Tuesday, June 07, 2005

 

I wish that, some 35 years ago, when I first began seriously to wonder about the nature (& differences) of Canadian poetry, something like the volume Sina Queyras promises in Open Field: 30 Contemporary Poets already existed. It would have been a godsend. Indeed, the entire idea of a comprehensive volume of current Canadian poetry targeted to its largest available export market, the U.S., is at once so obvious & so brilliant that you just want to shout, “Yes!”

For the most part, the execution is excellent as well. Queyras has enough pages for each of her 30 choices to offer a solid sense of the poet AND the great good sense to not simply offer up typical “anthology pieces.” The Anne Carson presented here is a considerable distance from the Anne Carson a Yank might expect from the Random House PR machine, but George Bowering comes across as equally unanticipated. Can it really be that the most sardonic & cynical wit of our time was ever so passionately sincere? Of the 13 poets here whose work I feel I actually already know, only Christian Bök’s contribution – a smattering of pages from Eunoia – comes across as at all predictable. Which means that this book does more than simply serve to “fill in the map” beyond the Canadian writing I already know toward a larger (& ultimately unknowable) whole – one of the book’s great pleasures is getting a new sense of so many of the writers whose poetry I already like.

Still, I wish that Queyras had “filled in the map” a little more systematically. One consequence of seeing this unique aspect of so many writers I know is to wonder just how “representative” Queyras is with regards to the 17 others whose poetry really is being introduced to me here for the first time. When I come across somebody whose poetry is new to me – Dennis Lee might be a case in point – I don’t know whether the linguistic spelunking that characterizes these selections from Un is what I will find elsewhere or not.

A larger question – one that hangs over every anthology – has to do with who is included versus who is absent. This book includes one poet who has been dead for 17 years, the great bp Nichol, but fails to include many other important Canadians: Steve McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, Jeff Derksen, Gerry Shikitani, bill bissett, Meredith Quartermain, Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Stan Persky, Louis Cabris, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Stuart MacKinnon, the whole Kootenay scene, Gerry Gilbert, Mark Truscott, Victor Coleman, Brian Fawcett, Lionel Kearns, Robert Kroetsch, Phyllis Webb, Barry McKinnon, Frank Davey, Gail Scott, even Leonard Cohen. Choosing one key poet who is no longer with us forces the question as to the absence of all the others who may be gone, but who clearly continue to impact Canadian writing – Earle Birney, Roy Kiyooka, Louis Dudek – just as selecting two Canadian poets with Asian heritages – Michael Ondaatje and Lydia Kwa – raises the question again with regards to Kiyooka or Shikitani. Selecting one Canadian expat – Todd Swift – raises the question of Alan Davies or of Kevin Davies, to pick just two among several living down here in the Contiguous 48.

Queyras could have put to bed a lot of these questions simply by articulating better in her introduction what the theory of inclusion here actually was. Was it simply intuition & balance? Were sociological questions at play (as, in a volume of this kind, you would expect them to be)? If it was a question of aesthetic balance – why then allude in the title of the anthology, as Queyras concedes she has done, to the open field poetics of the Projectivist Poets of the 1950s & ‘60s, whose impact on Canadian poetry dates to a large degree back to the famous Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963? If the criteria were sociological, why not address them more directly in the introduction? Queyras instead touches on every contributor in a celebratory way, when an analytical one is really what’s called for. It’s a significant gap, especially coming as it does in a volume that cries out for a sequel that would be equal to the book we already have in hand.

A second question that this volume doesn’t quite answer, tho Molly Peacock does raise it in a superb – if too brief – foreword, is how is Canadian poetry constituted differently than writing in the United States. Peacock suggests, and she might be right, that you really have to look to the more conservative elements in Canadian poetry to really capture the difference – the suggestion being that the anglophilia that is the credo of the most institutionally powerful segment of the School of Quietude would never have occurred in a nation that hadn’t severed its relationship with Mother England through war some 229 years ago. The implication being that the conflation of conservative literary tendencies with the verse of Britain’s upper classes is the consequence of an insecurity bred into U.S. poetry long ago by writers who sensed themselves to have been severed from the literary canon by the politics of the American revolution. It’s not that there is no conservative poetry in Canada, but rather that it has grown free of of the pathological dynamics that characterizes its U.S. cousin. To some degree, Queyras makes the case here for Peacock – the conservative poets in Open Field are almost entirely quite good & not at all as predictable as one has come to expect from such verse in the Lower 48. How much of this is Queyras’ innovative editorial eye, and how much actually a dynamic in Canadian verse? Now that’s the $64 question - $79.60 in Canadian.





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