The New Canon

Ed. by Carmine Starnino

Anthologies of contemporary poetry are essential. This is not just for the obvious reason that good poetry needs every platform and venue it can get these days, but because with so much poetry being published a critical selection is of real assistance in providing an introduction to the best of what’s out there.

And it’s not just a question of sorting the good books from the bad. The threshing continues even within the slenderest of volumes. Books of poetry are a bit like CDs – a few hits, some B-sides, and then a bunch of studio filler. Now I should say right away that there isn’t anything new about this. Shakespeare had some good sonnets, some bad sonnets, and a lot that were pretty mediocre. Go through the Collected Poems of the greatest poets who have ever lived and you’ll find plenty of junk to skim over. But in our time, with the almost complete extinction of the long (that is, book length) poem, the fallout from Poe’s Poetic Principle (“I hold that a long poem does not exist”) is perhaps more obvious. As Scott Thompson recently put it while discussing the inclusion of a book of poetry on the Canada Reads shortlist, “a poem doesn’t have any business being longer than a page.” He would not object to reading a poem (at least one no more than a page in length), but “would never read a book of poems.” And this, I might add, was in reference to a book – Al Purdy’s Rooms for Rent in the Outer Planets: Selected Poems 1962-1996 – that was already a sampler. Thompson confessed himself a vulgarian and Philistine, but I’ve found myself making the same sort of point the last couple of years during the Runaway Jury deliberations, an automatic acknowledgment that each book under consideration did, indeed, “have its moments.” Even in books that I didn’t like very much I could usually find one or two poems that might have been considered among the year’s best. If only we had them all together in an anthology . . .

I’m happy to say that with The New Canon, edited by Carmine Starnino, we have such a collection, featuring the work of fifty Canadian poets born between 1955 and 1975. Yes, the poems are short, typically only a page in length. Even the excerpts from longer works are of individual parts of poetic sequences, which is something other than a long poem. But more on that later. This is still one of the best anthologies I’ve read in a long time, a refreshing and inspiring mix of energetic, optimistic, and finely crafted poetry that should inspire even the Scott Thompsons of this country (which is to say, all of us) to read the whole book.

Starnino is an able editor, poet, and critic who has made a name for himself in recent years by being a bit of a poetry polemicist. He begins his Introduction in this mode, claiming that The New Canon will not be just another “pluralistic, broadly-based, non-partisan anthology” but rather a “justification of prejudice.” It is part of an ongoing debate over Canadian poetry, arguing with earlier anthologies such as (most notably) Dennis Lee’s The New Canadian Poets.

As he proceeds there is some attempt to soft-shoe the rhetorical edge. Nevertheless, he does lay down certain positions. The main problem with anthologies like Lee’s is that they are without a guiding principle – “anything goes.” A stark contrast to this approach is announced with Starnino’s title, which, in addition to assuming the existence of the canonical, brings in the adjective to further “activate the meaning of canon as ‘tenet’ or ‘rule’.” These tenets and rules are gathered from the poems, not forced upon them. And the spirit of the age is clearly drawing strength from traditional forms. It moves ahead by looking back: “I regard this book as the most concrete evidence yet of a new principle at work in our poetry – or better yet, an old principle now resurfacing.” Consider that “better yet” well.

The sort of language that we find in this debate between tradition and “the new” is full of such political overtones. You can hear it in words like “radical,” “conservative,” “reactionary,” and “avant-garde.” I myself have had occasion (justified, I think, given the context) to refer to Starnino as a neo-con (in a review of A Lover’s Quarrel). The usual way the debate runs is to oppose the avant-garde, the “freakish postmodern” experimentalist “speaking-in-tongues” poetry typically (but not exclusively) associated with the LANGUAGE movement, with a more traditionalist aesthetic of craftsmanship. As Starnino points out, correctly, this is a misleading characterization, as the “new principle” that is at work in his poets is progressive and experimental, adapting a poetic past – that is inescapable anyway – in bold new ways. However, knowing something about the landscape of the divide does prepare you a bit for who’s going to be in and who’s going to be out of this anthology. Yes, Christian Bök is included, but nothing from Eunoia. And are you surprised? The poets here, Starnino tells us, regard poetry “as a major form for the examination of ideas, but consider it first and foremost a form (emphasis in the original).” Elsewhere he writes that with this group of poets “formal poetry has returned to the fore.”

To attempt to avoid the label of formalism then, and say that Formalist poetry (with a capital-F) does not exist, strikes at least one reader as trying to have one’s cake and eat it too.

Now personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this game of ins and outs. Unlike some commentators, I tend to feel that a confrontational mindset can be healthy for poetry. It’s good to write against something, if only as a means of clarifying one’s own ambition and aesthetic. We need the Other. If Starnino, following in the footsteps here of figures like David Solway, places a paranoid conspiracy-theory gloss on the Canadian scene, imagining “cabals” and “clans” of insurgents at the University of Calgary and the Kootenay School of Writing, then so be it. Everybody wants to be an outsider railing against an entrenched elite, especially in the arts. And it’s natural for a poet to feel marginalized since poetry itself only exists on the margins. I’m just not sure it bears much looking into. The roll call of New Canon poets includes numerous creative writing teachers, journal editors and prize winners. And while the Jubilate Circle may have been one of Solway’s inventions, might we not, after looking at the Index of Authors here, posit a Montreal Mafia?

All in good fun, of course. Starnino is a good example of the kind of critic he says that poetry requires, one capable of both recognizing and commenting on formal innovation: “critics who not only write with wooing detail of such minute structural irregularities, but recognize those irregularities as a platform for radical achievement.” As I’ve said before, great poetry needs great critics. Or, as Philip Marchand put it in a recent column: “Mainstream poets need rigorous, intelligible, smart commentators and critics and literary journalists. The actual poems need to be reviewed, explained, elucidated, argued over and occasionally dismissed by people who know good verse when they see it, in newspapers and periodicals that are actually read.”

My only quibble with Starnino’s writing is its wordiness. One appreciates the energy (oh how it is appreciated!), but one has the sense of someone who talks very quickly. I don’t, for example, see the distinction he makes between craft and style, or between poetry that develops vs. poetry that evolves. In the latter case he defines development as a breaking of bonds and a striving for the untested. Evolution is identified as “grow[ing] by mechanisms of mass extinction and replacement.” This is a weird way of characterizing both of these concepts. I would argue that poetry does in fact evolve, defining evolution as the dominance of more-or-less randomly generated mutations better adapted for survival, with the occasional eruption of long-recessive genes. The narrative epic in verse is thus a species of dinosaur; anecdotal free verse lyric the ubiquitous urban cockroach.

But I haven’t even talked about the poetry yet!

Reviewing any kind of anthology is difficult because there’s no way you can make generalizations that will apply to the entire selection. This is especially so with an anthology such as this. As noted, however, radical or experimental poetry is clearly out. What’s in is form. What this means is that qualities like rhythm and rhyme are, indeed, “in saddle.” Take the following stanza from David O’Meara’s “Letter to Auden” (which, at seven pages, is the longest poem in the book):

Attending, at last, to what is most commonplace:
Unbounced cheques, our neighbours’
Warm affection, the friendship of rooms
With sun and hardwood floors,
(If only life could arrange itself neatly as a rhyme,
Or the balanced way we climb
And relax inside a hammock)
But nothing we’ll ever know is that
Patly epigrammatic –

What a magnificent merging of form and content! The poet questions life’s ability to arrange itself neatly as a rhyme, and our inability to reduce our knowledge to pat epigrams, in as neatly rhymed and patly epigrammatic a stanza as you’ll find anywhere. Now: Ask yourself where that image of the hammock came from. The poet’s imagination yes, but wasn’t it found by the poem’s form? It occurs in parenthesis, so we have the idea of getting “inside” something already. Then we have the rhyme scheme, which forces O’Meara to find something to work (neatly) with “epigrammatic.” And finally there is the rhythm, which swings freely – in balance – without being disjunctive. The regular accents in the lines containing the image highlight internal repetitions in sound, the echoing of long “i”s and flat attacking “a”s:

Or the balanced way we climb
And relax inside a hammock

It’s not a particularly striking image or metaphysical conceit, but it’s the right image. And it’s the right image because it grew, consciously or not, out of the poem’s form.

This isn’t to say that all of the poems here are so driven. Nor that the most formally interesting or exact ones are always the best. Michael Crummey’s talent, for example, is better represented in his blank verse than in a banal formal exercise like “Artifacts.” For the most part these are poets at play even in their most serious moments, not just in their obvious exercise of verbal wit but in their handling of the line and sound effects. The New Canon is a book infused with the spirit of recreational invention. Nearly identical lines are repeated with words added or taken out. Alien voices are adopted in various dramatic monologues. A whole poem becomes an exercise in simile (“What the Magdalen Islands Are Like”). And then, if the stars are aligned, an image falls into place. Like the hammock, or in Karen Solie’s “Java Shop, Fort MacLeod”, something even more elegant:

Nostalgia is a prettier season. Leaves
fall on the river and a few are the colour of wine.

