Poems about Orpheus are a dime a dozen: I’m not sure any myth has been reimagined more often than that of the ill-fated Thracian poet and singer. So if a poet wants to write a new Orphic hymn, it had better be pretty damn good, or offer something that hasn’t been done before: injecting an Orpheus poem into an indestructible microbe, à la Christian Bök, for instance. Which brings me to the unfortunate group of poems that close the second section of Earth and Heaven, all centred on Orpheus. With the exception of Steven Heighton’s “Were You to Die,” none do anything to enhance understanding of the complex Orpheus myth, a field already trodden, in the 20th century alone, by H.D., Rilke and Milosz to name but a few. Playing with myth, simply for the sake of doing so, can be a problem with myth poetry in general and with this anthology in particular.
Mythopoeic poetry, to use the academic term, in Canada had its heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s, with exulted critic Northrop Frye as its muse. As a movement it was largely a spent force by the mid-1980s, owing partially to the general fragmentation of the national poetry scene. Jernigan and Jones hope to prove that myth poetry in Canada (in fact, this is an anthology of Canadian myth poetry, a detail inexplicably left out of the title by the editors) is alive and well, to “look…beyond that school to a larger sense of identity and connection,” as Jones puts it, and “to see myth poetry as a tradition that is broad and vital, as opposed to narrow and moribund” according to Jernigan in their respective introductions. If the intention was to showcase poetry beyond the initial movement, then I would question the wisdom of using its high priestess, Jay Macpherson, as its presiding spirit: her poems bookend the collection (the only poet to appear twice) and the book’s four sections are loosely taken from The Four Ages of Man.
As in any anthology, the poems vary in quality. There are fine pieces by P.K. Page, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Daryl Hine, John Thompson and Anne Wilkinson, and I was pleasantly surprised by two poets I knew little about: Diana Brebner and Kerry-Lee Powell. I would have liked to have known more but, astonishingly, the anthology has no author bios. The book’s final section, on the passing of the gods, is both its best and worst. It contains several poems mentioned above but also many I find problematic. Almost half the poems are in some form of rhyme, as though when confronted with final destruction, poets respond with structure. Potentially, this is an interesting strategy, but in Macpherson, Richard Outram, E.J. Pratt and James Pollock, the effect is mere cleverness when the poems lack a depth commiserate to the subject.
Ultimately, as I read this collection—in one sitting as the editors implore—I found myself thinking that lurking in this slender anthology there was a more comprehensive and compelling one waiting to break out. Even Jones admits the collection is personal, that many worthy poets were left out, and that a “more definitive anthology is overdue.” If that’s the case, why do this one? I may be conservative about this but I’ve always thought the purpose of poetry anthologies was to be definitive…and then become obsolete after five years. There are some quality poems here, but this collection can only serve as a basic primer for how myth poetry has evolved, and continues to evolve, in this country.
Christopher Doda is a poet, editor and critic living in Toronto. He is the author of two collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson and is currently working on a book of glosas based on hard rock and heavy metal lyrics, to be titled Glutton for Punishment. He is also the Series Editor of the annual Best Canadian Essays.
MINE FOR MYTHS IN ARC!