canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets
Nightwood Editions, 2004

Reviewed by Bob Moore

Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets, an anthology of writing by poets born between 1970 and 1980,  is the second such adventure in publishing edited by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane (the first appeared in 1994).  As the editors acknowledge in their Introduction, however, BF2 is the fourth in a series: “[Al Purdy’s] two editions of Storm Warning, in which he introduced the poets of the sixties and the seventies to Canada, have been our models.” The series’ latest incarnation is the most populous to date: the work of thirty-three poets is on offer, in samples ranging between one and seven poems. Of the thirty-three, twenty-one have either published at least one full-length collection or have a book forthcoming. Almost all have either won or been nominated for a prize of some sort, and a significant number are graduates from university creative writing programs. Of the latter, seven are graduates of the University of Victoria’s creative writing program, which Lorna Crozier currently heads and in which Patrick Lane has taught for years.[1]  

Despite a smattering of nullities, the cumulative worth of the work collected here more than justifies Don McKay’s claim, advanced in the book’s lone jacket blurb, that “This is work to revel in and be grateful for.” Much of the reveling and gratitude flows from the fact that the book includes representative work by a dozen or more poets with already well-established and manifestly well-deserved reputations (though not always their best work).  Among the current crop of fire-breathers there are, moreover, a few poets of much promise and certain worth with whom even the reasonably attentive reader of recent Canadian poetry may not yet be familiar.  A listing of the former here isn’t especially necessary (you know who they are, they know who they are). And if a listing of the latter is to mean much to anyone concerned – that is, if a rehearsal of names is intended to signify anything beyond itself – won’t it necessary to have in play at least some of the criteria subtending the formation of a list? Would it help in this regard if I told you I really do esteem good writing, that I know a good poem when I see one, that I trust my heart to guide me in such matters? What if, sensing from you some diminishing confidence in my probity, I were to point at the flag and start singing the national anthem? Impressed? Can’t wait to read on? If you’ve answered ‘yes,’ then quite literally untold satisfactions await you in the Introduction to BF2

The original mandate of Al Purdy’s Storm Warning was to introduce poets of a certain generation to a wider readership. It’s worth recalling that, in his introductions, Purdy is refreshingly unabashed about the quotient of arbitrariness and implicit self-flattery involved in putting one’s name to such an enterprise. As he knew, in gallimaufries of this sort it is the editor who is always and everywhere speaking through the choice of voices they’ve deem fit to speak; reading Storm Warning, you are also, at some level, reading Purdy. As he says in the first Storm Warning (after dismissing the logic of organizing an anthology on the basis of an age limit):

Also arbitrary is the choice of poets themselves and the specific poems presented here. The choice was mine, and has to consist of my personal belief that certain poems and poets are good….I haven’t included anyone in this book because he/she was a rising young poet or represented a special geographic area.

Though not nearly as forthcoming as Purdy on the role of “personal belief,” Crozier and Lane honour the traditions of the franchise he started in refusing to explain what “good” might mean beyond the exercise of personal belief. The most they feel confident in claiming in their Introduction is they went looking for “good poems” and that, notwithstanding the exclusion of much “good writing” from this anthology, “good poets will all eventually emerge.” All very well and good, but surely the interest in staking a claim on this particular demographic’s output was to produce a result less deadly to the exercise of discrimination on the part of its potential readership than “And it was good.”  

Perhaps the most pressing among the welter of questions left begging by Crozier and Lane in their Introduction to BF2 is:  “On what grounds?”[2] For instance, wouldn’t it be helpful to know something of how the process of selection worked with regard to both poems (the part, if any, the poets played in the selection of individual pieces) and poets (how, for instance, to account for the notable but missing, like Michael de Beyer, Joelene Heathcote, or David O’Meara), or if, in the view of the editors who spent so much time and energy sifting the work of the three hundred poets who applied for inclusion, anything distinctive in the poetry of this distinct age group emerged worth commenting upon (as in the general lack of humour, allusiveness, and interest in rhyme, or even how it happened that nearly seventy-nine percent of the new poets of Canada weren’t students of the editors)? Unhappily but irresistibly, editorial indifference to these and other questions leads one to wonder what particular business have Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane setting themselves up as gatekeepers for “Canada’s New Poets”? To the extent that we rely upon their Introduction to guide us in answering that question, the answer is, one fears, very little business at all. For BF2’s Introduction is so relentlessly insensible of the obligation to explain its bases of judgement, so willfully bereft of a critical vocabulary, so lazy and self-satisfied is its interest in promoting the careers of the poets who somehow touched the intertwined hearts of editors, that it’s genuinely difficult, having read it, to estimate the relevance of what follows. Indeed, to appreciate what BF2 might mean as an anthology of record, one has to read against its editorial principles. Here, for example, are Crozier and Lane explaining who their poets are: 

They and the personae in their poems live among neighbours where most days they look ordinary and well-meaning. Some mornings they wake waterlogged into regret, and some nights they throw roses from their roofs into the snow…and always they write poems.

For the purposes of comparison, let’s turn briefly to another recent anthology of new poetry, New British Poetry, edited and introduced by Don Paterson and Charles Simic, with a foreword by Ken Babstock. Leaving aside the relative merits of the poetry, what fundamentally distinguishes NBP from BF2 is the introductory apparatus. Quick now, with the image of the poet Crozier and Lane painted for us above in mind, listen to Paterson and Simic explain what the poets they chose have in common:  “In that [foregoing] definition of originality [these poets] find their risk. ‘Risk’ in poetry has nothing to do with the ampersand-count, or disjunctive syntax, or heaps of nonseqs, or sly allusions to Heisenberg or Heidegger, or novel systems of punctuation” Or this: 

[T]hese poems, we believe, make an honest attempt to generate the literal or argumentative context by which they are to be understood. A fact too often underappreciated is that lineation alone indicates the presence of figure.  

