Edited by Evan Jones and Todd Swift
Reviewed by Ingrid Ruthig
An anthology is all about parameters. What goals and limitations? What context or timeframe? Who’s in, who’s out? Is it an introduction, declaration, backlash, an attempt to set or derail a trend? Is it about the poets more than the poems? While these very boundaries shape it, the motivations and politics behind them will also be scrutinized, because anthologists are akin to historians shaping and setting down their vision / version of a story that is still unfolding. As a result, this form of compiling continues to stir up contention.
Modern Canadian Poets, edited by expat Canadian poets Evan Jones and Todd Swift and published by the UK’s Carcanet Press, has predictably sparked debate over its own choice of parameters, the inclusions and exclusions, and what it all means to the CanLit canon. However, since this is a bone already well chewed, not only with respect to MCP but also its precursors, a better question to ask might be: “What does this anthology mean to the reader?”
Poet, critic and editor Carmine Starnino suggests that the anthology form “is about making a statement through selection”. MCP editors Jones and Swift define it as “the space in which the various poetic and national trends of thought are revealed.” To their credit, they have made their intent clear from the outset: “This anthology introduces readers to thirty-five poets they may never have read before […] Our aim here is to break away from the garrison mentality and to begin establishing the beachhead of a poetry that we feel a British audience can understand and relate to.” So, the reader is important, and targeted as British, with a good deal presumed about his or her abilities and inclinations.
All right, then. For just a moment let’s imagine we are British readers wishing to broaden our horizons, to peer beyond the few stately maples we may know, to discover more about “modern Canadian poets”. Let’s also pretend that, while we don’t believe Canadians write in a foreign language, we do prefer poetry we can “understand and relate to.” For starters, what MCP reveals to us, especially if we have an eye for congruence, is that more than half of the included poets are Governor General’s Award nominees or winners. We might take that as a sign of quality and achievement, albeit a Canadian one. As well, we might notice that more than a third were born in England, resided there at one time, or still do. It could be coincidence. Or manoeuvring for a point of connection. It could be that the range of poets’ birthplaces and residential / educational comings and goings is an indication of lingering ancestral bonds and colonial ties. Or they’re simply an indication of the easy mobility of our times. Regardless, we still might question the criteria by which countries claim writers. In this case, it tends to highlight a blurriness of definition that, in itself, is a hallmark of trying to set the all-important national identity. Canada the disadvantaged “in-between geopolitical space” could just as accurately be labeled a crucible of possibility. But more to the point, if we find ourselves, as British readers, engaged by the poems, the details should be neither here nor there.
The editors also zero in on a “long-standing Canadian cultural myth that to be a Canadian poet is to be part of the country’s geography, whereas elsewhere to be a poet is to be part of poetry’s history.” The book aims “to offer poets with an interest in the wider cosmopolitan tradition and history of poetry: poets of sophistication, style and eloquence; poets who are informed by the great poetry that came before them.” It’s surprising then how many of MCP’s poems are anchored to the very landscape / experience the editors apparently wish to reach beyond. The CanCon of rivers, rocks, birches, canoes, snow, winter, et al appear in Alfred Bailey’s “Miramichi Lightning,” John Glassco’s “Quebec Farmhouse,” Anne Wilkinson’s “TV Hockey,” and Douglas LePan’s “Coureurs de Bois,” among others. Some would argue that, regardless of location inherited or chosen, no poet can write well or truthfully outside his own physical, political, and emotional landscape, or without knowledge of poetry’s history — whatever their choice of subject, a skilled poet will have served his apprenticeship. Only in arriving at the work of poets who grew up post-WWII, within the twentieth century’s expanding global sensibility, do we see some of the old skin being shed. Yet, even amidst more broadly ranging and allusive poems, such as those of Robert Bringhurst, Eric Ormsby, A.F. Moritz, and Steven Heighton, many poems do retain a sense of landscape, as apparent in Daniel David Moses’ “Grandmother of the Glacier”, Elise Partridge’s “Rural Route”, and George Elliott Clarke’s Africadian-based Whylah Falls poems. If one of the anthology’s appointed tasks was to step beyond the Canadian “garrison mentality”, then its mix keeps one foot firmly planted on the shore.
