Thursday, February 10, 2011

Modern Canadian Poets ed. Evan Jones & Todd Swift (Carcanet £18.95)

Anthologies of a nation's poetry are tricky beasts. Are they truely representative of that  nation's poetry, or do they just represent the editors' idea of that nation's poetry? A British anthology without Larkin would generally be regarded as unthinkable; but should that anthology also include Bob Cobbing, or JH Prynne? Is an anthology without those names reflecting what is really going on across the whole spectrum of British poetry?

I ask these questions at the start of a review of a major new British anthology of Canadian poetry because this is really the only view of Canadian poetry most readers are going to get, unless you have a special interest in Canadian poetry. And I have to say, right at the start, that what it does include is largely worth reading, often excellant and it was good to get acquainted with many writers I'd never heard of before. Margaret Avison's spare lyricism, John Thompson's ghazals, Anne Herbert's softly surreal meditations - I'm glad to have made their acquaintance.

But when I began to read these poems, and do some research around the whole field of Canadian poetry, several absences began to seem odd. There are several poets like Norm Sibum or Kociejowski who are immigrants from the United States or Europe; and there are several emigrants such as the feisty'40's lyricists Joan Murray, both of whom I enjoyed. But no Robin Blaser, who postumously won the Griffin Prize with his Collected Poems just a few years ago. And no Earle Birney, author of the acclaimed Bear On The Delhi Road. The more experimental poets such as Bp Nichol and bill bisset are also absent, as are senior figures such as Erin Moure and George Bowering. Steve McCaffery, leading light of the Language movement, is also not there.

I'm glad to have met the poetry of John Glassco and his translations of Garneau. particularly The Game: with its glorious first line: Don't bother me I'm terribly busy... Anne Carson's poetry sparkles as always. The rural voice is well-represented, and many of the poets seem to display a metaphysical bent that I very much warm to. Anne Crompton is one such, as is Anne Wilkinson:

Little Men Slip into Death

Little men slip into death
As the diver slides into water
With only a ripple
To tell where he's hidden.

Big muscles struggle harder in the grave.
The earth is slow to settle on their bone,
Erupting into mounds or sprouting flowers
Or giving birth to stones.

And how to stand a tombstone
With the ground not quiet yet,
And what to say, what not to say
When moss is rooted and the stone is set?
Very traditional, formal but beautiful. And there does seem to be a bias towards formalism in this anthology, which makes me wonder if it's really like all those anhologies of British poetry that have neglected our own native experimental writers. So is this mostly then an anthology of 'mainstream' poetry, as opposed to 'experimental'? It does include the poetry of Lisa Robertson, and many of the poets do show a distinctly modernist bent; but there's also a tidiness about the poetry that maybe reveals a distate with extremes.

I enjoyed this anthology, despite my misgivings about its exclusions. I like the fact that it includes some translations of French Canadian poetry. It made me think of what anthologies are for, why people put them together. That in itself is a mighty fine thing to do.

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