Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009 - a Review

We’ve all encountered them: anthologies that ascribe to their poets the broadest thematic or artistic scope possible, or assume for their selection a cultural importance wildly out of proportion to the merits. At most, I can think of two or three anthologies that can make plausible claims to aesthetic omniscience, notably The New American Poetry 1945-60. Edited by Donald Allen, that tome did American poetry the inestimable favour of pulling together largely unknown and disparate materials from across the country by poets such as Ginsberg, Levertov, and Ashberry whose reputations had languished unfairly beneath the shadow of Bishop and Lowell. The same importance has been attached to Gary Geddes’ and Phyllis Bruce’s Fifteen Canadian Poets which in 1970 established three generations of poets as the extant canon of Canadian poetry for the next quarter century. But for the fact that few took notice, The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse also did a good job at representing poets from the previous era and for accelerating Canada’s claim to “a national literature.”

The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009 is no less ambitious, managing to dust off a few shibboleths about Canadian poetry that have the unfortunate effect of distracting us from the essential qualities of the poems themselves. Among the bromides: the inevitable “heart-wrenching” decision about whom to exclude, the desire that Canadian poetry take its rightful place among world literature, and the usual injunction that readers take note of the striking “unity” of the book they’re about to enter. Editors of anthologies routinely outdo each other trying to identify a “grand unified theory” into which twenty-five poets or more conveniently fit and Molly Peacock and A.F. Moritz are no exceptions. “Each one of the poems” in this volume, Moritz asserts, “gives a descent into reality and then a lift…a release from the customary. Every one of them (my italics) remembers at all times that the motive of the journey is to enlighten and to deepen our lives,” the latter sentiment being what you’d expect, I suppose, given this is art we’re talking about. Still, how committed these poets are to “enlightening” us I suspect is a matter of degree rather than of kind.

But Moritz continues: Each poet in this anthology is a “nature poet” understood in the way Jan Zwicky understands a nature poet, as “someone who would resist the suggestion that the world is a human construct, a thing that depends upon a human speaking or knowing to exist.” Yet humans constructing the world in their own image seems to be at least part of the point of several poems here, including the first poem by Atwood “Ice Palace”. Far from insisting upon the universe as a wholly objective entity outside the realm of the subjective, Atwood suggests the world is largely dependent, rightly or wrongly, upon the shaping power of human language:

Another ice palace. Another demiparadise
where all desires
are named and thus created,
and then almost satisfied. Hotel
might be an accurate label.

A preferred strategy might have been to talk about the virtuosity and intelligence of the poems themselves rather than tie them together thematically or aesthetically. Because whatever hyperbolic statements Moritz is pleased to make about Canadian poetry his principal strength is a good eye for very good poetry, assembling a collection of poems that depart significantly in quality from the previous year’s batch. Where the inaugural 2008 edition of The Best Canadian Poetry contained poems that were, with few exceptions, unrelievedly dull and unrepresentative of the very best those poets could do, the poems in this anthology are consistently interesting, most of them thoughtful and lively and some, like the poems I discuss below, edging close to the extraordinary.

Ken Babstock continues to set the pace in Canada for writing striking individual poems. A case in point is “Autumn News from the Donkey Sanctuary”, a serious poem that’s also a lot of fun as Babstock projects his thoughts onto the activities of donkeys and mules ensconced behind a UNCHR animal enclosure, e.g. “Cargo”, a donkey who has “let down/her hair a little and stopped pushing/Pliny the Elder on//the volunteer labour” and Odin who “has made friends with a crow//who perches between/his trumpet-lily ears like bad language he’s not/meant to hear”. The first clue to where Babstock is taking us can be felt in the poem’s structure: Unrhymed, periodically enjambed tercets that provide a measured cadence to lightly sardonic observations about animals and humans. For Babstock, it’s the contrasts between humans and donkeys that count:

…These things done

for stateless donkeys,
mules, and hinnies – done in love, in lieu of claims
to purpose or rights –

are done with your
generous help. In your names. Enjoy the photo.
Have a safe winter

outside the enclosure.

The poem is not, as Moritz puts it, about the “horrors of routine”, but about the extraordinary need we humans have for personal safety and even safer abstractions, contrasted with the simpler needs of animals: love, birth, the warmth of proximity, a good feed on “scotch thistle” and “stale Cheerios.” It’s a paean to love and freedom, remarkable both for its tenderness and insight.