The editors “sought poets within the Canadian tradition who […are] individuals as opposed to schools, leaders as opposed to adherents.” They have largely achieved that, even if a subjective point of view happened to slip into the process, as it’s bound to. Canon-minders may well find this aggregation of poets unexpected, if not startling. The reader, meanwhile, will experience sweet discoveries ranging from the territory of early twentieth century poets W.W.E. Ross and Alfred Bailey to later poets John Thompson and David Wevill, from French-Canadian Anne Hébert to the likes of Robyn Sarah, Don Coles, and Mary Dalton. Only time will tell, however, if any of MCP will sway the perception of Canadian poetry abroad or reconfigure the existing canon or taste. Its intent was simply to introduce readers to thirty-five poets, which it does.
Now, what about those poems, the true collection without which the book is merely a shell of names? Alfred Bailey’s “The Unreturning”, among the first few pages of the collection, provides unexpected delight. It begins:
“Blue is my sky peter
and white my frayed gull.
We had begun to sail
into the milky magma,
the gull’s cry
and the moon’s tail
beyond the glassy ports and the squeaking cordage
where the long waves leap
and the crests of wind reform their ragged continents…”
From there, Irving Layton’s “Keine Lazarovitch 1870 – 1959” is a captivating portrait of his mother, and Richard Outram’s poem “Barbed Wire”, metaphorically entwining marriage and war, represents a tantalizing fraction of his much-overlooked oeuvre. Other highlights are John Thompson’s ghazals from Stilt Jack:
“Now you have burned your books, you’ll go with nothing.
The world is full of grandeur,
and it is.
Perfection of tables: crooked grains;
and all this talk: this folly of tongues.
Too many stories: yes, and
high talk: the exact curve of the thing.
Sweetness and lies: the hook, grey deadly bait,
a wind and water to kill cedar, idle men, the innocent
not love, and hard eyes
over the cold,
not love (eyes, hands, hands, arm)
given, taken, to the marrow;
(the grand joke: le mot juste:
forget it; remember):
Waking is all: readiness:
you are watching;
I’ll learn by going:
Sleeve[sic]-silk flies; the kindly ones.”
as well as Robert Allen’s “Alexandria’s Waltz”
“…But greatest, bluest memory of the show –
Alexandria the elephant waltzes in the weed-grown
centre ring, as if her keeper stood
goading her still, pulling her down on gnarled
knees to whisper Sanskrit keepsakes
in the cool tent of her ear.”
and Anne Compton’s “We Go Forward”
“We go forward by grace days. A phalanx of survivors.
On either side, the Inscrutable lays a hand on some friend.
Wrestles him to the ground, stops her dead. This is not an elegy.
Though we sign the air with ceremony, hands and hearts in slow motion,
our feet don’t stop: we’re already crossing the border into tomorrow…”
If we view poets as representing a community, these do it well, and many are “cosmopolitan, hybrid and eloquent.” To the reader, British or otherwise, nationality is merely a parameter, a point from which to set out, and a boundary to move past. What matters in the end is the reading. A good poem stands on its own by seeking and engaging connection with an audience through language and thought. So, regardless of how much the reader knows about Canadian poetry, much in this collection will absorb and prove worth the time spent exploring it.
Returning to the idea of anthologies, whether or not one views the anthology exercise as misguided, well intended, patronizing, or earnestly tackled, whether or not all selected poets and poems prove equal, the results always stimulate debate. That’s not a bad thing. But it’s more enjoyable to discover our opinions for ourselves, and Modern Canadian Poets provides a good opportunity. A.M. Klein writes in “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape”:
“These are not mean ambitions. It is already something
merely to entertain them. Meanwhile, he
makes of his status as zero a rich garland,
a halo of his anonymity,
and lives alone, and in his secret shines
like phosphorus. At the bottom of the sea.”
Or beyond the stately maples. If we take the editors of this anthology at their word, now is a perfect time to investigate what thrives there.