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A new anthology of love notes exposes the mysterious, and embarrassing, power of the written word

Love note

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Title
Where the Nights Are Twice as Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets
Author
Edited by David Eso and Jeanette Lynes
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Goose Lane Editions
Pages
432 pages
Price
$22.95
Year
2015

The love letter is a funny, contradictory thing. The pen-and-paper kind may be on the decline, but, now more than ever, it's pretty much impossible to have an affair without an epistolary element. Sure, in the days before texting, Facebook, Google Chat, Tinder and OkCupid, you could (if you so desired) conduct an entire romance without much in the way of written correspondence, provided you lived near your love, or a phone. These days, there's pretty much no way of getting around it: If you want to fall in love, you're going to have to do some writing.

The greatest love letters are all powered by a mysterious alternating current of specificity and grandeur. Writing one is less like composing an argument and more like performing magic: You take the most absurdly enormous, worn-out, clichéd concept in the world and alter it to fit a single person, using nothing more than plain-old everyday detail. On its own, the phrase "I love you" means pretty much zero. On the other hand, there's almost nothing better than when someone you care about tells you, "I love you because you do this, because you say these things, because you look like this, because you make me feel this way." Employ them properly and each detail, no matter how tiny, has weight; add them all up and you get something far greater than its constituent parts. Your reader gets to feel they've become a part of something enormous and endless and crucial, simply by virtue of being themselves. It's a pretty cool trick.

Where the Nights Are Twice as Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets is exactly what it sounds like: a book of love letters written by 130 different Canadian poets and historical figures. Editors David Eso and Jeanette Lynes have done an impressive job of collecting work from a wide range of eras and authors – there are letters that date from 1883 all the way up to 2014, and the collection includes work from more than a few obscure and emerging poets as well as those well into their careers.

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It's an ambitious project, but, honestly, it's also kind of a weird idea. If someone asked you what you associate with romance, your first answer probably wouldn't be "the private correspondences of Canadian poets," unless you're an imaginary figure in a small-press publicist's wildest fantasy. That said, it's not hard to see how the love letters of poets might have something to teach us about the form – after all, nobody does details like people who obsess over line breaks for a living.

Unfortunately, a glaring structural flaw hobbles this book from page one. Instead of organizing the letters in chronological order – or by author, or by theme, or by province, or literally anything else – Eso and Lynes sort them according to the age the authors were when they wrote them. (The first chapter consists of letters written by poets in their teens and 20s, the next chapter is devoted to the work of thirtysomethings, and so on.)

It's impossible to overstate how frustrating this makes the whole thing to read. The chapters are jumbled and jarring, and the diversity of styles, authors and eras that seemed like such an asset at the outset quickly becomes a total pain. One minute you're lounging around in 1995 with Jane Eaton Hamilton as she sweetly, quietly describes a phone conversation she had that morning with her mom, and then all of a sudden Louis Riel (what is Louis Riel even doing here?) bursts into the room and starts opining about the Battle of Batoche. It's not cute.

The decision to organize the book like this isn't a good one, but it is deliberate. In his introduction, Eso refers to love as a "cosmic dialogue," and with this structure, he and Lynes are gesturing toward it. We're supposed to see that it doesn't matter who wrote these letters, or when, or about what – all the writers are simply acting out something that began long before they did and will continue to exist long after they've disappeared.

The problem is, those tedious, unromantic details – like who wrote a given letter, or what year it comes from – do matter. To the reader who's sitting there on her couch, flipping pages back and forth to remember where she is, they matter very, very much. The organizing principle here may be lovely, but it doesn't actually show a lot of care for the person it's designed to impress.

This is, funnily enough, the exact same kind of inattention that can wreck an otherwise well-meaning love letter. Have you ever had someone give you a compliment, but felt the sinking sense they could be saying what they're saying to pretty much anybody? It's sadder than silence. The best love letters perform their work solely and entirely for their intended recipient; the whole thing is a complex mess of motivation and intent, but if you pull it off properly, you get to make yourself vulnerable and assertive all at once.

In the end, all of this is what makes the experience of reading – and reviewing – this book feel a little strange. Any attempt to evaluate someone else's correspondence as a literary object kind of seems like it's missing the point; the letters in this book that probably did the best job of building the relationships between their senders and recipients are, by and large, also the ones that are most painful to read. Sometimes they were just boring, but more often they were truly agonizing. A protracted chain of e-mails that circled an affair between one poet in her mid-50s and her (gross, emotionally distant) lover were so wildly unpleasant I threw the book across the room. A melodramatic set of text messages between two twentysomething poets from Saskatoon felt so much like my own diary circa Grade 7 that it sent me into a day-long cringe. Even history isn't safe – for example, it turns out that Robert Service (the Bard of the Yukon, no less!) was also a big mopey baby who barraged his poor crush, Constance MacLean, with jealous, frenzied letters.

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None of these letters were fun to read, and as a reviewer, the not-fun I had reading them makes me want to tell you they're not worth your time. But on the other hand, that's not really the point, is it? In the end, who cares what I think? These letters aren't for me – or at least, they shouldn't be. It seems wrong to condemn a piece of writing precisely because of how thoroughly it meets its own goals (in this case, being vulnerable, open and honest). Expressing a negative opinion feels like giving a bad review to a relationship that nobody asked me to be a part of in the first place.

In the end, the better the letters in this book are at being themselves, the worse they are at being a good read, but that's not their writers' fault. It's a flaw in the design of the project that's brought them all together. What I learned from reading this book isn't that poets are better at expressing their love on paper than anyone else. It's that sometimes, our most honest and vulnerable feelings – the ones that make for the sweetest love letters – are best kept between us and our lovers.

Emma Healey is The Globe and Mail's poetry reviewer.

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