Forget that Boring CBC List

Here are 9 Canadian poetry classics to read this April

It's April, which means Poetry Month or, as the cover of an issue of Poetry magazine once put it, "National Defibrillation Month." The CBC recently blew a fine layer of dust off some duty reads: 10 Canadian classics, from Atwood to Ondaatje, some of which seem lifted off another era's mimeographed syllabus. (Our Canadian Broadcasting Corporation suggested a few "modern" classics, too.) Of course, there is some good stuff on that CBC list. (Page! Avison! A handful of pages of Layton!) But here, humbly submitted, is an alternative: 9 books of Canadian poetry, recent and not-so-recent, for your consideration. Please don't enjoy these until May.


Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (2013), by Alexandra Oliver
Recommended by Jason Guriel

The poems in Alexandra Oliver's Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway are professor-proof: smart, yes, but also apprehensible and entertaining. Like Pino Coluccio's First Comes Love (2005), another masterclass in rhyme and meter (and a near-miss for this list), Meeting the Tormentors resists the lure toward trendy obfuscation and humorless lyricism. (In other words, give your students the Babstock and Brand; keep Oliver for yourself.) Oliver expertly stuffs her lines with the messy stuff of real life; in one poem, a Dorothy-Parkeresque speaker tells her single friend, “My hands are full of turkey parts and string; / I know you want to talk about the thing / that happened at the staff retreat with Ted. // I have to see the kids are bathed and fed.” It may not be prize-bait, but the enormously readable Meeting the Tormentors is a book abristle with hooks.


No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems (2011), by Bruce Taylor
Recommended by Jason Guriel

I’m loath to recommend Bruce Taylor, the sort of cult poet your inner snob wants to protect from the indifference of others. Taylor has attracted a pair of A.M. Klein Awards, but has mostly (calmly) labored in un-networked obscurity, issuing something like a collection a decade, to crickets, since the 1980s. With the vision of a poet and, even better, the ocular power of a microscope, Taylor can pack a brilliant universe into a brief description of a book about a microbiologist: “A regular little factory, this book, / as busy as a Jacquard loom / constructing its bustling world / of high-piled clouds and shambling / courtyards and canals…” He describes “17th-century rain” as “curled / like a great cascading periwig / over the cankered rooftiles of old Delft.” No End in Strangeness, Taylor's New and Selected, pulls from his two previous books, and offers the best introduction to his poetry. Taylor anticipated the recent trend toward poets writing about science—but he himself remains untrendy. It’s no matter; his work is pickled in the brine of its own stubborn intelligence for future consumption.

Merrybegot (2003), by Mary Dalton
Recommended by Evan Jones

We might talk about the various “accents” across Canada, but Mary Dalton’s Merrybegot makes clear there's no such thing as a Newfoundland accent—Newfoundland has its own English: "There’s Dickey just gone up / The road in a red shirt. He’s / Sure not the fog man – / Traipsing along with the swagger / Of a swiler in the spring fat." I had a copy of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English when I first read the book, but lacking that now, I find the poems move in more interesting directions. A “swiler” rings of swine and swill—though it’s a variation of “sealer.” But isn’t there something piggish about seals? And what is a “fog man?” Some sort of ghost? Dalton’s ‘I’ unfolds the events, but it’s the stories that are central. The speaker, in her whimsical, folksy, lusty way, eyeing these many Don Juans, certainly has an agenda, but never lets that get in the way of telling a good tale. And it’s all in the telling, the musicality and constant punning. “Merrybegot” may mean “illegitimate,” but there’s nothing of that in the poems. Look instead for what Mary has begot for us: “a taste of my fine figgy cake.” 


A Day’s Grace: Poems 1997-2002 (2003), by Robyn Sarah
Recommended by Evan Jones

I don’t find the CBC list entirely boring, though it is depressing. Only three living poets? And those three? But then, squished in the centre of the bottom row, below Al Purdy’s beer belly, is Robyn Sarah’s edition of The Essential Margaret Avison. An essential book if ever there was oneand part of a living project. The series, published by Porcupine’s Quill of Erin, Ontario, includes some of the most wonderful poets who ever lived between the Atlantic and the Pacific. But it’s Robyn Sarah herself I’ll put forward (she’s edited three Essentials, for those so inclined). Her collection, A Day’s Grace, is a head-turner. Who else in Canada writes poetry this way? Full of intimacy and warmth, her poems extend an invitation to the reader. Every one is a conversation over a glass of wine, a cup of tea, a delicious mealthere’s table-talk aplenty, funny stories (“Getting In Deeper”) and serious ones (“The Unharmed”). No awkward silences. In A Day’s Grace, the right poem always arrives at the right time. 


