Canada and Its Poetry

     The appearance of Mr. A.J.M. Smith's new anthology (The Book of Canadian Poetry: A.J.M. Smith, Editor; W.J. Gage & Co. - University of Chicago Press -; pp. 452; 1943.) is an important event in Canadian literature. For instead of confining his reading to previous compilations, as most anthologists do, he has made a first-hand study of the whole English field with unflagging industry and unfaltering taste. A straightforward research job is simple enough to do if one has the time: but Mr. Smith has done something far more difficult than research. He had to read through an enormous mass of poetry ranging from the lousy to the exquisite, the great bulk of which was that kind of placid mediocrity which is always good verse and just near enough to good poetry to need an expert to detect its flat ring. He had to pronounce on all this not only with a consistent judgment but also with historical sense. He had to remember that a modern poet may hold deeply and sincerely to the more enlightened political views and become so gnarled and cryptic an intellectual that he cannot even understand himself, and still be just as conventional a minor poet as the most twittering Victorian songbird. In dealing with many of the older writers, Campbell for instance, or Carman, he had to trace the thin gold vein of real imagination through a rocky mass of what can only be called a gift of metrical gab. He had to remember that [129] occasionally a bad poem is of all the greater cultural significance for being bad, and therefore should go in. In judging his younger contemporaries he had to remember both that a flawed talent is better than a flawless lack of it and that still it is performance and not "promise" that makes the poet, of whatever age.

     It is no easy job; but Mr. Smith has, on the whole, done it. Of course there are omissions, of which he is probably more acutely aware than his readers. In any case anthologies ought to have blank pages at the end on which the reader may copy his own neglected favorites. In my judgment, a few people are in who might well have been out, and a few out who might well have been in: some dull poems are included and many good ones are not; and one or two poets have been rather unfairly treated -- including, I should say, one A. J. M. Smith. But no kind of book is easier to attack than an anthology; and in any case the importance of this one is not so much in the number or merits of the poems included as in the critical revaluations it makes.

     Mr. Smith's study of the pre-Confederation poets is the only one that has been made from anything like a modern point of view. In Charles Heavysege he has unearthed -- the word will not be too strong for most of his readers -- a genuine Canadian Beddoes, a poet of impressive power and originality: and he has given Isabella Crawford enough space to show that she is one of the subtlest poets that Canada has produced. The more famous writers of the so-called Maple Leaf school come down to a slightly more modest estimate, and, though Mr. Smith is scrupulously fair to them, he cannot and does not avoid saying that they talked too much and sang too little, or sang too much and thought too little. In any case the supremacy of Lampman over the whole group comes out very clearly. In the next period Pratt gets his deserved prominence, and the younger poets are generously represented. Here is, in short, what Canada can do: the reader who does not like this book simply does not like Canadian poetry, and will not be well advised to read further. Of [130] course, as Mr. Smith says in his Preface, French-Canadian poetry is a separate job -- still to be done, I should think, for Fournier's Anthologie des Poètes Canadiens is, as its editor Asselin frankly admits, more a collection of poets than of poems. But we cannot leave the French out of our poetry any more than we can leave Morrice or Gagnon out of our painting, and one can only hope for some French-speaking philanthropist to produce a companion volume.

     The thing that impresses me is the unity of tone which the book has, and to which nearly all the poets in various ways contribute. Of course any anthologist can produce a false illusion of unity by simply being a critic of limited sympathies, responding only to certain kinds of technique or subject-matter. But Mr. Smith is obviously not that: his notes and introduction show a wide tolerance, and his selections, though bold and independent, are certainly not precious. No: the unity of tone must come from the material itself, and the anthology thus unconsciously proves the existence of a definable Canadian genius (l use this word in a general sense) which is neither British nor American but, for all its echoes and imitations and second-hand ideas, peculiarly our own.

