from 'Letters in Canada' 1955

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1955

     Poetry, like painting, has two poles: the pole of content or subject-matter, the thing represented, and the pole of form, the conventional structure of the art. Painting may be very formal, as in geometrical ornament or abstraction, or it may be very representational, as in illusion-painting or trompe l'oeil. Poetry may be representational, as it is in reflective poetry where the poet describes a landscape, his emotions, his thoughts, or his society. When it is formal, the poet seeks metaphor, the language of pure identification that he shares with the lunatic and the lover; he seeks myth, the stories of gods whose actions are not limited by reality, and hence form abstract literary patterns; he is erudite and allusive, for the forms of poetry are conventions and grow out of other poems; and he seeks apocalyptic imagery, the vision of a universe which is humanly as well as divinely intelligible. The representational tendency in poetry is [44] sophisticated and civilized: the formal tendency is primitive, oracular, close to the riddle and the spell. In our day, however, the primitive tendency has been reached through a further refinement of sophistication: "modern" poets use myth, metaphor, and apocalyptic imagery just as "modern" painters use abstract or stylized patterns. In Canada, the Romantic nineteenth-century traditions are reflective and representational: "modern" poets have unconsciously bridged the cultural gap with the Indians,just as the painting of Emily Carr bridges the gap in British Columbia between a culture of totem poles and a culture of power plants.

     Two volumes this year illustrate each of these tendencies in our tradition. Sepass Poems (mimeographed, 60 + 12 pp.) is a collection of Okanagan Indian mythical poems, recorded by a chief and translated by Mrs. Street. (They were apparently recorded in 1915 but not published because they conflicted with what scholars then thought they knew about the tribe's origin: an extraordinary reason, but that's what it says here.) They are myths of creation and flood, of the sun-god and his paradisal world, of the evil spirit, an Indian Ogopogo, at the bottom of a stormy lake; they are myths of metamorphosis, of how animals were shaped as they are; myths of Titans revolting against the sky-god and of a box of evils like Pandora's. In short, they are the same myths that we find in our European tradition. In spite of a slightly old-fashioned cast to the translation (the translator was born in 1857), the structural outlines and rhetorical devices of the original, notably repetition, obviously show through. They make fascinating and haunting reading.

     The other tendency is illustrated in The Selected Poems of Sir Charles G. D. Roberts (Ryerson, xxvi, 100 pp., $3.50), edited with a concise introduction by Desmond Pacey. This book is a companion volume to the selection of Carman by Lorne Pierce, reviewed here last year. Roberts is a subjective and descriptive poet, not a mythical one, and the organizing formal principles which give both intellectual and emotional unity to his work come out of his personal life. The formal basis of his poetry is chiefly in the recollections and associations of his Maritime childhood. Being a late [45] Romantic, this means that his central emotional quality is nostalgia. From there he expands to descriptive landscape poetry, still usually with a nostalgic emotional core, and from there the next logical step would be to intellectualized poetry. Roberts tried hard to attain to this third stage, but had nothing intellectual in his mind, and Mr. Pacey has quite properly omitted the poetic results -- still, the pattern of a representational poet is complete in him.

     In 1955 there were four volumes of poetry of particular importance. Two, Wilfred Watson's Friday's Child and Anne Wilkinson's The Hangman Ties the Holly, are highly formalized poetry, making considerable use of relatively primitive forms, such as ballads and nursery rhymes. Miriam Waddington's The Second Silence and Irving Layton's The Cold Green Element are at once more subjective and more objective than the other two. They have very little in common with Roberts and his Romantic nostalgia, but their organizing associative patterns begin in personal experience, which in its turn shapes and colours a direct reaction to the world around them.

     Wilfred Watson's Friday's Child (Faber and Faber [British Book Service], 56 pp., $2.00) is typically formal poetry, mythical, metaphorical and apocalyptic, using religious language because it is impossible to avoid religious language in poetry of this kind. The expected influences are present: Hopkins (notably in "I Praise God's Mankind"), Eliot, the later Yeats, and more particularly Dylan Thomas, the most exuberantly apocalyptic poet of our time. (There are two poems on Thomas, an "Admiration" and a "Contempt": the latter seems to deny the apocalyptic element in him, which I find incomprehensible, in spite of the great eloquence of the poem itself.) Such themes and influences are by now familiar, and the familiarity is a challenge to the poet to "make it new," in Pound's phrase. It is an impressive tribute to Mr. Watson's integrity as a poet that he meets this challenge by being simple rather than clever, and a tribute to his ability that he succeeds.

