Thursday, May 27, 2010
Todd Swift’s interest in poetry began when his mother introduced him as a child to Dickinson, Frost, Whitman, Eliot, Williams, Yeats, Kenneth Fearing and many others. She also gave him his first college anthology of modern poetry so that by the age of fourteen, says Swift, “it was my dream to become an anthologist."
Today, the British-Canadian poet is one of Canada’s leading poet-editors under the age of 45, travelling in 1987 to Belfast to research his first anthology, Map-Maker’s Colours: New Poets of Northern Ireland (1988), co-edited with Martin Mooney. Ever present in his consciousness: a list of “classic poetry anthologies” that reads like a movie credit roll: Lehman, Hoover, Donald M. Allen, Al Alvarez's The New Poetry, The Oxford Book of English Verse.
“My desert island would want Hayden Carruth's The Voice That Is Great Within Us and The Faber Book of Modern Verse by Michael Roberts. Oscar Williams did some fine anthologizing as well. And of course, Other Men's Flowers is the ultimate. AJM Smith did a good job for Canadian poetry. Geddes’ anthologies are on every shelf of people who care about Canadian poetry.”
So anthologies are everywhere to be found, catering to just about every taste and aesthetic. But why the impulse to assemble them and what are they good for? As an academic tool? To broaden the audience for poetry? Or do they merely serve to launch work that might not be published otherwise?
“Anthologies do so many different things, and are aimed at various audiences. Brian Trehearne's new scholarly Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960 is good for what it is, and adds some new obscure poets to the canon. More canonically daring are the ones by Starnino and Queyras, for instance. And sometimes, they are just for fun, or for a good cause - or allow poems to be rescued from the emphemerality of the small press and little magazine.”
Along with the anthologies come the controversies: Who’s in? Who’s out? And is this really the “best of” Canadian, American, British or Irish poetry? Swift calls complaints about the decisions anthology editors make de rigueur, like complaining about the weather, a “national habit”’ in Britain where he now resides.
“However, anthologies are not "poetry" or "literature" - they aren't the tradition or the canon, just a means of allowing readers to glimpse what those might be. It is therefore simplistic to complain that anthologies often shape or represent or mediate poetry in ways that vary from the reader’s own needs or beliefs.”
“It is always possible to edit your own anthology if one feels strongly enough. Few anthologies are powerful enough to influence the debate truly. But they do have weight, and it is good to keep an eye on them, of course.”
Still, one reader last week lamented that too often anthologies purport to speak for the whole and end up "a tag-team of lyric, narrative and formal poets offering up a very narrow serving" of poetry that ignores the long poem, ignores the avant garde, while simultaneously posturing as a “national” poetry. Swift doesn’t buy this complaint either:
“Your reader who bemoans "lyric, narrative and formal" work is one of the reasons that Canadian poetry is so indifferently received around the world - the Geddes generation over-stresses a tendency for Canadian poetry to valorize the long poem, the avant-garde, and free verse.”
The result, says Swift, is that an important link is broken to the Irish-British mainstream traditions, including much of High Modernism, from Yeats to Auden.
Like Swift, rob mclennan believes anthologies can serve many functions, often at the same time. At bottom, his instinct as an anthology editor has been to “enrich the conversation of literature as opposed to replace anything.”
“I adhere to Kroetsch's idea that literature is a conversation. But if the same voices are constantly talking, how far can the conversation go?”
mclennan says his Side/lines: A New Canadian Poetics (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2002) came about as a direct result of a new edition of Margaret Atwood's Survival published in the mid-1990s, without, he says, “even an update of `books by the same author.’" The book was considered “skewered” when it originally appeared, says mclennan, was reissued “for the sake of the foreign market” and is “still littering Canadian used bookstores across the country”. mclennan wanted “another point of view” on “what Canadian writing could be”. What might that “conversation” look like, he asked, what “other considerations”, what “other voices?”
In his subsequent essay "The Trouble with Normal", mclennan took particular issue with the two Breathing Fire anthologies by Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. His main concern: their claim that the poems they selected were "representative" of the "best Canadian poetry", poems mclennan describes as “metaphor-driven lyric narrative poems”, written by Canadian poets under the age of thirty and most of them, he hastens to add, Lane and Crozier’s former writing students.
