Monday, October 29, 2012

The Bull Moose

Down from the purple mist of trees on the mountain,
lurching through forests of white spruce and cedar,
stumbling through tamarack swamps,
came the bull moose
to be stopped at last by a pole-fenced pasture.

Too tired to turn or, perhaps, aware
there was no place left to go, he stood with the cattle.
They, scenting the musk of death, seeing his great head
like the ritual mask of a blood god, moved to the other end
of the field, and waited.

The neighbours heard of it, and by afternoon
cars lined the road. The children teased him
with alder switches and he gazed at them
like an old, tolerant collie. The women asked
if he could have escaped from a fair.

The oldest man in the parish remembered seeing
a gelded moose yoked with an ox for plowing.
The young men snickered and tried to pour beer
down his throat, while their girl friends took pictures.

And the bull moose let them stroke his tick-ravaged flanks,
let them pry open his jaws with bottles, let a giggling girl
plant a little purple cap
of thistles on his head.

When the wardens came, everyone agreed it was a shame
to shoot anything so shaggy and cuddlesome.
He looked like the kind of pet
women put to bed with their sons.

So they held their fire. But just as the sun dropped in the river
the bull moose gathered his strength
like a scaffolded king, straightened and lifted his horns
so that even the wardens backed away as they raised their rifles.
When he roared, people ran to their cars. All the young men
leaned on their automobile horns as he toppled.
Alden Nowland (1933-1983)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Canadian poetry

A poem is not a destination, it is a point of departure.
The destination is not determined by the reader.
The poet’s function is but to point direction.
A. M. Klein, The Second Scroll, 1951

Charles Sangster 1822-1893
Born in Kingston, Upper Canada, Charles Sangster knew only a rudimentary education before embarking on a lifetime of hard work, which included a period of journalism and a position with the Post Office. During the 1850s and 1860s, when he published The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay, and Other Poems (1856) and Hesperus, and Other Poems and Lyrics (1860), he was one of Canada’s most admired poets.
Midnight Sonnet 1874-‘75  
As in the depths of some old forest home
The dead trees lie and cumber all the ground,
Ev’n so my thoughts, with not a wing to roam,
Where erst they travelled without stint or bound,
Lie strewn promiscuous. Through all my mind
I seem to stumble over the dead past,
As if there were no present to be twined
In sweet memorial chaplets round the brown
Of some dear fancy, though not doomed to last
Beyond the heart-beats of the passing Now.
Yet searching through the rubbish, I perceive
The sharp green blades just peering through the ground,
Fern fancies, as it were, round which to weave
Some yet unheard-of-gleams of fine inspired sound.  
Alexander McLachlan 1818-1896
A native of Johnstone, Scotland, Alexander McLachlan was strongly influenced by Glasgow radicalism before his immigration to Upper Canada in 1840. After a series of unsuccessful farming ventures, he settled near Guelph, where he worked as a tailor, lecturer, and immigration agent. In 1877 he moved to a farm near Orangeville. His first volume, The Spirit of Love, and Other Poems (1846), was followed by The Emigrant and Other Poems (1861), Poems and Songs (1874), and The Poetical Works of Alexander McLachlan (1900).  

Young Canada Or Jack’s as Good as His Master
I love this land of forest grand!
The land where labour’s free;
Let others roam away from home,
Be this the land for me!
Where no one moils, and strains and toils
That snobs may thrive the faster;
And all are free, as men should be,
And Jack’s as good as his master!
Where none are slaves, that lordly knaves
May idle all the year;
For rank and caste of the past, -
They’ll never flourish here!
And Jew or Turk if he’ll but work,
Need never fear disaster;
He reaps the crop he sowed in hope,
For Jack’s as good’s his master. Our aristocracy of toil
Have made us what you see –
The nobles of the forge and soil,
With ne’er a pedigree!
It makes one feel himself a man,
His very blood leaps faster,
Where wit or worth’s preferred to birth,
And Jack’s as good’s his master! Here’s to the land of forests grand!
The land where labour’s free;
Let others roam away from home,
Be this the land for me!
For here ‘tis plain, the heart and brain,
The very soul grow vaster!
Where men are free, as they should be,
And Jack’s as good’s his master!

William Wilfred Campbell 1860?-1918
Probably born near Newmarket, Ontario, William Wilfred Campbell studied, like his father, to become an Anglican minister. Deeply disturbed by the post-Darwinian challenge to traditional orthodoxy, he left the Church in 1891 for a civil service position in Ottawa. He published four volumes of poetry and drama before bringing out his Collected Poems in 1905; these were followed by two novels and several books of prose as well as his edition of the first Canadian Book of Canadian Verse (1913).
Indian summer  
Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.

Now by the brook the maple leans
With all his glory spread,
And all the sumachs on the hills
Have turned their green to red.

Now by great marshes wrapt in mist,
Or past some river’s mouth,
Throughout the long, still autumn day
Wild birds are flying south.

