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Poets will be tested this evening at Ben McNally books.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry” is a series of panel discussions between Anita Lahey, Jason Guriel and Zach Wells. It visits Toronto at 7:00 PM, Thursday, March 20 at Ben McNally Books. 

In The Puritan’s Issue XXIV, Stewart Cole calls on poets to form a true community. He lays out three qualities that he’s looking for in that regard:

1.) That the members of the community “acknowledge one another as complex fellow human beings.”

2.) That they “recognize one another as compatriots without requiring friendship, and uphold civility as the appropriate default mode of engagement.”

3.) That they “envision themselves as part of an unseen structure greater than any one of them.”

Cole goes on to claim that a true community requires “the dedication to devote real time and energy to building that structure through considered public dialogue.”

So, how well does our poetry community live up to the standards Cole has set? Tomorrow’s panel discussion should shed some light on that. The event promises that “participants will be discussing the work and legacies of Canadian poets both celebrated and not, the role of the skeptical review in critical culture, and recent online controversies about gender equity and literary taste-making.”

The manner in which those topics are covered—will it be a “considered dialogue”?—will serve as tests for points one and two above.

In regard to the third point, the setting should help. Much is made of the differences within the poetry community. But when a bunch of poets and poetry readers gather on Bay Street to discuss and debate, there is a strong possibility that those internal differences will seem to blur. In light of the cultural distance between the top floors of Bay Street’s towers and Ben McNally’s street-level shop, can the poetic community really be said to contain rifts? That is, and I’ve asked this before, is our community really that divided, or do we simply not notice the “unseen structure” that joins us together? And in not seeing, do we weaken it?

Value the Critic, Value the Community

If a community is forged through its willingness to engage in useful public dialogue, then this event becomes not just a test of the community, but an act of creating community. That act will be successful only if it is respected by the individuals that potentially make up that community. Thus, the art of criticism must be respected if three of its loyal practitioners—in this case Anita Lahey, Jason Guriel and Zach Wells—are to do their part in building the community.

Of course, the individual critic or critical forum is still tasked to live up a certain standard (I’ve got a Twitter-phobia, but I hear it did not take long for the Twitter-sphere to start denigrating this particular panel discussion). But that is a moot point if criticism itself is not respected. Which brings me back to Stewart Cole. In his first piece on the Guri-Guriel controversy, published on The Urge, Cole refers to criticism as an “already delicate, difficult, unlucrative, and mostly thankless occupation.” I disagree. Poetry criticism may be under-apprecitated, and it sure as hell is unlucrative, but I seriously doubt that Cole really finds the task “thankless.” I would bet, rather, that he finds it as satisfying, or nearly so, as composing poems. I know that I would not partake in the practice if it did not find it artistically fulfilling. Essays and reviews are not simply practical ways of conveying information. They are pieces of art in and of themselves. Or at least good ones are. To see them as somehow beneath the poems themselves is to strip them of the very power Cole hopes they can possess. If we need better essays—which is one way of boiling Cole’s argument down—we might value them accordingly.

This is not a major point in Cole’s essay, and no doubt he values the essay’s artistic merit. It is, however, a point well worth noting, because if we are to aim for the kind of community he’s envisioned, then we first must agree on the value of the critic. Tomorrow’s debate provides a forum to do so.

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