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Hamilton’s unique winter literary landscape

As an arctic freeze descended over North America this past winter, breaking record lows that had held their own since the late 1800s, my wife and I were unpacking boxes in our new apartment in Hamilton. It might as well have been Hoth, the ice-covered planet from the Star Wars universe. Virtually inhospitable to wide-eyed enthusiasm, the city was best navigated from beneath mismatched blankets lit by the warmth of a laptop screen. Under cover, we began mapping out a first draft of our daily lives.

Of all Hamilton’s writing and reading groups that darted across my radar at that time, Tower Poetry Society was something of a ghost blip. With a bit of research, however, I realized that it’s a veritable institution, comprised of an executive panel and a two-tiered members’ club that hearkens back to more formal connotations of what “Society” means. Their poets have been anthologized and the society itself just celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2011. But then why didn’t I hear anything about them at Lit Live or gritLIT? Why couldn’t I find them on social media?

Just as I was beginning to feel they were satisfied with their exclusivity, I received an invitation from novelist, poet, and TPS member Janet Turpin Myers to attend the upcoming launch of their summer issue. I couldn’t resist. Janet had mentioned that the TPS collective was aging, and always on the lookout for new voices. As the reading began, I came to realize that what the group lacked in terms of diversity, it made up for with a thorough examination of  landscape—not simply as it appears to the naked eye, but how it interacts with everyday concerns.

Tower Poetry Society

Tower Poetry Society’s latest literary offering

As the first few readers each shaped their stories upon natural touchstones, I thought it might be a fluke occurrence because at more contemporary launches, I’d be surprised to hear even one such unguarded description of nature. Yet on the pages of Tower Poetry Volume 63, No. 1, Canadian poets find themselves placed alongside those living in Sri Lanka, Serbia, and Poland—all of them sharing a muse. Each poem offered distinct views and accommodations. American poet B. Z. Niditch’s single, ten-line stanzas conveyed the disorientation of seaside stimuli after an extended period indoors; Brantford writer S.J. White imparted with idyllic, rolling rhythm the scene of an abandoned farm, left to local wildlife; and fellow Hamiltonian Jennifer Tan recalled how “the glass-coated branches stretch out/ on death’s bed of fine sugar” during a winter storm. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the quality of writing—many members of TPS are published authors through various presses—but between readings I turned to Janet, trying to pinpoint what it was about these poems that transported me in this way. “They really communicate,” she said, smiling. Bull’s-eye.

As surely as well-loved teachings and sentiments can turn into cliché, our most timeless subjects become old-hat. Yes, landscape poetry can be tedious and obvious. Anyone with an elementary school education is invariably taught that poetry is the art of describing trees and birds, an assumption that should be met with fight-or-flight abandon. It’s important, therefore, to extol the poetic form as outlaw and provocateur in order to grow beyond the rehearsed Romanticism of Wordsworth or Lampman. It’s important we continue breaking rules and expectations. Only let’s not seal our landscape and its inspired poems into a stuffy syllabus of Contemporary Poetry, circa 1970.

The best poems offered at this launch invoked nature not as a thinly veiled ode to peace or thankfulness—often the watermark of “nature poets”—but as a lens through which the reader could peer in on emotions, preoccupations. and yes, locations, while never coming off as quaint. In the first couplet of her poem “Magpie,” Susan J. Atkinson feathers a personal trauma: “The magpie who stole my wedding ring/ and bedded my husband had dark wings.” The  literary hook of nature as metaphor is well worn but still sharp as all hell given the context. Elsewhere, in the wintery “The Deer In the Dundas Metro,” Ellen S. Jaffe documents “this intrusion of wild/ into our domestic baffle” as a quiet revelation apart from the bells and whistles of holiday contrivance. Against the spectacle of “aisles of turkey” and shoppers disoriented “in malls and decked halls,/ the lonely rooms of our houses,” Jaffe shapes a collision by drawing out the valley’s geography and its inhabitants’ traditions, instead of reaching for sentiment.

I should make clear that not every poem in Volume 63, No. 1 is a rousing breakthrough, nor is TPS editor-in-chief G.W. Down a sucker for “nature poets.” But if this launch had an overwhelmingly consistent theme, it was that these contributors would rather ruminate upon the fragile human condition amidst the wild than assume it’s all been said before. Honesty brings its own unique tension to the page.

TPS members can’t be the only ones interested in a return to less obscure poetics. Take a look at the legacy of Raymond Knister, who championed Canadianism and wanted a magazine to recognize “that Canadian farm life has long and sorely been neglected.” I pulled that quote from After Exile, a post-humous compendium of his verse and letters edited by Gregory Betts. Piecing together the poet’s hard-fought accomplishments throughout the Great Depression, Betts notes that Knister had far more success publishing abroad than on his native soil. While highly respected in his day, Knister has become, after his death, an ambassador to Canadian literature as well as one of the country’s most anthologized poets. If we are indeed reconnecting with our landscape outside the parameters of modernism or the avant-garde, might that sap-slow appreciation bring neglected groups like Tower Poetry Society back into our cities’ literary embraces?

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Has the Canadian landscape been done to death …?

A number of poets seem to support the idea that contemporary poetry is too confined. In an interview with rob mclennan this spring, Jenna Butler (whose Seldom Seen Road was nominated for the Raymond Souster Award) engaged the perceived chilliness toward nature as subject: “People say ‘Oh, landscape poetry, that’s so done,’ but that’s rather a tired and urban way of looking at it. Maybe sometimes you really do need to go out into the woods to understand what they mean and, equally, what is meant by their loss.” Her comments received a positive boost of social media attention. Recent tweets by Lemon Hound founder Sina Queyras were met with similar applause: “It seems to me that poetry has become extremely urban and completely focused on the academic trajectory. Is there an outside? Anyone?”

Hamilton might not necessarily be craving a new Romanticism. Nevertheless, when I close my laptop and walk Hamilton’s trails, I witness a landscape that’s ever-changing, upended in giant ant-hills to allow the new James Street North train passage, oozing through grey concrete in zigzagged lines of weeds. Since January I’ve been documenting these shifts in poems that have grown crouched between industry and harsh winter, escarpment and lake. When the themes at play first struck me, I felt embarrassed. How original, I thought: a bunch of landscape poetry. Still, a well-travelled path has its own challenges: surveying the terrain, carving a new way through the camouflage and hoping someone will be waiting once you reach the end. I suspect others will be along shortly.

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