A Claptrap Canon: On the Modern Canadian Poets Anthology by Zachariah Wells


Anthologies, particularly those dedicated to presenting the poetry of a particular stretch of geopolitical space-time, are, by necessity, Procrustean beds. Thousands of poets producing work over many decades get pruned to a mere few dozen names. Each of those lucky versifiers might have produced hundreds of poems in a lifetime of work, but can only be allotted, at most, a few pages in the Big Book of Nation Y’s Essential Verse. The situation is further complicated by the fact that anthologists are rarely neutral arbiters, tending to be more prescriptive than descriptive. Their goal is not to offer a snapshot of the chaotic muddle that is any place’s poetry over any given period of time, but to perform a cinematic edit on all that raw footage, crafting it into something resembling a coherent narrative. Such edits, however, are as likely to distort as clarify. Often, we find our zealous editors stretching out small accomplishments and minor reputations, whilst cutting off the legs of bigger bards in order to make everything fit their version of how things should lie. It gets even trickier when the geopolitical entity being represented is a sprawling, sparsely populated, multilingual, amorphous nation plagued by crises of identity, guilt and inferiority complexes, and resentments. Now try framing this anthology for an audience comprised not only of foreigners, but nationals of your former colonial mother country—people, in other words, not just likely to misunderstand you, but to assume, in a negligently passive sort of way, that you’re vaguely inferior. The anthologist in such a sticky wicket is burdened not only with the already vexing task of presenting the poetry of his or her country in such a manner that it might be apprehended and appreciated, but also with the anxiety that the poems meet with his readers’ approval—so that they don’t come to the conclusion, as Carcanet Press editor Michael Schmidt once said of Canadian poetry, that the work they are reading is “a short street not worth going down.”

To Schmidt’s credit, he was willing to have his mind changed. Legend has it that expat poet and tireless poetry activist Todd Swift, in what he has referred to as his “Flashdance moment,” stood up at a conference in Norwich and hectored Schmidt publicly about his offhand dismissal of Canadian poetry. Schmidt’s response? He gave Swift, along with fellow expat Evan Jones, the chance to edit an anthology of Canadian poems for Schmidt’s Manchester-based press.

A cynic might say that Schmidt’s gift to Swift and Jones was just enough rope. No matter how well anthologists do their job, the book they produce is bound to please only some of the people some of the time. Anthologies of the canon-constructing sort aren’t detailed topographical maps, they’re tailored guidebooks. The anthologist has no choice but to leave out far more poets and poems than he can include. It’s all the more important, therefore, to figure out ground rules, to establish beforehand a set of ultimately arbitrary but deliberate, rational criteria according to which certain poets and poems will be eligible for inclusion and others will be excluded automatically. The crisper and cleaner the boundaries, the less cause critics will have to cavil over calls.

With a title like Modern Canadian Poetry, we’re off to a bad start. “Modern” is one of those words that, because it can mean, and has meant, almost anything, needs to be defined if it’s going to be of any use. Swift and Jones fail to do so. The word “modernist” gets bandied about a fair bit in their introduction, but this is not an anthology of Canadian modernists, neither in terms of the aesthetics, nor the vintage of its contributors, who were born between 1879 and 1962. This can’t even be accurately called an anthology of 20th century poetry, as the poems included date from the late 19th century to the first decade of the 21st. Given this breadth, a less era-specific title like 35 Canadian Poets would have been far more apposite and would have relieved the weight of expectation generated by the gravitas of Modern Canadian Poets. Either that, or the editors should have kept the title, but drawn a tighter bead on their target.

As it stands, we have a book with an identity crisis (how Canadian!): part historical anthology and part gathering of contemporary work. No explanation is given for the 1962 end-date; when asked “Why that particular cut-off?” by Maurice Mierau in a recent interview, the editors skirted the issue: “we found that we disagreed more the closer we got to our own ages. This in retrospect is a natural thing: a sign to us that our own generation needs more time to develop, for reputations to cement.” Sure, but Swift was born in 1966; are poets born in the late fifties and early sixties not of the same generation? 1962 is such a random year that it’s more than a little tempting to speculate that it was chosen, instead of an equally arbitrary but more conventional cutoff like 1960, so that David McGimpsey, a long-time friend of Swift’s, could be the anthology’s junior contributor. In answering that same interview question, the editors said that they didn’t want this book to “cross over ground covered in other anthologies,” such as The New Canon, which selected work from poets born between 1955-1975. Yet 1/7th of the poets in MCP were born after 1955, and four of those five appeared in The New Canon as well. So much for not crossing over.

