Book Review: Best Canadian Poetry in English 2010

I am a huge fan of public libraries; it is why one of my standard “cover photos” for these little blogs is a picture of what was once the St. Thomas Public Library (and is now a part of the St. Thomas City Hall building complex).  Indeed, I borrowed a copy of The Best Canadian Poetry in English (2010) from the STPL.  Even though the title is now eight years old, I’m glad that I’ve spent the past week reading it.

The collection is published by Tightrope Books – and it is part of a series that appears to have begun back in 2008.  Yes, there’s a 2017 edition…no, I haven’t gotten to it yet.   The series attempts to gather the publishers can find published across a wide set of periodicals and publications.  Gathering the best you can find is a nice idea.  As is the idea that the collection can provide a valuable tool to those “curious about Canadian poetry but need a place for such curiosity to begin.” (Molly Peacock in the prologue).   And the 2010 collection is pretty reasonable.

The collection itself presents a kind of top fifty. Of the fifty, I find myself significantly supportive of a significant portion.  I will take the time to mention several:

  • Barry Dempster’s Mary Lake Writing Retreat
  • Kildare Dobbs’ It
  • Sue Goyette’s This Last Lamp
  • Jamella Hagen’s Driving Daytona
  • Dave Margoshes’ The Chicken Coop
  • Jim Nason’s Black Ice
  • Marilyn Gear Pilling’s Billy Collins Interviewed On Stage at Chautauqua
  • Lenore & Beth Rowntree’s 7lbs 6oz
  • David Zieroth’s How Brave

I don’t have any rights to re-publish any of those terrific poems, but I’ll recommend buying the book to get them – or even buying collections by the poets.  Finally, sure, do what I often do and visit the library.

Now I want to comment on some other features of the book.  I want to consider a few sentiments expressed by Molly Peacock, the series editor.  In Peacock’s prologue, I find an admirable perspective of poetry in the argument that “Poetry is the art that responds to the anxiety of living.”  I think this is true, insofar as it goes, but I think this argument cuts poetry a bit short on what it does…and perhaps similarly cuts other arts short on what they do.  I think I’d have preferred the argument to be phrased something like: As art, poetry responds to the anxiety of living.  It is a worthy introduction to what poetry can do.  I am reluctant to narrow poetry to existential anxiety.  I think it has more to it….not that existential anxiety isn’t very real and at times very much in the need of response.

I am more particularly interested in Peacock’s comments about Canadian poetry as contrasted with American poetry.

…a distinction between Canadian and American poets in terms of their contracts with their readers.  While the American poet often feels that she or he must impress with fireworks in the first few lines, feeling some desperation to hold the reader, I do not sense this pressure in Canadian poets.  They have a different relationship with the reader, and I think it is one of trust.  A Canadian poet feels that to start slow and gather the individual strangeness of perception is possible because that Canadian poet can trust the reader to wait to find out what will happen in the poem.  The reader of Canadian poetry does not say, Impress me.  Instead this reader says engage me.

How distinctly Canadian it is to attempt to define Canadian characteristics through contrast to Americans…and with just the slightest moral superiority and arrogance.  That hint of arrogance and virtue.  Should Peacock be forgiven for this since these sentiments were initially for an American audience…or wondered at for phrasing them this way for a Canadian edition? When will Canadians define themselves without a nagging need to reference others?  Perhaps in later editions of the collection that occurs.

Another complaint?  Well, I found it a bit annoying that a this “best Canadian poetry in English” needed to include several pages of descriptive text presented in two languages…French and then an English translation.  Really?  Canadian poetry in English is best represented by that?  I’ve never been a fan of descriptive passages being pawned-off as poetry when they should instead be inserted into some other, longer work of prose…some story or narrative where a bit of image-filled language can really make an impact.  The argument of this piece, within the context of the collection, seems to be that you can really only understand and develop poetry in English if you see what it doesn’t do in French (or any language).  Really?  I think not.

A few quibbles.  That’s not bad really.  Very little in this world is perfect.  I was wonderfully moved by The Chicken Coop.  I may just need to memorize How Brave.  And the others in my little list of favorites were worth reading many times.  All in all, I’d say it was worth the week I spent with it.

Addendum: I spent several days with the 2013 edition of the book and simply couldn’t find a comfortable spot to lay my attention.  The 2013 edition had a different guest editor, so it is possible that my tastes and preferences simply don’t align with that editors…several poets who I enjoy reading were among those anthologized in the collection but even these didn’t seem to be samples that drew me in.  I’m not going to write a post devoted solely to gripes on that edition – but it is worthwhile noting that sometimes poetry and audience do not connect.

Revision History Notes: All content on is subject to edit and revision. Whenever possible, dates of revisions will be note.  Original post 14/02/2018.  Updated 18/02/2018.


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