“It wasn't (representative), and to claim such is divisive, and offensive to those who happen to have interests that don't coincide with theirs. Had they not said that, the writing within might have been read with less rancour, but again, they might not have received as much attention. When I've done the "decalogue" anthologies, I've tried to balance ten voices of writers I think are doing interesting work, not claiming "best" or anything like that. It's only the “best” based on my interest, my knowledge, etc.”
mclennan makes similar comments about A.F. Moritz’s The Best Canadian Poetry in English in 2009 (see Speaking of Poems, May 15). “Riddled with problems”, that anthology, he maintains, should have been called Best Canadian metaphor-driven lyric narrative Poetry. “To say otherwise is completely misunderstanding the art as a whole,” he adds.
By the same token, mclennan acknowledges that Lane, Crozier and other anthologists face the always difficult, inevitable task of leaving someone out. “I can't claim that my point of view is the only one there is. Here are ten writers doing work really worth reading. Readers are allowed to disagree.”
Todd Swift concurs, but with an important caveat.
“I always regret what has been excluded, but enjoy what has been included. When you invite friends to dinner, it would be perverse to dwell on the Chinese meal you have not served - better to enjoy the steak and potatoes on offer.’
Back in 1977 Marilyn Bowering hoped readers would agree with her that at least one group of poets badly needed including in our “national” literature: Canada’s Aboriginal poets. Hence her and David Day’s decision to compile Many Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Indian Poetry (J. J. Douglas, 1977). It was her belief that a rich oral tradition of Aboriginal poetry was in danger of disappearing altogether and that an anthology would fill an important gap.
“At the time there was nothing published. I mean Buffy Sainte-Marie’s songs were poems and there were one or two (Aboriginal) people who had published a few things, but there didn’t seem to be any gathering place or real consciousness of it. So it was important to get those voices out, even as a first step, so that Aboriginal people who were writing would connect with each other.”
Something that irritates Bowering are Canadian schools of poetry that spring up with an orientation very much outside the country and that won’t look at their own roots and history. The US continues to be a preponderant influence in her view, much as it was upon the Tish Movement, which she acknowledges produced “some wonderful poets”, but failed to provide “a real sense of Canadian literature.”
“While working on my anthology at the time, it was my own sense that there has to be recognition of the ground that you stand on if you’re to get anywhere… For me it was very much land and place based, very much centred on the discoveries made by oral poets from the indigenous culture or later poets.”
Anthologies based upon a theme, gender, region or culture have their advocates and detractors, usually centred around the question of criteria and the quality of poetry unearthed. rob mclennan is a fan of regional anthologies such as one produced in Chicago a few years back and one published by Hagios Press on Saskatchewan. He has more difficulty with women-centred anthologies “because the same generation's male writers don't seem to be given the same attention.”
“There was a magnificent anthology recently of women's poetry and poetics with Coach House Books that is essential reading, but part of me wondered, why can't Stan Rogal be treated this well? Or Stephen Cain?”
Swift is cautious about theme, gender or culturally based anthologies, too, a circumspection shared by Laura Riding and Robert Graves who went so far as to oppose anthologies altogether, and by Bishop who felt anathema for specific anthologies. Anthologies, Swift repeats, “have different roles to play.”
“I do feel that, if one is going to do a "national" anthology the editor needs to be alert to the complex issues surrounding identity, belonging, citizenship, and so on - poets don't always fit neatly into the boxes we might want for them.”
Marilyn Bowering’s biggest concern is a lack of community among Canadian poets overall “because we don’t have things that tell us what’s going on except in a very limited area.” One of her favourite anthologies is the Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology but even this is not the “way to find out what’s going on.” What’s needed is a “sense of continuity that you are connected to a tradition…I think that’s really really important.” Anthologies can provide that, says Bowering, but she’s unsure about how they get into people's hands now: Outside of a few university courses, schools don’t use them much, she contends, and not very many people “just pick up an anthology and leaf through it.”
Something Bowering, Swift and mclennan agree on is that editors are obliged to “know the field”, to learn as much as they can about the traditions of poetry and various aesthetics out there - and to do the legwork when their education or tastes fail them. It often takes a special person willing to do that, says Bowering, such as the late Charles Lillard.
“One of the truly lamentable things about his early death is that Lillard was one of the few people who could have kept anthologizing and incorporating the eye that he brought to the selection and a sense of the continuity and history of British Columbia. Someone who has a grasp of that is really important.”
