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Sunday, January 29, 2006

poetical political

Blog About Town
by John W. MacDonald

This winter has been distressing on a number of levels. We saw the passing of three poets, Candis Graham, Marianne Bluger, and Irving Layton. However, this season has been quite good for fans of poetry as two important anthologies of Canadian poetry have been published. With the election over and only dreams of skating on the Rideau Canal, you may be wondering which one to read. 'Both' is as fair and diplomatic answer that any politician could be quoted as saying. Ultimately, that decision is up to you.

Donald Marquis is quoted infamously as stating that "publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo." I believe this truism is becoming a thing of the past - online anyway. The internet's blogosphere, as big as it is, is continually resounding with echoes of feedback. It has forever changed the way people can read, write, and comment on what's published. Whether the public at large (i.e. non-poets) actually participate in the ongoing debates is another matter entirely. The immediacy of feedback greatly surpasses that which can be found in printed review journals, and especially newspapers. The opportunity for comment, thoughtful and sometimes spiteful, can be overwhelming at times. Yet, it's always fun to read.

I might venture to say that whichever book you decided to buy would tell much about your political (poetical?) personality. Are you a dynamic, liberal, reader of "cutting-edge authors who have been acclaimed internationally as some of the most important innovators of the 20th and 21st centuries"? Then Shift & Switch may be for you. Or would you rather read some "of the most interesting Canadian poets born between 1955 and 1975"? Then the conservative The New Canon is up your alley.

There are a number of similarities aside from the two words, 'Canadian Poetry', in the sub-title. Both books are paperback, possess rather bland white covers, and don't really jump of the shelf, visually speaking. Each claim to include numerous references to 'innovative' writing. Covers aside, they are really two very different books internally.

The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, edited by Carmine Starnino, was launched in Ottawa in December, and Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry made its Ottawa debut in January. Combined, these two anthologies present to the poetry-reading world a whopping 91 poets. Fifty from The New Canon and 41 in Shift & Switch. It truly is a lot to digest, especially if your knowledge of poetry is gleaned from greeting cards or scribblings on public washroom walls.

The New Canon's rear cover, rather militaristically, proclaims that the 326 page book concentrates "on poets who have launched innovative attacks on traditional verse modes..." But flipping through its pages the impression I get is the poems are all very much traditional-looking in a linear way: densely-packed pages of text broken into familiar stanzas. It looks like poetry. On the other hand, you will be surprised as you flip through the smaller 192 pages of Shift & Switch, edited by Derek Beaulieu, Jason Christie and Angela Rawlings. It certainly lives up to its rear cover blurb stating that its "avant-garde poets challenge the reading and writing status quo, and question what a poem may be." Every page catches my eye with an abundance of striking visual images and words.

Zachariah Wells comments on his web site,, that Starnino's The New Canon is "a provocative and highly readable anthology of younger Canadian poets. Naturally enough, I question some of Carmine's inclusions and exclusions, but on the whole this book is so much more exciting and varied than the standard fare out there. But most of all, I question his decision to cut off the junior end at a 1975 birthdate because...had it been otherwise, I would've been in!"

You will have two opportunities to see the poet, Zachariah Wells read from his 'first full-length collection of poems, distilled from seven-plus years of work as a cargo handler, agent and coordinator in Canada's Eastern Arctic'. His first appearance will be at Collected Works Bookstore this afternoon at 2:00 pm, and again this evening at The Dusty Owl Reading Series, starting at 6:00pm at Swizzles Bar and Grill.

originally appeared in the Ottawa a slightly modified form.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've got to be kidding. Are you really comparing the merits of these two anthologies -- dubbing one "liberal" and the other "conservative" -- on the evidence of how the poems LOOK on the page ("flipping through it's [sic] pages the impression I get...") and the accompanying PUBLICITY material? Don't you think you should at least read the books before spreading such painful clichés?

Thursday, February 23, 2006 2:06:00 PM  
Blogger John MacDonald said...

Guilty as charged! I am a hack.

But I did pay $43.90 for both books...and you paid, what, nothing to read this blog entry and write your comment about my painful cliches. That's a bargain.

The piece ran during the election and I guess I should have used some other NDP/Green/Neo-Progressive/Conservative/Mary Jane Party metaphors... ah well, next time. Thanks for dropping by, however.

Friday, February 24, 2006 5:53:00 PM  

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