Brace Yourself: Anita Lahey on Reading Poetry

Best Canadian Poetry 2016

Best Canadian Poetry is a terrific annual event, a celebration of some of the best poetry published by Canadian poets every year. The editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2016 (in English) is Helen Humphreys, who has brought together a stunning collection of work by poets including Julie Bruck, Dani Couture, Lynn Crosbie, Kayla Czaga, Sally Ito, Jeff Latosik, Evelyn Lau, Lee Maracle, David McGimpsey, Elise Partridge, Souvankham Thammavongsa, and so many more. It's a fantastic book, and a particular highlight is the introductory essay on "the side-effects of reading poetry" by Anita Lahey, who (along with Molly Peacock) is BCP Series Editor. We so pleased to feature an excerpt here. 

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I approach poems that are new to me with trepidation, the way children are taught to be wary of strangers. Before steering my eyes to the lines on the page, before taking in the shape of the text and how it’s held within the white space, I straighten my posture. Blink, and breathe. I’m dimly aware that I’m preparing my whole self, within and without: girding it. This is not an undertaking for someone fatigued, distracted, or in any way less than alert.

I wouldn’t presume that every reader of poetry habitually warms up with a mind-and-body tune-up. But I do believe that the experience of reading a poem, no matter its style or form, no matter the nature of the reader, is fundamentally unlike that of reading prose. The two pursuits are so distinct that to lump both activities under the label of “reading” feels insufficient, even misleading, as if we were to place leaping off the dock into a cottage- country lake on a hot summer afternoon in the same category as diving down deep in a wetsuit, breathing from an oxygen tank, to investigate the lake’s ecology.      

Think of prose as a string of sentences moving forward. To read those sentences, even those that buck against traditional narrative or linear constructs, is to allow yourself to be led: down the page, over the hills, through the wood. You can follow a line of prose and, on some level, though you are engaged, and may even be changed by what you are reading, you can leave yourself behind. You disappear into the words and the reality they construct, phrase by phrase, moment by moment, along those endlessly wrapping lines of text.

Look harder, better. There is so much more to see.

Poetry doesn’t offer this sort of escape. Poems, lying there on the page, become physical presences as we read, equipped with real muscle and the ability to use it. We all know what Emily Dickinson said about the top of her head coming off. (It was about more than her head, actually. The full quote, as cited on the Emily Dickinson Museum website, is: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”) Poems can sit you down, stand you up, spin you in place, turn the space around you upside down or inside out. Sometimes I feel a poem reaching out and pushing back my eyelids, pressing them into the sockets. Look, the poem says, into my helplessly bulging eyes. Look harder, better. There is so much more to see. I never know what a poem will conjure or contain—or what it will expect from me, its wide-eyed reader.

From the book Best Canadian Poetry in English 2016, by Helen Humphreys, Molly Peacock and Anita Lahey. Published in 2016 by Tightrope Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

November 17, 2016
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