It can be hard to know how to approach an anthology of this nature. Tuck your question marks into your pocket and just read, hoping—as you do with every new poetry book—to be shown a poem that might illuminate the dark little corners of your life? Pretend you don’t realize that the editors of this volume are unavoidably also in the business of canon-making? Most poetry collections necessarily direct your attention to what’s included, but it’s hard to crack the spine of this one without musing as to what may not have been included.
Included: a satisfying amuse-bouche sampling of some of Canada’s most active and celebrated contemporary poets: Ken Babstock, Anne Compton, Barry Dempster, Don Domanski, Sue Goyette, Stephen Heighton, Sonnet L’Abbé, Evelyn Lau, Ross Leckie, Catherine Owen, Peter Sanger, Robyn Sarah, David Seymour, Karen Solie, Zachariah Wells, Patricia Young, Jan Zwicky. How’s that for a tasting menu?
Stephen Heighton’s ode “Some Other Just Ones” has made the social media rounds as a reading he gave at The Banff Centre for the Arts in 2010. The poem gives a nod to its poetic ancestors in “a footnote to Borges,” though it also can perhaps trace a thread through Neruda in one sense, and through New Brunswick’s Herménégilde Chiasson in another. In the best tradition of love poetry, Heighton’s “Some Other Ones” is exceptionally well-read.
Other significant bright spots: Zachariah Wells sings a sonnet to the lyrebird, Maureen Hynes eulogizes her last cigarette, Marilyn Gear Pilling repudiates Billy Collins, Catherine Owen buys an iceberg, Paul Tyler pushes back against the impudent Manitoba maple, Nick Thran calls out Spring, and Ross Leckie reasons with what we can actually know. Leckie’s poem, “The Critique of Pure Reason,” is my vote for Best of the Best Canadian Poetry, for its sublime meld of the glittering external world with the constant churning of the human quest to really know what it is we know.
What it does—providing an accessible overview what some Canadian poets were publishing in literary journals in 2010—this collection does well. If it reads at times as a bit heavy on the lyric, one can equally point to a variety of formal choices, from the sonnet through to the prose poem, though not to anything more experimental or avant-garde. Perhaps that isn’t necessary. In the introduction, series editor Molly Peacock is clear about where the annual collection is aimed. It is created “for all who are curious about Canadian poetry but need a place for such curiosity to begin,” and she happily notes that previous volumes have been found in living rooms and waiting rooms across the country.
The Best Canadian Poetry in English is not necessarily intended, therefore, to delight the members of that small audience who may have read the poems when they first appeared in literary journals such as Descant, Prairie Fire, or indeed Arc Poetry Magazine, and therefore arguably not intended for this reviewer or those inclined to read this review. As an introduction to Canadian poetry, the collection is heavily weighted towards that fuzzy target of “accessibility.” In this respect—teasing the appetite for poetry and hopefully sending people running to their bookstores, libraries or podcasts for more—it does seem to achieve its stated vision. Would that we could say the same of all books of poetry published in a year.
One quibble: a section following the poems, called “Poem Notes and Commentaries,” comes perilously close to ruining the reading experience by permitting poets to add additional thoughts about the genesis of, or their approach to, their selected poems. In sections of this kind, if they must be included at all, brevity is best: Anne Compton, Glen Downie, and Anne-Marie Turza give some of the best examples of how to illuminate a poem in this way. Fifty poems were included in the Best of 2010: cutting this section down, or out entirely, might make room for another ten.
The series has a different editor each year. I confess that my own aesthetic runs snugly alongside Crozier’s, so I enjoyed this collection immensely, returning to it several times and photocopying one or two poems for a coveted place on my fridge (thank you Ross Leckie, Paul Tyler). At the same time, an anthology that calls itself the “Best of Canadian Poetry in English” cannot escape the reality that it is, in effect, contributing to what we love/hate to call “The Canadian Canon.” For this reason, a wide variety in choice among the annual editors will make for the broadest possible survey over time, and could eventually elevate the series beyond functioning merely as a tasting menu a year to the sumptuous feast of a decade.
Rhonda Douglas serves on the Arc editorial board. She has not won any prizes her parents would recognize.