Charles G. D. Roberts 1860-1943
Born in Douglas, New Brunswick, the son of an Anglican minister and first cousin of Bliss Carman, Charles G. D. Roberts published his first book, Orion, and Other Poems, in 1880. A graduate in classics from the University of New Brunswick, he taught for ten years at the University of King’s College in Windsor, Nova Scotia, before embarking on a career in New York, London, and Toronto as an editor, journalist, and man of letters. Well known for his innovations in the genre of the realistic animal story, his cultural nationalism, and his contribution to literature, he received a knighthood in 1935. His poetry publications include In Divers Tones (1886), Songs of the Common Day (1893), The Iceberg and Other Poems (1934), and Selected Poems of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts (1936).  

The Skater  
My glad feet shod with the glittering steel
I was the god of the winged heel.

The hills in the far white sky were lost;
The world lay still in the wide white frost;

And while the woods hung hushed in their long white dream
By the ghostly, glimmering, ice-blue stream.

Here was a pathway, smooth like glass,
Where I and the wandering wind might pass

To the far-off palaces, drifted deep
Where Winter’s retinue rests in sleep.

I followed the lure, I fled like a bird,
Till the startled hollows awoke and heard

A spinning whisper, a sibilant twang,
As the stroke of the steel on the tense ice rang;

And the wandering wind was left behind
As faster, faster I followed my mind;

Till the blood sang high in my eager brain,
And the joy of my flight was almost pain.

Then I stayed the rush of my eager speed
And silently went as a drifting seed, -

Slowly, furtively, till my eyes
Grew big with the awe of a dim surmise,

And the hair of my neck began to creep
At hearing the wilderness talk in sleep.

Shapes in the fir-gloom drifted near.
In the deep of my heart I heard my fear.

And I turned and fled, like a soul pursued,
From the white, inviolate solitude.

Bliss Carman 1861-1929
Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Bliss Carman studied at the universities of New Brunswick, Oxford, Edinburgh, and Harvard before settling in the United States as a poet, literary editor, and essayist. A cousin and close friend of Charles G. D. Roberts, he collaborated with American poet Richard Hovey on a series of Vagabondia poems (1894-1900) celebrating the joys of the open road. His works include Low Tide on Grand Pre (1893), Ballads of Lost Haven: A Book of the Sea (1897), Sappho, One Hundred Lyrics (1903), and Sanctuary: Sunshine House Sonnets (1929). To show the evolution of “Low Tide on Grand Pre”, one of Bliss Carman’s best known poems, it is here reprinted following its first version, “Low Tide on Avon.”

Wild Geese  
To-night with snow in the November air,
Over the roof I heard that startling cry
Passing along the highway of the dark –
The Wild Geese going South. Confused commands
As of a column on the march rang out
Clamorous and sharp against the frosty air.
And with an answering tumult in my heart
I too went hurrying out into the night
Was it from some deep immemorial past
I learned those summoning signals and alarms,
And still must answer to my brother’s call?
I knew the darkling hope that bade them rise
From Northern lakes, and with courageous hearts
Adventure forth on their uncharted quest.

Archibald Lampman 1862-1899
Son of an Angelican clergyman, Archibald Lampan was born in Morpeth in southern Ontario, and published his first poems while a student at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. After an unhappy attempt at teaching, he obtained a junior position in the post office in Ottawa. During his lifetime Lampman published two volumes of poetry, Among the Millet, and Other Poems (1888) and Lyrics of Earth (1895); at the time of his death, a third book, Alcyone, was in press. The posthumous publication of The Poems of Archibald Lampman (1900) was supervised by his close friend, Duncan Campbell Scott.  

Winter Uplands  
The frost that stings like fire upon my cheek,
The loneliness of this forsaken ground,
The long white drift upon whose powdered peak
I sit in the great silence as one bound;
The rippled sheet of snow where the wind blew
Across the open fields for miles ahead;
The far-off city towered and roofed in blue
A tender line upon the western red;
The stars that singly, then in flocks appear,
Like jets of silver from the violet dome,
So wonderful, so many and so near,
And then the golden moon to light me home –
The crunching snowshoes and the stinging air,
And silence, frost and beauty everywhere.
[1899] (1900)

Duncan Campbell Scott 1862-1947
The son of a Methodist minister, Duncan Campbell Scott was born in Ottawa, his home for most of his life. At the age of seventeen he became a clerk with the Department of Indian Affairs, where he rose to deputy superintendent general, a position he held from 1913 until his retirement in 1932. An accomplished author of short stories as well as poetry, he enjoyed a long literary career, from the publication of The Magic House, and Other Poems (1893) to The Circle of Affection, and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse (1947).

The Onondaga Madonna  
She stands full-throated and with careless pose,
This woman of a weird and waning race,
The tragic savage lurking in her face,
Where all her pagan passion burns and glows;
Her blood is mingled with her ancient foes,
And thrills with war and wildness in her veins;
Her rebel lips are dabbled with the stains
Of feuds and forays and her father’s woes.

And closer in the shawl about her breast,
The latest promise of her nation’s doom,
Paler than she her baby clings and lies,
The primal warrior gleaming from his eyes;
He sulks, and burdened with his infant gloom,
He draws his heavy brows and will not rest.

Pauline Johnson 1861-1913
Born on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, to an English mother and a Mohawk father, Pauline Johnson chose to identify strongly with her Native heritage, publishing her poems and stories in newspapers and magazines. After she discovered her gift for oral performance in 1892, she toured Europe and North America for nearly two decades, presenting her poems in venues ranging from upper-class drawing rooms to frontier stages. Her first book of poetry, The White Wampum (1895), was followed by two more volumes of poetry and three of prose.

