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Poetry is a Social Art

Two users have a disagreement about a line from Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” When the poem suggests the truth be told “with explanation kind,” the user named thatcutechick contends that this means the speaker of truth “blunts it, making its reception kinder.” The user named arifeldman disagrees, mansplaining that to be “blunt” is the opposite of “easing” the truth (duh).

Two important observations can be made from this exchange. First, well over a century after her death, the most private of poets continues to take part in public conversation. Summarizing Lynn J. Shakinovsky’s “Hidden Listeners: Dialogism in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” Donald Wesling writes that, in Dickinson, the “boundaries are blurred between reader and addressee” and that the reader is “oddly implicated” in Dickinson’s “confusions—a poem’s passive constructions, placement of dashes, or seemingly inept repetition of sounds.” Wesley claims “these are social aspects of the text, and they display in language Dickinson’s marginal existence as a woman and a poet.” In annotating the poem, these Genius users reaffirm the poem as a site of social interaction in which dialogue and contention is never ending.

Their specific disagreement raises a second observation: word meaning is always in flux. Definition is not meaning, because meaning exists in use. Scholar Wolff Michael Roth writes that, “no language, no word ever is completely our own: always coming from, being for, and returning to the other.” Our example speaks to this point. “To blunt” means something quite different than “to be blunt.” The user arifeldman confuses the two meanings in his uptake of the word. “It is this uptake,” Roth tells us, “that introduces the dialectical moment into the word that makes it, in social interaction, the living and ever changing phenomenon it is.”

I think the user named KingCloud262 gets that, if only implicitly. The line “As Lightning to the Children eased,” this user writes, “brings the Juice to the Youth and invites her readers to partake of that image.” KingCloud262 mirrors Dickinson’s use of capitalization, and the verb “partake” figures the reader as appropriately active. So far as bringing “the Juice to the Youth,” however, I had to refer to Urban Dictionary in order to grasp, and thus complete, this bit of our dialogue. Turns out this use of “juice” most likely refers to respect and credibility. If that is indeed the case, then I think KingCloud is only half-right. Children are not simply exalted in this poem. A year after KingCloud’s comment was posted, another user chimed in and cleared this up a bit: “She calls her audience both ‘Children’ and ‘every man’, creating an interesting suggestion about human nature.” KingCloud’s bold statement has been given subtlety by this response, though it would take another active party to tease apart that subtlety and keep the dialogue flowing.

I’ll leave that to you, dear reader—and thus does the reclusive poet continue to accumulate her hidden listeners.


This minor episode in the illustrious history of poetry criticism gets to the heart of the matter: poetry is a social art. To read, write, or react to a poem is to take part in a social interaction.

This is not a universally celebrated opinion. Jason Guriel, for instance, claims that a recently ascendant desire for literary community has left writers “afraid to stand alone.” He defines community as “a supportive web of likeminded practitioners, braided together and ready to enfold you” and claims that the current model of literary community makes an individual writer “a node in a network.” Guriel goes on to assert that “the critical faculty” is the first victim of this drive for community, because it requires “an independent spirit” that the drive for community makes impossible.

It is tempting to dismiss Guriel’s argument as that of a lonely and prematurely-old crank who’s mad that others don’t share and love his views. But that would miss an important point. If we are to be truly inclusive of others despite our discomfort, then we ought to give Guriel a fair hearing—one that’s more thorough than is likely to happen in our instant, quick-tempered, modern discourse. Plus, he makes some valiant points. There most certainly is a tendency to collectively shame a supposed transgressor of social and linguistic norms established through the authority of the progressive-minded literary mindweb. And a case can be made that we need a safe space for critics who are, in Guriel’s words, “jerky enough” to express disappointment of a book in a review (although we needn’t be jerks in the way we express such opinions). Guriel is also correct to point out that a poet can get “very nearly all of the society they require from literature.”

Still, when it comes to his main argument, I have to question his assertions, many of which are badly in need of support and explanation. My first claim from above—that word meaning is always contentious—leads me to ask: what does he mean by “community”? He offers only negative visions: community can only be “like minded,” making one a “node” that cannot “stand alone.” By omission, he rejects any notion of community that would foster and accept individual difference, and he offers absolutely no evidence to support his sweeping claims.

Instead, he champions, through his oft-cited fave Kay Ryan, the ability to “go off in your own direction.” But what does that mean? Is one’s literary output necessarily more affected by the kinds of social community that Guriel so despises than by the society one may receive “from literature” alone? Or is it possible to be connected to others and not suffer the curse of “like-mindedness”?