Put your finger down anywhere in Paterson and Simic and you’ll find them thus vigorously engaged in the difficult business of at once implicitly justifying their right to set themselves up as arbiters of a nation’s new poetry, even while explicitly delineating the key aesthetic principles informing the selection to follow. Put your finger down anywhere in Crozier and Lane and it’s all but guaranteed a landing in warmed-over rhetoric and fustian goo (recall Martin Amis on cliché…how it makes honesty impossible). Crozier and Lane modestly assert:

All we wanted, was to give poets from across Canada the opportunity to present their writing. Our concern was not for the bias of a particular genre, but for the good poem finely wrought. The voices presented in this anthology confirm what we have always believed: that there is room for every kind of poetry regardless of taste, attitude or concern. 

Parsing this pious boosterism and liberal bafflegab for substance yields the following aesthetic: good poems are finely wrought; every kind of poetry – so long as it is finely wrought, mind you – has a place; the poetry you’ll read in their anthology richly illustrates the editor’s longstanding and manifestly estimable lack of bias when it comes to matters of “taste, attitude and concern.” For Paterson and Simic, on the other hand, terms of art like “lineation” or recourse to a workable definition of aesthetic risk are requisite because they assume they are addressing an audience which takes poetry seriously, which cherishes precision of expression and clarity of thought. Whom are Crozier and Lane addressing? Apparently it’s a readership in need of reassurance that Canadian poets really do live among us and, yes, look just like you and me, except of course they tend to wake up waterlogged into regret and can often be glimpsed on a winter’s night up on roofs seeing if roses can fly.  

In sum, what Crozier and Lane do with their introduction is entirely abdicate their responsibility to give their readers or their poets anything like the strong reading we all deserve. Were these editors to have their way, we’d enter the poetry of BF2 – which is, let us not forget, the winning result of some sort of competition – not so much equipped to judge and weigh relative merit, as blinded by vatic eyewash (“They are here by an act of magic…”), deafened by the blare of anthems (“A great land will always create a great poetry…”), and generally benumbed by high-minded irrelevancies (contra what was apparently the general expectation, “geography, race, colour or sexual orientation” played no part in the decision-making process). Notwithstanding the fact that the poetry itself more often than not richly belies the refusal on the part of the editors to think in print, to cast precise language into the form of an original idea, Crozier and Lane’s introduction everywhere argues for the willing suspension of – to borrow their terms – “taste, attitude and concern.”  

The consequences of such an introduction for the reading of the work that follows as profoundly determinative, not so much when it comes to appreciating individual poems or poets (they will either make or lose their own way in the world on their own terms) but when it comes to appreciating the collection per se. On what possible basis can one either quibble with or approve – let alone comment upon – a poem’s or a poet’s place in the specific context of this book if the criteria determining the construction of that context are taken to be so entirely self-evident as to remain entirely unspoken?  “Read [the following poems] with your heart,” the editors advise in the Introduction’s parting fillip. No doubt ‘read with your heart’ is a shibboleth of consequence in the repertoire of carpetbagging creative writing instructors, but it’s disheartening to see it is emblazoned over an entrance through which an entire generation of poets has been asked to stoop so that it might pass.  Reading BF2, I couldn’t help thinking how much more relevant, informed and probably representative an anthology of this generation’s poetry might have been had it been edited by one or two of its own more savvy practitioners, such as Evan Jones, editor of the anthology New Canadian Poetry in 2000 (the same Evan Jones nominated for the Governor General’s Award in 2002, born in 1973, and inexplicably absent from BF2). As presented by Crozier and Lane – whose ostensible self-effacement is tantamount to a kind of shouting – BF2 is best appreciated as the shadow two mature and established poets cast across some part of a field of gifted young poets whose ‘newness’ devolves to a vulgar question of age only, a criterion as arbitrary and ultimately empty of significance as the considerations of race, colour, gender and geography the right-thinking editors took such pains to disavow in their Introduction. 


[1] “According to Crozier, there were over 300 submissions for the book. She insists she and Lane were as subjective [sic?] as possible when choosing who got into the book, but notes that seven of the poets—Amy Bespflug, warren heiti, Chris Hutchinson, Amanda Lamarche, Steven Price, Matt Rader and Sheryda Warrener—were students of UVic’s creative writing program. Price not only got his BFA from UVic, he is also now an instructor in the writing department.” The Martlet: The University of Victoria’s Independent Newspaper (Nov. 4th, 2004 Volume 57, Issue 13). Note: in BF2, no mention is made in the author bio’s of Bespflug, Heiti and Hutchinson of any association with UVic’s creative writing program.  

[2] The ramifications of subtitling Breathing Fire 2 “Canada’s New Poets” in lieu of something more qualified – as in, say, “New Canadian Poets” – are far-reaching. “Canada’s New Poets” amounts to a kind of provocation; it names an exalted thing, a final, even an official, result; the latest dividend of a national trust. “New Canadian Poets,” on the other hand, allows for a much more modest undertaking, different in kind and in scope: a selection of Canadian poets of a certain age whom the editors happen to admire for reasons of their own. The spectacular presumption of “Canada’s New Poets” obliges a careful rationale for the choices made; it owes an explanation of its terms of reference. In the case of “New Canadian Poets,” beyond a perfunctory introduction, the reputation of the editors constitute sufficient warrant, and the poems are free to justify any claims on our attention.  

Bob Moore is a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick.







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