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. ...

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