What Makes Poetry Worth Reading?

A new wave of Canadian poets are giving us poems as complex and varied as the country itself

Series of hand-drawn waves
The Walrus

“I struck the board and cried: ‘No more! I will abroad.’”—George Herbert

At some point, most poets in Canada give up on Canadian poetry. Some go abroad to pursue their careers in bigger ponds; others simply send their poems abroad. For many others, going “abroad” means embracing some new art or activity that will bring them greater reward and perhaps renown. The novel is the usual next port of call, though the list of other odysseys Canadian poets have embarked on is long and curious: music, religion, carpentry, bartending, film, and (my favourite) protistology. Part of this is financial. But there is also a social side, a general assumption that poetry is something you secrete in puberty or when you’re hurt. The idea that you would actually continue to devote yourself to such an art is seen as proof of your self-delusion, if not terminal narcissism.

When I gave up on Canadian poetry twenty years ago, I didn’t stop reading or writing poetry. What I gave up on was the poetry scene, which, at that point, seemed locked in a sterile battle between two main camps. The first camp was made up of nativist free versers. They used plain speech and stressed the “Canadian” in Canadian poetry, attempting to create a national tradition centred on certain themes (landscape, weather, open spaces) and freed from what they considered the oppressive conventions; namely, metre and rhyme. Their patron saint was Al Purdy who, in the early 1960s, had renounced his first rhyming verse to write free-wheeling poems about his travels across the country. The other camp consisted of cosmopolitan formalists who stressed the “poetry” side of things: poems as verbal art, as constructed objects deploying metre, rhyme, and rhetoric. Canadian poets, they believed, should take their inspiration from all places and periods and write as well as poets anywhere else, without giving up any of the resources of the English or any other tradition.

But it wasn’t really a battle—it was more like a siege. The levers of power (magazines, publishing houses, CanLit departments) were controlled by nativists bent on shoring up their version of a Canadian canon. By virtue of my publisher, I was slotted with the cosmopolitan formalists. We read widely, extolled the craft, and huffed and puffed at the insularity and artlessness of the nativists. They, in turn, seemed to regard us with a disdain akin to that reserved for traitors to the nation and athletes caught illegally doping. It wasn’t a good scene, and even attempting to contribute to it by arguing for a broader and more sophisticated notion of Canadian poetry seemed futile. So I turned to theatre, where I discovered there were actors hungry for words, attuned to their every nuance, and keen to bring them to life.

To return to the fray and pick up The Next Wave, a new anthology of Canadian poetry edited by Toronto poet Jim Johnstone, is to realize just how much poetry in Canada has changed in the intervening years. The anthology collects over 200 poems by forty poets who have published books since 2001. It is the first major survey of Canadian poetry in over a decade and the first to sort out the reputations that have made their mark in twenty-first century. An award-winning poet and critic himself, Johnstone has made a book that represents his attempt to capture what he calls the “multi-faceted and increasingly changeable state” that he believes defines our age.

What The Next Wave shows us is that little self-involved garrison outpost has been completely overrun, and everything is up for grabs. What is poetry? What is Canadian? What should these things be in the twenty-first century? Poets are finally giving us answers that are as complex and varied as the country itself.

The poetry scene has undergone two obvious changes. First, the term Canadian is no longer understood thematically as referring to any specific experience or setting (goodbye lyric sequences about early settlers and hard winters!). Canadians can write poems about anything, and they will still be Canadian. Second, and perhaps more importantly, poets no longer assume that form is inherently oppressive and free verse somehow more authentic and liberating—that tired conflict between nativist free versers and cosmopolitan formalists has been replaced by what Johnstone describes as a dance floor with different people doing all kinds of different things. In fact, the most significant characteristic of the poets in the anthology is precisely their interest in the formal aspects of poetry—they are dusting off old forms, inventing new ones, and experimenting with language, sound, diction, rhyme, and rhythm.