For Lorna Crozier, animals – or for that matter nature in its entirety – have always been the joyful, troubling Other against which human beings endeavour to locate themselves. In “Mercy”, Crozier again demonstrates her enviable capacity for capturing immediate, palpable experience, in this instance the force of a hurricane wind descending upon her town: “It batters the town/slams a sheet of plywood against the curling rink/shoves me down the alley in my slippery shoes.” Not content with mirroring nature’s ferocity in horrific images of coyotes hanging from clothesline poles, Crozier transforms these images into a compelling question about the ambiguity of our relationship with nature:

Beauty graces them, even now, death graces them.
Is it a curse to love the world too much,
to praise its paws and hooves,
its thick-furred creatures, each life a fear in me?
The wind saves nothing on this earth.
The coyotes hang like coyotes from an ugly tree.
Their throats don’t make a sound.

Carmine Starnino is easily one of the best poets in the country, with enormous formal skills, though often a little impersonal, sometimes cold. Great technical choices are made, but too often they’re only choices, not impulses flowing upward from the poem’s centre or out of any internal pressure from within the poet himself. “Pugnax Gives Notice” is different, as organically perfect a poem as I’ve read in some time.

He’s done with it, the tridents and tigers,
the manager’s greed, the sumptuous beds
of noble women who please their own moods.
He’s done with dogging it for the crowds,
the stabbing, the slashing, the strangling,
the poor pay, the chintzy palm branch prizes.
Make no mistake. Pugnax is a real fierceosaurus.
Winner of 26 matches, a forum favourite.
Yet his yob genes have, it seems, gone quiet.
Fatigue has called his soul back to his body.
Circles under his eyes; he sleeps badly.
Late night cigs lit from the dog-end of the last,
cutwork of the clock nibbling him small.
In the barracks around him his friends snore,
lucky returnees of the last hard hacking,
dead to the world, free of a weapon in the fist.
Priscus face-down in the crook of his arm.
Triumphus flung open, caught on a bad turn.
Verus collapsed, whacked, against the cot.
Flamma, doomed by down-thumbing shadows,
lies in a stain of his final shape and size.
Pugnax loves them all, chasers and net-fighters,
fish-men and javelin-throwers, carefree
despite punishing practices, screaming orders,
despite limbs trained to turn lethal for mobs
unable to bear the thought of two men
clinging to life, but here it’s only the thock
of wooden sword against wooden sword,
the racket as they fall on each other’s shields
in joy. Pugnax’s heart breaks for them.
Understand, he has inflicted pain and felt pain,
but now wants to go native, move into a flat,
experiment with fashionable clothes,
dawdle at the baths, tame his nights with tea,
be spellbound by the smell of soap, find a wife.
Our boy dreams of joining the crowd,
shouting himself hoarse as some bonehead
gets knocked down and the blade pushed
though his chest, stapling him to the ground.
At intermission, he’ll watch as the blood
is raked over with sand, thinking chore thoughts:
yard work, paint jobs, weekend projects.

Like most of the poems in this anthology Starnino’s poem is restrained typographically, preferring formal stanzas of varying lengths over heavily indented lines or fragments. He also shares with the other poets in this book a desire that the reader walk away with something by poem’s end, a thought bathed in irony, a tragic image or a resonating feeling, something to spark the intellect or roil the gut. Most believe these to be the sine qua non of good poetry and they’re right, but not, as I suggested above, easily apparent in the 2008 anthology or of a great many other books of poetry.

Something else lacking in most poetry today are poems that are mindful of their traditions. Robyn Sarah’s “Echoes in November” breaks a virtual taboo by post-shadowing the “corresponding breeze” that flows through Wordsworth’s The Prelude and echoing the implicit question about “essences” that permeate and arise out of Pound and Williams:

Correspondences are everywhere,
things that shadow things,
that breathe or borrow
essence not their own;
and so the yellow leaves
that, singly, streak
in silence past a black
uncurtained pane…
have the elusiveness
of shooting stars…

The images are well drawn and the pauses at the turns arrest our attention lending weight to each successive line. But more interesting is what Sarah does with metaphor, not just positing the similarity between “streaking leaves” and “shooting stars”, but transforming our act of reading, in particular our overdependence upon visual similes, to produce an extraordinarily haunting effect:

and so it sometimes happens
that you pause
in kitchen ministrations,
knife in hand
above the chopping board,
savouring, raw, a stub
of vegetable not destined
for the pot,
and faintly tasting
at the back of the palate
the ghost of a rose
in the core of the carrot.