The exclusion of later-born poets from MCP is further problematised by the different rates at which poets develop, and the often erratic trajectories poetic careers follow. Consider Ken Babstock, named in the introduction to MCP as a prominent member in “the impressive younger generation of Canadian poets.” Babstock was born in 1970, so he didn’t make it in. But Babstock’s first book was published in 1999, earlier than the debuts of Anne Compton (b. 1947) and Elise Partridge (b. 1958), whose poems do grace the pages of MCP. Sina Queyras, Christian Bök, Carmine Starnino and Stephanie Bolster, all of whom are named along with Babstock in the introduction, also had books in print before one or more of the poets included. But they’re too new to be modern, apparently. Conversely, EJ Pratt appears to have been too old. He otherwise seems to fit the editors’ desiderata (cosmopolitan outlook, broad influence, formal brio). Not only is Pratt slightly younger than Emile Nelligan, the oldest poet whose work appears in MCP, but Pratt was still writing long after the precociously modernist WWE Ross’s (b. 1894) two self-published books came out, which makes him both Ross’s senior and junior. Swift and Jones don’t address the exclusion of Pratt or any other pre-1894-birth Anglo poets, so we’re left guessing. Which we really shouldn’t be.

The editors’ wavering aim extends to their title’s second adjective as well. It is commendable that Swift and Jones attempt to present a broad idea of what a Canadian might be by including many immigrants and émigrés, but they fail to follow their own logic. In their introduction, they list several “international poets who have contributed to Canadian poetry in the twentieth century but are not included […] because of their stronger connections to other, sometimes larger literatures.” Yet the very same things could be said of several of the poets they do include. Not only could it be said, they actually do say it, when they complain that “Sibum and Kociejowski, as well as many others with connections to larger literatures [ed.: Sound familiar?] and traditions that look beyond Canada, are sidelined within the discussion of Canadian poetry, because they look outward.” It is baffling to read such baldly contradictory statements in the same essay. I have no quarrel with calling Joan Murray, Daryl Hine and Eric Ormsby Canadian, but it’s perfectly arbitrary to put them inside and Molly Peacock—an American by birth, but one who presently resides in Toronto, publishes with McClelland & Stewart and presides over the Best Canadian Poems in English anthology series—out. Ditto Elizabeth Bishop, who called herself ¾ Canadian and whose imagination was attached to no landscape more firmly than Nova Scotia’s Parrsboro shore. Ditto Lorna Goodison, who is explicitly excluded by the editors, but is named in the book’s front matter as one of the Canadian poets published by Carcanet!

Even the term “Poets” gets prevaricated upon by Swift and Jones. Leonard Cohen, they write, by way of justifying his exclusion, “is second only to Bob Dylan as singer to the world and needs no reintroduction here.” Similarly, Atwood and Ondaatje are “no longer poets firstly, but literary figures who have staked their best claims on prose.” Perhaps this is just a cagey way of saying that they’re not good enough as poets, but if that isn’t what’s intended—and it’s by no means unambiguous—it’s absurd to leave poets out because they happen to be more famous as songwriters or novelists. Not least of all because the same could be said of certain poets who are in the book. Steven Heighton, like Atwood and Ondaatje, is known more as a novelist than as a poet. John Glassco is best known as a memoirist, Robert Bringhurst as a typographer and ethnologist. Others (Robert Allen, Marius Kociejowski) have arguably “staked their best claims” on prose. Because Swift and Jones have done such a poor job establishing rational criteria for inclusion, they must have recourse, repeatedly, to imaginary and easily disputable ones.

