Knotting-Off: Honourable Mentions and Dishonourable Traits (Part 1 of 2)
As promised, we pause the love parade for a moment to take a step back, breathe deeply, and consider the situation. I’d like to thank all of you for keeping up with this list, and for your words of encouragement (and your occasional playful argument-prods) over these last few weeks. It’s very rewarding to see, from my distant perch and the traffic data it provides, new visitors who drop by and read the whole thing from Intro up to #2, in one sitting. Thanks for that. I hope you didn’t have shit to do.
This little interruption has two component parts: a brief discussion on the nagging considerations I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout the length of this tangent, and a list of books that, for various reasons, were near-misses. The first half is contained herein, I’ll post part two very shortly.
The Poetics of the List:
One of the ongoing dramas for me was the tension between the list order as I originally made it, and a desire to move things around in the interest of dramatic flow, simpatico pairings, or juxtaposition. I think I said in the intro that I wasn’t too concerned with the order itself, that my love for, say, book number three isn’t in any quantifiable way greater than my love for number five. Books of poems don’t really have very many “quantifiable ways” about them, and with the exception of maybe number one, these ones share the same honoured space on my bookshelf (or sailor’s trunk, or slow-moving American river…).
I found myself quibbling with the list order more and more as time went on. Writing about a certain book would put me in the mood to write about another. I moved books around so I could follow the list’s most lyrical collection (identified as the Goyette) with its most experimental (Kennedy/Werschler-Henry’s). I didn’t feel able to speak about “the feminine” in any constructive or new way, so I let three great female poets follow each other (Young, Dalton, and Solie) in the hopes that some glint of a theme would develop on its own. I found myself following controversial or obscure choices with known quantities, likely in the interest of keeping disgusted readers coming back.
As a poetic device, the list is among my least favourite tools. At least, List Poems are among my least favourite poetic varietals. That being said, listing is an integral part of most poets’ styles, and I include myself among them even though I prefer to keep my lists short and folded into the lyric around it. I’ve come to admire lists, though, as the troubles and joys they offer are similar across poetic schools and traditions. The problems of the list are constant, no matter the list maker. The concerns illustrated in the list referenced in my brief selection from Eunoia (namely, issues of rhythm, redundancy, depth, and breadth) are the same concerns shared by Camlot in his lists, Connolly in his, and the others. And they’re the same concerns I had in making this list of favourite books: rhythm (in that the list makes a sort of musical gestalt, a pay-off for the fine-tuning described in the previous paragraph), redundancy (I was never going to have two books by the same author, for example), depth (as translated from a line of poetry into a collection of personal essays—the desire to talk about new things, new themes, while developing the old tropes and choruses from earlier), and breadth. By breadth, I mean all of the following…
The Politics of the List:
Canons are obnoxious things. Whether their interest is the preservation of existing literary assumptions, or the push for new ones, they’re obnoxious. As the piling-on of “Best of the Decade’ lists begins in earnest these next few weeks, keep an eye out for the different kinds of lists. Most lists are either personal and surprising (like those generated by individual critics and media outlets in need of further column inches), or communal and boring, as when all surprises and anomalies of taste are ironed out by the sheer statistical weight of the 1,000 person survey (I’m looking at you, Academy Awards).
Most lists are conservative in nature. Even when they purport to be forward-focused, as in here and here, they are inherently an act of looking back, of freezing the recent past in place so it can be compared to the future. This is the nest of both conservative politics and aesthetics. While I don’t consider myself a subscriber to either of those philosophies, I know a lot of people who do, and the argument is essentially that the past needs to be codified, and its superlatives drawn out, so we can look to it as a potential guidepost for the future. This is why most lists (whether given the qualifiers “favourite”, “best”, “most influential”, “most newsworthy”, or even “sexiest”) tend to either be expressions of the dominant races, genders, classes, regions, etc, or (in an act far more backwards) an expression of those dominant groups with token exceptions given to, say, one representative of each marginalized constituency.
The first kind of list is a disappointment no matter what the author’s intentions, the second kind is only backwards if the falsely liberal gestures are conscious choices. I submit that any political bias in my list is not a conscious one; I never stopped to consider the following numbers until today…
Subtracting the as-yet unrevealed #1 favourite book, my list includes five men and four women. It includes only white people. I would say that, though I have no means of knowing for sure, the median age of the authors responsible is lower than the median age for Canadian poets in general. The majority of the books were written in cities, and most represented among them are the three Canadian cities I lived in myself (St. John’s, Halifax, Toronto). Surely, I was closest to the literary communities there, and that bias appears in the list. I have met six of these nine poets personally, and consider one a personal friend (in the real way, not the on-Facebook way). I believe I only had to exchange money for my personal copies of these books in four of the nine examples. The breakdown by publishers is as follows: three from Brick Books, and one each from Insomniac, ECW, Anansi, Gaspereau, Vehicule, and Coach House. It’s surprising to see Brick with so many, fully a third of the list so far. If I had been forced to name my favourite Canadian poetry brands before I started this project, I don’t know if they’d have cracked the top three. But the list surprises, and so there it is, pretty obviously placed at number one. It’s also notable that Brick is a somewhat rural publisher, at least in the context of its Toronto-centered industry. I notice that there’s nothing here to represent my own poetry stomping grounds at McClelland & Stewart. It’s okay, though. They know I love them.
This collapsing and re-collapsing could go on forever, but I think I’ll stop there. Up next, a sort of “honourable mentions”/”shadow cabinet” of ten more books that could have made my favourites, but were left out not as some random quality judgment, but for reasons described under one of the two headers detailed above. Essentially, for invalid reasons, in lieu of non-existent ones.