“Knowing the field is different from liking, approving of, or wanting to represent, the field,” says Todd Swift. His own selections, for example, have been very eclectic, very open. 100 Poets Against The War was not first and foremost an aesthetic enterprise. Poetry Nation showcased what Swift called “B-poetry - trashy fun stuff, like those 50s movies, that, subversive in its way, is often marginalized by the mainstream but has its charms.”
“However, when one is doing a canonical anthology, like the Carcanet one, the editors should know their history, and their tradition, before making too many moves. Anthologies are a genre, and, while secondary to the most creative act, are, like curating an exhibition or editing a film, also aesthetic; skill too is required.”
Nor can editors get out of their obligations by citing overwork. Yes, there are an enormous number of poems and poets out there. And at the end of the day anthologies such as the Best American and Best Canadian and Best Irish may only partially capture all that’s extant. But even these, Swift contends, “keep an eye on the annual yield.”
Still, the task, even for one with as voracious an appetite for editing as Swift, is sometimes overwhelming:
“My most daunting (anthology) has been the most recent, the forthcoming Modern Canadian Poets from Carcanet, edited with Evan Jones. It required us to reconsider the entirety of 20th century Canadian poetry, with new eyes and ears.”
Another common complaint about anthologies: overreaching, underachieving claims about the scope of the poetry selected. Like most hubris it’s an in-built folly easily exposed not by those who’ve been excluded, but by anyone with a rudimentary eye for detail. A.F. Moritz, for example, cited as guiding principles for The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2009 his placing of Canadian poetry “within the context of contemporary world poetry and within the English tradition”. However, the context he provides is neither very surprising (What are we if not influenced by English tradition?) nor very contemporary, relying upon world poets who are dead or nearly so, including Octavio Paz, Jorge Guillen, 87-year old French poet Yves Bonnerfoy, Czeslaw Milosz, Emerson and long ago Chinese poets.
But why include a statement of poetics at all? Bowering went so far as to exclude one at the front end of her anthology she says “to get out of the way” of the poems. Many individual collections don’t see the need. The answer, Gary Geddes told us at the beginning of this series, is that it helps teachers and students understand more of the poetic process and the kind of aesthetic issues that poets find important.
But mclennan and Swift demure slightly on the necessity and impact of poetic or aesthetic statements.
“Well, Geddes has been decades deliberately building mass market poetry anthologies for university courses, so his comments are fair, but not all books are made for those purposes,” says mclennan. “Does the reader or writer inside the industry, inside books, for decades, really go through those `teaching aides’ with the same fine-tooth? Perhaps not.”
“I believe it is important,” says Swift, “for the editors to discuss, or at least imply, their poetic or critical bias. This need not include an ars poetica or poetics, though. The difference between North American and British poetry now is that the one cannot move without a poetics, the other barely admits poetics exists.
Anthologies are viewed by many poets as the ultimate validation of their careers, and some poets, especially well established ones, agonize when they’re ignored. How seriously should they take this? Do poets ever solicit editors to be included in an upcoming anthology? And should they?
“Sometimes poets do approach an editor of an anthology," says Swift. “It likely doesn't make much of an impact. Anthologists usually already know the field they are surveying, as it were, by the time they begin to compile the contributors list.”
rob mclennan knows the feeling of being left out, including from the two Breathing Fires to the myriad of follow-ups. But writing, he reminds us, is a lonely business, with few acknowledgements. Writers need to “find their own footings, their own confidence, and not rely on outside forces to arbitrarily give purpose to what it is that they do”. Otherwise, you drive yourself mad waiting. Or if you need to complain, he says, reserve it “to a small parcel of friends”.
“Books are books. Some very important writers have never set foot in an anthology, and some forever-minor poets can run off lists of books they’ve been in until the cows come home. Poets agonize, writers agonize.”
So what drives the inveterate anthologist? Many things: Omnivorous taste. A sense of outrage for the misplaced or the ignored. Sheer love of the genre.
“I loved my first, co-edited with Martin Mooney, Map-Maker's Colours: New Poets of Northern Ireland,” says Swift. “It was launched before my 21st birthday. It allowed me to meet Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, and it was a thrill to hand a review copy over to Terry Eagleton in person, at the launch.”
Sometimes an anthology is driven by curiosity or even by the market place, as when Sina Queyras compiled her anthology of Canadian poetry for a New York publisher. mclennan calls it a “sampler” of Canadian poetry for an American audience, after years of Queyras being asked “What's worth reading in Canadian poetry?”
“Hers had no agenda apart from simply different writers, different voices, she thought worth reading; and hopefully, the book was a starting point for many readers to further explore.”
