from 'Letters in Canada' 1954

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1954

     The poetry of 1954 includes some reprinting of traditional poets as well as new work, and it may be simplest to deal with the serious verse in a roughly chronological order.

     The impact of Lampman, Carman, Roberts, and D. C. Scott on Canadian poetry was very like the impact of Thomson and Group of Seven painting two decades later.

     Contemporary readers felt that whatever entity the word [33] Canada might represent, at least the environment it described was being looked at directly. Like the later painters, these poets were lyrical in tone and romantic in attitude; like the painters, they sought for the most part uninhabited land-scape. The lyrical response to landscape is by itself, however, a kind of emotional photography, and like other forms of photography is occasional and epigrammatic. Its variety is provided essentially by its subject-matter. Hence the lyric poet, after he has run his gamut of impressions, must die young, develop a more intellectualized attitude, or start repeating himself. Carman's meeting of this challenge was only partly successful, and it has long been a commonplace that he badly needs a skilful and sympathetic selection. This is provided in The Selected Poems of Bliss Carman, edited by Lorne Pierce (McClelland & Stewart, 119 pp., $3.00).

     Carman should, of course, have edited himself. I have heard the late Pelham Edgar turn a poem of Carman's into a thing of unalloyed delight by leaving out a couple of bad lines, but what a public reader can do an editor cannot do. What the selection brings out is that Carman's conscious mind and his poetic instinct were disastrously at odds. The first stage in the development of a romantic poet's mind is normally a sense of the unity of that mind throughout its variety of impressions: this in turn is likely to be projected as some form of pantheism, which has its advantages if properly developed, as Wordsworth shows, but the disadvantage of adding vagueness to monotony if it is not. Carman's conscious mind stuck at a broken-down and corny version of Emersonian over-soulfulness: his editor, with a touch of distaste, speaks of "his elaborate theory of Unitrinianism -- spirit-leading; mental guidance, physical fulfilment -- the full revelation of the doctrine of Personal Harmonizing." I don't know what all this means, but it sounds in more than one sense too awful for words, and I note that most of the poetic results are omitted from this selection. On the other hand, Carman's poetic sense told him, as it told Isabella Crawford before him and Pratt after him, that the most obvious development of a romantic landscape poet is towards the mythological, towards making his emotional impressions into [34] a dramatis personae of forces at once human and natural. Carman's formative influences were late Victorian, and he follows Swinburne, Morris and Rossetti in enamelling nature with primary colours and peopling it with the pagan gods of the turning year, "Our Lady of the Rain," the dying gods Adonis and Attis, nymphs and fauns. And while his conscious mind called for songs of the open road and getting in tune with the infinite, his real poetic imagination became in-creasingly brooding, lonely and haunted:

          The windows of my room
          Are dark with bitter frost,
          The stillness aches with doom
          Of something loved and lost.

          Outside, the great blue star
          Burns in the ghostland pale,
          Where giant Algebar
          Holds on the endless trail.

This is the kind of thing we remember from Carman, and we are grateful to Dr. Pierce for confining himself to the memorable work, ignoring the pseudo-Carman, with his stentorian hymns to the Great Beyond like "Lord of my heart's elation," which are usually what get into anthologies.

     A poet of the same generation as Carman is George Herbert Clarke, whose Selected Poems (Ryerson, xxvi, 54 pp., $3.00) have been edited by George Whalley. Clarke was a university professor, and his poetic qualities are the typically scholarly ones, notably a tendency to identify the poetic impulse with melancholy moods and sonorous diction. Like most such poets, he loves the sonnet and the commemorative ode. The poems are academic in every sense, springing from a world in which everything from ideas to flowers has been ordered and disciplined, a world which would be almost paradisal if it were not just close enough to the working world to recollect its disorder in a meditative tranquillity. Death is for such a poet best understood in the funeral of George V, where it has the maximum of dignity; poverty and pain are best understood as things that may distract one from true knowledge: [35]

          Perchance man may not climb
          Higher than Pisgah on the mountain road
          That twists and loops and narrows, for a load
          Of fear cumbers his heart, and sweat and grime
          Blind him. Benighted, he may mistake the trail. . . .

The limitations of such poetry are obvious enough, but it is still a valid form of poetic experience, and it is good sometimes to be reminded of more leisurely days when poets wrote odes on the hundredth anniversary of Queen's or McMaster and could feel convinced that

          Man was born
          To think eternal thoughts, yet to be torn
          Between the invisible world that looms sublime
          And this apparent, this ambiguous star.

