Poetry in Canada

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Poetry in Canada

Angles 'n' Attitudes

William Bothwell


Ashy young man aged 22 taught at Orangeville High School in 1883. He is now in the pantheon of Canadian poets. His name was Archibald Lampman.

Until recently Canadian writers, poets in particular, have not commanded world-wide attention. In 1991 poet Louis Dudek opined that Canada itself wouldn't know it had great writers even if it had them. When, if at all, did CanLit escape the charge that writing in Canadian America involved the transplant of organisms from elsewhere? Our poetry, said someone, was either about the hinterland or the (old) homeland.

We all know William Wilfred Campbell's paean to the wilderness.

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands
And all day long
the blue jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.


And does Lampman's "In November" owe, perhaps, too much to Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard"?

The hills and leafless forest
slowly yield
To thick-driving snow.
A little while
And night shall darken down. In
shouting file
The woodsmen's carts go by me
homeward-wheeled.
About the naked uplands
I alone
Am neither sad nor shelterless
nor gray,
Wrapped round with thought,
content to watch and dream.


Poetry in Canada can be assigned to distinct periods. The first was the work of newcomers who struggled, memories of home close behind them, with the raw beauty of a new land. There were those three Charleses - Heavysege of Montréal who was a little pompous and pseudo- Miltonese; Sangster of Kingston who first made poetic use of Canadian nature and history; and Mair of Lanark County, a protonationalist and an organiser of the Canada First Movement

The second generation was that of the Confederation Poets who were born as the loyal American colonies were about to form the new Dominion of the North. Its most prominent members were Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, Duncan Campbell Scott and Archibald Lampman. As evidenced above, Lampman's dominant themes were the solemn land and the loneliness of at least one man who lived in it.

In the next period Canada was defining itself beyond colonialism and its European roots. Three poets of the time bear mention here. E.J. (Edwin John) Pratt, a Newfoundlander, was probably the foremost Canadian poet of the early 20th Century. F.R. Scott, born in Québec, a constitutional lawyer and social philosopher, sought both a new order and a new mindset for the nation and its people. Robert Finch taught French at the University of Toronto. Each can be found in poetry anthologies. In their work, undoubtedly under the oversea influence of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, techniques dating back to the 18th Century were increasingly abandoned in response to the global upheaval of the great wars. Professor French shared Lampman's sense of aloneness.

Cary your grief alone;
No other wants it.
Each man has his own,
A fool flaunts it.


That is not great poetry; it is mere verse. It may not even be good advice but it was a word snapshot of the man. Lots of substandard poetry has been published but it is all a window into someone's soul. Is a feeling of isolation, even when in a crowd, the mindset of any poet?

The next generation of our poets began to publish regularly at the last half-century.

To be boldly selective and not particularly sympathetic, one cites Irving Layton (born Israel Lazarovich), Louis Dudek, P.K. (Patricia Kathleen) Page and Margaret Avison. Layton, muchmarried and a one-man sexual revolution, shattered the sedate correctness of our poetic establishment. He was a brashly selfassertive Outsider, another product with novelist Mordecai Richler of Montréal's Rue St- Urbain. Much of what he produced is soft pornography. His contemporary, Louis Dudek, whose parents' homeland was Poland, continued the breakaway from Western European tradition in favour of the new USAmerican trends in poetry. Influenced by the prolific but mentally unstable Ezra Pound, he was a Canadian exponent of modernism in poetry. In "From Europe (31)" he wrote:

The ignorant present has
scribbled over
the past at Winchester . .
painted on the door
saying 'yah, yah' to all this
rectangular, proud English
Gothic.


That may be modernism but is it poetry? Is one a philistine in preferring Milton's "storied windows, richly dight, casting a dim, religious light"?

Al(fred) Purdy, however, was both of Canadian stock and a frequent traveller both here and overseas. His poems reawaken our history for the reader. One critic spoke of his "relaxed, loping lines". Another noted that his poems "go round and round and where they stop nobody knows". That quality makes them difficult to excerpt.

P.K. (Patricia Kathleen) Page, born in England but raised on the prairies, wrote not blank verse but flowing, poetic prose. One wonders whether or not she did so standing at a high table because, as one critic said, "she irons her words as a laundress does her linens". Margaret Avison, on the other hand, born in Galt (now Cambridge ON) as the First Great War was ending, wrote "against the grain" of Post- WW2 poetic orthodoxy. Her later work has been called "metaphysical" by some, "sweet and profound" by others. She admitted to a religious conversion in 1963. A new radicalism! Hers is a genre, said a CBC commentator when she died a year ago at age 89, "to grapple with". So I grapple with her as I do with Margaret Atwood about whom Dana Gioia, the noted California critic, said that she writes poetry with images and ideas rather than with words. Though flawless by prose standards, her words in poetry, he says "lie dead on the page".

All of the above, Archibald Lampman included, can be 'googled" (surely that is now a lower case verb) by those interested. In 1983 L.R. Early published Archibald Lampman and His Works. The poet had died at age 38 in 1899.

Source: http://www.citizen.on.ca/news/2008/1016/columns/026.html
Ο λόγος είναι μεγάλη ανάγκη της ψυχής. (Γιώργος Ιωάννου)


 

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