Best Isn’t a Beauty Contest: How Canadian Poets Demand More of Verse

By | 1 December 2014

A beginner’s piano piece that set a simple rhythm played by the left hand against a ‘slightly sad yet menacing melody’ played by the right, Thesen remembers, was called Indian Dance. The memory prompts her to observe: ‘Poetry: something out of whack.’ Thesen suggests that poetry is at once about setting incongruous textures together in the beautiful, imperfect fit that makes music, and at the same time that a contemporary poetry notices (her line goes on to give us an image of ‘whites and Haida’ listening to this song in her mother’s house in Masset) how a culture’s art constructs ‘the other’ as menacing, or sad, or simple (‘Indian Dance’ as the easy terrain of novice classical pianist).

Remembering first the Haida women who could pound red cedar bark to a cashmere softness; then the Haida Gwaii artists, carvers, and poets who died; then the grandfather who abandoned her mother; and then the great-grandfather and great-uncle who raised her mother briefly before they too, died, Thesen writes: ‘Poetry: consumption and epitaph.’ Poetry as elegy, poetry as monument – this is perhaps one of the more familiar values that poetry embodies: a deep appreciation for the power of language to remember, to praise, to celebrate and to mourn. Because grief is such well-worn territory for poetry, it can be a challenge to write a contemporary elegy that moves a sophisticated reader, but a few poets achieved that timeless emotional power in wholly contemporary forms.

One of my favorite Thesen-isms: ‘Poetry: a can-opener.’ On one level, sure, poetry often opens up a sustaining can of soul food for a hungry spiritual traveller, or opens up a can of worms, speaking of things that other public discourse will not. But I also saw in Thesen’s image a ‘real’ red-handled can opener, sitting on a white plinth, as Duchamp’s urinal once hung on a white gallery wall, with a little tag beside the opener that reads: ‘Poetry.’ A Dadaist interpretation of Thesen’s definition allows poetry to be almost anything that one wants to call poetry, and makes room for the broadest interpretation of defamiliarisation, of ‘making strange,’ as one of the values we can bring to our appreciation of poetry.

Thesen ends her poem with the image of a Haida bracelet her mother sent her for Christmas: ‘mine was of Dogfish Woman / crafted by someone whose signature was ‘XX’ and / whose carving was a bit off on an angle. Poetry: / off on an angle, amidst the TB and the whalers and the moieties.’ Poetry: off on an angle. Thesen’s idea of poetry intersects, or even has its origin in, a human reality that is decidedly not its rarefied spaces; that is, not necessarily from its libraries, chapels or contemplative gardens; poetry spurs out amongst disease, mercenary practices, racism. I read Thesen as insisting on poetry’s place as a response to life’s challenges and excesses, as a path by which we redirect energies such as sorrow, resistance, desire, and even fleeting joy into order and beauty. If there is one thing that all the poems in this anthology have in common, it is that they affirm the simple and fundamental value of being-in-the-world, of being in all its nameable and unnameable forms.

One particularly fun aspect of getting to read the full complement of a year’s poetry in Canadian journals is noticing potential trends. Some patterns seem like they might be random and meaningless: for example, I read at least three poems that invested their heavy weight in the image of an animal bloodily crushed against a chain link fence. We are probably not seeing the beginning of a new Canadian subgenre – i.e., crushed fauna poetry. But that such a particular image (one that registers a violent intersection of non-human nature and human structures, one that focuses on a devastating meeting of a ‘wild’ creature with our practices of enclosure and domestication) recurs, does arguably point to preoccupations in the Canadian cultural imaginary.

Perhaps I’m particularly attuned to images like the crushed animals because ecopoetry, ‘nature’ poetry, is one of my critical specialties. But if, as some critics have argued, Canadian poetry and the nature poetry tradition are inseparable, I think it’s interesting to note what we’re making of that tradition these days. Our poets are updating the terms of the Canadian mythos of ‘survival’: contextualising human life in the long context of deep, ahistorical time; elegising species; and looking steadily at our innocent/arrogant pursuit of technological mastery of the world, often by reappropriating the language of science and technology to express their visions of the ‘natural’ world.

In addition to a strong ecopoetic sensibility, this year’s poetry also suggests that certain materialist techniques – collage, in particular – historically used in poetries attempting to find alternatives to the lyric tradition, have now found their way into a mainstream sensibility and into the lyric tradition proper. What has emerged is a sort of ‘alt-lyric’ stance; Canadians doing their own versions of what has in the U.S. been called the ‘American Hybrid,’ or ‘third-wave poetics’ or what Canadians have termed ‘retro avant garde’ or the ‘avant lyric.’ There are many reasons for this development. One is contemporary media culture. Modernist and postmodernist poets have been ‘juxtaposing, recasting, [and] fragmenting’ language for over a century, but our mainstream media formats have only in the past decade evolved to provide content at the current level of non-linearity and reiterable availability. Anita Lahey is astute to suggest that these techniques appear more frequently in Canadian journals and in mainstream writing as our own evolving information-processing habits become increasingly incongruent with our desire for depth of intellectual and emotional engagement.

The Canadian poem of place is well represented this year: we have portraits of small-town life, written by community ‘insiders,’ made particularly poignant by the context of these towns’ recent economic declines; hometown landscape sketches by urbanites; and vital poetic explorations from ‘other insiders,’ who write from complex senses of allegiance about how racial and ethnic identities inflect one’s sense of belonging to Canadian place and claiming it as one’s own. This year Canadian poets have produced some excellent portrait poems that give us vivid renderings of immigrant labourers, family members grappling with addiction, and patriarchs that are curmudgeonly in familiar ways but yet are completely of-the-moment in the particularities of their vulnerability to change.

The tone of the lyric poems (orthodox, avant- and otherwise) range from undefended tenderness to shielded, ironic vulnerability, from soul-baring to soul-searching. It is heartening to see, all in one year’s work, a sophisticated lyric line devoted to sex as worship, and to awe at one’s love for a child, as much as to circumlocutary declarations of affection and tailored, heavily allusive constructions of grief.

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