canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Backyards of Heaven
An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry
from Ireland and Newfoundland & Labrador

eds. Stephanie McKenzie and John Ennis
Scop Productions, 2003

New British Poetry
eds. Don Paterson and Charles Simic
House of Anansi Press, 2004

Reviewed by Zach Wells

I have to say, it’s a pleasure to be reviewing these two anthologies for a publication focused on the Canadian small press scene. While these books are unquestionably Canuck publications, each in its own way represents an infusion of fresh DNA into the gene pool of our regrettably incestuous poetry publishing industry.

The Backyards of Heaven is a generous helping of poems and poets from Ireland and Newfoundland & Labrador. This pairing of spuds and salt cod is in many ways logical, if not ineluctable. Much of Newfoundland’s population is descended from Irish emigrants and the cadences of Irish speech have a pronounced influence on many of the province’s regional dialects and accents. Both Newfoundland and Ireland are islands and their cultures are largely maritime. Poems such as Carmelita McGrath’s “I Would Have Liked to Say I Was Irish” articulate the marked affinities between the respective cultural and geographical landscapes of these two isolated regions. It could be argued that Newfoundland, which did not join Confederation until 1949, and then only by the slimmest of margins—many Newfoundlanders today still question the legitimacy of the vote—has more in common with Ireland (which of course has had a more famous and violent struggle with a would-be mother country) than it does with the rest of Canada; that St. John’s and Dublin are separated only by water, whereas great tracts of land and millions of people occupy the interval between Port Aux Basques and Nanaimo.

This is not to say that this is a homogeny of verse penned by red-haired fishermen and hardscrabble farmers. Far from it. Besides poems in English, there is a healthy smattering of verse written in Irish Gaelic and three poems in French (recalling that Samuel Beckett, one of Ireland’s greatest writers, penned much of his most famous work en français), with accompanying translations; First Nations people are represented by work, in English, from Mi’kmaq, Inuit and Innu writers; many of the poets selected are not originally from one of the two regions, but have come from away, as the East Coast saying has it; others were born in one region or the other, but have since moved abroad. Inevitably—and this is as it should be—most of the poems are rooted in rural soil and tropes, but there are also many urban and cosmopolitan pieces included. The overall picture attempted—and in part achieved—by the book’s editors is one of unity within diversity—and what could be more Canadian than that?

While the broad criteria for inclusion are on the one hand admirable—it’s refreshing to see choices that aren’t too hidebound—they are not entirely justified by the end product. The book includes Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney alongside Sylvester Joe—a highschool student—and Jade Watts, whose first published poem appears in this volume; of the latter two, I can only say that their work is good for a teenager and a tyro. I don’t mean to single out two writers for criticism; Joe and Watts have a good deal of amateurish company in these pages.

In all, there are some 252 poems written by 167 poets, arranged thematically. Some pieces seem to have been chosen less for their individual excellence than because they mesh with the editors’ artificial, and often forced, attempt to unite the poems in “a symphonic structure, with recurrent motifs,” or because they voice one approved political sentiment or another.

In particular, I found several of Ireland’s justifiably famous poets (Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Derek Mahon and Ciaran Carson, for example, have only six poems between them) strangely under-represented, especially considering that a virtual unknown like Susan Ingersoll has five poems included.

Although there are many truly fine poems from both sides of the pond selected in this volume, and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit, the overall result is a bit of a Babel. This book would have a greater initial impact and more staying power had the selection been more rigorous (say a maximum of fifty poets, with more poems per poet, on average), the organization of the poems less eccentric, and the presentation of poets’ biographical information more easily accessible (the bios are clumped at the back of the book). As a cross-cultural miscellany, this anthology is very good; as a gathering of poems it could have been better.

Although laid out more conventionally, Anansi’s anthology of New British Poetry (a co-publication with the American Graywolf Press) is in many ways a more remarkable book. Editors Don Paterson (one of Scotland’s foremost poets) and Charles Simic (a prominent American poet) have not eschewed diplomacy altogether; each writer included receives equal billing, none held up as superior to the others. The selection criteria, however, are much more stringent than those employed in The Backyards of Heaven. Paterson and Simic have made their job easier by erecting certain (arguably arbitrary) boundaries. None of the poets included was born before 1945; each poet has had at least two books published; only English, Scottish and Welsh poets are included, none from Northern Ireland (since Irish poetry has had a higher profile in North America than work from the other main British Isle). In all, 36 poets (some of whose names will be familiar and many others new to regular readers of poetry) are showcased in a text that runs to a mere 184 pages.

The result of this compression is a book that impresses with its unity and uniform (though by no means homogeneous) quality. The brief samples are enough to give a reader an idea of whom they might like to read more of and of whom to bypass. Naturally, certain poets grab me more than others, but I can’t say that there’s a weak poem in the bunch, which is an extraordinarily rare thing in the politically fraught realm of contemporary anthologism, wherein aesthetic conflict is more often tactfully averted than courted.

The prime reason for this is the editors’ decision to favour taste over tact, to exclude work from that school of opaque hermeticism known variously as “experimental,” “postmodern” or “avant-garde” poetry. This is a conscious decision, made explicit by Paterson in his passionately opinionated introduction:

The work of the Postmoderns delegates the production of meaning to the reader, their poetry being largely derelict in its responsibility to aid it. The reader is alone. For those of us quickly bored by our own company, the result is work that can be objectively described as extremely boring.

Clearly, this is an anthology on a mission—or several missions. Besides Paterson’s stated desire to correct taste and pedagogy in Britain, both Charles Simic and Anansi poetry editor Ken Babstock present this book as a corrective to a longstanding North American habit of cultural isolation, to our ofttimes willful abnegation of the traditions of English (in the broadest sense) poetry.

Certainly, if the appearance of this book is not an antidote to an illness, it is at least a symptom of vitality, a sign that the seedling of Canadian poetry, nurtured within the controlled hothouse conditions of cultural nationalism, is now grownup enough for transplantation into the wild. If nothing else, New British Poetry is a stellar example of how we might go about assembling a sampler of our best new work, something that we can proudly display to the rest of the English-speaking world without apology or explanation. In an age increasingly characterized by the insidious sprawl of economic globalisation, it’s more important than ever that our cultural and artistic borders remain open and that poets talk to each other and keep their quills sharpened. But the bottom line—to pun on a favourite cliché of neo-con ideologues—is a helluva lot of very good poetry.

Zach Wells is a Canadian of Anglo-Scots and Russian Jewish extraction who grew up speaking French, presently living beyond the Pale in Halifax, New Scotland. His poem “Bowhead” appeared recently on TDR and his book, Unsettled, is due out with Insomniac Press in the fall of 2004. His website is






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