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Used Toys: Ordinary Readers Encounter Postmodernism (August 2002; Scanned)

Used Toys: Ordinary Readers Encounter Postmodernism (August 2002; Scanned)

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When Phyllis Webb writes in “Breaking,” “what are we whole or beautiful or good for but to be absolutely broken,” for some this thought seems a highly paradoxical but revelatory definition of the purpose of life. A continual process of breaking down inherited forms, inherited habits of reading and writing, and of experiencing life so that one is always aware that no way of thinking or seeing or living is either “right” or stable is what postmodernism is all about, so no surprise, really, that in our age Webb’s thought may be one of the few articulated thoughts that beckons forth more prophets than skeptics. But, though most postmodern writers characterize their writing as if breaking expectations helps release the imprisoned reader from her chains, some of them well understand that edged tools are a torturer’s instruments as well as a liberator’s. As we explore the poetry of several Canadian poets, we will anticipate the effects of attempts to dislocate and disorient the reader as I think Webb would have us, that is, without an easy assumption that readers need to be startled to become self-aware. Without care, without an enlarged concern for people that breeds close attendance to the possible repercussions of dramatic challenges to readers, who may already be well aware of what disruptions can make of life, the real toy-box of innovation and opportunities opened up, in potentia, by postmodern techniques may be received by an audience that has become, or already was, too dispirited, too wary, too broken to play with their new toys.
First paragraph:

When Phyllis Webb writes in “Breaking,” “what are we whole or beautiful or good for but to be absolutely broken,” for some this thought seems a highly paradoxical but revelatory definition of the purpose of life. A continual process of breaking down inherited forms, inherited habits of reading and writing, and of experiencing life so that one is always aware that no way of thinking or seeing or living is either “right” or stable is what postmodernism is all about, so no surprise, really, that in our age Webb’s thought may be one of the few articulated thoughts that beckons forth more prophets than skeptics. But, though most postmodern writers characterize their writing as if breaking expectations helps release the imprisoned reader from her chains, some of them well understand that edged tools are a torturer’s instruments as well as a liberator’s. As we explore the poetry of several Canadian poets, we will anticipate the effects of attempts to dislocate and disorient the reader as I think Webb would have us, that is, without an easy assumption that readers need to be startled to become self-aware. Without care, without an enlarged concern for people that breeds close attendance to the possible repercussions of dramatic challenges to readers, who may already be well aware of what disruptions can make of life, the real toy-box of innovation and opportunities opened up, in potentia, by postmodern techniques may be received by an audience that has become, or already was, too dispirited, too wary, too broken to play with their new toys.

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Patrick McEvoy-Halston English453lQ01 Professor DougBeardsley 19August2002 Postmodernism Encounter UsedToys: J}rdinary/ Readers WhenPhyllis Webbwritesin "Breakirrg

,"'khat arewe wholeor beautifulor goodfor but a broken,"for somethis thoughtseerns highly paradoxical revelatory but to be absolutely process breaking of down inheritedforms,inherited of definitionof the purpose life. A continual life habitsof readingandwriting, andof experiencing sothat oneis alwaysawarethatno way of is or thinking or seeing living is either"right" or stableis whatpostmodernism all about,so no that thoughts really,that in our ageWebb'sthoughtmaybe oneof the few articulated surprise, writerscharacteruze forth moreprophets thanskeptics.But, thoughmostpostmodern beckons readerfrom her chains, helpsrelease imprisoned the their writing asif breakingexpectations tools arc atorturer'sinshrmentsaswell asa that someof themwell understand edged poetso will anticipate effectsof the w€ Canadian liberator's. As we explorethe poetryof several as and attempts dislocate disorientthe reader I think Webbwould haveus, thatis, without an to self-aware.Without care,without an to that needto be startled become easyassumption readers of repercussions to closeattendance the possible for enlarged concern peoplethatbreeds can may be dramaticchallenges readersnwho already well awareof what disruptions makeof to by opened in potentia" postmodern up, lifenthereal toy-boxof innovationandopportunities
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book,The Postmodernism, it is by StanFogelin his reviewof LindaHutcheon's as