     The generation of poets growing up in the twenties encountered more urban and intellectual poetic influences, and found in T.S. Eliot especially a technique for adapting the old mythological themes to a human as well as a natural environment, and to ironic as well as to romantic uses. The mythological impetus itself simply reinforced the romantic heritage: Leo Kennedy's "Words for a Resurrection" is very close in theme to Carman's "Resurgam." This generation of poets is represented in the contributors to New Provinces (1936), two of whom, A. J. M. Smith and F. R. Scott, have issued new books of verse this year.

     A. J. M. Smith has always been a careful and sparing writer, and A sort of Ecstasy (Ryerson, viii, 55 pp., $3.50) contains several poems which appeared in 1943 in News of the Phoenix, and were not new then. Even the passage from Santayana which gives him his title appeared in the earlier book. Mr. Smith has the reputation of being a metaphysical poet in the tradition of Donne: Professor Collin's essay on him in The White Savannahs uses his own phrase, "difficult, lonely music," to describe the quality of his work. Certainly Mr. Smith is scholarly: we meet such phrases as "proud Romanticism" and "Apollonian energy," and part of the point about a poem on the H-bomb turns on the ironic [36] application to it of a phrase from Shakespeare about mercy and from Hopkins about the Holy Spirit. Every poet demands his own kind of erudition; we need some knowledge of the Odyssey to understand "The Plot against Proteus," but we need much more classical background than that to follow Carman's Sappho lyrics, and in both cases whatever obscurity there is is due to the reader's ignorance and not to the poet's wilfulness. Still, Mr. Smith's learning perhaps does interfere with his spontaneity. Too many of the poems seem to me to lack drive: the words do not develop rhythm but are fitted into a containing pattern. The poetry is intensely visual and conceptual; it slowly clarifies, but it does not dance. Sometimes, however, this slow clarification contains great emotional power, as in "The Bridegroom," in which the social and sexual anxieties of modern man come into a nightmarish focus:

          Where slaves or workmen strained to mist huge gears
          That moved vast vents or fed the flues,
          And fell some
          Into the fire, of sheer fatigue, and fried.

     Looking at the new poems, one is surprised by the number of them that are romantic landscape poems in the Carman tradition: "To Hold in a Poem" is a summary of Canadian romantic themes. One wonders if the intellec-tualized irony of "Resurrection of Arp," even of the remarkable "Universe into Stone," is negative in direction, attacking the political and religious obstacles that prevent the poet from following a naturally romantic bent. That would account for a lack of exuberance in the difficult lonely music, if I am right in finding the lack there:

          I would put away intellect and lust,
          Be but a red gleam in a crystal dish,
          But kin of the trernbling ocean, not of the dust.

     Mr. Scott is a more fluent writer than Mr. Smith, and his Events and Signals (Ryerson, vi, 58 pp., $2.50) gives the impression of highly cultivated metrical conversation. This [37] does not mean that it is shallow, but that its sincerity is controlled by urbanity. Its main theme is the inability of events in the modern world to produce signals that are profoundly communicative. The poet stands in churches aware of, but untouched by, the symbols of communion; he reads newspapers which reveal a misery that he is powerless to affect; he goes through a day's duties realizing that

          Though all is available, nothing is taken
          that is not pre-selected, hence the unsubstantial
          is the practical, the theory all-important,
          and the routines, sub-conscious theories
          wall up the doorways slowly, one by one.

It is part of the paradox of such an attitude that Mr. Scott's verse is least convincing when it is most explicit, and at its best when sardonically observant. He is one of our best writers of epigram and light verse, and sometimes a serious epigram, such as "The Bird," hits a bull's-eye, but his fables are better without morals. In the first of the "Social Sonnets," for instance, the octave sets up a satiric situation with great economy and brilliance, but the sestet, by commenting on it, merely weakens the point already made.

     Students are often urged to use short words of Anglo-Saxon origin when possible -- the polite ones, that is -- but there are so many abstract and technical words in the language that the basis of conversational rhythm in modern English is polysyllabic, and a style founded on short Anglo-Saxon words can be the most artificial of all styles. Mr. Scott has grasped this fact about conversational rhythm, and he has brought to a high level of technical competence a kind of meditative, musing poem through which the longer words of ordinary speech ripple with great colloquial freedom. "I am Employed," "My Amoeba is Unaware" and "Some Privy Counsel" are his best achievements in this vein. The same competence makes him extremely good at a kind of literary collage. "The Canadian Social Register" is based on an advertising prospectus, with all its fatuous phrases gripped in quotation marks like a pair of ice tongs. The very funny [38] "Bonne Entente" I could quote, but I do not wish to save the reader the trouble of looking it up himself.

