Friday, May 9, 2008


I read today that someone who has yet to see Jailbreaks is "curious to see if it's actually representative of Canadian poetry." This person will no doubt be disappointed.

A) That was not a goal of mine.

B) This is an impossible-to-satisfy desideratum.

Further to A: this is not a comprehensive anthology, as the title (viz. "99"; viz. "sonnets") suggests. It is meant to be a sampler, and the sample is taken from an already very narrow slice --a sliver, even--of Canadian poetry. The selection is meant to be eclectic and is unapologetically eccentric. I.e. these are poems chosen by me because I find them fascinating for one reason or another, which reasons I attempt to elucidate briefly in the notes section. My goal is to shine a light into some obscure corners of "Canadian Poetry," not to be broadly representative of it. The emphasis is squarely on small individual poems and not on anything so gargantuan and amorphous as "Canadian Poetry."

Further to B: Even if I had wanted to be broadly representative (and in a very limited sense, the book couldn't be otherwise, since it contains work by no fewer than 100 poets spanning over 100 years), that noble ambition would have been bound to frustration. The only anthology that could possibly be "representative of Canadian poetry" would contain every poem ever published by a poet connected to Canada. Needless to say, this would be a highly unreadable, not to mention unliftable, book. The anthologist's only alternative to this Babel-model is to choose a minority of poems and reject the overwhelmingly vast majority. As Carmine Starnino has put it, "anthologies arbitrate. The genre, by definition, is about making a statement through selection." Idealistic notions of "fairness" or "objectivity" or "representativeness" cannot but be disappointed; any belief that an anthology is representative of anything other than the anthologist's taste and judgment is delusional. Some poems and poets will be left out no matter how broad the anthology's scope, and some criteria, arbitrary and otherwise, must have been applied in making that decision (I've yet to hear of an anthology produced in a purely aleatory, names-from-a-hat fashion). Thus, if you're going to set out to make an anthology, you'd better have your criteria fairly straight in your head before you make your choices. One of the most important things for an anthologist, I think, is to know what she is leaving out and why; anthologies cannot be comprehensive, but an anthologist's knowledge base should be. More or less.

I find representativeness a dubious goal to begin with, not only because it is impossible to achieve, but because it is hopelessly relativist. Even if it could be realized to some degree, the result would be a book bound to please almost no one--except I suppose those who value abstract notions of "fairness" over values of critical discrimination. (Tho I suspect even these folks merely pay lip service to their ideals in public, because it's the least offensive position one can possibly assume, and has the benefit of making one appear magnanimously progressive in the Liberal mindset in which "tolerance" is seen to be a virtue and "discrimination" a sin.) Really, if you're going to be "representative," it doesn't matter which poems you choose for your book, so long as they're somehow vaguely illustrative of what a given poet has produced; and it doesn't matter what poets you choose, so long as they're somehow vaguely representative of a certain style, school, or demographic cohort. Why bother?

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