The Oxford Text Archive, Item 0660.

Arrives as a zip, rather scrappy text file replete with hyphenations & mis-scanned words: cliché becomes cliche/' etc. Somewhat fixed up & organized here.


from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly 
     1950 1
     1951 4
     1952 10
     1953 22
     1954 33
     1955 44
     1956 58
     1957 70
     1958 87
     1959 107
Canada and Its Poetry 129
The Narrative Tradition in English-Canadian Poetry 144
Turning New Leaves 157
Preface to An Uncollected Anthology 163
Silence in the Sea 180
Canadian and Colonial Painting 198
David Milne: An Appreciation 203
Lawren Harris: An Introduction 207
Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada 213


     What follows is a retrospective collection of some of my writings on Canadian culture, mainly literature, extending over a period of nearly thirty years. It will perhaps be easiest to introduce them personally, as episodes in a writing career which has been mainly concerned with world literature and has addressed an international reading public, and yet has always been rooted in Canada and has drawn its essential characteristics from there.

     The famous Canadian problem of identity may seem a rationalized, self-pitying or made-up problem to those who have never had to meet it, or have never understood that it was there to be met. But it is with human beings as with birds: the creative instinct has a great deal to do with the assertion of territorial rights. The question of identity is primarily a cultural and imaginative question, and there is always something vegetable about the imagination, something sharply limited in range. American writers are, as writers, not American: they are New Englanders, Mississippians, Middle Westerners, expatriates, and the like. Even in the much smaller British Isles we find few writers who are simply British: Hardy belongs to "Wessex," Dylan Thomas to South Wales, Beckett to the Dublin-Paris axis, and so on. Painters and composers deal with arts capable of a higher degree of abstraction, but even they are likely to have their roots in some very restricted coterie in Paris or New York.

     Similarly, the question of Canadian identity, so far as it affects the creative imagination, is not a "Canadian" question [i] at all, but a regional question. An environment turned outward to the sea, like so much of Newfoundland, and one turned towards inland seas, like so much of the Maritimes, are an imaginative contrast: anyone who has been conditioned by one in his earliest years can hardly become conditioned by the other in the same way. Anyone brought up on the urban plain of southern Ontario or the gentle pays farmland along the south shore of the St. Lawrence may become fascinated by the great sprawling wilderness of Northern Ontario or Ungava, may move there and live with its people and become accepted as one of them, but if he paints or writes about it he will paint or write as an imaginative foreigner. And what can there be in common between an imagination nurtured on the prairies, where it is a centre of consciousness diffusing itself over a vast flat expanse stretching to the remote horizon, and one nurtured in British Columbia, where it is in the midst of gigantic trees and mountains leaping into the sky all around it, and obliterating the horizon everywhere?

     Thus when the CBC is instructed by Parliament to do what it can to promote Canadian unity and identity, it is not always realized that unity and identity are quite different things to be promoting, and that in Canada they are perhaps more different than they are anywhere else. Identity is local and regional, rooted in the imagination and in works of culture; unity is national in reference, international in perspective, and rooted in a political feeling. There are, of course, containing imaginative forms which are common to the whole country, even if not peculiar to Canada. I remember seeing an exhibition of undergraduate painting, mostly of landscapes, at a Maritime university. The students had come from all over Canada, and one was from Ghana.

     The Ghana student had imaginative qualities that the Canadians did not have, but they had something that he did not have, and it puzzled me to place it. I finally realized what it was: he had lived, in his impressionable years, in a world where colour was a constant datum: he had never seen colour as a cycle that got born in spring, matured in a burst of autumn flame, and then diedout into a largely abstract, black [ii] and white world. But that is a factor of latitude rather than region, and most of the imaginative factors common to the country as a whole are negative influences.

     Negative, because in our world the sense of a specific environment as something that provides a circumference for an imagination has to contend with a global civilization of jet planes, international hotels, and disappearing landmarks -- that is, an obliterated environment. The obliterated environment produces an imaginative dystrophy that one sees all over the world, most dramatically perhaps in architecture and town planning (as it is ironically called), but in the other arts as well. Canada, with its empty spaces, its largely unknown lakes and rivers and islands, its division of its dependence on immense railways to hold it together, has had this peculiar problem of an obliterated environment throughout most of its history. The effects of this are clear in the curiously abortive cultural developments of Canada, as is said later in this book. They are shown even more clearly in its present lack of will to resist its own disintegration, in the fact that it is practically the only country left in the world which is a pure colony, colonial in psychology as well as in mercantile economics.

     The essential element in the national sense of unity is the east-west feeling, developed historically along the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes axis, and expressed in the national motto, a mari usque ad mare. The tension between this political sense of unity and the imaginative sense of locality is the essence of whatever the word "Canadian" means. Once the tension is given up, and the two elements of unity and identity are confused or assimilated to each other, we get the two endemic diseases of Canadian life. Assimilating identity to unity produces the empty gestures of cultural nationalism; assimilating unity to identity produces the kind of provincial isolation which is now called separatism.

     The imaginative Canadian stance, so to speak, facing east and west, has on one side one of the most powerful nations in the world; on the other there is the vast hinterland of the north, with its sense of mystery and fear of the unknown, and the curious guilt feelings that its uninhabited [iii] loneliness seems to inspire in this exploiting age. If the Canadian faces south, he becomes either hypnotized or repelled by the United States: either he tries to think up unconvincing reasons for being different and somehow superior to Americans, or he accepts being "swallowed up by" the United States as inevitable. What is resented in Canada about annexation to the United States is not annexation itself, but the feeling that Canada would disappear into a larger entity without having anything of any real distinctiveness to contribute to that entity: that, in short, if the United States did annex Canada it would notice nothing except an increase in natural resources. If we face north, much the same result evidently occurs: this happened to the Diefenbaker campaign of 1956, which has been chronicled in books with such words as "lament" and "renegade" in their titles.

     Whenever the east-west context of the Canadian out-look begins to weaken, separatism, which is always there, emerges as a political force. Every part of Canada has strong separatist feelings: there is a separatism of the Pacific Coast, of the Prairies, of the Maritimes, of Newfoundland, as well as of Quebec. Ontario, of course, began with a separatist movement from the American Revolution. But since the rise of the great ideological revolutionary movements of our time, whether communist, fascist, imperialist, Islamic or what not, separatism has been an almost wholly destructive force. The successful separatings, like that of Norway and Sweden in 1905, took place before the rise of these movements. In India and Pakistan, in the Arab-Jewish world, and in many other centres divided by language, colour or religion, separatism has seldom if ever stabilized the prejudices which gave rise to it, but has steadily increased them. Even where there is no political affiliation, the separation of Cuba from the American sphere of influence, or of Yugoslavia from the Russian one, cannot be a politically neutral act. Quebec in particular has gone through an exhilarating and, for the most part, emancipating social revolution. Separatism is the reactionary side of this revolution: what it really aims at is a return to the introverted malaise in which it began, when [iv] Quebec's motto was je me souviens and its symbols were those of the habitant rooted to his land with his mother church over his head, and all the rest of the blood-and-soil bit. One cannot go back to the past historically, but the squalid neo-fascism of the FLQ terrorists indicates that one can always do so psychologically.

     What has just been said may seem inconsistent with some of what is said later on in this book; but the essays cover a period of thirty years, and naturally conditions in Canada itself have changed a good deal in that time. At the same time the changes have occurred within an intelligible pattern of repetition. The most striking changes are in French Canada, but some of those changes recapitulate earlier developments in English Canada. Thus the admiration for France, which on one occasion took the form of picketing a Cabinet Minister for saying that a French-made aeroplane was not as good as an English-made one, indicates a phase of colonialism now obsolete in the other culture. Similarly, separatism in the Atlantic or Prairie provinces is often based on a feeling that Ontario regards itself as an Israel or Promised Land with the outlying provinces in the role of desert wanderers: this is much the same as the attitude that Quebec separatism explicitly adopts toward the Francophone Canadians in New Brunswick or Manitoba. There may be a clue here to the immediate future prospects of the country worth investigating, and the following essays, with all their repetitions and dated allusions, may provide some useful historical perspective.

     I grew up in two towns, Sherbrooke and Moncton, where the population was half English and half French, divided by language, education and religion, and living in a state of more or less amiable Apartheid. In the Eastern Townships the English-speaking group formed a northern spur of New England, and had at a much earlier time almost annexed themselves to New England, feeling much more akin to it than to Quebec. The English-speaking Maritimers, also, had most of their cultural and economic ties with New England, but their political connexion was with New France, so that culturally, from their point of view, Canada stopped [v] at Fredericton and started again at Westmount. There were also a good many Maritime French families whose native language was English, and so had the same cultural dislocation in reverse.