     The next generation, growing up in a largely urbanized Canada, has two representatives this year. P. K. Page's The Metal and the Flower (Indian File Book, no. 7; McClelland & Stewart, 64 pp., $2.75) got the Governor-General's Medal, and deserved it, although my opinion of the practice of giving a medal to any poet over the age of ten is not high. But if there is such a thing as "pure poetry," this must be it: a lively mind seizing on almost any experience and turning it into witty verse. The taste is not faultless: sometimes a conceit is squeezed to a pulp, as in "Mystics Like Miners," "Christmas Eve -- Market Square," and "Mineral," or dragged in by a too restless ingenuity, like the unpearled barbiturates in "Subjective Eye" or the hydrocephalic idiot in "Sleeper." The writing is less mannered than in As Ten, as Twenty, though she will still talk too much, in the sense that some of her points are made over-conceptually, in undigested prose. This is true of "The Permanent Tourists," for instance, where most of the impact is made by the first stanza. Although she is essentially an occasional poet, Miss Page has a symbolic language of her own that operates on three levels: a lower level of emotion and instinct, symbolized chiefly by the sea; an upper level of intelligence symbolized by angels and abstract patterns in white; and a middle level of metal and flower, rose garden and barbed wire, where there is passion but little communion:

          Black and white at midnight glows
          this garden of barbed wire and roses.
          Doused with darkness roses burn
          coolly as a rainy moon;
          beneath a rainy moon or none
          silver the sheath on barb and thorn.

This lovely stanza needs to be read in its context, for Miss Page is skilful at varying a stanzaic pattern throughout a poem -- one of the most difficult techniques in modern lyric.

     She seems interested in everything, from salt mines to ski tows, but resists the temptation to be merely decorative and looks for the human situations involved in what she sees. [39] The salt mine poem has a deceptively casual development in perspective from beauty to horror. Only a few subjects (such as "Freak") get outside her emotional range. Her studies of girls are perhaps the most obviously attractive of her poems: "Morning, Noon and Night," "Sisters," and "Probationer" are all highly successful, and the conclusion of "Young Girls," in her lower-level key, is a sensitive evocation of adolescent tremors:

          Too much weeping in them and unfamiliar blood
          has set them perilously afloat.
          Not divers these -- but as if the water rose up in a flood
          making them partially amphibious
          and always drowning a little and hearing bells. ...

She is also admirable in seeing a story within a scene, and "Man with One Small Hand," "Portrait of Marina" (a spinster bullied by a sailor-father and "antlered with migraines" in consequence), and "Paranoid" are excellent little novelettes. More elaborate are the longer fantasies, "Images of Angels" and "Arras," both very beautiful, the latter a somewhat elliptical treatment of the Alice-through-the-mirror theme. Miss Page's work has a competent elegance about it that makes even the undistinguished poems still satisfying to look at, and the book as a whole is as consistently successful in reaching its objectives as any book I have read since I began this survey.

     Mr. Irving Layton, like Bliss Carman, is a poet whose conscious and creative minds are at odds, and the former has, up to now, effectively concealed the fact that he is not only a serious poet but an unusually gifted one. The Long Pea- Shooter (Laocoo%n Press, 68 pp., $2.00) is mainly satiric verse, the double-entendre in the title giving the general idea. The book takes what one might call, borrowing a term from architecture, a miserere view of humanity, but the ironic eye does not have free play; it is oppressed by a conscience-driven and resentful mind which sees modern society as a rock pile and the poet as under sentence of hard labour. When there is a core of detachment in satire, there may be a core of reality in its caricature, but most of the world of The Long [40] Pea-Shooter is a depressingly unreal world. If the book stood alone, one would be inclined to say that here is a remarkable mind that has somehow missed its vocation. And yet, there is a personal test which every critic applies to poetry, the test of involuntary memorizing. If one remembers a poem, or part of a poem, without making a conscious effort to do so, one is probably dealing with a genuine poet. And the little pieces of phraseology that keep sticking in one's mind are surprisingly frequent:

          I saw a continent of railway tracks
          coiling about the sad Modigliani necks
          like disused tickertape, the streets
          exploding in the air
          with disaffected subway cars.

     In any case, the question of whether Mr. Layton is a real poet or not is settled by In the Midst of My Fever (Divers Press, Majorca, 41 pp.). An imaginative revolution is proclaimed all through this book: when he says that something "has taught me severity, exactness of speech" or "has given me a turn for sculptured stone," we see a new excitement and intensity in the process of writing. At last it is possible to see what kind of poet Mr. Layton is, and he proves to be not a satirist at all, but an erudite elegiac poet, whose technique turns on an aligning of the romantic and the ironic:

          Or hex me to see
          the great black-bearded Agamemnon
          slain by a danceband leader
          bonged on the head on the polished floor. ...

