Look. I know poets. I have poets as colleagues. I’ve hired poets. I’m Facebook friends with poets. I’ve had poets in my house.
Like most Canadians, I have no real idea what is going on with contemporary poetry.
I once gave an assignment to students in a graduate seminar to attend a poetry reading and to report back to the class on the general demographics of the audience. Old or young? Women or men? How many people in the room seemed to know the poet personally? How many of the people in the room were also published poets? Or aspired to be?
(All, they told me. Glumly. They all want to be poets)
Poets read contemporary poetry. The rest of us? Not so much. For the better part of a half-century, poetry has become an increasingly rarified art into which readers must be trained. It’s not much removed from academic writing, which is equally restricted in its audience reach. This is no surprise: more and more, poets are trained in university creative writing courses and poets have entered into academe as creative writing professors. The books in each area sell in roughly comparable numbers – which is to say, not very many.
As I say, I know poets. But I still find a lot of the work tough. I picked up Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tree with a fair bit of trepidation. Liz Howard’s debut book was short-listed for last year’s Governor General’s award and it won the Griffin Prize. It was the first debut book of poetry to win the Griffin, and Howard became the youngest winner ever. All sounds very promising! At the same time, a certain trepidation: I felt woefully underprepared.
This is how the book begins:
spent shale, thigh haptic fisher, roe, river
delta of sleep-inducing peptides abet our tent
in a deep time course, in Venus retrograde
I’ll be honest with you. I thought about what that phrase might mean: “thigh haptic fisher”. I’m still not sure. After a while – a long while – I just decided to move on, trying to find some way in. And then, without realizing it at first, I was in.
I’m happy to say that the more I read, the more entry points I found. That’s when I felt that I finally understood the pleasures of reading poetry. It seems that I bookmarked fourteen specific pages. I’m sure that the line that sealed the deal for me was:
the real consumer goods
I liked that line. A lot. Couldn’t write an academic essay on why I like it. But maybe that’s for the best.
The notes at the end of the book offer some explanation, particularly as to how Howard reworked Longfellow’s appropriation of Anishinaabe history in The Song of Hiawatha. I’ve never read Longfellow, so that didn’t help me a great deal, though I did reread “OF HEREAFTER SONG” in light of this information. It’s another entry point, but not one that was open to me as it probably is to a lot of others.
By way of disclosure, I’ll note that I have met at least six people who are thanked in the acknowledgements of this book. Two of them have worked in my department. I’ve never met the author and no one has ever invited me to the Griffin gala.
I should also note that this was the first book so far this year that I checked out from the Calgary Public Library on the Overdrive app for iPad. Took a while to set up, but now I seem to be good to go and grateful for the app, which allows digital borrowing for 21 days. One notable thing about the e-book of this title is that it displayed its longest line early on so that you could adjust the width of the page so that the line breaks would be correct. This had never occurred to me previously.
One thing I learned about Canada from this book: You can swing inside a moose carcass.