All Fresh Today

Michael Hofmann

  • The Living Option: Selected Poems by Karen Solie
    Bloodaxe, 160 pp, £9.95, October 2013, ISBN 978 1 85224 994 6

Introducing Karen Solie, I would adapt what Joseph Brodsky said some thirty years ago of the great Les Murray: ‘It would be as myopic to regard Mr Murray as an Australian poet as to call Yeats an Irishman. He is, quite simply, the one by whom the language lives.’ Solie is Canadian (born in 1966, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, of Norwegian immigrant stock), the author of three previous books of poems, Short Haul Engine (2001), Modern and Normal (2005) and Pigeon (2009), and now this ‘new and selected’, and, yes, she is the one by whom the language lives. I wonder, a little bitterly, what the point of English as a soi-disant world language is, if our smug maps have only the UK and the US on them, and everywhere else is apocrypha or appendix, the province of specialists or pity. Enormous credit goes to Bloodaxe for commissioning this exhilarating volume, Solie’s first book publication outside Canada.

If I wanted to show someone – an agnostic – what a modern poem can do, I would show them something by Lawrence Joseph, or Frederick Seidel, or Karen Solie, all different but all modern, all modo hodie, all fresh today. A poem of Solie’s is sentences in unpredictable but deep sequence in unpredictable but braced lines. It seems out of control, but isn’t; it exhibits grace while falling, which is perhaps what grace is. It runs the gamut from nervous, garrulous charm to the glory and shear of impersonal style: it is idiomatic splicing in one voice. It offers wisdom, fact and bitter experience (yes, it is pessimistic, or negative, or critical, or ironic, depending on what one word one wants to use, but then so would Whitman be if he were back among us: in Musil’s The Man without Qualities Ulrich says ‘the man of genius is duty bound to attack’ and Brecht wrote in ‘An die Nachgeborenen’: ‘Truly, I live in dark times!/A bland word is foolish. An unlined brow/Indicates impercipience. The man laughing only/Laughs because the terrible news/Has not yet reached him’). It is a noticing, a naming and a connecting, an electric errancy. It is round-the-corner knight moves in a world of pawns, or almost worse, rooks; googlies and chinamen among dobbers. It is a widening and widening optic, that returns us unexpectedly (‘the variable/when the outcome is unknown,/as always the outcome is unknown’ – take that, Mr Rumsfeld) to the place we began. It may be to comic or grievous effect. It is an adventitious gallivanting movement across country that makes denser, bunched sense than any more rational or measured or predictable progress. It looks baroque, but actually it’s stringent – and vice versa. (I’ve come to think you can’t actually have poetry without dandyism, and that includes all those I’ve mentioned: Frederick Seidel self-evidently, but also those seemingly austere figures Whitman, Brecht, Murray and Brodsky. As Wallace Stevens said, ‘It must give pleasure.’) It looks random, but like Thom Gunn’s blue jay scuffling in the bushes, it ‘follows some hidden purpose’. Other things, set beside it, look lame and tedious – like prose. It reminds me of another axiom of Brodsky’s, that poetry is a function of speed: it gets there faster than prose, and goes further.

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