The National Gallery

Jonathan Ball

For the longest time I harboured an attitude towards poetry that gave it a standard impossible to meet. It was taught to me, through a confluence of sources, the primary lens to understand poetry was the old Worhol-McLuhanism of “art is anything you can get away with.” Such an attitude relegated all forms of poetic expression into two discrete camps: the emotional diarrhea of an unstable writer begging for a help which will never arrive, or clever little frauds of language which could be played off as a joke. Thus to engage in poetry at all, in writing or reading, was moving around rocks on the barren surface of a tidally-locked moon. Either without light or completely exposed, pouring out one's whole soul in the vain hopes to win the passing acceptance of the uncaring and fatigued strangers of a reading public, or trying to use all the methods of science and engineering to effortlessly register a patent for the perfect knock-knock joke without actually having to write it. In my own poetry (back when I still thought poetry was a thing I should probably be doing) I eventually opted for the latter approach, thinking it might be the “more respectable” thing to do. Despite the underlying logic being sound, it turned out... the wrong choice, ultimately. Clever little frauds of language might still be clever, but they're no less frauds. A fertile soil plowed by the till of imposter syndrome; you didn't actually write that, you just got away with it.

This was made worse by the fashions of the time when I entered university, faced with the new incarnations of l'Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle and that monster flarf, where the impressiveness of any given poem was less in what it said and more about the wild machinations which enabled its writing. Christian Bök making book-length lipograms. Derek Beaulieu writing an entire novel using nothing but punctuation marks. Kasey Silem Mohammad writing letter-for-letter anagrams of Shakespearean sonnets. Kenneth Goldsmith teaching entire academic curricula about wasting time on the Internet. I won't leave Jonathan Safran Foer's literary swiss cheese out of the lineup either, even if I actually liked him. It was as if everyone wanted to be the next urinal in Marcel Duchamp's bathroom, and put on airs that was all anyone else could ever aspire as well. This judgmental group fetish had an almost gendered element to it. A kind of masculinity born of homeostatic stoicism, which suppresses true emotion and artistic inspiration in favour of sublimating oneself to an ineffable industrial-capitalist system, becoming one with the machine to prove manhood via routes of marketability and mass-appeal. Real boys don't cry, even in writing, and nobody is going to buy your book just so they could listen to you whine or complain about your personal gripes. I understood this much already when I got started on fiction writing, thinking it as some professional ethic of being a storyteller, in the same way old manners of objectivity used to apply for journalists. Yet when faced with the similar form this took in the field of poetry, something about it suddenly felt wrong, off. The one-ups-manship of poetry written on a purely technical level meant all one could do was write things for the ever-rising expectations of other people, yet never for oneself. When I wrote the originals of the Generative Variations in my first craft workshop, it was in attempting the point that B.P. Nichol's poetry was so shitty and unremarkable that I could teach a dumb computer to rewrite it perfectly, and if that could happen without the human touch then the Nichol originals were therefore worthless as true art. Imagine my shock when the high-fallutin' professor walked right past my intent, and actually loved the stupid things by their own words. Imagine my deeper despair when I made the original version of Signal Mosaic in order to clarify that point I felt increasingly strongly (and increasingly incensed) about, only to have it end up the only thing I ever published in a Canadian literary magazine. This was the audience for whom I had doomed myself to impress...

Were it not for Ball, I would've given up on poetry earlier. I should've, and eventually did, but in that moment his was the paragon case. He was the only one who stood out front of the tangled mess of expectations and, in my eyes, actually wrote poems that worked. Impressive and well-constructed poems that were, ultimately, saying something, about something, and doing so in an almost magical way. I've been a fan of his work for the longest time, nearly ten years now ever since my last year of high school, when I happened upon the first few selections of Clockfire in an ill-gotten edition of GRAIN. Clockfire spoke to me on an almost primordial level, which made it all the more difficult that nobody else heard of the guy. Ball would belatedly fit more neatly into the already-established categories of the vogue by means of his first book, but that allowed no real room for the captivating darkness at the heart of his subsequent writing. It cemented my nihilism on the subject that everyone was playing mere games with poetry. Why does poetry suck? Because roses are seldom read.

I fear in saying the honest truth of “well, it was okay, I guess” might be damning The National Gallery with faint praise. Yet it is a hard fact, and one shared with The Politics of Knives. A book of poems, or perhaps an anthology of chapbooks, not all necessarily about the same thing, each no more than a page long, with some good ones, some bad ones, some great, and the rest mediocre. A quick and brief read that doesn't really demand much investment, which could be both a good and bad thing. A perfectly normal book of poetry, so unremarkable that it almost reifies the original need to which Oulipo was the solution. In my mind, Clockfire would always be “a hard act to follow,” pardon the pun, but it's only fair. Given time, there would eventually be regression towards the mean.

... though there is something about The National Gallery which is almost tangential to the book itself. This is probably the first time I've noticed Ball at his most personal and intimate. There are many poems where he writes about writing, and a side subject of the later poems is about his interactions with his daughter. The autobiography gets wildly specific, to the point where it might have no real appeal towards an audience of others. “Once I couldn't get published in GRAIN / Then I published in every issue of GRAIN / Here lie the heads of the former editors I've slain.” On one page he might remain perfectly “in-character”, boasting himself as “the Poet Laureate of Hell.” Then he's suddenly your perfectly ordinary Dad, thinking Dad thoughts, Daddishly. The single self, in multitudes. It's a strange side of Ball's writing, and Ball's writing specifically, which has never really come up before. Had I seen it at any other point, I would've written it off as self-indulgent and not worth my time, but perhaps that's the problem. The strange dissonance made me keenly aware of the hypocrisy in my approach to the subject matter: that what I had identified as so distasteful and awful about poetry when I had to do it, was the very same thing that I still stubbornly expected of Ball.

Perhaps the truth of the matter is that real boys could cry as much as they damn well please, but not everyone is allowed the privilege of being a real boy. The genre of schmaltzy poetry existed for a reason, even if the hidden politics of publishing and mass-audiences has since complicated its making. That commodity fetishism eventually led to the mort de l'auteur which I had completely internalized in my own expectations, despite my principles demanding I shouldn't. In this book supposedly about the making of art, Ball opted to publish poems that by all accounts were against “the rules.” The unwritten rules which, when even partially written down, reveal a grand classist charade. Where does this leave me, with my hypocritical burden? Where does this leave Ball? Was the Poet Laureate of Hell enacting some necromantic sorcery to create the Undeath of the Author? Or is it a bit more simple and self-serving, to flaunt the rules which bind new authors and how they apply to him no longer?

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  • ISBN: 978-1552453971
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