Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (ed. Zachariah Wells)

There is always some complaint one could make against an anthology, due to the nature of the beast. Poets included that shouldn’t be, poets excluded that shouldn’t be, a lack of quality in patches, and so forth. The complaint I could quickly leverage against Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets is this: Why aren’t more avant-garde/experimental poems included? Isn’t their exclusion a mere result of the editor’s biases?

I won’t level this complaint, for this reason: I’ve never been convinced that the sonnets of the more radical poets, poets whose work I admire profoundly, have ever really been that great. At least not in Canada. Sure, there’s a poem here or a poem there that I might have included or excluded had I been the one to edit the book, but I would never have edited such a book, and Wells has done a good job of including a variety of work in any case.

Certainly I don’t pick up a book like this expecting equal representation of the poets I most admire alongside those I admire on occasion, since the poets I most admire tend to write middling sonnets. Even bpNichol, the obvious exclusion, was never as strong a sonneteer as he was a jack-of-other-trades. I think of “dear Captain Poetry,” a sonnet that begins strong but slackens as it quickly falls into the very formula Nichol tries to lampoon.

And so Jailbreaks is an excellent anthology, one of the best of its kind, and Wells has done an exceptional job of showcasing the vitality and variety of the sonnet form in Canadian letters. The notes by Wells (a brief note on each poem) are outstanding, both technical and conversational, and the poems themselves are rather more diverse than I had expected. We’re even treated to A.M. Klein’s “Sennet from Gheel,” a Joycean treat:

And these touched thunders, this delyredrum
Outbrasting boom from shekels of cracked steel
Arrave the whirled goon dapht, as zany in Gheel!
Mad as a hater, come, Nick knows warfrom!

And the best first line of any sonnet, by Stuart Ross:

Jesus, Mary! You’ve got kids!

And one of the most affecting poems in the collection, a poem by Crispin Elsted entitled “Sonnet with Grammar Looking Over the Weald of Kent from Boughton Church,” in which as the speaker “looks” further into the distance the grammar breaks down more fully, until it “snaps back” with a beautifully banal piece of found text (taken from the bench on which Elsted sat while composing the poem, saith Wells in his note):

in haze-deckle phrasing three oasts and the bees
succumb words behind my arm and mere
nouns are naming verbs nudge particles place and wave
and grammar is distance in memory of Charles John Meade.

People often assume that, because I have no interest in writing certain kinds of poems, I also have no interest in reading them. No, I write what I can’t find anywhere else. If I want a sonnet, I’m not going to add another sonnet to the world, but seek one out. As I did here, in one of the best, most well-edited collections I’ve read for a long time.

 

 

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