for the writing. For the exhilaration, when reading it, of being among words, and, when the critical prose is really good, for the gratification of surrendering to the ravishments of its language. Let me also say that my admiration is not unconditional. I find myself exasperated by the "too-muchness" of the prose; its intellectual grandstanding, its verbal strut. Yet as frustrating as Solway's stylistic pageantry sometimes is (and let's be honest, how many Canadian literary critics do you know that actually have enough genuine style to parade?), Solway's commentary never loses touch with what remains the most abiding reason to read and reread him: coherent thinking, a skeptical attitude, analytic rigor and rhetorical gifts rich enough to galvanize those elements into an engaging voice. Notice, for example, how Solway shoulders an idea as complex as memorability and carries it, with indefatigable clarity, across the length of a sentence:
Memorability is a function of highly charged language, which can only live within the phrase but whose continuity, be it said, cannot be indefinite: language can support only so much intensity without burning up, like the seraphim who can chant "holy" only once before being consumed by the fires of their devotion.Sentences like these place Solway's criticism safely outside the superficiality that characterizes Canada's literary conversation with itself, and ensconces Solway as one of Canada's most valuable thinkers. Indeed, there are very few critics whose persuasiveness and general good sense are liable to force changes in our conventional perceptions of literature. Solway is one of them, sharing shelf space with F.R. Leavis, Randall Jarrell, Seamus Heaney and Helen Vendler. He has set a gold standard of achievement, not only for his contemporaries but for a generation of younger Canadian poets as well (in one essay, W.J. Keith offers up Solway as "the ideal model for the serious aspiring poet"). What emerges from his books, then, is not merely a poet of wide learning and exceptional talent, but a poet marked by the individuality and eccentricity which remain the prerogative of certain special imaginations. In the end, if we are to judge a poet by the best work he has given us, then Solway, with his cornucopian triumphs, has been more than generous.
Carmine Starnino is a poet and essayist living in Montreal. He has published two books of poetry, The New World (1997) and Credo (2000). A Lover's Quarrel, collection of essays on contemporary Canadian poetry, is forthcoming.