     As a student going to the University of Toronto, I would take the train to Montreal, sitting up overnight in the coach, and looking forward to the moment in the early morning when the train came into Levis, on the south side of the St. Lawrence, and the great fortress of Quebec loomed out of the bleak dawn mists. I knew that much of the panorama was created by a modern railway hotel, but distance and fog lent enchantment even to that. Here was one of the imaginative and emotional centres of my own country and my own people, yet a people with whom I found it difficult to identify, what was different being not so much language as cultural memory. But the effort of making the identification was crucial: it helped me to see that a sense of unity is the opposite of a sense of uniformity. Uniformity, where everyone "belongs," uses the same cliches, thinks alike and behaves alike, produces a society which seems comfortable at first but is totally lacking in human dignity. Real unity tolerates dissent and rejoices in variety of outlook and tradition, recognizes that it is man's destiny to unite and not divide, and understands that creating proletariats and scape-goats and second-class citizens is a mean and contemptible activity. Unity, so understood, is the extra dimension that raises the sense of belonging into genuine human life. Nobody of any intelligence has any business being loyal to an ideal of uniformity: what one owes one's loyalty to is an ideal of unity, and a distrust of such a loyalty is rooted in a distrust of life itself.

     In the last essay in this book I speak of the alternating rhythm in Canadian life between opposed tendencies, one romantic, exploratory and idealistic, the other reflective, observant and pastoral. These are aspects of the tension of unity and identity already mentioned. The former is emotionally linked to Confederation and Canadianism; the latter is more regional and more inclined to think of the country as a series of longitudinal sections. They are the attitudes that Pratt symbolizes in Towards the Last Spike by MacDonald [vi] and Blake, and in fact they did at one time have analogues in our political philosophies. I first became aware of this polarization of mood through Canadian painting, which is why I include three short pieces on painting here. The romantic and exploratory tendency was represented for me by Thomson, the Group of Seven (especially Harris, Jackson and Lismer), and Emily Carr; the pastoral tendency by most of the better painters before Thomson and by David Milne later. "Canadian and Colonial Painting" was contributed to The Canadian Forum, whose good-natured hospitality has helped so many Canadians to learn to write. The piece is polemical and immature, but I think it got hold of a genuine theme. The tribute to Milne appeared in the second issue of Here and Now, accompanied by illustrations which the imaginative reader should have little difficulty in reconstructing. The Lawren Harris essay was the preface to the book of his writings and paintings edited by my classmate R.G. Colgrove and published in 1969: it is therefore recent, but its attitude is very close to another article on Harris written many years earlier.

     I joined the Department of English at Victoria College, and there became exposed to the three personal influences described in "Silence in the Sea." This lecture inaugurated a series established in honour of Pratt by Memorial University in 1968. When I was still a junior instructor, the first edition of A.J.M. Smith's Book of Canadian Poetry appeared (1943), and my review of it in The Canadian Forum was perhaps my first critical article of any lasting importance. It is hard to overstate my debt to Mr. Smith's book, which brought my interest in Canadian poetry into focus and gave it direction. What it did for me it did for a great many others: the Canadian conception of Canadian poetry has been largely formed by Mr. Smith, and in fact it is hardly too much to say that he brought that conception into being. The article on the narrative tradition resulted from a lead given me by the same book: this article was translated by Guy Sylvestre and appeared in an issue of his magazine Cants du ciel which was devoted to English Canadian poetry. The "Preface to an Uncollected Anthology," a paper read to the Royal Society [vii] in Montreal in 1956, follows the same general line -- in the original there was some deliberate overlapping with the narrative tradition article, as the latter was available only in French and in a periodical that had ceased publication. Towards the end it touches on the question of popular culture, which is also glanced at in the review of Edith Fowke's collection of folk songs, also from The Canadian Forum.

     At the time that I reviewed Mr. Smith's anthology, I was struggling with my own book on the symbolism of William Blake (Fearful Symmetry, 1947). In the last chapter of that book the conception emerges of three great mythopoeic periods of English literature: one around 1600, the age of Spenser, Shakespeare and the early Milton; one around 1800, the age of Blake and the great Romantics; and one around the period 1920-1950. I thought at first of writing my second book on Spenser, but the pull of contemporary literature was too strong and the theory of literature too chaotic, and I was drawn to a more general and theoretical approach which ultimately became the Anatomy of Criticism (1957). When I had got started on this, in 1950, during a year I had off on a Guggenheim Fellowship, I was asked by my colleague J.R. MacGillivray, then editor of the University of Toronto Quarterly, to take over the annual survey of Canadian poetry in its "Letters in Canada" issue which had been made by the late E.K. Brown from the beginning of the survey nearly up to the time of his death. Reviews from the ten essays I wrote through the decade of the 1950s form the bulk of the present book.

     These reviews are too far in the past to do the poets they deal with any good or any harm, not that they did much of either even at the time. In any case the estimates of value implied in them are expendable, as estimates of value always are. They may be read as a record of poetic production in English Canada during one of its crucial periods, or as an example of the way poetry educates a consistent reader of it, or as many other things, some of them no doubt most unflattering to the writer. For me, they were an essential piece of "field work" to be carried on while I was working out a comprehensive critical theory. I was fascinated to see how the [viii] echoes and ripples of the great mythopoeic age kept moving through Canada, and taking a form there that they could not have taken elsewhere. The better the poet, the more clearly and precisely he showed this, but the same tendencies could be seen even as far down as some of the doggerel, or what I called the naive verse.

     By myth I meant, not an accidental characteristic of poetry which can be acquired as an ornament or through an allusion or by writing in a certain way, but the structural principle of the poem itself. Myth in this sense is the key to a poem's real meaning, not the explicit meaning that a prose paraphrase would give, but the integral meaning presented by its metaphors, images and symbols. Naturally before this view had established itself it was widely misunderstood, and I became for a time, in Mr. Dudek's phrase, the great white whale of Canadian criticism. That is, I was thought -- still am in some quarters, evidently -- to be advocating or encouraging a specific "mythological school" of academic, erudite, repressed and Puritanical poetry, in contrast to another kind whose characteristics were undefined but which was assumed to be much more warm-hearted, spontaneous and soul brother to the sexual instinct. Such notions came mainly not from other critics but from poets making critical obiter dicta. It does no great harm, however, for poets to be confused about the principles of criticism as long as some of the critics are not.

     I was still engaged in this survey when I was approached by my friend Carl Klinck of Western Ontario, with his project for a history of English Canadian literature, and I joined his committee. The conclusion which I wrote for this history repeats a good many conceptions worked out earlier during the poetry reviews, but it is closely related to the rest of the book in which it first appeared, and is heavily dependent on the other contributors for data, conceptions and often phras-ing. I emphasize this because I have edited the text, to save the reader the distraction of being continually referred to another book, and the editing has concealed my debts.

     For a long time it has been conventional for Canadian criticism to end on a bright major chord of optimism about [ix] the immediate future. This tone is in a curious contrast to the pervading tone of Canadian economists, historians, political theorists and social scientists. Some observers of the Canadian scene, including Professors Donald Creighton and George Grant, feel that there has been too long and too unchecked a domination of the longitudinal mentality in Canada, and that the tension between region and nation has finally snapped. Certainly a century after the American Civil War, the true north strong and free often looks more like a sham south weak and occupied -- sham because there has been no war with this confederacy and no deliberate occupation. The national emphasis is a conservative one, in the lower-case sense of preserving the continuity of political existence, and it is typical of the confusions of identity in Canada that the one genuinely conservative Canadian party of the twentieth century, the CCF, expired without recognizing itself to be that. However, what seems to reason and experience to be perpetually coming apart at the seams may seem to the imagination something on the point of being put together again, as the imagination is occupationally disposed to synthesis. Perhaps that is part of the real function of the imagination in every community, and of the poets who articulate that imagination. In any case, there are many titles from many of the best known Canadian poets, "Resurgam," "Words for a Resurrection," "News from the Phoenix," "The Depression Ends," "Poem for the Next Century," "O Earth Return," "Home Free," "Apocalyptics," for the Canadian critic to murmur in his troubled sleep.

     The title of the book has been pilfered from Margaret Atwood's Journals of Susanna Moodie, a book unusually rich in suggestive phrases defining a Canadian sensibility.

N.F. [x]

from 'Letters in Canada' 1950

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1950

     Readers of Canadian poetry will often have seen the name of Mr. James Wreford, both in literary periodicals and in the fine little anthology of a few years back, Unit of Five. A collection of his verse, Of Time and the Lover, makes the fourth volume in McClelland and Stewart's "Indian File" series. Mr. Wreford lives in Ottawa, and has several qualities in common with his predecessor Lampman, notably a tendency to be much more at ease with the vegetable than with the human world. He has, however, worked harder to reconcile his love of nature and his vision of the city of the end of things. His imagery turns on the antithesis of winter and spring: he associates winter with the contemporary world and spring with the promise, not only of better times, but of deliverance from the winter world through the infinity of the moment of love and faith in the Resurrection. The central theme that love's not time's fool thus applies to patriotic and religious as well as sexual love. A conventional frame of ideas, certainly, but a solid one to build on.