These changes did not happen overnight. Two earlier anthologies, The New Canon and Open Field, both from 2005, first registered our poets’ growing sophistication and confidence in matters of form. One key factor in the opening up of Canadian poetry over this period has been the Griffin Poetry Prize, founded in 2000 and awarded each year to both an international poet and a Canadian. By inviting shortlisted international poets and judges to Canada every year, it has brought poetry to Canadians’ attention and the work of the shortlisted Canadian poets to international attention. Another is the enormous success of Anne Carson, winner of the first Canadian Griffin Prize, whose work, by incorporating features of epic, screenplay, and philosophy, has encouraged many poets to be more adventurous and ambitious and to rethink what a poem (and book of poems) can be.

Likewise, the big splash made in 2001 by the winner of the second Canadian Griffin Prize, Christian Bök’s Eunoia, with its five chapters each employing a single vowel, reminded younger poets a work can be both formal and experimental at the same time.

But at least as significant as Bök and Carson, whose career has unfolded largely in the States, is the example of Karen Solie. Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and now based in Toronto, Solie has made her entire career in Canada with poems that are unapologetically anchored here (“Dion Phaneuf has been traded to the Maple Leafs” is an entirely typical line) and are now published by leading presses in the US and Britain. With her trademark mordant observations (“There’s a reason it’s called the nervous / system”), Solie shows how it’s possible to be both worldly and homegrown, cutting edge and Canadian.

The Next Wave, however, does not include the work of Solie (born in 1966) nor that of many others of her generation who began this renewal of Canadian poetry. Instead, Johnstone—who has written well about Solie’s work—imposes criteria (first book after 2001; no more than three books) that suggest his book exists in the wake of the change I describe. The Next Wave is really the wave that followed: a sampler of the work of forty poets born between 1967 and 1994 that both confirms this new spirit and points toward what is to come.

Diversity, no surprise, is the virtue most loudly touted, and mostly it’s the kind of diversity you want in a poetry anthology—of poems, not presumed origins. Here are a few of the different things that happen in the book: God takes a stroll through postwar Paris; drunken soldiers pull over a bus in Ghana; two vapid uptalking young women discuss their sexy Halloween costumes; a small-town reporter catalogues a summer’s worth of car accidents; a Japanese grandfather recreates his rural homeland in a hospital room; a teenager hears rumours about something called the internet; a young girl in Austria imagines setting up her widowed grandmother with a former Nazi. This range of subject matter is, of course, matched by a diversity of language and style—from the stripped-down diction of Souvankham Thammavongsa and Sachiko Murakami to the baroque phrasings of Catriona Wright and Stevie Howell. Here is the latter, an Irishwoman, having a go at the Queen:

Almosted into marble by medusa-eyed hoi polloi
the Queen’s stone jowls, eraillure of crow’s feet
are freshly quarried—fifty years late,
her face is lithic, flaked in to a lustrous, toothy smile.

But what is most salutary and gratifying is to see how much more adventurous and adept Canadian poets have become in their art. Form for these poets can mean anything from the impeccably wrought quatrains and sonnets of Alexandra Oliver and Amanda Jernigan, to up-to-the-minute list poems such as Suzanne Buffam’s “First World Problems A to Z” and Raoul Fernandes’s “Attachments” (a listing of .jpg filenames) and Jordan Abel’s erasure and collage poems. Even poets not given to formal constraints seem ready to toss off a villanelle. There are four of them in the book, and they vary from Damian Rogers’s heart-wrenching and resonant motherly lament “Good Day Villanelle”—

You walked naked out the door.
The neighbours laughed; I chased you down.
I hardly see you anymore.

—to Linda Besner’s exuberantly bilingual “Villeneuve Villanelle”(“L’imprévu s’avance impervious; appears apace, s’est envolé”). While Ian Williams proves himself the master of the recurrent forms, Sheryda Warrener contributes a first-rate pantoum (“Through the Restaurant Window”) and James Pollock a high-spirited rondel (“Sailing to Babylon”). It is, however, a poem like Besner’s “Mornings with the Ove GloveTM,” her satire of the space race seen from suburbia, that shows how this generation of poets are inventing new forms of their own.

