There is probably no prize for identifying the title and subtitle as a curiosity-raising paradox. What is this? – a book of poetry that wants to be last book of poetry? – that wants no competitors to follow it? (Good luck!) Or is the “poetry” of the subtitle different from the “poetry” of the title? If so, surely the press could have given the reader a little typographical hint, perhaps putting the second “poetry” in all lower case, or in quotation marks? Dobson’s introduction, however, indeed indicates that the two “poetry” words are different, quoting beaulieu on his being a poet who is “concerned with exploring forms that move away from the ‘the poem as finely wrought epiphanic moment of personal reflection,’” and who “‘abandons narrative intention in favour of compositional intention.’” He quotes beaulieu again as having asserted that “poetry is no longer the beautiful expression of emotive truths; it is the archaeological arrangement of the remains of an ancient civilization.”
So the “no more poetry” that the title wants to see no more of is the poetry that attempts “the beautiful expression of emotive truths,” that aspires to “a finely wrought epiphanic moment of personal reflection” or to a vivid narrative of event or reflection. In such theoretical statements beaulieu has not been wary of binary oppositions – “narrative intention” is undesirable, “compositional intention” desirable; “beautiful expression of emotive truths” is undesirable, “archaeological rearrangement” desirable. Through these binaries beaulieu is joining the attack on the lyric poem that began back at least as far back as the 1950s with Olson’s critique of the “private-soul-at-any-public-wall” and Duncan’s scathing’s denunciations of poets who wrote poems in order to publicize themselves and aggrandize their careers. Paradoxically, of course, outrageous binary oppositions can help build a poet’s career, as in Irving Layton’s amusingly
The attack on the lyric is one with which I’m sympathetic (as my amusement about Al Purdy’s A-frame in last week’s post probably showed), but I also believe that there are more than two possibilities – lyric and non-lyric – and that the various possibilities – lyric and its alternatives – are not necessarily all mutually incompatible. bpNichol’s The Martyrology demonstrated that to excess, which may be why so many of the Canadian poets who have aspirations similar to those of beaulieu – Christian Bök, Darren Wershler, Stephen Cain, for instance – have had reservations about that massive poem and its numerous autobiographical moments.
Dobson also makes a case for the newness of beaulieu’s work by linking it to a current international popularity of conceptual poetry “associated with writers [Kenneth] Goldsmith, Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, Craig Dworkin, [Rob] Fitterman, [Vanessa] Place, and Darren Wershler, inter alia” – that is, to the idea of a poem as an extended “concept that needs to be seen through to its completion.” But like the attack on the lyric, such ideas about poetry go back many decades – to 'serial poems' such as Duncan’s Medieval Scenes (1947), 'procedural poems' such as George Bowering’s Genève (1970) and conceptual poems such as my The Abbotsford Guide to India (1986) and Nichol’s “Book of Hours” in The Martyrology Book 6 Books (1986). The contemporary work which Dobson notes is often much different, stimulating so, but it is part of an multiply-pathed evolution away from the lyric, not a Big-Bang invention.
beaulieu’s Please, No More Poetry – yes, I am going to get to it – contains 21 pages of visual ‘poems’ similar to the one on the book’s cover, 10 pages from his conceptual ‘poems’ Flatland and Local Colour, and 22 pages written in words, lines, stanzas or paragraphs. (Considering his title, it is difficult to call these pages ‘poems’ without using scare-quotes.) The six pages of paragraphs from his Extispicium play cleverly with the conventions of autobiography – a genre which the attack on the lyric necessarily subverts, since so many contemporary lyrics – like Purdy’s – have rested on moments of asserted autobiography and on the illusion of a stable self. In Beaulieu’s paragraphs any hint of a stable self disappears beneath unstable pronouns and unstable sentence structure. Among the others ‘word’ texts, the title ‘poem’ is among the most readable in a conventional sense. It lines are a series of zingers:
Poetry is the last refuge of the unimaginative.
All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.
Art is a conversation, not a patent office.
Having been unpopular in high school is not a just cause for book publications.
Rules are guidelines for stupid people.
This ‘poem’ is in a way a self-conscious provocation, a text that seems ironically conscious of its own indefensible absoluteness, and thus a text probably best read more as sign of the outrageous than as a set of 100% - plausible propositions. It’s more 80%-plausible most of the time, but then again the genre of this ‘poem’ is not one that temporizes.