poems do more than soothe or teach
29 January 2024 | 5:00 pm

We take poetry too seriously. This occurred to me as I reviewed the magazines my publisher, Biblioasis, sent to me in hefty boxes. When I first took up the form in the mid to late aughts, surrealism and irony were in. The hot new poets rarely said what they meant or meant what they said. They mixed Latinate and vernacular diction and wore the skinniest jeans I’d ever seen. For all their ingenious descriptions of the globalized, technological moment, these poets’ perspective seemed removed from the world, not transcendent but aloof. At worst, their poems were trifling, with little feeling or gravity. Where was the beating heart?

Then history took a turn: asylum seekers’ bodies strewn along European shores, Trump’s chintzy demagoguery, pandemic lockdowns and mass graves, neo-Nazi marches, police violence, historic wildfires, the air thick with ash. As daily life grew more surreal, the dominant voice in poetry became more direct and serious, more rooted in real individual experience. A new generation of literary gatekeepers emerged to facilitate this shift. A number of the magazines I read for this anthology opened with an editor’s note that solemnly reflected on the need to heal, both from the terrors of the recent past and from the legacy of genocide and slavery upon which the so‑called New World was built.

When this trend first emerged, I was excited to see so many poets write candidly and with real political rage about our denial of the past and the untenability of the status quo, often with the same technical adventurousness that drew me to poetry in the first place. At some point over the last decade, however, the content superseded the form. Canadian poets and magazine editors have confused good poetry with good politics. Many poems in journals today consist primarily of solipsistic observations, social justice tropes, and moralizing narratives delivered in a uniform first-person voice. They are wooden and boring. What’s worse, poets cheapen political subject matter when they treat it with formal laziness or as a platform to signal their virtue.

I don’t believe poetry has gotten worse. Great poems continue to be written and published, as I hope the anthology demonstrates. However, the editorial curation now skews heavily in favour of poetry with a social justice message, regardless of how (or how well) it’s written. This orthodoxy is stifling. I read hundreds of magazines in the course of a year, and sometimes it seemed like every other poem was about trauma or the politics of personal identity. Some of these were excellent, but many were indistinguishable fluff.

Poetry may be therapeutic, but it is not therapy. Poetry may be enlightening, but it is not pedagogy. The best poems do more than soothe or teach. They enter and alter our consciousness such that our perception of everything else is filtered through them.

- Bardia Sinaee, from his essay on editing Best Canadian Poetry 2024, "Line by Line." You can read the whole thing here.

we took the desert's role for granted
22 January 2024 | 5:00 pm


Those downtown institutions - the Sam the Record Man and HMV - are gone now, of course. Vintage Video was uprooted by developers. It doesn't seem to have taken in its new location, which Google Earth reveals is now a Wine Rack. 
Perhaps Netflix and other streaming services are sending young twenty-first-century minds rafting down tributaries of their own... But speed of scrolling, algorithmic assistance, and instant access weren't what my friends and I needed, even if we might've welcomed them as conveniences. We needed that long subway trip downtown. (We were the farthest stop west.) We needed the sobering disappointments and sporadic victories. We needed the longueurs that new technology seeks to close, as if abolishing boredom ever does anyone a favour. Mostly, we needed wind resistance. It took effort to cultivate our enthusiasms in a desert, but it's clear now that we took the desert's role for granted. Knowledge tends to stick when you've toiled for it. 

- Jason Guriel on acquiring physical media in the pre-internet age, from his book On Browsing.

in the absence of style a poem is hamstrung
15 January 2024 | 5:00 pm

... precision and technique are paramount. Without them a genuine style cannot be achieved, and no matter how clever the conceit, how deeply felt the emotion, in the absence of style a poem is hamstrung, its race brought to a premature halt. I can imagine several ways to measure the success of a poem or collection. As a common reader, I ask whether I want to read a poem or book again, while as a critic I ask whether I am compelled to write about the works in question. Poets, I suspect, ask whether there is anything to be learned, imitated, or, as T.S. Eliot had it, stolen. But the true test of style is more visceral. Does the poem prompt its reader, arrested yet suddenly moved, to abandon the book and take a breathless lap around the room?

- Nicholas Bradley, reviewing his selection criteria in picking the books in his omnibus review selected from Canadian poetry titles published in 2021, in the "Letters in Canada 2021" issue of University of Toronto Quarterly.

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