Dragland: A Retrospective Review
Stan Dragland, Apocrypha (Newest, 2003)
This book is a biographia literaria or literary memoir. It’s a first-person account of an author’s literary history. Other personal histories — sexual, educational, psychological — are not discussed except incidentally as they precipitate literary events. The book is not arranged chronologically, like John Metcalf’s An Aesthetic Underground, but according to subject like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. For example, Dragland covers relationships with Robert Kroetsch, Matt Cohen, Roy Kiyooka and Bronwen Wallace in separate sections even though the subject matter overlaps chronologically. However, like the Biographia the book does deal with early literary influences (Sarah Binks) and education (Miss Hansen reading Anne of Green Gables out loud in Grade 6) in its earlier pages.
Unlike most writers of memoirs, Dragland makes much of his job. He was a prof at the University of Western Ontario. The classes he gave and conferences he attended are important to his literary life. He explains why. First, he feels that this experience made him a good reader: “I encountered Himani Bannerji’s essay as an adult laboriously trained in literary criticism and with twenty-five years of experience in teaching and writing about literature. If all that makes no difference to my reading, then I’m Peter Pan — quite a specimen of arrested development.” Second, teaching and criticism made him want to go beyond close literary encounters of the familiar kind into the literary unknown: “For years and years my whole being as teacher and critic was bent towards fanning the spark of such moments [of formative encounters with literature] to keep them bright in adult readers. Gradually, I began to want something else as well, a shunt into the out-of-range, into what is and is not there, not at least in names.”
The book’s theme is that it is good to get to this unknown, which seems to be what older theorists, like Coleridge, with their psychological poetics, referred to as genius or imagination. Getting there, as Dragland sees it, requires innovation sparked by conscience. Great writers break what Dragland calls the unities (his introductory example of these is “beginning, middle and end”), which are restrictive. Dragland advises readers to “begin anywhere.” Great writers also escape the patriarchal restraints of language. Dragland quotes his “teacher” Erin Mouré explaining this in a letter to Bronwen Wallace: “I think I relate to Lacan’s description of the symbolic order as phallically based because it corresponds to my experience of the patriarchy in the world: it makes sense to me that this patriarchy which we agree exists in the world is also instituted in language . . . since so much of how we can speak/see the world is contained in language.” Patriarchal language resists and avoids truth.
Dragland admires the writers who accept this (sort-of) syllogism: the world is patriarchal, language contains the world, therefore language is patriarchal. He sees himself in the noble company of writers who try to break the patriarchal chains laid on language: “And here’s my friend Phil Hall (Bronwen’s friend also, & Erin’s friend) bestriding the same dilemma: how to speak in language broken & tormented into such new shapes that the audience of plain people he wants most — this is the risk — least wants him . . . . He knows that relinquishing shared language has a cost.” “Plain people,” it seems, have been brainwashed into accepting this language as legitimate, and the truths conveyed in this language as the only truths.
Metcalf’s memoirs have a theme too — the negative effects on literature of commercial demands, and of the government’s attempts to balance these demands with a kind of institutionalized patronage. Coleridge states his theme in the first paragraph of his book: “It will be found that the least of what I have written concerns myself personally. I have used the narration chiefly for the purpose of giving a continuity to the work . . . introductory to the statement of my principles in politics, religion and philosophy, and the application of the rules deduced from philosophical principles to poetry and criticism.” But Dragland is different in the way he develops his theme. Both Metcalf and Coleridge front the works of their friends as primary examples of the points they are making. Clarke Blaise, Leon Rooke and (especially) John Newlove are associates of Metcalf’s and their experiences illustrate the evils of the commercialization of literature. Wordsworth is the main subject to which Coleridge will apply his “philosophical criticism” in order to determine “the true nature of poetic diction.” Dragland’s main example of the value of conscience-driven literary iconoclasm is himself.
And Dragland doesn’t just argue for his own writing. Possibly this is because he doesn’t have, like Metcalf and Coleridge, a highly acclaimed oeuvre to his credit. He makes his argument an illustration of the beauties that result from breaking the boundaries of convention and exploring the unnamed. He puts his money where his mouth is, so to speak. The first chapter, while it incorporates a salutation for a title and an invitation to the “amateur” reader to “sit down together” for “an open-ended appointment,” and so is obviously the book’s introduction, argues against introductions or beginnings as cowardly and immature. It does this in scholarly English that periodically launches into prose poetry: “Begin anywhere, dear reader: that’s what I want, an anywhere that Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells. Cries out, and, crying (What I do is me: for that I came), breaks and binds a reader’s heart. If I could ripple out from every such a pebble, how pedestrian to bother beginning! How sad to want a [security] blanky, beginning, middle, end.”