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by Postmodern, be definedasthe "shockingdisruption messythings." All can / Canadian postmodernists thanothersabout moreconcerned intendto disturbconventions, someseem but which hrntsin orderto heal,works,that is, whetherit leaves whethertheir paradoxical medicine, the'$atient'/readerbetteroff. PhyllisWebb,for example, appears haveaverf different to
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2 understanding how mostof us experience lives, aswell asa greater respect our current for of our palliativeremedies, is thandoesErin Mour6. In "PrisonReport"Webbwritesthat "tenderness also / a light anda shock." Considering of how oftensheexplores suffering,a gesture tenderness be a shockin this poem,asin life, owingto its rarity. In "Love Stoqy''shewrites may of peopleguessing an apedied"'of shock'," andin "Eschatology Spring"sherefersto an of that life "abruptbirth," asif shebelieves that for somany of us, from conception onwards, is
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posfinodern experienced a succession painfulinitiations. To Webb(andotherCanadian as of poetssuchasMichaelOndaatje, Zwicky,andAnneCarson) Jan ourneedfor"mending"(141)is many to to aspowerfully felt asis her desire disturbus. Thoughsheintends challenge we language her audience cometo expect, can has conventional waysof representing that to to imagineher respecting desire cling to old ways,our fearof what will happen us if we our let go. In contrast, thoughMour6believes manyof us havepainsthatrequirehealing,she that primarily asa sufflocation potential(Geddes 492-94). of appears conceive our routines to of perhaps as Mour6nwithher clean,tight, andfixed conception conventions obstacles^is of to thinkeris supposed a betterrepresentative a posfirrodern of thinker(or of what a postrnodern ou to be like) thanWebbis. By choosing imagineour familiarroutines, familiar world-viewas the productof ideologies havebeenforcedupon.rr-lonaps evenso asto makeus that

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comfortable thatwe do not "ask for more'l--^^rposhnodernists attemptto makelife so to the uncomfortable, "messy''for the reader.By continuallyfnrstrating reader'sattempts find had with a feeling--tnre frushation--that been meaning, acquainting reader the discomfort, by of heretofore may conceive her largelybanished from her life, the hopeis thatthereader previousways of apprehending world asoptional,the first stepto finding themwrongthe headed well. as It is probablymisleading characterizethe to experience readingMour6 asfrustrating, of

3 is from readingpoetryin which one though. Frustration certainlythe experience arises that repeatedly tries to find logical connections wherenoneexist. And in manyof Mour6'spoerns (aswith "Postmodern Literature,"for example), owingto our difficulty andto Mour6'sobvious to two facility in discarding needfor thoughts all between periodsto havesomething do with one

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of thoughshespeaks wantingto readingher poemscanindeed frushating.However, be another, (qtd.in Geddes and 493)in language, of 'lrnbalancing"our create slippagss" "momentary of normalexpectations bit" (494),andthoughshethinksthat,in sum,an accumulation these "a of] slippages create "fbreakage usualreadinghabits"(494)that "opens"us to new waysof can a her the of seeing to beinghealed, experience reading work may not be that of encountering and a and accumulate create dramatic which eventually disturbances moderated manageable and and which impactus immediately her effectin the reader.Rather, poemsdelivershocks powerfully. she from conventions creates the whatever "slippages" Reading "Toxicity,o'for example, torture. Line (andtherearemany), is not somuchto experience fiustrationasto experience in our especialfy *rVnamed to assist accuracy articulating fragments seem breaksandsentence that ttrsmin her work. But if Mour6usedlanguage wasdifferent how we feel afterencountering perhaps might discover the impactof her work owesless that from the sort shenormallyuses, we
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evenbeforethey are she thanwe might expectto their structural "play." The images evokes, are brokenup or allowedto standwithout furtherdevelopment, so oftenso horrifying to a encounter.I am thinking of obviousexamples suchasthe imageof the little girl who "pushes also orof "the gun-shotwounds. .] openinS'(496),but of thin / knife" (499)into ahorse, [. in Literature,"or the manytimessherefersto countries suchas,say,Guatemala "Postmodern Argentinain "Divergences," Nicaragua "Toxicity," that soresonate political violence in of or andinjusticethat theydo not needto be elaborated uponfor us to understand: may be She

