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Editor's Note: How Poems Work – On Whom?

Why should this be so thrilling? I asked myself this question while reading an email from Kisa Macdonald, a law student whose comments on the poem “KoKo,” by David McGimpsey, appear in this issue. When Kisa read the poem, which deals with a particularly fractious workplace encounter, she laughed out loud. She also found a direct correlation between its subject matter and the legal issues she was wrestling with in her studies: “In analyzing the employment case law, I have been thinking about the inherent power imbalance between employer and employee. The defective circus clown, trying not to say what he really feels, provides an excellent metaphor.” Kisa was happy because the poem seemed to peel away the trappings of her universe to uncover, at its centre, a glimmer of clarity, of truth, made-up like a clown. I was happy because we had brought a poem and (perhaps) an unlikely reader together, and something had happened—something along the lines of what I had scarcely dared hope: recognition, solace, movement, delight. The reader placing the order; the poem delivering the goods.
You’re holding in your hands the first Arc Poetry Annual, a special issue outside our regular publication sequence. The Annual is a place in which we hope to delve more fully than in a regular issue of the magazine into some pertinent or essential poetic question or idea or concern—those flies buzzing about our ears as we turn the pages of books, or slouch in corner tables at poetry readings. For our inaugural effort, we’ve chosen to address a question that has never been adequately answered, to my knowledge, by anyone: How poems really work. What makes them tick? What makes some poems work for some people, but not for others? To at least aim toward an answer, we’ve brought together the best of our How Poems Work columns from 2003-2008—the first five years of this online (loosely) monthly publication—with new essays on their favourite poems by some of our leading voices: Stephanie Bolster, Ross Leckie, Roo Borson, George Elliott Clarke and Tim Bowling.1
We have also added a twist. Which is where a crew of readers from all walks of life (including Kisa the law student), come in. There was a moment last fall around the Arc Poetry Society “board” table—the confessional booth at Pub Italia, in Ottawa’s Little Italy (complete with doors and a red occupancy light)—when the energy crackled and spiked. The very pints on the table seemed to refill of their own accord. Okay, I exaggerate. But when one of us, or, somehow, all of us, arrived at the idea of writing about or interviewing “average” readers of poetry—that is, readers who weren’t necessarily poets themselves—we were seized with the sense of embarking on something potentially revelatory, even radical. Contrary to some of the more familiar black humour in contemporary poetry circles, we all chose to believe that these readers existed. That despite the generally accepted view of things, doctors, scientists, plumbers, pharmacists, mechanics, consultants and so on actually do read poetry, And they might have some worthwhile things to say about it. How would we know if we never went looking? If we never asked? In his introductory essay to this special issue, our How Poems Work editor Chris Jennings, who also functions as my co-editor on this issue, discusses, in part, how poems work on readers. Which begs further questions: Which ones? What kind? Where are these readers to be found?
Our experiment goes as follows. We forged a list of dozens of people from a wide range of professions, geographical locations and educational backgrounds, people whom we hoped would be keen to be involved, or at least made curious enough by our pitch to give this a shot. Then we sent them an invitation to participate in the Arc Poetry Annual. Their job: read a selection of 3 poems, randomly assigned from among the 21 appearing in this issue, and respond to a handful of questions about at least one of them. Sixty-three people said to count them in, and of these, forty-four actually did their homework. Among them are—as you can see for yourself in the contributors’ section—an accountant, a hobby farmer, an entomologist, two visual artists, a retired dean of arts, a family doctor, a translator, a film critic, a nurse, a Parliament Hill reporter for Global TV, a civil servant or two, a political scientist, a schoolteacher, a chocolatier, a 14-year-old, a retired credit controller, a realtor, an archivist, an actor, a physiologist, a pure water technologist and the chief curator at the National Gallery of Canada.