Will the anthology survive? Gary Geddess seems to think so, though not in the same numbers. Costs are high. Teachers make course-packs of their dozen favourite poets, saving students money, but also the trouble of seeking out other poets. “And the –isms make their own demand on classroom time”. For his part, Swift acknowledges costs for rights for the best (or best-known) poems are high, even prohibitive. But at the same time “many publishers and poets are understanding and cooperative. I suspect more and more such works will be digitally available, and less in print form.”
In the end, all three poet editors agree it’s the “conversation” that counts and if anthologies help to broaden that conversation, well, so much the better. The stakes might be even higher, though. Swift believes Canadian poetry requires a reintroduction to readers in the UK, where it is almost entirely ignored, a point underscored by the omission of PK Page’s death from the UK’s national newspapers.
“Some Canadian poets blithely imply it no longer matters what the Irish and British think of them. Well, if Heaney and Motion don't read or know your work, it is indicative that one is not part of the world conversation in poetry, it seems to me. How else to explain a situation where we know them, but they don't know us? That's not an equal relationship.
Another, broader role for a great Canadian anthology? Perhaps.
Todd Swift’s poetry has been collected in six collections, Budavox (1999), Café Alibi (2002), Rue du Regard (2004), Winter Tennis (2007), Seaway: New and Selected Poems (2008) and Mainstream Love Hotel (2009). In addition to numerous journals and magazines, Swift’s poetry has appeared in many anthologies, including Radio Waves (Enitharmon, UK, 2004), Open Field: 30 Contemporary Canadian Poets (Persea Books, New York, 2005) and The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry (Véhicule, Montreal, 2005), as well as The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope, Toronto, 2008).
Swift is currently completing his phD and preparing to have a few poetry books out in a few years. He also hopes to write a novel before he turns 50. He’d also like to do an anthology of British Poets some day and write a study of contemporary and Forties poets. “I'll settle for what I can cram in with the time left me.”
rob mclennan is currently preparing a number of projects for Chaudiere Books, including a selected poems by prairie poet Andrew Suknaski, a first trade collection by Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie, and an anthology of non-fiction pieces by writers on Glengarry County. He is now polishing up a poetry collection or two, and trying to finish two major writing projects by the end of this year--a third novel, and his creative non-fiction work, Sleeping in Toronto.
In addition to editing Many Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Indian Poetry (J. J. Douglas, 1977), Marilyn Bowering is one of Canada’s most cherished poets. She is also an accomplished novelist and is currently working as librettist on an opera with Gavin Bryars and is about to leave for an opera residency in Banff in June. For more background visit www.marilynbowering.com.
Friday, May 21, 2010
DK: What are anthologies good for anyway? as an academic tool? a tool for broadening poetry's audience?
GG: It’s always worth asking why an anthology has been produced. The reasons can be many: celebration, education, vanity, reminding the public at large that poetry is still our first language, self-promotion, cultural programming, money, smashing the canon, bringing in new voices, or all of the above.
DK: Is it quality alone that determines your selection? What are some of the challenges?
GG: I have produced a couple of international anthologies, a Canadian anthology (e.g. Fifteen Canadian Poets), a BC anthology (Skookum Wawa), a Vancouver anthology (Vancouver: Soul of A City), an anthology of writings about Latin-America (Compañeros), an anthology of new young writers (The Inner Ear), and a collection of travel writings (Chinada; Memoirs of the Gang of Seven). In some of these region, place, theme and other considerations, rather than just quality, were involved in the choice of materials.
The thematic or regional anthologies posed many challenges: in Skookum Wawa, for example, I had to consider the situation of BC writers who write about anything but British Columbia and to ask myself: am I celebrating the region here or, simply, its writers?? If the former, there’s a strong case for including non-Canadians who write tellingly about the province or region.
DK: Do American and British anthologies differ markedly from Canadian anthologies?
GG: I have not made a study of recent US and UK anthologies, so I can’t really answer this question. In the US, the big blockbusters like the Norton anthology still dominate the teaching of poetry. To tap into the Canadian market, which was fairly committed to my anthology, Norton included a few token Canadians with very modest representation. In the UK, Bloodaxe and Carcanet have used anthologies to advance the careers of their own stable of writers by including most of them in collections with a dozen or more famous names, which I think makes good sense given greater possibility of media attention for anthologies and the unlikelihood that the individual volumes are going to be found in most bookstores.