     The framework of his ideas and imagery is conventional enough. There is a world that is "real," and another world that [46] is intelligible. The real world is the world of nature, where life and death, love and lust, chase each other around in a closed circle. Its presiding genius is an "old woman crossing and breeding all creatures," the central figure of the haunting "Ballad of Mother and Son." It is true that "the dead wave is pierced by the living reed," a phrase with overtones of Pascal indicating that life is as powerful and as primeval as death. Yet one discovers

          That love in its simple essence
          Is death mourned to magnificence,

and that the energy of passion is driven by the death-impulse: Tarquin the ravisher is "lit at death's white taper." In "In the Cemetery of the Sun" there is a wonderful evocation of the sense of life and death as simultaneously present: the city of Calgary is "a hill of tombstones" and the flapping clothes on Monday morning suggest the ghosts of the Crucifixion and Ezekiel's valley of dry bones.

     The other, the intelligible world, is the world of divine presence revealed by Christ, and its first impact on the world of nature is one of total opposition, the light striking into the uncomprehending darkness, into a world protected from Paradise by "the hard mercy of the flaming sword." The terror inspired by the "windy bishop" -- presumably the Holy Spirit -- "who'd preach our dust home," is the terror of being confronted with something that threatens not death but annihilation -- the same terror that made Eliot's Gerontion speak of "Christ the tiger." Yet there is a stage beyond this at which the world of light becomes simply the world of darkness illuminated, a new earth in a new heaven:

                    ... the exigent
          Last moment, when the creature at last comes home
          To reason, order, proportion, doom.

The reconciliation of the two worlds and the awakening of life-in-death to life is the theme of the powerful "Canticle of Darkness," typologically the key poem in the book, where [47] we move from creation through the death and resurrection of Christ into a new creation.

     Friday's Child is brought out by a well-known British publisher, and the blurb expresses a genuine admiration for the book, along with the faintest trace of polite surprise that lyrical tones more highly organized than a buffalo's mating call should come from the windy plains of Alberta. The present reviewer does not share the surprise, if it is there, but he fully concurs in the admiration. One gets very tired of poets who indicate an impressive subject and then walk quickly away from it, but Mr. Watson never starts anything he can't finish, even an apocalypse. He can describe Emily Carr in a way that reveals not what she painted but what she tried to paint, the vision she staked her life on. We feel that even a line as breath-taking as "When in her side my eyes were but blind seeds," or a phrase like "the tomb egg broken," is merely what fits the poem at that point: brilliant as the imagery is, there is no costume jewellery. A refrain, such as "Stand gentle in my words" in the "Canticle of Darkness," steadily tightens the tension and concentrates the reader's awareness, where a merely facile refrain would put him to sleep. "Friday's child is loving and giving," and the book shows the upsurge of creative energy that obeys the command of the thunder in The Waste Land to give, sympathize, and control. How posterity will sort out and rank the poets of today I do not know, nor much care; but in such poems as "In the Cemetery of the Sun," the "Canticle of Darkness" and perhaps the title poem, one may catch a glimpse of the reasons why, in the course of time, what the poet has to say about his culture becomes so important and what everyone else has to say becomes so much less so.

     Anne Wilkinson's The Hangman Ties the Holly (Macmillan, vi, 57 pp., $2.50) is another book of mythical and metaphorical poetry which has many resemblances to Friday's Child. The resemblances would be startling to anyone unaware of the highly stylized nature of such poetry. A poem of Mr. Watson's puns on "gone" and Maud Gonne; a poem of Mrs. Wilkinson's, "Swimming Lesson," a rather painful poem in spite of its crisp organization of narrative [48] and description, speaks of "A good Seamaritan," "the warm gulf seam of love," and a girl who "did not holy believe." The subject of Mr. Watson's "O my Poor Darling" and of Mrs. Wilkinson's "The Pressure of Night" -- very different and very remarkable poems -- is the subject of beauty and the beast. Mr. Watson's "The White Bird" and Mrs. Wilkinson's "Dirge" are both based on the Cock Robin nursery rhyme, though Mr. Watson's bird connects with the Ancient Mariner's albatross and Mrs. Wilkinson's with the turtle-dove of marriage. The other nursery rhyme which gives Mr. Watson his title is quoted in Mrs. Wilkinson's "Once upon a Great Holiday." Mr. Watson's "And Should She Ask" and Mrs. Wilkinson's "I was Born a Boy" are both riddle-poems based on a conceit of reincarnation, like some of the early Welsh poems. Mrs. Wilkinson holds her own very well against this formidable competition -- so well in fact that we must desert the comparative at once for the positive.

     Mrs. Wilkinson's most obviously striking quality is a gift for sardonic parody. In brief we have the device of altering a stock phrase, a device that may again owe something to Dylan Thomas. Thus we have "new laid lovers," "a game they know by head," "one of those fly-by-days," and the like. In large we have the parody-poem, in most cases, including the title poem, "Dirge" and parts of "Christmas Eve," a folk song or nursery rhyme gone ingeniously sour. Virginia Woolf is described in the imagery of Ariel's sea song:

          From ivory pelvis spring
          Her strange sea changeling children;
          In sockets deep with six lost layers of sight
          The sea fans open.