Lack of focus plagues the sub-title, too. In “An anthology of poems in English,” one has cause to expect, well, poems in English. Indeed, all of the text in the book is English-language (even the franglais macaronics of AM Klein’s “Montreal” are predominantly Anglo), but not all of it started out that way. Swift and Jones tell us that they decided to include Anne Hébert because they “recognised in the translations of Alan Brown such a significant achievement as to merit her inclusion within the body of Canadian English-language poetry.” Be that as it may, Brown’s versions were never intended as English-language originals. The decision to include them, without providing the original French en face, is a stupefyingly blind act of cultural colonisation, made even worse by the fact that it appears in a British book. Swift and Jones give themselves a pat on the back for their “spirit of openness,” blithely unaware that the inclusion of one Francophone poet in the midst of 34 Anglophones is not just a bad editorial decision, but an affront to French-Canadian poetry as a whole—a slap in the face that could have been obviated by simply sticking to the stated parameters of their book.

The editors go one worse by including “versions of works by Emile Nelligan, Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau, and Robert Melançon.” These versions don’t appear under the names of the poems’ originators, but under those of their translators. This is a disservice to both the Franco poets and to their Anglo interpreters. Three of John Glassco’s five poems are translations of Saint-Denys Garneau. The editors maintain that these translations are “among [Glassco’s] greatest accomplishments,” but so are original, signature poems such as “The Burden of Junk” and “The Entailed Farm,” which get squeezed out by making Glassco’s entry do double-duty. The inclusion of Nelligan translations (one by Steven Heighton and two by Anne Carson) is more perplexing yet. Nelligan is fifteen years older than the oldest Anglo poet in the book and produced no poetry in the 20th Century (his poems were first collected in 1903, four years after his career-ending psychotic breakdown). Carson’s translations have not yet even been published in book form, so the editors really had to go off the beaten path to include them. They made an even further hors-piste excursion to net two Melançon translations by Eric Ormsby, originally published in an online magazine that doesn’t seem to have archived them. Both Carson and Ormsby have substantial bodies of published work; it’s hard to believe that Swift and Jones actually thought these serially published adaptations made for better anthology pieces than time-tested original work, particularly considering that the Ormsby translations are excerpts of a long sequence. And Heighton’s translation of “Le vaisseau d’or” is not half as good an English poem as some of his own sonnets.

Considering all the lumps and warps in the book’s structure, AG Bailey’s lines from “The Bumpkin and the Bobcat”—“The frame / buckled in a dozen / places”—take on an unintended resonance. If the haphazard architecture of MCP isn’t enough to shake your confidence in the acumen of its designers, then the shoddy details should finish the job. This is supposed to be a provocative remix of the Canadian poetry canon, but in the introduction, Jones and Swift seem more intent on demonstrating that they’ve done their homework than in establishing bona fides as after-school shit-disturbers. The editors provide a canned history of anthologisation in Canada in a six-page yawn of an essay, composed in a prose more stodgy than startling, larded with off-the-peg phrasing (“may never have read before, but will soon find unforgettable”) and inelegant sentences that signify little. We learn, for instance, that “[b]ecause of the variety of its many strengths, Canadian poetry has always been a challenge to characterise.” This statement, a microcosm of the introduction as a whole, is as unintelligent as it is vague and wordy. The poetry of any nation is “a challenge to characterise.” This isn’t “because of the variety of its many strengths,” but because it is composed of work produced by disparate, eccentric individuals over long periods of time. Any poetry that is not a challenge to characterise doesn’t deserve to be called literature. Canada is in no way exceptional.

