Friday, August 29, 2008

Reader's Diary #389- Zachariah Wells (editor): Jailbreaks

Just in case I haven't name dropped Zachariah Wells enough, I'm in with another reason to be a fan: Jailbreaks, an anthology of Canadian sonnets.

If you're not a fan of Wells, not to worry. Oddly, he doesn't contribute any of his own poetry to the book. In his own words, "I don't think it's appropriate for an anthologist to include his own poetry in the books he assembles. One risks being a Louis Untermeyer... My fingerprints are all over that selection as it is, with the intro and the notes--not to mention the poems themselves and the order in which I've placed them--so it would be sheer egotism to include my own work as well. It makes far too broad a target for someone looking to discredit the book or individual editorial choices within it."

Fair enough. While I'm unfamiliar with Louis Untermeyer, I thought of my own examples where it seemed the anthologist wanted to showcase their own work and could only sell their product sandwiched between something better (Oscar Williams' Immortal Poems came to mind). Then, I've also had the opposite experience in which the editor's poems were my favourite (recently this was the case, with Jeannette Armstrong's poems in the Native Poetry in Canada anthology). I've read few anthologies in which the editors hadn't submitted their own work, and perhaps as I'm biased, I think Wells not only could have gotten away with it, but would have strengthened the book with a sonnet of his own. Then, that would have made 100 and 99's just so much cooler, isn't it? (Especially to us Canadians since it conjures up "The Great One.")

Not that the book needs strengthening. With sonnets from such revered poets as Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and Mary Dalton, combined with entries from more recent/under- appreciated poets such as George Whipple and Evie Christie, it's a near perfect cross-section.

The Potato Harvest
by Charles G.D. Roberts

A high bare field, brown from the plough, and borne
Aslant from sunset, amber wastes of sky
Washing the ridge; a clamour of clothes that fly
In from the wide flats where the spent tides mourn
To yon their rocking roosts in pines wind-torn;
A line of grey snake-fence, that zigzags by
A pond and cattle; from the homestead nigh
The long deep summonings of the supper horn.

Black on the ridge, against that lonely flush,
A cart, and stoop-necked oxen; ranged beside
Some barrels; and the day-worn harvest-folk,
Here emptying their baskets, jar the hush
With hollow thunders. Down the dusk hillside
Lumbers the wain; and day fades out like smoke.

(Charles G.D. Roberts was one of Canada's first poets of recognition, though he's been criticized, even by some of the other poets featured in this collection, for being too genteel or aloof. While it's not my favourite in the book-- I featured it because it's old enough to be in the public domain-- I still love the depressing undertone of the imagery in this otherwise serene idyll.)

Wells further strengthens the book with his "fingerprints." The first of these is an introduction that discusses the relevance, appearance and sound of the form despite the liberties that have been taken over the past few centuries. Another is notes found at the back of the book that Wells has made on the selections. After reading each poem it was nice to look ahead to see Wells' thoughts, explanations, and opinions on poems that he chose. It provided more time to let each poem sink in before moving on to the next, especially when I often found myself flipping back to compare his impressions with my own or to check out something I'd missed. Occasionally, Wells' use of poetic terminology was intimidating. While I've come across words like enjambment, Petrarchan sonnets, and sibilants, I'm far from versed in them and found myself running to the dictionary Internet. This is not a complaint. I need a reminder every now and then of how much I've yet to learn. It prevents me from firing off a few quick limericks on a napkin and thinking it's the wittiest thing since e.e. cummings. But perhaps Wells' best fingerprint was the arrangement-- poetic in itself. I'm so used to anthologies having their poems presented alphabetically by author's name or chronologically, that I didn't realize it could be a work of art. Wells accomplishes this by finding common themes and images between poems and places them adjacent to one another creating chains and discourses that wouldn't have existed in an arbitrary arrangement. Steven Price's "XVI" with phrases such as "rope like a brambled path" is followed by Carmine Starnino's "Rope Husbandry" which is in turn followed by John Barton's "Saint Joseph's Hospital, 1937" which begins with the line, "My heart, a knot undone with pain, forgot/ a beat the message cut." Likewise, poems about skating, wrestling, and tennis find themselves in athletic company. I have but one small complaint: too many poems seemed preoccupied with the sonnet or poetry itself. I like metapoetry, just in smaller doses.

A few of my favourites that I could also find online:

David W. McFadden's "Country Hotel in the Niagara Peninsula" (which reminded me a little of Al Purdy):

The guy was shooting pool. I stopped to watch.
He missed an easy shot and the cue ball
hopped the cushion and crashed to the floor.

(Read the rest here.)

Karen Solie's "Trust Me":

A drowning dream. Look up. Sunlight snickers
on the swells as fingers trail a calm
and vicious scratch across the surface

(Read the rest here.)


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a neat book...and I'm not even a huge sonnet fan. I'd have to do this in small doses, I guess.

I love the Roberts one you shared. Those opening four lines--stark and beautiful.

gautami tripathy said...

This interests me a lot! I must get hold of it.


John Mutford said...

Laura: 99 isn't as threatening as it sounds. Plus, it's a good one to pick up, flick through, read a poem and put it down for a while. I really can't recommend ot enough. If you're not a fan of the sonnet, I suspect you will be afterwards. Wells' selections prove the form has much more breathing room than it's been given credit.

Gautami: Poetry books are one of the few that I keep, otherwise I'd send you my copy. However, it's available at the link at the beginning of my post.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

That McFadden poem is very Purdyesque, isn't it? Very refreshing!

Anonymous said...

I think I have to order this one. It'll make a nice supplement to my The Making of a Sonnet, which I picked up a few months back (it has beaucoup de sonnets in it). Thanks for turning me on to it. And I love that Roberts poem. That last sentence is so haunting.