Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics ed. by Bart Vautour, Erin Wunker, Travis V. Mason, and Christl Verduyn (review)
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Reviewed by
Bart Vautour, Erin Wunker, Travis V. Mason, and Christl Verduyn, eds. Public Poetics: Critical Issues in Canadian Poetry and Poetics. Wilfrid Laurier University Press. xii, 348. $39.99

In 1957 Northrop Frye asserted the impossibility of summoning into existence unacknowledged legislators: "Poetry cannot be written by an act of will, and society cannot produce poets by an act of will. There is a strong desire in Canada to have fine poetry written in the country, but the will of society, as expressed in education, can be directed only towards building up a cultivated public for poetry, a public which would be able to recognize fine poetry if it saw it." If distinguished verse was a hallmark of an urbane society, talented poets would show, as the centenary loomed, that Canada was sophisticated and cosmopolitan; whether their poetry was read was almost irrelevant. Frye judged 1956 to be "Irving Layton's year, as far as English Canadian poetry is concerned," but about popular reaction to Layton's writing he remained silent. Poetry has always wanted for readers. [End Page 139]

In their introduction to Public Poetics, Erin Wunker and Travis V. Mason characterize the relation of poetry to the public in terms of potential: "Public poetics bespeaks a kind of possibility and praxis that …has crucial insights to convey about the state of being, speaking, making, and cohabitating in this place called Canada. Poetry makes publics; poetics makes speaking and thinking critically about those publics possible." They explain further that "public poetics," their organizing conceit, "comprises more than the circulation of poetry in public; it also includes those attempts to deliver poetry to a public and to generate discussion about poets and the work of poetry (particularly in relation to pressing social, environmental, and political concerns) as well as those moments in which poetic representational economies make changes in order to proffer alternative ways of knowing." The book, in short, addresses poetry's capacity to create and engage communities of readers. Literature almost by definition is public – to publish is to make public – and its private manifestations (drafts, journals, letters) are typically the province of specialist scholars. Public Poetics aims, however, to reconceive notions of the public. It describes what Diana Brydon calls, in her chapter on globalization, "multifaceted, partial, and overlapping publics rather than a singular, mono-cultural public sphere, as is still idealized in many political desires for a homogeneous nation."

The volume emerged from a conference held in 2012 and retains a miscellaneous quality, although it is no less interesting for being a salmagundi. Fifteen chapters are grouped in three sections: the essays in the first "consider the shifting landscape of Canadian poetry and poetics in our contemporary moment," those in the second "consider the ways in which individual poets are makers of publics," and those in the third "look beyond the traditional structures of poetry and nation … to reconsider how we understand the terms." Included are accounts of particular authors, statements by poets about their vocation, and analyses of episodes in Canadian literary history. In a significant study, Katherine McLeod assesses the CBC radio program Anthology and its treatment of Canadian poetry. Amanda Jernigan's assiduous examination of Peter Sanger's writing is richly perceptive. Public Poetics also contains poems that, Wunker and Mason note, "create interstices in the collection." Bart Vautour and Christl Verduyn in their conclusion acknowledge the book's variety: "the … essays and poems comprise a chorus closer to a contemporary mash-up than an orthodox oratorio."

A poetics is a theory of literary doctrines and techniques; Aristotle's Poetics, the foundational work in European criticism, begins with basic principles. Aristotelian language permeates modern criticism – as in Frye's analyses of lexis and melos – but in Public Poetics economic metaphors prevail. Poetry itself, according to Brydon, "is undergoing a revival" as [End Page 140] its practitioners seek "new modes of worldly inscription to engage with twenty-first-century technologies and imaginaries associated with neoliberalism, alter-globalization, and decolonial social movements." Vautour and Verduyn suggest that "poetics qua poetics demand and exemplify a language economy different from prose and the prosaic, which is the dominant mode of communicating – of being public...


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