DK: Are we doing our best to capture the really good poets and good poetry in this country?
GG: Books, magazines, blogs, performances are certainly helping to give exposure to poetry, though the paucity of reviews and the dumbing down of the CBC in terms of the literary arts are not helpful. I think poetry should be at the centre of all literary studies, but that is definitely not the case at universities or in schools.
As for locating and promoting the best poets, that will always be a problem, given the size of the pack and the solitary nature of the activity. As the editor of a magazine, blog and non-commercial anthology, it’s often possible to include a few great poets, but not always possible to get their best poems, especially if you're not able to pay when asking for new or previously unpublished work. Most poets, even the best, do not hit a home-run every time at bat.
DK: A related question readers had last week was how much we can or should expect of anthology editors in terms of "knowing the field." Based upon your experience editing 20th-Century Poetry & Poetics how far should an editor go in trying to represent the array of tastes that are out there?
GG: When I proposed and was given the opportunity to edit 20th-Century Poetry and Poetics, it was in response to my awareness that there were no serious modern anthologies in print that represented (in good measure) the poetries (in English) of Canada, the UK and the US. We were still in colonial mode, reading British and American writers, but not our own. So, my aim was to produce a teaching anthology that would cover the major figures and movements, as I saw them, placing Canadian poets alongside their contemporaries.
The two other aims were to make the selections for each poet substantial enough to give a clear sense of the poet’s development; and to provide statements on poetics that would help teachers and students understand more of the poetic process and the kind of aesthetic issues that poets find important.
It must have seemed to friends that I was hoping for a miracle to be born from the marriage of my ignorance and arrogance. However, I made it my task to study the field, consider a wide range of critical opinions, and play those opinions off against my own subjective responses as a reader. It was a big gamble for Oxford University Press to take me on; and it was a leap of faith for me to think (and assure Oxford) that I could handle such a project.
The book was time-sensitive, of course, as are all anthologies, products of their moment and geo-historical situation. This means that as the various revised editions were pondered, debated, then produced, the scene had changed radically and often; and so had I, along with my taste. Because the anthology had become successful both pedagogically and commercially, what started as a pioneering venture inspired by passion and hope was now being transformed into a re-tooling compromised by market considerations.
In the case of each new edition, various users of the anthology were consulted, asked what had been left out, what should be added, and what might be removed. The responses to these questions, some of them very helpful, were given serious consideration, but in the end all were filtered through my own impressions of the developing poetry scene and my own slowly emerging personal aesthetic, which involved a gradual shift of emphasis from the lyric to the longer forms and to more engaged writing.
The problem here—one among many—was that every decade brought so many new poets into print, in Canada and abroad, that it was impossible for me to have read and considered them all. And this problem has increased exponentially in the intervening years. As Yeats said in his address to the Scriblerus Club (in the chauvinism of the time): “Gentlemen, there are too many of us.” What once seemed, in my ignorance and naivety, a wonderful gesture of inclusion and celebration has come to feel like an unfortunate and inescapable act of exclusion.
In short, I’ve come to believe that anthologies are probably still a necessary evil, but most definitely only a temporary good.
DK: Will we see as many anthologies as are published today?
GG: Given the conflicting and, at times, contradictory impulses governing the production of anthologies, not to mention the cost of permissions, I am amazed that anthologies still continue to be produced at all. So I suspect in the next decade or two there will be fewer and fewer major teaching anthologies produced in Canada. And those that are produced will include only new or unpublished poems. Costs are too high; broad course adoptions are no longer possible. Individual teachers are making course-packs of their dozen or more favourite poets or poems, saving students a few dollars but depriving them of exposure to a much wider selection of work than can usually be covered in the course. All the various –isms, too, are making their demands on classroom time.
DK: What are you working on now?
GG: I am working on a non-fiction book about justice and healing in sub-Saharan Africa that took me to Rwanda, Uganda, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Somaliland twice last year. I am about to do the proofing of a new book of poems called Swimming Ginger and a reprint of The Terracotta Army and, as always, tinkering with new poems. No more anthologies, though I am putting some thoughts together on the subject in an essay called "Confessions of An Unrepentant Anthologist."
DK: Why “unrepentant”? And do you have any suggestions for someone planning their first anthology?
GG: I think you can see from what I've written above that there is always struggle and guilt involved in selecting; thus the word 'confession.' If you're planning an anthology, make sure you have deep pockets and wear a bullet-proof vest; or, to change the metaphor, have very good line-backers.