Guriel seems unable to imagine an individuality that could survive the horrors of social influence that occurs outside of books. And, as Paul Barrett points out in a retort also published in the Walrus, he does not realize that he, too, is a part of a community from which he draws his concept of what a poet should do. Guriel could also be leaving gaps in his argument on purpose. After all, the more incomplete and certain an argument, the more people it will piss off, and the more attention it will draw, including retorts like Barrett’s. That is, maybe Guriel’s just writing literary clickbait, that most social of writing acts.


Guriel’s belief in literary individualism is notably shared by the mid-20th century Russian thinker, Makhail Bakhtin. Although, what Guriel celebrates, Bakhtin condemns. Bakhtin critiqued poetry for lacking the social element, or “dialogism,” that is natural to language, resulting in an artificial “monolingual” art form. “The poet,” Bakhtin writes, “accepts the idea of a unitary and singular language and a unitary, monologically sealed-off utterance.” The singularity of voice that Bakhtin describes is unique to the individual poet—it is an internally consistent voice—but it is also often determined by an external authority, the kind that might suggest to a poet what poetry “should do.”

The result is that poetry is woefully anti-social, unlike the novel. Poetry demands a “centralization” of language, whereas the novel mimics the true heteroglossic nature of language. Heteroglossia is, for these purposes, Bakhtin’s most important term. It refers to the centripetal (centralizing) and centrifugal (destabilizing) forces of language. The former enforces rules on language and meaning, while the latter allows those rules to change and evolve.

Both are ever-present. Centripetal forces allow us to agree on what we speak of, while centrifugal forces allow language to adjust to a changing context. Because poetry is not an everyday use of language, and thus not prey to the natural laws of language use, it can strive to be centralizing and norm-bound, or to be a linguistic shit-disturber. Guriel supports the former use. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, Guriel claimed that Dylan’s lyrics have “none of the density of real poetry.” The very idea that “real poetry” exists suggests a monological framework, in which there is a kind of voice and perspective that the poet should use. Bakhtin might describe such a belief as an “intentional individuality of poetic style and of its monologic steadfastness.”

Matthew Tierney told me in a Puritan interview that he once believed there was something that a poem “should do,” but eventually wised up to the better idea of “what a poem can do.” The shift from “should” to “can” is profound. “Can” suggests an openness to diverse influence. Before we get into that, though, I must first question the very possibility of a monolingual poetry. Bakhtin’s case against poetry was, after all, too strong—and he gives us the tools with which to dismiss his dismissal of poetry.


Bakhtin was writing in a time and place when poetry was on pedestal and the novel was dismissed. Donald Wesling writes that Bakhtin “needed to pull poetry down…in order to bring narrative prose up from the bottom” and that this “poetry-over-prose prejudice was a notably

Russian one.” Bakhtin was purposely tilting the field toward prose, to give it its due, while critiquing a particularly canonical poetic tradition. However, he did allow for the possibility of a dialogistic version of poetry. While “official” poetry was busy building its monolingual empire, Bakhtin writes, “the heteroglossia of the clown sounded forth…where there was to be found a lively play with the ‘languages’ of poets, scholars, monks, knights and others.” Bakhtin’s ghost might appreciate how clownish we’ve become in his absence.

Poetry is by no means inherently monolinguistic. In fact, monolinguism might not even be possible. Dana Polan claims that Bakhtin’s “notion of a dialogism underlying all speech acts” leads to “a reading of the ways in which [poetry] reveals sites of dialogism between crevices of a dominant monologism.” So, even if a poet is trying to be monolinguistic, they are bound to fail. In the responses to Dickinson’s poem, above, readers are boring into the poem’s crevices and “revealing sites of dialogism.” And so, the very possibility of a reader renders any poem non-monolingual, because the presence of a reader disrupts any attempt on the poet’s part to maintain a monolingual discourse, rendering every poem ever a social act.


We need not require such overt efforts on the reader’s part. Jordan Abel just won the $75,000 Griffin Poetry Prize with an explicitly social book, one that alters the text of western novels to create new texts out of them. In all of his books, he is clearly entering into a dialogue with the texts he’s appropriating, and changing, and the result is a dialogic text that reveals gaping crevices in the dialogue concerning Canadian national identity. Likewise, CD Wright’s One Big Self combines voices and observations she recorded at Louisiana prisons to create what Martin Earl calls “the voice of the hovering, permeable narrator that gradually emerges throughout the development of the poem.” This is a poetic voice made of other voices—an “I” that contains multitudes.

