In her provocative preface to Best Canadian Poetry in English 2014, Anita Lahey explains the link between poetry and journalism:
The poet, like the journalist, is a conduit. And, like the journalist, the poet must stick to the truth. We are not, like fiction writers, necessarily making up plots. We are not, like essayists, necessarily arguing points or drawing conclu- sions. We are, like journalists, fact gatherers and posers of questions. We look, we ask, and we listen. We hunt down data of all kinds, from the intense emotional variety on down, or we simply await its approach: we take note, absorb, distill. We give it all back, rearranged in a way that, we hope, lets it speak clearly. We can mean different things when we speak of journalistic truth as opposed to poetic truth, but the basic realities upon which verse and metaphor are built are those that even poets, with their famously freewheeling ways, may not disregard. For a poet to exhort a reader to see, say, the unswept corner of a room in a new light, the poet cannot ignore the fundamental truths about such a place—indeed the poet must know these truths intimately, and the poet must understand, or at least sense, why he or she is compelled to call attention to them. When the poet directs our eye to the dust-ridden corner, and points behind that scene, or to an idea gathered within it, the poet is sharing important information with us, gleaned through rigorous research.Lahey also proposes a deeper reason for the comparison.
Amid global political and economic volatility, and in consequence of the vast breadth and reach of free digital media, the very fundamentals of the fourth estate, the tenets of free speech and the ideal of the journalist as society’s truth-teller are faltering. The work of actual journalists has somehow been left out of the budgetary models erecting around the new media. We are making do, more and more, with what I think of as sort-of journalism, almost journalism: sloppy and incomplete and inexperienced reporting, poor writing, rushed editing. At the same time, counter-intuitively, something exciting is going on. The popular satire of comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—even the homegrown satire in YouTube videos—provides many viewers with the double-whammy of current affairs embedded within their underlying absurdities and hypocrisies. Many people now chiefly get their news from such shows, or from strings of Twitter feeds, where events are filtered through tweeters’ reactions, which can be, often as not, linguistically creative and layered with meaning. This speaks to a growing sophistication in how a population living in a media-saturated culture learns to process information: lightning quick, able to synthesize, critique and reconstitute, all at once.
The upside for poetry?
One, for all the handwringing over contemporary poetry’s supposed inaccessibility, readers are becoming ever more astute, and instinctively attuned to the types of tricks poets like to play: layering, juxtaposing, recasting, fragmenting. The corollary to this is that what poets do naturally should become more compelling and more relevant to potential readers, even nontraditional readers of poetry. Is this optimistic? Maybe. But the second thing the current climate means for poetry makes that optimism feel at least somewhat justified. As traditional journalism flails and its online incarnations scramble to find their way, the work of the poets becomes that much more important as a record and reconsideration of our times, past and present. There is and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future, an ever- increasing need for poets to be visible and to be heard in the general discourse. The more I see and feel this to be so, the more I find myself noticing, when I pick up a literary journal, that it’s in the lines and words and in-depth investigations of the poets where we can find, in large measure, the most urgent news of our day.