Probably Inevitable by Matthew Tierney
In the weeks following the publication of my Puritan review of Matthew Tierney’s Probably Inevitable, I was reluctant to cement the dichotomy between the so-called positive and negative review, a much emphasized topic in Canadian literary criticism of late. Every critic is justified in his or her taste, but bombastic rhetoric and stylistic and logical crimes are too common in criticism today, so they need to be pointed out. Here are a few of the fallacies that tend to crop up again and again.
I’ll draw my examples from Kevin Kvas’ Puritan review, but he’s hardly the only culprit (I’ll touch on Marjorie Perloff, whom he uses to support his views, later), and his review is certainly not without merit. In fact, it’s criticism’s loss that his argument is hampered by the fallacies listed below. For instance, Kvas’ argument that Probably Inevitable “is not more than the sum of its parts” is intriguing, but it is not adequately supported.
- The “Straw-Man” or Irrelevant Thesis: Positing a thesis statement can give a work of criticism a focal point. But when a critic insists on making claims that misread the work, his or her argument is less about creating possibilities for reading, and more about that critic’s rhetorical posturing. And repeating your claim does not make your argument more valid or reasonable. The convoluted loops Kvas takes to prove Tierney writes sententious, couplet-like units demonstrates his misapprehension of the poet’s tone and diction. Probably Inevitable constantly and playfully undermines the very theories it presents regarding time and the universe.
- Slippery Slope: It’s wrong to assume one writer represents modern Canadian poetry, or that the genre is suffering because of a single book. Kvas gives no evidence or reasoning to prove Tierney is “like almost every other poet writing today” when he bakes up “a batch of two-bit(e) lyrics.” Our current media outlets and informal registers may be steeped with news-bites and texting, but claiming that these tendencies “make a lot of poetry nowadays turn out this way” is simplistic and inane. Poetry absorbs jargon, lingo and rhythms of speech. It doesn’t entrench them so much as it reflects them back at the world.
- Hasty Generalizations: It’s also not reasonable to make generalizing claims about readers, as when Kvas asks, “does it simply make our lyric-accustomed minds even more prone to reading it in such a fashion?” Putting this in the interrogative voice excuses the author from having to back up his suggestion in any way.
- Appeals to Tradition: Critics fearful of modern poetry often claim a work does not measure up to arbitrary canonical standards. Thus, “the extended conceits of Donne and Shakespeare’s sonnets” are a notch on the wall of taste and achievement that Tierney’s so-called couplets don’t hit, even if his poems don’t gesture towards this goal. Kvas alludes to “some conceptual poetry” that does hit the mark, but this poetry is not discussed and the allusion is not specific enough to give us any sense of his notion of quality and excellence.
We need strong opinions like those held by Kvas, but there needs to be less of these strong-arming rhetorical tactics which can be neutralized by any student of a first-year informal logic course.
Phoebe Wang’s work has appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, CV2, Canadian Literature, Descant, Grain and Diaspora Dialogue’s TOK 6: Writing the New Toronto. She graduated from University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program, and was recently a finalist of the CBC Poetry Prize. More of her writing can be found at www.alittleprint.com.