I could go on and on about heteroglossia in poetry. But I will focus on Vivek Shraya. You don’t need to get past the epigraph of even this page is white before you have irrefutable proof that this is a social book. That epigraph is provided by George Elliot Clarke, and it address Shraya directly. The presence of an interview half way through the book, and the general tone of direct address to the reader, indicates these poems are not pretending—for a second—to a monological use of language. This dialogical book, though, has a particular way of conversing. It offers the reader a “cold eye,” one with as little of “the image of a language” (Bakhtin’s term) as possible.

Wesling defines Bakhtin’s elusive term, “the image of a language,” as “a category for marking off mid-level collective utterances: characterizations of kinds of languages that are smaller than national languages.” In other words, these are conventions—the lawyer’s wonkiness, the construction worker’s banter, the teacher’s instructions. In literature, these conventions are often used to signal historical and social conditions and perspectives, but they also provide opportunities for subversion. Wesling claims that Phyllis Wheatley “wrote with all the complex conventions of Augustan poetry but changed the vocabulary and attitudes, finding the image of a Black language and selfhood within the existing American English.”

Examples abound of poets taking on a reigning image of language and altering it in the name of a competing image, thus forcing the reigning image into a dialogue with its newly introduced variation. Often, as with Wheatley, that initial image carries with it authority, and so the subversion of the image is also the subversion of the authority it connotes. But there is also the possibility of moving beyond any image of a language, thus creating a perspective that is relatively independent of accepted convention. This is something that Shraya achieves.

Wesling explains that WB Yeats began by appropriating Victorian style in poems like “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” but that he moved on to “a plain-speaking style…to use for themes relating to Irish nationalism and chaotic modernity.” Yeats’ image of language evolved steadily away from Victorianism, culminating in his famous epitaph: “Cast a cold eye/ on life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” For Wesling, this marks the completion of Yeats’ journey past the images of English that he had inherited, creating “a language beyond convention, even beyond judgement and mortality and life.” Wesling claims, “Yeats’s ‘cold eye’ is, very likely, the furthest reach of any image of a language,” meaning that such a sentiment is as anti-conventional as is possible.

Just such a “cold eye” is at work in even this page. The book opens by demystifying the most famous lines of the rapper Notorious B.I.G.: “it was all a dream/ I used to read Word Up magazine” becomes the deadpan “I have white dreams/ billboard magazines.” And so Biggie’s romantic, self-promotional image becomes a self-critical utterance that is startlingly direct and unsettling. Another poem from the book’s first section, “fair,” epitomizes this effect. The first stanza establishes the familiar sentimental voice of a loving older sibling (“my arm ever wrapped around your shoulder”), before the second deflates that with the speaker’s revelation that when the younger sibling was “called the n word” for having darker skin, “all i did was bask.” The speaker is implicated in her own racist thought which wipes away the conventional sentimental language that precedes it. As readers, it is like the carpet has been taken out from under us—that nice, image-laden carpet of “poetic” language.

Sonnet L’abbe puts it well: “Shraya’s accessible poems make a whole bunch of dumb shit plain: an appropriate approach to focusing poetic intention on the day-to-day mundaneness of racial micro- and macro-aggression.” To “make shit plain” is a useful definition of the image-less language Wesling describes. But L’abbe also points out the social import of such language: that it directs focus away from the literary world of convention and image, and toward the “day-to-day” real world of oppression. That lines up with Wesling’s claim that Yeats turned to plain-spokenness as he turned to politics. Of course, writing within a conventional image of language is a social act whether one subverts or adopts those conventions. But to present from outside of any image of language is a different, more radical act, one that forces the reader to engage in a more confrontational type of discourse.

By contrast, when a poem uses a recognizable image of language, we must experience it through that image of language, forcing on us a distance from the poem’s utterance. When Atwood writes in Susanna Moodie’s voice, we read this as if it is a staged play, because the poet is borrowing a voice that creates a specific image of language. This allows us to say, “that’s Moodie talking, and it’s not to me.” That’s an interesting type of dialogic experience, and it can be challenging in a way that I bet Bakhtin’s ghost really digs. But when that distance is removed, when the language addresses us directly, we then have to own the other half of the conversation alone. That’s what creates the best moments in even this page, when the book locks the door on us, and we have to sit in the room with that language. There’s no getting out of our side of that conversation, unless we stop reading. The words, as always, remain other than us—“alien,” to use one of Bakthin’s favorite terms—but when the words lack an “image of a language,” there is one less degree of separation.