These poets are well known to us. Others are less familiar (to me at least), but judging by their contributions here are equally compelling. A poem noteworthy for its compression and precision is Michael Johnson’s ode to metalworking “The Church of Steel”: “Shavings have scissored/my palms, worked straight through/my hands, made my skin a bloody bloom.” Prose poems are not easily done and tend to leave me cold, but Eric Miller’s “Portrait of Hans Jaegger ll (1943)” is different, delivering a personally felt portrayal of the late 19th century bohemian and anarchist Hans Jaeger as seen through the eyes of an ambivalent Edvard Munch: “But Jaeger conceived in the artist what was most central to him, what belonged at last to him. And we see our helpers in just this light, as when sun mollifies fallen pine needles and illuminates, as with final looks of mercy, the flanks of birches.” Readers will really love Cora Siré’s “Before Leaving Hué” a narrative about people in this Vietnamese city who repeatedly enjoin the poet to “visit Thúy’ before you leave Hue’”. Siré is currently working on a novel, which is not wholly surprising: she has a novelist’s genius for detail and strong predicates:

Under the hammer of Hué’s morning sun
my xich lo driver pedals the labyrinth
of streets and alleys, past shadowy shops
where raw silks hang inert, dazed by the heat.
We skid on the puddles and pebbled ruts
and I gesture, “Let me walk the rest” but
he cycles on, eyes glazed, body bent by
psychic will that I visit Thúy today.

I could have easily selected any one of a half dozen more poets to talk about. Karen Solie’s “Tractor” I mentioned in last week’s post. She’s joined here by other exceptional poets: Sharon Thesen, Jan Zwicky, Peter Norman, Dave Margoshes and Steven Heighton. Tim Bowling, one of the few poets in last year’s edition whose poem I really liked, I liked again this year. In summary, a really fine anthology, distinguished not by any over arching Canadian Zeitgeist, but by accomplished, eminently readable poetry.


Harold Rhenisch said...

Hi, David,

of course, the title is a bit misleading, as any anthology that draws from a publishing world such as ours, which eschews long poems, for instance, even though poets are writing them, or in which not all magazine contests are selecting from a neutral or blind pool, is bound to be at least a bit homogenic. The anthology consequently runs the risk of being less a survey of poetic activity in the country than of publishing activity. No doubt there are many fine poems in this anthology, but I think poetry suffers for being linked to the current publishing world. We would do well to be wary. Hopefully Moritz did what he could to alleviate the issue. Hopefully you, as an editor and publisher of your own, here, can extend such wariness as well, with a series of articles that look beyond the publishing world to the world of writing. It is important, because we are building a future, right, rather than a past, and I think the current publishing model runs the risk of becoming a brake on the activities of readers and writers, despite the most excellent intentions of the publishers of this series of anthologies, not to mention all the other fine work done by poetry publishers today. That's not the point. The point is that we might all be missing the story, while fighting with what are certainly very real publishing and distribution problems.



David Kosub said...

Yes, you make an excellent point: clearly, the poems in this anthology are only the “best” as selected from a narrow range of poems published in magazines during the year, and these tending towards the lyric rather than long poem.

As I am somewhat restricted to writing about poems that are published in magazines and books I am not sure what “a series of articles that look beyond the publishing world to the world of writing” would look like. But perhaps I am misunderstanding your suggestion.

Good comment. Thanks, Harold.

Lemon Hound said...

"As I am somewhat restricted to writing about poems that are published in magazines and books I am not sure what “a series of articles that look beyond the publishing world to the world of writing” would look like."

The "Best Of" poetry series are extremely problematic because they suggest that the editors have, as HR points out, read the field...

It's the same problem in the US. But for a handful of guest editors who actually know how to read the field and not simply within the confines of their own tastes, the anthologies are a tag-team of lyric, narrative and formal poets offering up a very narrow serving indeed. These poems in and of themselves I don't have a problem with...calling them indicative of Canadian poetry on the other hand, I do.

Canada is an even smaller pie than our US counterpart. Read this way these anthologies are necessarily even more homogeneous.

Any poems from Line? The Capilano Review? Any poems that don't hug the left margin? Any poems that don't have a speaking subject?

Likely not.

It would be fine, as I have said elsewhere, if such anthologies did not purport to be speaking for the whole...the same complaint is often made south of the border.

David Kosub said...

Thanks LH. I quite agree. Unquestionably, Moritz is constrained by his own tastes, as evident by his bias for the left hand margin and for other formal properties.

"Knowing how to read the field" plainly involves a great deal of reading well beyond the editor's own likes and dislikes, but I wonder if other strategies are necessary, too. Might make a good article.


Anonymous said...