The Corn Husker  
Hard by the Indian lodges, where the bush
Breaks in a clearing, through ill-fashioned fields,
She comes to labour, when the first still hush
Of autumn follows large and recent yields.

Age in her fingers, hunger in her face,
Her shoulders stooped with weight of work and years,
But rich in tawny colouring of her race,
She comes a-field to strip the purple ears.

And all her thoughts are with the days gone by,
Ere might’s injustice banished from their lands
Her people, that to-day unheeded lie,
Like the dead husks that rustle through her hands.

E. J. Pratt (1882-1964)
Edwin (Ned) John Pratt was born in Western Bay, Newfoundland. He grew up in various coastal settlements and was educated at St. John’s Methodist College. An ordained minister, he taught and preached for four years in coastal villages until entering the University of Toronto in 1907. A series of degrees followed – B.A. in Philosophy (1911), M.A. (1912), B.D. (1913) and PhD in Theology (1917). He joined the English Department of Victoria College in 1920 and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1953. He was also editor of Canadian Poetry Magazine from 1936-1942. In his lifetime, Pratt published 17 books of poetry. His books include Newfoundland Verse (1923), The Titanic (1935), Brebuf and His Brethern (1940), and Towards the Last Spike (1952). He received three Governor General’s Awards for his poetry. His collected works were first published in 1944 and again in 1958.  

The Shark  
He seemed to know the harbour,
So leisurely he swam;
His fin,
Like a piece of sheet-iron,
And with knife-edge,
Stirred not a bubble
As it moved
With its base-line on the water.

His body was tubular
And tapered
And smoke-blue,
And as he passed the wharf
He turned,
And snapped at a flat-fish
That was dead and floating.
And I saw the flash of a white throat,
And a double row of white teeth,
And eyes of metallic grey,
Hard and narrow and slit.

Then out of the harbour,
With that three-cornered fin
Shearing without a bubble the water
He swam-
That strange fish,
Tubular, tapered, smoke-blue,
Part vulture, part wolf,
Part neither-for his blood was cold.

A. J. M. Smith (1902-80)
Further academic studies followed and he received his PhD. in 1931 from the University of Edinburgh. He held several contract teaching positions and received a permanent appointment to Michigan State University in 1936. He retired from that position in 1972.
Smith was interested in not only writing poetry but in writing about poetry as well. His anthology, The Book of Canadian poetry: a critical and historical anthology, published in 1943 made possible the teaching of Canadian poetry at the university level. He quickly followed with the publication of his own poems: News of the phoenix and other poems and received the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in English. He also edited many other anthologies including The Blasted Pine (1957, revised 1967). His Collected Poems was published in 1962.

News of the Phoenix
They say the Phoenix is dying, some say dead.
Dead without issue is what one message said,
But that had been suppressed, officially denied.

I think myself the man who sent it lied.
In any case, I’m told, he has been shot,
As a precautionary measure, whether he did or not.


Swift current This is a visible
and crystal wind:
no ragged edge,
no splash of foam,
no whirlpool’s scar;
-in the narrows,
sharpness cutting sharpness,
arrows of direction,
spears of speed.

A. M. Klein (1909-1972)
Abraham Moses Klein was born in Ratno, Ukraine. He moved to Montreal with his family in 1910. Klein entered McGill in 1926 and became associated with a group of poets – A. J. M. Smith, F. R. Scott and others – who later came to be identified as the McGill School.

A published poet at the age of 18, Klein founded The McGilliad in 19430 with David Lewis. In 1930 he entered law school at the University of Montreal and he received his L.L.B. in 1933.

In 1938 Klein began supplementing his law practice by editing the Canadian Jewish Chronicle. The following year he became speechwriter and adviser to Samuel Bronfman, in his capacity as president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Klein ran unsuccessfully for the CCF in 1948.

He received the Governor General’s award for his collection of poetry, The Rocking Chair and Other Poems in 1949. His novel, The Second Scroll, published in 1951 received much critical acclaim. Unfortunately Klein suffered a breakdown soon after and he was virtually silent for the last 20 years of his life.

My father bequeathed me no wide estates;
No keys and ledgers were my heritage;
Only some holy books with yahrzeil dates
Writ mournfully upon a blank front page-

Books of the Baal Shem Tov, and of his wonders;
Pamphlets upon the devil and his crew;
Prayers against road demons, witches, thunders;
And sundry other tomes for a good Jew.

Beautiful: though no pictures on them, save
The scorpion crawling on a printed track;

The Virgin floating on a scriptural wave,
Square letters twinkling in the Zodiac.

The snuff left on this page, now brown and old,
The tallow stains of midnight liturgy-
These are my coat of arms, and these unfold
My noble lineage, my proud ancestry!

And my tears, too, have stained this heirloomed ground,
When reading in these treatises some weird
Miracle, I turned a leaf and found
A white hair fallen from my father’s beard.


