Not long ago someone asked me point-blank why they should read The Essential Elizabeth Brewster, my most recent contribution as a guest editor to the Porcupine’s Quill’s Essential Poets series. The question’s tone and subtext verged on confrontational: Who is she? Who are you to say I should read her poems? What will they do for me? Isn’ t all this a waste of effort and resources? I checked my defensive reflex and began to state my case, wondering again why I’d try to justify any of it, the no-win atmosphere was so acute. Finally I pointed out the resource-wasting, essentially useless and meaningless exercise of buying moss-covered foam balls at a dollar store to display in a bowl on the coffee table. In the end, the person admitted they simply wanted to know why I do it, why I think it matters, why this work is essential. Maybe the real question is what can’ t humanity live without?
The answer hinges on the word ‘essential’, which operates on a number of levels within the Essential Poets series. As an introduction to the work of Canadian poets “deemed worthy by their respective editors”, the constituent books endeavour to represent what is fundamental and necessary to maintaining a comprehensive sense of the poetry produced in this country over time—i.e. the view of literature in Canada is incomplete without them. On another level, with an editorial foreword and biography to supply background and context, each volume distills the essence of the poet’s body of work by selecting and grouping poems that illustrate voice, style, themes, and growth, and that ultimately define the achievements of the writer’s poetic journey.
Time allows for perspective, elucidating the big-picture view. It also has a tendency to disappear anything not regularly revisited and reaffirmed. What deserves remembering though? Numerous criteria can be used to determine the worth of a poet’s efforts: subject, scope, breadth of readership, influence on other writers, impact on a culture. But which are reliably objective indicators? Career length, often correlating with life span, isn’t always controllable. Fame in a writer’s own time is no predictor of lasting interest or relevance. Some personalities or personas draw attention, while others do not. In my view it’s necessary to reflect on the writing itself, on how the poet engages with the world as they find it, and in what ways the results are unique, important. As an example, a handful of women publishing in Canada in the first half of the 20th century embraced the new modernist style in different ways. Some of them also moved beyond it. Without their perspectives and an ongoing concerted effort to reaffirm their fundamental contributions, half of the picture would be missing.
Even with criteria in mind, the editor can’t help but respond as a reader first, and usually as a writer too. It’s difficult to shut off personal inclinations. And to then decide what’s invaluable and thus worth maintaining is a process fraught with second-guessing. It might seem a less daunting task when the poet’s body of work is truncated by chance, as it was with the first volume I edited, The Essential Anne Wilkinson. While Wilkinson had published poems from her teens onward and her work was also posthumously collected, she published only two books of poems before she died, aged 50, in 1961. In her own time her work was highly regarded, reviewed, recorded, championed, even though she saw herself as an outsider. Her poetry remains a key example of the achievements of those few modernists. Along with the movement itself, however, her poetry remains locked in its time. Brewster, on the other hand, whose career stretched from the 1940s through to her death in 2012 at age 90, wrote beyond the modernist era, her work progressing with and reflecting decades of change. Despite the recognition she received, she too was inclined to modesty and often overlooked.
The perspectives and quiet dedication of outliers interest me. Their singular voices risk falling silent because they’d rarely drawn attention to themselves. I had an opportunity to update and help complete the poetic history with Wilkinson and Brewster. The editorial process for each was the same: research, tracking down published works, reading, and assimilating all the material, whether poetry, fiction, memoir, journal, reviews of or essays about their work. Their backgrounds, education, circumstances, sensibilities as individuals, and their place in the literary context during their lives became clearer. Collection by collection I attended to and trusted my instincts, tagging poems that stirred something I didn’t yet try to decipher. Many re-readings later, I’d not only distilled the list to fit within the standardized boundaries set for every volume in the series, but also settled on the arc of poems that would highlight essential elements of the poet’s oeuvre, and hopefully set up resonances between the poems.
Given the brevity of Wilkinson’s career with its few books, I wondered if there was enough work to properly illustrate the poetry’s essence while showing its essentiality. Her poems are so carefully wrought, though, that I had little trouble selecting a solid group. Nevertheless, covering 1945-1961, it represents a brief snapshot in time, one she didn’t have the chance to write beyond. The Brewster project was different – I had a wealth of source material to draw on from seven decades of writing, nearly thirty books, twenty-two of which were poetry collections. Occasionally I ran into editorial puzzles – Brewster’s style, generally inclined to short lines, at times runs to lengthy, multi-page pieces that could easily have concluded sooner, perhaps with more interesting results – and I set those aside. In the case of the twenty-one-segmented poem “Footnotes to The Book of Job”, I’d have liked to include all of it for full context. Instead, I made a difficult decision and included only four segments, fully aware that longer poems mean fewer total poems in the limited space available. The Brewster book also offered me a rare opportunity to examine developments over time. As a result, the process was more complex and required more time, but eventually I had my final list of poems to address the elements I wanted to highlight.
Enough of logistics. Returning to the question of ‘essential’ as it pertains to this series, the books themselves hold the best answer. The editors provide critical guidance, but the poems stand on their own, and the way the reader connects with them is the final, perhaps most essential, part of the equation. In a letter I recently received, a fellow poet thanked me for helping them “really read Brewster”. My feeling is that value is determined by more than opinion or ticking the boxes of nationality and accolades. ‘Essential’ is the offer of a connection to life as experienced in any era by individuals working to capture and share the universal through the personal. Essential is diligence, dedication. It’s how a poet sets out, finds their voice, shapes a stream-bed of words that changes the landscape, becomes familiar and deserves to endure. The work is crucial to understanding our humanity. Without it, no one can ever be entirely themselves.
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Ingrid Ruthig, writer, poet, visual artist, and former architect, is the author of This Being (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2016), winner of the League of Canadian Poets 2017 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her work has appeared most recently in Resisting Canada (Véhicule Press, 2019) and Am, Be: The Poetry of Wayne Clifford (Frog Hollow Press, 2018). A 2018 Hawthornden Fellow, she is the editor of several books, including David Helwig: Essays on His Works (Guernica Editions, 2018) and The Essential Anne Wilkinson (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2014). She lives near Toronto with her family.
You can browse the various Essential Poets volumes on the PQL website here. Copies of The Essential Elizabeth Brewster, as well as The Essential Anne Wilkinson, are available in print and digital formats. Get yours today!