Nonfiction Review by Brandon McFarlane

Jeffery Donaldson, Echo Soundings: Essays on Poetry and Poetics (Windsor: Palimpsest, 2014). Paperbound, 200 pp., $19.95.

Echo SoundingsJeffery Donaldson’s Echo Soundings—a collection of reviews and essays on poetry—is an unabashed sample of contemporary Frygian criticism that demonstrates the value of close reading and an attention to form. Echo Soundings draws heavily upon Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957), an incredibly influential work that argued literature comprises an autonomous world governed by its own rules, patterns, and ideas, and that the critic’s role is to identify and unpack these characteristics. Anatomy of Criticism played a major role in shaping modern literary studies and it inspired many of the classics of Canadian criticism.

In Echo Soundings, Donaldson rejects that a poem’s purpose is to “convey information, convince you of something, argue a truth, compel or command, sway a disposition;” rather, poems are fundamentally creatures of form that use metaphoric language to create a dialogue with readers and other great texts. Mirroring this belief, the opening essay is a fragmented collection of paragraph-long metaphors that express his belief that a poem’s form rather than its content determines its value. For example, he writes, “Pour some cream into a bowl and whip it with an electric mixer. The cream in the bowl is all of language in a culture. Like language, it is everywhere going from one side of the bowl to the other. There it is, being cream, doing the things that cream does. The electric mixer is the poet. The poet whips and whips the cream, mixing it together. It begins to thicken, magically it seems. As the cream thickens, it gels and stands on its own. Once the cream has achieved a certain viscosity and density, the poet can begin to make shapes out of it. The cream inside the shape is the same as the cream in the rest of the bowl. But this cream is being used to make things out of the cream’s own inherent properties. It just had to be excited, intensified.” The paradigmatic metaphor, echo soundings, gives the collection its title. For Donaldson, criticism and poetry are arts of listening; both demand one to listen closely to the echoes created by poems and poets in conversation with other poems and poets. The echo expresses how metaphor creates meaning, the ghostly relationships established between poets through allusion, and how the reader experiences a poem as something overheard. Donaldson’s self-prescribed task is to listen carefully and to explain how poets create echoes.

Donaldson is a skilled close listener whose genuine love of poetry and ability to describe its inner workings contribute to the collection’s strength. The second half of Echo Soundings includes essays that reflect upon poets writing about poetry, what he calls ghostly conversations. In two wide-ranging essays that discuss works by Auden, Blake, Chaucer, Dante, Eliot, Heaney, Merrill, Shakespeare, Shelley, and others, Donaldson studies a conceit in which poets summon their mentors into imaginative worlds where they discuss the role of poetry and poetic legacy, typically when the contemporary artist is experiencing a crisis of confidence or relevance. Indeed, he declares that Frye is his own ghostly mentor, and each piece in the collection contributes to a decades-long, critical conversation with Frye. He concludes one of the essays by arguing, “The crisis of decision arises out of a refreshed awareness of the limits of poetry, its apparent impotence in historical fact, and the seemingly unbridgeable gap between imaginative vision and the givens of experience. The drama of the ghostly encounter, with its dialogue and counsel, would suggest that the turning point in the crisis has to do with the relations between poets themselves, in arguments they have with the intimate voices that inhabit them and make them who they are.” I cannot think of a more appropriate metaphor for the sort of works that Frygian criticism privileges: abstract poems saturated with dense allusions that, to be fully appreciated, demand an in-depth knowledge of the Western canon and the lives of its creators. This sort of poetry is ghostly because it favours the past over the present. It is haunted by tradition and questions about greatness. And it privileges the imaginative over the material.

Donaldson expresses a clear preference for poets who share Frygian convictions. “A Canadian Blake and his Frye” is a striking essay that criticizes the academy for its progressivism and how it has marginalized the “genuine poets among us.” The title alludes to Frye’s Fearful Symmetry (1947), a monograph that uncovered the previously unrecognized genius of Blake’s poetry and transformed the minor poet into a canonical figure. Richard Outram plays the role of Blake and Peter Sanger assumes the role of Frye. Paraphrasing Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism and “Conclusion to A Literary History of Canada,” Donaldson proposes: “The rustle of current cultural and political debate, along with our regional and ethnic identities and differences, define our worthy preoccupations.” He continues, “The inductive approach nowadays has fallen out of fashion: the contemporary critic is expected to read his subject deductively, applying the weights and measures of other disciplines, often with a political orientation.” The academy’s focus on identity politics has indeed resulted in the neglect of texts that do not express a thematic interest in social activism—it is an argument that Russell Smith consistently offered to explain the relative marginalization of white, male, Generation-X writers in Canada. I am sympathetic to this sentiment, which Donaldson repeats in many of the book reviews to explain the minor status granted to poets such as A. F. Moritz, Ruth Roach Pierson, John Reibetanz, and Peter Sanger.

The limits of Donaldson’s Frygian perspective are, perhaps, demonstrated by his review of George Elliott Clarke’s Illuminated Verses (Kellom 2005)—a collection that celebrates and incorporates portraits of black, female bodies. Clarke’s polemical introduction proposes the Canadian literary industry may be racist because he had trouble finding a publisher willing to tackle the subject matter, even after winning the Governor General’s Award for his previous collection Execution Poems (2001). Donaldson does not address the political content of Clarke’s introduction and avoids addressing the issues of race, gender, and sexuality that the poems prompt. However, he praises Clarke’s aesthetic, noting that “you feel less as though you were following a consecutive argument and more as though you were witness to an effulgent metaphoric storm with its pulsating rhythms, which, so far as revolutionary civil and aesthetic rights are concerned, is at least as effective as any shot-across-the-bow polemical introduction is bound to be.” The contradiction is worrisome: Donaldson is willing to examine the production of literature to explain the marginalization of his preferred poets yet he downplays the concerns of those, such as Clarke, who draw attention to how the very structures Donaldson values—(new) formalism and new criticism—have long, problematic histories of marginalizing minority voices. While I may disagree with Donaldson’s comments regarding the relationship between form and politics, his writing offers critical reflections on metaphor that are worth pursuing and demonstrates the lasting influence and value of Frye’s teachings.

—Brandon McFarlane

As in The Malahat Review, 192, Autumn 2015, 105-107