The undergraduate awkwardness of the prose carries into the bio notes provided for each of the book’s contributors. In the WWE Ross entry, we learn that Ross’s work, paradoxically, has “never been popular in Canada” and yet that his “two privately printed collections […] made an impact few poets of his generation achieved.” On whom, one wonders. Alfred Bailey’s poetry is out of print, we are told, but it has nevertheless made “a lasting impression.” Pun intended? In Bailey’s note, the editors also use the adjective “important” twice in one sentence, shortly after telling us about Bailey’s improbable “importance.” The editors clearly think it important that we believe Bailey should be important, but it is also important to be factually accurate (i.e., the fact that few living poets even know who Bailey is means that he can’t be important, strictly speaking) and to vary word choices in a brief text. A thesaurus is an important resource for achieving the latter goal; a dictionary might have helped with the former. But what’s really missing in these notes is assistance from a manual of style. Consider the closing sentence of Mary Dalton’s introduction: “Her major subject matter is the exploration of feminine desire and the natural world, via the land- and seascapes around her, through which she maintains a tough yet versatile sensibility at once recognisable and distinctly different.” This train-wreck of a period wouldn’t pass muster in Composition 101; as an attempt at literary criticism, it is, as the kids are saying, an epic fail. Even if one fixed the infelicities of its construction, the statement would still be bereft of substance. What the editors say about Dalton’s “sensibility” means precisely nothing, which makes one suspect that they haven’t given Dalton’s poetry the attention required to make any penetrating observations of its particular qualities. The syntactic disasters and empty statements accumulate throughout the editorial commentary, to the point that one has a very hard time trusting Swift and Jones as arbiters of good writing. The publisher might have saved them from the worst of their blunders, but it appears that Michael Schmidt also thinks of copy editing as a short street not worth going down.

The proofreading is equally abysmal. After encountering numerous typos—including, ironically, a badly botched stanza in a poem by Robert Bringhurst, a world authority on book design and production—I decided to proofread George Elliott Clarke’s entry. It starts badly with the bio note, which features “the historical region of the three maritime provinces.” A) This is a geographical region. B) Canada has eight maritime provinces—it has three Maritime Provinces. The three-and-a-half pages of poetry allotted to Clarke, meanwhile, contain five transcription errors. Whether this is better or worse than other entries I can’t say, but the overall sloppiness is far too typical.

None of this is to say that MCP isn’t worth a read. It is awfully good to see underrated poets like Bailey, Glassco, Anne Wilkinson, George Johnston, Richard Outram and Daryl Hine included in an exclusive anthology; some of the contemporary poets included are indeed among our finest. There are a lot of good poems in this book and a few great ones. The book’s failings are so disappointing precisely because it contains several of this country’s very best: AM Klein’s “Heirloom”; Irving Layton’s “Keine Lazarovitch”; George Johnston’s “War on the Periphery”; PK Page’s “Cry Ararat!”; Richard Outram’s “Barbed Wire”; Daryl Hine’s “A Bewilderment at the Entrance of the Fat Boy into Eden”; Robert Bringhurst’s “The Beauty of the Weapons”; Robyn Sarah’s “Day Visit”; George Elliott Clarke’s “Monologue for Selah Bringing Spring to Whylah Falls.” Poems like these—hair-raising, ear-catching, mind-grabbing poems—form the bedrock on which a very credible anthology of 20th century English Canadian poetry might be built.

Swift and Jones have failed to curate such an anthology, not only because they over-extend the book’s timeframe, make ill-advised and half-hearted forays into French-Canadian verse and pay insufficient attention to very important details, but because the book betrays their prejudices. In early reviews of MCP, much has been made of the poets not included: no Atwood, no Purdy, no McKay, no Crozier, etc., etc. Even a non-revisionist book of this length and scope would be bound to leave out a few of the higher-profile poets in the country. Because this is not such an anthology, the gleeful slaughter of sacred cows is to be expected. I have no problem with the exclusion of certain canonical poets; I welcome it, in fact. But the rationalisation for the choices—to say nothing of the silence surrounding the exclusions—smells funny.

“Cosmopolitan” is the word that comes up again and again in the editorial apparatus of MCP. It isn’t surprising that this would be the default preference for two urbanite expatriates, but their insistence on this aesthetic as corrective to the straw figure of a “loud-mouthed, formless Everyman whose verse dominates many Canadian anthologies,” reveals a regrettable failure of imagination and sympathy.  Jones, in particular, has gone out of his way in the past to present a caricature of Al Purdy as a poet whose “most noteworthy poems are about being drunk in bars,” as he put it in a letter to the editors of Poetry in 2008. The classist basis for this misrepresentation was evident, as Jones continued, in a highly personal vein: “I remember a friend of mine, an older poet whom I still see as a mentor, asking if I found something exotic in that voice of the drunk at the bar. “That bar is my family’s bar,” I told him, “and he’s been drinking all day and has twice called me a fag because I’m quiet and don’t know anything about hockey. He’s also been hitting on my mom.”” Is it unreasonable to see MCP as a  retributive act against boorish cads? John Thompson’s bio note is illuminating; as an English-born and American-educated academic who looked to French and Persian poetry for inspiration, Thompson is in many ways the ideal candidate for inclusion in this book of Canadian cosmopolitans. In other respects, he represents exactly the sort of poet Swift and Jones want to take down a peg. In his bio note, in a bravura display of cognitive dissonance reduction, Thompson’s “rough, hard-drinking, and foul-mouthed” persona is laughed off by the editors as a satirical “farce.” If so, it was one Thompson kept up with incredible self-destructive persistence.