     Mr. Wreford is a pensive and elegiac poet: his best phrases are usually embedded in long ruminating poems, and seem to need that kind of context. Sometimes, too, a sudden poignancy breaks out, as it were unawares, from a more commonplace setting: [1]

          The little children of her hands
          run with the horses on the sands
          cry and are fastened into bands.

Metaphysical poetry is not a good influence on him: the echoes of Donne and Hopkins in his religious poetry merely add discord: some of his puns are striking ("To part, it is to die in part"), but verbal conceits and satiric rhymes are often laboured. He is not a poet who can absorb either the prose statement or the prosaic world; his social comment is generally querulous and preoccupied, and he is ill at ease with commercial clichés and technological images. He is best in straight couplet and quatrain and in a Housman-like baldness of statement:

          no strong men and no heroes,
          no brave, eternal youths,
          but only fiddling Neroes
          and purple, proud untruths.

This is from the title-poem at the end, which is by far his finest work, and which shows many skilful variations in its octosyllabic metre:

          found pure when the snow is shadowed with
          the whiteness of a cloud of snow,
          how can you now destroy
          the host of your essential joy:

There are lapses of inspiration and of taste in Mr. Wreford's book, but there is also a dignified simplicity and a sincere eloquence.

     Norman Levine's The Tight-Rope Walker shows a high level of competence in what is so far a rather restricted range.Mr. Levine is an expatriate, or regards himself as one: he has left what he calls the land of "parchment summers and merchant eyes" for England, and many of his poems have a Cornish setting. His poems are also elegiac, even to the point of using a lamenting refrain, but he has more affinity with paradox and complex statement. "Cathedral by Sea" works [2] out a fine contrast between the physical energy of the sea and the spiritual energy and physical stillness of the building. The title-poem makes an oddly touching symbol out of its central theme:

          He was not lost. Only a little lonely
          He walked as a graveyard while around him
          Cities were no more than small lights
          Severed at the head by fog.

"Airman and Seagull Killed by Water" manages to reach an admirable final line, "What floats is dead," through some vigorous but tangled imagery. ...

     This is clearly not a banner year for Canadian poetry: the above practically exhausts the more sophisticated part of the output. In Canada, however, as elsewhere, there appears every year a fair quantity of naive or primitive verse, to use terms more familiar in the criticism of painting. There is no reason why all of this should be out of the range of critical interest: a good deal of Burns, of Wordsworth, of Kipling, even of Emily Dickinson, is naive poetry, and what Mr. Goodridge MacDonald calls "the truisms of popular song" are always well worth stating. One looks hopefully and constantly, in reading through this material, for some signs of an ability to express the simple rather than the commonplace emotion, to use traditional metres without unenterprising monotony, to make the art of writing a poem a fresh experience instead of a conditioned reflex of nostalgia. Occasionally one is rewarded, but self-consciousness and schoolmarmism hang cloudily in the poetic atmosphere. Some achieve a certain uniform competence, but otherwise there is nothing for a reviewer to say except to hope that they will find their audience. The same may be said of the Poetry Books of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The latter has a picture of a wildcat on its cover, but the poetry is unvaryingly gentle. ... [3]

from 'Letters in Canada' 1951

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1951

     The title poem of Philip Child's The Victorian House and Other Poems is a flashback narrative. The narrator has to sell his family home, and in throwing it open to a purchaser memories come back to him and build up a picture of his early life. As he muses, the contrast widens between the realized knowledge of love he has gained from his home and the externalized knowledge of hatred he has gained from watching the passage of wars and dictatorships. Gradually the impression of the reality of the former and the illusoriness of the latter increases until he gains a fleeting sense of an eternal home life in a single body of love. At that point the sharpest of all his memories, a friend dying in the confidence of resurrection, is illuminated for him. The theme of a death which no longer matters is summed up by the purchaser, who decides to tear the house down and use its bricks to build a new one.

     In the narrative itself one regrets a rather self-deprecatory melancholy, a gentleness that often seems merely tentative, and, more technically, a mannerism of quoting too many tags from Shakespeare. It is in the interspersed lyrics where one best realizes how well practised a writer Mr. Child is. There his self-consciousness relaxes, and the poet in him speaks directly. In the first stanza of "Prometheus brings a pretty culture" and the sharp sim-plicity of "How still they lie, the dead" the narrative comes into a clear imaginative focus, and we do not feel, as we too often do in the body of a poem, that words are being used partly as a barrier between the poet and his reader. The lyrics which follow the title poem give, I think, a better impression of Mr. Child's variety and range as a poet than it does. Of these, there is the very impressive "Macrocosm," with its precise but not over-neat conclusion:

          Beyond my sight the cloudless sky
          Is troubled with artillery.

[4] and "Descent for the Lost," a poem on Judas Iscariot which returns to a theme that haunts the title poem also, that the redemptive power of Christ cannot rest until it has sought the lowest depth of human isolation.

     Two first collections of poets already fairly well known to readers of Canadian poetry are issued by the First Statement Press of Montreal. Number eight in the New Writers series is Anne Wilkinson's Counterpoint to Sleep. The title does not mean that the poems are a cure for insomnia: it means that Miss Wilkinson is essentially a dream-poet. At her best she has the significant vividness of the remembered dream, or nightmare; at her worst the confusions and obliquities of the forgotten one. Miss Wilkinson is clever: too clever for her own good, sometimes, when a self-conscious avoidance of the obvious leads to a rather wearying verbal dissection of her themes. There is some unsuccessful fantasy, and even the wit of "Winter Sketch" does not conceal the fact that it is bad metaphysical poetry to speak of a snowfall as

          Immaculate conception in a cloud
          Made big by polar ghost.

But when the desire to say something breaks through the preoccupations of saying it a real poetic ability emerges. On this level we find the grisly variant of "Lord Randall" which so raised my hair when I first read it in Contemporary Verse, the teetering spiralling rhythm of "Tower Lullaby," and the unsteady but genuine eloquence of "The Great Winds."

     Number seven is Kay Smith's Footnote to the Lord's Prayer and Other Poems. The note on the back of the cover speaks of "her serious limitations, her crudities of music and structure," which is something new in publishers' blurbs. The revival of the medieval habit of paraphrasing the liturgy has its dangers, notably the danger of having the quotations provide all the impressiveness of the poem. This, I hasten to say, is not what has happened here: in fact I wish Miss Smith had refrained from quoting the clauses, as the poem would be less tied down without them, and its theme is clear enough.

     In her peroration, no doubt, one feels chiefly that Eliot does [5] this kind of thing much better, but as a whole the poem is a distinctive meditation, with only one or two lapses into religiosity. I like the way she occasionally breaks from syntax to suggest a similar process in prayer, and the varieties of metrical organization show a better sense of structure than her publishers give her credit for. Of the other poems, "Conversations with a Mirror" seems to me an excellent design from a stock pattern; here again the subtitles, "The Girl Speaks" and the rest, are unnecessary, and make the poem look more naive than it is. On the whole, Miss Smith's high intelligence seems almost a disadvantage: such poems as "The Clown" and "When a Girl Looks Down," which seem to be moving toward a poignant concreteness, dissolve at the end into a generalized and contemplative vision.

     Of the more conservative offerings, I find Charles Bruce's The Mulgrave Road most consistently successful. His material is almost insistently unpretentious, confined to the simplest landscapes of farms and fishing villages in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. One begins, probably, by feeling that nobody can make new poetry out of such material, then one reads:

          Slowly the days grow colder, the long nights fall;
          Plows turn the stubble, fires are tended, and apples
          Mellow in cellars; and under the roots of maples
          Mice are burrowing. And the high geese call.

We are forced to recognize the measured authority of these elegiac cadences. We may say grumpily that anyway this kind of thing has often been done before. But repeating ready-made formulas is one thing; working within a convention is quite another. Mr. Bruce is quoted on the dust cover as saying that nostalgia is the silliest word in the language, and the remark is probably the key to his success. His themes have not really been exhausted by poetry; they have merely been exploited by nostalgia. The false notes induced by the latter, such as the "Wondering how they know" which puts a sentimental blur on the end of the otherwise flawless "Country Sunday," are very rare, and hence noticeable. He [6] turns his back on all the compulsions that so often go with the poetic impulse: he knows, he says, that

          gulls on waves of surging air
          Will never get me anywhere --

which well evokes the immovable repose that one often senses in a Maritimer's mind.

