Lazy Bastardism (Carmine Starnino)

The actual subjects of the individual essays in Lazy Bastardism, Carmine Starnino’s latest collection of critical prose, remain secondary to the book’s primary subject: critical prose itself.

Fearing inept readers, Starnino begins with a prologue excerpting an interview with Patrick Warner, in which Starnino states that “To despise criticism . . . is to despise one of the forces that makes poetry possible. Poems, after all, emerge out of our ideas about poems”(11).

The book contains a variety of related statements concerning the necessity of critical prose, and offering prescriptions for that prose. In an essay on Adam Kirsch, Starnino has a good deal of praise for the poet-critic but cannot help from harping on Kirsh’s prose style: “Kirsch’s prose can’t see beyond its own precocity,” he notes, offering and then scowling at “a sentence constructed entirely out of Parnassian publicity-kit words” (114).

Starnino’s drive to produce his own essays as a poet-critic arises from a need to wrestle with his influences and determine his own position relative to other poets and critics, but it also arises from an appreciation for a muscled prose style that he sees as necessary given the protean nature of the poet-critic’s subject: “Poems do many things at once, and if you want to capture that restlessness you need sentences that can run together different kinds of experience . . . Many poetry reviewers don’t take the challenge seriously enough” (114).

Well, whatever else you might say about Carmine Starnino, he takes things seriously, especially this challenge.

Although the book draws its title from a collection of notes that contains the dismal doom-predication that the general public is done with poetry and will probably never care about it again, in a later essay (originally published earlier) he suggests that prose production offers possible hope: “A poem posted in a bus might catch the bored eye of the odd commuter, but . . . [t]o win converts you need to do more: you need to spark curiosity about your cause. And a smart way for poets to do that, apart from writing exciting poems, is by writing exciting criticism. In other words, widening poetry’s core readership starts with raising — to rich, phrase-turning heights — the level of conversation about the art” (191).

Starnino has certainly accomplished this goal: his prose style has many strengths, including the rhetorical bombast that causes many to hate his prose. Hostile readers often overlook the shiny veneer of Starnino’s style, which at its best is precise yet playful.

Consider this excerpt from Starnino’s essay on James Denoon, a little-known newspaper poet: “‘We are a plain sort of people in these distant parts / Unused to the fashions of splendour’ is how one stanza starts” (57). Starnino has ingeniously completed the line’s rhyme with his matter-of-fact addition of “is how one stanza starts,” while also duplicating the rhythm and hewing to the implied measure of that second line.

Starnino’s prose often outshines the bland versification of the poets he discusses, as in this essay on Denoon, which sometimes gratifies and sometimes grates, depending on whether the reader cares about the essay’s subject in the first place.

The experience of reading Starnino is often that of enjoying the grappling of a mind in pristine prose while wondering why he’s wasting so much effort on such losers. Starnino is at his worst in high praise, making boring poets like Peter Trower more boring: “He’s a poet who writes by ear” (236).

Sometimes Starnino selects a strong quotation but offers bizarre commendations. Writing on Michael Harris, Starnino quotes the biting “the syringe’s slim / savage jab” and claims that here Harris has “disguise[d] its artfulness . . . [t]he phrase hooks us precisely because it is slightly more agile and textured than one might find in real conversation, but it does not stretch credibility” (100).

Doesn’t it? If anyone said this to me in real life, I would punch them in the throat. When the police asked why, I would say, “He fancied himself a poet.” They would let me go. This may be a strong phrase, and Harris may be a strong writer, but not for Starnino’s reasons (at least, not these reasons).

For the most part, though, Starnino is a smart and savvy reader, with a stunning ability to attend to the smallest details. This fine sensibility allows Starnino, at his best, to recuperate the work of people that might actually need recuperating, like John Glassco, whose observation that “man ‘is destined for slaughter in the course of things'” (71) won’t end up riding the bus anytime soon.

Moreover, as everyone knows, Starnino shines on the attack. Here, he assaults Atwood, McKay, and Moritz. Although they are to some degree easy targets (Atwood for lazy languishment in simplistic political prose-with-line-breaks, McKay for devolving into self-parody, and Moritz for sham artistry), Starnino neatly dissects their development and the larger significance of the poetic trends they represent.

At the same time, Starnino’s attacks are rarer, more nuanced, and fairer than in the earlier A Lover’s Quarrel, and he has toned down the mean-spirited glee that sometimes surfaced in that former collection.

The tragedy of writing more fairly, and on the whole more positively (most of the book praises rather than scolds), is that Lazy Bastardism is less fun to read than A Lover’s Quarrel. In part, this is the result of wise decisions that Starnino has made, specifically to avoid discussing avant-garde poets in any detail.

He makes small, insignificant mentions of the Tish poets and of Christian Bök, and of Canadian experimentalism in a general sense, but stays focused on topics closer to his heart, poets who have impressed or disappointed him.

Starnino has lost his bite, or rather, sharpened ragged teeth. Now he seems to know better not to chew lead pipes, and effectively addresses not a single avant-garde poet in any extended, meaningful way, except for bpNichol. “[Nichol] mastered every encounter, be it on the page or in person, with charm” (164) — hardly the savaging we might expect.

Although Starnino is critical of Nichol in other ways, he is not damning and even admires Nichol in the end.