     Now admittedly a great deal of useless yammering has been concerned with the "truly Canadian" qualities of our literature, and one's first instinct is to avoid the whole question. Of course what is "peculiarly our own" is not what is accidentally our own, and a poet may talk forever about forests and prairies and snow and the Land of the North and not be any more Canadian than he will be Australian if he writes a sonnet on a kangaroo. One of F. R. Scott's poems included by Mr. Smith notes a tendency on the part of minor poets to "paint the native maple." This is like saying that because the quintuplets are Canadian, producing children in litters is a Canadian characteristic. Nevertheless, no one who knows the country will deny that there is something, say an attitude of mind, distinctively Canadian, and while Canadian speech is American, there is a recognizable Canadian accent in the more highly organized speech of its poetry. [131]

     Certainly if a Canadian poet consciously tries to avoid being Canadian, he will sound like nothing on earth. For whatever may be true of painting or music, poetry is not a citizen of the world: it is conditioned by language, and flourishes best within a national unit. "Humanity" is an abstract idea, not a poetic image. But whether Canada is really a national unit in any sense that has a meaning for culture I could not decide myself until I saw Mr. Smith's book; and even then one has misgivings. The patriotic avarice that claims every European as "Canadian" who stopped off at a Canadian station for a ham sandwich on his way to the States is, no doubt, ridiculous; but apart from that, does not any talk about Canadian poetry lead to some loss of perspective, some heavy spotlighting of rather pallid faces? Every Canadian has some feeling of sparseness when he compares, for example, Canada's fifth largest city, which I believe is Hamilton, with the fifth largest across the line, which I believe is Los Angeles. And the same is true of poetry. Every issue of the New Yorker or New Republic, to say nothing of the magazines which really go in for poetry, contains at least one poem which is technically on a level with five-sixths of Mr. Smith's book. With so luxuriant a greenhouse next door, why bother to climb mountains to look for the odd bit of edelweiss? The only answer is, I suppose, that in what Canadian poems have tried to do there is an interest for Canadian readers much deeper than what the achievement in itself justifies.

     The qualities of our poetry that appear from this book to be distinctively Canadian are not those that one readily thinks of: a fact which was an additional obstacle in Mr. Smith's path. For Canada is more than most countries a milieu in which certain preconceived literary stereotypes are likely to interpose between the imagination and the expression it achieves. What a poet's imagination actually can produce and what the poet thinks it ought to produce are often very different things. They never should be, but they sometimes are; and it is hard to judge accurately the work of a man who is a genuine poet but whose poetry only glints here and there out of a mass of verse on conventional themes. [132] he has persuaded himself he should be celebrating. If a poet is a patriot, for instance, there may be two natures within him, one scribbling ready-made patriotic doggerel and the other trying to communicate the real feelings his country inspires him with. If he is religious, the poet in him may reach God in very subtle ways; but the man in him who is not a poet may be a more commonplace person, shocked by his own poetic boldness. If he is revolutionary, the poet in him may have to argue with a Philistine materialist also in him who does not really see the point of poetry at all. This is at least one reason why so much patriotic, religious and revolutionary verse is bad.
Now this creative schizophrenia is, we have said, common in Canada, and the most obvious reason for it is the fact that Canada is not only a nation but a colony in an empire. I have said that culture seems to flourish best in national units, which implies that the empire is too big and the province too small for major literature. I know of no poet, with the very dubious exception of Virgil, who has made great poetry out of what Shakespeare calls "the imperial theme": in Kipling, for instance, this theme is largely a praise of machinery, and of the Robot tendencies within the human mind. The province or region, on the other hand, is usually a vestigial curiosity to be written up by some nostalgic tourist. The imperial and the regional are both inherently anti-poetic environments, yet they go hand in hand; and together they make up what I call the colonial in Canadian life.

