On Anthologies

Reviewed by Robert Zacharias

The central thesis of Robert Lecker’s ambitious Keepers of the Code: English-Canadian Literary Anthologies and the Representation of Nation is straightforward and unlikely to be controversial: that anthologists of English-Canadian literature have understood themselves as contributing to a nationalizing project via a tight connection between literature and citizenship. Naming this the “anthological code,” Lecker argues the “keepers of that code have understood that identity and culture are linked, that their job is to reinforce this connection, and that only by repeating the mantra of literature and nation can the actuality of Canada – ’real time and space’ – be affirmed (sic).” Contemporary anthologists may shy away from overt displays of literary nationalism, Lecker notes, but many still keep the code, rerouting nationalism into a conservative mimetic ideal that values literature to the extent that it reflects its Canadian “readers to themselves.”

Lecker begins in 1837 with Simpson’s The Canadian Forget Me Not, and touches on nearly 200 anthologies en route to 2010 before finishing with a discussion of his own Open Country (2007). Although some aspects of Lecker’s argument are less than fully convincing-I found his attempt to extend the nakedly theological aspirations of early anthologies onto contemporary selections uneven, for example-Keepers shines as a work of critically informed literary history, deftly historicizing a surprisingly broad tradition of anthologies, mapping their shifting priorities, and demystifying the forces behind their compilation. Lecker recounts how the institutionalization of Canadian literature following World War II led to a surge of anthologies aimed at professors rather than a popular audience, for example, and he pulls back the curtain to reveal how fully such books are shaped by extra-literary concerns, calling their “representation of nation . . . the product of a series of negotiations between the editor, the authors included in the collection (and their agents or representatives), the publisher’s budgetary control person, the bank, the designer, the typesetter, the printer, and the sales agents.” Although there is a disproportionate amount of space given to earlier volumes, the scale of Lecker’s survey does lend weight to his discussions of more recent anthologies. His stinging critiques of the romanticized and ahistorical claims made by the editors of The New Canon (2005) and Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories (2007), for example, feel self-evident after his having traced nearly two centuries of similar claims over the preceding three hundred pages.

Keepers never manages to completely free itself from the circularity that so often haunts discussions of literary nationalism, however, and when he concludes that it is “almost as if the impulse to affirm the nation is genetically encoded, part of the Canadian anthologist’s DNA,” one wonders if such an impulse is really prototypically Canadian in any way, or if it is simply the unavoidable tautology of all nationalized literary studies. Lecker is well aware of such concerns, but even a brief comparison to anthological traditions elsewhere would have been useful, as would a more thorough engagement with Canadian literary criticism’s longstanding discussions of what is at stake in the field’s habit of “worrying [of] the nation.”

One way of appreciating the accomplishment of Lecker’s study is to read an anthology in light of its claims. In this context, The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2012, edited by David O’Meara, appears as a strong but conflicted project. On the one hand, its “international” category serves as a reminder that literary anthologies need not be national, and that the ideal of setting aside nationalist concerns and collecting the very “best” writing remains alive. On the other hand, the Canada-based Griffin Poetry Prize retains a second, “Canadian,” category, and it’s hard not to hear echoes of Smith’s “cosmopolitan” vs. “native” dichotomy, and to wonder about the role played by this latest twist on an enduring distinction. In other, less abstract ways, however, the anthology fails to rise to the occasion of its content. The brief introductions to each poet’s selection are the judges’ citation for his or her entire book, for example, which means they repeatedly praise poems that are not included in the anthology itself, and are often too full of award-speak to be of much use as introductions. (To take a representative example: Rozewicz’s work, we are told, reveals “a soul the equal of the world’s occasion”). And while it is not the editor’s fault that there is just a single female among the seven finalists, the range of pages allotted to each poet does seem unjustifiably wide.

Fortunately, the poetry itself is strong. The anthology opens with poems taken from David Harsent’s Night, which won the international award. Harsent’s work is cinematic-boldly voyeuristic, really-and hyper-masculine, full of sharply etched images of men wandering through darkened urban landscapes, and haunted by troubling scenes of eroticized violence. The tight narrative poems from Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Chameleon Couch, like the more elusive and intimate poems from Sean O’Brien’s November, retain a sense of violence intersecting the everyday, but are broader, more self-aware, and more politicized. Tadeusz Ró_ewicz’s poems, translated under the title Sobbing Superpower by Joanna Trzeciak, are the most playful of the international selections, but his critiques of U.S. foreign policy and contemplation of the origin of evil make for its most consistently surprising writing. The Canadian selections begin with a set of thoroughly engaging and approachable poems from Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet, which offer self-aware critiques ranging from class politics to the internet to poetry itself. Phil Hall’s lengthy poem, taken from Killdeer, is confessional and cleverly anxious, its careful discussion of poetry’s use of pain folding back upon itself. The collection closes with epigrammatic and densely philosophical poems from Jan Zwicky’s Forge, which engage Bach and Schumann to probe a connection between music and language. The poetry is consistently strong enough to overcome the limitations of the anthology’s frame, including its division of poets into International and Canadian sections.

Keepers of the Code will rightly become a key study for discussions of literary anthologies in Canada, richly informing our readings of projects like The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2012.

This review “On Anthologies” originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 169-170.

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