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]

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