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Edited by Dennis Lee. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1985. 383pp, paper, $14.9S, ISBN 0-7710-5216-2. CIP

Grades 10 and up
Reviewed by Tony Cosier

Volume 13 Number 6
1985 November

In this anthology, Dennis Lee attempts to reflect the contributions of new writers to the mainstream of English Canadian poetry in the past fifteen years. The layout of these poems by forty-five writers should have appeal in schools and libraries. The book has a pleasantly authoritative look to attract the general reader and a thorough documentary and editorial backing that is certain to interest the avid follower of Canadian verse. The poems themselves are respectable.

Lee estimates that nearly a thousand poets have published first books of poetry in Canada since 1970.To choose a dozen representatives would miss the widespread quality of the achievement. Printing a couple of poems by each of a hundred writers seemed undesirable. Lee elected to feature the works of twenty writers in a two-hundred page spread and then sample the poems of twenty-five more for another hundred pages. His choice of featured authors is precisely what one would expect from a Toronto-based editor of long standing working under the aegis of a commercial publisher. The names are familiar. All have served full literary apprenticeships and have been recognized by the major houses, almost without exception by Toronto houses Lee himself has been associated with. The poets are: Roo Borson, Marilyn Bowering, Robert Bringhurst, Don Coles, Lorna Crozier, Christopher Dewdney, Giorgio Di Cicco, David Donnell, Brian Fawcett, Paulette Jiles, Robert Kroetsch, Don McKay, Erin Moure, Susan Musgrave, Sharon Thesen, Colleen Thibaudeau, Peter Van Toorn, Bronwen Wallace, Tom Wayman,and Dale Zieroth.

By including up to fifteen pages of material from these featured poets, Lee has created a useful tool for classroom study and student projects. The selections are generally relaxed, competent, and accessible in a manner that should provide stimulating models for student writers without intimidating them. Lee sets the background for the period accurately in his lengthy introduction and supports his vision with short biographies and excellent bibliographies for each poet. He guides the reader into the value systems that support contemporary poetry. He is respectful of poems written by women and does not limit his view of them to feminist concerns. He points to Borson as the purest case of a poet thinking through images and his selections illustrate the point with lines like "The sunset, a huge flower, wilts on the horizon" and "Among branches/a bird lands fluttering/a soft grey glove/with a heart." Lee praises the musicality of Jiles and Crazier. The selections from Thibaudeau are among the book's clearest examples of dexterity with line, metre, and sound.

Lee devotes ten pages of his introduction to a quality he terms "vernacular." He identifies "vernacular" (the use of daily speech in Canadian English) as the most commonly heard single voice of the period. The most commonly used branch of this voice is "the relaxed conversation of a literate person." This, as I take it, provides the key to his selection. That is the reason that reading through the book for a sustained period can leave one's sensibilities limp as a loosened elastic band. It is also the reason that so many of the works tend to sound alike and as they melt together seem uniformly flat. Even, unlikely though it seems, the ranting Di Cicco sound tame in this context. The effects of Di Cicco's intense flowers singing in his veins, his nuclear fears, and his family agonies are softened by several pages of poems such as "Relationships" and "Brain Litany"; relaxed poems, the sort a poet takes to read to a mixed audience of strangers on a Canada Council sponsored visit, safe poems, loose, repetitive, social, bland. The same dulling effect takes place in the Kroetsch selections, when the "Stone Hammer Poem," for all its profundity, loses power when matched with the superficial "Sketch of a Lemon."

Anthologies are rarely read through from beginning to end though, and the relaxed nature of the collection may go unnoticed when the more characteristic flip-and-pick approach is applied by readers scanning names and titles in line with their personal tastes. Imagine the excitement of a reader who flips from "The Stone Hammer" straight to a wildly imaginative lyric by Robert Priest, then on to Zieroth's profound baptism in an icy river, to Raymond Filip's "Torchy Wharf poern, to a jaunty piece by Bowering entitled "Well, It Ain't No Sin To Take Off Your Skin and Dance Around in Your Bones," before settling in to study the variety of magic in the Van Toorn offerings.

Lee has spent four years on this project. The effort clearly shows. He lays down his values system fully and presents material that is consistent with that system. Some new writers among the unacknowledged thousand may feel miffed at missing the McClelland and Stewart spotlight. The selection should not be popular with Atlantic poets, who are underrepresented. Toronto readers, on the other hand, should see nothing wrong with the selections at all, and the overall Canadian public should find it palatable.

Tony Cosier, Confederation H.S., Nepean, Ont.
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