     Thomas Saunders is another regional poet, and his Horizontal World is Saskatchewan. Mr. Saunders may best be described, perhaps, as a metrical conversationalist: that is, he works in the idiom represented by Robert Frost, and is best when he is discursive, commenting on the life of the prairie and understating its harsh and obvious ironies. Too often, however, he fails to resist the temptation to underline his points and oversimplify his situations. I wish "Armand" had not gone on into a murder, not because such things never happen but because they are literary clichés when they do. Yet there is much that is readable in his book, and it is no small feat to put colloquial speech as authentic as this into blank verse:

          But now quick-growing wheats are ripe
          And harvested before July is out,
          Some places, or by middle-August at
          The most -- with no big threshing-gangs, like in
          The sterner days, touring the country like
          A circus until after snow.

     The poetry of social protest, during the thirties, was attached to a number of powerful supports: it had a philosophy in Marxism, a programme of action in the proletarian revolution, and a reading public among bourgeois intellectuals. It never achieved a really distinguished expres-sion, but it spoke for a large and influential pressure group. Nous avons changé tout cela; the poet's heart is no longer so far on the left side, and the poetry of social protest has retreated into a disembodied anarchism, in some respects a reversion to the old artist-versus-society theme of earlier decades. One of the leaders in this anarchistic development is [7] evidently Kenneth Patchen, whose merits are not yet entirely clear to me, though his mind certainly has some of the imaginative qualities of a great poet. The movement has a Canadian representative this year in Irving Layton's The Black Huntsman.

     The idea in Mr. Layton's poetry is to use an intensely personal imagination as an edged tool against a world cemented by smugness, hacking and chopping with a sharp image here, an acid comment there, trying to find holes and weak spots where the free mind can enroot and sprout. It is the misfortune of this technique that the successes are quiet and the faults raucous. There is a real poet buried in Mr. Layton, a gentle, wistful, lonely, and rather frightened poet who tells us how his childhood love for Tennyson grew into a defiant fear of a hostile and pursuing world:

          Now I look out for the evil retinue
          Making their sortie out of a forest of gold.

But where the imagination is conceived as militant, there is apt to develop a split between what the poet can write and what he thinks he ought to write for his cause. Most of Mr. Layton's book is the work, not of the poet in him, but of a noisy hot-gospeller who has no real respect for poetry. The latter speaks in a violent rhetoric which is deliberately summoned up, an incantation that tries to make devils reveal themselves but succeeds only in nagging the air. The same lack of spontaneity in the imagery is betrayed by repetition. One can get as tired of buttocks in Mr. Layton as of buttercups in the Canadian Poetry Magazine; and a poet whose imagination is still fettered by a moral conscience, even an anti-conventional one, gives the impression of being in the same state of bondage as the society he attacks.

     Michael Hornyansky's The Queen of Sheba won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford, which is, if I remember correctly, awarded for the best poem on a set theme. Those who assigned the Queen of Sheba must have expected a good deal of paraphrase of the Song of Songs and a whole cargo of cassia, spikenard, aloes, frankincense, and [8] other ingredients of the popular orientale. There is a certain amount of this in Mr. Hornyansky, but on the whole it is well subordinated to the main theme, the development in Solomon's mind from weariness through love to the resigned detachment expressed in Ecclesiastes. The poem is written in a sonorous five-line stanza rhyming abcba, cdedc, etc. In the third and last part the somewhat too carefully modulated utterance begins to take on more warmth and life. It is an admirable practice piece, and it probably won by several lengths. ...

     A selection of the poems of Duncan Campbell Scott, with an introductory memoir, appeared last year as one of the posthumous works of Professor E. K. Brown, my predecessor in this survey, whose tact, skill, erudition, and comprehensiveness in making it I had long admired, and am now fully in a position to appreciate, if somewhat wryly. The memoir is supplementary to the essay on Scott in the same author's On Canadian Poetry. Whatever one thinks of the total merit of Scott's very uneven output, he achieved the type of imaginative balance that is characteristic of so much of the best in Canadian culture down to the present generation, when altered social conditions are beginning to upset it. On one side he had the world of urbane and civilized values; on the other, the Quebec forest with its Indians and lonely trappers. He could write a poem on Debussy and a poem on a squaw feeding her child with her own flesh; he was at once primitive and pre-Raphaelite, a recluse of the study and a recluse of the forest. Not since Anglo-Saxon times, it seems to me, has there been the same uneasy conflict between elemental bleakness and the hectic flush of a late and weary civilization that there has been in Canadian poetry and painting of the period from Confederation to the depression. It had to go as the country became more urbanized, and we may regret its passing only if nothing new comes to replace it. ...[9]

from 'Letters in Canada' 1952

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1952

     This year both of Canada's two leading poets have a new book to be discussed, and as one of them comes from Newfoundland and the other from British Columbia, there was never a neater opportunity of demonstrating the theory of cultural containment. I am inclined in any case to assert the existence of a Canadianism in Canadian poetry. Poets do not live on Mount Parnassus, but in their own environments, and Canada has made itself an environmental reality.

     The United States is a symmetrical country: it presents a straight Atlantic coastline, and its culture was, up to about 1900, a culture of the Atlantic seaboard, with a north-south frontier that moved westward until it reached the Pacific. Canada has almost no Atlantic seaboard, and a ship coming here from Europe moves, like a tiny Jonah entering an enormous whale, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where it is surrounded by five Canadian provinces, all out of sight, and then drifts up a vast waterway that reaches back past Edmonton. There would be nothing distinctive in Canadian culture at all if there were not some feeling for the immense searching distance, with the lines of communication extended to the absolute limit, which is a primary geographical fact about Canada and has no real counterpart elsewhere. The best paintings of Thomson and the Group of Seven have a horizon-focussed perspective, with a line of water or a break through the hills curving into the remotest background. In Emily Carr, too, the real focus of vision seems to be in the depth of the forest, behind the picture as it were. The same feeling for strained distance is in many Canadian poets and novelists -- certainly in Grove -- and it can hardly be an accident that the two most important Canadian thinkers to date, Edward Sapir and Harold Innis, have both been largely concerned with problems of communication.

     Most of the poetry of E. J. Pratt, including Brébeuf, has been a kind of summing up of the first phase of Canadian poetic imagination. In that phase Canada appeared in a flat Mercator projection with a nightmarish Greenland, as a country of isolation and terror, and of the overwhelming of [10] human values by an indifferent and wasteful nature. It was a part of the development of poetic Darwinism from Tennyson and Melville (whom a Canadian critic was the first to appreciate, and who has many links with Pratt) to Hardy and Conrad. Since Bre/beuf, Pratt has shown an increasing interest in techniques of communication, an interest which may well go back to his early days as a student of psychology. In his fine poem "The Truant," the David of human intelligibility confronts the stupid Goliath of nature, and in Behind the Log a network of wireless telegraphy, radar, and asdic contains the whole action of the poem. The theme of the epic act of communication in Canadian history, the linking of east and west by a great railway, was thus a logical one for Pratt to choose for his latest poem, Towards the Last Spike (Macmillan, viii, 53 pp., $2).

     But while the choice of theme may have been easy, the theme itself is fantastically difficult. The poem is in the epic tradition, without any of the advantages of epic to sustain it. No narrative suspense is possible where the ground has all been surveyed; no heroic action can be isolated in so concentrated an act of social will:

          As individuals
          The men lost their identity; as groups,
          As gangs, they massed, divided, subdivided,
          Like numerals only.

The foresight and courage of Macdonald and Van Horne almost disappear in an intricate pattern of railway building, parliamentary strategy, industrial development, political unification, financing, and foreign and colonial policy. The real hero of the poem is a society's will to take intelligible form; the real quest is for physical and spiritual communication within that society. I have a notion that the technical problems involved in Towards the Last Spike are going to be central problems in the poetry of the future. And I think that the ingenuity with which these problems have been met would make the poem a historical landmark even for readers who disliked it as a poem. [11]

     In the first place, Pratt has here, as in Behind the Log, to give the sense of the energy of work as diffused through the whole action of the poem, with no real climax at the end. (Some younger writers who are interested in the theory of "composition by field" may see an important aspect of it in this poem.) The driving of the last spike is technically a climax; imaginatively, it is an anti-climax. Strathcona has only one spike to drive in after the thousands that have preceded it, yet he fumbles it, and Van Horne has nothing to do but clear his throat and say "well done." The feeling of letdown after prodigious strain is part of the realization that men's work, like women's, is never done, and that the moment any act of social heroism is completed, it is absorbed into society and becomes part of new work.