The ridicule of the body, the sense that human genius grows out of human corruption, has always been a central theme in his work: here it becomes a coordinated vision of pity and terror:

          Life is horrifying, said Cézanne,
          but this is not
          what he meant who picked flowers blooming
          in the slaughterhouse; he meant the slit throats [41]
          The bear traps smeared with blood, the iron goads,
          the frightened servant-girl" Caesarian,
          And this planet dancing about Apollo,
          the blood drying and shining in the sun. ...

One finds something of value on nearly every page of this book: vivid imagery in "Metzinger: Girl with a Bird"; quiet eloquence in "Paraclete"; well-paced narrative in "The Longest Journey"; and, in "The Birth of Tragedy," this:

          A quiet madman, never far from tears,
          I lie like a slain thing
          under the green air the trees
          inhabit, or rest upon a chair
          towards which the inflammable air
          tumbles on many robins' wing. ...

Whatever lapses in expression one may find are of little importance when one is so constantly in touch with a poetic mind of genuine dignity and power. The real poet is now strong enough to dispense with the bristly palisade of self-conscious satire which has obviously been protecting him, not against the world, but against his own fear of sentimentality.

     A still younger generation of poets born during the twenties of this century is represented in Trio (Contact Press, unpaged), a selection of verse by Gael Turnbull, Phyllis Webb, and E. W. Mandel. Here finally one meets the responses of people reared in a fully modernized Canada who find the forest as strange as Lampman found the city (see Mr. Turnbull's "Lumber Camp Railway"), and who accept political malaise and existential dread as the most elementary poetical assumptions (see Mr. Turnbull's "Twentieth Century," Miss Webb's "Earth Descending," and all of Mr. Mandel's "Minotaur Poems"). In a way this acceptance has protected them, like an inoculation. Poets who reached maturity between 1930 and 1945 were affected by the world's hostility to creation: these poets take the hostility for granted, and have been driven back on poetry as the most solid basis for experience of anything they know. [42]

     None of them have as yet wholly distinguished the process of writing a poem from the process of finding a poetic subject and writing it up, and all of them are apt to take refuge in some kind of literary allusion when they approach the emotional crux of their poem. That there are influences and derivations, such as Marianne Moore in Miss Webb's "Standing," goes without saying: one should not look at those, but past them. Mr. Turnbull's "Post-Mortem" treats a difficult subject with great simplicity and directness, and "A Landscape and a Kind of Man" well evokes that curious nostalgia for mean streets that is a trade mark of contem-porary sensibility:

          In some brick-infested town
          Where only the damp cobbles shine,
          And slate and soot and sarneness blend,
          And smoke and cloud have no sure start or end,
          Crowded upon the margin of a garrulous sea. ...

In Miss Webb another contemporary trade mark, the sense of apocalyptic parody, of the world soon coming to an end in after all a quite meaningless way, is what moves her to greatest eloquence:

          and, as a world tumbling shocks the theories of spheres,
          so this love is like falling glass shaking with stars
          the air which tornorrow, or even today, will be
          a slow, terrible movernent of scars.

The variety of tone and technique in her work makes it interesting but somewhat uncertain in direction: "The Color of the Light" perhaps indicates most clearly both her latent powers and the core of a more individual style.

     Mr. Mandel is less superficially attractive, with his strident rhythm full of strong beats and spondees, and is much more difficult to follow, with his superimposed mythopoeic imagery. But these are signs of staying power, and to my mind he is the one of the three most likely to develop not only in technical skill but in depth and range of vision. He is preoccupied by the perennial technical problem [43] of transmuting the substance of myth into the form of immediate experience. And just as Carman turned to Sappho and the Adonis lament to express the plangent melancholy of a late pagan romanticism, so Mr. Mandel, born only a few years before Carman died, turns to the story of Theseus and the Minotaur to express our own sense of sinister initiation into some kind of fearful ordeal:

          It has been hours in these rooms,
          the opening to which, door or sash,
          I have lost. I have gone from room to room
          asking the janitors who were sweeping up
          the brains that lay on the floors,
          the bones shining in the wastebaskets,
          and once I asked a suit of clothes
          that collapsed at my breath and bundled
          and crawled on the floor like a coward.
          Finally, after several stories,
          in the staired and eyed hall,
          I came upon a man with the face of a bull. ...

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