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November 16, 2022 by Michael Greenstein
Poet, novelist, essayist, educator, dancer, painter – Susan Glickman is, by all accounts, a Renaissance woman whose talents are on full display in Artful Flight, a collection of essays and reviews written between 1985 and 2019. Creative and analytic, serious and witty, generous and judicious, her thoughtful prose takes wing in many different forms and directions. A feminist Daedalus, she re-invents dance, flight, and cadence in her craft of criticism that ranges from Shakespeare to modern Canadian poetry, and from the scholarly to personal intimacy. Whether her pen flourishes across paper or her hands tap dance on the keyboard, she choreographs with subtlety and clarity.
Early on in her book she tackles the question of indirection via Emily Dickinson’s famous advice: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” She artfully combines slant with semi-colons: “I still love semi-colons; I sneak them in the way I once snuck female authors into my course lists.” This juxtaposition of indirection and grammatical marker not only forms part of a feminist perspective, but also creates a rhythm in Glickman’s writing akin to dancing. (If the relationship between writing and dancing seems to be a stretch of mind and body, consider Yeats’s invocation of the dancer and the dance, Leonard Cohen’s “dance me to the end of love,” Paul Celan’s “Death Tango” quoted in the book, or Glickman’s references to ballads that are related to ballet.)
Half period, half comma, the semi-colon pauses rather than stops in the manner of a period; yet it creates a slightly longer breathing space than the comma, and allows a sentence to stretch itself out. (What would Henry James have done without the semi-colon, dash, and parenthesis?) Arguably the most sophisticated form of punctuation, it usually appears around mid-sentence, but Glickman adjusts it earlier in a sentence or towards the end, thereby adding variety to the rhythm of her prose, which is always informed by her poetic sensibility. Her slant is in the semi-colon; the semi-colon is in her slant: “The agent is on the phone; the people, especially a thin young man in a dirty raincoat, are still arguing in German, in French.” This imagined scene takes place in an airport, site of artful flight. The dance around her semi-colon between the agent and the people is repeated in a slightly modified step: “The agent on the phone meets your eyes briefly; nods; holds up his palm in the international signal to wait.” Instead of commas, we have longer pauses to imitate the wait. In her more personal essays, the semi-colon is dialogic, connecting characters; in her more formal prose dances, it is dialectic, bouncing two ideas or thoughts against each other.
Thus far, I have inserted the figure of dance metaphorically, but as the book progresses it takes on a more explicit stance. “On Going to Art School in My Sixties” describes the model’s body: “Contorted, writhing, and twisted; climbing, dancing, in a boxer’s stance or yoga asana.” The motion of this still body is captured predominantly in commas, but highlighted by the semi-colon that separates all the dancing gerunds and participles. The artist paints her prose, but also dances with the subject until dancer and dance are indistinguishable: “I get the same kind of pleasure from dancing as I did from making music or painting …. The kinaesthetic impulse travels almost without mediation from the brain to limbs – you hear music and you move.” A syntactical dance of semi-colons goes hand in hand with commas, dashes, and parentheses that enter her lyrical choreography: “I am dancing away from and back to my easel.” Slant, dance, and semi-colon lie at the heart of style and substance. Through artful footsteps and ambidextrous embrace, she clasps the brush and body.
To the substance: “Second Person Impersonal” teases out the permutations of “you” in lyrical poetry, taking off from Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, shifting to Denise Levertov’s Broken Ghazals, and ending with poems by Roo Borson and Kim Maltman. Glickman’s observations along the way point to the fluidity of genres and styles of writing. When she engages with an individual poet such as Levertov, an interpretive dance between student and mentor ensues; when she compares two other poets, she dances between them dialectically, demonstrating her mind in motion.
