Flight paths: Susan Glickman’s selected essays address poetry, criticism, and taking up art study in her sixties

In the fall of 2015, poet, novelist, and essayist Susan Glickman took a hiatus from writing and went to art school. She was “exhausted by literary disappointment“ and the “constant erosion of confidence by a grudging community,” including a poetry editor who once opined “that maternal hormones had destroyed her work” and later, when a novel she had published received good reviews, that “she must have lots of relatives who were journalists.” Though the break from literary output proved temporary – the poetry collection What We Carry appeared in 2019 – the excursion into the visual arts rejuvenated Glickman and reminded her about one significant facet of her literary practice: the importance of seeing. “Studying the laws of perspective, gradation, and shading, mixing pigments to emulate the colour wheel, trying to understand spatial relationships – all of this is bringing me back to poetry with renewed faith and energy.“

She makes the observation in an essay called “An Infinity of Blues: Art as a Form of Attention,” which serves as the concluding piece in her generous new collection of essays and reviews, Artful Flight, newly published by the Erin, Ontario, small press The Porcupine’s Quill. That piece – one of two, along with “On Going to Art School in My Sixties” (from which the editor’s comments above are taken), about Glickman’s late-career side road – also includes a caustic dig at CanLit in-fighting and the corrosive nature of a certain strain of criticism: “There is so much vitriol among reviewers of Canadian poetry these days. Maybe it is fuelled by the reviewers’ own frustration at trying to make work that is not only authentic to their individual experience but somehow revelatory of a larger ‘truth,’ not merely well-crafted but somehow canonical.”

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the CanLit scene will recognize the kind of criticism Glickman is talking about – the current reviewer has been responsible for some of it (though admittedly not in recent years). It’s a pose that Glickman denounces right up front, writing in her introduction, “I have no interest in negative criticism; I just don’t feel it is worth my time.”

While she is clear that she has no desire to engage in the kind of “hatchet job” Dale Peck was once known for, Glickman is by no means shy about pointing out moments at which she feels poets – even nominally canonical ones – fall short or write something less than ideal. In a review of Gary Geddes’s Active Trading: Selected Poems 1970–1995, for example, Glickman bemoans the poet’s “tendency to amplify description to the point of exhaustion.” About Patricia Young’s All I Ever Needed Was a Beautiful Room, a verse sequence focusing on the life of British novelist and short fiction writer Jean Rhys, Glickman notes, “It may be appropriate to mine the fiction for insights into the life but by leaving out the contextual richness of the books, their variety, descriptive detail, and intricacy of characterization, Young deprives her readers of the experience of Rhys as a novelist and thereby fails to persuade us that we should be interested in her biography.” And she assesses John Newlove’s poem “The Perfect Colour of Flowers” to be “so overtly manipulative … that it becomes baroque and decadent rather than exposing decadence satirically, as seems to be its intention.”

None of these critiques is unwarranted or unduly harsh, and Glickman takes pains to embed them within her impression of each poet’s larger achievement. And certainly Glickman’s more critical comments would not carry nearly as much force were she not demonstrably knowledgeable – on a granular level – not only about each individual poet, but the mechanics and operation of poetry itself.

Indeed, one of the great joys of reading Artful Flight is to encounter the author thinking about the ways in which various types of poetry operate on a technical level. She begins, as all good poets should, with the line – the place “where feeling and syntax meet.” In the same way that prose writers need to understand the technical composition and grammatical possibilities of the sentence before they can hope to create anything meaningful or emotionally resonant, a poet will need to understand the aspects of the line – length, meter, breaks, etc. – before anything worthwhile can be created.

Glickman draws a distinction between the prose sentence and the poetic line, while also recognizing the commonalities between the two:

I am setting the line against the sentence as a unit of composition. But I want to emphasize first that, except for concrete poetry, which is unequivocally textual, most poetry today strikes a balance between writing and speaking. Though we meet it first on the page and its typographical appearance is very important, poetry creates the illusion of a speaking voice. It is most useful, therefore, to look at the way lines and sentences differ not as grammatical units or typographical segments but in the way that they are articulated by the voice. A sentence is segmented by its syntactical structure; it is punctuated, as here, to elucidate the grammatical relationships of its phrasal and clausal components. It may include some purely rhetorical punctuation, to clarify how the sentence should be heard (for example, my last comma was grammatically unnecessary), or typographical clues (as in my italicization of the word heard), but syntax is the priority. When rhetoric and syntax collide, there is confusion – or poetry.

This is marvellous stuff. It is possible to cavil here and there, most particularly in Glickman’s insistence that the slight pauses in enjambed lines should be respected when reading a poem aloud. (This tendency is one unarguable cause of “robot poet” voice at live readings.) The advantage of avoiding pauses at the end of enjambed lines is evident even in some of the verse Glickman quotes approvingly. In this snippet from Robyn Sarah’s “Québerac,” for example:

Here’s how it is,
if I can’t spend a year on a houseboat
on the rivers of China, I want at least
to throw out all my clothes
and get a good haircut.

The reading voice will want to pause after the comma at the end of the first line, then read through to the comma after “China,” then on to the period at the end. Even a slight pause for enjambment, while honouring the visual presentation, would have the effect of slowing down the pace beyond what the poet appears to have intended (and, not incidentally, would make the quip at the end less funny).

What makes this kind of technical discussion possible is Glickman’s resolute focus on technique in her criticism: she is less concerned about what a poem says than about how it says it. And her erudition is wide-ranging and impressive. She is equally at home parsing Phyllis Webb’s experiments with the Persian ghazal form and the polyglot pyrotechnics of Erín Moure’s densely poststructuralist work. (“The tension involved in trying to speak one’s own tongue through and in spite of the inherited language is represented in Moure’s work by strategic incoherence.”)

The title Artful Flight is itself a kind of enjambment, bringing together two books about the craft of writing that Glickman especially prizes: Ali Smith’s Artful and Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lamott, Glickman writes, includes “superlatively useful advice” for beginning writers, such as, “start by describing what you can see through a one-inch picture frame, then let the Polaroid develop to discover what unexpected objects you focused on and work on those.” In her collection of essays, Glickman puts this advice to good use, and the results are engaging and erudite.

If there is one thing lacking in Glickman’s book, it is any commentary about the younger cohort of poets now tilling the fields of CanLit. Though certain pieces in Artful Flight are as recent as 2017, the majority were written in the 1980s and ’90s, meaning that the poets who appear for consideration largely inhabit the establishment cohort that sprang up during and just after the CanLit boom of the 1960s and ’70s. It would be salutary to read Glickman engaging with, say, the work of Canisia Lubrin or Souvankham Thammavongsa or Sonnet L’Abbé or Karen Solie. Perhaps a second volume might be in order?

Flight paths: Susan Glickman’s selected essays address poetry, criticism, and taking up art study in her sixties
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