Véhicule Press - June 22, 2006 - 26 Comments
The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry edited by Carmine Starnino
Reviewed by James Pollock
“Love poems wither,” writes George Elliott Clarke, “in our bleak, stony, / frigid, hostile, brutal Canuck anthologies” (124). The lines are from his poem “Blue Elegies: I. V.” Clarke might as well have been describing what happens to the hopes of the poor jaded readers of those anthologies, who keep going back for more punishment every time a new one appears. There are many people responsible for this: the too easy-going editors, the poets disdainful of their craft, the reviewers and blurb-writers who bury these books with praise. And yet we keep going back because we love poetry so much. We want the poems to be good so badly we are willing to have our hearts broken again, if we must; only let us read the poems and see for ourselves.
And so it is with some astonishment, and more than a little joy, that I have just finished reading The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry. It is not a perfect book, certainly. No anthology is. (And there are just too many typos, all of the spell-checked variety: “stars” becomes “starts,” for example, and “thought” becomes “though.”) And yet it is clearly the most competently-edited, memorable, and useful anthology of Canadian poetry to be published in a very long time.
Before I get to the poets, let me say a few words about the intentions of the editor, Carmine Starnino. In spite of its misleading title, The New Canon is not meant to replace the hopelessly-outdated Oxford Anthology of Canadian Verse in English as the official canon of Canadian poetry. Rather, this is a selection of just one generation of English-language Canadian poets, those born between 1955 and 1975. As Starnino explains in his forceful introduction, he means the word “canon” primarily in its aesthetic sense, as “tenet” or “rule” or “principle” (16). And the principle here is simple: Starnino was looking for “the most aurally ambitious, lexically alert, and formally intelligent poems” he could find (16). He was looking for poets with an innovative command of craft and an individual style. That such an axiom could be considered controversial, even revolutionary – and Starnino devotes much of his twenty-two-page introduction to its vigorous defense – is already an indictment of the prevailing canons of taste in Canadian poetry. Starnino explicitly positions his book in opposition both, on one flank, to “the ruling aesthetic since the 1970s – the soft-spoken, the flatly prosy, the paraphrasingly simple, the accessibly Canadian” (26) and, on the other flank, to the avant-garde “zoo of rampant esotericisms” whose “embrace of – why not say it? – nonsense” (27) leads to poetry that “always looks like a random trawl through an information-processing textbook” (35). Starnino, who invokes military metaphors more than once, might as well have called his anthology The New Cannon. And three cheers for that.
As for the poets: there are fifty-one of them here, which is ambitious. What country in the history of the world has produced fifty memorable poets in a single generation? Alas, I find just fourteen of them to be completely convincing. But fourteen is extraordinary. For readers used to finding just two or three good poets in a “Canuck anthology,” fourteen is a cause for celebration. Another half dozen or so have at least one very good poem, and of the others, some are promising, some merely interesting, some spectacularly or elaborately bad, but relatively few are dull. This is a revelation.
And so is the fairly wide variety of international poetic traditions these poets are working in. The ignorant reader will glance at a few poems and want to dismiss this as a collection of “formalist” poets, using the term as a label of abuse; I mean the sort of reader who thinks any poem that makes interesting use of the language’s prosodic and rhetorical resources must be the product of a thoroughly colonized imagination. Nothing I can say here will change such a reader’s mind. But for everyone else, let me say that these are poets who actually read poetry, including the best poetry written in other countries.
Of the fourteen, several will be familiar to many readers. George Elliott Clarke is represented by four splendid poems that, among other things, demonstrate his masterful absorption of Derek Walcott and the blues: see in particular, and respectively, “Look Homeward, Exile” and “King Bee Blues.” Stephanie Bolster is here, often giving the impression that her feelings have fought against great resistance on their way to being vividly expressed on the page, and they’re all the more powerful for having done so; see her poem “On the Steps of the Met,” if you don’t know it already. The prolific Tim Bowling makes an appearance, a craftier Al Purdy, and his “Love Poem, My Back to the Fraser” is an unwithering answer to Clarke’s criticism of Canadian love poetry, worthy to be read next to Clarke’s own delicious “Monologue for Selah Bringing Spring to Whylah Falls.” Karen Solie and Ken Babstock are represented, too, Solie with her impressive and moving control of diction and rhetoric, as in “Sick” and “Java Shop, Fort MacLeod,” and Babstock with his superb ear and prosodic sense, and his large generic range, from the movingly confessional “Palindromic” to his delightful monologue for a convenience store entitled “The 7-Eleven Formerly Known as Rx.”
