restricted access Contemporary Canadian Verse: The View from Here
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M. TRAVIS LANE Contemporary Canadian Verse: The View from Here Many of us are now aware that most people who write about Canadian poetry have tended to write about it in terms ofits themes, or in terms ofits geographical, political, or philosophical origins.' Critics following the leads of Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, and D.G. Jones discuss Canadian poetry in terms of its pervading themes and the national character such themes reveal, a method which fails to cope satisfactorily with atypical themes, foreign influences, the 'spirit of the times' or international weltgeist, and disparities of poetic skill. Moreover, that the pervading themes are indeed garrison/survival/victim or butterfly-onrocldshness has beenquestioned. Acasecould be made that the pervading tenor of Canadian poetry is 'loyalist' -loyal to the past, or to an imagined past, its tone nostalgic for the wilderness few Canadians nowadays must cope with. This would account for the rhythmic mildness and elegiac tones of much Canadian verse, and for the comparative rarity in Canada of future-projecting, revolutionary, or visionary verse. Douglas LePan has noted that the Canadian mythos (as contrasted to that of the United States) is founded on mid-nineteenth-century sentiment, post-rationalist, post-romantic.2 But this sort of writing is cultural history more than literary criticism. Geographical distinctions are standard in historical resumes of Canadian poetry, distinctions once partially justified by the geographical distribution of influential figures with typifying interests Games Reaney/mythIToronto). But time, the mobility of the Canadian poet, and our tendency to read and beinfluenced even by poets who do not live next door have blurred these distinctions. Regionalism, of course, exists; we write most about what confronts us, and the landscape, the weather, and the neighbours will always have their effect. But the necessity ofearninga living - wherever - is even more influential. Nor are poets obliged to be regionalists. I was once asked if I could be considered a British Columbia poet (I had justbrought outa long poem set partly in BC), but I have never been there. And 1was once excluded from a list of New Brunswick poets on the grounds that I had not been brought up in NB. Actually, quite a number of Canada's poets have notbeen brought up in Canada - but they haven't all been brought up in the same non-Canadian places either. Geographic distinctions, whether in terms of 'school' (the Black MounUNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 52, NUMBER 2, WINTER 198213 CJ042-0247IByto200-0179-Q19Q$oI.5oJO Cl UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS 180 M. TRAVIS LANE tainlTish equation that fails to account for the similarly strong influence of American post-modernist poetry on non-western poets) or of 'influence' (Irving LaytonIMontreal, but not, somehow, Newfoundland or Alberta) or of regionalist landscape (Elizabeth BrewsterlMaritimes) seem to me inadequate. Political distinctions among poetries are a trifle old-fashioned, but continue to exist, most often as thematic distinctions between poems of social concern - Milton Acorn, Dorothy Livesay, Raymond Souster, Tom Wayman - and poems not socially concerned. And there is a kind of logical consistency in Robin Mathews's lonely criticism of the majority of contemporary Canadian poets as un-Canadian, that is, insufficiently combining the anti-imperialist message with the homespun, communal, unhippie style. But there is also the distinction made a generation or so ago by poets rebelling against the pre-World War II ' high modernist' poets, so many ofwhom were politicallyconservative, someofwhomwere fascist. These rebelling poets set up an ideal of poetic style: 'naked: less literary, less crafted (or 'cooked'), less obviously rhythmic - and then identified their 'post-modernist' style with mildly leftist politics and the 'high modernist' style with implicit fascism. See, for example, a letter by Lloyd Abbey in Canadian Literature which takes the Coleridgean term 'organic form' as indicating the favouring of American intervention in Vietnam.' Or Frank Davey'S assertion in From There to Here that 'modernism was essentially an elitist, formalistic, anti-democratic, and anti-terrestrial movement." Throughout From There to Here Davey ignores the literal meanings of sensuous, life-affirming, social-value-and-community -affirming formal poetry (such as Ralph Gustafson's, Louis Dudek 's, P.K. Page's, PhylliS Webb's, Robert Finch's) for the...