With The Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Poetry, editors Mark Callanan and James Langer have put on an anthological clinic. The criteria for inclusion are clear and rational: poets must have had a strong connection to Newfoundland prior to publishing their first book and that book must have appeared after 1964, the year E.J. Pratt died. The poets are arranged chronologically by first book publication, which is less arbitrary than date of birth. Perhaps most importantly, there are only eleven poets included, with each poet allotted between six and thirteen poems, spaced over nine to nineteen pages. All of these decisions conspire to present a picture that is clean, clear and uncluttered.
The contents of CNP prove that its editors have good taste as well as sound judgment. Eight of the eleven entries are consistently strong and occasionally excellent. It’s unfortunate, therefore, that the book’s first contributor, Al Pittman, is one of the least compelling. While by no means bad, Pittman’s plain-prose narratives and lyrics sound more like tired period style than the signature work of an indispensable poet. The other two weak spots, in my estimation, are the poems of Agnes Walsh and Sue Sinclair. Walsh is better known as a playwright, and one of her six poems (wisely, CNP’s briefest entry) reads more like postcard fiction. Her work in verse is quite weak. Sue Sinclair, by contrast, is capable of verbal magic, as we see in a vividly descriptive poem like “Red Pepper.” Too often, however, Sinclair’s lack of interest in concrete particulars generates sententious reiterations of vague abstractions and stock poeticisms. Particularly glaring is the near-verbatim repetition of a key line in two poems, “Paddling” and “Portugal Cove, Night.”
Overall, however, the book goes from strength to strength, with judicious selections from several poets who have earned and cemented reputations both on and off the Granite Planet: John Steffler, former poet laureate of Canada; Mary Dalton, who has emerged as one of the country’s most interesting experimentalists; Richard Greene, winner of the 2010 GG Award; Michael Crummey, better known for his fiction, but whose best work has been in poetry; the much-belaureled Ken Babstock, widely seen as one of the leading poets of his generation; and Patrick Warner, whose last three collections were published outside of Newfoundland, but who hasn’t received nearly the attention his brilliantly versatile work commands. While there’s room to quibble over the choice of certain poems over others in these poets’ sections—I really miss Dalton’s “Gallous,” Babstock’s “Palindromic” and Warner’s “The Bacon Company of Ireland”—they leave you hungry to read, or re-read, the poets’ books, which a good anthology entry should do.
There are also a couple of very pleasant revelations, for me at least. Tom Dawe, who evokes Frost in his work, cleaves to simple diction, but sketches his land’s “frosty / hardtack times” with verbal brio and mythic imagination. This is the sort of top-notch poet the Atlantic provinces have been all too adept at keeping to themselves. The same has been true for Carmelita McGrath, a poet I was only dimly aware of before reading this book, probably because, until a collection this year with Goose Lane Editions, she hadn’t released a book of poems since 1997. McGrath’s poems are sharp, dark and brutally honest; like Dawe and Warner, she deserves a large readership. As does this anthology; a better primer to a region’s contemporary poetry I haven’t seen and can’t readily imagine.
Zachariah Wells (www.zachariahwells.com) lives in Halifax.