[For an extended discussion of this particular essay on bpNichol, see my conversation with Maurice Mierau about Starnino, online at Maisonneuve here.]

The tragedy and triumph of Carmine Starnino are thus the same: once bitten, twice shy, he has avoided engagement with the avant-garde in this second collection. As a result, he has produced a better but less interesting book, because the real poets he should be grappling with are the ones that he does not understand, and so with which he cannot grapple.

Everything Starnino loves in poetry — formal rigour, ambition, intellectual engagement with the world’s complexity, tactile and aural obsession with language — has become the domain of the avant-garde he hates. Everything, that is, except for deep-felt emotion, the one thing that might allow him to embrace and love these lefties.

He worries that “our current crop of experimental phenoms” commit the cardinal sin of “humourlessness” (165), which seems true only if reading narrowly in the broad avant-garde. (To me, “humourlessness” is more of a problem for expressive, deep-feeling poets who see no humour, only epiphanies we must respect and discuss with a minimum of 20 adjectives, every goddamn moment, whether skydiving or in line for groceries.)

In “Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook,” Starnino worries that poetry has passed him by: “I’m nearly forty, and, while I don’t think I’m altogether out of it, I already feel younger Canadian poets are writing poetry that is faster, more sophisticated and smarter than what my generation grew up writing — poetry whose margins of success I struggle to measure, engendering flashes of hostility” (18).

Where does Starnino “struggle to measure” these poems? Not in Lazy Bastardism, except in his essay “Steampunk Zone,” also the introduction for Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012. In this piece, one of the most compelling, Starnino assesses the modern landscape of Canadian poetry and notes the collapse of traditional lines between the mainstream and the avant-garde.

Starnino singles out, at one point, my own book, Clockfire. [For the record, I’m flattered and in agreement with most of Starnino’s assessments here. In most of Starnino’s writings, I agree with his general statements, although I find that when pressed for particular examples Starnino sometimes fumbles the ball, as above with Harris.] Starnino praises Clockfire and myself, but worries that “a part of me fears this is poetry in the same way short-selling is considered legal: by the skin of its teeth” (254).

The reason for this fear is that Starnino “found himself impressed, then distressed that I could grasp a great deal about the poems, except why they were written” (255). Yet, in his earlier essay on Glassco, Starnino observes that “Glassco had no goal above that of writing well” and so his despair is “despair on display, despair that seeks to seduce, with violent images wrapped in plush tones” (71). This doesn’t seem to bother Starnino. So why does the same thing bother him in Clockfire? Are the tones not plush enough?

Perhaps, but it seems more likely that it’s because my despair is not apparent to Starnino. He’s unsure of the lyricism of the gesture.

Starnino describes this blending of traditional and experimental modes as a poetry that seems to arise in a “steampunk zone” that, he implies, is an odd effect of Canadians writing better than he’s used to seeing. Poets have become the technicians that Starnino demanded they become in his earlier writings: “Isn’t this, in a sense, what I’ve always wanted? Yes. . . . So why am I glum?” (254). Why indeed? Well, “the dominance of the steampunk aesthetic, the easy availability of its procedures, has led to a growing uncertainty about how to discuss such linguistic lab work, or even whether something meaningful can be said at all” (257).

There’s a slippage here, a Freudian slip of a sort. Starnino means, when he’s unsure “whether something meaningful can be said at all,” that he’s unsure of his critical approach, or even of the possibility of a critical approach. He worries that the poet-critic will be defeated by these “steampunks.” How might the poet-critic attend to the surfaces and plumb the depths of avant-garde and steampunk poetry, that seems so inhospitable to discussion, so hermetic?

It’s also possible to misread this passage purposefully, in the light of his earlier complaint that he doesn’t know “why” a book like Clockfire might exist. He’s unsure “whether something meaningful can be said at all” in this new, steampunk poetry. Starnino sounds like a kid beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. Maybe there isn’t a lyrical self after all — maybe it’s just a function of craft, an effect poets have begun to grow tired of and discard. An illusion he loves.

Maybe not. In any case, Starnino’s “Steampunk Zone” stands as one of the best essays in this collection, because Starnino actually grapples with a subject he is conflicted and ambivalent about, rather than some poet or poetic approach he plans to attack or defend.

It’s hard to top a title like Lazy Bastardism, but I hope that whatever he titles his next collection, Starnino subtitles it How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Avant-garde (I’ll take the Steampunks). Starnino has all but retreated, in Lazy Bastardism, from engaging with the avant-garde he cannot love, because in its modern forms it has little interest in expression-as-such. For this reason, Lazy Bastardism is a triumph, hitting few of the sour notes of A Lover’s Quarrel, with its misreading of Eunoia and its simplistic, straw man conception of the Canadian avant-garde.

At the same time, though, essays like “Steampunk Zone” suggest that Starnino could produce much stronger work by wrestling with poets and poems that could fight back. The precondition for this, however, the only way to become a poet-critic of steampunks, is to take up their toolbox. As a first step, Starnino would have to abandon his need to view poetry as, fundamentally, “[t]he function of a mind grappling at genuinely felt expression” (254-55).

Unless Starnino wakes one day willing to discard this dictum, Lazy Bastardism offers a fine template for a future project, showing Starnino at his best for the most part, comfortable and commanding, poet-critical guns polished and gleaming.