The book breaks other unities or conventions by lettering rather than numbering its chapters (the letters don’t indicate any alphabetical arrangement) and incorporating “addendums,” all entitled “&,” between each chapter. Outbursts of cummingsesque prose, as in the preceding quote, feature puns, metaphors and intruded grammar. These break the scholarly English with its standard grammar, technical vocabulary, logic and authoritative quotes. Structural academic conventions that remain intact are the list of sources, the acknowledgment, and the index. And the book obeys linear conventions in that it reads front to back and (on each page) left to right and top to bottom. Dragland points out in his non-introduction that he doesn’t hate all “order” and really likes alphabetical order as witnessed by the fact that he shelves his books accordingly and wishes he had so arranged his workshop so it wouldn’t be so hard to find stuff: “(Jest joshin, didn’t really mean it. See? We like order too.)”
It’s hard to argue against a book that makes a principle of breaking the unities and “shunting” beyond “shared language” to that which is nameless. It’s doubly hard when the author assumes that iconoclasm, even if random, is likely to prove more aesthetically lucrative than adherence to convention. To say that Dragland is contradictory and self-indulgent is to identify him as an iconoclast, which he believes he must be. To say he is humorless, condescending and authoritative is to identify him as an expert, which he claims to be. To point out that the book violates a major law of the memoir — the avoidance of pretension or special pleading — is to argue that Dragland should not be an iconoclast and should adhere to convention. As proof that his iconoclasm is justified, he offers along with his assertions of expertise his prose poetry, much as Christ and the prophets offered miracles. To say that his mix of standard English with cummingsesque prose cancels the advantages of each and that the book is a confusing mess is to deny the miracle.
All that skeptics can ever do is point at the most obvious contradictions and destructive practices of the faithful, even though their faith demonizes skepticism and claims to supercede reason. It helps if you enjoy laughing at the antics of the deluded, but the urge to satire must be subjugated if one is to convince them of their foolishness and so bring them softly back to reality. Dragland, thoughout his book (starting with the avuncular image of him on the front cover!), is obviously a well-meaning guy for whom it is easy to feel sorry.
One contradiction is in Dragland’s attitude to the readership he claims over and over to want. He wants “plain people,” or “amateurs” to read him. “Don’t leave me to the sophisticates,” he says in Chapter A. He tells the story of his Journeys through Bookland (1984) being loaned by his mother to a neighbor and being returned quickly with “I can’t read this stuff.” Dragland comments, “My book offends against the unities, maybe, but it’s plainly written, easy to read. I’m older now, and I know how much is at stake in the relationship between a reader and a book. Or else there’s no way in the world I’d risk making things worse by writing this stuff.” Even this book, he goes on to say in the addendum, is good: “Why can’t I blow a bit? I loved writing these pieces, after all. I even like reading them.”
But are his books actually easy to read? Not really. This book especially. Leaving the cumminsesque prose out of the argument since some “plain people” might like it, the book is clearly meant for people in the English Department. It uses the vocabulary of scholarly criticism, standard English, and the apparatus of the academic paper or book. It assumes familiarity with academic enquiry. For example, in the book’s Acknowledgements, Dragland explains the source of his title: “My title sprang at me out of a paper on William Faulkner by Martin Kreiswirth: “An ‘apocrypha’ unlike a saga, world, or even a cosmos, works precisely at this level of doubt, offering a profanely broken, uncertain discursive contest, keeping the boundary between textual inside and outside productively mobile.” Here, the vocabulary is specialized and Dragland supports a definition of “apocrypha” that cannot be found in any dictionary. Also, he seems to expect the reader to understand that this definition could derive from Faulkner.
Obviously, if he was thinking of the amateur reader, Dragland would’ve left his title unexplained. Readers would assume, via his book’s subtitle “Further Journeys,” that his memoir was made up of “outcuts” from Journeys through Bookland or some planned continuation thereof, just as the apocrypha are outcuts that various churches have made from sacred text. In fact Dragland, referring in Contemporary Authors to his work on the Apocrypha manuscript, uses the term “outcuts.” Also, not providing the source of his title would also have denied readers the opportunity to observe that the one thing that Dragland really likes about Kreiswirth’s stupid definition of “apocrypha” is the fact that it includes the word “productively.” Thus the brilliance of Faulkner is transferred to Dragland, but the sleight of hand is obvious.