Gary Geddes recently published a small book of essays entitled Out of the Ordinary: Politics, Poetry & Narrative (Kalamalka Press, Okanagan College, Vernon, 2009). The Terracotta Army is a reprint of a book that won the Americas Region award for the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and was dramatized and broadcast by both CBC and BBC radio. The publications coincide with the arrival in Canada of the terracotta warriors exhibit, which will go to the ROM in Toronto, Glenbow in Calgary, Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal, and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.
Next week: Part Three of Scriblerus Club 2010 featuring, among others, British-Canadian poet and anthologist Todd Swift.
The response to my request for a poem to be read aloud at the beginning of Victoria’s city hall council meeting May 13 was tremendous. Ultimately, I selected a poem by Victorian Dave Cavanaugh. Here it is. Enjoy:
In Victoria, city of lights and ancient flora,
huge buses with the broad faces of totems
crawl by flashing digitized confession:
“SORRY I AM”
Giant Yodas of urban transit they are,
lost apologetic mammoths. Queenly
city, hungry we are for your destinations,
and sorry for your buses’ sorrow.
Our own it is.
The next flash: “NOT IN SERVICE.” Sad
but fair enough. We understand your woe. So
much history to traverse, so much paved over
that may not be unearthed, time there is
Saturday, May 15, 2010
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
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.
Friday, May 7, 2010
If toppling oil rigs and failed terrorist explosions tell us anything it's that our world is still largely mechanical, buffeted by gods both daemonic and heavenly. W.H. Auden, son of an engineer, understood this perfectly, though he deplored the effects. This week: seven poems that explore the phenomena of machines, three of my own selection and two each from John Pass and Zachariah Wells.
First, George Oppen, self described “passionate mechanic” and one of the leading Objectivist poets in the 1930s, spoke about his poem “Image of the Engine” as “the image of man as a machine, with a ghost.” For him, the poem explores how we see objects differently depending upon their changing states, in this instance an ordinary “lump of steel” that comes to life as a motor. This, in turn, calls into question our need for belief - driven by our capacity for belief, and our need to know and imagine the world.
Image of the Machine
Likely as not a ruined head gasket
Spitting at every power stroke, if not a crank shaft
Bearing knocking at the roots of the thing like a pile-driver:
A machine involved with itself, a concentrated
Hot lump of a machine
Geared in the loose mechanics of the world with the valves jumping
And the heavy frenzy of the pistons. When the thing stops,
Is stopped, with the last slow cough
In the manifold, the flywheel blundering
Against compression, stopping, finally
Stopped, compression leaking
From the idle cylinders will one imagine
Then because he can imagine
That squeezed from the cooling steel
There hovers in that moment, wraith-like and like a plume of steam, an aftermath,
A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension.
From The Materials (New Directions, 1962)
Completely at ease in the world of machines, Karen Solie recalls how her parents bought a giant tractor, the Buhler Versatile 2360. It was so big they had to construct another building in which to house it. For this year’s Canadian Griffin prize nominee, though, seeing ordinary objects through a different lens seems to be the main point of her poem “Tractor.” The “weirdness of the normal, “she says, “is constantly fascinating to me.”
More than a storey high and twice that long,
it looks igneous, the Buhler Versatile 2360,
possessed of the ecology of some hellacious
minor island on which options
are now standard. Cresting the sections
in a corona part dirt, part heat, it appears
risen full blown from our deeper needs,
aspirating its turbo-cooled air, articulated
and fully compatible. What used to take a week
it does in a day on approximately
a half mile to the gallon. It cost one hundred
fifty grand. We hope to own it outright by 2017.
Few things wrought by human hands
are more sublime than the Buhler Versatile 2360.
Across the road, a crew erects the floodlit
derricks of a Texan outfit whose presumptions
are consistently vindicated.
The ancient seabed will be fractured to 1,000 feet
by pressuring through a pipe literal tons
of a fluid — the constituents of which
are best left out of this —
to tap the sweet gas where it lies like the side
our bread is buttered on. The earth shakes
terribly then, dear Houston, dear parent
corporation, with its rebroken dead and freshly
killed, the air concussive, cardiac, irregular.
It silences the arguments of every living thing
and our minds in that time are not entirely elsewhere.