Monday, October 15, 2012

On reading poetry

The following questions are designed to help your reading and understanding of poetry. Be careful when you use them: they are intended as guides only and may not all be applicable. While the questions are general in nature, you may wish to make them more specific to the poem you are reading. In addition, the questions are not value-oriented until the last section. It’s important to remember that one poem may not necessarily be better than another because it contains more imagery or its language is more colloquial.

One final point – there often is no “right” answer to these questions. What counts is YOUR RESPONSE, supported by quotes from the poems. Beware of reading too much into a particular poem by second-guessing the poet’s intentions. The best sources for commentary on poetry are the poets themselves; second best is thoughtful and well-informed literary criticism.

  • To whom is the poem addressed? 
    • Is the poet talking to someone in particular?
  • Who is writing the poem? 
    • Has the poet taken on another voice, other than his/her own?
  • What does the poem describe? 
    • An experience? An emotion?
  • Is there a conclusion?
How does the poet use language...
  • What level of language is being used?
    • Informal vs. Formal
  • Are there any comparisons in the poem? 
    • Look for figurative language
  • Are there any symbols used in the poem? 
    • What do you think they stand for?
Poetic techniques

The poet’s use of form
  • What form does the poem take? 
    • Stanzas? 
    • Irregular lines? 
    • One continuous passage?
  • Can you see any reasons for the form or division?
  • Is there a rhyme scheme?
The poet’s use of sound
  • Does the poet make use of any special techniques: 
    • Rhythm 
    • Patterns of similar vowels or consonants 
    • Alliteration 
    • Assonance 
    • Consonance
The poet’s use of tone
  • What kind of mood does the poem have?
  • What kind of language is used to create the mood?
    • Quote directly from the poem
  • Does the poet use irony?
  • What does the poem say?
  • How does it say it?
Some final thoughts
  • What does the poem make you see?
  • Is this a new idea?
  • Is this presentation of the idea new?
Some terms
Ballad one episode in poem, often tragic
Concrete poetry makes the shape of the topic on the page
Free verse doesn’t have to rhyme, but has to have a rhythm
Lyric poetry poet’s feelings or thoughts
Narrative tells an exciting story
Rhyme scheme pattern in the poem
Stress and unstress Where stress is placed on words, usually nouns, “concrete words”
Sonnet Form of 14 lines, particular rhyme scheme, old form made popular by William Shakespeare

Monday, October 8, 2012

Clearing the field: some notes on recent poetic theory

Sproxton, Birk (ed.) From: Trace: Prairie Writers on writing. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1986. Clearing the Field: Some notes on recent poetic theory George Amabile

