Elemental Voices

  • Susan McMaster (Editor)
    Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry. Your Scrivener Press
  • Todd Swift (Editor) and Evan Jones (Editor)
    Modern Canadian Poets. Carcanet Press
Reviewed by Robert Lecker

I like to think of poetry anthologies as narratives. They are not only collections of specific poems, but also structured and plotted expressions of their editors’ desire to define a place, to locate a community, to establish boundaries that will keep their highly selective worlds defensible and safe. From this perspective, it makes little sense to complain about what an anthologist left out or put in, since what we are reading is a story with its own tensions, patterns, and archetypes. The heroes are the poems; they are who they are.

Evan Jones and Todd Swift (both Canadians now living in Britain) edited Modern Canadian Poets with British readers in mind. For them, international audiences have overlooked Canadian poetry, mainly because “Canada has no national poet who is also internationally renowned.” Writers such as Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, or Michael Ondaatje don’t figure here because Jones and Swift are promoting a deliberately modernist aesthetic. As editors, they want to contradict what they see as “a long-standing Canadian cultural myth that to be a Canadian poet is to be part of the country’s geography, whereas elsewhere to be a poet is to be part of poetry’s history.”

If this sounds close to the arguments made by A. J. M. Smith in his introduction to the groundbreaking The Book of Canadian Poetry anthology (originally published in 1943), that’s because it is. Smith favoured the “cosmopolitan” tradition over the “native.” Jones and Swift similarly support a “wider cosmopolitan tradition” that “seeks open and free trade with the tradition of high modernism and its heirs.” Although they claim a “spirit of openness,” they are in fact no more open than other anthology editors: this is their world and it is off-limits to many of the figures one might associate with recent Canadian poetry. No poets born after 1962 are included, which means the youngest poet in the volume is David McGimpsey. If British readers want to find out more about poets born after that date, or many of the names usually associated with modern and contemporary Canadian poetry, the editors suggest they should put aside their curiosity because “readers need first to visit the grounds out of which the best new work springs: the tradition of Canadian modernism.”

I could make a list of all my favourite Canadian poets who are excluded from this volume because of the editors’ high modernist interests. But they have defined the story they want to tell, and they have every right to do so. There is no rule saying that editors have to be democratic or representative in their choices. And, given those choices, I like what they have done. I don’t even have to be British to appreciate it!

The anthology brings together thirty-five poets, many of whom do not figure prominently in English-Canadian poetry anthologies. There are strong voices here: Joan Murray, Richard Outram, Robert Allen, and Mary Dalton, to name a few. The book opens with some of W. W. E. Ross’s stark Imagist poems; they give the narrative a sharp, naked start. Ross is so clean, so inviting. We want to enter this story. With him, we are under water, drifting, looking up at shimmering moonlight. Jones and Swift are attracted to depth, height, light, and rivers. Alfred Bailey (nice to see him here) writes that “Blue is my sky peter / and white my frayed gull.” His speaker in “The Unreturning” is “Drugged by water and wind / into the dream of the water’s vertical eye.” A. M. Klein’s magical missing writer in “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” has “climbed / another planet, the better to look / with single camera view upon the earth” (the editors say that in making their selections “we sought poets within the Canadian tradition who follow similar paths and aspire to those Kleinian standards”). With Anne Wilkinson, the editors continue their narrative of sky, earth, sun, and sea. Her self-reflexive poems in the collection present us with metaphysical journeys into elemental worlds. And so the voyage continues to a powerful conclusion. Modern Canadian Poets ends with David McGimpsey’s magnificent “In Memoriam: A. H. Jr.,” which is worth the price of admission in itself.

Susan McMaster’s Pith and Wry is a much happier collection than Modern Canadian Poets, perhaps because the editor has no worries about the reputation of Canadian writers abroad. For her, “our poetry is read and honoured at home and around the globe.” It embraces “several thousand practitioners in all styles and delivery methods” and our authors “draw standing room only audiences and win international awards.” This is a poetic utopia and the anthology is here to celebrate it. McMaster brings together forty-five poets in 158 pages, which means that we don’t get much exposure to any single poet; the range of subject matter and the quality of the material is diverse. In contrast, Jones and Swift are more severe and exclusive in their choices. The poems in their anthology are demanding. McMaster’s celebration is less consistent and elitist, but there are several fine writers here, and many I met in these pages for the first time. Do these two anthologies have anything in common? Yes. Out of the eighty poets included in both collections, the three editors manage to agree on a single choice: Mary Dalton. In the world of anthology making, radical consensus is always revealing.

This review “Elemental Voices” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 167-68.

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