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University of Toronto Quarterly 74.1 (2004/2005) 200-250

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Having taken on the poetry annual for 2003, I was one day last winter sorting through the several boxes of volumes that had been sent to me and quickly found myself midway in a dark wood, looking for a sense of direction and a guide. I had no sense of how to organize my thoughts on so many volumes (pouring from the presses, so many, who had thought the Canada Council had undone so many), or what principles and criteria to use in delineating distinctive achievements among so many scribblers. What came to me in my bewilderment was, not Virgil exactly, but the recollection that another ghostly mentor, Northrop Frye, had himself written the poetry annuals for ten years, from April 1951 to July 1960. I looked up those reviews in Northrop Frye on Canada, and discovered that in the last pages of his final essay, Frye talked about what he felt to be the task and burden of these surveys. I could do no better than to quote a few selections:

The reviewer knows that he will be read by the poets, but he is not addressing them, except indirectly. It is no part of the reviewer's task to tell the poet how to write or how he should have written. ... The reviewer's audience is the community of actual and potential readers of poetry. His task is to show what is available in poetic experience, to suggest that reading current poetry is an essential cultural activity, at least as important as keeping up with current plays or concerts or fiction. ... The reviewer must take poetry as he finds it, must [End Page 200] constantly struggle for the standards of good and bad in all types of poetry, must always remember that a preference for any one kind of poetry over another kind, is, for him, laziness and incompetence. ... The reviewer is not concerned with the vague relativities of 'greatness,' but with the positive merits of what is before him. And every genuine poet is entitled to be read with the maximum sympathy and concentration. ... The better poets of every age seem all the same size to contemporaries: it takes many years before the comparative standards become clear, and contemporary critics may as well accept the myopia which their near-sighted perspective forces on them. ... The appearance of a fine new book of poems in Canada is a historical event, and its readers should be aware that they are participating in history.

If this last comment was a daring one for Frye to make in 1959, it would be all the more daring to make it now. I think most of us, though, operate in the faith that our poems do enter into a cultural and historical dialogue that is of permanent value, however much we may rely on the butterfly effect to draw our french flaps up into the higher trade winds.

As for Frye's belief that our individual books can somehow take the world by storm, it is worth remembering that he wrote his reviews in a decade when the number of volumes published in Canada per year did not exceed fifteen. In 2003, fifteen volumes is more likely to represent a monthly national harvest than an annual one. This makes for some important differences for the reviewer. It is, for instance, almost impossible to distinguish all the volumes in one's head and find different things to say about each of them. The sheer quantity of poetry per annum in Canada can leave one feeling like Wallace Stevens's 'Man on the Dump,' though with a little less inclination to cry out 'aptest eve' once you've finally got to the top. Yet that is not the fault of the individual books of poems themselves, the long majority of which are well worth a careful response. Frye himself showed that you could only find what was distinctive about a work by discerning its relation to other literature, and he was a master, in his annual reviews as elsewhere...