Investigative Poetry: Are Poets the New Reporters?

It’s not unusual to come across, within a poem, a metaphor for the writing of poetry. For a reader, such a discovery is satisfying and delightful, and ever-so-slightly unnerving, a blurred window on the inner workings of a made thing. You see it, and then you don’t. And then, by focusing just so, you see it again. Poets do create such – metaphors deliberately, but not necessarily every time they occur. A metaphor may have an intended meaning beneath which some clue to Ars Poetica lurks. Recognising it – it might have the nature of a slip-up, letting out a secret of the trade, or it might carry a whiff of manifesto – a reader may have the sense that it snuck there without the poet catching on, at least not right away. This is poetry’s magic, how layers of meaning congregate in well-constructed lines, lines in which the poet has invested herself, which is sort of how things worked out for Kevin Costner’s character in the 1989 film Field of Dreams: build it, and they will come.

True to ‘form,’ many instances of poetry-making metaphor crept into the finest Canadian poems published in print and online in 2013, 50 of which were chosen with care and discernment by guest editor Sonnet L’Abbé, to appear in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 (Tightrope Books). One of my favourite instances lies within ‘Hotel,’ by Marilyn Bowering, a conversational poem in which the narrator looks back to a reckless time in her life. When she writes ‘… But this was the year of hotel rooms / When I looked into corners nobody swept and felt / their pull …’ it’s as if she’s pinpointed the birth of the poet. Who else feels drawn to such places, unkempt nowheres the rest of us hurry past, or busily erase with our brooms? This reading especially resonates when you move back up in the poem and see, tucked in between the salesman and miniskirt, the protest, ‘but my home was the library.’ Here may be a new, fairly reliable equation: Library Lurker + Dusty Corner Investigator = Poet. The library alone is mere preparation; it’s down in the dust where notions fuse into poems. Instinct draws poets to such crannies, for in them, often enough, things that matter, forgotten or overlooked or pushed roughly aside or tucked neatly away, wait to be found. A poet’s job is to not merely see, but to notice those things – including whatever associations, implications or questions they may raise – and report back to the rest of us.

I’m struck by how much that sounds like the job description of a reporter. Notice something, especially something that others are unaware of or are unwilling to acknowledge. Learn what you can about it, then pass that info on. In his essay ‘The Persistence of Poetry and the Destruction of the World,’ one collected among thirteen illuminating talks in The Tree of Meaning, esteemed poet and linguist Robert Bringhurst asks what a poet, ‘when he sees his own people destroying the world,’ should say? ‘Stop? Or, more politely, Please stop, please?’ Bringhurst answers his own question with a definition of the role of the poet – and, I would argue (his delineation of possible forms aside), the journalist:

‘All the poets of all times can only say one thing. They can say that what-is is. When he sees his people destroying the world, the poet can say, ‘we’re destroying the world.’ He can say it in narrative or lyric or dramatic or meditative form, tragic or ironic form, short form or long form, in verse or prose. But he cannot lie, as a poet, and offer himself as the savior. . . He cannot finally say anything more than the world has told him.’

The poet, like the journalist, is a conduit. And, like the journalist, the poet must stick to the truth. We are not, like fiction writers, necessarily making up plots. We are not, like essayists, necessarily arguing points or drawing conclusions. We are, like journalists, fact gatherers and posers of questions. We look, we ask, and we listen. We hunt down data of all kinds, from the intense emotional variety on down, or we simply await its approach: we take note, absorb, distill. We give it all back, rearranged in a way that, we hope, lets it speak clearly. We can mean different things when we speak of journalistic truth as opposed to poetic truth, but the basic realities upon which verse and metaphor are built are those that even poets, with their famously freewheeling ways, may not disregard. For a poet to exhort a reader to see, say, the unswept corner of a room in a new light, the poet cannot ignore the fundamental truths about such a place – indeed the poet must know these truths intimately, and the poet must understand, or at least sense, why he or she is compelled to call attention to them. When the poet directs our eye to the dust-ridden corner, and points behind that scene, or to an idea gathered within it, the poet is sharing important information with us, gleaned through rigorous research.

I don’t expect the world to start seeing the poet as a newfangled brand of journalist. Nor would I recommend that poets ever be hampered by journalism’s constraints, among them deadlines, word counts and the need to be ‘timely’ (and let’s not forget those famously cranky editors). My interest in poet-journalist parallels stems from the fact that I’ve practiced both arts myself. But I do think it’s worthwhile noticing the common ground between the two disciplines; my comparison is not an idle one. It’s no secret that amid global political and economic volatility, and in consequence of the vast breadth and reach of free digital media, the very fundamentals of the fourth estate, the tenets of free speech and the ideal of the journalist as society’s truth-teller are faltering. The work of actual journalists has somehow been left out of the budgetary models erecting around the new media. We are making do, more and more, with what I think of as sort-of journalism, almost journalism: sloppy and incomplete and inexperienced reporting, poor writing, rushed editing.

