Peter Van Toorn is one of Canada’s most inventive and irreverent poets. The sonnet is one of the oldest and most venerable of poetry’s set forms, dating back to fourteenth century Italy. Put the two together and you get a unique sort of magic—and a poem that defies just about anyone’s idea of what should “work” in poetry.
At a time when most writers aspiring to compose poetry were scorning the sonnet as a fusty relic of antiquity and British colonialism (Mountain Tea was first published in 1984), Peter Van Toorn was playfully toiling to make the form new. In “Mountain Leaf” Van Toorn, far from finding the form constricting, seems to regard the strictures of a straightforward Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet as too easy. The stereotype of formal verse is that it involves conservative, conformist rule-following. Van Toorn, who is also a jazz musician and understands that genuine improvisation is impossible without strict discipline, will have none of that. Instead, he invents for himself a fresh batch of constraints against which to pit his free-wheeling imagination.