In the kitchen, I reify
a slice of toast with am jam, watch
from the window as the neighbourhood id kid
takes one giant leap and clears the fence.
His parents were like everyone, swept up
in the us fuss, advancing the species faster
than the Russians. Hurrying to make their own
clone and send it out there, the latest ape shape
clomping around the garden barefaced as a dartboard.

Note how those syncopated rhymes both evoke and undermine that now quaintly obsolete future, echoing the upbeat jingles of advertising.

Skill is also knowing exactly what to leave out, as a poem like Sadiqa de Meijer’s suggestive “Yes” demonstrates as it deftly traces a first tumble together:

Hitched bicycle ride, my hands
on your waist, soles skimming the road
in the bends.

What we wore will be one of those tellings
that even a latent, erasing disease
never steals. In tune like a robin and robin, a doorbell
and creak of the stairs.

Say love is the ship coming in.
Say the grave eyes of the birch trees
watched us go. How long

had we stood on the pier? Gulls squalled.
We’d outgrown what we packed.

Skill is also about taking a well-established, even superannuated Canadian form, like the book-length poem sequence, and renewing it. I had put off reading Tell, Soraya Peerbaye’s prize-winning meditation on the murder of Reena Virk, the BC teenager murdered by her classmates, because I thought I knew what it would do and felt a certain fatigue. “Gorge Waterway,” the extract Johnstone prints, however, is so powerful in its details and playful in language that I was quickly won over. In a big book like The New Wave, the reader is also grateful for such poets as Jason Guriel who is able, like an expert draughtsman, to capture a vision in a few quick lines: “Empty Nests in Leafless Trees….Like mashed clots / in a fine mesh of capillaries / or ink blots / in failed calligraphy…”

As Johnstone points out, many of these poets have published their work outside of Canada and some seven or eight actually live abroad, most in the States. (Canada used to import poets; now it seems we export them.) Despite having only published one book, James Arthur is probably the best-known and most celebrated poet in the book with his long list of impressive publications and fellowships. (His fellowships in particular attest to life at the top of the US-poetry food chain.) The poems printed here from his first collection, Charms Against Lightning (2012), are more whimsical than the extraordinary work he’s recently been publishing in magazines (including The Walrus), every of which has been masterly. “A Local History,” one of those new poems, gives a different, less flattering view of a character trait most Canadians might praise:

My grandmother’s gone. Before she died, she lost her words,
her house, her name, but for me, she’s still a hard old woman
walking downhill at dawn, long into autumn,
to skinny-dip in her weed-choked, freezing pond.

Toronto’s Chad Campbell—who was once at Iowa, now lives in Manchester—also focuses on austere and unforgiving Canadian ancestors, some of whom slip over the edge:

Still others will undergo the loss of their minds
as if the same sheer will that seeded the stolen land
planted also a chaos that came boiling up like oil.

The big discovery of the book is Kayla Czaga (born in 1989). Her work is immediately engaging: unpretentious, unafraid of feeling, and aching with the pain and richness of life. She is brave enough to write an elegy for a teacher killed at Sandy Hook who hid her students from the gunman, “her hands smoothing their hair, closing cupboard doors”—a poem that crucially both acknowledges the distance between poet and subject and yet brings them together. “That Great Burgundy Upholstered Beacon of Dependability” is a tour de force that weaves together an enormous number of disparate elements (a landlady who’s spent her day “teaching rich Korean kids the difference between a nightstand and a one-night stand,” an unwanted suitor, a mother and her van, a dinner guest who slips away too soon) in a coherent reflection on desire:

You thank my landlady
for dinner and roll away into a night
that imperfectly intersects my own, and I try
to stop imagining all the ways we could fail
each other, and the people in rooms
everywhere who are continually failing
each other, and hope toward someday
having one nightstand with you, maybe two.

In a time when many poets seem to connect with the world only in the most superficial sense and poems read like infinite Google-driven digressions, arresting but diffuse—there are a few in this anthology&mdashCzaga knows how to shape a poem and bring it home.