Many among these were intermittent admirers of poetry. Few made it a daily habit. None (save the former dean) were or had been writers or literary workers. Admittedly, some of these folks are related to poets (see, for example, Wendy Lahey, with whom I shared a bedroom from the age of about 5 to 18). Some are friends or spouses or inlaws of poets—or of the managing editors of certain poetry magazines. We found our own spheres of acquaintance were broad enough. We know, love and live among lots of people leading “practical” lives, for the most part outside the milieu of contemporary poetry. Aren’t we always wondering what they really think of this thing that we do, what it does or could mean to them? “Home” proves indeed to be, in its way, expansive.
You might ask why we, the poets and critics, should care about what the entomologist or the hobby farmer thinks of, say, Charles Bruce’s “Back Road Farm.” Didn’t David Kosub provide enough elucidation in his How Poems Work piece? Would or should the entomologist have any interest in what I have to say about a moth? In fact, he might. The entomologist in question, Doug Parker, once provided me with an expert’s eye on a poem I wrote about the sad, short life of the Atlas moth, which lives for about a week for no purpose other than to procreate (it has no mouth; doesn’t eat; simply wastes away). When I show my work to other poets, they want to talk about line breaks, word choice, that thing we call “voice.” Doug told me that the pupal case for the moth looks much rougher in nature than I had depicted it in the poem. He described to me in detail how the adult female attracts a mate. And he asked me a pointed question: “So we have these adults emerging in the spring, ‘for no great acts.’ I don’t know anything about your personal life, but some people believe that lovemaking is a great act. Do poets?” He also wrote, about a particular stanza, “It reminds me of the beauty of natural selection and chance mutations, eventually leading to marvellous organisms.”
I have yet to revise that moth poem, but when I do so it will be with Doug’s reaction, and the pertinent scientific information he shared, in mind. He threw me, and being thrown is often useful.
We live as poets in this age amid a peculiar tension. We work at a craft that we wish counted more, but keenly know the value of the sidelong glance we are afforded by our apparent marginality. I am not going to get into the whys and hows of poetry being read by an increasingly rarified segment of society (in North America, at least), nor attempt to explain the problems of volume, style, quality, bookselling and distribution, the noise from other more “exciting” media, the complicated legacies of Eliot and Pound, etc. A person close to me once suggested that what we do in an age such as this is “keep the line intact.” There is (obviously) no glory in this work. But glimmers of that thruline flash, when, for example, the poet in the family is called upon for solace at the funeral, hope at the wedding. When someone like my older brother, not the poetry-reading kind, nonetheless requests a copy of my poem that appeared on the bus, so he can hang it in his office. The poetic line, if seemingly faint, remains, and anyone will seek and grab hold when in need. They remember at once that poetry is not a private club: it’s there for the taking. But I want more. I want people walking on that line, tripping over it. For god’s sake just noticing, on some ordinary day, that it’s there.
Some of the readers we recruited engaged deeply with the poems we sent them. Others were frustrated, or left unmoved, and let us know. (Two poems, Don Coles’ “Recluse” and Richard Outram’s “Barbed Wire,” received no comment at all; I have no explanation for this beyond the accident of who received what, and what spoke to whom.) These 44 people applied a spirit of generosity and a genuine curiosity to the exercise; we found among them no overt disdain or disregard for poetry, and little fear of it. Their reactions appear here following the poems and the insightful essays written about each by other poets. They are frank, occasionally flip, and in many cases colourful, surprising, memorable or thought-provoking—especially when cast against these more formal, more technical, more “insider” discussions of the poems. It’s possible that this combination, the spontaneous conversation that seems to spring up around the varying commentary and analysis, nudges us a notch or two nearer to understanding—in not just an intellectual, but also in a human sense—that knotty question: How do poems work? It feels like a start.
1. Drafts of these new essays initially came to us by way of Carmine Starnino, editor of Signal Editions at Véhicule Press and Stephanie Bolster; they were originally commissioned for an anthology they had planned to co-edit that never saw realization. We are grateful for the opportunity to publish them in Arc, and to be able to release them from limbo.
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