     In the second place, a poem of heroic action reminds us of the quest-poem, where a hero goes out to kill a dragon. But here the real dragon to be killed is dead already: the obstacle is the torpor and inertia of unconscious nature, not an active or malignant enemy. Pratt's dragon

          A hybrid that the myths might have conceived,
          But not delivered,

is a somnolent dragon, "asleep or dead," "too old for death, too old for life," who can resist only passively. The device of turning the azoic into the monstrous is, like all poetic devices that are any good, very old, and can be traced back at least to the Odyssey; but Pratt's carefully muted, unfaked description is profoundly contemporary, and has all the typically Canadian respect for geology in it. Like other dragons, this one guards a treasure hoard: there is again irony in the contrast between Macdonald's frantic efforts to get money out of the clutching fists of bankers and the riches revealed by every dynamite blast on the line -- "nickel, copper, silver and fool's gold" -- and not only fool's gold either.

     There would be much more to say about the poem if I had the space. There is the contrast between the desperate, quixotic, east-west reach from sea to sea which is the vision of Macdonald (Van Horne too, it is said, "loved to work on shadows"), and the practical, short-sighted vision of Blake, [12] which sees the country realistically, as a divided series of northern extensions of the United States. (I don't know how true this is historically, but there is far too much accurate Canadian history now, and far too little accurate Canadian vision.) There is the portrait of Strathcona as a Canadian culture-hero, a combination of Paul Bunyan and Sam Slick,

                    ripping the stalactites
          From his red beard, thawing his feet, and wringing
          Salt water from his mitts; but most of all
          He learned the art of making change.

     Above all, Pratt is a poet unusually aware of the traditional connection between poetry and oratory. The memory of 1940, when human freedom had practically nothing left to fight with except Churchill's prose style, is clearly fresh in his mind. A Communist magazine has criticized Towards the Last Spike for seeing the theme entirely in terms of the leadership of Van Horne and Macdonald, ignoring the workers. Pratt's point, however, is not that workers are the slaves of great leaders, but that leaders are the slaves of great words. Marlowe's Tamburlaine might have died unknown if he had not happened to hear the phrase "To ride in triumph through Persepolis." Similarly, it is only when Blake can think of a menacing phrase like "To build a road over that sea of mountains" that the fate of Canada is really in danger. Besides, all forms of communica-tion are closely linked to poetry in imaginative appeal, and in this nomadic culture people who cannot write poetry are dependent on poets to express their inarticulate sense of the link. Pratt is one of the few poets I know who can understand such a feeling:

          Intercolonial, the Canadian Southern,
          Dominion-Atlantic, the Great Western -- names
          That caught a continental note and tried
          To answer it.

     Many readers of poetry today are brought up, whether they realize it or not, on Poe's dictum that a long poem is a [13] contradiction in terms. For them, a Keats ode represents what poetry can do, and Shelley's Revolt of Islam what it cannot do. Hence they tend to examine poetry in terms of surface texture, and lose the faculty of appreciating the skill displayed in structure. Such an approach to Towards the Last Spike, where the surface is often as rough and forbidding as its theme, is much too myopic. An unfavourable judgment on such a line as "His personal pockets were not lined with pelf" should not set up an indicator of value in a poem which is so deliberately tough, gnarled, and cacophonous. With that warning, the reader may be safely left to discover for himself the unsuccessful images, the labouring of minor themes, the forced humour, and the dull stretches. The faults of the poem are obvious and commonplace; its virtues are subtle and remarkable.

     What else is "distinctively Canadian"? Well, historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the Revolution. Canada fought its civil war to establish its union first, and its wars of independence, which were fought against the United States and not Europe, came later. We should expect in Canada, therefore, a strong suspicion, not of the United States itself, but of the mercantilist Whiggery which won the Revolution and proceeded to squander the resources of a continent, being now engaged in squandering ours. There is in Canada, too, a traditional opposition to the two defects to which a revolutionary tradition is liable, a contempt for history and an impatience with law. The Canadian point of view is at once more conservative and more radical than Whiggery, closer both to aristocracy and to democracy than to oligarchy.

     The title poem of Earle Birney's Trial of a City and Other Verse (Ryerson, 71 pp., $2.50) is described in its sub-title as "A Public Hearing into the Proposed Damnation of Vancouver." The time is the future, the setting the kind of pseudo-legal kangaroo court which is the main instrument of McCarthyism, as packed and framed as a shipment of pictures, where everything is conducted on the crazy Alice-in-Wonderland principle of sentence first, verdict afterwards. The blowing up of Vancouver has already been decided upon by a mysterious "office of the future," represented by a [14] lawyer named Gabriel Powers. As this name indicates, the setting has for its larger background the ancient theme of wrath and mercy, of man's perpetual failure to justify his existence in the sight of the gods by his merits, a failure now brought to a crisis by his new techniques of self-destruction. Powers, therefore, who seems to be a messenger of the gods, is actually a projection of man's own death-wish.

     The only one to speak for the defence is a Mr. Legion, who represents the ordinary Vancouver citizen. He has, understandably, a strong prejudice against being annihilated, but it proves more difficult than he expected to refute the case of the prosecution. The city seems to Captain Vancouver only the pollution of the virginal nature he remembers. To an Indian chief, who speaks for what is essentially an aristocratic point of view, the white man's city is an obscene disease that has devoured his own people. To Gassy Jack, a sailor and saloon-keeper of the early days, it represents a perversion of life far more sinister than his own relatively healthy vulgarity and vice. Finally William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, appears: in all English culture no better spokesman could have been found for the conservative-radical opposition to oligarchy mentioned above. He finds in Vancouver more or less what he found in medieval London: a society based on profiteering, or what he personified as Lady Meed.

     The trouble with Legion is that he does not speak for the real Vancouver, but for the mercantilist Whiggery that has taken it over. His values and standards are precisely what is being condemned. He is the present as the inevitable consequence of the past, hence a future of annihilation is the inevitable consequence of him. At the crisis of the argument, he is suddenly pushed out of the way by a housewife. She stands for the real life of really free people, where the present is, at every moment, a new creation of meaning, of wonder, and of love. In such a conception of the present there is no causality, no inevitable future, no dead reckonings, and as she speaks the court begins to dissolve into unreality, even the imperious "Powers" being reduced to saying only "I'Il have the skeleton."

     I have emphasized the unity and seriousness of the theme because the brilliance of the writing may mislead one [15] into regarding it only as a verbal stunt. It is true that for virtuosity of language there has never been anything like it in Canadian poetry. Gabriel Powers speaks in a Finnegans Wake doubletalk which, like Finnegans Wake, is both very funny and eerily haunting:

          From the ash of the fir springs the fire-weed;
          From the ask of his faring your fear.

A professor of geology speaks in the archaic rhythms of Anglo-Saxon, and Legion in what the Germans calls knittel- vers. Langland's speech is, of course, a reproduction of Langland: such phrases as "an ego to an auto" may be a trifle too sophisticated for him, but

          Yea, then I moved west to my hill's margin
          and saw a soft middleclass swaddled in trees,
          in unfrequented churches and fears not a few.

has exactly the right balance between parody and recreation. The play's wit puts it in the same league as E. E. Cummings and Auden; and as compared with Auden, it seems to me to have attained a crystalline transparency of thought. I imagine that the lines of the housewife:

          By all the past we know our freedom is renewable each moment


          How could I know, without the threat of death, I lived?

would in Auden be sagging with the weight of Heidegger's Augenblick and Kierkegaard's Angst. Birney's seriousness is simple (to the verge, on the last page, of being sentimental); it is only his wit that is erudite.

     Wit is also prominent in the other poems in the book: it is in a poem about Christmas which describes how a star appeared as a "nova in Virgo"; in satires on censorship, on signs reading "restricted," on an ill-fated Mr. Chubb of Minnesota, and in an account of a plane trip across Canada, [16] where, in spite of some excellent passages, some of the boredom of the trip seems to have leaked into the poem. The other poems are largely concerned with the immense trees and sinister mountains of British Columbia landscape, whose moods the poet knows well how to convey. A few ginger-bread conceits ("the pacifist firs," "revolver sun," "the pointless point of the peak") are unfunctional, but do not spoil them. There is also a cryptic but very attractive exercise in myth, "St. Valentine is Past."

     It is good to see Mr. Alfred Bailey's poems collected in Border River (lndian File no. 5; McClelland & Stewart, 61 pp., $2.50), and its appearance puts him into the front rank of Canadian poets. He writes usually in long assertive sentences, very close to prose in rhythm, but with the metrical features of the rhythm carefully marked. One gets the impression of a muttered crepitation of sound, a reticence of voice and thought that makes the reader strain for attention, as though the poet had his back turned. Professor Ross's remarks on the blurb mention the influences of Eliot and Dylan Thomas, which are there, but Eliot and Thomas are highly sensuous poets. Compared to them, reading Mr. Bailey is at first like walking over cinders. Accents stick spikily through the metrical feet; jarring rhythms and assonances turn up in the most disconcerting spots, and in two poems he pulls the last syllable of the line off its stem, like a child picking flowers. The forbidding landscape is not relieved by his fondness for the imagery of dry bones and dead trees, nor by a dense tangled diction that all too often makes the reader stop and wonder what the hell he is talking about.