Art is an open concept.
Why does a poem have to mean anything? Why can’t it just be a beautiful thing I’ve made out of words?
The Democratization of Poetry, Direct Speech, The Prairie Voice, Mythologizing the Past, Avant Garde, Experimental, Open Form, Modernist and Post Modernist. For the past decade or so, these cultural passwords have been invoked with increasing frequency. (Like theology, poetic theory tends to harden into belief, then crystallize into dogma, while the poem itself gets strangled by the source.) More often than not, they are used to forestall critical discussion, rally support, define allegiances, and so on. They have the force of a shorthand expression of unassailable consensus, which of course, does not exist. Thus, they inhibit thought and perpetuate a number of unproductive illusions about poetry and its relationship to the world. Instead of discussing the merits of shortcomings of individual poems, we tend to talk literary politics, to categorize, define trends and movements, or invent rationales.  
There are reasons for this. Poetry (in Manitoba, Canada, the USA, England, and much of Europe) has had to live with a rapidly shrinking audience. And yet, the number of serious and accomplished practitioners has increased sharply. As a result, poets find themselves competing more and more intensively for a diminishing “general readership,” for magazine space, book publication, reviews, Arts Council and Canada Council grants, for the critical attention of universities and scholarly journals, for inclusion in important anthologies, for readings, residences in libraries and colleges, for Artists in the Schools programs, and other kind of recognition. Such “professional” competition tends to change the character of poetic theory. Instead of an open-ended exploration, it becomes a kind of sophisticated sales-talk, attempting to validate one literary manner at the expense of all others. Under such conditions, serious discussion disintegrates into polemics, rhetorical stands, dead (or dying) metaphor, exaggerated claims, and a compulsive adherence to this or that poetic mode. The brief commentaries I offer below represent my own attempts to re-subtilize part of our theoretical vocabulary.
The Democratization of Poetry. This phrase is often invoked to validate a variety of poetry practices, including “the poetry of prose,” direct speech, and poetry written in “the vernacular.” The rhetorical strategy is succinct and effective. A powerful political buzz-word is (mis)applied within a literary context. Given our infinitesimal, mostly well-educated audience, however, such a term, grandly egalitarian though it is, can only refer to a shift in fashion among a very minute elite which includes poets and aspiring poets, academics who get paid (as I do) for (among other things) explaining poetry or coaching its production, students who must endure at least one English course in order to pursue their careers, and a few unusual people who include poetry in their lifestyle. Poetry in Canada (and elsewhere) is not only an elitist activity (like almost every other activity in our fragmented, nearly granulated culture), it is also a privileged one, protected from the rigours of the marketplace by government subsidy. And yet, though it is grossly inaccurate (in any populist or grass roots sense), this pseudo-political buzz-phrase continues to operate as an effective bit of sales-talk because of its hidden persuaders: If you don’t write like us, it says, then you are: 1. Elitist, 2. Right Wing, Conservative, Reactionary, Fascist, and 3. Out of touch with “the people” and the times. Of course, “the people” couldn’t care less, and those who most often invoke the phrase are usually thoroughly repulsed by Kilmer, Prather, McKuen, and the endless anonymous authors of greeting cards and golden moment memento books whose junk is grotesquely “traditional,” clich├ęd, gives poetry a bad name and sells like hell. 
Nevertheless, in another sense, within the very small world it has become, poetry is more democratic. Not because it has reached a “common level” of language, not through plainness, ordinariness, everyday reality, or any other homogenized concept of “the people,” but rather, through a rich diversity of individual achievement. What we need now, and what we are beginning to get, is a climate of clear, open-minded attention to new work apart from the regimentation of literary cliques and camps. I think Canadian poetry, with its vast multicultural frame of reference, is at the threshold of a new era which will see the development of a truly planetary sensibility. I think we will continue to move away from the concept of the “great poet” who speaks for everyone, and toward a pluralistic reality in which most serious poets will produce a few “great” poems within the context of a small but uniquely constituted audience.  
Direct speech. In a utilitarian society, efficiency is greatly admired. But efficiency is not the only quality suggested by this phrase. Like its cousins, Plain Talk and Unpretentious Language, it implies honesty, modesty and thrift. Thus, conventional wisdom is brought in to validate a literary style which is often incredibly restricted in what it can say, evoke, or suggest, grounded as it is in a literal sense of language which is one of the central precepts (and practices) of industrial society: one word, one meaning. Language as abstract information. Facts. Linear thought. In this view of things, plain talk is true while subtle or complex talk is weak, feminine, deceptive. But these assembly line truisms can be deeply repressive because they reduce all the immediate particularity of experience, thought and feeling to a limited number of acceptable expressions and ideas. “Common” language is a symptom of the collectivization imposed by our system of State Capitalism through media, education and peer pressure. It is narrow, thoughtless, automatic, conformist and predictable. I am not interested in the way “everybody” talks, but rather the way individuals talk, their specific, pungent quirks of expression. Of course, simple language can support an enormously subtle and complex vision (Cavafy, Seferis, etc.). But that is another story. 
The Prairie Voice. As the infinitely resourceful “ground of being” keeps changing when we probe it in sub-atomic physics, so the single “voice” we strive to hear and establish on the page eludes us. I think we are deceived here, by a very attractive metaphor (By the mechanistic model which dominated physics until Einstein and Planck. As the Greeks were by the idea of an irreducible “atom”.) which takes the intensely regional nature of Canadian writing as an absolute. Without question, regionalism is a source of literary vitality and has produced truly distinguished work. But, in its passion for isolation and self-definition, it can become, like Nationalism, vehemently conformist and prescriptive, assuming, as it does, that there is already a fixed Prairie (or Canadian) style, and that the writer’s primary responsibility is to stray as little as possible from its imperatives. It is also inaccurate to assume, as we sometimes do, that literature is determined by landscape, as though we were all sedentary, 19th-century agrarians who rarely travelled further than the nearest town. Most of us are very mobile, and many of our best writers have lived elsewhere (Canada and the world) for years or decades. A purist definition of what does and does not constitute Prairie Literature or The Prairie Voice could easily, as it hardens in the minds of readers, writers and critics, destroy what it hopes to encourage.  
Mythologizing the past. This is an increasingly attractive poetic enterprise. It is looked upon with great favour by Ministries of Culture because it is easily justifiable to the public and to other government bureaucracies; and it gives the writer the rare pleasure of feeling that he or she is making an important contribution. Shaping the “received” identity of a nation (or part of a nation) is an exhilarating task but it is not without pitfalls. 
When I expressed, at a recent workshop, my lack of wholehearted reverence for the past, a colleague snapped back, “You’re so American.” A conventional, clever perception. But is it true? The fact is, there is no country on earth which makes so much of (and lies so much about) its past as the USA. But it was precisely my discovery of the actual, de-mythologized, brutal, greedy, class-ridden, racist and altogether inhuman history of that country which curtailed whatever sentiments I might have had about its statue or value. Better to dismiss the past altogether than invent some glib, cosy, self-aggrandizing substitute. But of course that can’t be done. History is very much with us and will not go away. Our stupid, vicious treatment of indigenous peoples and the environment continues to plague us, as it must, and I am wary of poems that are little more than fantasies of glory and conquest and pioneering and other heroics, which, at bottom, were often motivated by avarice and depended on various forms of slavery, violence or deceit for their success. If we are to have a mythologized past, and I think we should, I’d like to see one that doesn’t flinch and fake it. 
