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To the Core: The 49th Shelf Contest for National Poetry Month

Tell us about the Canadian poem that has done something powerful to the way you experience the world. 


For National Poetry Month, we want to celebrate how poetry can cut through everything to get to the core of what is beautiful … or rotten … or otherwise remarkable—and we need your help. Consider the following ideas from a lovely article we found by Roger Housden:

Poetry at its best calls forth our deep being. It dares us to break free from the safe strategies of the cautious mind .... It is a magical art, and always has been—a making of language spells designed to open our eyes, open our doors and welcome us into a bigger world, one of possibilities we may never have dared to dream of. This is why poetry can be dangerous as well as necessary. Because we may never be the same again after reading a poem that happens to speak to our own life directly.”

What Canadian poem has spoken to your own life directly, such that you have never forgotten it?

Use the comments field below to tell us the name of the poem and the poet, type in a verse or two of the poem so everybody can check it out, then say why you love it/chose this selection. You’ll be entered three times (yup, 3x) into our To the Core Poetry Contest (#readcdn #poetry). We will draw five winners from the pool of entries at the end of the month, and each winner will win one of five prize packages of new Canadian poetry books. Also, please tweet up To the Core (using #readcdn and #poetry) or like or share our Facebook #readcdn #poetry posts about the contest—every tweet or Facebook post will count for an additional entry for the contest prize draw.

To get the ball rolling, we asked some prominent Canadian authors and readers this question; their responses perfectly illustrate the power of a good poem.


Janet Somerville, self-described "voracious reader, film geek, and theatre nerd," sent in two verses from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem."

Janet writes: "These two verses have been instructional in my life, especially during moments of emotional hardship and tremulous change. The refrain I included in a eulogy I delivered for a dear friend who died swiftly as a result of brain cancer. At the time I felt cleaved. When your heart's broken, it’s helpful to consider—as Cohen implores, 'There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.' Good poetry can be a spiritual balm."


From "Anthem":

You can add up the parts
But you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart
To love will come
But like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Janet Somerville's poems are published in Calling Cards: New Poetry from Caribbean/Canadian Women (Sandberry Press). You can follow her on Twitter @janetsomerville.


Cathy Marie Buchanan, New York Times-bestselling author of The Painted Girls and The Day the Falls Stood Still, chose a poem by award-winning author Alison Pick called "Fear 1944."

Cathy writes: "I am fascinated by notions of our ancestors' past experiences actively shaping our hearts and minds. Much has been said about the impact of the holocaust no only on its survivors but also on the survivors' descendants, a sentiment so beautifully captured in “Fear 1944.” I adored Alison Pick's Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, Far To Go, which tells the story of a Jewish family in the months leading up to the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. It would seem the reach of the holocaust, explored in “Fear 1944,” has extended beyond Pick’s grandmother and even her father to herself—a writer profoundly aware of its devastation and capable of evoking it in a tremendous novel or a small poem."

Fear 1944

She lost her parents,
her home, religion,
but fear survived.
She locked it in her body.

Like a gas chamber she sealed off
every opening, eyes and ears,
pressed her lips together
to contain it inside,
her stomach swelling
until she couldn't hold it
any longer — she opened, then,
her cervix like a mouth
and the scream that tore out
was my father.

You can find Cathy on Twitter @cathymbuchanan and Facebook at


Miranda Hill, the author of Sleeping Funny, a short story collection that includes the Journey Prize-winning "Petitions to Saint Chronic," chose a poem by Bronwen Wallace.

Miranda writes: "Really, it’s not fair to ask me for the first stanza—or even the first two stanzas—of this poem. Beautiful though the images are here in the beginning of Bronwen Wallace’s “Nightwork,” it’s the phenomenal transitions and connections throughout the poem that overwhelm me, each time I read it.

Its power is that it begins with the wish to be the man in the plough, and sweeps into the narrator watching out the window—up in the long, dark, often lonely hours with her baby—traces her memory of the doctor attending the birth of her child on a snowy night, then circles back to her father and his thermos and the man in the plough. For me, this is what makes Wallace so brilliant. As a writer, I marvel at how she makes it all look effortless: how in a few stanzas she can take us from the particular to the universal, then show us the particular again, in a new way. As a reader, as a person, I love how she scoops us all up in one generous net, makes us feel our connections to the people we love, to strangers, to the whole world."

From "Nightwork" (from The Stubborn Particulars of Grace)

I always wanted to be the one
who drove the snowplow, me
and a tall red thermos, like the one
my dad took into the plant, high up
in the cab, driving through it. Could see
the sun, rising on the arc
the wipers made, like the waves
from the neighbours, sleepy and bundled,
digging their cars out as I passed.
And then it was flour
I wanted to plough through, mounds of it
falling around me in a bakery,
the round loaves rising;
and after that, the white uniforms
of nurses, cool as their hands
pulling someone up from a fever dream,
from the middle of the night.

Miranda is currently at work on a poetry collection and on a novel. When she isn't reading or writing, she is spreading the word about Project Bookmark Canada, the Canadian literary charity she founded and directs. Miranda is on Twitter @miranda_hill_.


Jack Illingworth, executive director of the Literary Press Group of Canada (LPG), chose John Thompson's "Stilt Jack," and writes:

"I first met 'Stilt Jack' while I was an undergraduate in a workshop led by Roo Borson. If it had not been for Roo, poetry might have passed me by, and my adult life might have taken a very different course. I remember entering the room to find one of the poem’s 38 ghazals transcribed on the chalkboard in Roo’s handwriting. I think she had put up the first section, but I could be wrong.

'Stilt Jack' showed me that a poem written almost entirely in private signifiers could be not only intelligible, but wholly transparent and powerful. It is built from some pretty rudimentary components: lists of things, often drawn from the landscape of rural Atlantic Canada; snatches of conversation; fragments of introspection. The strange punctuation, heavy on colons and semicolons, never stopping a sentence unless absolutely necessary, builds connections. To enjoy it, it’s probably necessary to know that landscape, or one like it. If you don’t, you don’t really know the language the poem is written in. But I’ve come to hate the idea that the best literature is universal, or aspires in that direction. Sometimes a masterpiece will only be comprehensible to readers who share the author’s dialect, landscape, or cultural frame, and that’s just fine.

Singling out lines from 'Stilt Jack' is difficult. Many of the individual ghazals can stand alone, but broken down the rhetorical structures fall apart. It’s a bit like displaying a petal (or a stamen) instead of a blossom. They stop meaning anything. I have friends who would call this a sign of a failed poem. I obviously disagree. So this, chosen almost at random, the first half of "unlucky XIII." And, if you happen to read this, thanks, Roo."

From "unlucky XIII"

The rook-delighting heaven?
I’ve seen one crow.

The cock pheasant I’ll nail: he’s beautiful,
quick; I know the tree, the spot; He’s disappeared.

They dragged him home behind the tractor:
fat beef; the dark wound in the loam.

I think we should step out the door:
they’re calling: men, women, and dead voles.

Jack Illingworth describes himself as a book policy wonk, ex-writer, amateur naturalist, and wildlife photographer. He can be found on Twitter at @illingworth.
We will continue updating this page as more authors' submissions come in. Now ... send in a couple of verses from the poem that has always affected you  ... and tell us why. Happy National Poetry Month!

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