Mountain Tea (1984), by Peter Van Toorn 
Recommended by Michael Lista

In 1984, Peter Van Toorn, an Anglophone Quebecer and jazz musician, published his only collection of poems—the syncopated, “love sick for a kiss,” almost 200-page Mountain Tea—then dropped off the face of the Earth. Mountain Tea is a Canadian Flowers of Evil or Leaves of Grass, a big, bizarre book whose idiosyncrasy is derived from a holy slacker’s ambition to sing his whole world. Van Toorn hitchhikes, watches dragonflies screw, zones out, flirts with a nurse, swims, sees a bird with a leaf—a nothing much he gussies up in classical forms disguised by his motley vernacular. He folds a clutch of translations—of everyone from Baudelaire to Li Po—into his rag tag expedition to the eponymous mountain (which by the way is also slang for weed). Van Toorn scaled Parnassus, got stoned for a while, left us a masterpiece, then disappeared.


The Invention of Honey (1990), by Ricardo Sternberg 
Recommended by Michael Lista

Sternberg’s debut, which he waited until he was 42 to publish, is a love song to “that little bureaucrat, the heart.” His poems are populated by the characters of myth and fairytale—alchemists, Snow White’s step-mom, mermaids, angels—all of whom find a third dimension when they’re transported to the sweet grit of Sternberg’s world. I’ve said it before: his poems shouldn’t work. His diction is dialed down to a bedside whisper, and he rarely sends you to the dictionary. He uses strictly off-limit vocabulary—lovers, heart, kiss, stars, heart again, and lovers again, too—and recovers a freshness and shock in them that you’d long thought had been scuffed out from overuse. Add to all that the fact that he lunched with Robert Lowell and was Elizabeth Bishop’s pen pal, and it’s weird to wonder why Sternberg isn’t a household name. 


The Rocking Chair and Other Poems (1948), by A.M. Klein 
Recommended by Carmine Starnino

Klein-Rocking_Chair.jpg

Celebrating grain elevators, frigidaires and snowshoers, A.M. Klein’s final collection represented a fresh start for our literature, showing us that poems could be clean constructions packed with vivid accuracies. Sixty-seven years later, the results are as masterful as ever. Combining a love of Quebecois culture (“proud-pedantical / with spire and dome”) with the exhilarating impurities of joual, or what Klein called Montreal’s “double-melodied vocabulaire,” The Rocking Chair creates a sumptuously Canadian version of the English language (among its many triumphs is the only successful use of “tintabulation” I know of in verse). This “biliguefact” voice, with its light touch and deep charge of feeling, can load ordinary furniture with historical weight (as in the titular rocking chair which “seconds the crickets of the province”) or transform a simple childhood memory into a ballad-like saga (see “The Mountain”). The book’s greatest show-piece is "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape," a bleak reflection on the poet’s “status as zero.” In Klein’s case, that status continues to be staved off with this mighty book. 


Little Bird (1998), by Don Coles
Recommended by Carmine Starnino

A book-length verse-letter to his late father, Little Bird is a tour de force. Held together by tercets, the elegy’s success lies in its mix of impulsiveness and ratiocination. Coles is forever trying to seize some shade of feeling skimming past his attention: he zooms in on it, slows it down, shows us the occasional freeze-frame, moves with insinuatory speed—sneaking grief into the poem much the same way he sneaks a short but striking clause into his lines. Coles manages a number of extremely subtle inflections, all well-timed with a pleasing quicksilver off-centeredness to the phrasing—what he calls “feints / in the direction of a subtler / place.” Heart-rending moments are constructed using nothing more than italics of tone, and are stamped, like so much of Coles’ writing, with a lovely air of the just-uttered. But that’s a consequence of his get-into-the-moment-and-stay-in-it loquacity, of the propulsive pressure of always wanting to woo out one more silence-impeding word, of trying to keep the performance going through the depth and diligence of his scrutiny—of wanting to be, as Henry James put it, “one on whom nothing is lost.”


Stilt Jack (1978), by John Thompson
Recommended by Carmine Starnino 

The standard line with Stilt Jack is that John Thompson’s discovery of the ghazal helped him find his voice. True enough, but he found it by freeing himself from it. Encoding Thompson’s naked distress and self-destructiveness—he struggled with alcohol—the form made it look like he never knew what he was about to say. (“Dark as the grave. The deep lightning / whiteness of swan’s wings.”) The throwaway artistry is the reason poets still fall hard for Stilt Jack. The book shows them the trick of running wild in an orderly way. At the level of technique, the poems live from moment to moment: bemused to distressed to angry. The pleasure of reading Stilt Jack is the pleasure of watching a linguistic precision assert itself through spontaneity. That precision, however, is also pushed by panic. The form helped him to put his fears in front of us in ways impossible to ignore (“A pine box; Herodotus; no tears, a settling.”) It was about getting his bad dreams into the open, where they couldn’t do him harm. It wasn’t enough to save him—only his second book, Stilt Jack was published after his 1976 suicide—but the results still electrify. 

*Correction:  This piece originally noted that only two of the poets recommended in the CBC Books post were still living, while in fact three are. It also incorrectly listed the number of titles that Robyn Sarah has edited for the Porcupine's Quill series as two; she has edited three. We have also removed two entries from this list at the request of the author.