     This colonial tendency has been sharpened by the French-English split, the English having tended to specialize in the imperial and the French in the regional aspects of it.The French are on the whole the worse off by this arrangement, which has made Quebec into a cute tourist resort full of ye quainte junke made by real peasants, all of whom go to church and say their prayers like the children they are, and love their land and tell folk tales and sing ballads just as the fashionable novelists in the cities say they do. True, I have never met a French-Canadian who liked to be thought of as an animated antique, nor do I expect to: yet [133] the sentimental haze in which the European author of Maria Chapdelaine saw the country is still quite seriously accepted by Canadians, English and French alike, as authentic. A corresponding imperial preoccupation in English poets leads to much clearing of forests and planting of crops and tapping vast natural resources: a grim earnestness of expansion which seems almost more German than British. The more naive expressions of this do not get into Mr. Smith's book. Instead, he sets Isabella Crawford's song, "Bite Deep and Wide, O Axe, the Tree," in its proper context, a viciously ironic one; and Anne Marriott's The Wind Our Enemy and Birney's "Anglo-Saxon Street" are also there to indicate that if we sow the wind of empire with too little forethought we shall reap a dusty whirlwind of arid squalor.

     The colonial position of Canada is therefore a frostbite at the roots of the Canadian imagination, and it produces a disease for which I think the best name is prudery. By this I do not mean reticence in sexual matters: I mean the instinct to seek a conventional or commonplace expression of an idea. Prudery that keeps the orthodox poet from making a personal recreation of his orthodoxy: prudery that prevents the heretic from forming an articulate heresy that will shock: prudery that makes a radical stutter and gargle over all realities that are not physical: prudery that chokes off social criticism for fear some other group of Canadians will take advantage of it. One sees this perhaps most clearly in religion, because of the fact that the division of language and race is approximately one of religion also. Mr. Smith has included a religious poem called "Littlewit and Loftus," which, though in some respects a bad poem, is at any rate not a prudish one in the above sense: it ends with the authentic scream of the disembodied evangelical banshee who has cut herself loose from this world and who has the sense of release that goes with that, even if she is not wholly sure what world she is now in. It is a prickly cactus in a desert of bumbling platitude and the pouring of unctuous oil on untroubled waters; or else, as in Bliss Carman, prayers of a stentorian vagueness addressed to some kind of scholar-gipsy God. [134]

     I wish I could say that the tighter grip of religion on the French has improved matters there; but it has done nothing of the kind. In French poetry too one feels that the Church is often most vividly conceived not as catholic but as a local palladium to be defended for political reasons: as a part of the parochial intrigue which is given the title of "national-ism." The type of prudery appropriate to this is a facile and mawkish piety. In short, the imperial tendency may call itself "Protestant" and the regional one "Catholic"; but as long as both are colonial, both will be essentially sectarian. Similarly, the imperial tendency may call itself British and the regional one French; but as long as both are colonial, these words will have only a sectional meaning. It is an obvious paradox in Canadian life that the more colonial the English or French-speaking Canadian is, and the more he distrusts the other half of his country, the more artificial his relation to the real Britain or France becomes. The French-Canadian who translates "British Columbia" as "Colombie canadienne" and flies the tricolor of the French Revolution on holidays, and the English-Canadian who holds that anything short of instant acquiescence in every decision of the British Foreign Office is treason, are the furthest of all Canadians from the culture of what they allege to be their mother countries.

     But even when the Canadian poet has got rid of colonial cant, there are two North American dragons to slay. One is the parrotted cliché that this is a "new" country and that we must spend centuries cutting forests and building roads before we can enjoy the by-products of settled leisure. But Canada is not "new" or "young": it is exactly the same age as any other country under a system of industrial capitalism; and even if it were, a reluctance to write poetry is not a sign of youth but of decadence. Savages have poetry: the Pilgrim Fathers, who really were pioneers, started writing almost as soon as they landed. It is only from the exhausted loins of the half-dead masses of people in modern cities that such weary ideas are born.

     The other fallacy concerns the imaginative process itself, and may be called the Ferdinand the Bull theory of poetry. This theory talks about a first-hand contact with life as [135] opposed to a second-hand contact with it through books, and assumes that the true poet will go into the fields and smell the flowers and not spoil the freshness of his vision by ruining his eyesight on books. However, practically all important poetry has been the fruit of endless study and reading, for poets as a class are and must be, as an Elizabethan critic said, "curious universal scholars." There are exceptions to this rule, but they prove it; and it is silly to insist on them.

