Investigative Poetry: Are Poets the New Reporters?

By | 1 December 2014

This means two things for poetry, as I see it. One, for all the handwringing over contemporary poetry’s supposed inaccessibility, readers are becoming ever more astute, and instinctively attuned to the types of tricks poets like to play: layering, juxtaposing, recasting, fragmenting. The corollary to this is that what poets do naturally should become more compelling and more relevant to potential readers, even nontraditional readers of poetry. Is this optimistic? Maybe. But the second thing the current climate means for poetry makes that optimism feel at least somewhat justified. As traditional journalism flails and its online incarnations scramble to find their way, the work of the poets becomes that much more important as a record and reconsideration of our times, past and present. There is and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, an ever-increasing need for poets to be visible and to be heard in the general discourse.

The more I see and feel this to be so, the more I find myself noticing, when I pick up a literary journal, that it’s in the lines and words and in-depth investigations of the poets where we can find, in large measure, the most urgent news of our day. Unlike the traditional news media, which was always meant to turn a profit, poetry has the advantage – at least it looks like advantage in this turbulent age – of never having been hampered by financial expectations. We have granting bodies, yes, and there are always questions of what restrictions these pose or are perceived to pose on artists. But a grant is not an income. A grant is more like a reprieve; its implications within the context of a poet’s life work, I would argue, can only be limited. No one, really, will pay poets for what they do. Every poet knows this before sitting down at her desk. To think and sit and work at all is to do so out of sheer will.

Poets, like journalists, deal fundamentally in facts. But the kinds of facts they may grapple with, and how, stretch forward and backward as far as the eye can see, and farther yet than that. Poets are allowed to momentarily confuse us, or confound our expectations: break open our habitual perceptions, turn our gaze. Form and tone and the very nuts and bolts of language are the poet’s to manipulate as required by theme or subject. They can be reverent and irreverent at the same time, and nowhere is this better shown than when they plunge into words themselves and begin to unstick them, sometimes in chunks, sometimes letter by letter, from the intricate webbing in which we normally lay them out. Barriers between geography and age and topic may be scrambled, torn apart. Some moment in history can be mashed against a scientific principle from another time and place, a fictional voice spooned in to bind the whole. This freedom, this so-called freedom to examine an unswept corner – not sweep it clean, but examine it – while your neighbours are punching the clock or feeding their children or diligently taming their patch of Earth, has given poetry a reputation for frivolity, for being a game we can only afford to play when time and circumstance permit. But the shaky state of journalism’s moral authority, coupled with widespread sophistication – and real hunger – in potential readers, means we live in an age ripe for the dismantling of that persistent myth.

When I read the poems in the new Best Canadian and think, as such an anthology demands of its reader, about the nature of the contemporary Canadian poets’ project, I see a busy, dedicated, desperate crew of observers – who happen to also be song-makers, whisperers, chanters, keepers of the line – scurrying through land, sea and sky, to dig into garden and city, to pry open doors and fling back drapes, to trace the flights of birds, the rituals of grief and love, the disappointments and horrors and wonders of our age, and of others that have fed into it. As we read in ‘Ultrasound,’ Erín Moure and Robert Majzels’s translation of Nicole Brossard’s poem, ‘the present wants the present up to the ears.’

The present is never just the present. It’s stuffed with the kind of matter poets are designed to separate and lay out for public viewing. In this way, poets can offer a correction: they can take what’s been put before us and plough through it right back to its source, or sources. And they can do it on terms and by means they set themselves. This makes for exciting and exceedingly relevant reading. The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014 contains one offering by a recently deceased mainstay of Canadian letters. Elizabeth Brewster’s poem ‘If I should meet myself…’ was originally printed in the very first edition of The Fiddlehead, in 1945. It was reprinted in the magazine in 2013 in tribute to its author. The poem asks a question we could all apply to ourselves, and that we might also apply to our collective literary efforts: ‘If I should meet myself / ten years or twenty from today / would I still know myself / or turn unrecognised away?’ Implicit in Brewster’s quaintly rhyming question, which is pretending to be more playful than it is, is whether we would care to know ourselves? Whether we should care? Will we be deserving of recognition by our own selves in the future? Our Canadian poets, I’d wager – and I have a hunch Brewster might agree – will indeed. As they prove in the poems, they are striding into the heart of what is, or what could be, our collective, civic conversation. They have the potential to set a tone: to deepen, enliven and heighten that discourse. They’re fierce, intelligent and funny, inventive and deeply engaged. They believe in the worth of their enterprise. They answer to no corporate entity or boss. They answer to us, their readers, and to themselves, their own internal voices, and to that voice Bringhurst insists every true poet must be attuned to: the world itself. This year’s poems peel back the surface of what’s going on around us, what has gone on, what’s happening in and to our nation, our society, our culture and ourselves. In so doing, they insist upon their own necessity.

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