Sally O

Canadian Literature (212 / Spring 2012)

The sometimes-used epithet for [Charles Noble], “the farmer-poet,” is only literally true: Noble is a poet who also happens to be a farmer. What one might expect from that nickname, however, is not exactly what one gets from his writing. This is not nostalgic, agricultural lyricism, but rather complex, postmodern inquiries into perception and place. Noble reveals in the book’s “Afterword”: “Earlier I was sometimes tagged with ‘farmer-poet,’ which sometimes I kind of liked wearing, albeit with some embarrassment, being always a little too alien for ‘salt of the earth,’ ‘wholesome’ never quite adding up.” What does add up, from the crazy arithmetic of Noble’s verse, are witty, arresting descriptions that put Noble in league with Kroetsch (when he’s not being hyperintellectual) and Purdy (when he’s not being sentimental). There are also shades of early Ondaatje, particularly in the longer excerpts.

The thirty-nine-page “Afterword” is an interesting addition to the text. Partly a spoof ot jargon-laden, name-dropping theory-prose, the text is (deliberately, I’m sure) nearly unreadable. But the joke is also not a joke. In some ot its lucid moments, the “Afterword” reflects on the collection, presenting Noble as self-effacing and not entirely convinced that this project is merited: “A selected, let alone a collected, poems had not interested me, on the one hand, for the problem of so many long to book-length poems, and, on the other hand, because I saw so much of my past work as failure, and just in a conventional sense of that word,” he writes. It was in part Jon Paul Fiorentino’s thoughts on “a poetics of failure,” explored in an issue of Open Letter, that inspired him to think that a collection could be viable. What if, instead of looking at a collection or anthology as a carefully chosen “bouquet” of successes, we saw it as an archive of interesting failures? The idea is intriguing, and although it perhaps does not make up for the arduousness ot reading the “Afterword” (to my mind the joke went on a bit too long), it nevertheless puts this record of Noble’s work in a fresh context, suggesting a poet who has successfully pursued failure — that is, perhaps, a poetics of incompleteness, and therefore of possibility. — Kaya Fraser


Sally O is a sumptuous summation of the work thus far, and a long time in coming. Yet in the years since his first (chap)book, Unfounded Knowledge (Anak Press, 1972.) and his innovative collection of logopoeic haiku and senryu, Death Drive Through Gaia Paris (University of Calgary Press, 2007), Charles Noble has maintained a puckish attitude toward what he’s done, mixing imagism, surrealism, anecdotal realism, and language poetry. I want to stop short of saying he’s now a Language poet — though he’s definitely bridged the Modernist and Post-Modernist streams, and paid as much attention to language as he’s paid to content.

Charles is also the most well-read poet/explorer I happen to have the good fortune to know. He’s imbibed deeply of Elysian streams — western and other philosophy traditions, linguistics, politics, literary critical and art and music theory; totally absorbed and turned to account the lessons of the Imagists, Objectivists, Surrealists, Deep Imagists, Projectivists, Tish, Language, and other schools and tributaries, all the while that he’s made his primary living through daily contact with the earth as a dry land wheat farmer. Being as familiar with academic journals as with the Western Prairie Producer has made him an unusual duck, to be sure, but it has also kept him away from a lot of academic “platters”: presses with Po Mo buzz among the language mavens, academic sinecures, big prizes, etc.

While hugely respected among the cognoscenti, he’s not as well known as poets who’ve mastered a fraction of the turf. I hope this book will change all that. Certainly it belongs on every poet’s shelf.
The work is not just a box of licorice allsorts either; indeed the Afterword, Appendices and Open Letter toAlberta Views comprise a kind of mini poetics volume in and of themselves. Together, they reveal many insights not only into the poet’s peripatetic wanderings in theory and philosophy, but also into his aesthetic.

Typically, Noble breaks syntax down into phrases, words, affixes, graphemes. phonemes; he starts with a fairly antic surface in straightforward narrative or description, but then works the seams (nay, memes!) for nugget puns, allusions. syntactical or lexical ambiguity, twinning and grafting as he goes. This can make the poetry difficult to get a handle on at first, and certainly a lot of allusions, puns, and more abstruse and abstract content escapes me, but that doesn’t make the poetry effortful to read.

Noble is an ordinary language philosopher at least, and one marvels at where he starts and where he ends up. The trick is to slow down. (Hearing Charles read is a treat in itself, but learning to slow down at the curves, to hear those inflections, that droll delivery as it bifurcates and explores various language byways in nimble and very light-footed ways, is instructive and fun.)

Here’s a taste, a logopoeic senryu from from Death Drive Through Gaia Paris in its entirety:





Whoever claimed the pun was the lowest form of humour hadn’t had the opportunity to read Mr. Noble’s work.

— Richard Stevenon

Alberta Views, March 2010
Charles Noble is a name Albertans should know. A hundred years ago the southern Alberta town of Nobleford was named after his grandfather. A former footballer at the U of A (one who didn't go into provincial politics), Noble farms for half the year and reads and writes for the rest. Four decades and 10 of his works are collected in Sally O: In the Betsy Sense of the Word (Selected Poems and Manifesto).

Sally O can be read chronologically, beginning with Noble's lyric poetry of the 1970s, or as a manifesto first, with the poems as proofs. I found myself reading Sally 0 as a fellow Banff resident. Noble has lived part time in Canada's most famous mountain town for decades. His literary connection to Banff begins with an early collaboration with Banff's renowned man of letters Jon Whyte.

Noble's debut collection, Unfounded Knowledge (1972), published when he was 27, at times reminds me of Leonard Cohen's wry early poems.

I hear / the young married couple who live I next door through a wall I thin as this paper I have just turned out the light
I hear them I I don't think this writing/ will poke through.

Compare this to Cohen, from his debut Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956):

I heard of a man I who says words so beautifully I that if he only speaks their name / women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body I while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips, I it is because I hear a man climb the stairs and clear his throat outside the door.

Noble is noted for his long poems, such as the excerpt from Banff/Breaking (1984) that describes an amble down Banff Avenue, summer sun rising, 6:30 a.m. Noble seems to look at Banff from both sides now. There is the landscape, and there are the people. The enclosing compass of Rundle, Sulphur, Norquay, Cascade and Tunnel. Noble writes, “the mountain beauty is too good to write.” That may be so, but he still has a go. In Banff/Breaking, Noble circles the town with scenes of Banff's perennial late-night revelry. Prodigal sons and daughters from across the country making Banff part of their personal history.

He writes, “once in a while a new couple / pluck out their love from some bar, / marry and stay home . . . “ But then: “Banff's the place to wreck a marriage / they say.”

Also from Banff/Breaking: “the poem is meant to stay / in time, / the monument built low / with ears / is momentous.” A good poem is always in time, like music. But this stanza seems to speak against anthologies.

Noble has a poet's playfulness with words and (I suspect) mistrust of meanings. His collection ranges wildly, which makes for a lively read. Fluid prose paragraphs from Wormwood Vermouth, Warphistory (1995) are followed by single-word stanzas from Death Drive through Gaia Paris (2007), in which Noble takes the haiku in new directions.

The heaviest lifting in the collection is Noble's afterword, appendices and “Open Letter to Alberta Views” Here Noble goes after the big fish, the philosopher-kings that inform his poetics — Freud, Lacan, Hegel. Written in the footnote-studded style made popular by David Foster Wallace, these endnotes are full of verdant digressions.
Reading Noble's Sally O I was pleasantly reminded that the poets are still among us. In our province, poetry is like the family farm, all around, continuing to disappear.