Paul Tyler on Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008

by Paul Tyler

Stephanie Bolster (ed.), Molly Peacock (series ed.). Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008. Toronto: Tightrope Books, 2008.

A Brief Review

Bravo: a Canadian first. Tightrope Books releases its first annual roundup of poetry from Canadian journals, revealing what poets are up to in their proverbial basements, garrets and broom closets from coast to coast to coast. Buy it, or borrow it, but do read it. Hats off to series editor Molly Peacock and to guest editor Stephanie Bolster who accepted the challenge of scrutinizing every poem published in a Canadian magazine or journal in 2007. Journals should be front-line forums for our literary dialogue, and this collection serves notice: there is no short supply of quality. It has taken a long time for a “best” Canadian poetry annual to appear. Published declarations of the “best” do not sit well with Canadians. We are wary of a poverty of perspective, and skeptical of subjectivity posing as objectivity under the moniker “best.” Bolster is well aware of the problem: “doubtless, my own aesthetic…is reflected.” Echoing Alice Munro, she asks herself: “who do you think you are?” The major risk of a single-editor anthology is sameness. The collection does display a love of ellipsis, abrupt syntax, and jarring rhythms. A dense, dark-wooded language, where meaning becomes a bit lost, a bit bent in all that refracted light, forms the dominant aesthetic. The editor’s vision is guided, at least in part, by taste, but I stop short of calling it sameness. She stared down the mammoth pile of text, reading and rereading, until poems that held her wonder the longest remained. But how did poems of a more simple stature fair in such a reading? There is something to be said for a subtle poem, or one that strikes with an emotional wallop—poems that might not improve on the 10th reading, but are worth the original jolt. Their absence perhaps says more about our magazine editors and writers than it does about this particular editor’s bias. But whomever is responsible, overall, this collection does challenge intellectually more than emotionally. And I find Bolster’s line of evaluation concerning what makes a poem “good” a bit moralizing. In her overview, I wish she had tapped into some of our more expansive Canadian poetics: what does poetry do out there in the world? What does it signify to us? Bolster speculates that “noisy, dense, disjunctive” poetry is on the increase. This must have some significance, but she does not engage deeply enough with her own observation. It seems we are a country eager to create new ways of saying things, but are becoming less concerned with things themselves. Opaque subjects in a small number of poems left me cold, pushing the concern with language too far out of the realm of the concrete. When the signifier is so removed from the signified (as to not be a signifier anymore) the reader just gets bored. I am familiar with Archibald MacLeish’s axiom “a poem should be, not mean;” poetry relies on such tensions. But another bit of pith is worth remembering: “no ideas but in things” (William Carlos Williams). Some of the poems that struck a balance remarkably well between concreteness and linguistic invention were by Yvonne Blomer, Barry Dempster, Jeremy Dodds, Jason Heroux, Bill Howell, Tim Lilburn, and Don McKay. Despite my reservations about the nature of such collections, we needed it. I look forward to seeing more of its calibre: diverse voices distilled, every page a new world.



an Arc Brief Review [read more reviews]
Published in Arc 62: Summer 2009
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