But the purpose of an anthology is to lead readers to poets they have never read before, and so I want to pass quickly to the nine first-rate poets in The New Canon whom readers may be less likely to know.
Jeffrey Donaldson, who will be a familiar name to the cognoscenti, is among the most impressive of the New Canon poets, an heir to the formal grace and urbane metaphorical wit of a Daryl Hine or a James Merrill. I feel the authority of Donaldson’s voice very strongly, as in the closing lines of his poem “Bearings,” about an ancient map which, one soon gathers, is a map of Canada:
Hard to believe, as it is,
that anyone then or even later
could have used this page, water stiffened,
to get anywhere, least of all that broad
unfinished landscape we navigate towards,
being, as we are, unable to point out,
put a finger on, the small print that legend
has it marks our setting forth: you are here.
[Note: the text reads “settling forth” but it’s a typo; it appears as above in Donaldson’s book.]
When you read this passage in the context of its poem, which I urge you to do, you will find that the exquisite word-play here, the pun on “legend” as story and as directory, is in the service of a profoundly imagined trope for what journalists call our Canadian “identity crisis,” but Donaldson’s language is no cliché; it is rather a profoundly moving and intellectually complex representation of our national experience.
Elise Partridge impresses me as a true Canadian heir of Elizabeth Bishop and Amy Clampitt, as in her poems “Ruin” and “Plague,” respectively. One of the most memorable poems in The New Canon is Partridge’s “Buying the Farm,” in which she vividly resurrects a series of dead metaphors for dying: “crossing over,” “it’s the end of the line,” “buying the farm,” and, in the fourth stanza:
It’s curtains for us,
clasping hands behind the dusty, still-swaying swag—
at last these doublets can come off,
the swipes of rouge and sideburns, then we’ll stroll
to greet the flashing city with our true faces.
This is just the kind of subtle off-hand charm that, in Bishop and Partridge too, often covers for a powerfully vivid and displaced myth, in this case a kind of Gnostic marriage of “All the world’s a stage” with the Celestial City of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. The result, for this reader, is delight.
The thoroughly charming Richard Sanger is notable for his formal skill and his ability to mix the imagery of an imagined European past with that of a Canadian present, to delightfully witty effect, rhyming “Lake Huron” with “Lord Byron,” for instance. Here is a representative stanza from his poem, “Wish,” in which the poet longs to be Lord Byron:
And the hum in my ears
Grows louder and louder:
Is it rush-hour Toronto,
The Turks storming Lepanto,
Or the winged god that stung
This ruddy, swollen sky?
I slap my shoulder. Blood.
The bewitching irony here is that the more ironic the poem gets, the more like Byron the poet becomes, though not the Romantic Byron of life and legend, which is what he wants, but the witty, satirical Byron of the work. This and the other poems of Sanger’s, who is also a playwright, have the well-timed quality of marvelous performances.
The poems of Sue Sinclair recall the German modernist Rainer Maria Rilke’s New Poems, his “thing-poems” as he called them, in their meditative focus on one small thing at a time: a red pepper, a green pepper, a pitcher, collar bones, shoes in a shop window. Like Rilke’s, Sinclair’s descriptions are richly metaphorical, and her chosen objects ultimately become tropes for aspects of our humanity. Consider the last stanza of “Red Pepper,” for instance, a poem in which the poet tells us the pepper is “The size/ of your heart”:
It is almost painful
to touch, but you can’t help
yourself. It’s so familiar.
The dents. The twisted symmetry.
You can see how hard it has tried.
Sinclair’s art is an art of transformation, of taking a closely-observed object into the imagination and changing it there, and she does so very movingly.
Christopher Patton, who has yet to publish his first book, brings a Zen power of clear-seeing to his poems along with a formal style reminiscent of Marianne Moore’s syllabic verse, as in the powerful lyric “The Vine Maple.” The poem “Red Maple” contains this beautifully-controlled description of a new-born foal and the world it suddenly finds itself in:
Gets up, different. Its red-green
flower: adders’ tongues, flawed
squalls of flower-birds:
the spring wind shakes
it through ten thousand forms,
forms falling through themselves like
rain of changes.
The pleasure of reading Patton’s language is so great that it’s easy at first to miss the subtle spirituality of what he is doing; that is, until he springs it on us, often at the end of a poem, often with a phrase that recalls the Zen masters, and then the significance of what we have been reading is suddenly clear.
Adam Sol, by contrast, is a poetic descendant of John Ashbery, always seemingly coming out of left field with arresting lines, but still somehow managing to break one’s heart by the end of the poem: “Don’t kill yourself, you asshole” (262), he writes, devastatingly, near the end of “Life, McKenzie,” in a line apparently addressed to himself. In “Conciliatory Letter to Morgan,” he gives up in exasperation in the middle of the poem, and writes, startlingly, “Oh, trying to say what I feel/ is like sculpting with live spiders” (263). And in “Man Who Slept Between Blows of a Hammer,” he explains, “It was a festival of denials: there was the No,/ and the Nono, and the Please no” (264). Sol’s inventiveness might be a curse, as it is in certain poems of Ashbery’s, but he keeps it under control just enough so that his poems add up to more than merely a random series of brilliant lines.
Perhaps best known for his fiction, Michael Crummey is a moving, humane poet, among the most intimate with the human heart of all the New Canon poets, although this is a quality hard to demonstrate with selective quotation. He is also a poet of powerful similes, and sometimes of deliberately roughened formal verse à la Thomas Hardy. “The Late Macbeth” begins with this stanza:
His body divorced him slowly,
like a flock of birds leaving
a wire, one set of wings at a time –
still in sight, but past retrieving.
And this is his description of what a sealing crew did when they were caught in a storm on the sea ice, in “Newfoundland Sealing Disaster”:
Hovelled in darkness two nights then,
bent blindly to the sleet’s raw work,
bodies muffled close for shelter,
stepping in circles like blinkered mules.
The wind jerking like a halter.
Crummey is a poet working in the tradition of Hardy and Frost, keeping his diction simple and deploying his formal and rhetorical skills above all for the sake of the emotional, the ethical effect.
Anita Lahey is another New Canon poet who has yet to publish a book, and when she does it is certain the centerpiece will be her sequence “Cape Breton Relative”, which imagines its way into the world, and the language, of Cape Breton Island, by following a seemingly autobiographical protagonist referred to as “you” on her visit to her extended family there. In the final “chapter,” final at least among the sections printed here, the island itself has become a mythic giant, a bit like Sylvia Plath’s “Colossus,” except that here he seems to be a kind of lover:
With him you belong
any old place: faraway cliff-top
blue in his eyes, grassy hollows
warmed into his chest. You climb
daily into that crevice
below his jaw, survey the jagged,
I look forward to reading the entire sequence when it is published. And her other poems are just as remarkable.
Finally, there is Pino Coluccio, a formalist who masterfully deploys meter and rhyme to achieve witty and moving effects. Consider his poem “Imaginary Wife,” quoted below in its entirety:
This is my imaginary wife.
It’s lonely without someone in your life
to talk to after work about your day
and share your weekends with, or special dinners.
But real wives marry only winners
who net more than double my gross pay.
And so I made one up. I bring her flowers,
our Scrabble matches last for hours and hours—
thank God I found somebody I could marry,
gorgeous, if, it’s true, imaginary.
The highway of our love is paved in years.
And when I want her to, she disappears.
Readers will sense the influence of Philip Larkin on this poem: Larkin’s self-deprecation, his misogyny, his wit, his formal control are all present. And yet the language, as in Coluccio’s other poems, is North American. Here, for instance, is the opening stanza of “Standards,” with its brand names and local slang:
The bony babes in Gap who lazily
Stroll with Starbucks cups at U of T,
Photoshopped or bio-engineered,
See me dreamy-eyed and think I’m weird.
As with Larkin, it’s the self-deprecation, and the wit, that keep the misogyny bearable in these poems, though no doubt more for some readers than for others.
There are some other poems in The New Canon that I like a great deal: Geoffrey Cook’s “Fisherman’s Song,” Steven Heighton’s “Constellations,” John Degan’s “Neighbours Are Dangerous,” Diana Brebner’s “Port,” Barbara Nickel’s sonnets, and an exuberant poem by Bruce Taylor entitled “The Slough.” Other readers will have their own favorites, of course. It seems to me that, of the poets selected here, these fourteen or twenty will be the ones to follow closely in coming years, although I hope some of the ones I have, anonymously, called “interesting” and “promising” will pay their interest and deliver on their promises. And I hope there are others of this generation we have not heard from yet, some poets in their twenties and thirties with first books on the way, some poets still to come out of nowhere in middle age, and perhaps even some glorious isolato who will greet us or our children some day from beyond the grave. But already, the sheer wealth of very good poets in The New Canon is a revelation.