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Todd Swift
Todd Swift

The Daily Review, Thu., Apr. 7

The anthology as provocation Add to ...

All anthologies are political actions. They are kingmakers' gestures, wherein their editors attempt to appoint a hierarchy for their chosen time and place. With that in mind, expatriate Canadian poets Todd Swift and Evan Jones, having convinced top-tier British poetry press Carcanet to let them publish an anthology called Modern Canadian Poets, need to be evaluated on both taste and politics. Because when taste is moved into the public sphere, it becomes a kind of politics, and the statement made with a major anthology contains the same world-remaking ambitions as a political platform.

This is especially true for an anthology that aims to introduce readers "to 35 poets they may never have read before." To that end, here are six poets not featured in this new collection, published in Britain and launched recently in Canada: Leonard Cohen, Don McKay, Al Purdy, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. There are more, and while some major voices survived the cull (Irving Layton, Anne Carson, even comparative outsiders David McGimpsey and Lisa Robertson made it in), this is an anthology that aims to provoke with its rejections.

When work suggested for a canon is on-message with the dominant consensus, it is right to interrogate the editors. But, in a book with such an eccentrically revisionist bent as Modern Canadian Poets, we ask not only, "What were the editors trying to knock over?" but also, "What are they hoping will grow in its place?" This critical double play is important and regenerative. Art needs revolutions. But we should always suspect its loudest partisans.

The word brought in to support Jones's and Swift's most controversial choices is "cosmopolitan." Thus, the simple imagistic notions of W.W.E. Ross are allowed through on the grounds of their tentative modernism, and Chicago-based Daryl Hine, perhaps our most aesthetically reactionary poet, is introduced as a case study on the "problematized connection to Canada" of expatriate poets. The gems in Modern Canadian Poets are the voices on the fringe of obscurity, in need of a patron to keep them in the conversation. To that end, it's impossible to dismiss an anthology that supports Alfred Bailey or that reinforces a late-career cosmopolitan like Don Coles.

The editors' decision to limit the book to poets born before our centennial implies a light editorial touch, one that doesn't pre-empt the canon with an early pass at literary history (as done recently, and with some humility, by both Carmine Starnino in The New Canon and Sina Queyras in Open Field).

However, the litmus test for poetic relevance is the degree to which a poet can be felt (as inspiration or rejection) in the work of their immediate successors. In Modern Canadian Poets, Swift and Jones make room for that bigger narrative, but ignore it. Can an argument be made that Ken Babstock, Karen Solie or Kevin Connolly are influenced more by John Glassco or Jay Macpherson than by Lee, Cohen or McKay? Swift and Jones aren't interested in telling "the story" of Canadian poetry, they are spending their capital gardening their personal poetics. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that; the thousand blurry constellations of taste, and the open discussions between them, are essential.

Likewise, there are real extravagances to point out among the "golden" poets of our postwar generation, with their easy nationalism and their retreat to the twin monasteries of the prosaic lyric and the academy. But such points must be stated, and not hinted at via non-selection. Jones and Swift have refused the guardianship demanded by their title for the iconoclasm of politicized taste. And iconoclasm is good. Iconoclasm moves us forward. But when shouldering the weight of Canadian poetry's first major European anthology in 50 years, it comes across here as dishonest and slight.

Jacob McArthur Mooney's second collection of poems, Folk, has just been published.

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