If Levertov is one influence, then Northrop Frye in a different direction is another. “My Life with Northrop Frye” portrays a relationship that is warm and cool. She distinguishes between Frye’s monumental achievements in English literature, and his position regarding Canadian literature, which is found wanting. Her pivot to personal anecdote lowers his high seriousness one notch: “Forgive me for outraging decorum by relating a personal anecdote, but I believe it is germane to the topic under discussion.” Her parentheses that follow are subversive: “(Literature is just a higher form of gossip anyway, and I suspect that my experience is representative rather than exceptional.)” One could argue with her definition of literature, but she continues to press her case: “My book, The Picturesque and the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (which went on to win both the 1998 Gabrielle Roy Prize as the year’s best work in English literary criticism and the Raymond Klibansky prize as the year’s best work in the Humanities) was rejected by the University of Toronto Press.” Her book is certainly worthy of both prizes; the categories of the picturesque and the sublime, moreover, highlight two levels of Glickman’s own discourse from the scholarly to the personal. Her book was rejected because she “wasn’t nice to Northrop Frye.” She counters with a picturesque retort against the sublime academy: “Now, my conscience on that score is entirely clear; I was unfailingly nice to Professor Frye! I was his student as well as one of his teaching assistants. I bought him flowers, ate ice cream with him (he preferred strawberry).” The strawberry vs. the sublime: that epitomizes the relationship not only between Glickman and Frye, but also between endemic hierarchies within the academy. She quotes Leonard Bernstein: “I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic.” Ironically Frye’s statue is fixed beside the Pratt Library at Victoria College, where he is seated on a bench with legs crossed and surrounded by books – the anatomy of the picturesque.
Her affectionate analysis of Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “A Precise Woman,” is typical of her style of criticism in the rest of her incisive essays. There is a dance in the poem between domestic order and sexual desire that moves in the opposite, yet complementary, directions: “A precise woman: on the bedroom carpet / her shoes always point away from the bed. / (My shoes point toward it).” This silent dance at the end of the poem, hushed by carpet and parenthesis, contrasts with the screeching birds preceding it with their onomatopoeic sounds of sex. The woman is precise because of the order she restores on the potential for domestic chaos, but she is also precise in being the only woman for the poet. Glickman spins the poem and the couple precisely in her interpretation and comments on translation. (Ironically the Hebrew “miduyeket” uses twice as many syllables as its English equivalent “precise,” yet its strong fourth syllable closes it with precision.)
She reviews Robyn Sarah, Anne Szumigalski, Diana Hartog, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. By playing off Patricia Young against Stephen Scobie, she illuminates both poets. Similarly, juxtaposing Don Coles and David Solway, she demonstrates once again her dialectical and dialogical methods of criticism, which are so acute. Ever the careful sleuth of research and creativity, she interestingly tracks the changes in Michael Ondaatje’s revisions. “Artful Flight: Anne Lamott and Ali Smith” pairs the two writers, but also highlights Glickman’s own title, which she derives from Smith’s 2012 Oxford lectures, entitled Artful, which in turn derives from Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Glickman captures Smith’s Dodger in words that apply equally to her own writing: “It is a breathless ride between comparative literature, the visual arts (there are illustrations at the back), and pop culture, full of extraordinary and illuminating connections between anomalous figures such as Michelangelo and Kathryn Mansfield, Kafka and Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Wilde and Margaret Atwood.” Dancer rather than Dodger, Glickman connects writers in her illuminating writing.
Her essays examine in detail the poetry of Don Coles, Phyllis Webb’s ghazal, John Newlove, Erin Moure, Bronwen Wallace, and conclude the section with “Two Holocaust Poets: Primo Levi and Paul Celan.” Her final section ends on a lighter note: she finds herself in Mexico enjoying the natural daylight in contrast to the sealed windows and fluorescent lighting of Robarts library. Or, in “Found Money” she finds herself in Greece finding coins on cobblestones, as if they were manna from heaven, and treats herself to an anise-scented, honey-soaked gingerbread. In another piece she examines the word “let” in Hamlet in the context of contranyms such as “cleave” – words that mean themselves and their opposites. After offering many original insights, she wittily concludes that “His name really should be Ham-let.²” Once again, Glickman squares circles in a dance of contranyms, where opposites partner within the same word.