     However, dry bones can harm no one, as Eliot would say, and the difficulties created by intelligence and honesty are always worth attacking. We discover with Mr. Bailey what we discover with all good poets who look obscure at first but turn out to be rewarding. The difficulties are primarily his, and only incidentally ours. He speaks of the poet as pursuing his truth through the labyrinths of appearance and reality, and the river of his title poem grows into a symbol of poetic imagination. Its reefs and shoals are like the barriers that [17] convention and dogma try to impose on the searching intelligence of the poet; it twists and zigzags and seems to lose its way in a wilderness, but always it is going toward an infinite sea. There are religious overtones, especially in the last of the three sections, but it is a religious feeling in which the central virtue is hope rather than faith:

          There will be no world there when we are there,
          and no one to know, even the lone hand at the wheel
          whose face is caught in a tanned and wrinkled dream.

and as we grow accustomed to the style, we become sensitive to the skill with which rhythm and speed alter to fit the curves of the thought:

          Tread silently lest someone wake
          to sense the peace that passeth here.
          Handle the creaking hinge with fear
          and into the yard tread softly
          over by the chicken coop
          dig us a hole, say five feet and a bit.

     I get very tired of the critical cliché that everything in poetry should be hard, concrete, and precise. That dogma was lugged in to rationalize the techniques of imagism thirty years ago, and it is time to realize that it is only one more formula, like the unities, designed to save critics the trouble of making independent judgments on poetry. It is quite possible to construct just as good poetry out of diffused, muzzy, and generalized language. Byron's "She walks in beauty like the night" is a very lovely poem, and it is a masterpiece of vagueness. Mr. Bailey's diction bristles with concreteness and precision, usually to its advantage, but I think he is equally good, and even more eloquent, when he relaxes into a more "romantic" rhetoric:

          there to grow strength of body, faith of mind,
          accustomed to the water's way
          and understanding of its kind
          there in the green sea day. [18

     Of the shorter books, the best, I think, is Jay Macpherson's Nineteen Poems (Mallorca, Spain, Seizin Press, 9 pp.). Miss Macpherson is, at least outwardly, a tradition-alist: she writes in tight resonant stanzas, usually quatrains, with an adroit use of classical mythology, and in a mood which is predominantly elegiac, though it can take in some fanciful humour too in the opening poem. It is a type of writing that has not been heard much in Canada since Louis MacKay forsook the chambers of the east. She seems to have the rhythmical structure of the whole poem clearly in her mind at the start, so that she can vary the length of the individual lines skilfully and subtly. In "The Comforted" two classical images, the thread of life spun by the Fates and the clue through the Cretan labyrinth, are identified; "The Oracular Head" mingles memories of Cassandra and Friar Bacon; and "The Ill Wind" is a kind of distilled ballad:

          To reply, in face of a bad season,
          Pestilential cold, malignity,
          To the ill wind weeping on my shoulder:
          "Child, what have I to do with thee?"

          Is to deny the infant head
          And the voice complaining tirelessly:
          "Is there room for one only under your cloak,
          Mother, may I creep inside and see?
          Did you not know my wicked will
          When you summoned me? " ...

     Louis Dudek's contributions this year are spread over three volumes, each showing a perceptibly different aspect of his style. Twenty-four Poems (Toronto, Contact Press, iv, 24 pp., $1) evidently is a sequence of impressions, one for each hour of the day: at any rate the first poem is called "Dawn" and the twelfth "Noon." They are strongly pictorial in mood, full of colour, and at times are merely decorative pattern.
One continually thinks of paintings: so, rather unfortunately, does Mr. Dudek himself, as it seems to me that an over-explicit reference to Klee injures an otherwise fine sonnet. There is nothing startlingly good in the sequence, yet [19] one is always just on the point of calling him facile and being brought up short by something like:

          Breath blown into a telephone:
          What ghosts are we
          to tell each other how alone
          lovers can be?

     The Searching Image (Ryerson, 12 pp., $1), on the whole, contains more serious poetry, some of it, though disappointingly little, on a level with the best of his earlier work in Unit of Five and East of the City. "Theme with Variations" is a series of vivid sketches of sunrise in a city, in a long swinging oracular rhythm, and there is a delicately elaborated conceit in the opening poem, "The Bee of Words." His favourite theme is the affinity between the creative powers of the mind and the vital energy that produces beautiful things in nature, particularly flowers:

          Yet love may tell one who grows a plant
          How a miraculous ignorance surrounds
          Each living thing. . . .

     He has more room to operate in Cerberus (Contact Press, 98 pp., $1), a collection of the work of three poets, Dudek, Irving Layton, and Raymond Souster, each of whom prefaces his poems with a manifesto. In deference to his colleagues, Mr. Dudek endeavours to recapture some of his earlier feeling for social problems, but it is clear from his manifesto that he is no longer in danger of confusing poetry with popular rhetoric. He realizes that the enemy of poetry is not social evil but slipshod language, the weasel words that betray the free mind: he realizes that to create requires an objective serenity beyond all intruding moral worries about atomic bombs and race prejudice. One sentence is particularly striking: "Actuality itself is a metaphor made of iron, the diseased poem which man has erected out of mass frustra-tion, out of centuries of evil." Of the poet he says: [20]

          You will not learn from him of your danger,
          You must fear a more mean and mechanical murder.

As long as he preserves this austere detachment, he writes at his best, but his hold on it is uncertain: "A Drunk on the Sidewalk," for instance, is a fine poem except for two silly lines at the end; "Suburban Prospect," on the other hand, keeps a dry irony all through.

     Mr. Dudek's ideas are more advanced than those of his two collaborators, and so it is not surprising that he writes with more authority than they do. Mr. Layton's work includes a number of epigrammatic squibs on other writers, the best of them, I blushingly report, being aimed at me. He speaks of "the holy trinity of sex revolution and poetry," and each of these is conceived as an explosion of creative energy against the inhibitions of prudery, exploitation, and philistinism respectively; a trinity more or less incarnate in Freud, Marx, and Whitman. The associating of the creative and the procreative functions, the tendency to talk about writing poetry instead of presenting it, and the conception of effective language as deriving from vocabulary rather than rhythm, are fallacies that get in the way of his militant writing. No other poem of his has anything like the quality of "To a Very Old Woman," where he forgets his self-consciousness and his mission and simply studies his poetic subject:

          ... your face is a halo of praise
          That excludes nothing, not even Death.

     Mr. Souster's vignettes of modern social life are done with much sincerity, and it would be a very hard-boiled critic who could read any poem of his without sympathy for what has been attempted. But in great poetry there is no difference between form and content, whereas one feels in Mr. Souster that though the content is interesting and valuable, it could have been expressed just as well in many different ways. His poems consequently sound moralizing and prosaic, attempting to express their subject by the energy of direct statement alone. When he writes "To an Antisemite" and says: [21]

          All the filth of you and your kind, dark rats
          Of The Big Terrible City, sick, tormented, afraid,

one feels that anti-Semitism, approached in that way, is beyond the reach of poetic utterance, just as hell is beyond the reach of charity. Mr. Souster seems to me an introspective poet, better at entering his own or others' minds than at describing or commenting on the social scene.

     Another poet with some Canadian connections who appears again this year is Robert W. Service, now nearly eighty, who has been living in Europe. Rhymes of a Rebel (New York, Dodd Mead [McClelland & Stewart], x, 213 pp., $3) interests me chiefly because, since I began to make this survey, I have read so much verse in exactly the same idiom, and I wonder how far Mr. Service's earlier books may have influenced it. There was a time, fifty years ago, when Robert W. Service represented, with some accuracy, the general level of poetic experience in Canada, as far as the popular reader was concerned. The amount of good serious poetry produced in this country last year is evidence enough that, whatever querulous complaints may still be made about Canadian philistinism, there has been a prodigious, and, I should think, a permanent, change in public taste. ...

from 'Letters in Canada' 1953

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1953

     The technical development of a modern lyrical poet is normally from obscurity to simplicity. As long as he is writing primarily for himself, his thought will be rooted in private associations, images which are linked to ideas through his own hidden and unique memory. This is not his fault: he can write only what takes shape in his mind. It is his job to keep on writing and not get stuck at that point, above all not to rationalize any failure to advance by asserting that one must write this way in an unpoetic age. It is the critic's job to tell him and the public that whatever his stuff means, it [22] sounds genuine enough. Then he is likely to pass through a social, allegorical, or metaphysical phase, an awkward and painful phase for all concerned. Finally, a mysterious but unmistakable ring of authority begins to come into his writing, and simultaneously the texture simplifies, meaning and imagery become transparent, and the poetry becomes a pleasure instead of a duty to read. It takes a heroic supply of talent, practice, patience, and courage to get to that point. The process cannot of course be hurried by an act of will, but it can be affected by the environment. It was much easier to mature in England thirty years ago than to mature in America now, for example, no doubt because of all the adolescent fixations in American life. A glance at any American anthology reveals a series of poets who have progressed from gargle to Guggenheim in six easy volumes, and have still not seriously exploited their own resources. The number of such underdeveloped lyrical poets has created the illusion that the various stages of development are actually outposts. Every once in a while, however, we run across a poet who reminds us that when the lyrical impulse reaches maturity of expression, it is likely to be, as most lyrical poetry has always been, lilting in rhythm, pastoral in imagery, and uncomplicated in thought.

