Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Writing magazine, Vancouver

Lately I've been rereading a stack of Writing magazine from the Kootenay School of Writing, issues 8 through 22 that Rob Manery gave me years & years ago. The issues span the range of editorial by Vancouver poet/filmmaker Colin Browne, after some of the other editorial periods including David McFadden & John Newlove, but before Jeff Derksen produced a couple of issues in journal format; the earlier incarnation of the current online pdf W, Writing magazine existed throughout the 1980s producing experimental works by Canadian & international authors, & even produced an issue of work writing (edited by Tom Wayman, after the KSW/Vancouver Industrial Writers' Union co-production Split Shift: A Colloquium on the New Work Writing in August 1986). Issues include writing by Karen Mac Cormack, Steve McCaffery, Gary Whitehead, Gail Scott, Ron Silliman, Paulette Jiles, Maxine Gadd, Susan Yarrow, Gerald Creede, Kevin Killian, Tim Lilburn, Lyn Hejinian, Gerry Gilbert, John Newlove, Charles Bernstein, bpNichol, Daphne Marlatt, Margaret Hollingsworth, Norma Cole, Margaret Christakos, Erin Mouré, David Bromige, Phil Hall, Dan Farrell, Peter Culley, Gladys Hindmarch & piles of others.

A Valentine for Peter

Elysium Pass

Exploration went rapidly traverse bivouac Lick Creek Athabaska
Waterfowl Lake, Waterfowl, Waterfowl Lake, Waterfowl
trails of the pioneers licked Kicking Horse Pass cracks chimneys ledges
cols Mount Alberta pitiless limestone slabs with no moss campion anyhow
queens generals politicians cities pitons on the south face allowed
nomenclature trainstops 50 degrees below zero
Mount Assiniboine, Mount Trident, Mistaya Lake, July Morning
Mount Assiniboine, Banff, Beaver in Colour, Pack Train on March, pack
spillikin on marble spillikin saloon car existing track name failing to
invent one.

Note: arranged and adapted from Frank Smythe's Rocky Mountains (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1948).

Meredith Quartermain, Writing 14 (June 1986)

Having a drink the other night with Monty Reid, I can't comprehend getting rid of magazines I think I will actually go through again & again & again (I have the whole run of Queen Street Quarterly, & long for more issues of Open Letter; but I also don't admit that I've run out of space for many of these things). Spending the past few days with these (I have no idea what the original impulse was to start putting these out) has sent me in all sorts of interesting directions, in reading and in writing both. One of the highlights had to be in Writing 12, the essay "The Use of Poetry" by Basil Bunting, who had just died. The transcript of a lecture he had given at the University of British Columbia in the fall/winter of 1970, this is something that should be read by many more people (& makes for an interesting counterpoint to the interview with Peter Quartermain in a recent issue of The Capilano Review, where he talks about Basil Bunting). Is there a place where one can find more essays by Bunting? I think I have to find some of this at some point; he must have been a fantastically engaging speaker (I wonder if there's a way to perhaps get one or two of these, he thinks out loud, for Poetics.ca….). As the essay opens:

Possum and Pound used to maintain that poetry was a useful art, even a necessary one. The poet's business was to purify the dialect of the tribe, or clarify it, or otherwise keep words clean and sharp, so that men, who mostly think in words, could have thoughts with sharp edges. You might draw all sorts of surprising conclusions about their metaphysics from this contention, but I think the only legitimate conclusion is that they were muddled. For one thing, fruitful thought seems to be very rarely precise. Precision goes rather with barren logic. It is a virtue for clerks and accountants, for the lawyer who draws up a contract or for the man who compiles a technical handbook. Nevertheless when I was young and puzzled I followed Pound and Possum if ever I was asked what poetry was for.

I was wrong, of course. Poetry is no use whatsoever. The whole notion of usefulness is irrelevant to what are called the fine arts, as it is to many other things, perhaps to most of the things that really matter. We who call ourselves "The West," now that we've stopped calling ourselves Christians, are so imbued with the zeal for usefulness that was left us by Jeremy Bentham that we find it very difficult to escape from utilitarianism into a real world, and I don’t know whether I would ever have been very sure that Bentham and Mill were wrong, or even that Benjamin Franklin was a fool, if the chances of war hadn’t planted me out for a time in Moslem lands with an urgent duty to find out how people's minds worked there so that our rulers might handle them more astutely and overreach the Germans and the Russians. Moslems don’t ask what is the use of this or that; and there are lots of things in their countries that are not for sale. You can't buy respect in Baghdad.

Utilitarianism is the extreme case of humanism, for what they mean by "useful" is "what ministers to the material needs of man" — that's Franklin — or "of mankind in general" — that's Bentham. If religion is what we are all taught from our youth up, what is meant to influence all our behavior and guide most of our thought, utilitarianism is the religion of the West in this century as it was through most of last century: a religion that has put an abstraction called Man in the place that used to be occupied by a foggy idea called God. The fellow who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before is the greatest benefactor (therefore it was right for the Italians to conquer Libya, and it is right for Jewish farmers and manufacturers to drive out nomad Arabs, and it was right for the settlers on this continent to starve or shoot the Indians). It is wrong to loaf and gawp about instead of working steadily at something useful, and of course it is wrong and foolish to write poetry unless it can be shown to purify the dialect of the tribe or keep the plebs in order or perform some other useful function. (Football keeps the plebs in order. It was chariot-racing in Byzantium, dice and cards in Imperial China.)

But when you look at what poets write, it is very hard to convince yourself that their art contributes anything to the process of thought. The things they say are sometimes silly, very often conventional, the commonplaces handed down from poet to poet; and even the few who do set out a system of thought worth considering, have usually taken it over wholesale from some prose writer: Dante from St. Thomas, Lucretius from Epicurus and Democritus. Moreover you may thing a poet's ideas tommyrot without in the least affecting your pleasure in his poetry — an atheist or a Calvinist can enjoy Dante just as well as a Roman Catholic. Many of the poems we all consider masterpieces seem to contain no thought at all. "Full fathom five" only says: "Your father is drowned"; and when Ariel says it he is telling a goddam lie anyway. "O fons Bandusiae" remarks that Horace will sacrifice a kid to the little stream tomorrow — or one of these days, if he remembers. "Heber alle Gipfeln ist Rue" comes up with the bright discovery that we will all die one of these days. Other celebrated poems notice that spring weather cheers you up, or being in love makes you restless. If these poets were providing the tools of thought, why didn’t they make some use of those tools themselves?

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