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2006 12 05
The Urban Poetics of Reading Toronto

In an otherwise excellent essay called "Annexing a space for poetry in the new Toronto" published recently in the eagerly received anthology The State of the Arts: Living with Culture in Toronto (Coach House Books, 2006) Toronto poet and academic Stephen Cain ponders whether poetry is a "dead medium". He writes,
Perhaps this is true, but accepting that fact wouldn't be so galling if ambassadors of the new urbanism would stop using 'poetry' as a descriptor. Consider, for example, the website Reading Toronto ... With a nod to writer Raymond Queneau, the subtitle of the site is 'The City Is a Book with 100,000 million poems.' Yet, a search of the site reveals fewer than six references to poetry ...

And yet, Cain suggests that what Toronto needs is not poetry describing the city, but poetry that "attempts to become" the city, "in its rhythm, language, sound", poetry "that creates the psychological experience of walking through" the city. He adds, "I seek not only a different poetry, but also the use of poetry and poetic techniques to reimagine and reinvent the city ..." Um.

Can a website become a form of poetry? I think so. It seems to me that Reading Toronto in particular does something better than 'reference' poetry. I think it does precisely what Cain implores poetry to do: through the rhythm of its posts and language and its largely unsorted evocation of the city, Reading Toronto does a pretty good job of engaging directly with Toronto and representing the "psychological experience" of living here. Cain's suggestion that what we need is
a way for writers and readers to engage with their personal communities and neighbourhoods in different creative and poetic ways. For poets, this could involve writing the experience of the city and movement within it through rhythm, wordplay, juxtaposition and free association based on signage, advertisements, overheard conversations and other techniques .... Readers, too, can use poetic techniques to reimagine their city, creating their own personal mythologies and narratives of their neighbourhoods.
seems to me precisely what Reading Toronto -- and indeed the web as a whole -- does with considerable success. Certainly contributors to Reading Toronto write about Toronto using descriptive and narrative language, but Reading Toronto also evokes the city through the same kinds of wordplay Cain calls for. In an important sense, Reading Toronto, along with other local online communities and photoblogs, fulfills the playful, iterative promise of poets like bpNichol through joyful engagement with both the city and its language. Beyond that, Reading Toronto does something poetry often fails to do: it invites its readers to participate actively in the creation in Toronto's urban poetics.

In many ways this isn't a new subject. In "Cyberpoetics of Typography", published in Jacket Magazine in 1997, Australian academic Kurt Brereton described how the web had altered our interaction with text:
The page is no longer a flat surface but a virtual field unfolding in time. Words, sounds, images and graphics are now all part of the poetics of the web.
This is one reason why I am perpetually astonished to find that so few poets maintain websites or are willing to share even a little of their work electronically. Perhaps in the constant quest for publication and arts council funding, poets risks guarding their textual trove a little too closely. Accordingly, if websites like Reading Toronto deserve criticism for flying the banner of poetry without incorporating very much of it, then poets might too be criticized for overlooking the forums promoting the very urban poetics they call for.

Nearly a decade ago, the resident philosopher of science wrote a regular column for Word magazine (which has incidentally, moved largely to an electronic format in recent years). Amid a protracted debate about what makes [good] poetry, he wrote that perhaps the debate was really about who gets to decide what [good] poetry is, and added,
If so, the debate has not been over poetic character; it has been over the character of authority – merely masquerading as the former. ... Certainly, in dispute over authority, arguments for contracting boundaries are not surprising. Such arguments concern matters of jurisdiction. If I am correct, this has been a jurisdictional dispute in masquerade. ... If I am correct then I am sad. If I am the only one saddened, then I am lonely.

And so. If there is to be a debate about what [good] poetry might be in the new Toronto, then this debate might extend to a conversation about where [good] poetry might occur in this city. For me, [good] poetry occurs in printed books I pick up at garage sales and used book stores and, occasionally, online. It occurs at readings and launches and at the garden party we held this past summer. It occurs in the weblogs some of my students maintain, and in the newly released chapbook of their work. And, yes, poetry for a new Toronto also occurs right here at Reading Toronto.

My own search for poetry at Reading Toronto found far more than six references to poetry. In addition to numerous direct references to poetry as metaphor for art, architecture, culture, and the city itself, I came across poems, images/imagery and poetic prose written by poet and novelist Anne Michaels, poet and arts writer Gary Michael Dault, Arriz Hassam, poet Christopher Dewdney, and poetic works by Reading Toronto contributors Edvin Lee, Jake Kennedy, Jeanne Randolph, moimoi, Paul Raff, and Terence Van Elslander, and that's just from a quick browse through the site. I'll add that it was here at Reading Toronto where the first suggested use of bpNichol's work as a guide to the city's literary cartographies first appeared in March of 2006, indicating that Reading Toronto is not only an electronic repository of the city's poetry but is also an important source of the city's critical poetics. If the city is a poem with 100,000 million poems, it seems quite a few of them do indeed find homes here.

Stephen Cain's call for more space for poetry in the new Toronto is a valid one, and I recommend his essay as an essential read for anyone seeking to engage poetically with Toronto. He is quite correct to say that the city could engage with poetry far more vibrantly than it does, and that Toronto needs more poetry that engages directly and experientially with the city. But poetry is happening all around us in this city, and I'd suggest that any psychogeography of Toronto's urban poetics should extend not only to excursions into the city's neighbourhoods and subways and ravines but should reach also into the city's virtual realms.

(The above text image was created by Auntie P and is used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 12/05 at 12:12 PM

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