Poet and critic Jason Guriel solidifies his place in CanLit with substantial contributions to both fields. Guriel is no stranger to the lofty pages of Poetry Foundation, the website of the Chicago magazine Poetry, and holds court with unfettered literary critics such as Carmine Starnino and Zachariah Wells in the anti-Zwicky tradition of the negative review.
What sets Guriel apart is the inescapable tone of his writing. It’s obvious from reading him: he is having fun. He cares about poetry and its aesthetics enough to deeply engage in a jolly way. In The Pig Headed Soul, his new anthology of essays and reviews, he writes, “My goal in composing these pieces has been to honour gut reactions, however acidic, and to be entertaining about it. I have tried to assume that readers of poetry are smart grown-ups, who might appreciate a vigorous opinion.” If you are at all familiar with CanLit criticism, you’ll know that this assertion is questionable, which makes these essays all the more valuable. Criticism should be a conversation – an argument, vigorous and supported – but too many reviews and critiques are facilitated by mealy mouthed, insubstantial phrases and abstract words (such as “artistry” or “truth”) embedded in spineless summary.
Guriel is not so shy and does what the best critics do: establishes a position and context, thereby allowing for learning and discourse. Take, for example, his essay “Manufacturing Conceit” on the poetry of George Murray. “Outside of slam contests,” Guriel writes, “poetry’s failures are quiet and usually hinge on a few creaky words. And while words may be no more than warped windows that can never fully swing open onto reality, writers – especially poets – would do well to keep those windows as clean and clear as possible.” By carefully establishing his frame of reference – focusing on technical matters such as vehicle and tenor, and their purpose in metaphor – Guriel contextualizes terms like artlessness, failure, sense, and imprecision. In so doing, he creates a highly educational essay supporting his claim that imprecision is problematic.
In these essays and reviews, Guriel has given himself much to live up to: “A poem – whether fixed or free, lyric or language, traditional or experimental, name the deadlock – assures the reader that there’s a sound reason for most, if not all, of its words.” “I tend to favour a rich, rhyme saturated lyric.” “The vague nouns (‘it’, ‘things’), the passive voice (‘is’ ‘are’), and the awkward, almost undergraduate grammar (‘ashamed about in it’) all conspire to a criminal indistinctness.” By exposing his value system so deliberately, Guriel wanders naked into the tempest of possible backlash regarding the release of his own third collection, Satisfying Clicking Sound.
So how does Guriel’s poetry measure up to his own standard? The best of his verse is infused with wit, irony, and the ghosts of his influences, in particular Dorothy Parker and Samuel Menashe. His tone accentuates an acute self-reflexive awareness of his position as a bona fide negative reviewer:
begins to biodegrade
and – in the style
of drums of waste
in shallow if
not porous graves –
poisons the soil
beside the river,
turning to bilge
all of the water
you thought was water
under the bridge.
The skills Guriel displays in his essays continue to impress in his poetry. Most of Guriel's poems open outward, including insight, mischief, and wordplay. At best, revelry is accompanied by raspberries to other critics and light-hearted contemplations of agnosticism. At worst, such as in the poem “Audio Commentary Track,” Guriel ventures into self-indulgence, though even that poem exposes his impulse to sing the praises of the unsung, common hero – an impulse he shares with other heavy-hitting Canadian poets such as Robyn Sarah and Don Coles.
The title poem is a tribute to perfectionism and a defence of literary criticism. A critic shouldn’t be a bellyacher or a vengeful creature, but someone who wrestles with the obsessive-compulsive need for accuracy and detail. “Satisfying Clicking Sound” reminds us that a critic is an engineer of minutia, a plumber of the subconscious, a perfectionist poised to articulate and explain specificity, attention, and super-fine focus in a way that enriches the understanding. A satisfying click happens when we know something has connected properly. Isn’t that what poetry is supposed to do?