I am not against myth, nor do I wish to minimize the importance of the past. What I find troublesome is the way we attempt to “mythologize” a past which only goes back a few hundred years. We do not want to look beyond that, we do not include in our mythologizing the whole field of time, and so our “past” isolates us and sets us against the “pasts” of other cultures and nations. Time is not divided, except within “the psychosis which is human history” (Northrop Frye). It is precisely the addiction to aggressive, destructive, technologically justifiable “progress” which I find unacceptable in “historical consciousness” because it has proven itself hostile to creative intelligence.  
Avant Garde. More sales-talk. This time in the form of a quaint, traditional, military metaphor which invokes the masculine mystique, and attempts to validate certain works merely because they are unusual. Not that original, eccentric work should be discouraged. We need to continually try and fail and try and see. It’s part of the larger process of literary growth. What I object to is the way the term is used to confer (or co-opt) special status and to claim a spurious superiority. It is especially inappropriate when used by those who present themselves as radical, anti-establishment outlaws while sitting firmly and comfortably in the seats of power, holding national awards, residencies, professorships, and so on, having enjoyed, for years, the success they pretend to dismiss as indecent. Now that their once innovative poems and theories have become a tradition, the revolutionary rhetoric they used in order to win recognition is used again to maintain power and the status quo. Thus, young, talented and truly original writers who do not conform to established “avant garde” practice are attacked for their reactionary, modernist, and regressive tendencies. And that is how young turks become old farts.  
Experimental. This time the metaphor taps the religion of Science. But scientific experimentation is a procedure which has specific, interrelated parts: data, hypothesis, experiment, control, and result. It is often inconclusive, and the actual experiment, the test set-up, is valueless by itself. “Experimental” poetry (and art of all kinds) is almost never accompanied by the aspects of scientific inquiry mentioned above, and so we are at a loss to know what is being tried, or what it is attempting to prove. In contemporary literature usage, “experimental” usually means, “I don’t know what I’m doing, do you? and why should it matter?” or “Don’t look too closely at this, I was just hacking around.” Actually, insomuch as they are the results of trial and error, most poems are the products of “experimentation.” To single out any one work or author as having special “experimental” status is pretentious and absurd.  
Open form. Honest, sincere. But also, that each work, like each person or blade of grass, has its own unique and unrepeatable form. So far so good. But it is not enough to simply spread words around on the page. That is only “symbolic” openness. What we need is to open the poem’s frame of reference, toward a planetary, cosmic, perhaps timeless, context for our personal, regional experience, so that what we can write can become resonant in the widest possible field of attention. Open form without open consciousness is nothing more than a superficial mannerism. Once we write it down and print it in a book, the “open” poem closes just as stubbornly as a sonnet or a sestina.  
Modernist. Postmodernist. Cops and Robbers. Niggers and White Folk. Nazis and Jews. But there are no good guys and bad guys in poetic theory. Or there shouldn’t be. These terms, aside from designating approximate periods of literary history, are worse than useless because they polarize and set into conflict diverse but valid approaches to the poem. As stylistic categories, as definitions of aesthetic or linguistic practice, they stink. That’s why, though I experienced a brief attack of dutiful solemnity, I was greatly relieved when Ed Dyck, at a recent conference (The Death of Realism, St. John’s College, University of Manitoba) told us the news. Postmodernist is dead. R. I. P. And may it soon be joined by all those other isms which continue to provoke us by trying to narrow our field of attention so as to satisfy their insatiable desire to categorize, diagnose and prognosticate. As a description of the poetic mode that has dominated Prairie Poetry for some time, I prefer the term Laurie Ricou used in his lecture at the same conference: The Poetry of Prose. I think this is a much more accurate way of conceptualizing the theoretical framework within which most Prairie (and Western?) poets have worked.  
But do we have to work within a theory in order to write good poems? Maybe not. The technology of poetry, unlike the technology of industry or medicine, does not replicate and is not transferable. What works for you probably doesn’t work for me. That’s why, when I am involved in the writing process, I need to clear my mind of principles, rationales, and justification. I want, more and more, to write from a state of absolute stillness and clarity, beyond will, or ego, or theoretical programs. That way, maybe each poem, each impulse, will find its unique resolution. I no longer see any point in trying to develop a neat, predictable signature style. Perhaps because it is extremely unlikely that any poet or group of poets will be able to speak, as Yeats did, for an entire society, I find myself more and more interested in the individual poem, rather than the poet or school it has come from. Maybe we should refuse to sign our little masterpiece, let them speak for themselves beyond favour or reputation, theory and rhetoric and hype. It might free us a little from the rigours of salesmanship, and remind us that, in a very real sense, we have come to the end of history. Now that Science has understood its limitations, and Nature is clearly an exhaustible resource, what I look for is a poetry, whatever its mode or theoretical persuasion, which will express and help us to participate in the wholeness of life. And I think we are beginning to get that in the work of many young writers, in Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies, in the modified ghazals of Patrick Lane’s new book, and elsewhere. Canadian poetry seems to be moving away from the projective (projectile?) verse of Charles Olson with its linear drive, its Post-War masculine ethic, and its fear (hatred, distrust?) of the “eternal present of the psyche” (Jung) or “the paradise of the archetypes” where time “is recorded biologically without being allowed to become history” (Eliade), and toward a more lucid awareness of “the unity of the experience” (Joseph Brown). I think this a part of a larger, and I hope inevitable, development in Canadian society toward a trans-cultural, planetary tradition which supersedes nations and even languages and has its roots in the vast psycho-genetic resources of the human species.  
I’ve also detected a climate of renewed mutual interest and support among poets here in Manitoba, and a softening of theoretical boundaries. After all, it’s the same no matter what theory you fly by: The enthusiastic mess. The confusion. The work. Not a mechanical application of principles and moves, like assembly-line work, but the slow, lively inter-play of meanings, shadings, rhythms, textures, balances – all under the temporary roof of a thing you think you’re saying or letting happen – the process, the continual adjustments, discoveries, rightnesses. The fact is, we all know how to write. But it takes time, and patience, and energy freed from public ambition for a while. So what if our grand quest for The Prairie Voice fails? If the shaman finally arrives in a suit of saran wrap? So what if our theories and movements and rationales are little more than throwaway shelters built out of buzzwords and dead metaphor? When the bandwagon crash and the structures totter around us, what we walk away with is the small excitement of some possible poem, and the quietness in which it might begin to breathe.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The evolution of Canadian Literature