As usual, thoughtful writing from you. But in your description of the Donald Allen anthology, I'd question the suggestion that Bishop was an "overshadowing" figure at the time Allen edited his book. In fact Ginsberg, for instance, was a better-known poet than Bishop at the time. There still hadn't been a single book published on Bishop, and while her reputation as a "poet's poet" was strong among poets, she wasn't terribly well-known to either a larger public or the academic world(s). When Allen was editing, she hadn't yet published Georgraphy III, which includes some of her most beloved poems. By now of course she's recognizad as the giant she was, but in the early '60s things were very different.

Brian Bartlett

David Kosub said...

Thanks for this, Brian. Your point is well made. In this instance I relied upon Allen’s statement about Bishop: “A wide variety of poets of the second generation who emerged in the thirties and forties (following cummings, Moore and Stevens), have achieved their maturity in this period.” Among these Allen includes Bishop, Denby, Lowell, Rexroth and Zukofsky. He continues: “And we can now see that a strong third generation, long awaited but only slowly recognized, has at last emerged.” All this said, it seems Allen’s comments may be in accord with your assessment of Bishop as a “poet’s poet”, but not necessarily a widely known one in the years since the Second World War. I likely have over interpreted Bishop’s “maturity” as meaning she had come into her own publicly, which, of course, is not necessarily the case. The fact that Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso also had achieved national prominence by 1956 serves merely to support your view. So, again, that you for the clarification.


Zachariah Wells said...

The suggestion that Moritz, one of the broadest and deepest readers of poetry in this country, is incapable of "reading the field" isn't one I can take very seriously, particularly when that suggestion is followed by rhetorical questions like "Any poems from Line?" Actual answer: 3, plus another in the longlist. So much for that. There is also one poem on the shortlist and another two poems on the longlist from The Capilano Review. It would seem Moritz is fairly familiar with the endless path of the new. In fact, prior to making his selections, he contacted me looking for leads on online magazines, which had been excluded from the first edition of the series. Seems he was interested in choosing from as wide a field as possible.

Lemon Hound said...

It would make for an interesting essay. The other question is of course what are these Best ofs good for, what use are they to the larger population.

The dream is, or would be for me I suppose, new readers. Not sure if it does that.

I don't know Moritz well enough to know if he can or would like to read outside of his own tastes. I do know that many can't or won't or don't feel they need to.

Which is fair enough.

David Kosub said...

Zach strongly suggests Moritz's tastes and his capacity to read the field are broader that he's being given credit for here and I see no reason to dispute that, as he appears to know him well. Still, part of the benefit of an anthology (in addition to its appeal to a larger audience) might be what it reveals about the editor, especially someone who, like Moritz, has cultivated a significant reputation as a poet.

In any event, the anthology, as has been pointed out, was limited at least as much by the narrow range upon which the editors drew (i.e. magazines) as it was by personal taste, and even here Zach has managed to rise to its defence, if only in a small way.

Zachariah Wells said...

How narrow is the magazine requirement, anyway? The editors have to sift through thousands of poems to make their choices; how much wider can one cast one's net before making the task practically unmanageable? What is Harold asking for here? An open call? I know that's how he and Mona Fertig did their anthology, Rocksalt. It's a method that has its uses, but also strong limitations, particularly when the call is restricted to previously _un_published poems. And it bears mentioning that in the case of Rocksalt, it was a call open only to residents of one province.

Harold Rhenisch said...

Hey, Zach,

I was not talking about the anthology, except in terms of the limitations imposed upon it by a system in which at least one major magazine has a major contest that purports to be a best-of on an open call, but which limits the participants behind the scenes, to manage the optics in the public realm. That is dishonest, in my opinion, and negatively distorts poetic space. In my opinion, any anthology that draws from such a system is not going to be a 'best of' in terms of 'best of the poems of the year', but a 'best of' in terms of the best of publishing in the year. It is, in effect, an anthology more about the publishing than the poetry. Given that the publishing is hooked up to a grant system, and a jury system, and a teaching system, I do not buy a hypothetical argument that this is the best we can do. I have nothing but respect for Al Moritz. My comments were directed at a broken system, not at individuals trying to make it work.



Zachariah Wells said...

Fair enough, Harold, but if we're to call for repairs, the question that must needs be answered is how and where to start? In what way can one compile an anthology that represents the poetry and not the publishing?

To me, what this series represents is an attempt at sober second thought, the distillation of all the thousands of poems read by few into a clear, sharp, but complex liquor. Well, so much for sober, I suppose. At any rate, how well it works in any given year depends on both the poets and the editors. But, at its root, I see it more as a corrective measure against the broken system than as a celebration of it.

Lemon Hound said...

I'm interested in hearing more about what you describe as a broken system. I'll look for something on that. Or if you do publish something let me know.

Thanks for the interaction.


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