Writings / Reviews

Poetry Review

Michèle Rackham

Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets
Edited by Zachariah Wells
Emeryville, ON: Biblioasis, 2008
158 pp. $19.95

Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets, edited by Zachariah Wells, brings together for the first time since Lawrence Burpee's A Century of Canadian Sonnets (1910) a selection of the country's most skillful sonneteers. In this respect, the anthology is an important contribution to Canadian literature. Some might be surprised at the sheer number and variety of sonnets collected here. (Who knew the sonnet was such a popular form among our nation's poets that a book just shy of one hundred of them, from poets both past and present, could be readily assembled?) But, as Wells notes, the sonnet is "defined by its adaptability, flexibility, plasticity" (11), which is perhaps why it is still relevant today.

The book's title, Jailbreaks—inspired by a line from a Margaret Avison poem included in the collection—is meant to symbolize this malleable quality of the sonnet; Wells pushes the analogy further by calling it "a form refusing to be contained within a narrow cell, proving itself adept at daring escapes and covert crossings" (11). For the most part, Wells's selections reflect these qualities of the sonnet: most do not follow the metrical standard of iambic pentameter, and many are either longer or shorter than fourteen lines of verse. For example, Steven Price's "Rope" is fifteen lines of rhyming verse that consistently disrupts rhythmical and rhyming patterns:

sleek sash cord, escapologist's skin,
umbilical of the drowned, woven shroud
hanged men bladder and drag and stretch out in;
wildfire ripple of rumour through a crowd;
sheath, frayed bloodline, sinew of fire and flint:
asleep in one's lap like a child or a cat
and like a child all ululation, all wailed lament; (38)

The frequent caesurae and lines saturated with stressed syllables force the reader to slow down and intensify the impact of Price's corporeal imagery. Price's use of half rhyme is only a minor manipulation of the sonnet form here.

Jailbreaks includes an eclectic mix of talented Canadian sonneteers; but there are a few glaring omissions from the anthology that are baffling. Although Confederation poets W.W. Campbell, D.C. Scott, and Archibald Lampman make an appearance, Bliss Carman is nowhere to be found. Also absent are Louis Dudek, who dabbled at sonnet variations, and Dorothy Livesay, skilled at the blank verse sonnet. In Wells's defense, his introduction makes no claims of a comprehensive collection of Canadian sonnets; but the omission of some of Canada's best-known and loved sonneteers from the roster leaves one head-scratching. Indeed, some excluded sonnets would have worked well with the stated theme of Jailbreaks (border crossings, escapes, wanderings, etc.). Seymour Mayne's word sonnets, for example, would have been exemplary of innovation within the traditional sonnet form. Robert Kroetsch's non-sonnet "Sounding the Name: Sonnet #1," also absent from the collection, seems to encapsulate the concept of escaping traditional form as it contemplates on this very issue: "(resist the temptation / to give it form resist / the temptation )." Why weren't these poems included?

Perhaps I wouldn't be so mystified by these apparent oversights if the introduction to the collection were a bit more robust. There may be very practical reasons not to include a poem in an anthology. Such is the case with Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Sonnet": Wells thoroughly explains its omission in an a full-page editorial postscript as having to do with her publisher's belief that reproducing Bishop's work in an anthology of Canadian poems "may cause some confusion" regarding her status as an American poet (157). But Wells's introduction mentions nothing of these decisive details and offers no explanation why certain poets and poems are included in Jailbreaks, while others have been left out. Nor does it sketch a plan of how the sonnets are organized and presented. It is evident that the collection is not organized chronologically; but why place Lyle Neff's "Sleeping on the Weird Side" (80) next to Alfred G. Bailey's "Elm" (81)? Certainly, some couplings suggest points of biographical contiguity—such as sonnets by Ralph Gustafson and E.J. Pratt (80-82)—but other juxtapositions hint at a thematic thread: Price's "Rope" (38), followed by Carmine Starnino's "Rope Husbandry" (39), is a case in point. The introduction is a great place to lay the groundwork for readers and explain these editorial decisions; Wells's succinct, three-page summation, however, provides no map to lead the way.

One rather quirky addition to the anthology is the "Notes on the Poems," an editorial gloss to the sonnets. The section is a little unconventional in its presentation and content: referencing each author and sonnet in the collection, it is not exactly a list of endnotes or annotations to the works as much as it is Wells's personal rumination on his selections. It's a little unclear what, exactly, the purpose of this addendum is, as Wells's commentary is neither consistent nor formulaic. Some of the notes, such as that on Kenneth Leslie's "By Stubborn Stars," are deft discussions of the poem's formal elements, while others are short reactions to the poem and the poet. The note on Leonard Cohen's "You Have no Form," for example, is of the latter variety: "Leave it to Leonard Cohen to make a poem about nothing sexy," writes Wells. "But it isn't really a poem about nothing; it's a poem about writing poems. Or not writing them. Or something. O Leonard!" (14).

While these comments are a little inconsistent, they clearly demonstrate Wells's vast knowledge of Canadian poetry. Any reader sharing this knowledge will find his comments witty and entertaining. The sonnets themselves, however, are the true entertainers of Jailbreaks.

About The Author


Michèle Rackham is a doctoral candidate in the English department at McGill University, Montreal. She currently holds a doctoral Canada Graduate Scholarship from SSHRC. Her area of specialization is Canadian literature, and she is presently researching the relationships between Canada’s Modernist poets and visual artists and the intersections between their poetry and paintings.

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