1422 Essays and bootless poetry

Artful Flight
by Susan Glickman

Erin, Ontario: Porcupine’s Quill, 2022
$24.95 / 9780889848795

Reviewed by Gary Geddes


I’ve been poring over Susan Glickman’s Artful Flight, a series of essays and reviews, with delight and a certain sadness, delight at her intelligence and close attention to the craft and contributions of a wide range of writers, but also sadness at the signs of disappointment she has felt with the literary world in Canada, from which she has apparently resigned. But resigned with such a brilliant departure gift and personal send- off.

The Inner Ear, pen-and-ink drawing by P.K. Page (courtesy Gary Geddes)

I met Susan Glickman in the early 1980s, while I was teaching at Concordia University and running a new literary press called Quadrant Editions. She was one of several emerging poets I had encountered whose work looked so promising it deserved to be celebrated; so I set about editing an anthology called The Inner Ear (1983), the title sharing the name of P.K. Page’s pen-and-ink illustration that graced its cover. I had not followed her career closely enough to realize the difficulties she faced and what they would cost. The start of that disillusionment was the news that the English Department of the University of Toronto, where she was teaching at the time, did not recognize her first book of poetry, saying “it didn’t count as a publication.”

Susan Glickman. Photo by Toan Klein

I was struck by this revelation, as I’d had a similar experience at the University of Victoria. In addition to being told by the new departmental chairman that poetry did not merit consideration for promotion, I was informed that my published articles did not ‘score’ in the big magazines, by which he meant those journals associated with major universities in the U.S. and U.K. Apparently, my two poetry anthologies, which had become major textbooks across the country, and were both published by Oxford University Press, did not merit consideration. Ironically, departure may have been a stroke of luck for Glickman, as English Departments were becoming less and less desirable to many students because of their obsessive pursuit of new critical theory — whether postmodernism, deconstructionism or the dozen other –isms — and the plethora of courses now devoted to identity politics.

There’s a level of wisdom, grace and scholarship in Glickman’s writings that sets her apart from many other poets and critics. When she’s writing about the importance of the poetic ‘line,’ she takes the time and makes the effort to quote a dozen ancient and modern poets from Thomas Campion to Robert Hass on the subject, wisely concluding that:

Portrait of Samuel Daniel (1562-1619) from Daniel Cockson, The Civile Wares (1609). Courtesy Wikipedia

We could do far worse than to take the gentle Daniel [Samuel Daniel, “A Defense of Rhyme,” 1603] as our guide when we look at poetry which does not conform to our own tastes or precepts. Instead of calling rhyming couplets mechanical or free verse shapeless, or whatever, we should focus on the strength and grace of each. We must allow poetry to be ‘a way of happening’ and the best way to enter the valley of its making is, as it always has been, the line.

Her fascination with words and their changes in meaning over time is quite infectious:

But the word ‘let,’ as it occurs in Act I scene iv of Hamlet is a beast of a different colour. I still remember the thrill of studying Hamlet in high school and learning that ‘let’ — which to me had always meant to permit or to allow something — could also and simultaneously denote its antithesis: to hinder or prevent an action from occurring. That second meaning persists today in the legal phrase ‘without let or hindrance’.

In addition to the struggles of being Jewish in Anglo-Christo-centric Oxford and female with a child in a paternalistic Toronto academy, Glickman acknowledges that “refusing to write within easily recognized genres has complicated my life.” Critics habitually downgraded such versatility by describing her novels as ‘literary,’ ‘historical,’ ‘feminist’ or, worse, the work of a poet. As a reviewer or critic herself, Glickman favours the wisdom of Japanese poet Daisaku Ikeda: “It is much more valuable to look for the strength in others. You can gain nothing by criticizing their imperfections.” Or, in her own words: “To read a book with understanding makes you a resident of its world rather than a tourist. You have the experience of poetry you are meant to have. A much better one.” And: “Reviewing is a way of giving back to the community by making you part of an ongoing dialogue about the importance of poetry and its place in the world.”

Paul Valéry (1871-1945)

While I am inordinately fond of Paul Valéry’s comment that a poem “is never finished, only abandoned,” I am impressed with the editorial attention Glickman has devoted to the significant revisions Michael Ondaatje made in his third selected poems, The Cinnamon Peeler. After carefully examining the cuts and amendments in many poems which the poet may have considered, in retrospect, to be slight or, to use Glickman’s own words, “self-indulgent or attitudinizing,” she comes to this wise and intriguing conclusion: “Which is no more than to say that Ondaatje, like almost every other poet, prefers his most recent work to his earliest, and prefers those of his earlier poems which most evoke the writer he grew to be.”

What I find most satisfying and instructive about Glickman’s reviews and essays is that I learn as much about her and her literary values as I do about the poet she is studying. Without grandstanding or trying to steal the show, she quietly and civilly gives each author and work the attention they deserve. For example, she endeavours to compare and to justify the very different Holocaust poems of Paul Celan and Primo Levi, neither of whom could accept Theodor Adorno’s view that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Yet they both struggled when it came to the meaning and significance of the Shoah for survivors. As she moves painstakingly through the disparate texts and responses of each man — Levi’s poems brutally factual and honest, Celan’s appearing more and more spare and as emaciated as a Giacometti sculpture — she comes to a conclusion that makes us realize the importance of both men and their work:

Paul Celan (1920-1970)

The Holocaust left Paul Celan obsessed by the possibility that life is meaningless and that art, paradoxically, is the only way to interrogate this possibility. Primo Levi’s mission was more straightforward: to convey the horrors he saw and what it did to actual people — to tell the world what had happened Though he shared Celan’s spiritual doubts, he continued to believe in the possibility of communication. Both are authentic and genuine responses to atrocity, the one poet frozen in horror, pointing and saying, ‘Look at what happened!’ and the other frantic with disbelief, saying ‘I still can’t believe what happened, and here is how my mind is trying to process it.’ Both writers and both responses, remain essential for anyone interested in the way poetry can represent our lived reality in words, and sounds, and rhythms: how poetry can really be an imitation of life.

Susan Glickman

Although she may have moved on, or back, to painting and the plastic arts, Glickman’s legacy as a poet and critic will remain as important to us as that of former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass is to the Americans. That she shares with Hass the gift of being able to come humbly and with her entire being to both tasks is an additional blessing. Her generous and insightful explorations of the work of Don Coles, Bronwen Wallace, Paulette Jiles, Peter Dale Scott and John Newlove — and from B.C., Patrick Lane, Phyllis Webb and Al Purdy — and others make Artful Flight a thoroughly uplifting experience. It’s fitting and no surprise, also, that the book’s design is as elegant as its contents, with a gorgeous cover and what used to be called, if memory serves me well, Zephyr Antique-laid paper, a joy to handle and behold.

Susan Glickman at Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island, 2019. Courtesy susanglickman.com


Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, criticism, translation and anthologies and been the recipient of a dozen national and international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas region), the Lt.-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize from the government of Chile. His most recent books are The Resumption of Play, Medicine Unbundled: A Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care and The Ventriloquist: Poetic Narratives from the Womb of War. Editor’s note: Gary Geddes has also reviewed a book by William New for The British Columbia Review, and his books Medicine Unbundled and The Ventriloquist are reviewed by Mary-Ellen Kelm and Art Joyce. He lives on Thetis Island.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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