This is a fascinating collection on poetics, although not necessarily because of the work of the editors, and not because many of the essays address poetics – the theory of how most effectively and conscientiously to create poetry. Should one create it to impress, to attract empathy, to amaze, to enable listeners/readers to make new connections, to shock? Should one create it craftily, spontaneously, procedurally, passionately, or in a less-than-rational state as in Fred Wah’s “drunk” poems? Is a poet someone who thinks more deeply and laterally than others, who feels more deeply, who is more nimble with words, who takes more risks with language, who thinks more disjunctively, who sees the multiplicities of meaning in language more readily than others? Are poetics culture specific? Should a poet even think about poetics? – 50-some years ago I received several letters from would-be poets deploring that I took time to ponder poetics issues. Are some forms of language more or less suitable for poetry than others? “Go in fear of abstractions,” Pound once famously advised. Reject closure, suggests Lyn Hejinian. Was Ginsberg right that the first thought for a poem is the best thought? Can language itself suggest the phonic direction of a poem, as Robert Duncan believed? Is simile the bird that comes down too quickly, as Olson declared? Readers won’t find much discussion of such questions here, though they will find what co-editors Bart Vautour and Christl Verduyn term a “contemporary mash-up” (333) of impressions of what poetics might be.
Some of the contributors don't seem much interested in poetics, or perhaps confuse it with thematics and audiences. Every poet employs a poetics – an assumption about what poetry is,
As for the editors, their troubles begin with the subtitle, where the word “poetry” doesn’t fit as a subcategory of “public poetics.” “Critical issues in Canadian poetry” do not have to involve poetics, and could be the topic of a much different book. Then there is the introduction by Erin Wunker and Travis V. Mason which poorly represents much of the contents; I’d recommend reading it last so as not to be misled. At times it reads like an attempt to ‘save’ lyric poetry. “Like the contributors to this collection,” the two co-editors write, “we posit that lyric speech has the potential not only to cite specific temporal and geographic events, but also to activate the urgency with which these events are uttered” (3). But many of the contributors do not endorse lyric speech, and in fact question it for its illusion of authorial ‘presence’ – a questioning which has been ongoing since Derrida’s 1967 critique of the metaphysics of presence. On page 14 the two co-editors dispute what they characterize as Michael “Warner’s dismissal of poetry because ‘it has no time’.” But Warner hasn’t dismissed poetry. He has dismissed lyric poetry, which the editors themselves have acknowledged on page 3. Why Wunker and Mason would want to equate lyric poetry with poetry is mysterious, and possibly devious, since the viability of the lyric has been in question for at least 30 years, and for more than 100 if one goes back to Pound’s “A Retrospect” and his zinger about “emotional slither.”
“Section I [The Contemporary Field,” consisting of essays by Sina Queyras, El Jones, Tanis McDonald, Heather Milne, and John Stout, may be what inspired Vautour and Verduyn’s “mash-up” comment. Each contributor seems more interested in promoting a particular field of poetry, and its public relevance, than in questions of poetics. Nevertheless, El Jones’s “The Threat of Black Art, or, on Being Unofficially Banned in Canada,” is a powerful piece of writing even if it has little connection to the anthology’s topic. In fact each of the five essays is more complex and insightful than the introduction indicates.
“Section II [The Embedded Field]” presents five essays on the work of particular poets, in which the essayists, Amanda Jernigan, Will Smith, Georgie Miller, Emily Ballanyne, and Kevin McNeilly, not unexpectedly attempt to demonstrate that this work is public poetry – a demonstration that is also hardly a surprise when Will Smith writes of Dennis Lee’s 1968 Civil Elegies in an essay about Lee and Souster. Smith uses the word “poetics” now and then but it is difficult to find in his essay an articulation of how either writer’s use of language or point of view or line and stanza structure operates to hail a particular audience or to create a specific public function for poetry. His focus on poems written some 45 or more years ago raises the question of why the slightly older work of E.J. Pratt, the most public of Canadian poets, with a public poetics of exaggeration and amplification borrowed from the classical epic, is mentioned nowhere in the volume. Georgie Miller’s “To the Bone: The Instrumental Activism of Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries” similarly says little about poetics although it performs an excellent explication of Brand’s poem, and maintains the collection’s tendency to be heavy on ‘public,’ as in activism, and light on poetics. The most interesting essay here is by Emily Ballantyne, “Rearticulate, Renovate, Rebuild: Sachiko Murakami’s Architectural Poetics of Community,” in which the “Re” poetics apparently originated by Jeff Derksen offers a procedural poetics of both writing and environmentalism. Definitely worth a read.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of this book is that Canadian critics have finally noticed the poetics essays of Charles Bernstein, including his A Poetics of 1992 and Close Listening of 1998. Four of the five essays in “Section III: [Expanding the Field]” favourably quote Bernstein passages, many of which have been long familiar to some Canadian poets. “Poetry is aversion to conformity in the pursuit of new forms, or can be,” Michael Nardone quotes here from A Poetics. “When poetry averts conformity it enters into the contemporary: speaking to the pressures and of the moment with the means just then at hand” (“We Are the Amp: The Poetics of the Human Microphone,” 289). It’s a plausible defence of innovation. Why this section is called “Expanding the Field” is a bit strange: to many readers the focuses of these essays would be the field. Here Erin Moure and Karis Shearer in “The Public Reading: Call for a New Paradigm,” collaborate on a critique of the Canada Council public reading program, arguing that public readings shouldn’t be conceived as promotional events for print publications but rather as creative occasions of their own. Indeed, non-supported readings do often occur as community events in which writers learn from each other and present work they are in the process of creating even as they ‘read’. Katharine McLeod in “Radio Poetics: Publishing and Poetry on CBC’s Anthology” examines that 1960s radio program’s support for the oral dissemination of poetry. Though McLeod is another contributor who doesn’t tie her contribution to any substantial consideration of poetics other than citing Bernstein’s remark that the poetry reading is “a medium in its own right,” her essay is a useful reminder that there was once a more productive literary program on the CBC than the promotional Canada Reads. The strongest essay here is the concluding one, Diana Brydon’s “Canadian Public Poetics: Negotiating Belonging in a Globalizing World.” Perhaps because a critic rather than a poet, she goes beyond promoting particular poets or poetry communities to examine the situation of all poets who now necessarily create their texts in a “globalizing world.” Following Bernstein’s observation that it is possible to “think of innovation in a modest and local way, as responses to historical and contemporary particulars – as situational, not universal,” she suggests that, rather than viewing poetries and their implicit poetics as both contesting and contested, one might view each as a possibly appropriate response to a particular context. It’s a thoughtful essay that, along with those of Ballantyne, and Moure/Shearer could suggest new poetics ventures, poems and publics to poets/readers. Which is what poetics should do.