Hugh Kenner (on taking the best stuff for granted)

Thinking of “Better Read Than Never” – my cleverly named series of reviews on books that are “yesterday’s news” (but not for me) – my tendency to untimely reading isn’t limited to novels. My mind being what it is, I decided to finish off the November 2014 edition of The Atlantic, an interest-packed number of a great old magazine. A James Parker piece on the “rock-star poet” Dylan Thomas, among many other things the inspiration for Robert Zimmerman’s stage name¹, came first, a welcome re-read. What I hadn’t noticed the first time through, or what at least didn’t make much of a dent in my memory bank, was a startlingly great quote from Hugh Kenner.

¹ So far, I have reserved judgement on Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I’m leaning towards The nostalgia and narcissism of the Boomer generation triumph again. Interesting choice. People paid attention, but I’m not sure it does anything for literature, which continues to have a declining coolness index unless I’m wrong (I hope I’m wrong).

Kenner – yup, news to me, too – is described in the Atlantic piece as a student and explainer of Marshall McLuhan, though I’ve come to discover that he was much more than that. Alongside McLuhan and the uber-educated imagination of Northrop Frye², the I hardly knew ye Kenner was in fact one of the great critical minds of 20th-century scholarship, a prodigious writer and one of the great Wise Guy Canadians. (True to form, I’m now bandwagon-jumping on to an e-book platform of his The Elsewhere Community (1998), an account of his travels to learn from and be among the greats of the arts and sciences.³)

² I was lucky enough to have a remarkable English teacher in high school, Pete Hill, who shoved The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye at me. Even then, my rather lightly educated mind knew it was awesome. (Note to self: read more Frye.)
 ³ Also true to form, I will now find an obscure way to connect this literary life to basketball: Kenner was born in Peterborough, Ontario, where one of the older high schools is Kenner Collegiate, named after Hugh’s father, a teacher. (A school named after a teacher?!) At least one of my teams has played at Kenner, so there.

(But enough about me.) The knockout punch of the Dylan Thomas look-back came toward the end of the article, which argues that we should not look at the excesses, lifestyle and literary, of the Welsh poet but rather at the best of what he was and what he did. Author James Parker reminds us of the famed McLuhan aphorism: The medium is the message. Parker advises, therefore: don’t look so much at this or that Thomas poem, which may by now feel dated or immoderate or just plain meaningless; instead, consider what the man himself meant, and attempted. At this point, Parker quotes Kenner’s explanatory paraphrase of The Medium is the Message.

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Gord Downie (on the way, and on the way out)

[2-minute read]
On the (last?) tour, rockin' hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

On the (last?) tour, rockin’ hats, feathers, glitter, and some gently showboating self-mockery.

“Canada’s unofficial poet laureate” is what many call Gordon Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip. Thirty years in to singing — he had, and still has, one of the best set of pipes among rock’s leading men — and growling and screaming and talking his enigmatic and multi-layered lyrics, at least one music writer insists on placing him in the lyrical pantheon with Bob Dylan and “post-Graceland Paul Simon”. Downie is a poet — yes, there is a published poetry collection — and there are many phrases that hundreds of thousands of Canadians can sing along with him, as they have been on the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, the one that the band has never said is a farewell.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

Young and hairy and restless and good.

But Downie is dying of inoperable brain cancer. He is not the caged stage lion he once was, and there were times in last night’s final show of the tour, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, when we weren’t entirely sure he was going to make it through to the end of the planned setlist. Anyway, here’s the thing: Downie is still a manic stage presence, and he delivered nearly three hours worth of rock ‘n’ roll slamdance poetics, but he’s a quiet dude. Famously private, he had little to say to his adoring fans in Kingston and a national TV audience, even on a night like that. It’s all about the songs, and his band.

But he did tell this little story:

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