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Acclaimed poet Anne Michaels, Toronto's poet laureate, helps launch National Poetry Month

Toronto City Council is not a place that comes to mind when one thinks of poetry. Hearing a poem read there must feel a little surreal to the councillors, poets using the language of allusion, metaphor, suggestion, having nothing much to do with the cold, dry language of subways and bylaws and taxes. We haven’t seen Anne Michael’s new poem, “To Write,” which the poet laureate read in council today, but to the poet, all experience is fit for poetry, even, or especially, the city. She wrote these words in her first book of poetry, published in 1997:

So much of the city

is our bodies. Places in us

old light still slants to.

Places that no longer exist but are full of feeling,

like phantom limbs.

Even the city carries ruins in its heart.

Longs to be touched in places

only it remembers.

The reason Anne Michaels, who is an internationally acclaimed poet and novelist—her debut novel Fugitive Pieces won numerous awards, was a best seller in Canada and has been translated into twenty languages, while her later works have been published in more than forty countries—was reading a poem at city hall was to help proclaim April as National Poetry Month. Part of National Poetry Month is Poetry City, an annual celebration of poetry in cities across Canada. City councils are encouraged to invite a poet to read to them on this day. Anne Michaels, being poet laureate, was the natural choice. Toronto was the first city to name a poet laureate, and she is the fifth to hold the post.

April was chosen for National Poetry Month, so the story goes, because on a day in April in 1996, copies of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, “The Waste Land,” which begins, “April is the cruellest month,” were supposedly handed out to New Yorkers standing in line at a post office to mail in their tax returns.

Today National Poetry Month is supported by the League of Canadian Poets, and this year it is celebrating time, “to reflect on time and all of its gifts, to acknowledge the past and look forward to what will come next.”

A little more prosaically, Mayor Tory said that it was “vital this month, and every month, that we support the literacy of our residents and the literature of our artists.”

Why is this important? Anne Michaels said in an interview with Poetry in Voice that she considers the job of the poet to be “to cut through the noise of other words, like a prayer. It wakes us. It finds us. It witnesses life at its most conscious and its most hidden. A poem is always about what it means to be alive and to be mortal.” Put another way, it is about what it means to exist in time.

And in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, she reflected that her generation, which was formed by the Holocaust—her roots are in Poland, though she was born in 1958 in Toronto—has a sense of responsibility to that history, to time. Her second novel, The Winter Vault, concerned the destruction of Warsaw during the Second World War. “When we were born, everyone had just come back from the war, or lost someone in the war, or emigrated because of the war—it was inescapable.”

In a long poem (“Correspondences”) in which the poet remembers her father, Michaels wrote:

a soul can make the wind blow,

make light and shadow through the trees,

through rain,

can be as near as your own skin

the rain that held the light

that fell, the rain that fell,

the light that held

 

How fortunate is Toronto to have Anne Michaels as its poet laureate.

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