Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Stan Dragland: The Bricoleur & His Sentences

How to read a person? “Personalities are charted by naming objects,” says Michael Ondaatje. “That is, if you speak of a couple who have a John Boyle postcard taped to their fridge you are saying more about the couple and what they probably think than what might be said in five paragraphs on their political thought.” No reflection on what that Boyle card might be saying. John Boyle, ultranationalist visual artist, Hamilton, Ontario.
            For Mary Oliver, “dawn is a gift. Much is revealed about a person by his or her passion, or indifference, to this opening of the door of day. No one who loves dawn, and is abroad to see it, could be a stranger to me.” Duncan Campbell Scott says of his friend Archibald Lampman, though he wrote a couple of decent dawn poems, that he “saw mighty few sunrises.” His best sunrise poem, “A Morning on the Lievre,” came out of a camping trip with Scott, who I seem to hear banging on the fry pan and hollering “wakey, wakey! Rise and shine!” to rouse the bleary-eyed poet who is sullen with resentment until, parting the canvas flap with a testy remark on the tip of his tongue, he suddenly…! Mary Oliver is not dismissing the slugabed outright. I realize that. But suppose she and Archie had known each other. He would have been up at the crack far too seldom to share the gift she values so.
            Once in my youth I sat in the Oyen, Alberta barbershop, waiting for my brush cut beside a dog whose voluble owner declared from the chair that he could tell everything he needed to know about a person by the way that person and his dog related to each other. The dog regarded me, assessing. No way was I going to reach out and attempt a pat, as I would normally have done. If that dog bit me, or even if it growled, my nogoodness would have been patent. Of course not reaching out will also have spoken. No doubt the man in the chair had my number. Two point six.
            Even casual reflection shows that the business of character, biography or autobiography, is a lot more complicated than a person might think. I got to thinking about this when Michael Ondaatje asked me to send him my bundle of sentences, because it’s personal and quirky and not meant to be shared without commentary. I began to think of it as a kind of postcard taped to the fridge. What would Michael and Mary Oliver and the barbershop dog make of it? I foresaw scratching of the dead. Then I began to think about the word “bricoleur” as regularly applied to me by Don McKay. Might it fit not only my gathering and making of odd things, but also my puddle-jumping mind? Does it describe me all too well? This is not modesty. I think better sideways or in circles than straight on, so I hand my best attempts to others then do what I can to fix the flaws they spot. Do not imagine that this comes direct from me to you.

I’ve always envied Stan Dragland’s ease with literary criticism; how he articulates the interconnectivity of reading, thinking, literature and living in the world in terms deceptively simple, deeply complex, and incredibly precise. I’ve envied his sentences, and how he connects seemingly unconnected thoughts, ideas and passages into highly complex and intelligent arguments that read with an almost folksy and deceptive ease (something his critical prose shares with the work of Dragland’s friend and colleague, the poet Phil Hall). For years, one of my favourite books has been his Journeys Through Bookland and Other Passages (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984), a title I’ve probably read at least half a dozen times, even taking to travelling with it on extended tours. In Dragland’s new The Bricoleur & His Sentences (Pedlar Press, 2014), he provides an argument, including numerous examples, for better sentences through exploring a series of ideas and thoughts-to-conclusion, as he marks, remarks and works his way through varying degrees of Emily Dickinson, Walter Benjamin, Margaret Avison, Michael Ondaatje, Phil Hall, Northrup Frye, Elizabeth Hay, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Lisa Moore and Colleen Thibaudeau, all of which falls into his own argument of “thinking-in-progress.”

By the time she was asked to submit a collection of her writings to NeWest Press for its Writer as Critic Series, says Daphne Marlatt in her Preface, “many of the essays … had already been published and were being cited, even given back to me as dogma in interview questions. This ossifying of what had seemed very much in process was disturbing. For i thought of this writing not as a series of (position) papers in academic argument, but as essais, tries in the French sense of the word. Essaying even, to avoid the ossification of the noun.” I admire the book that became Readings from the Labyrinth for many reasons, one being that it manages to make a book enclosed within covers enact the fluidity of thinking-in-progress.

According to Wikipedia, “bricolage (French for ‘tinkering’) is the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process.” I can’t imagine a better description for the literary criticism of Stan Dragland, a deeply committed reader, thinker and critic, and his opening essay, “Following the Brush” (from which the opening excerpt above is lifted), explores exactly the aspects of his criticism. As he writes further along in the same essay (providing such a self-description that might easily also be applied to Phil Hall): “Yes, I like to make things from found objects. I also like to find images and ideas. From the well of received knowledge come many such thoughts, because I’ve done some studying in my time and I’m no stranger to research, but also from happenstance. Starting out with an essay, I have no idea where it will take me, what it will gather in from which sources. Adventure!” I’ve always enjoyed how Dragland revels in the digression, and what compels about these pieces is in the meander, how Dragland manages to sway and ebb, traversing enormous distances in such short spaces, connecting everything to just about everything else, and impossibly cohering into a single argument about bricolage and sentences. The second two essays, “Anatomies” and “Rhetoric Revisited,” provide enlightening arguments on and around the work of Northrup Frye, including his influence on writing, thinking and teaching.

Northrup Frye was the eminence grise at Western when I arrived in 1970. First-year courses were all supposed to be based on Anatomy of Criticism. Stingle and Hair had been students of Frye (Dick once told me that not even Frye was spared that demoralizing undergraduate question, “will this be on the exam?”), as had James Reaney and other poets like Ronald Bates, George Johnston, Margaret Avison, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee and Jay Macpherson. Hugh Kenner also. At Reaney’s invitation, Frye once came to address another team-taught class of which I was a member, this one called Canadian Literature and Culture. After his interesting talk, the first question from the audience was, “Where were you educated?” It was hard to see where the questioner was coming from with that one, but Frye was ready. “At the University of Toronto and Oxford University,” he said, “which means that I’m fundamentally self-educated.” Laughter.

Dragland has obviously been accumulating sentences for some time, and the first half of the collection is made up of essays (three, to be exact), before sections containing dozens of sentences on sentences, before the book ends with notes, further reading and acknowledgments. Begun as a list of quotes that slowly morph into an argument, the sentences that make up the three sections of quoted material are excised from a variety of writers’ works, including George Orwell, Daphne Marlatt, Phil Hall, William H. Gass, Virginia Woolf, Charles Bernstein, Robert Bringhurst, Herman Melville and E.B. White, among others. He gives examples of different sentences that work, and placed together in structural groups, to help illustrate his argument on the how and the why of sentences, including this short excerpt from Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay’s novel, Alone in the Classroom (McClelland and Stewart, 2011):

A sentence bears the weight of the world. The emotional girl set about baptizing her child. Tess took her dying baby from her bed in the middle of the night and christened him in the presence of her small and sleepy brothers and sisters. Words weigh nothing at all, yet they carry so much on their shoulders over and over and over again.

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