     In looking over Mr. Smith's book one is struck immediately by the predominance of university and professional people; and it is in the classical scholarship of Lampman, the encyclopaedic erudition of Crémazie which is said to have included Sanskrit, and the patient research and documentation of Pratt's Brébeuf and sea narratives, that Canadian poetry has become most articulate. There is nothing especially Canadian about this, but one point may be noted. To an English poet, the tradition of his own country and language proceeds in a direct chronological line down to himself, and that in its turn is part of a gigantic funnel of tradition extending back to Homer and the Old Testament. But to a Canadian, broken off from this linear sequence and having none of his own, the traditions of Europe appear as a kaleidoscopic whirl with no definite shape or meaning, but with a profound irony lurking in its varied and conflicting patterns. The clearest statement of this is in that superb fantasy the Witches' Brew, Pratt's first major effort, a poem of which apparently I have a higher opinion than Mr. Smith. It is also to be found, I think, in the elaborate Rabbinical apparatus of Klein.

     American even more than Canadian poetry has been deeply affected by the clash between two irreconcilable views of literature: the view that poets should be original and the view that they should be aboriginal. Originality is largely a matter of returning to origins, of studying and imitating the great poets of the past. But many fine American poets have been damaged and in some cases spoiled by a fetish of novelty: they have sought for the primitive and direct and have tried to avoid the consciously literary and speak the [136] language of the common man. As the language of the common man is chiefly commonplace, the result has been for the most part disastrous. And here is one case where failing to achieve a virtue has really warded off a vice. There has on the whole been little Tarzanism in Canadian poetry. One is surprised to find how few really good Canadian poets have thought that getting out of cities into God's great outdoors really brings one closer to the sources of inspiration. One reason for this is that there has been no revolution in Canada, and less sense of building up a new land into what the American Constitution calls a more perfect state. A certain abdication of political responsibility is sharply reflected in our poetry, and is by no means always harmful to it. We can see this clearly if we compare Bliss Carman with his American friend Hovey, who sang not only of freedom and the open road but also of America's duty to occupy the Philippines and open up the Pacific. The Canadian likes to be objective about Americans, and likes to feel that he can see a bit of Sam Slick in every Yankee: as a North American, therefore, he has a good seat on the revolutionary sidelines, and his poetic tendencies, reflective, observant, humorous, critical and quite frankly traditional, show it.

     The closest analogy to Canadian poetry in American literature is, as one would expect, in the pre-1776 period: in Anne Bradstreet and Philip Freneau and the Hartford Wits. We have many excellent counterparts to these, and to the tradition that runs through Emerson, but few if any good counterparts to Whitman, Sandburg, Lindsay, Jeffers or MacLeish. Early American poetry is traditional, but its tradition is a great one: and when the Americans gained maturity in government they lost some in poetry; for there is an assurance and subtlety in Bradstreet and Freneau that Longfellow and Whittier and many of those mentioned above do not possess. This is not to say that the best American poetry appeared before 1776, but as we seem to be stuck with at least some colonial characteristics, we may as well appreciate what virtues they have.

     Nature in Canadian poetry, then, has little of the vagueness of great open spaces in it: that is very seldom [137] material that the imagination can use. One finds rather an intent and closely focussed vision, often on something in itself quite unimportant: in Birney's slug, Finch's station platform, the clairvoyance of hatred in MacKay's "I Wish My Tongue Were a Quiver," Hambleton's sharply etched picture of salmon fishing. The first poet Mr. Smith includes, the Canadian Oliver Goldsmith, makes an accurate inventory of a country store, and he sets a tone which the rest of the book bears out. The vocabulary and diction correspond: the snap and crackle of frosty words, some stiff with learning and others bright with concreteness, is heard wherever there is the mental excitement of real creation, though of course most obviously where the subject suggests it: in, for instance, Charles Bruce's "Immediates":

          An ageless land and sea conspire
          To smooth the imperfect mould of birth;
          While freezing spray and drying fire
          Translate the inexplicit earth.

or in P. K. Page's "Stenographers":

          In the felt of the morning, the calico minded,
          sufficiently starched, insert papers, hit keys,
          efficient and sure as their adding machines.

