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A Lover’s Quarrel

by Carmine Starnino

Montreal poet, editor, and critic Carmine Starnino is a lonely brave voice in a milquetoast milieu. To readers panting in a critical desert of “joylessness and phrasal drabness” he offers “ebullience, ardency and verve.” He is the fox amid Canadian critical pigeons grown sleepy with “undiscriminating receptiveness.”

At least, this is the persona Starnino adopts in his reviews. If you’ve missed his work so far in Books in Canada and elsewhere, his pugnacious introduction to A Lover’s Quarrel brings the reader rapidly up to date. The collection reprints 17 pieces, explicitly inviting readers to measure them against Starnino’s own criteria for good criticism.

These he details at length, backed by a flotilla of apt quotations from critics as varied as Martin Amis, Thomas Disch, and P.G. Wodehouse. Good reviewing, Starnino writes, has style and bite. Good reviewers entertain: better to be wrong than dull. They never echo cant or consensus opinions. Their analyses strike a high pitch of “exegetical excitation.” They fear no one’s established reputation.

Do these essays match Starnino’s standards? As a poet himself (With English Subtitles is his most recent collection), Starnino could see his work juried by Susan Musgrave, Christian Bök, Robert Hilles, Lorna Crozier, or Roberta Rees, all of whom face rough handling in these pages. Would these poets punish Starnino? Or judge his work strictly on its merits? Whatever your answer, deference or silence always offers the easier choice. So grant Starnino his bravery points.

And his style is vivid. He shuns the safe “perhaps,” slaps down harsh labels like “piffle” or “nonsense,” and blends poetic terms with snappy street talk. Handy coinages capture the ways poems can go slack, as when a poet resorts to “I-give-up imagery” or stops thinking and “adjourns to the ease of his persona.”

Terror of blandness, though, makes Starnino overplay contrasts and try to spook readers into choosing between false dichotomies. For instance, do Canadian readers truly face a stark choice between “good reviewing – reviewing that believes in literary failure” and “testimonies bled of every pint of passion, tedious to the point of tears?” Consult back issues of Arc, Matrix, CV2, and other publications that bother to review poetry, as I did while preparing this review, and you’ll see the world of poetry reviews is not quite so Manichean. Yes, many reviews offered timid neutral description or praised thematic, not poetic value. But I quickly found a well-reasoned critique of three new books by Maritime poets, and a balanced look at a new anthology. Some of these reviews were even fun, though no one in the batch matched Starnino’s prose for vigour.

Starnino writes best as an advocate of the poets and poetics he admires. In chapters on Richard Outram, David Solway, Eric Ormsby, and Ricardo Sternberg, he bases vehement opinions upon lovingly alert analysis. Even if you dislike these poets, his readings make it easier to say just why. On this home turf, Starnino both entertains and increases understanding.

The problem is that this particular vein of highly wrought verse is now a pretty small sector of current poetry. Starnino’s “trust-my-instincts” view of poetry gives him his polemical edge: but an edge is not a base. At least not one broad enough to support the generalizations he makes about Canadian poets and critics in essays with more sweeping scope, such as the title piece.

Starnino’s high-contrast style almost begs reviewers to either blast or bless this book. Anything less means joining the wimpy ranks of the cautiously nice. Well, sorry folks: Starnino is not the moustache-twirling villain who ties bad poets to the rails, though he playfully (or anxiously?) supplies this very image in his epigraph. Nor is he simply the brave lad who dares proclaim the nakedness of Canada’s poetic emperors. In the mould of John Metcalf, he’s a kicker against the pricks, upholder of a narrow range of poetic values that is, to his credit, always explicit.