The Porcupine’s Quill artfully designs her book with a number of flying machines. The book’s cover features a broad wingspan connected by diagonals, the slants of Glickman’s truths. Other dirigibles throughout the text complement her dance that is grounded in solid research and takes flight in her lucid style and light-handed approach to her erudition. Buoyed by zephyrs and zeppelins, whimsical wings, and deft dances, the outsider moves from the margins towards an artful centre. Slant, semi-colon, dash, and parentheses dance across the page to the pace of a different drummer and an infinity of blues.
“Artful flight.” That’s critical writing at its best. And it’s creativity.
It’s what Susan Glickman brings together in her collection of essays and reviews spanning decades of thinking, writing and being in the Canadian literary landscape and the wider world.
In a clear-sighted introduction to this collection Glickman – a poet and novelist in her own right -is surprised at the “fugitive prose” she has accumulated over her professional life and poured into essays, a flexible form allowing her questing mind free flow. Fulfilling the promise of creative criticism, Glickman enters the imagination of her writers with sensitivity and knowledge. She participates in conversations that approach, at their most effective, a kind of co-creation, enlightening both author and reader and often the critic herself.
Artful Flight provides a deep dive into Canadian poetry and the poetry makers who shaped where we are as poets and readers today. Glickman gets inside how they did it. Through her combination of critical intelligence and poetic instinct, we are invited into process, a sharing of how (selectively) modern Canadian poetry means, articulated by someone who understands and appreciates it as well as practising it. Glickman’s poets are not just remembered but dynamically acknowledged, their fine lines of influence traced and refreshed with critical integrity, with immediacy and excitement.
Not only is Glickman clear she is courageous, contradicting that ‘eminence gris’ of CanLit, Northrop Frye on his early relegating of our literature to a ‘garrison mentality’ “because detached from European culture.” Nor does she shrink from clearly indicating throughout her reviews and essays where a poem soars and where, occasionally, it fails to fly. And often why she eagerly anticipates this or that poet’s next work. Glickman is seriously encouraging.
In sharp essays about craft, she sheds light on such topics as the use of the second person impersonal, illustrated in poems by Kim Maltman and Roo Borson. The technique, often “a sidelong wooing of the reader to enter into the experience of the poem as the fictional persona” is intriguingly slippery. Her discussion of the poetic line typifies Glickman’s incisive analysis: “The poetic line is where feeling and syntax meet” and “it is important to look at the way lines and sentences differ…in the way that they are articulated by the voice.” And although poetry must pay some deference to grammar, it “is always testing the limits of syntax to achieve more freedom for itself.” She speaks of “the accurate scoring of poetry,” that renders “the poem on the page an exact guide to reading.” Further, “poetry is never speech” but “the result of aesthetic design.” After an adroit dance through William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” she states simply that his language is not so much a function of the American Idiom as the way the poem insists Williams design the language it needs.
Glickman gets to the heart of her poets quickly. Robyn Sarah’s “aural symbolism.” Anne Szumigalski’s “mystical bent,” her Celtic narrative. Diana Hartog’s accessible personality comes through the “state of attentive wonder in which she composes her poems.” The consistently political poetry of Gary Geddes typically adopts the persona of a figure in an historic situation, skillfully balancing metaphor with exposition. In her assessment of the poet’s Selected Poems (1970-1995) Glickman urges him towards a freer exploration of this blending in his future work, citing how lyric and political have been powerfully fused by such poetic giants as Neruda and Forché.
She explores the politics of poetry found in Peter Dale Scott. “Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror,” his many-canto’d epic is propelled by outrage at the CIA intervention in the politics of both Indonesia (with Sukarno) and Chile (with Allende) that ousted those leftist leaders. The poem’s political roots are also personal. Scott’s diplomatic and legal background (the “hidden agenda” behind his public face) propels his insistence, like Pound, on ‘a twentieth century poem that includes history.’
With her synthesizing vision, Glickman’s reviews generate literary ideas that reward scrutiny. She illustrates how “the Canadian use of documentary sources in Canadian poetry,” when not “transformed by the imagination,” fails, as opposed to the success of such sources in the seminal works of Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie or Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Glickman takes us on a lively romp through the love poetry of Don Coles (K. in Love) and David Solway (Modern Marriage) both of which, in defining “the extremes of masculine psychology” are “books for grownups.” Coles is “all quivering adoration and breathless deferral” while Solway “makes no pretense of being nice.”
Glickman’s discussion of Michael Ondaatje’s “new and selected,” The Cinnamon Peeler (1993) begins with her disappointment that it contains only one new poem. Her explanation makes us look again at the value and function of any ‘Selected.’ “Ondaatje not only culls poems and reorganizes them to tell a new story…he does some serious editing of individual poems.” Further, “each time a poet selects from his or her works to compose a new representative whole, we have the pleasure of seeing literary autobiography being (re)-made.” This is the kind of critical thinking that enlarges our perception of the literary culture we think we know, reminds us of the substantial work it requires and how it changes.
Glickman investigates in great depth and detail the poets she feels have changed the landscape, articulating patterns over a range of work. In her essay on Don Coles’ Landslides: Selected Poems (1986) she remarks how his situations centre on “visual memory, usually provoked by an image,” how the speaker is a sort of Everyman exploring archetypal roles in a domestic narrative with an educated diction that is also quietly self-deprecating. Glickman characterizes the new poems in this Selected as beginning with “shivers of mortality” then transforming into “dream and fable. By contrast, Coles’ The Prinzhorn Collection freezes time and preserves a moment in history. These poems grant “the unmailed letters and drawings of the forgotten inmates in an insane asylum the serious audience of which they were originally deprived.” Always the conscientious guide, she suggests future direction: either towards a surrealism that continues to transcend the “narrowly personal” or the kind of “collective experience of history” represented by ‘The Prinzhorn Collection.’
Glickman is often a phrase-maker. Her detailed discussion of the Persian ghazal in the poetry of Phyllis Webb leads to such revelations as the “aesthetic androgyny” Webb discovered in the form and how it freed this metaphysical poet into a wilder flow of images, into process. Characterizing John Newlove as a “bruised idealist lurking under [a] nihilist’s spiky armour,” she spends a thoughtful essay comparing the strain apparent in poems that represent experience to the hypnotic strength of poems that become the experience. She distils the wide-ranging complications of Erin Moure: “a convergence of mysticism, feminism and socialism in an ethic of personal transcendence and an aesthetic of subversion,” a poet who deconstructs and reconstructs language (sensually, spiritually, politically) “allowing the individual to speak her particular truth and still be understood.” Glickman recognizes how Bronwen Wallace, whose poetic voice closely imitates ordinary speech is drawn instinctively to a narrative form that “accommodate[s] many voices” because “the truth is polyphonic and experiential rather than monophonic and absolute.”
In her final section, The Self in the World, Glickman shares personal and professional reflections revealing many selves. The fearless wanderer, the frustrated academic, the overextended mother, the ecstatic lover of music and the visual, all held in wrapt suspension by her joyful addiction to language. The range of lived experience – both difficult and enriching – and the embrace of art “as a form of attention” expressed in this book make for the best writers and critics.
Responding to another poet, I found myself saying “I work very hard to make things look simple.” This aesthetic governs everything I do in every medium, but I think it was instilled into me during the years I studied dance. It isn’t so popular in poetry — or in dance — these days, when conspicuous difficulty is prized above almost everything else. But I am too old to change my ways, and still find my heart singing when a poem sounds completely natural and unforced and yet has resonances and complexities that become increasingly evident upon rereading. After all, there are few lyrics out there that strike the heart as purely as:
Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayne.