- Fred Cogswell (Editor)
Doors of the Morning. UnMon America (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Stan Dragland (Editor)
New Life in Dark Seas. Brick Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- League of Canadian Poets (Author)
Vintage 1999. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- League of Canadian Poets (Author)
Vintage 2000. Ronsdale Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Michael Barnholden (Editor) and Andrew Klobucar (Editor)
Writing Class. New Star Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christopher Levenson
Anthologies arise from many different pressures and agendas—canonical, formal, regional, socio-political and gender, to name only a few.
Doors of the Morning, the winning poems of the 1996 Sandburg-Livesay Anthology Contest, seems to fall explicitly within the socio-political category, in that its editor and publisher, James Deahl, locates what he terms "people’s poetry" in the US populist tradition of Whitman, Sandburg and Muriel Rukeyser and asserts that its major Canadian representatives—Milton Acorn, Dorothy Livesay and Raymond Souster— constitute the mainstream of English-Canadian poetry.
Certainly the poems that make up this collection, judged by Fred Cogswell, are unpretentious and intelligible at first reading; they are mostly about something, someone or, especially, somewhere—there is a plethora of innocuous landscape poems. Those that do stand out are in fact "action" poems, such as John B. Lee’s "Coal Miners" and "The Winter of ’96" (strictly this is an inaction poem, evoking the death of a homeless person by freezing); Hugh MacDonald’s description of "The Digging of Deep Wells"; Duane Williams’s "Nobody said Anything" about watching TV news-reels of someone in Soweto being "neck-laced" by a black mob; and Tanis MacDonald’s "Service with a smile" on the dubious joys of waitressing. What all these poems share is a taut economy of language that combines distinctive rhythms and verse movements with descriptive touches. Most of the other poems merely present but do not activate and coordinate visual details. This anthology, then, goes as far as accurate, unsentimental observation, decent feelings and an overwhelmingly positive attitude can take it. Unfortunately that is still only about half the journey.
New Life in Dark Seas, which celebrates twenty-five years of poetry publishing by Brick Books, introduces another pretext for anthologies. As with similar ventures from Canadian Forum or Arc for instance, this is a kind of higher advertising. The book, which allows just one poem per poet, seventy-five altogether, contains a number of well-known names, such as Michael Ondaatje, Robert Bringhurst, Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Lee and P.K. Page, as well as several less famous but very interesting figures—not to mention August Kleinzahler, whose name mysteriously appears in the notes on contributors but neither in the index nor in the text itself! But what, beyond their publisher, do these poets have in common? The introduction pointedly refuses to speculate. I don’t wish to seem ungrateful, but even poets whose work I normally admire, such as John Donlan and Janice Kulyk Keefer, are represented by poems that seem to me at least untypical and, worse, un-special, though mostly tending towards the whimsical and surrealistic. On the other hand, I did like, among others, Walid Bitar’s fine economy of style and tone in "Sing Sing," the down-to-earth demytholo-gizing wit of Maureen Harris’s "The Mother of Us AU," Don Kerr’s humorous take on literary reputation in "That Man Knew," William Robertson on the complexity of family and ethnic background in "The Man Who Lost a Foot" and, especially, two prose poems, Derk Wynand’s marvellously understated symbolism in "Ferry" and Julie Bruck’s poignant collage in the elegy "Timing Your Run." But the book, maybe inevitably, has a hit-and-miss quality, like an assortment of hors d’oeuvre.
At first glance Writing Class: The Kootenay School of Writing Anthology might also seem to be mainly self-advertisement. Not really: the title Writing Class also implies writing about, and in the context of, class. Its main concern is to present new writers but also, more ambitiously, new attitudes to writing. To this end the 162 pages of actual or alleged poetry is prefaced by a wide-ranging and often rather academic 45-page introduction that links Reaganomics, Thatcher’s Britain, and the whole neo-conservative agenda with the need to reject existing literary forms for being complicit with, and hence discredited by, the socio-political status quo. On the second page we find: Where more traditional art institutions promoted ideas of cultural standards, KSW writers saw only cultural elitism. What motivated the school’s formation was not a specific aesthetic vision but rather a politicised understanding of how art and literary production often contributed to the ruling class’s hegemonic influence over society. Mainstream culture has an important political role to fill. To writers working at KSW most institutions of education and culture demonstrated little save the dominant class’s privilege to determine aesthetic and moral principles within society.
In short, this anthology exists in order to make certain points—against the canon, against privilege, and for the collectivity— and to espouse certain directions. Let me start, then, by declaring my own prejudices. I cannot agree that the idea of cultural standards necessarily means cultural "elitism," a word in the Canadian sense that has almost the pejorative intensity of the word "fascist." Surely any highly developed skill, whether physical as in Olympic swimming or intellectual as in neurology or nuclear physics, is necessarily elitist in one sense because it results from combining innate ability with long years of training. But because I cannot emulate the Olympic swimmer, must I on that account disparage his or her abilities as elitist?
In any case KSW seems to have its own built-in elitist tendencies: while the introduction claims that "to read the writing that did develop in and around the small office quarters downtown is to perceive at times a strong communal identity based upon a shared approach towards class position and politics," it goes on to state that the school’s primary aim "is to provide an open space where writers can develop and direct their own work outside all mainstream cultural institutions" (my italics). Rather like a Trappist monastery, perhaps? KSW seems to make a virtue of being marginalized. Despite the introduction’s approval for a poem by Tom Wayman and an attempt to link KSW’s work with "work poetry"; despite apparently endorsing the views of the Tish group, members like Wah and Bowering who "shared with Olson, Duncan, Spicer et al a profound suspicion of the lyric mode, rejecting its tendency towards symbolic abstraction" (my italics: this questionable assertion deserves to be discussed at greater length); and despite the linked assertion that "a key cultural response to this kind of breakdown [.. .] was an increased focus among writers on form and technique," when we actually look at the poetry itself, it is very difficult to sense what is being communicated, let alone to see how it avoids the politically conditioned elitism that the introduction has been deploring. If, as T.S. Eliot famously said, "poetry can communicate before it is understood," there does first have to be some communication, albeit intuitive: simply to explain plausibly after the fact of non-communication what has happened in the poem and why is no substitute and can never restore the poem as poem. Yet one member of the school, Deanna Ferguson, who did not want to be represented in the anthology, is allegedly "in charge of her language to the extent that she doesn’t have to communicate if she doesn’t want to communicate. Perhaps the most cogent example of this form of cultural defiance is her refusal to participate in this anthology." A truly Trappist solution! Between those who, fortunately for the anthologists, eschewed such defiance there is little to choose. Take the beginning of Dorothy Trujillo Lusk’s "Anti Tumbelhome— For our Fallen Comrades":
These bloody days, this godawful palace. Tangling the illegitimated suprajective ’wrongside’ of the sheets. He often seeks a gentle point to sit through a film—HOW to get into synthesizer position. Quiet edge of attention paid and paid.
Now compare it with the beginning of "Straw Man," a poem by Colin Smith:
Sits beneath immaculate drone of rows
of square fluorescent suns He works day in day in talks serial bits to colleagues whom no one knows.
Herringbone staples. Would someone please tell him
the colour of this year’s power tie or if such icons have
any more red handkerchief in right hand back pocket why not vote for
tyrants who lay claim to resurrection of economies. Armpit fetish.
In both cases the passages have as much resonance and as much awareness of sound values as municipal by-laws, and consequently as much involvement in the feel of day-to-day living.
All this begs the question, who is conceived as the audience here? Because it is a social construct, language is always a compromise between what one as an individual really wants to say in all its nuances and complexities and what can be said and reasonably understood in any given time and place. Thus, if I may use so elitist and canonical an allusion, one has as a poet to steer between the Scylla of "pop" poetry, such as Dub or Slam, where everything is rhetorical, on the surface, and designed for instant gratification, and the Charybdis of what remains "academic" poetry that requires footnotes and exegesis before most readers can savour its intellectual brilliance, even when it claims to be written in the service of eliminating class. For without wide reading and literary training most of the allusions, quotations, wordplay and other references, as indeed much of the vocabulary, will be unintelligible and, even for the minority so endowed, almost literally unreadable.
One turns with relief, then, to two recent examples of the League of Canadian Poets’ yearly Vintage anthology, those for 1999 and 2000. This series neatly exemplifies the "mutual benefit" kind of anthology. Like, say, Arc’s yearly poetry contest, it is primarily for the sponsors a money-earning device: the fee per poem generates cash for substantial prizes and the cost of printing, while publishing the fifty "best" runners-up increases the volume of submissions or, in the case of the League, potential memberships, as well as providing an added inducement to competitors. A survey of the winners in the League’s contest since 1988 reveals that numerous hitherto little-known poets such as Michael Redhill, Elizabeth Harvor, Rafi Aaron, the late Diana Brebner, Esta Spalding and especially Patricia Young (who has appeared four times in eleven years), have gone on to make, or broaden, their reputations.
So what can one say of these yearly snapshots? The prizewinners were worthy winners, though except for Susan Stenson’s poem "When you say infidelity," which won first prize in 1999, not necessarily in the order they have here. But one can always quibble about that. More important for the venture as a whole is the attention drawn to other writers included in the fifty runners up, especially when, as is the case with Maureen Hynes, Fiona Lam, Karen Massey, Sharon McCartney, Anne Simpson, Russell Thornton, and Terence Young, as also with Eve Joseph and Shelley Leedahl, two names previously unknown to me, they are represented not just by a single poem but by two or three. If most of the names on my shortlist above are female, that’s no accident: I would suspect that the 33 to 17 and 33 to 13 female to male ratios in 1999 and 2000 are fairly representative of the good new books of poetry being published. There are other generalizations one could make—for instance that the 1999 anthology has four poems about visual art whereas the 2000 volume has none—but they would not take us far. In fact, such anthologies are like cocktail parties: some of the people you meet you want to get to know better; others are good for a joke or a well-turned phrase; a few are downright obnoxious, while the vast majority leave you, if not cold, certainly uninvolved. But of course just as one continues to attend parties, so one continues to read anthologies, for the sake of the few outstanding talents one might otherwise miss.
- Attending to Tensions by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: At the Edge of the Frog Pond by Nelson Ball, Go Leaving Strange by Patrick Lane, and Haunted Hills & Hanging Valleys: Selected Poems 1969-2004 by Peter Trower
- Verse in the Bush by Warren Stevenson
Books reviewed: Jean Baptiste: A Poetic Olio, in II Cantos by Levi Adams and Tracy Ware and Poetry by John Strachan by Wanda Campbell and John Strachan
- Clichés and Landscapes by Alexis Foo
Books reviewed: Active Pass by Jane Munro, Moving by Elizabeth Greene, Unfurled: Collected Poetry from Northern BC Women by Debbie Keahy, and Walking to Mojacar by Di Brandt
- La mémoire blanche by Nelson Charest
Books reviewed: Pierre Blanche: Poèmes d'Alice by Stephanie Bolster and Daniel Canty, M'accompage by Marc André Brouillette, and Arbres lumière by Michel Pleau
- Leonard Cohen: Travels with the "Tourist of Beauty" by Ira Bruce Nadel
Books reviewed: Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen
MLA: Levenson, Christopher. Five Anthologies. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 134 - 137)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.