Wanted: New Readers
- Don McKay (Author) and Méira Cook (Editor)
Field Marks: The Poetry of Don McKay. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tanis Macdonald (Editor) and Di Brandt (Author)
Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Al Purdy (Author) and Robert Budde (Editor)
The More Easily Kept Illusions: The Poetry of Al Purdy. Wilfrid Laurier University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Paul Milton
There is a noble tradition of trying to garner a wider audience for good poetry; we’ve seen poems on the buses, inexpensive popular anthologies, slam poetry evenings, and poetry at rock festivals. At my institution, students have taken to posting student work randomly in public places. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always worth a try.
A recent effort comes to us courtesy of Wilfrid Laurier University Press, which, in September 2005, undertook to provide a series of slim, inexpensive selections of the work of established contemporary poets in an effort to broaden the audience for poetry in this country. Its first volume featured the work of Lorna Crozier. These newest volumes continue that project with three attractively packaged selections, each of which comes in at fewer than 100 pages.
In keeping with the populist project of the series, each volume is introduced by its editor, a poet-critic with clear sympathy for the subject of the selection. The volumes also conclude with a reflection by the poet which adds context to the reading. The selection of poets in this trio of volumes provides an interesting variety of voices to represent contemporary poetry.
The inclusion of Al Purdy among contemporary poets seems a little unusual given that he died in 2000, but his presence here signals the editor’s sense that Purdy enjoys a lasting appeal after a writing career that extended beyond five decades. In his introduction to the selection, Robert Budde characterizes Purdy as a “favourite uncle, the one that shocks your parents and teaches you how to smoke,” one with a sense of mischief, but also with an unsavory side that needs to be controlled in public.
For the most part, Budde’s selection recirculates the familiar anthologized pieces: “Lament for the Dorsets,” “Wilderness Gothic,” “Trees at the Arctic Circle.” In fact, he professes his awareness that he is merely introducing a well known figure. Purdy’s populist appeal certainly derives in part from his anti-poetic persona, his crotchety common man who is likely to say just about anything. I’m sure that for many of us, the initial appeal of Purdy’s verse came in lines such as “Keep your ass out of my beer!” or “My ambition / . . . / was always / to make love vulgarly and immensely / as the vulgar elephant doth.” Then later, we learn to appreciate the delicacies of Purdy’s observational verse with its wide geographical scope and its intimations of a voracious appetite for knowledge. He may be just a ragtag relative, but he’s been everywhere and had a good look at everything. And he’s not too shy to share his experiences as well as his smokes.
Budde makes much of Purdy’s persona and of his independence from fashionable poetics. But he also takes a moment to distance himself from racist and sexist elements in Purdy’s works, elements that he has taken the liberty of expunging here. In short, Budde’s Purdy is a Purdy for the post-politically-correct era we now occupy.
But where Purdy perhaps needs to be amended for contemporary readers, Di Brandt reflects a consciousness of the very political milieu that might pronounce Purdy antiquated at times. As the volume title Speaking of Power suggests, Brandt’s poetry meditates on power as it operates between genders and generations, within traditional communities, and as a function of global capitalism. Her exploration of the clash between the traditional Mennonite community of her upbringing and the modernizing influences of public education positions her as a border figure, a trickster who draws on the visionary spirituality of her religious traditions in her poetry while remaining conscious that the act of writing may be a form of betrayal. Tanis MacDonald has selected many affecting poems here, among them a personal elegy for the victims of the 1989 Montreal massacre. Another strong offering is the sequence “Dog Days at Maribor,” which employs the ghazal form to comment on the ecological impact of late capitalism.
Don McKay’s nature poetry will also find its readership among a generation of new readers who have grown up with deepening concern about global warming just as McKay’s own generation grew to adulthood under the threat of nuclear annihilation. McKay’s unsentimental and informed naturalism produces a wilderness in poetry that escapes the transcendentalist’s symbolic appropriations and the developer’s dominations.
Not unlike Purdy, McKay presents a friendly persona who guides us through the natural world knowledgeably, while paying attention to the wanderer’s imaginative response to the surroundings. His defamiliarizing metaphors (dusk as the time “when the ground begins to eat its figures”) display a wit worthy of Hermes, the trickster-god whose lyre McKay professes in his Afterword to favour over those of Apollo and Orpheus. That lyre sounds the notes in editor Méira Cook’s selection of poems such as “Meditation on Shovels” or “How to Imagine an Albatross” with its description of the aftermath of a gas explosion in a local neighbourhood: “Stoves / turned into dragons and expressed / their secret passions all along the ordinary street.”
The quest for a wider reading audience for poetry may be quixotic, but this series makes a serious attempt to present attractive, affordable selections that speak to contemporary interests and topics that might engage a younger generation of readers. Yet it does not condescend, preferring to provide substantial and sophisticated poets to these new readers. At the very least, these slim volumes will make very useful introductory teaching texts in post-secondary classrooms because they whet the appetite without overwhelming.
- Poésies diverses by Amélie Dorais
Books reviewed: L’épreuve de la distance : Proses et poèmes by Denise Brassard, La nuit de la muette by France Theoret, and Plus haut que les flammes by Louise Dupré
- Earth Enough and Time by Kevin McNeilly
Books reviewed: Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation by Eric Ormsby and Planet Earth: Poems Selected and New by P. K. Page
- In Praise of the Left Hand by Cedric May
Books reviewed: Le Visage des mots by Jean Royer, Nous sommes en alarme by Louise Cotnoir, and Nos Corps habitables by Jean Royer
- Three Backwards Glances by Paul Milton
Books reviewed: Road Dancers by Alden A. Nowlan, Selected Poems: 1977-1997 by Patrick Lane, and To Paris Never Again: New Poems by Al Purdy
- Alberta, Bound by Owen Percy
Books reviewed: The Book Collector by Tim Bowling, Noise From the Laundry by Weyman Chan, First Mountain by Paulette Dubé, The Sweet Fuels by Erin Knight, and It's Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems by Jeanette Lynes
MLA: Milton, Paul. Wanted: New Readers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #193 (Summer 2007), Canada Reads. (pg. 116 - 117)
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