The presentation of MCP as a gathering of work that “a British audience can understand and relate to” seems to me at best a mealy-mouthed excuse for the editor’s own aesthetic biases and at worst an accidental accusation of provincialism on the part of British readers. (It is also a somewhat disingenuous statement, because the editors must have known full well that the book would receive far more attention in Canada than abroad.) Does an English-born poetry reader fail to understand and relate to Lorca? Can a Scot not get Neruda? Why would a Londoner who loves Thomas Hardy not be able to wrap his or her head around, say, Peter Trower, a poet with predilections for local speech and elegy akin to Hardy’s poetics? Any Mancunian with an appreciation for Robert Frost or Edward Thomas would find much to love in the plain-speech lyrics of Charles Bruce. A Glaswegian able to find room in their imagination for the emotionally raw utterances and pastoral scenes of John Clare might be thrilled by the exposed-nerve candor and rural flavours of Alden Nowlan or the politically-inflected love and anger of  Milton Acorn. As one British reviewer has said of MCP, there is “a tidiness about the poetry that maybe reveals a distate with extremes.”

The fact is that the British poetry audience is every bit as difficult to characterise as Canadian poetry is and attempting (or pretending) to cater to it is a mug’s game. The goal, therefore, should be to present the best possible book of Canadian poems and not one that a stereotyped reader is supposed to be capable of understanding: let the poems convince the readers; don’t let the readers dictate the choice poems. Had they been willing to exercise as much informed judgment in their choices as taste, the editors of MCP might have made such odd inclusions as Joan Murray and Daniel David Moses a bit more credible, but as it stands, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Swift and Jones don’t know the field as well as they pretend to, that they don’t know their audience as well as they think they do, or that they are overly enamoured of surprising iconoclastic choices for their own sake, at the expense of appropriate selections.

The problem isn’t just that Swift and Jones fail to expand their range, but also that they make very odd omissions within it. Where, one wonders, is Peter Van Toorn, with his magpie eclecticism and formal derring-do? Van Toorn has had far more influence on contemporary poets than a good many of Swift and Jones’s picks. And how was it decided that Earle Birney, a scholar whose influences ranged from Anglo-Saxon verse, to balladry, to concrete poetry, was more loud-mouthed Everyman than erudite cosmopolitan? What was it in the orientally oriented verse of Gwendolyn MacEwen that was deemed too inward-looking? Why are David Solway and Michael Harris left out when their associates Sibum, Kociejowski, Ormsby and Sarah are included? What an opportunity for redress was missed by excluding John Smith’s musically dynamic, formally adventurous and intellectually sophisticated sonnets—an omission made doubly perplexing by the fact that Evan Jones published Smith’s most recent book. Maybe if they hadn’t strayed so far towards the present, MCP‘s editors would have found room for more poets whose presence would be both unconventional and incontrovertibly apt.

With the poets they do include, the choices of poem are often odd. Where, one wonders, are Page’s “Stenographers” and “Photos of a Salt Mine”? All of the Page poems included are fine (although “Planet Earth” has been greatly over-rated because of its topicality and because that topicality led to its being adopted by the UN as an anthem), but only “Cry Ararat!” is a bona fide peer of the two I’ve named, which have been anthology standards for very good reason. As have Margaret Avison’s “Snow” and “The Swimmer’s Moment,” both absent from MCP. It could be that because these are two of the most canonical poets in the book, Swift and Jones wished to make their entries fresher, but if so, it’s another case of personal preference trumping good judgment. It also runs counter to their premise that this is a book intended primarily for readers with little or no prior knowledge of the poets.

