Prose from Poetry Magazine

Canadian Poetry’s Next Wave

A rallying cry from the vanguard.

In 1959, Poetry ran an omnibus review dubbed “The Canadian Imagination.” Written by newly minted Governor General’s Award winner James Reaney, it reintroduced American readers to Canadian stalwarts such as Irving Layton and E.J. Pratt, but also questioned whether the country’s poetry was ready for export to other English speaking nations. Nearly sixty years later, that question still lingers. On the surface, most American readers will recognize Canada’s biggest names: Margaret Atwood, Anne Carson, perhaps even Karen Solie; but by and large the US-Canadian border is still a one-way proposition. Yet this trade deficit need not be so one-sided. The new century has ushered in a notable cohort of northern poets, distinguished more for their international ambitions than past notions of Canadiana.

The poems in this portfolio then, drawn from what prominent critic 
Carmine Starnino has dubbed Canada’s “steampunk” generation, are a rallying cry. Representing The Next Wave, a forthcoming anthology that surveys present-day Can Lit, each of the writers here stand at the vanguard of a rapidly evolving poetic ecosystem. Multicultural, genre-bending, and fueled by an ever-expanding linguistic dexterity, today’s best Canadian poets eschew the schools Reaney outlined 
for a poetics punctuated by risk. One need only look at Griffin Poetry Prize-winner Liz Howard’s “Euro — Anishinaabekwe — Noli Turbare,” in which she confesses that she’s “gone and been abominable,” to feel the tension between generational conceptions of identity, 
and to witness a young Canadian shattering the country’s glass ceiling.

That glass ceiling extends outside of Canada’s borders. While the poets you’re about to read are Canadian citizens, they also see themselves as residents of the world. Pushing back against forebears like Northrop Frye, who famously coined the term “garrison mentality” to describe Canada’s cultural insularity, the poets in The Next Wave are busy updating the clichés that once defined the country’s literature. In these pages, Jeff Latosik flips the script on Canadian 
survivalism in “On the General Being of Lostness,” while Ben Ladouceur builds on Leonard Cohen’s last songs in “Wanting It Darker.” You’ll also find Sonnet L’Abbé, who colonizes Shakespeare’s “Sonnet CXIV,” discovering home is the place where her “parents paid rent.” Perhaps most corporeally, Ian Williams takes Margaret Atwood’s famous couplets from Power Politics,

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

and threads her metaphorical needle to create an aphorism that circles without end in “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”

This primer is an introduction, the next wave in a coming tide of Canadian poets who are broaching international waters. I also see it as an answer to the question of whether Canadian poetry is ready to stand on its own. When Michael Prior writes “I realize I have no means / by which to make you a present of the past,” hinting at the 
internment of his Japanese-Canadian grandparents, it’s with a distinct belief in the future. If the poets here represent the current state of the Canadian imagination, count me among those who believe in its import and individuality.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2017

Jim Johnstone is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The Chemical Life (Véhicule Press, 2017). In 2016, he won Poetry’s Editors Prize for Book Reviewing.

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