Why ‘Why Poetry Sucks’ Sucks
[Editorial note: This um, review, arrived in my email box on Sept. 22, well before the Sept. 26 National Post review of the anthology by Michael Lista]
It’s official: Jonathan Ball has reached the end of his career in Canadian literature — and he’s taking Ryan Fitzpatrick down with him. Or is it the other way around? It doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day, they both suck. In fact, the best thing about Why Poetry Sucks is that it doesn’t include any of their poetry.
Despite its needlessly provocative title, Why Poetry Sucks doesn’t make any claims or strides to address the plague of bad poetry appearing in the pages of our literary journals and trade books, leaving us only with the wisdom of Michael Lista [editorial note: ahem] to sort the nation’s wheat metaphors from the manure in which they grow. Instead of usefully trimming the wild outgrowths of contemporary Canadian poetry into a manageable zen garden, the editors loosely organize their anthology around the category of “humour.” They propose that this weak corpus comprises more than the crowd-shilling behaviour of our most immature writers (or, worse, the worthless slumming of our very best). They claim to “proceed messily” — and, they do — leaving us a mess to messily toss into the remainder bins of our local Chapters-Indigos.
In their introduction, Fitzpatrick and Ball attempt to stake a claim for humour as both important to poetry and critically potent. What they fail to realize in their theoretical posturing (dragging out the sourest vintage from the postmodernist wine cellar: psychoanalysis) is that when people watch The Simpsons (another “important theoretical text” the editors use to make their “argument”), it’s to watch Homer Simpson eat the waffle off the ceiling, not make some sly critique of religion. To quote Saint Homer: “Oh Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.”
In case you’re not getting the joke: these poems are just cheap cartoons destined to be shunted aside after they provoke a laugh, failing to produce any real insight about the human condition (a very serious condition, despite what the editors claim) or any real political change. No global cataclysm was ever stopped by a ribald pun or a bawdy limerick, no matter how many Monty Python skits propose the weaponization of the joke.
Fitzpatrick and Ball attempt to kickstart a discussion that just isn’t worth having. Better writers in previous generations proposed the same: in the anthologies The Blasted Pine (1967), edited by F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith, and The Maple Laugh Forever (1981), edited by Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie. Either the editors of Why Poetry Sucks remain blissfully unaware of these earlier attempts or wilfully ignorant of their failure. If poetry and humour fit together in a significant and meaningful way, perhaps we would see real evidence of it, instead of these forced attempts to legitimize an illusory relationship.
We sympathize with future students, who might be taught from this anthology, and forced to listen to windbag academics recycling Fitzpatrick and Ball’s hamfisted explanations. Theirs is a poetry best used to suck the air out of the room, a poetry that has nothing to recommend itself to decent folks eating deli sandwiches. We’ve never read a poem we’ve laughed at, here or elsewhere — we never will — but reading this anthology wasn’t a total waste. Should you brave these dark waters, you’ll learn “Why Poetry Sucks,” without a doubt. The answer, like the title, is just three words: Fitzpatrick and Ball.
Insomniac | 224 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1554831227