Now, I can’t lie: I do get indecent pleasure from so many blue-chip names (McKay, Purdy, Atwood) being dropped. And I'm very grateful the editors included Coles, Bailey, Outram, Ormsby, Dalton and Partridge among others. But I don't want to ignore my frustrations with the book. I question some of the inclusions, from the bizarre (Joan Murray) to the you've-got-to-be-kidding me (David Moses). And I mourn the missing: Charles Bruce, D.G. Jones, Peter Van Toorn and David Solway.
But the Swift and Jones anthology is a lot like Donald Davie’s dream of rediscovering a “native” English-language tradition via Hardy. Or Yvor Winters’ alternative canonmaking (elevating Fulke Greville over Yeats). Or Ron Silliman’s “neglectrinos” (that subculture of the shunned). The editors, in other words, will argue that they are simply dramatizing an unrealized alternative. And they would be absolutely right. This is why comments about them getting it “wrong” miss the point. In a sense, Modern Canadian Poets can be called a counterfactual novel. By exaggerating certain facts and ignoring others, the anthology conjures an altered historical outcome for Canadian poetry—or at least gives us a glimpse into such a world. That’s why it sometimes makes more sense to treat anthologies like this as acts of make-believe rather than gate-keeping. As I’ve written before, the genre, by definition, is about making a statement through selection. And that statement is what you’d expect from any speculative fiction worth its salt: a radical break with the present.
Frankly, I think Swift and Jones have assembled probably the most daring Canadian anthology since Mainstream, which Peter Van Toorn completed in 1973 and never published (rumor is it was rejected). The only evidence of the anthology comes from the preface D.G. Jones was invited to write. It was eventually included in The Insecurity of Art: Essays on Poetics (1982) edited by Ken Norris and Peter Van Toorn. Here’s how the preface starts:
"Dear Peter,Doug, you took the words right out of my mouth.
This is a radical, challenging, fine anthology. It must meet quite a challenge after leaving out Roberts, Carman, D.C. Scott, A. J. M. Smith, P.K. Page and Margaret Avison, not to mention others still. Certainly, even on its own terms, some poems by these poets might be included, but I gather not enough from your point of view. In any case, I think your selection can meet the challenge and justify itself."