Other contradictions exist in the randomness of Dragland’s iconoclasm. Chapter A, the introduction against introductions, begins with a promo for Wilfred Watson, the dead and no-longer-anthologized Canadian poet who assisted Marshall McLuhan in the writing of one of his books: “From Cliché to Archetype is by ‘Marshall McLuhan with Wilfred Watson.’ ‘With.’ What does that mean? McLuhan has the whole reputation, even now. People with no clear sense of what he thought or said remember ‘The medium is the message.’ Who know about Wilfred Watson, his poems, his plays, his stories? In the reputation sweepstakes, just a few. A few lucky readers know that Wilfred Watson could think and write circles around Marshall McLuhan — not that it makes sense to speak of thinking and writing so . . . . I didn’t set out to complain, but by god somebody has to shout that Wilfred Watson’s writing hasn’t attracted enough attention!”
Dragland seems to be making a point that he considers important, but in the next paragraph he pronounces the point irrelevant, a digression: “What I meant to say is that From Cliché to Archetype, beginning with ‘Absurd, Theatre of the,’ is alphabetical. ‘Introduction’ appears between ‘Identity’ . . . and ‘jokes’.” Watson is never mentioned again. The logical assumption that he is praised because he was a fellow breaker of the unities, because he maybe gave McLuhan the brilliant idea of putting the introduction inside the book, is false. Can it be that the digression, like the conceit, non-sequitur, and intruded grammatical structure, is a tool for breaking into that which is beyond language and logic? Can it be that the outburst about Watson is an indication that that which is beyond is truly worth reaching?
And can it be that Dragland regards insulting the reader as yet another means of taking that reader into the unnamed? The reader is said to have been so “unlucky” as to not know about Watson and his evidently voluminous and brilliant work, to have been stupid enough to think there is something important about McLuhan and his famous phrase, and to have been accessory to the putting down of a genius. Finally, why is it nonsense to evaluate writers when it is obvious that contributing to “the reputation sweepstakes” is exactly what Dragland himself is doing? Is absolute contradiction another of Dragland’s tools, along with assorted logical fallacies, digression and insult? Or is he simply a hypocrite? Is his willingness to break the unities and relinquish the features of shared language, evidently at random, merely self-indulgence?
Dragland doesn’t get around to questioning the other unities, one of which is unity of character. Probably he would scoff at any attempt to read his character as consistent. He would say that such a reading indicates “distance,” (the abstractions of psychology or the prescriptions of Aristotelian structuralism) or “resistance” (ad hominem antagonism). However, his essays on Cohen and on Daphne Marlatt’s Zocalo (as a study of Roy Kiyooka) are good applications of what Dragland calls the “bell jar” of Practical Criticism, including the principle of unity of character. Dragland’s contradictions, seen through the bell jar, indicate that he is either deluded or phony.
What Dragland says about Bronwen Wallace illustrates this. She’s a pivotal figure in his literary/academic life. Dragland exhibits extreme misgivings about his treatment of her, and his explanation of this, while candid, exposes subtexts that seem to explain the pathology that underlies his fascination with literary encounters of the unnamed kind. Wallace was in grad school with Dragland, and she was writer in residence for a time at his university. He admits that she was a better teacher than him and seems to feel that she was a better person. In the “&” addendum to Chapter M, Dragland says that he “thought Wallace got lost in the temporary rebellions of the 1960’s, when students grabbed & held enormous power over their teachers. Queen’s University had its very own show trial . . . and the student activists turned the resulting enquiry into a trial of Western society — & Bronwen’s role was to show up in whiteface with a group of like minds to disrupt the inquiry itself, a tool of The Man. I sat night after night at the enquiry, torn & wondering, drawn neither to the defensive university establishment nor the wide-eyed student radicals. Bronwen knew what side she was on. I instinctively mistrusted her single-mindedness.”
The subtext is obvious. Note the word “temporary,” emphasizing that the storm blew over, implying that it was not about any fundamental values and questions and resulted in no permanent changes, implying that Wallace got caught up in a mere romp with the spoilt legions (“like minds”) of the New Left. Dragland was perfectly correct not to join sides if it didn’t feel right. But isn’t he obligated, since these events were obviously disturbing to him, to describe what he did think was right? What solutions did he propose? It sounds like he merely agonized, rather than thinking it out as the basis for doing something like, maybe, talking Wallace out of her “single-mindedness,” protecting her from herself, showing her the real complexities of the situation while sketching more realistic solutions. That he didn’t do this suggests it was Dragland who was “lost,” not Wallace.