     But, according to Mr. Smith's book, the outstanding achievement of Canadian poetry is in the evocation of stark terror. Not a coward's terror, of course; but a controlled vision of the causes of cowardice. The immediate source of this is obviously the frightening loneliness of a huge and thinly settled country. When all the intelligence, morality, reverence and simian cunning of man confronts a sphinx-like riddle of the indefinite like the Canadian winter, the man seems as helpless as a trapped mink and as lonely as a loon. His thrifty little heaps of civilized values look pitiful beside nature's apparently meaningless power to waste and destroy on a superhuman scale, and such a nature suggests an equally ruthless and subconscious God, or else no God. In Wilfred [138] Campbell, for instance, the Canadian winter expands into a kind of frozen hell of utter moral nihilism:

          Lands that loom like spectres,
          whited regions of winter,
          Wastes of desolate woods,
          deserts of water and shore;

          A world of winter and death,
          within these regions who enter,
          Lost to summer and life, go to return no more.

     And the winter is only one symbol, though a very obvious one, of the central theme of Canadian poetry: the riddle of what a character in Mair's Tecumseh calls "inexplicable life." It is really a riddle of inexplicable death: the fact that life struggles and suffers in a nature which is blankly indifferent to it. Human beings set a high value on their own lives which is obviously not accepted in the world beyond their palisades. They may become hurt and whimper that nature is cruel to them; but the honest poet does not see cruelty: he sees only a stolid unconsciousness. The human demands that Patrick Anderson's Joe hurls at nature are answered by "a feast of no"; a negation with neither sympathy nor malice in it. In Birney's David a terrible tragedy of wasted life and blasted youth is enacted on a glacier, but there is no "pathetic fallacy" about the cruelty of the glacier or of whatever gods may be in charge of it. It is just a glacier. D. C. Scott's "Piper of Arll" is located in an elusive fairyland, but the riddle of inexplicable death is still at the heart of the poem. The same theme is of course clearer still in Pratt's sea narratives, especially The Titanic..

     Sometimes this theme modulates into a wry and sardonic humour. In the laughter of that rare spirit Standish O'Grady, who in his picture of freezing Canadians huddling around "their simpering stove" has struck out one of the wittiest phrases in the book, something rather sharper sounds across the laughter:

          Here the rough Bear subsists his winter year,
          And licks his paw and finds no better fare. [139]

     In Drummond's finest poem "The Wreck of the Julie Plante," the grim humour of the ballad expresses the same tragedy of life destroyed by unconsciousness that we find in Pratt and Birney:

          For de win' she blow lak hurricane,
          Bimeby she blow some more.

     Tom MacInnes has the same kind of humour, though the context is often fantastic, and his "Zalinka" is a parody of Poe which somehow manages to convey the same kind of disturbing eeriness. But whether humorous or not, even in our most decorous poets there are likely to be the most startling flashes of menace and fear. A placid poem of Charles G. D. Roberts about mowing is suddenly punctured by the line "The crying knives glide on; the green swath lies." Archdeacon Scott writes a little poem on Easter Island statues which ends in a way that will lift your back hair.

     But the poetic imagination cannot remain for long content with this faceless mask of unconsciousness. Nature is not all glacier and iceberg and hurricane; and while there is no conscious cruelty in it, there is certainly a suffering that we can interpret as cruelty. Hence the poet begins to animate nature with an evil or at least sinister power: night in Heavysege becomes a cacodemon, and spring in Dorothy Livesay a crouching monster. Mr. Smith's book is full of ghosts and unseen watchers and spiritual winds: a certain amount of this is faking, but not all: Lampman's "In November," with its ghastly dead mullens and the wonderful danse macabre in which it closes, is no fake. The "crying in the dark" in Lampman's "Midnight," the dead hunter in Eustace Ross's "The Death," the dead "lovely thing" in Neil Tracey's poem, the married corpses in Leo Kennedy's "Epithalamium": all these are visions, not only of a riddle of inexplicable death, but of a riddle of inexplicable evil. Sometimes, of course, this evil takes an easily recognized form: the Indians in Joseph Howe's spirited narrative and the drought wind in Anne Marriott have no spectral overtones. But it is obvious that man must be included in this aspect of the riddle, as it is [140] merely fanciful to separate conscious malice from the human mind. Whatever sinister lurks in nature lurks also in us; and Tom Maclnnes's "tiger of desire" and the praying mantis of a remarkable poem by Anne Dalton have been transformed into mental demons.