4 attemptingto thwart ou attempts find meaningin her poems, we intuit an overall sense to but a that shethinks violenceis everywhere that, with her critique in her poebry Chatelaine, of and fashionmagazrne manywomenstill read,ffid apparently hockey,& sportthat so many of that of guilty. us watch andplay, we areimplicatedsomehow, who, despite We may respond becominglike the manypatientsof psycho-therapy by old from discarding habits,graduallydo become their resistance despite pain that comes and the as moreawarehow thesesame habitshampered their lives. Or perhaps the sortof ordinary peoplewho gettheir newsfilteredandpackaged the six-o'clocknews,w€ arealreadyas by muchawareof how, asWebbputsit, "deattrgrowsandgrowsin Chile and I Chad (145)aswe areofjust how much pain canbe found closerto home,in us, that our attentionturnsto the ongoing'bloody / judgement[s]"(145)of poetsandotherswho find little to like in the way we

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live our lives. As oneperson who wrote a letterto the editorof the GlobeandMail (August24, Mour6'spoetry,ratherthanexperiencing 1998)suggests, the fld, afterreadingandre-reading in downby a "seriousstick" an intellecfual uplift, we may be left feelingasif we havebeenbeaten

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--andby someone self-righteous be easilyimagined doingit for our own good. as to too This letter-writerdeffietf left readingMorn6 wantingmoreto fight ratherthan to play.

But another response somepostmodern to work that leaves someof us feelingdisorientd, or, we rather,'bsed," may be morecommon.Mour6's"Grief includessomething normallydo not in the encounter poetry, a notation,but at the endof the piece,which seems naturalspotto insert
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thana dramatic it. This example modiffing convention indeedfeelsmorelike a soft slippage of The lastwords,"or maybenot," break. But againit is importantto attend Morn6'slanguage. to clearly castdoubton whateverthey areintendedto refer to. As the asteriskthey follow is found nowhereelse,we intuit that everythingin the poemis being calledinto question,including the title. A poerntitled "Grief," ttren,may not be aboutgrlef at all. Soparadoxical, poshnodern, so

5 yes,but alsoso potentiallydisastrous poetswho may want their readers be willing to for to approach their poemswithout their guardup. might be disappointed If a reader met otherpoetssuchasMour6,MichaelOndaatje has of with how shereads"Elizabeth." All shewould needis the first description a child at play to herselfasshereadsfor know that "something is goingto happen,"andwouldbe preparing bad the if the something that is sureto follow. However, a readerallowedherselfto re-create bad the is whensheencounters feelingsandsmotions Elizabeth experiencing, that sheimagines and wordso thunderous, deadlyanddeadening "Whenthey axedhis shoulders neck,"it is possible the that shemight finish reading poemstill opento 'being broken"by postmodern Mour6,"doesnot revel poebry.Why? Because sense with GaryGeddes Ondaatje,unlike that we

(334). Thougb maysense apocallrytic in some his tone of in thedepiction violence" of we an a"*,t
as writing, in"Elizabeth,"by leavingus with Elizabeth shehascometo prefer"cool of we that [intellecfual]entertainments," sense we havebeenin the company a writer who not and how only understands debilitatingpain canbe to our eagerness willingnessto playfully exploreour world, but who v€ry,very muchwould preferthat all of us hadbeen,aswell ascould v be.,spared pain. the
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The wordsof his Ondaatje's work may be understood bothmodernandposfinodern. as
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for, poemsareallowedto create poem'sform, sohe is posftnodern his respect andhis in the ratherthaninvolving her intellectis a valuingof process. if evokingthe reader'semotions But
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modernist in dictum,thenhe is, perhaps, someways"old guard,"modernist.My hopeis that, as my mendsasmuchit messes, considering profoundlynonhis work soothes muchasshocks, as posbnodern that and suspicion it is possible feel whole,thatis, integrated happy,but that so to

