Notes toward some thoughts on Canadian poetry

Interim Volume 27/ No. 1&2 2009
Kudos to Jen Currin for the folio of Canadian poetry in the recent issue of Interim. It’s a wonder to me that the editorial efforts of people outside of Canada to promote Canadian poetry and literature abroad get so little attention here at home. Todd Swift’s folio in New American Writing a few years back was excellent, I thought. Like Swift, and myself for that matter, Currin isn’t interested in representing any one school of poetry, but rather a various and surprising selection including newcomers Kim Minkus (a book out with Line) and Chris Hutchinson (a book out with Brick this fall), alongside Fred Wah, Erin Moure and Christian Bok. Yours truly was very happy to appear next to Stephen Collis. The work included is a bit of a mash up, but very engaging, energetic and certainly creating a complicated rather than uniform sense of poetics.

This is so unusual for anthologies; most of which seem, to be honest, absolutely useless beyond the immediate vicinity of those included in them. More, as Marilyn Hacker points out, like a box of chocolates than anything else. And there are indeed great little boxes of chocolates and yes, they can be useful. I know that not everyone feels, as I do, that they should be useful. I know how difficult it is–impossible really–to actually find teachable texts, so when the opportunity comes around for one and it misses the mark (as 95% of anthologies seem to do) it is sad indeed.

Open Wide a Wilderness, ed. Nancy Holmes, WLU 2009
I haven’t made up my mind about Nancy Holmes’ Open Wide a Wilderness. It’s very well done on the whole, and I appreciate McKay’s introduction and the work Holmes has done in collecting the earlier work. But, but, but, I notice that of the poets included in  post 1960 there is not one non-lyric poet, not one complicated representation of nature. So those alterna-voices (Wah, Moure, even Marlatt) who established themselves in the heady days of CanLit madness, are included, but the new generation of poets becomes increasingly represented by its most conservative and formal voices. Formally crafted poems about Sturgeon, Snake, Duck, etc., are the norm post 1960, as if without a realistic representative gesture the notion of nature can’t exist…nature, poetry, poetics is clearly not a straight line. There are some good poems from poets post 1960–Adam Dickinson’s “Great Chain of Being,” and Babstock’s “Bear 10,” that’s not my point.

Silliman linked to a review of OWW that seems to bemoan the lack of wonder–I’m not sure that’s quite it, but certainly the nature represented here seems uncomplicated and pre-Donna Haraway, pre-Delueze, Agamben, Zizek, et all. My thoughts are still formulating and I haevn’t read this as closely as I would need to do give it a fair, critical reading, but these are my intitial thoughts. In any case while I might want a bit more wonder, I don’t think the reviewer in the Whig has the same sense of what wonder might be. He says:

By “wonder” — in poetry — I mean a reverent questioning accompanied by hints and glimpses or inklings of a mysterious depth in the common as well as the uncommon phenomena found in the world of nature.

The word “reverent” always raises my hackles, for what is one woman’s reverent is often another’s blasphemy. But questions yes, and complications and questioning about what the hell we think we’re talking about when we talk about nature in the first place…

Nature is at least complicated in Currin’s folio.Here is a bit from Jason Christie’s “In the Forest of Our Understanding,” included in the Interim volume:

The trees, if a bit stoic, are sentimental. When they notice moonlight fall on a particular hill or into a glade in a particular way, they make space for it as though it too lives in a forest of their understanding. And in this manner of clearing, the trees admit permeability as a strong point within their unity…

And here’s Steve Collis from the end of “Let Me Speak Clearly,”

We were killing them softly   the planet sighed
None of this and all of this found its way
Into the poem   we were people poking
Around the wreckage   no one had read the reports
No one replied No one replied No one replied

and Margaret Christakos from “Tremble”

…Motion occurs on a molecular
spectrum we have machines to measure
but I admit our eyes are unuseful, When
bodies breathe the same air their thoughts
resemble two sides of an emblematic screen…

or Lisa Robertson in “Three Page Draft from an Untitled Video Process:”

If she paints a blushy tint it’s mostly kept for solitary pleasures.
Usually she will not have made a decision about how to advance.

and later

She wants to make a space for the present.
Sometimes she needs a record of her life.
She wanted to wear the mask of a feathered owl.
She hears a child, a goose, a crow.
She thinks cloth is as old as knowledge.
She is willing to suppose that cloth is as old as language.
She takes shelter in a figural sensation.

The latter poem begins with a statement: “What we have is a mix of improper disclosures of partial information mixed with inaccurate information and then drawn into unfounded conclusions, she said…”  Indeed, that is what we have. Though it is never recognized as such when it is pretending to be whole. Or real.

Realism, I mean. What we confess directly to you, without slant of light.  Or, the melancholy folly of realism as my partner and I were discussing recently in connection with Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (2008) –but more on that later.

I’ll just point out a few other intriguing poems in Interim.One from Kim Minkus who is working in fragment, minimal, steps toward:

dated Sdated September 18 eptember 18 shock gang.

black swath.

dated September 18 bull wheel.

bonded together   dated September 18  bindlestiff.

and Ken Babstock, who while maintaining his deadly (and very English) ear, and love of line break, steadily eases away from the more predictable rhythms of formal verse in this poem titled “Give You Cuddles?” about Robert Rauschenberg:

He’s rubbing today’s newspaper over the bulge
in his throat. Voice of smoked haddock, shadow-smudged
larynx; when they said Get stuffed I heard Go get stuff
and back-filled a Western, insuf-
ficiently engagé life with dreck, pop, birds, and wood
until now–it could

be the same everywhere. The obit, back of the sports page,
says your Cherokee mother once made a skirt
from the back panel of the dark suit
her brother lay buried in. Silent cage,
I scrape the cedar shavings, the cooled dung.
Our urge

Is this hybrid or combine? Avant lyric or nouveau formalisme? As Babstock says later,

the birth pangs of equanimity under an onslaught of garbage,
Discussing image, tone, candor, judge-
ment, and the like, I said, ‘Less sobbing bird,
more burnt ox’…


Whatever formal properties the poem may or may not have, let it have more burnt ox. Let it be mean, as Don Share said last week. Let it say. Something. By slant or not. It’s shocking to me how we are not able to keep up with the poems. Or technology. Margaret Atwood seems more astute about it than my first year students. What does that say about our ability to process information?

Yes, I am conflating technology and poetry.

What poet do we admire that did not write out of his or her time?

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