     The unconscious horror of nature and the subconscious horrors of the mind thus coincide: this amalgamation is the basis of symbolism on which nearly all Pratt's poetry is founded. The fumbling and clumsy monsters of his "Pliocene Armageddon," who are simply incarnate wills to mutual destruction, are the same monsters that beget Nazism and inspire The Fable of the Goats; and in the fine "Silences," which Mr. Smith includes, civilized life is seen geologically as merely one clock-tick in eons of ferocity. The waste of life in the death of the Cachalot and the waste of courage and sanctity in the killing of the Jesuit missionaries are tragedies of a unique kind in modern poetry: like the tragedy of Job, they seem to move upward to a vision of a monstrous Leviathan, a power of chaotic nihilism which is "king over all the children of pride." I admit that "Tom the Cat from Zanzibar" in The Witches' Brew is good fun, but when Mr. Smith suggests that he is nothing more, I disagree.

     In the creepy ambiguity of the first line of Malzah's song in Heavysege, "There was a devil and his name was I," the same association of ideas recurs, and it recurs again in what is perhaps the most completely articulate poem in the book, Lampman's "City of the End of Things"; which, though of course it has no room for the slow accumulation of despair that The City of Dreadful Night piles up, is an equally terrifying vision of humanity's Iron Age. In the younger writers the satire on war and exploitation is more conventional and anonymous, but as soon as they begin to speak with more authority they will undoubtedly take their places in the same tradition -- Patrick Anderson especially.

     To sum up. Canadian poetry is at its best a poetry of incubus and cauchemar, the source of which is the unusually exposed contact of the poet with nature which Canada provides. Nature is seen by the poet, first as unconsciousness, then as a kind of existence which is cruel and meaningless, [141] then as the source of the cruelty and subconscious stampedings within the human mind. As compared with American poets, there has been comparatively little, outside Carman, of the cult of the rugged outdoor life which idealizes nature and tries to accept it. Nature is consistently sinister and menacing in Canadian poetry. And here and there we find glints of a vision beyond nature, a refusal to be bullied by space and time, an affirmation of the supremacy of intelligence and humanity over stupid power. One finds this in Kenneth Leslie:

          Rather than moulds invisible in the air
          into which petals pour selective milk
          I seem to sense a partnered agony
          of creature and creator in the rose.

     One finds it in Dorothy Livesay's apostrophe to the martyred Lorca:

          You dance. Explode
          Unchallenged through the door
          As bullets burst
          Long deaths ago, your breast.

     One finds it in Margaret Avison's very lovely "Maria Minor" and her struggle to divine "the meaning of the smashed moth" in a poem which makes an excellent finale to the book. And one begins thereby to understand the real meaning of the martyrdom of Brébeuf, the theme of what with all its faults is the greatest single Canadian poem. Superficially, the man with the vision beyond nature is tied to the stake and destroyed by savages who are in the state of nature, and who represent its mindless barbarity. But there is a far profounder irony to that scene: the black-coated figure at the stake is also a terrifying devil to the savages, Echon, the evil one. However frantically they may try to beat him off, their way of savagery is doomed; it is doomed in their Nazi descendants; it is doomed even if it lasts to the end of time. [142]

     This is not I hope a pattern of thought I have arbitrarily forced upon Canadian poetry: judging from Mr. Smith's book and what other reading I have done this seems to be its underlying meaning, and the better the poem the more clearly it expresses it. Mr. Smith has brought out this inner unity quite unconsciously because it is really there: just as in his "Ode on Yeats" he has, again quite unconsciously, evoked a perfect image of the nature of poetic feeling in his own country:

          An old thorn tree in a stony place
          Where the mountain stream has run dry,
          Torn in the black wind under the race
          Of the icicle-sharp kaleidoscopic white sky,
          Bursts into sudden flower. [143]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment