Canadian Poetry in Public

Reviewed by Ariel Kroon

These two collections each present what were originally oral lectures reflecting on and critically engaging with poetry and its praxis in Canada. Public Poetics grew out of the Public Poetics conference in 2012 in Sackville, NB; Measures of Astonishment collects and republishes each talk (save one) given in the annual Anne Szumigalski Lecture Series from its inauguration in 2002 up to 2015.

Bart Vautour, Erin Wunker, Travis V. Mason, and Christl Verduyn present a full volume of compelling and challenging scholarship on the construction of a Canadian audience for poetry, considering poetry and its audience in light of Kate Eichhorn and Heather Milne’s theorizing of “prismatic publics” and Michael Warner’s ideas of “publics and counterpublics.” The book’s three sections of critical articles are punctuated by two “interstices” composed of poems that are aware of themselves as poetry and comment unapologetically on poetry, its practice, and its (reading/listening/viewing/participating) publics. Public poetics, suggest Wunker and Mason in their introduction, is conceived by contributors as a “way of happening” that “bespeaks a kind of possibility and praxis that . . . has crucial insights to convey about the state of being, speaking, making, and cohabitating in this place called Canada.” Indeed, the material in the volume, though conceptualized to address the question of defining a Canadian public/counterpublic for poetry, is strongest when considering the public(s) as an active participant and co-creator of poetic work that responds to and addresses issues in a poet’s wider community. An excellent example of this approach can be found in Geordie Miller’s chapter analyzing Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries and its validity as systemic critique despite its mainstream acceptance by Canadian institutions (its winning the Griffin Poetry Prize, for example). Miller argues that elements of form “harmoniz[e] poetics and activism” in Brand’s poetry and, through a close reading of select passages, he demonstrates the political potential of Ossuaries where the “form radicalizes the familiar leftist message that ‘the sky has already fallen.’”

The issue of the production of poetry within a mainstream Canadian context is taken up and fruitfully critiqued in a chapter by Erín Moure and Karis Shearer that examines the paradigm of the Canada Council for the Arts and its influence on Canadian poetics and the Canadian public. Following Robert Lecker’s assertion that “no form of arts patronage . . . is ever value-free,” Moure and Shearer point out that though the Canada Council’s sponsorship is necessary to and has a profound impact on the arts in Canada, it is still ideologically slanted to encourage the production of art aligned to its values. Thus poetry such as slam, critically taken to task by El Jones as a scene that is racist and exclusionary in Canada, or poetry that is continuously under construction and crowd-built in online iterations, such as Sachiko Murakami’s “Project Rebuild” (examined in a chapter by Emily Ballantyne), is rendered invisible to the Canadian public, and in turn the public to which that poetry is addressed is hidden.

While the volume shows an attention to a range and breadth of poetic forms and diverse publics, a discussion of Indigenous poetics and publics is disturbingly absent. In his chapter “We Are the Amp,” Michael Nardone mentions Idle No More and its incorporation of song as a method of protest, but only in passing (the chapter focuses mainly on the development and use of the “human microphone” in the 2011 Occupy movement). Wunker and Mason’s introduction states that the Idle No More movement is a site “from which future and ongoing critiques need to emerge.” It is a noticeable deficiency in an otherwise sound and diverse collection of critical articles on poetics in Canada.

Measures of Astonishment is compellingly read in light of Public Poetics’ critical inquiries into Canadian poetics and publics in conversation. Contributing lecturers forwent compensation for their work so that royalties could help fund future initiatives for the League of Canadian Poets. The volume records what Moure and Shearer term “intentional sites” of opportunity for poets to reflect on the meaning of poetry in a Canadian context and the philosophy of its practice, to borrow from inaugural lecturer Tim Lilburn. Several threads emerge, such as an emphasis on the natural world and ecocritical issues in lectures given by Mark Abley, Don McKay, and Marilyn Bowering; a reconsideration of poets’ (and readers’) relationship with the self in talks by Lilburn, Anne Carson, Margaret Atwood, and Anne Simpson; and ethical relations with the other, as in Glen Sorestad’s address. Overall, the collection is an opportunity to access an archive of Canadian poetic thought from 2002 until 2015: to gain insight into the mind of each poet, into what it means to be a Canadian poet, and into the responsibility and creativity that each poet felt most unique to their context. The publication of these collected talks was made possible by funding provided by the Canada Council to the University of Regina Press—with Moure and Shearer’s article in mind, issues of what is presented, how it was presented, and who exactly was chosen to present it rise to the fore. The treatment of the public poetry reading (in this case, the poet’s public lecture) as a paratext, and not as part of the creative process itself, deprives the reader of Measures of Astonishment from conceiving of herself as being part of a crowd, an active player in the process of presentation, able to observe the reactions and interactions of others with the poet; she is in effect part of a “private public,” to borrow a term from Katherine McLeod’s consideration of radio audiences in Public Poetics.

Talks that included poetry with elements of jazz, dub, the rhythm of spoken word and storytelling—such as those presented by George Elliott Clarke, Lillian Allen, and Gregory Scofield—are unfortunately reduced in translation from oral presentation to printed text. It is possible to see these alternative poetics striving from the page, but consequently it is the responsibility of the reader to imagine the verses presented in their original forms unconstrained by the limits of written text. The book favours poetry—and presentations—written with the printed page in mind, a format that disadvantages and sometimes outright excludes lecturers’ materials (Brand, the second Szumigalski lecturer, was absented as her address was recorded on notecards and thus not able to be reprinted).

Overall, Measures of Astonishment is a useful volume for students and other academics studying the contributing poet-authors, or to the non-academic reader or writer interested in insight into the minds of “official” Canadian poets, but with a caveat that the text only represents an individualized part of a larger collective experience. Similarly, Public Poetics is a valuable text for those studying Canadian poetry and poetics in Canada, but readers should keep in mind that though its topics are wide-ranging, the text is not the be-all and end-all academic theorization of Canadian poetics and publics, and indeed to assume so would be doing its authors a disservice. Vautour and Verduyn, following derek beaulieu’s 2013 manifesto “Please, No More Poetry,” end the book with a plea for “no more poetry without poetics”’—poetics being “the ‘stuff’ of poetry as well as the action that poetry demands.”

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