And in failing to put forward his platform, he made it easy for Wallace and others to assume he was thinking only of himself: Fuck, they’re tearing down the Ivory Tower in which I’m poised as a grad student to find a comfortable and permanent perch! Fuck, if I participate in this my degree could be toast! Dragland is candid about his feelings of guilt, but he doesn’t seem to understand that what makes him feel guilty is not his disagreement with Wallace but his passivity in the face of the questions she put forward: “she was no kindred spirit . . . not even by her deathbed, where I felt hypocritical. I hadn’t earned the visit I made . . . . A part of me I didn’t like was still holding out.” He seems to have been holding out simply because passivity was easy and paid off.
He also tells how “Bron dropped out of the PhD program, and I saw very little of her until, nineteen years later, she became writer-in-residence at Western, my university. Then she told me, more than once, the story of dropping out, raging out, leaving behind an indictment of the system addressed to another professor, one I admired hugely. What was in that letter? I have to guess. I’d say the total inadequacy of criticism for dealing with literature, the unconscionable gap between literary criticism and real life . . . . I was too defensive to respond as I should have . . . . You were right, Bron, I should’ve said . . . it didn’t mean I’d done the wrong thing . . . . I was in awe of the way she connected . . . finding the best in people as well as in their writing, giving them non-authoritative permission to be what they really wanted to be, which was often enough not an academic . . . . I was jealous of how useful she’d made her life.”
Useful considering that she’d dropped out of school? Or useful because she could appeal to non-academic types? This seems condescending. The subtext here centres on the words “unconscionable” and “non-authoritative.” If Dragland really thought that literary criticism as practiced in the university is unfair, if this is what he thinks she was objecting too, wouldn’t he be backing her up? If he thought that way at the time, wouldn’t he have checked it out and either convinced her she was wrong or quit the program along with her? And if he thinks he has now closed the “gap” as a result of his many years of teaching, as he says he has, wouldn’t he in this book explain how he shunts across the gap so that her criticism would finally be answered? He could’ve used her as an example to show that literary criticism, as practiced in the academy, is where it’s at.
The critical articles in this book would’ve lent authority to this point. They are good. He seems to say (here he goes beyond conventional grammar so that his pronoun references and analogies are unclear) that he has misgivings about this kind of criticism but understands and enjoys it: “I was educated in the pseudo-science of Practical Criticism, to behave as though a text were a closed, autonomous signifying system. Put ‘er in a bell jar and suck out all the air. (I saw that done in the Oyen high school lab.) Everlasting flowers are better than real ones. How could it be an ivory tower when you don’t see any ivory? The unfairness escalates. Shame on me for enjoying it. But there’s still something to be said for banishing most of the contextual whirlwind, if it’s eventually allowed to blow back in, preferably a zephyr at a time.”
His model for Practical Criticism is a credible one — Frank Davey, who is by general consensus Canada’s best scholarly critic: “It’s very easy to get too comfortable while reading . . . . Maybe you need a dose of my colleague, Frank Davey. Maybe I do, that is. . . he writes as if he were from Missouri, the “Show Me” state. . . . Reading across the grain . . . produces a profile of text that shows itself to no other approach, so it would be folly not to pay attention.” But Davey does fall short when it comes to letting the air back in: “Frank’s criticism often rubs me the wrong way. I turn from his distance, his resistance, to the truest thing Duncan Campbell Scott ever said in prose: ‘efforts [of criticism] to define what is not definable inevitably tend to become creative attempts, approximate to poetic utterance, and endeavor to capture the spirit of poetry by luring it with a semblance of itself.’”
This seems to be a description of the “shunt,” and Dragland’s prose poetry could be an illustration of “approximating poetic utterance” at the point where definition fails. Old fashioned academic Generalists would do this by emoting — lots of laudatory, abstract adjectives like “beautiful,” and lots of pseudo-psychological testimony as to the state of imaginative ecstasy induced by the literary work. But what Dragland actually, mostly, in the essays in this book does slip into the bell jar is very conventional and more effective: historical and biographical context. Dragland’s ambiguity about how criticism works, his desire to have it both ways or his inability to reconcile theory with practice, his evident guilt about excelling in and enjoying Practical Criticism when he considers it bad in some way (“inadequate”?) might have stopped him from making a case as to the merits of academic criticism to Wallace or (in this book) in answer to what he believes was Wallace’s complaint when she dropped out.
