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. ...

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