From “The Pride”

... we stand alone,
but we are no longer lonely
but we have roots,
and the rooted words
recur in the mind, mirrors, so that
we dwell upon nothing else, in nothing else,
touched, repeating them,
at home freely
at last, in amazement

John Newlove (1938-2003)
...the reality of the Canadian experience is geography shaped by history...
George Woodcock (1912-1995)
Canadian literature
  • now mature
    • how did we get there?
    • world known
  • factors
    • in last century
    • sense of self as separate nation
    • from the UK
    • development of a literary world
    • Canadian issues
    • development of own language/images
    • images come before language
Two approaches
  • literary/historical
    • subordinates individual writers to trends and movements
  • critical
    • study individual writers
    • infer patterns
    • apply to others
Two cautions
  • highlights only
  • very broad
Four stages
  • explorer or traveler
  • settlers
  • post pioneers
  • maturity
Explorer or traveler
  • never settles
  • lived outside of any pre-existing native culture
  • do not truly enter the life of a region
Two points to note
  • before 1867 Canada didn’t exist
    • were outposts and colonies
    • felt distant from the rest of Europe
  • dominant literary form
    • “documentaries” sent home
    • E.g. letters, reports, diaries – most of which have been kept for records
  • European Judeo-Christian beliefs
    • Used to justify imperial expansion
  • World existed for man’s use
    • Precedence of man over nature
  • Country viewed as barren and cold
    • No economic value until development of the fur trade
  • Beginnings of our written literature
    • Literature of travel, discovery and motivation
  • Motivation
    • To claim land
    • Economic rivalry
    • Quests for new trading territory
  • Explorer journeyed
    • Observed the land
    • Noted features that could be exploited
  • Exception:
    • Samuel Hearne (1746 – 1792)
      • Observer
      • Gave rounded picture
  • Includes journals written by
    • Explorers
    • Missionaries
    • Travellers
    • Those held in captivity
    • Early settlement journals
Arctic Dawn The Journeys of Samuel Hearn (1795)
From our leaving the Coppermine River ... that my feet and legs had swelled considerably ... my toe-nails were bruised to such a degree that several of them festered and dropped off. To add to this mishap, the skin was entirely chafed off from the tops of both of my feet, and between every toe, so that for a whole day before we arrived at the women’s tents, I left the print of my feet in blood almost at every step I took.
The First novel
The History of Emily Montague (1769)
  • Frances Brooke (c. 1763-1789)
    • Accompanied husband (chaplain)
    • Quebec
Some other firsts
  • First theatrical performance
    • 1606 – Order of Good Cheer, Samuel Chaplain
  • First verses praising Canada
    • 1628 – Robert Hayman (1575-1629)
  • First newspaper
    • Halifax Gazetter, 1752
      • John Burshell (1715-1761)
Most firsts happened in the Maritimes region mainly because this was were the land was settled first.
  • First universities
    • King’s College, Halifax, 1789
    • Dalhousie, Halifax, 1818
    • McGill, Montreal, 1821
    • Queen’s, Kingston, 1827
  • Attitude began to change
    • More than “take and run”
      • building
  • Land
    • Beginning to be tamed
      • Government offered parcels of land
  • Often looked back at what they left behind
    • Tried to recreate in a new setting
    • Nostalgia
The Diary of Mrs. John Graves Simcoe
  • Elizabeth
  • Wife of the first Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Upper Canada, 1792-1796
Social problems
  • Desire for political reform
    • Secondary to need for more basic necessities of life
    • British elite ruled
  • Problems with disease
    • Infection
    • No control
Stricklands House, Lakefield
  • Susanna Moodie (1803-1885)
    • Wrote about the outside experience although she never really enjoyed it
    • Roughing it in the bush (1852)
    • Life in the clearings versus the Bush (1853)
  • Catherine Parr Traill (1802-1899)
    • Skilled naturist
    • Self trained
    • Not only observed, but participated
    • The Backwoods of Canada (1836)
    • The Female emigrants guide (1854)
Post pioneer
  • Early terrors
    • Abated somewhat
      • Shelter
      • Wildlife
      • aboriginals
  • Land cleared
    • Farms begun
  • Governing structures began to appear
    • Based on the British governments
  • Began to understand the land
    • Knowledge of cold and bugs
  • Populations began to be established
    • York – later to become Toronto
Changes: visual art
  • Visual art
    • Group of Seven
  • Tom Thomson
  • Emily Carr
  • French impressionists
English pastoral landscape
  • Typical, pretty, style of painting brought
A New way of seeing
  • Tom Thomson, 1877-1917
    • Uofficially part of Group of Seven
  • The Jack Pine
    • Typical Canadian shield, rocks, trees
  • Northern River
    • Typical Northern Canadian landscape - untouched
What did the provinces have to offer?
  • Newfoundland
    • Separate society and culture