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guardof whateverthe next of us needhelp to become way, that he is an advance this

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6 Many postmodernists wouldprobablythink theyhavefailedif peoplebecame that to of "acculturated" their work. To them,life is "composed" fragments neversettle,that perpetually shift. We areeitherforcedto be alwaysawareof this fact,or we will be prey to greater firrstrations thanpostmodernists inflict uponus. So somepoets,includingJanZwicky to and oftencease disturbonce andAnne Carsof,*no., manipulations language expectations of as we areaccustomed the posfinodern sensibility(sensibilities{-maybe conceived either to postmoderns, asI would preferto imaginethemo postmodernism's spiritual as wealdblooded or,
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successors. freed"from the tyrannyof the left-handmargin"l arenot Zwicky showsthat sentences in'Your Bod5" a only emancipated, helpsgive an organicform to poebry.For example, but letter("o"). with the same line beginsdirectlyunderthe lastword in the previousline thatbegan a is and Makessense, actually;feelsboth natrnalandsoothing; therefore questionably fragments, but postmodern fills her work with sentence maneuver.In "The GlassEssay,o' Carson herself woman. As we intuit that asshegraduallystitches in a poemabouta deeplytraumatized the as together language usesmight alsocomeacross moresmoothlystructured, apparent the she with ffaumamight alsoupset,or at leasttouble someposfinodernists. equation fragmentation of critic who identifieshimselfself-consciously Then again, RobertKroetsch, prominent a who'hate[s] theword organic"(13)andwho insists'lrpondiscontinuitf' (25), aspostmodern, resists usingthe word is also"thinks thatto go into purechaos to vanish"(25). Kroetsch to it of of mergers, "closure,"yet this word comes mind in "organic"because smacks integration,

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as the process describing of whathe hopes help create.To Kroetsch, with all postmodernists, to (as he the "self is a fragment"(7), but aswith manypostmodernists with Zwicky andCarson) perhaps longingfor integration.Perhaps, alsoshowsa desire, Webb's a then,oneof the reasons
t I believeI am quotingRobert Kroetschhere(sourceunknown).

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7 '\vhat arewe whole . . . for but to be broken" catches attentionis not because want to we our revel in its paradoxicaltnrth, but because wonderwhat it might be like to feel whole. If tnre, we poshodernists may needto warm up to us somewhat beforemanyof us will be opento trying ttrEirstrange new kind of e,ntertainment.

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Works Cited Poets X3. Ed. GaryGeddes.Toronto: Anne. "The GlassEssay." 15 Canadian Carson, OxfordUP,2001. 336-37. DisruptionBy MessyThings." Handout.English453/Q01.Doug Fogel,Stan. "The Shocking Beardsley.Victoria. Universityof Victoria. 2002. X3. Poets Gary. 15Canadian Geddes, English- Canadian Posunodern: Studyof Conternporary A Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Fiction. Toronto: OxfordUP, 1988. with Robert. Labyrinthsof Voice: Conversations RobertKroetsch.Eds. Shirley Kroetsch, Press,1982. NeWest and Neuman RobertWilson. Edmonton: Tim. Letter. GlobeandMail [Toronto] 24 August. 1988. McGrenere, X3. 495-96. Poets 15 Mour6,Erin. "Divergences." Canadian "Miss Chatelaine."499. Literature." 494-95. "Post-Modern "Toxicity." 498-99. Michael. "Elizabeth." @. Ondaatje, Spring." @. Webb,Phyllis. "Eschatologyof "Love Story." 140-41. "PrisonReport." t45-46. "Sitting." l4l. Poets X3. 554-55. Zwicky, Jan. 'Your Body." 15Canadian 336-37. 144'45.

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