Poetry is a social art because it is made of language and language is fundamentally social. The unavoidable social nature of poetry, however, does not eliminate the importance of individual difference. The relationship of the individual to the collective in our civilization is murky, to say the least, and that murkiness plays itself out in our poetry. The speaker of Shraya’s poems, interviews and word collages seems, on the surface, to speak within a collective framework. Whiteness and gender-normativity are posited as a cohesive backdrop against which the speaker’s difference stands. Yet despite the convincing picture of the overwhelming prominence of race and gender, there is still an individual voice here that unsettles any simply consistent argument. We have the speaker’s Indian mother locking her doors in fear as she drives through a reservation, and the speaker repeating the act as a black man approaches her own car. We have the unnamed “you” of “how to not disappoint you completely,” and an “i” turning suddenly inward and wishing to “tunnel back/ through time” to ensure that “when/ i grew up i wouldn’t feel/ i had lost everything.” Both of those moments complicate the relationship of the part to the whole, because the outside “you” becomes particular and not collective, and the “i” becomes individual and not simply a spokesperson or representative of a larger group. This speaker is a product of social and historical circumstance, but not wholly.

In that last respect, this book is typical of all poetry. It has always been, and always will be, impossible to avoid influence in poetry, and it is folly to attempt to prescribe a “best practice” in regulating that influence. There will always be Guriels who “know” what is “right,” or more often, “wrong” with the poetry of the day. And so, we get gems like this from Guriel: “if you could shake the bylines free from a volume of The Best Canadian Poetry, you’d have a devil of a time restoring them to their rightful poems.” Bullshit.

This is a fancy way to say “all these poems sound the same.” Once again, there’s no support for this claim, and the logic of the analogy is questionable. If one were able to name the author of each poem, wouldn’t that suggest that they are all so predictable that you can name them? And, given the unlikely circumstance that you know all the poets’ names and bodies of work, wouldn’t not being able to match the name to the poet be a sign of aesthetic diversity and surprise? That would be, in my view, a more appropriate description of Canadian poetry.


I’m not bored. I’m actually quite behind in my reading.

Back in high school, in Michigan, I played Canada’s national sport, Lacrosse. I never quite latched on to how to play defense in that sport. You always had to watch your back for sneaky offensive movement, so the coaches would yell at me: “Head on a swivel! HEAD ON A SWIVEL!” When I consider my experience of Canadian poetry, I’m reminded of that. Cutting one way is the open and deceptively casual work of Aisha Sasha John. Then the tidy lyrics of Bardia Sanee cut right down the middle. Souvankham Thommavongsa’s whispers are startlingly clear, sneaking around the net from behind. Erina Harris goes big and bold—yet so careful. Raoul Fernandez captures the peace, Phoebe Wang the contemplation, Doyali Islam beauty split in two. Aaron Tucker is in conversation with poetic computers and chess masters, Kate Sutherland with the rhinos of history and myth, Kayla Czaga with the history of a father. John Wall Barger makes a myth of Halifax. Donato Mancini makes a myth of language. Canisia Lubrin makes a poetry of history. None of these descriptions adequately capture these poets, and will very soon be out of date anyway as their bodies of work continue to grow and change.

I know, or have at least met, all the poets I just named. I could go on. I’ve interviewed them, worked with them, reviewed them, published them. They are not so weak that they will simply fold into some common voice. Indeed, all the incentives run the other way. They don’t want to hear their voice coming out of another person’s work, and they don’t want to sound like just another poet. Some aesthetic convergence is inevitable in any age and place. So is exciting difference. If you look for the latter in the poetry coming out of Canada today, you’ll find it.

I might even return to the quiet lyrics of one Jason Guriel. The one about his father’s stamp collection – that’s a great poem. I just read it again. It spoke to me in voices: the voice of the speaker, of the nurse who stops by, and of the father who put the stamps in dialogue with each, what the speaker so lovingly calls “these windows he long ago/ decided would go/ together.”




E Martin Nolan writes poetry and essays. He’s an associate editor at The Puritan Magazine. He teaches Engineering Communication at the University of Toronto. You might know him as Ted.