      • Early oral tradition from the Irish
    • E. J. Pratt (1882-1964)
      • Often used conventional forms – poets and sonnets
    • But some experimentation
      • Images/emotions remain true to his home
      • Also tackled national themes
  • Maritimes: Nova Scotia
    • Joseph Howe (1804-73)
      • One of the early settlers
      • Nova Scotian – 1828
    • Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865)
      • Created Yankee selling clock character Sam Slick – 1836
  • Maritimes: New Brunswick
    • Sir Charles G. D. Roberts (1860-1943)
      • Used traditional forms but with a fresh eye
      • Not looking for a “lost home”
    • Frederiction
      • Centre of poetry: Fiddlehead
      • Magazine started after second world war
  • Montreal (1920-1940)
    • Extraordinary energy
    • Productive tensions
      • 3 active communities – English, French and Jewish
    • A.J.M. Smith (1902-1980)
    • F.R. Scott (1899-1985)
      • Rejected the old ways
      • Influences: Eliot, Yeates, Joyce
      • Founded McGill Fortnightly Review
    • A.M. Klein (1909-1972)
      • Influenced by Jewish community
      • Next generation influenced
        • Irving Layton (1912- )
        • Leonard Cohen (1934- )
  • Toronto/Ontario
    • Early writing
      • Regional in nature
    • Exception: The Imperalist (1907)
      • Sara Jeanette Duncan (1861-1922)
    • Did develop an individual voice in poetry
      • Raymond Souster (1921- )
        • Colloquial voice
  • Great Plains
    • Different process
      • Response comes first in novels
        • Novels originated in the Plains
    • Different society
      • No single founding race
      • No common history
    • Less inclined to repeat old patterns
      • Instead confronted the present
    • Prairie literature doesn’t start somewhere far away...
      • It starts right here
    • Most important developments in Canadian novel
      • Happened here in Manitoba
      • F. P. Grove (1879-1948)
      • Sinclair Ross (1908-1996)
      • Margaret Laurence (1926-1987)
    • Did not forget their ancestral past
      • But emphasis placed on adapting traditional attitudes towards present experience
    • Begin to see an emerging self-sufficiency
      • Finally begin waking up from our “colonial slumber”
    • Home of social reform
      • “only the land is level”
      • Social reform political party NDP started in Saskatchewan
    • Literature shaped by extremes of climate and passions
    • Poetry comes much later
      • 1960s onward
  • West Coast
    • Novel writing
      • Experimental in 1950s
        • The Double Hook (1959)
          • Shifting point of view, unusual for the time
        • Shelia Watson (1909-1998)
    • Important centre of poetry
      • Earle Binney (1904-1995)
      • Phyllis Webb (1927- )
      • Susan Musgrave (1951- )
Obsession with nationalism
  • First emerges with Barometer Rising (1941)
    • Hugh MacLennan (1907-1990)
  • Peaks with Survival (1972)
    • By Margaret Atwood (1939- )
    • A necessary step in the development of a national literature
  • Canada Council (national arts council)
    • Established 1957
    • Grants to support writers, magazines and book publishers
  • New Canadian Library reprint series
    • Established 1958
Three categories of Canadian writers
  • Travellers
    • Al Purdy (1918-2000)
      • Poet, rode rail through the depression
    • Earl Birney
      • Travelled abroad
  • Expatriates
    • Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957)
      • British, lived in Vancouver
  • “New Voices”
    • Aboriginal and immigrant
    • Voices that just haven’t been heard before
  • Those who left but... returned
    • Margaret Laurence (1926-1987)
      • Born in Neepawa, Manitoba; moved to Africa, then England, returned to settle in Peterborough, Ontario
    • Mordecai Richler (1931-2001)
      • Moved to London
  • Not returned
    • Mavis Gallant (1922- )
      • Lives in Paris
      • Writes short stories
  • Sometimes you have to leave a country to gain a true understanding...
    ...of the experience of living in that country...
  • Finally escaped from
    • “garrison of enclosed attitudes” in the 1960s
  • Thematic criticism useful
    • One way to look
    • Provides a very narrow interpretation
  • But have travelled far beyond that
  • See ourselves as different/distinct
    • From US/UK
  • Now truly international
    • Roles to play
  • Canadian writers are free to follow their own unclassifiable paths...
    • Difficult to classify, known around the world, achieved in a short time
The Discovery
do not imagine that the exploration
ends, that she has yielded all her mystery
or that the map you hold
cancels further discovery.

I tell you uncovering her takes years,
takes centuries, and when you find her naked look again,
admit there is something else you cannot name,
a veil, a coating just above the flesh
which you cannot remove with your mere wish

When you see the land naked, look again
(burn your maps, that is not what I mean)
I mean the moment when it seems most plain
Is the moment when you must begin again.

Gwendolyn MacEwen