Wallace wasn’t sure there was need of shunts into the literary un-nameable. Chapter J, entitled “If you can’t say something nice,” is an examination of Two Women Talking, the 1985-87 correspondence between Erin Mouré and Wallace. Dragland takes Mouré’s side: “Mouré tries patiently to encourage Wallace to think more theoretically, specifically about language as a problem for women . . . that language itself subordinates the feminine.” He’s got that right, and understands too that Mouré takes language in a larger sense to include what Dragland calls the unities — logic, narrative structure, and denotation. She wants Wallace to break through these, “looking for that hidden something behind the story (a power, a kind of grave, a force, mental connection, syntactic leap . . . using those mental connections of straight story to break through and make new connections. This is NOT representation, but something else, then. Bronwen, what is it? Think about and articulate this? Go ahead? I double dare you!”
This sounds much like Dragland’s challenge to the reader in Chapter A, and an attempt to name that which has no name — “a power . . . a grave, a force, mental connection, syntactic leap.” Dragland approves Mouré’s proposing it to Wallace. But Wallace, as Dragland has it, resists. He says she resists because she feels threatened — an ad hominem argument. In any case, a reading of the correspondence doesn’t bear him out. Wallace can’t accept the basic premises of Mouré’s syllogism and finds it pushy and presumptive of Mouré to assume she shares those premises. Wallace sees them as matters of faith, and since they don’t jibe with her experience, she wants to examine them inductively. But theorists don’t work that way. Mouré’s language prohibits it — we agree that the patriarchy exists and fucks with language, and that society is instituted in language (not vice-versa). Wallace didn’t agree, at least not in those simple terms. In what ways has the patriarchy fucked with language and what are the results in the way we speak and think? Dragland never presents his own statement of theory, using Mouré to express in generalities what he believes. It’s never clear whether he really understands her, even. As with politics, Dragland is not ready to tell Wallace what he thinks or respond to her thinking because he doesn’t much bother thinking.
When Coleridge got to the point of putting forward the philosophical principles underlying his poetry and literary criticism, he wisely backed off. A friend, the same guy no doubt who interrupted the writing of “Kubla Khan,” told him to desist. Coleridge settled on a brief definition of “Imagination, the Esemplastic Power,” that was later found to be plagiarized from Schlegel, and returned to his analysis of Wordsworth’s language. This analysis was based on common sense — what Coleridge had learned from his journeyman’s work. He proved that he was hopeless as a metaphysician and was a confirmed literary kleptomaniac perfectly capable of stealing “Christobel” from Sir Walter Scott. But he also proved he was a great literary critic. Dragland follows roughly the same pattern with similar results. Like Coleridge, he is the epitomy of self-delusion when it comes to faith in the “first principles” of criticism and poetry. When he gives up on that faith, he’s a good critic.
So it’s worthwhile for anyone with an interest in the Practical Criticism of CanLit to read past Chapter A. There are articles and paragraphs (amounting to about 1/8 of the book) on Matt Cohen’s Typing, Daphne Marlatt’s Zocalo (as a depiction of Roy Kiyooka), Agnes Walsh’s “When I Married Haldor Laxness,” and Himani Bannerji’s Thinking Through. These apply the bell jar but also let in biographical and historical context. All these articles — particularly the Bannerji one — are weakened by a touch of post-modern or neo-Generalist (neo-neo Arnoldian) moral-mongering, but overall they are impressive. Also the narrative that links these criticisms contains some interesting non-literary snippets about Dragland’s more famous friends. You read about Greg Curnoe obnoxiously disobeying Roberts Rules of Order at the meetings of the Forest City Gallery, about Robert Kroetsch kindly mailing Dragland’s briefcase back to him, about Matt Cohen’s property that served as the setting for the “Salem” novels, about Bronwen Wallace’s feisty activities as a campus radical, and much else. If you don’t have a strong enough stomach to get through Dragland’s narration, you can use the above list with the book’s index to find these instructive parts.