As for that other kind of diversity, the sort beloved of the arts-council bean counters, The Next Wave certainly meets the mark: more women than men, First Nations poets, gay and trans poets, and those whose heritage is Caribbean, South Asian, East Asian, African, you name it. Of course, nothing about a poet’s gender, ethnic origin, or sexuality ensures what kind of poetry they will write: all these poets might write sub-Tennysonian drivel and, 150 years ago, probably would have. All identities are complex, and it’s heartening to find poets here like Sonnet L’Abbé and Liz Howard, who show a subtle understanding of the many different ways we see ourselves and see others. In her villanelle, Howard writes of returning to Northern Ontario and the Anishinaabe half of her ancestry:

To understand all that I cannot say, as if you came
Upon the infinite simply by thinking and it was
A shore of broken cedar twisting in a wake of fog.

If I moan from an animal throat it is in hope you
Will return to me what I lost learning to speak.

Perhaps the most sophisticated poet in the book, Nyla Matuk, contributes a richly textured work that combines an enormous range of cultural reference, masterful shifts of tone, and a wonderfully arch sense of humour. Reading her, you feel a bit like you might be eavesdropping at the Mad Hatter’s tea party—the apparent decorum of the occasion is always threatening to lurch off into the surreal. In “I Declared My Ethnicity,” she mixes her distaste at being pigeonholed (“I declared / my ethnicity on my latest biographical note, only / to reap what I so forthrightly did sow”) with a wicked deadpan wit:

How about giving those gardenias sighing in a nearby
vase an opportunity to speak up? Then, again, they’re so white,
they aren’t all that troubled. But there is comfort in flowers.

The truth is no real artist wants to be reduced to a category.

In his introduction, Johnstone first tells us he chose to represent different kinds of work rather than focus on one particular notion of good poetry (at least, I think that’s what he says—he has a weakness for the buzziest buzzwords) and then claims his book is “deliberately crafted to break away from the conservative tradition of the canon.”

Nice try. The Next Wave is a fascinating introduction to a new generation of Canadian poets, but it’s still forty poets and their poems ordered alphabetically. It’s still a canon, just a new kind, and there are absences. It’s also worth asking if, by siding with representation, we are not simply using poetry to assuage social and economic injustices and exclusions. Many of our arts councils and schools seem to have decided that art is a branch of social engineering or consciousness raising, and poetry, since it’s all about expressing your feelings (see above), often becomes the go-to means to this end. What will such exclusion-assuaging poetry look like in fifty years? The start of a vibrant tradition? Or a quaint and dated image of what we wanted to be, not what we really were? Akin to the bien pensant moralizing verse of all those Victorians? Among the poets absent from The Next Wave are Elizabeth Bachinsky, Michael Lista, and Zachariah Wells, three very accomplished poets who have not figured in comparable anthologies in the past, none of whom flinch from offending polite sensibilities nor exploring the darker corners of the human psyche. Johnstone does his readers a disservice by leaving them out—it’s hard not to think that what is repressed will return.

There is another way of making an anthology, much simpler and more radical. Make it not of poets but of poems. Poets lie, and complain, and exaggerate, and pretend to be all kinds of things they’re not. They can be friends and then enemies. So forget about them. Forget about poets and identity politics and all that. Forget, too, about nativists and formalists and all the other schools. Just choose poems, resonant language, compelling speech, and moving words, wherever they appear, be it on the airwaves, on gravestones, or in slim volumes, and find a way to arrange them. That’s what Paul Keegan did with his exhilarating New Penguin Book of English Verse, ordering his selections by date of publication; it’s what Neil Astley did with his three great anthologies published by Bloodaxe, using themes to order the poems; and it’s what Heaney and Hughes did in The Rattle Bag, going alphabetical by title. And it’s the book we need now in Canada.

Richard Sanger
A playwright, translator, teacher, and poet, Richard Sanger died on September 12, 2022, at the age of sixty-two. His most recent book of poetry is Fathers at Hockey.