The case of Irving Layton is even more of a head-scratcher. Oddly, in a book supposed to favour quality of poetry over size of reputation, we find the argument that Layton’s “work is still respected, but his star has waned somewhat.” (Recall, by contrast, the “impact” and “importance” of Ross and Bailey.) The editors say in the same paragraph that Layton “managed to write a handful of near-perfect lyrics, both formally and rhetorically as strong as any work of the period.” Layton’s poem selection seems to accord more with the former statement (to say nothing of the editors’ aversion to “his swaggering messianic self-directed persona”) than with the latter, as his three poems—rather too few to comprise a “handful”—take up only three pages of MCP. No poet in the book is allowed less space than this, in spite of the fact that Layton, pace Swift and Jones, is still widely regarded as the 20th century Canadian poet. The editors don’t hesitate, for instance, to call in Carmine Starnino in support of AM Klein, but they are notably silent about the fact that Starnino, in his book A Lover’s Quarrel, rates Layton much more highly than he does Klein. Given that Klein is anointed by Swift and Jones as “the poet who comes closest to being the great Canadian figure of the twentieth century,” and that Layton was once a pupil and later a critic of Klein’s, it’s hard not to read Layton’s demotion in MCP as the editors’ way of stacking the deck. The Layton poems they’ve chosen, moreover, represent a very narrow slice of his vast range. A reader with only this anthology to go by would think that Layton was a poet who wrote about family members (there’s a poem for a wife and a poem for a mother) and … produce. The selection of the decidedly minor “Marché Municipale,” which wasn’t even included in Layton’s overly-capacious Selected, is an index of the editors’ lack of interest in presenting Layton at his best. In the interview with Mierau, they say in defence of Layton’s short-sheeting that “[t]hose three poems sum up Layton, really.” No one who has read Layton with any care would concur.

Writing in The Globe & Mail, Jacob McArthur Mooney suggested that Swift and Jones’ canonical recalibrations were “dishonest.” It’s hard not to agree with him. The only alternative—which is also tempting, given how slipshod the book is—is to dismiss them as incompetent. But I think we need to be wary of the sort of dichotomies MCP‘s editors too readily embrace, and come to the conclusion that their book is both mendacious and cack-handed. As a minority report, it isn’t without highlights, but it should be read more as an eccentric miscellany than as a well-rounded and -grounded exhibit of the best Modern Canadian Poetry. In attempting to position themselves against the essentialist special pleading of Atwood et al., Swift and Jones, rather than tearing down the walls of the garrison, have erected new ones. Theirs happens to be an urban stockade, with good cafés, dog bakeries and cocktail parties, but it is a garrison nonetheless, projecting in large measure, by means of obsessive appeals to authority, passive-aggressive exclusions and unsignalled omissions, the shadow portrait of its architects’ neuroses.



Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries (# 84). 

About Zachariah Wells

Zachariah Wells is a Canadian poet and critic. He is the Reviews Editor for Canadian Notes & Queries. He has contributed to many Canadian periodicals, including Books in Canada, Quill & Quire and Maisonneuve. Insomniac Press published his full-length collection of poems, Unsettled. His anthology of Canadian sonnets, Jailbreaks, was published in 2008. In 2009, Wells published Track & Trace, his second trade collection of poems, with illustrations by renowned graphic artist Seth. Track & Trace was shortlisted for the 2010 Atlantic Poetry Prize. In 2010, he published The Essential Kenneth Leslie, the first collection of Leslie's poems to be published since 1972.
Bookmark the permalink.

One Comment

  1. While the review eventually gets around to making some good points, is it really necessary to have a critique of the anthology form? Anthologies are anthologies! Yes, they will leave out somebody. Yes the editors make selections based on their viewpoints. Of course! Zachariah Wells would do that as well if he were the editor. And yes, of course “Canadian Poetry” is a very large category, the same as “American Poetry.” Hopefully the editors aim to illuminate the diversity of writers who happen to live in Canada. And just because one writes in other genres doesn’t mean he or she should be excluded, or considered less of a poet. I do agree that poems written in French originally should appear with the translation. That seems like a no-brainer. But I do appreciate the detailed examination of the collection, the copy-editing, and the shadow portrait of the editors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *