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Director’s Cut

by David Solway

Few critics match the moral urgency of David Solway, whose poetry reviews constitute an anti-canon to the literati’s assessment of its own merits. Solway’s debunking of celebrated poets, from Atwood to Zwicky, has earned him a reputation as a dangerous crank. Now 15 of those reviews, plus a long essay diagnosing Canada’s poetic crisis, are collected in Director’s Cut. You can almost hear the opposition sharpening its teeth.

Solway provokes violent reactions deliberately, arming his sallies with barbs that entertain him while cattle-prodding the reader. In his piece on Al Purdy (originally published in the National Post shortly after the poet’s death), he dubbed the Purdy style “Standard Average Canadian” and described it as “a loose, flaccid, strolling and inventorizing variety of written speech.” In his essay on Anne Carson he offers a representative stanza and asks, “Are we really impressed or edified by so autistic a consummation?” Solway bequeaths to us pages of close analysis, detailing why certain poems fail, but he also sneers so casually that he risks being mistaken as irresponsible.

The truth is, Solway’s sense of literary responsibility is singular: he recalls James Wood’s insistence that bad writing, or its misevaluation, is a moral trespass. If he casts himself as Canada’s literary avenger, scouring the land for sloppy diction or shoddy logic, it’s because nobody else will wear the snazzy blue tights.

Surprisingly, the cumulative effect of Director’s Cut is optimistic, or at least balanced: more than half of the reviews endorse neglected poets, and the long final essay alternates punishment with praise. His allergy to Purdy and Carson aside, Solway’s most damning criticism is reserved for fellow critics who lavish automatic buff-jobs on undeserving poets as if they were sending them through a car wash. Solway’s praise, by contrast, is refreshingly nuanced: he wants to restore to readers poems “that are so verbally rich and juicy, they are like peaches you have to take your shirt off to eat.” Director’s Cut might be read as the tree where these forbidden fruits await the plucking – with all the sudden self-knowledge that implies.