James Pollock on the ethical value of poetry
The Griffin Poetry Prize finalist opens up about what makes him dare to be a writer, the best writing advice he's ever received, and the ethical value of poetry.
Below, James Pollock answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. From Lorna Crozier, "A question I've never been asked, and fear being asked: What makes you dare to be a writer, to think you have something to say to me?"
Well, I've got some spirit. And I do in fact have something to say. But I think I understand where this anxious question comes from, so let me respond again a little differently. The question means, "Who do you think you are?" And I won't be the first to say that this is a peculiarly Canadian question. Or, with all due respect, a question peculiar to our older generations.
Now, I teach a course for American college students called Canadian Imagination, in which we identify various national neuroses, including that colonial mentality or inferiority complex that leads too many Canadians to suffer from self-doubt even today. But we also consider the various imaginative strategies Canadians and their artworks have used — successfully — to overcome these neuroses. And the first step in overcoming them is to stop cherishing them for being part of our national identity. They're our mortal enemies.
2. From Cordelia Strube, "Do you think your work will still be around 50 years from now?"
That's the plan.
3. From Helen Humphreys, "What is the best piece of advice about writing that you have ever received?"
One of my professors in graduate school, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, has an essay called "Young Poets, Please Read Everything." What he means is "read the greatest writers in the history of the world, in all genres."
4. From Zsuzsi Gartner, "Have you ever written a sentence you think could save lives?"
Wow, Zsuzsi, that's pragmatism with a vengeance! Let's see: I do think one of the things I'm doing in my poetry is teaching myself — and, by extension, the reader — how to live. But I would hasten to add, as I put it in an essay called "The Art of Poetry," that "the ethical value of the individual poem does not derive from the moral or ideological lesson it teaches, but rather its strength as a moral source, its power to make crucial human goods resonate and come alive to us again. Such power is inseparable from, and in fact depends upon, aesthetic power, and therefore prosodic and rhetorical technique . . . . [M]asterful technique enables a poet to achieve a deeper and stronger contemplation of moral and political experience in poems; and . . . this in turn can produce a profound aesthetic pleasure in the reader."
Whether I've succeeded in this myself, I'll let my readers decide.
5. From Pasha Malla, "Which would be preferable: a life of relative contentment and comfort, and having your books die alongside you, or being miserable and destitute, and having your books read long after you are dead?"
A classic false dilemma, and one that has caused a lot of suffering. I prefer Flaubert's advice: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
6. From Greg Hollingshead, "Name three Canadian writers you believe should be more widely read than they are. Why?"
Great question. Daryl Hine, the best Canadian poet of his generation and perhaps the twentieth century. Eric Ormsby, one of our very best living poets. And Jeffery Donaldson, one of the strongest Canadian poets of my generation, though he hasn't gotten nearly the degree of recognition he deserves. At his best, he's easily the peer of Babstock and Solie and so forth. I argue at some length for the merits of each of these poets, and lots of others, in my new book, You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada.
7. From Vincent Lam, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? Can you tell us about that, if you feel comfortable doing so? What did you hold on to to get out of that place?"
It took me fifteen years to write Sailing to Babylon, a book sixty pages long. That's an average of four pages a year. So I'm familiar with struggle. And in fact, on one level the book is about my struggle to write it, though not directly. This comes through clearly in the poems about explorers, for example — John Franklin, Henry Hudson, David Thompson. In other words, one thing I did was turn my struggle into my subject. The sense of urgency, determination, and humility in those poems comes from that.
8. From Andrew Pyper, "Have you ever veered away from something in your work — explicit sex, say, or bloody violence, or a character uttering offensive thoughts — because it might soil the book for certain sensitive readers? If so, have you regretted it?"
Some of the best writing in the world deals with subjects like these: think of Lolita, The Iliad, The Merchant of Venice. So I wouldn't steer clear if I needed to address something dangerous. The problem is that a lot of writing about this kind of thing is really god-awful, aesthetically, and that's what's offensive about them. Not the subjects themselves.
As a critic, of course, I have an ethical obligation to be honest about what I've read. Northrop Frye said he never regretted criticizing anyone's work in a review, though he did regret some of the positive things he'd said about some poets' work, things he later saw were unjust. So I try to keep that in mind. But, like Frye, I never attack anyone personally. That, I would regret.