     Patrick Anderson's The Colour as Naked (McClelland & Stewart, 93 pp., $2.75) is the work of a poet who is approaching maturity of expression, and who has shown himself to be, I think, essentially a poet in the pastoral tradition, the tradition of Wordsworth and of so many unpretentious but highly durable English poets of the previous generation. The influence of Auden has helped to give lightness and drive to his rhythm; the influence of Dylan Thomas ("my generation's genius," Mr. Anderson calls him, and certainly the greatest contemporary pastoral poet) has helped to give power and richness of feeling to his imagery.

     Bits of the cocoon of his apprenticeship cling to him here and there: he writes with conviction when he is the only person in his world, but the impact of "social significance" is usually disastrous. "The Lecturer as Prufrock" unites two of the most unnecessary ideas in literature, a parody of Eliot and a [23] satire on the intellectual; "The Junior Class" is creaky and wooden; "Dialectics" belongs to that dreary metaphysical interregnum from which poetry now seems to be slowly recovering, and the closing "Ballad of a Young Man" is a fine and eloquent poem which deflates into bathos as soon as society appears over the horizon. Again, there is a telltale formula of "the adjective noun of noun" type, where the first noun is usually concrete and the second abstract, which most poets are unconscious of using (though many bad poets use practically nothing else), but which is very frequently the sign of undigested allegory, a perfunctory hitching of image to idea that marks incomplete craftsmanship. I find "their seas of risk," "the white horse of her bed," "the pretty architecture of our pleasure," "the columns of a cold and violent newspaper sky," "the firm and muscular body of faith," and (to make an end) "that island littoral of your eyes' bird brightened canopies," most in the less successful poems. But there is remarkably little fogged-up writing: even the words which seem to have a private significance for the poet, such as "long" and "green," obscure nothing in the meaning.

     All of which prepares one to say that The Colour as Naked is delightful to read and is recommended without reservation. Over and over again, in the "Song of Intense Cold," in "The Ball," reminiscent of Rilke in both theme and rhythm, in "A Monkey in Malaya," with its octosyllabic couplet that picks up the appropriate echoes of Vaughan and Marvell and with its Rousseau-like tropical stylization, in "The Strange Bird," in the dazzling verbal patterns of the sestina and the six songs, and perhaps too in the lively narrative of the "Ode to Haydon" -- in these and many other places we feel that the poet "brings it off." That is, the imagination has tamed fancy: conceits which would be only highbrow wisecracks in inferior writing have fused into a form that can only be called inevitable, the way it should be.
The "Song of Intense Cold" begins: [24]

          One night when the stars are exploding like nails
          comes Zero himself with his needle.
          an icicle full of the cold cocaine
          but as tall as the glittering steeple
          that pins us down in the town.

We recognize at once that if the phrase "exploding like nails" says nothing to common sense it says exactly the right thing to the poetic sense. Similarly with the drowsy blurring of images in "An Apple before Bedtime":

          eating a last slow apple: Keep still, keep still,
          rose coal not fall from fire nor murmur
          dogs on their paws of dream nor ever
          lamp flare. ...

     Many of the most effective poems are based on a quiet conversational tone -- again I should call it a pastoral idiom -- with a beautifully controlled melody that does not try too hard for ingenuity either in sound or in meaning. Sometimes, as in "A Seaside Fragment," one feels that there are too many lines, certainly too many run-on lines, before we finally come to what we are waiting for:

          But suddenly there swells
          the sea's big muscle, suddenly the air
          darkens and it is later and strangely cold.

Elsewhere we are conscious only of the kind of weight that good writing can achieve when the discipline of a great tradition gets behind it:

          The bitter rain is in the wind
          and something older than the rain, or cloud
          frayed from the night-packed West and closing down
          on the vast continent of fields, the wires
          of many fences and their moaning shreds
          and many eave-ends and their waving cries
           (low crying in the child's ear as his hair
          clips to his head -- and then the flowers pour
          away from him, and the melancholy sheep
          stand in the wind with thistles in their curls
          and the water is affrighted). Then the tree
          comes in upon one, blows. [25]

Not all the book is on that level, but the point is that it is a level, a quality of writing and not a self-conscious rhetorical stunt. It compels us to admire, not Mr. Anderson's dexterity or skill or other such precarious qualities, but simply his actual achievement.

     The poems in Douglas LePan's The Net and the Sword (Clarke Irwin, 56 pp., $2) are based on his experiences with the Canadian Army in Italy, and are, as one would expect, elegiac in tone. The title poem indicates a complex pattern of imagery -- I should call it symbolism if that were not so restrictive a word -- which runs through the whole book and ramifies and modulates into every poem. A fight between two gladiators, one armed with a sword and shield and the other with a net and trident, was a common feature in the Roman arena. Generally the net man won. In Mr. LePan's book the sword is the symbol of the young Canadian invader, with his smooth rifle-barrels and straight back, the "bronze rigidity" of his discipline showing a will not so much to conquer as to clean up the mess. He seeks the sun and the clear light, gorges on persimmons and the wine of the country, and preserves a vague hope that he is somehow part of a crusade. Against him is the net: first of all the net the technique of modern war forces on him, of "telephone wires, tank-traps, minefields," of camouflage and "the vehicles that sulked under leafy nettings," then the sinister entanglement of ruin and misery that war leaves behind it, and finally the sense of Italy itself as a huge stomach digesting, like ajungle, the havoc wrought by every invader whether he be "Visigoth or Canadian." What the sword is trying to cut through to is some vision of Paradisal peace and contentment which one gets fleeting glimpses of in Italy even in war, a vision identical with "Skating at Scarborough, summers at the Island," the corresponding vision of peace brought by the soldier with him from home:

          From untarnished lakes and rivers,
          Lakes of sweet water, skies of unsullied godhead.

Meanwhile the contrast between the soft Italian night and its
"peacock train of stars" and the deadly illumination of [26] shell-bursts is all that is so far apparent of the "fruition born of elected action." The failure to achieve anything more than a dumb misery brings the poet back to the central image of his previous volume, the wounded body imprisoned in its own net, the labyrinth of nerves and bowels from which only a futile and wistful tenderness can emerge:

          Our lungs breathe out a new heaven of pity and concern.

The larger implications of this imagery are suggested only by a small but remarkable tucked-in poem called "Idyll": the main poems, "Tuscan Villa," "Meditation after an Engage-ment," "Field of Battle," and "Elegy in the Romagna" deal with the foreground battle-symbols.

     One obvious comment, that the horror of battle is somewhat strangled in fine writing, needs to be qualified by the fact that the muffling of shock and the numbing of pain in the midst of intense beauty form one of the poet's themes, and a part of his "net" imagery. In "An Incident," for example, the dissolving of a shot soldier's body into a decorative landscape is precisely the irony the poet intends. Besides, the poems are not battlepieces but elegies, medita-tions on war recollected in tranquility. Nevertheless one is at times baffled by the complications of the style: in "Medita-tion after an Engagement," for instance, which ought to be, and to some extent is, emotionally a key poem, one becomes irritably aware of a barbed-wire entanglement of rhyme -- more exactly, an eight-line stanza rhyming abbcaddc. (The next poem, "The Lost Crusader," is in an elaborate canzone stanza rhyming, so help me, abcadcdbc.) However, the rhymes here are not disturbing in themselves, as they tend to be at the end of "One of the Regiment," for instance, where "trumpet-tell" and "style" are two weak ones. One objects rather to a certain self-consciousness in the writing, marked by such phrases as "the white caesura that stripped down longings" or "eyelids that fleur-de-lis the dark," to forced inversions of the "castles builds" type, and to some diffi-culties with digesting the explicit statement, as at the end of "Reconnaissance in Early Light," though the existence of [27] such difficulties is a good sign, as it indicates that the poet has a genuine lyrical sense.

