"While reading a newspaper one morning," Anita Loos wrote in "Beating the Rap," "I came upon a paragraph in a gossip column devoted to the goings-on of famous people. It was written to make its readers laugh, in which it succeeded. But this item also carried me back to a series of events so poignant and dramatic that for years they shadowed the lives of all of us who were involved."1 Goings-on, gossip, poignancy, drama, and even shadowed lives are not passé. We know this, as we all now read whatever passes for the morning paper too. Over the time in which this omnibus essay was written, the most significant event in Canadian letters was not the publication of a particular book, the just-ripening or full flowering of a literary movement, or the emergence of an author of unifying or polarizing brilliance; nor was it anything retrospective or predictive, such as a serious and intelligent reckoning with the nation's literary heritage or its possible literary futures. (By "most significant" is meant, naturally, whatever got the most attention and inflamed all the gratuitous and virtuous passions, especially online but also in the papers.) Rather, it was a miniseries the likes of which hadn't been seen since the days of Roots or The Thorn Birds or The Winds of War. [End Page 42]
First there was the accusation and the investigation, the former ever growing and the latter always botched. A congeries of The Crucible, Lord Jim, Lucky Jim, Oleanna, Lolita, Invitation to a Beheading, The Trial, and The Handmaid's Tale, it resulted in much breathless writing about how everyone involved – not just the accuser and the accused, but also those only tangentially related to the case – couldn't write at all anymore, being either too traumatized or not having been invited to any conferences yet. This was really a misdiagnosis, this supposedly contagious writer's block. Perhaps there was a reluctance to realize that this vast collaborative institutional drama – with its multiple shades of schadenfreude and a contemporary political prurience that was prolific in its nastiness – was the most important, degree-certified "text" any of the actors would likely ever write.
Next there was the letter and the counter-letter, which had the rape apologists pitted against the righteous hysterics, the B-listers opposed to the A-listers, the young Turks yelling down the ear-trumpet crowd, and those who believe her on principle shunning those who believe in due process. Then the first letter's conceiver was exposed as a mere storyteller, at best; at least, as just another great white swindler, a self-aggrandizing spokesman who said he would stop talking about what he was still talking about. The folks on whose behalf he ostensibly spoke could have known better, unless they chose not to, or might have figured as much, given history, and were probably somehow signifying on the whole Canadian scene, which wouldn't recognize it even if it could.
What's next? Ever something, to be sure. And thus a new instalment of outrage is provided us every day from practically every outlet and faction – would that that outrage was limited to the literary, rather than to the whole wide world, which is worse ("No worst, there is none") – and it is hard to know what to say about mere poetry at an ominous time like this.
Perhaps let us start with some good old stalwarts. Brick Books published six handsome and functional reprints of "classic-contemporary" Canadian writing – some of it poetry – and they are recommended for their utility and to help with the filling of gaps in one's reading. It is the start of a series, so it will be curious to see what books make the (paradoxical) cut as it continues. The initial sextet is Anne Carson's Short Talks, Michael Crummey's Hard Light, Marilyn Dumont's A Really Good Brown Girl, Dennis Lee's Riffs, John Steffler's The Grey Islands, and Jan Zwicky's Wittgenstein Elegies. To each there is added value, in the form of new introductions by Margaret Christakos, Adrian Fowler, Lee Maracle, Lisa Moore, Sue Sinclair...