For those who take perverse pleasure in laughing at the antics of the deluded, there are many risible accounts of conferences and university classes and lectures that might have been written by a Swift or Leacock from the perspective of a terminally obtuse narrator, or by a Metcalf or Mordecai Richler from an ironic perspective. One is an account of a meeting at the University of Waterloo in celebration of Kroetch’s 70th birthday, where Dragland screws up his lecture because pages of the text are missing, then asks to re-read the missing pages at the end of the session. The audience figures he did this deliberately and praises him. Dragland comments, “makes you wonder.” There’s the 1978 seminar on teaching creative writing, where Roy Kiyooka impressed Dragland by blowing up at Ed Dorn who said he marked his students on attendance only: “But what about the fucking . . . , [Kiyooka] sputtered, I mean what about the years and years . . . . What about the dedication, he was saying, what about pouring your whole life into your work? Don’t we teach that? He mentioned his own writing on Tom Thomson. The example holds; twenty-five years later it still isn’t published.” In a 1995 Corpus Christi meeting on British Culture, somebody named Milena gets locked into a walled garden and they have to get her out. Also the British profs are nasty and disregard theory as “flavor of the month” and someone in the audience doesn’t think there’s enough theory in Dragland’s paper. In a conference in Agra the rooms are cold and Dragland eats something bad, gets sick for two days, and misses everything.
As Dragland says, “it makes you wonder.” Is there anything much going on at these events? Do they all feature frat-house romps, bickering and mutual back-scratching? After all, Kiyooka’s problem getting his book published could indicate incompetence rather than dedication. Dragland’s description makes academic conferences seem about as meaningful as writer’s retreats and corporate “think-tanks” — events that feature creative writing exercises, chicken bingo, attempts to flush golf carts down toilets, and lots of drinking and screwing around.
Dragland’s classroom stories seem meaningless too. Dragland claims that he has learned plenty in the classroom, his classroom, not anyone else’s after Miss Hanson’s, but he also says, “I left teaching without having figured out for sure how to make a class work.” As proof of both the negative and positive he tells of his 1980-81 graduate course, “Questions of Form in Contemporary Canadian Writing:” “I don’t recall inviting response in kind to [bpNichol’s] The Martyrology . . . but I was delighted when it happened. I was naively looking forward to the class in which all these layers of poem would be discussed . . . but . . . the students who didn’t understand The Martyrology wanted help rather than still more goddamn poetry . . . . Twenty years later it still stirs up brown. I should have kept the conventional & the radical engaged like the teeth of gears.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone setting out to teach The Martyrology, let alone allowing “response in kind” as a meaningful (gradeable for credit) assignment. The subtext here is that the “radical” students who submitted poetic responses understood the Martyrology, while the “conventional” ones who tried to write essays on it “didn’t understand.” But it also seems likely that the poetic responses happened because understanding was (a la Duncan Campbell Scott) impossible and conventional essays were hard to write, and that Dragland accepted the poetic responses because he was having trouble understanding.
In the following term’s course, though, “Poetry and Knowing,” which also included “difficult poetry” like Robin Blaser’s Holy Forest and Fred Wah’s Music at the Heart of Thinking, these difficulties were resolved. Dragland doesn’t exactly say here how he “engaged” the “conventional” demand for a “useful set of notes” with the “radical” willingness to “venture a poetic response.” He gave the course an even more abstract name. He admitted his ignorance about these poems to the students. He used a method or prosody book by Wah, Faking It: Poetics and Hybridity. He achieved success: “For once I was balancing different degrees of aptitude & receptiveness. I was relaxed in my intensity . . . . By the time the course ended I was in near perfect readiness for the game of golf of which there is a Zen well articulated in . . . The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
It’s great to think of Dragland out on the links after a tough but fulfilling academic year in which he has shunted into poetic response as deftly as he lays an eight-iron shot over the trap and close to the hole on the 18th. But there’s no clue as to how he achieved his Zen-like success, though making the course description more abstract and confessing ignorance hint at “dumbing down,” which could have resulted in Dragland’s more relaxed intensity. Wah’s book is a conventional poetics written in the contemporary (post-modern) jargon of scholarly criticism. It says what all poetics have said from Aristotle to Pound/Eliot, that poetry and criticism are forms of sophistry and that the rules (“tools” in Wah) of sophistry apply. But who knows if Dragland used the book to inform or mystify the students? Did the students achieve good grades by applying Wah’s “philosophical principles” to Holy Forest or did they do it by comparing the book to nirvanic experiences like playing video games, riding dirt-bikes, fucking or even (if they had their professor figured out) playing golf?
It all sounds phony. Dragland might consider that the Zen of golf depends on strict adherence to the rules. Going beyond them into “the out-of-range, into what is and is not there” does have a name. It’s called cheating.
Prince George, B.C. March 9, 2008