Beautiful stuff. But who’s reading it?

About five years ago I posted an essay online titled “The Morning After.” It was about how little poetry is appreciated these days, and gave some reasons for why this was so. I remember one of Canada’s best poets e-mailed me saying that the situation wasn’t really so bad. Poetry was in better shape than fiction, he said.

The thing is, he might have been right. We complain a lot about the state of poetry, but I’m not sure literary fiction is doing any better. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s selling any better (which truly is remarkable given its increased visibility). But still you have to ask the question of why poetry, like oil painting or carving lifelike figures out of marble, has fallen into such obscurity and general disrepute. In my essay I blamed its dullness. This was a response to what Starnino criticizes as the “ruling aesthetic” in poetry since the 1970s – “the plain, the soft-spoken, the flatly prosy, the paraphrasingly simple, the accessibly Canadian.” The poets in The New Canon aren’t like that. And yet I suspect they will continue to struggle to find an audience. Why?

Here is one critique.

I think that perhaps we have set the bar too low. In the column by Philip Marchand already quoted he writes “that poetry is the means we have to renew language. Since language is vital to human survival, this task is important enough. We need constantly to fight against imprecision of language, language used to mystify rather than clarify, language that dulls rather than rouses the imagination. Poets are our first line of attack.” This is, of course, a riff on Eliot’s call for poetry to “purify the dialect of the tribe.” The same idea is expressed at the end of Starnino’s Introduction, where he tells us that “these poems matter not because I believe them appropriate at the present moment. They matter because, each in their own way, they keep the English language alive. We read good poems to read good poems.”

I disagree. This may be one reason why poets write poetry, but is that enough? Starnino emphasizes at one point that this anthology is “about what happens the next time we, as poets, sit down to write a poem.” Who is this “we” being addressed? I agree with Marchand and Starnino that poetry helps keep language alive. But this seems more a justification for writing poetry than reading it, and not an entirely persuasive one at that. Poetry shouldn’t be a civic duty.

But what does today’s poetry offer aside from its specialized use of language? Not enough. I’ve already quoted Starnino’s line about how these writers see poetry “as a major form for the examination of ideas, but consider it first and foremost a form.” My own sense is that form is indeed “first and foremost”, and that “the examination of ideas” has really fallen off the radar. Critics like Starnino tend to disparage “thematic criticism”, but this is because a lot of thematic criticism, at least in the last fifty years, has found itself with less and less to write about. Poetry had become all about effect, and themes (or ideas, or thought) were incidental. We didn’t read poets for what they had to tell us about the way we live now, but for the quality and expression of their observations. Which brings us back to the divine Edgar. The “Poetic Principle” is the manifesto of form for form’s sake, a marginal aestheticism, a poetry of effect championed by a connoisseur of moods and impressions. And, for god’s sake, no long poems!

But it has always been the long poem, the epic, that most directly addressed, allegorically or otherwise, our deepest political, religious, intellectual, cultural, and social concerns. And I see no reason why we shouldn’t have our own Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Prelude, In Memoriam, or even Waste Land, today. The non-narrative, non-thematic, non-intellectual (indeed anti-intellectual) poetry of epiphany and observation, no matter how exquisitely crafted and brilliantly realized, is no replacement. Our horror of the didactic has led to an anodyne product that oftentimes isn’t about anything at all. As for a common mythology, embodied in a structure of belief and symbol with any popular resonance . . . well, there’s always what’s on TV.

I’ve often heard it remarked how few people are able to recite contemporary poetry. I can always find people who can quote reams of Tennyson or Shakespeare, but the same people can’t remember a single line of today’s verse (I mean, of course, among those who have read it). I don’t think this has as much to do with the quality of the writing as the fact that people no longer find in poetry the sort of thought or meaning that helps them understand their world or their lives. I can appreciate the kind of critic Marchand and Starnino both want to see, someone with the ability to explain how poem’s work. But that’s only going to take us so far. After you’ve explained how a poem works – or, perhaps even better, before – it might be worth explaining what it’s trying to say.

No doubt all of this sounds a bit old-fashioned. But it is one attempt to understand why poetry is widely perceived to be in such a rut. If nothing else, The New Canon provides ample evidence that it’s not due to any lack of talent. If you’re looking for poets who are making it new we might take another cue from Pound, point to this book, and say “Dig here.” And if it’s the health of the language you’re worried about, rest assured it’s in good hands. These poets have the tools to build Jerusalem.

And, should they get ambitious, we still have all the forms.

Review first published online April 25, 2006.


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