But I was speaking of the Buhler Versatile 2360,
Phase D! And how well recognized it is
among the classics: Wagner,
Steiger, International Harvester, John Deere, Case,
Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver, White, Allis-Chalmers,
Massey Ferguson, Ford, Rite, Rome.
One could say it manifests fate, cast
like a pearl around the grit of centuries. That,
in a sense, it’s always been with us,
the diesel smell of a foregone conclusion.
In times of doubt, we cast our eyes
upon the Buhler Versatile 2360
and are comforted. And when it breaks down, or thinks
itself in gear and won’t, for our own good, start,
it takes a guy out from the city at 60 bucks an hour,
plus travel and parts, to fix it.
From Pigeon (House of Anansi Press, 2010)
"The Way Things Work" is the first poem in Jorie Graham’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Dream of the Unified Field. Like Oppen, Graham’s preoccupation here is with our capacity for belief. What makes her poem even more interesting, though, is its resistance to the phenomenological perspective on objects, preferring to treat them as real rather than mere appearances to the mind.
The Way Things Work
is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current: Blue
moving through blue;
blue through purple;
the objects of desire
opening upon themselves
without us; the objects of faith.
The way things work
is by solution,
resistance lessened or
increased and taken
The way things work
is that we finally believe
they are there,
common and able
to illustrate themselves.
Wheel, kinetic flow,
rising and falling water,
ingots, levers and keys,
I believe in you,
cylinder lock, pully,
lifting tackle and
crane lift your small head--
I believe in you--
your head is the horizon to
my hand. I believe
forever in the hooks.
The way things work
is that eventually
From The Dream of the Unified Field (Ecco Press, 1995)
John Pass has two lovely poems (one his own) about machines:
Great poems David. And so important, the machines in our lives and in the imaginations of our poets. Poetry’s hands-on mastery of language signals a keen affinity with tools and machinery of all sorts, too little acknowledged and honoured. A favourite of mine in the genre is Snyder’s "Axe Handles":
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in the stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—“
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
(from Axe Handles, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1983)
And I offer a poem of my own, a section of "Twinned Towers", for the grounding and lift serviceable machinery returns to us under duress:
Growl and rumble in the skyline’s hole
in flat light over the Hudson
of a world on hold, in waiting . . .
Not for survivors in their imminent tombs.
Not for the shamming Imam in his mountain.
Not for the CEO on his smug plush. (Not shovel
nor smart bomb nor markets collapsing can flush them . . .)
but for the rest of us
trapped in the dark of our devolution, in the dark
rain and stutter of the bombs on the other
side of the world, in the inarticulate
annihilation, retribution – for us
this heavy lifting, trucking, kneel and bow
of the earth-mover, shape-shifter, spirit
of the mass, and the derricks’ swinging benediction above
the work’s ascent by an anchored increment, just clear
of the girdered rubble. These durable materialists
are reaching for us in the subterrain, the unseen
where invisible trains link in their tunnels
and ground-water presses the dry-socket membranes
and millions of conversations sprint in the micro-filaments.
Where the gold is hidden, where the 18th century anchor unearthed
for the towers’ first foundation (at loose ends
in dry-dock three decades in the basement)
is newly burdened, embedded again
in more than bombast and stale air . . .
in ballast beneath our delusions
they grapple and winch and pray for us, our trusted
machines, our first-born prehensile mentalities.
Finally, here's Zachariah Wells:
Hi David. Very interesting post. In the spirit of John Pass's offering, I thought I'd send you two poems in which the poet is the "ghost in the machine." The first is Peter Trower's "Overhead Crane:
The second is one of my own, from my first book, dedicated to Trower:
FORKLIFT OPERATOR WANTED;
RECREATIONAL FACILITIES PROVIDED
for Peter Trower
At odd intervals when it’s all once
Again come to be too much—the cold
Endless dark hours, the neglect, the fuckups—
& I’m at the humming hydraulics
Of a sixteen tonne jouncing whore of a truck,
Keeping ‘er reined with steady sure-
Handed turns round untold millions of dollars
In planes—a lunatic flash on the verge
Of nervous crash, that diesel-burning urge
To plow full-tilt through the thin tin
Of a Boeing or Hawker, just to see once
How deep her steel forks would sink!
Management must have guessed this, must
Have planned it when the ’48
overshot the strip
Last December & they hauled its scrapped hull
Back to the ramp for me to punch holes in.
It’s Mother’s Day this Sunday. Share the video of Daisy Zamora reading her poem about mothers in "Great Poems" in the right hand column.
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