     These lapses are noted only because the general level of the writing is good enough to make them show up. No poem in the book is bad, or even unsuccessful. The style as a whole is sonorous and eloquent; long lines vary easily with short ones; passages of pentameters are skilfully broken by short-line lyrics, and the variation of vowel-sounds and consonants is delicate and at times deeply moving. One experiences the thrill of response to authentic craftsmanship in the rhythm of:

          Delicately dawn will come with a garland of headlines --
          But not to sensitive retinas damaged;

or of:

          Cruel snows can hardly bear such lightness,

or the dreamy melting of sounds and shapes in:

          For seas are skies and skies are seas, where float
          Cool swansdown clouds that sundown has subdued.
          Shadowed the snow about a swan's white throat;
          The daylight melts; slowly they drift and brood;

or the subtlety of:

          Till I wonder if it is they that please rne, or the thought
          Of myself years on, remembering the light through the fig-tree,

where the strange working of the will to survive in the middle of the most lethal dangers is very accurately caught. The book is full of such pleasant surprises, but, as with Mr. Anderson, its more solid virtues are the important ones. The main impression one derives from it is produced by the poetry itself, not by the felicities it picks up in passing. One remembers its essence, the poetic assimilation of intense experience by a thoughtful and sensitive mind. The imaginative [28] sword has cut its way through all the nets of verbal cleverness, heavy moralizing, and ready-made melodrama that beset the poet struggling with so oppressive a subject.

     Ronald Hambleton's Object and Event (Ryerson, 38 pp., $2.50) begins with a series of vignettes of Canadian life, more particularly urban life. They are Audenesque in tone and technique, with light-verse stanzaic patterns and lively crackling rhymes. There is erudition as well as observation -- the first poem is in the convention of disillusioned "answer" to Marlowe's "Come Live with Me" -- and the author is equally good both at assonance and at the rhyme of monosyllable against suffix which has the effect of a disappointment-rhyme :

          This man knows history,
          And facts don't lie;
          He steps on graves now
          None too gently.

The main theme is the contrast between the world of civilized "objects," geometrical, ugly, inhuman, and sterile, and the world of human "events," that pass away as soon as they come with all the pathos of time. The feeling expressed by the phrase "radar of indifference," the sense of the city as full of eyes that stare but never see, is perhaps the most vividly conveyed mood. The style is epigrammatic, and in epigram the poet throws harpoons while the reader amiably pretends to be a pachyderm and tests them for sharpness. If they are not sharp, however, they fall with a dull thud, and are felt to be pointless because they should have a point. "The Criminal" and "At the Asylum" are pointless in this sense: we get a reporter's commonplaces instead of the distinctive poignancy that we look for in poetry. This is true even of the more elaborate "The Little Theatre," as it takes more than puns to produce wit:

          We of the Land of the Third-Big-Week
          Never know how to act;
          We welcome the fiction within our clique
          But never the ugly fact. [29]

     The second part of the book has less of the clarity of the first: nearly every poem has a fine phrase or image buried in mixed metaphors and didacticisms, as though the whole poem were only a pretext to communicate some crucial part. One approaches each poem like a berry-picker, extracting a bit of colour, beauty, and form from a thorny tangle of words. In "Ancient Priest," for instance, we find:

          knowing as a hound that hobbles
          Droopingly doorward when an outward step fills
          His serviced ears ...

which is very lovely, though I get only a vague and diffused impression of the ancient priest himself. In the following stanza from "In Bed,"

          As if our duality
          Had eclipsed my self,
          And by some agility
          Kept acres pressed
          For our interest
          Into the sweet gulf
          Of your lips and breast.

the accuracy of the first two lines makes one try to believe, unsuccessfully, that the rest of the stanza is not the arid gibberish it seems to be. "Sockeye Salmon" has a theme as potentially moving as that of, say, Baudelaire's albatross, but it talks itself away into fuzziness. However, we judge a poet by his best things, and in the last two poems in the book, "After-Dinner Sleep" and "Nocturnal," there is a consistent attempt to fill the whole poem with clarity and sincere feeling. One is based on Eliot's "Gerontion" and the other a poem of Donne's but both are, probably for that very reason, thoroughly original. It is well worth struggling through pages of fugitive glimmers to get to something as articulate as the image of the gulls in the former poem, or, in the other, of:

          The nightingale, the breath of spring,
          The footsteps that in winter ring,
          Are bells that cry as sinners sing. ... [30]

          In ether rolls the idle ball,
          Its firmness we doubt not at all,
          But if it fell, how far a fall!

     There are not many other serious books of verse this year. Love the Conqueror Worm, by Irving Layton (Contact Press, 49 pp., $1.50), consists very largely of what one has come to recognize as Laytonese -- forced language and flaccid rhythm -- but at the beginning of the book there are a few poems with some freshness and originality. The reader is not only encouraged, but looks forward to seeing an even better book next year. "The Perverse Gulls" has wit rather than mere facetiousness; "Cemetery in August" and "A Vision" are genuine epigrams, and "The Death of Moishe Lazarovitch" has a poignancy that is sustained to its close:

          I do not know how they lifted him up
          Or held the vessel near their mourning silk,
          But their going was like a roar of flames
          And Matter sang in my ears like poured milk.

     All My Brothers, by J. S. Wallace (New Frontiers, n.p.), illustrated with lino-cuts by Karl Rix, is verse in a familiar Communist idiom, sometimes laboured, especially in the Yanks-go-home passages, sometimes corny, especially in the concessions to such non-political poetic themes as making love, but sometimes also crisp and precise. It derives much of its strength from the simple intensity of the Marxist view of the capitalist world:

          Praise God from whom all blessings flow
          Provided it's the God we know
          Who sends us gushers fat with oil
          To keep our hands unspoilt by toil.

Such poetry acquired illegitimate virtues twenty years ago from the masochism of bourgeois intellectuals; it acquires illegitimate obloquy now that the masochism has turned in a different direction. It is most important to keep the tone of genuine anger and contempt at hypocrisy alive in our poetry, [31] no matter where it comes from or for what motives it is uttered. ...

     Most of the more technically competent naive verse produced every year is based on the theory that certain subjects or themes are inherently poetical: that the poet who aims at beauty should search in his memory for pleasurable experiences, and then use words as a charm to recall them. As the main function of the words is to stimulate the reader to remember a parallel experience of his own, the actual quality of the writing does not matter: it is enough for it to be cadenced in a familiar and unobtrusive way. This is the nostalgia theory of poetry, corresponding to the picturesque theory of painting. It is, of course, all wrong, but many people think it right, and this is a free country. It is often accompanied by a querulous sense of the disapproval of some reptilian intellectuals or moderns, who think beauty old-fashioned and want everything to be as bleak and obscure as possible. Often, too, its claims are endorsed by critics, including some who ought to know better, who classify it in a "conservative" or "romantic" school. It is, however, purely and simply the doggerel school, and one of its most skilful practitioners in Canada is Edna Jaques, whose The Golden Road (Thomas Allen, 86 pp., $1.25) appears in this year's production.

     I call Miss Jaques skilful because there is no nonsense about her, no queasy aspirations for all this and poetry too. The opening lines of her book indicate her mastery of the central technical device of nostalgic verse, a list of reminders or stimuli, vigorously checked off one after the other:

          The strong clean srnell of yellow soap,
          A farmer plowing with a team,
          The taste of huckleberry pie,
          A pan of milk with wrinkled cream.

Poem after poem exhibits a similar shopping-list sequence: "Mended Things," "Keepsakes," "Drug Store Smells," occasionally varied by a phrase that shows a sharp awareness of what she is doing: [32]

          There is a sweet nostalgic charm,
          About an old Ontario farm,
          That pulls your heart strings all awry,
          A clean breath taking sweep of sky
          An old grey barn built on a knoll . . .

and so on through another inventory. The tone of her writing is equally central to her approach. The psychologists have made us familiar with the disasters wrought by unpleasant and repressed memories; they have naturally said much less about the memories we select, the smoothly edited and censored transcript of wholesome food, happy children, simple virtues, and, of course, mother dear, which plays such a large part in keeping us adjusted. Miss Jaques' rule is never to stop flattering the selective memory:

          Beneath the fire's lovely light,
          Faces take on a softer look,
          And little children from our street,
          Look like gay pictures in a book. ...

          To lift the dull and commonplace
          Into a realm of love and grace.

No, if this kind of thing is worth writing, Miss Jaques is certainly a person who knows how to write it, and all our poets who are ambitious of belonging to the "conservative" or "romantic" school should learn about nostalgia from her. ...