At the same time, counter-intuitively, something exciting is going on. The popular satire of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – even the homegrown satire in YouTube videos – provides many viewers with the double-whammy of current affairs embedded within their underlying absurdities and hypocrisies. Many people now chiefly get their news from such shows, or from strings of Twitter feeds, where events are filtered through tweeters’ reactions, which can be, often as not, linguistically creative and layered with meaning. This speaks to a growing sophistication in how a population living in a media-saturated culture learns to process information: lightening quick, able to synthesise, critique and reconstitute, all at once. We can glean the essence of a fact or whole political scandal through the black joke into which it’s already been transformed. What’s more, we like processing information this way, the extra challenge it poses, and the reward it offers. It’s mentally, and sometimes emotionally and politically, galvanising.

This means two things for poetry, as I see it. One, for all the handwringing over contemporary poetry’s supposed inaccessibility, readers are becoming ever more astute, and instinctively attuned to the types of tricks poets like to play: layering, juxtaposing, recasting, fragmenting. The corollary to this is that what poets do naturally should become more compelling and more relevant to potential readers, even nontraditional readers of poetry. Is this optimistic? Maybe. But the second thing the current climate means for poetry makes that optimism feel at least somewhat justified. As traditional journalism flails and its online incarnations scramble to find their way, the work of the poets becomes that much more important as a record and reconsideration of our times, past and present. There is and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, an ever-increasing need for poets to be visible and to be heard in the general discourse.

The more I see and feel this to be so, the more I find myself noticing, when I pick up a literary journal, that it’s in the lines and words and in-depth investigations of the poets where we can find, in large measure, the most urgent news of our day. Unlike the traditional news media, which was always meant to turn a profit, poetry has the advantage – at least it looks like advantage in this turbulent age – of never having been hampered by financial expectations. We have granting bodies, yes, and there are always questions of what restrictions these pose or are perceived to pose on artists. But a grant is not an income. A grant is more like a reprieve; its implications within the context of a poet’s life work, I would argue, can only be limited. No one, really, will pay poets for what they do. Every poet knows this before sitting down at her desk. To think and sit and work at all is to do so out of sheer will.

Poets, like journalists, deal fundamentally in facts. But the kinds of facts they may grapple with, and how, stretch forward and backward as far as the eye can see, and farther yet than that. Poets are allowed to momentarily confuse us, or confound our expectations: break open our habitual perceptions, turn our gaze. Form and tone and the very nuts and bolts of language are the poet’s to manipulate as required by theme or subject. They can be reverent and irreverent at the same time, and nowhere is this better shown than when they plunge into words themselves and begin to unstick them, sometimes in chunks, sometimes letter by letter, from the intricate webbing in which we normally lay them out. Barriers between geography and age and topic may be scrambled, torn apart. Some moment in history can be mashed against a scientific principle from another time and place, a fictional voice spooned in to bind the whole. This freedom, this so-called freedom to examine an unswept corner – not sweep it clean, but examine it – while your neighbours are punching the clock or feeding their children or diligently taming their patch of Earth, has given poetry a reputation for frivolity, for being a game we can only afford to play when time and circumstance permit. But the shaky state of journalism’s moral authority, coupled with widespread sophistication – and real hunger – in potential readers, means we live in an age ripe for the dismantling of that persistent myth.

When I read the poems in the new Best Canadian and think, as such an anthology demands of its reader, about the nature of the contemporary Canadian poets’ project, I see a busy, dedicated, desperate crew of observers – who happen to also be song-makers, whisperers, chanters, keepers of the line – scurrying through land, sea and sky, to dig into garden and city, to pry open doors and fling back drapes, to trace the flights of birds, the rituals of grief and love, the disappointments and horrors and wonders of our age, and of others that have fed into it. As we read in ‘Ultrasound,’ Erín Moure and Robert Majzels’s translation of Nicole Brossard’s poem, ‘the present wants the present up to the ears.’

The present is never just the present. It’s stuffed with the kind of matter poets are designed to separate and lay out for public viewing. In this way, poets can offer a correction: they can take what’s been put before us and plough through it right back to its source, or sources. And they can do it on terms and by means they set themselves. This makes for exciting and exceedingly relevant reading. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 contains one offering by a recently deceased mainstay of Canadian letters. Elizabeth Brewster’s poem ‘If I should meet myself…’ was originally printed in the very first edition of The Fiddlehead, in 1945. It was reprinted in the magazine in 2013 in tribute to its author. The poem asks a question we could all apply to ourselves, and that we might also apply to our collective literary efforts: ‘If I should meet myself / ten years or twenty from today / would I still know myself / or turn unrecognised away?’ Implicit in Brewster’s quaintly rhyming question, which is pretending to be more playful than it is, is whether we would care to know ourselves? Whether we should care? Will we be deserving of recognition by our own selves in the future? Our Canadian poets, I’d wager – and I have a hunch Brewster might agree – will indeed. As they prove in the poems, they are striding into the heart of what is, or what could be, our collective, civic conversation. They have the potential to set a tone: to deepen, enliven and heighten that discourse. They’re fierce, intelligent and funny, inventive and deeply engaged. They believe in the worth of their enterprise. They answer to no corporate entity or boss. They answer to us, their readers, and to themselves, their own internal voices, and to that voice Bringhurst insists every true poet must be attuned to: the world itself. This year’s poems peel back the surface of what’s going on around us, what has gone on, what’s happening in and to our nation, our society, our culture and ourselves. In so doing, they insist upon their own necessity.

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