Acceptance Speech for the Klibansky Prize
Last week, when I found out I would be expected to speak for a few minutes on this occasion, I panicked. To speak at length would be easy, but brevity takes much more time. And of what should I speak: the archaeological thrill of fact-finding, the adrenaline rush of argument, the glissades and arpeggios of prose, line by line, page by page, for the ten years it took from starting my Canada Research Fellowship to holding The Picturesque & The Sublime in my hands? My loneliness and frequent despair in the last few years at being utterly out of academia with no one, no one at all with whom to discuss what I was writing? The horror of trying to get this thing published, with endless reviews by anonymous detractors telling me what they would have written had they written such a thing (one spent eleven single-spaced pages on prose narratives of Arctic exploration when my book was explicitly and exclusively about poetry) and the endless hiring and firing of editors and their changing mandates, before I finally found refuge in the arms of McGill-Queen’s University Press? Or the counter-life that continued, blunt and unobstructed: washing rice out of the baby’s ears, fitting the kids for shoes, the birthday parties and funerals?
When I was in graduate school and Deconstruction was all the rage, I was informed solemnly by another student, one of those avid and ambitious ones whose business it is to know all the right people and how to make use of them, that my “problem” was that I was a poet. His verdict was pronounced with an equal measure of pity and contempt, much as a restaurant critic might address his lunch. But having been on the receiving end of a knife and fork many times myself gives me a bit of an advantage when it comes to discussing other people’s poetry, and I believe that this is what you are honouring me for today. For reminding you of what you all know about yourselves when you are writing but sometimes forget when you are constructing a thesis about other writers — that the writer does come from a particular place and time and is deeply implicated by them, but that her thinking and reading and imagining allow her some distance and play: that art grows from this tension between freedom and structure. As a critic, you must allow for the writer’s intentionality; writing is not merely “the free play of signifiers.” But you must also allow for the high-jacking of that intentionality by the drive of the writing itself, which wants to be free of individual writers’ conscious meanings and unconscious desires, which wants to be Art with a capital “A.”
A few other lessons critics could learn from their subjects are: You must always remember that the writer you are analyzing is as smart as you are and knows at least as much about her work as you do. So you should never distort what someone else has written for the sake of a clever remark, or ignore exceptions in order to prove a generalization, or troll for examples out of context to support an a priori argument, or pad your comments with references to works you have not considered seriously, or parrot someone else’s judgment just because they are more famous than you are, or try to be stylish at the expense of common sense.
We live in a consumer culture obsessed with marketing, sales and popularity, but are privileged to stand apart from it in our scholarly and creative endeavours. I thank you all here today for confirming my lonely belief in this pursuit by honouring a book neither fashionable nor popular, a book on the side of the writers. And I thank you most of all for giving me the best prize of all: readers.
© Copyright Susan Glickman 2000