Canada's New Poets
Tha Last Word:
an insomniac anthology of contemporary canadian poetry
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|The Not So Secret Hope
by Robert Clayton Casto
It's daft, I hear voices-the voices of times past, of ego, ambition, and hope, and they seems callow and eagerly helpless now. They're not an illusion: they belong to contemporary anthologists of poetry, announcing the ever-repeated manifestos of the young.
I'm thinking of the gentle introduction to The Last Word by the editor, Michael Holmes. He tells a tale of "young and enthusiastic writers who had little time for the generation of poets...just beginning to establish their credentials"-that is, for the immediate half-generation previous, for to look upon history, however close by, is to spot the enemy. And he tells of how this new and apparently scornful company becomes a loosely structured confederacy giving hosted readings. A glorious moment! A moment only, but one that becomes his anthology, "a world of sacred incantation and magical places", defying gorgon time that turns all into stone, and "ready to challenge the possibilities of language and life."
I do not mean to be unfair to Holmes, who after all recognizes the "textually complex poetic terrain" of good writing. But the militantly reiterated ambitions of each new "generation" of writers would seem to be the same ambitions and the reader may well ask what comes of them in the end? Will they survive the next onslaught of young Turks? Will the results be accident rather than merit? And what's "merit" when it's at home and smirking?
Why not admit it? The advantages of collections like the two discussed here may not be that they will become canonical icons in the museum of the future (for that is the not so secret hope of these revolutionaries), but that they represent the present moment in all the splendid agitation of its blind accomplishment.
The editors of Breathing Fire are more down-to-earth-indeed, it is left to Al Purdy, in a brief foreword, to speak of "another generation" and of "magic"-but this need not mean that their opening commentary is more à-propos. While calling their poets "skilful, energetic, and precocious", they remain preoccupied with the awards and public recognition that some of their writers have already achieved, as if this ought to give the text instantaneous clout. There is no Holmesian camaraderie here: the poets have been painstakingly selected from submissions and their work is presented (in generously large groupings and with a rather wonderful rogues' gallery of photographic portraits) in resolutely alphabetical order.
For all that, the result is, as it has to be, writing of consistently high quality, albeit of a certain stylistic sameness: one often feels one is reading a single long poem, never quite saying what it has to say, yet saying it forever and terribly well.
And if the subject-matter seems obsessive-the poems return again and again to the family, to Mom and Dad and the usual list of middle-class sacramental alignments-the poets ring brilliant changes on the unfortunate topic. True, "the family" could well be an allegory for the greater world, but one gets the feeling that these poets would not care if the next-door neighbours were building a bomb in the backyard. They remain imprisoned in the joy and terror of their innerness, they breathe the contingent fire of their pride.
But there are so many good poems here, it would seem a random rather than an inevitable enterprise to single out any. Some do stand out for slight nuances of difference: Thea Bowering's "Women in the duty free", for example, or Sioux Browning's amusing "The Perfect Ten"; Mark Cochrane's gender-benders "Latent" and "Mapplethorpe", the disturbing "Black Shirts Drying" of Joelle Hann, or "Grandma in June" by Joy Kirstin; not to mention the entire uncompromising group of works by the Métis poet Gregory Scofield, and impressive selections from Shannon Stewart ("Circle Jerk"), and the Newfoundlander Michael Crummey. And the rest? All worthwhile, as the reader will discover.
Two fine poets are common to both anthologies: Evelyn Lau, a writer of admirable consistent strength and integrity, and the sophisticated Michael Redhill, whose work is surely more comfortable in the traditional modernist mode of Breathing Fire than in the provisional turbulence of The Last Word.
The latter book, in its verbal exuberance, is an especial delight. The title, probably, means the latest work in contemporary poetry, in the sense that this is the most wide-ranging and experimental collection the editor can generate at the moment. In this he is certainly correct. The sheer variety of structure and perception in these poems-from poésie concrète to the symptomatology of S&M and the bleak knife-grinding of political revelation-exhibit an intellectual freedom that must be the envy of the prosaic and earth-bound.
Yet I would hesitate to label the work here as "postmodern": all these patterns have after all been demonstrated in earlier twentieth-century English poetry. The general method of the language-oriented poems that make up the bulk of the collection is to erase the defining outer skeleton of "meaning" and to leave us with the pulpy inner guts of the thing, shimmering and quivering with rage, desire, inchoate life. The meaning is in the movement, the viscosity, the palpable glint of light on slippery flesh.
Not all the poems are equally successful, of course, or as technically assured as the work in Breathing Fire. But where the writing succeeds, it is strong and wonderfully strange indeed. I think of the prose poem by Matthew Remski, "The Pipe Organ", which slowly sculpts one great concrete block of thought to reveal the horror of history itself; or of the extraordinary-even profound-work of writers like Lynn Crosbie, David McGimpsey, Gil Adamson, Tracy Brooks, Steven Heighton, Mac McArthur, Mark Sinnett. If this were not incident enough, there are forty-two other writers waiting to reveal their chromatic world to the reader.
In short, both these anthologies, for all my carping, are worth the candle. Taken together, they manifest a kaleidoscopic overview of the lively state of poetry in Canada at the present. They are to be read not as a reviewer reads them, straight through, but in moments of inspired leisure, when fair pickings can be found. They are, finally, to be enjoyed: and the two collections here, I would have to conclude, are worth that heady pleasure.