What to do when there are so many poets? Hundreds of poetry books come out every year; the constant rumble of publishing in literary magazines, in print and on line, amounts to a kind of white noise. Hence, of course, the usefulness—and pleasure and delight—of anthologies. A number of anthologies purport to publish “The Best”: a ruse both obvious and overused, but nevertheless, appealing. Others seek to define a grouping: poets of a generation, poets of a movement or school. Still others bring together exemplary work illustrating a theme or following a certain poetic form.
Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry has a leaner and more modest aim: to showcase generous selections of 11 poets—namely E. Blagrave, Sarah Feldman, Hamish Guthrie, Amanda Jernigan, Daniel Karasik, Michael Lithgow, George Pakozdi, E. Alex Pierce, Jason Ranon Uri Rotstein, Kay Weber, and Margo Wheaton—whose work caught the eye of its editor, Robyn Sarah, in her lifelong perusal of established literary reviews like The New Quarterly, Fiddlehead, Arc, and The Malahat Review.
By “new voices,” as she points out in her introduction, Robyn Sarah doesn’t necessarily mean “young voices.” These poets’ ages span five decades, from mid-twenties to early sixties, and bring to light concerns and perspectives of every life stage. Here Sarah shows sensitivity for those whose idiosyncratic profiles may not have followed the classic trajectory of a celebrated literary career. Some showed promise early on but fell silent, only to return to poetry later in life; others have switched genres to poetry later in life. Late bloomers may, with few exceptions, be little bloomers, but they can still produce startlingly compelling work, informed by a wealth of life experience – and quite free of current trends. Our increased life spans mean that a writer who starts in her sixties may have thirty years’ productivity ahead of her. Younger voices, meanwhile, may turn out to be flashes in the pan. Those included here, remarkably, match the older voices in their maturity. All these poets are, as Sarah writes, “writers quietly at work whose who haven’t surfaced yet.” Those selected, at the time the anthology had gone to print, had yet to publish their first full length collection.
When an anthology is compiled by a single editor, it usually reflects that editor’s particular aesthetic. All these poets show hallmarks of Sarah’s style: quiet, controlled, sober, thoughtful, singular in focus, frequently spare to the point of austerity. “Quietly at work” is a telling phrase.
Significant variation is, nevertheless, to be found – the gentle, evocative musicality of E. Blagrave, philosophically rigorous meditations of Sarah Feldman, Hamish Guthrie’s relaxed and declarative free verse, Amanda Jerginan’s tightly constructed, mythologically inspired work, Michael Lithgow’s pooling cascades of images, George Pakozdi’s blend of ascerbic humour and politically violent gravitas. Every poet has strong poems to offer.
Highlights for this reader include Guthrie’s Christmas, Pierce’s Vox Humana, Feldman’s Black Bile, Lithgow’s a child sleeps on the bus, Karasik’s Others Will Be Remembered, Jernigan’s Off Season, and Wheaton’s Seeing Me Home. All these may be called excellent examples of magazine verse, not atypical in tone or diction of the kind of work in the reviews in which they were found, but poems of revelatory force nevertheless.
Poets beyond the purview of the collection include writers with whom Sarah doesn’t have much truck or trade: poets whose work stems from the language and post-avant schools, for whom a prime concern is dealing with the noisy deluge of influences that swamps us through new technologies. This omission is understandable, but it is noteworthy how little reference is to be found to new technologies in this collection.
Speaking personally, I had this book on my desk a considerable time. The deaths of both parents within a six-month period meant I had to read the book twice, and parts of it, three or four times. The re-reading was worth it. After so much shock and so much grief, it has been indeed life affirming to absorb and re-absorb this collection of insistent, original voices.