Not since Leo Kennedy has a Canadian poet done much with the macabre as a theme, but Mrs. Wilkinson is much possessed by death. It would be difficult to put the grotesque futility of our burial customs into fewer syllables than this:

          A miser's grace
          To fill with lead
          The breathing earth
          That gave us bread, [49]

or to make a more chillingly logical conclusion to the poet's conversation with two young lovers in a park:

          I move'd
          To go but death sat down.
          His cunning hand
          Explored my skeleton.

     Mrs. Wilkinson sees nature in sharp outlines -- it is significant that one of her favourite words is "lens" -- and she has a liking for clear colours and conventionalizing forms ("Italian Primitive"). There is also a deeper prophetic sympathy with nature, of the kind that organizes the fine little poem "Tigers Know from Birth," and flashes out a phrase like

          I put on my body and go forth
          To seek my blood.

What she emphatically is not is apocalyptic: the death that recurs so often is the guarantee of man's identity with nature: human nature is her metaphor, and she has no use for the religious language that assumes the uniqueness of humanity. Hence what we have is a kind of parody-apocalypse, a union of life and death in nature, and the last image in the book is one of a falling man.

     We turn now to the two less formal and more representational poets. In Miriam Waddington's The Second Silence (Ryerson, vi, 57 pp., $2.50), there are no apocalypses or erudite parodies: just as her metaphors are rooted in her own life, so are her myths in the society around her:

          The wine we drink is bitter
          Compounded of the blood
          Of not one Christ but many
          Who gained no holihood.

The central images of everyone's life are formed in child-hood: the child's dream world is the world of the "second silence" in which creation begins. Mrs. Waddington's "Poems of Children" (the poems are arranged according to theme) [50] move in the associative exuberance of the world of child-hood, the world where everything is mysteriously linked with everything else. In sharp contrast to the brilliant clear outlines of the two previous poets, Mrs. Waddington's images break up into a kaleidoscopic impressionism:

                    ... Lullabies from an old book
          Of apples and nutmegs and peacocks that flew
          Ceaselessly circling a golden sea.
           (It was dream, it was dream,
          Light echoed and keys were lost in the sea.)

In adult life this associative world is driven underground into the subconscious, where the irnagery of adult dreams, with all its guilt-ridden hauntings, collides or coincides with the outer world. This is the subject of the strikingly original "Morning until Night":

                    ... two black dogs dart out
          Swift as foxes to confound my eyes,
          And all the sudden wolves that had rny drearns
          Revolving on fear startle me with their smiles. ...

     Mrs. Waddington records both aspects of this conflict equally well. In "Poems of Love," especially "Thou Didst Say Me," the constant turning of the lover's individuality on its axis, so to speak, is expressed by an intense murmuring of repeated sound, and in "Poems of Work" the squalor that a social worker sees in a modern city is recorded with the kind of sympathy that comes from being emotionally involved in everybody else's fate. In the last section, "Poems of Living," something of her earlier "Green World" imagery begins to creep back, like blades of grass rooting in pavement, particularly in the final poem, "Inward Look the Trees," which brings the book to an impressive close. Where she is least successful, the failure is due to intellectual excess, not deficiency, as in the poems to a teacher and a pupil, where there is too much unorganized metrical talk. But she has her own distinctive quality: a gentle intimacy and an. [51] unmediated, though by no means naive, contact between herself and her world.

     Irving Layton's The Cold Green Element (Contact Press, unnumbered, $1.50) is also polarized between personal association and a direct reaction to experience, though in a more explosive way than Mrs. Waddington's book. In such poems as "winter fantasy" (his titles are in lower case) and "me, the p.m., and the stars," there is a subjective rearranging of images, of a kind that was called "surrealism" in the fashionable slang of twenty years back, dream poems a little like Chagall paintings. What many surrealists did not sur-realize was that such techniques are of little point without their objective counterpart, the vision of a world which acts in as sex-goaded, as guilt-ridden, as arbitrarily foolish a way as the dream. Mr. Layton's fantasy is not irresponsible or a mere playing with verbal patterns, because the distortions of the poetic imagination are geared to the distortions of society. For this kind of writing a poet needs humour and technical competence, and Mr. Layton appears to have plenty of both. Sometimes the humour becomes sinister and Kafkaesque, as in "the executioner," and sometimes self-mocking, as in the end of "the poet entertains several ladies." In "me, the p.m., and the stars," when the poet is rebuked by the Prime Minister for throwing a snowball through some-body's window, the poet explains that he has met a "sage" -- presumably Zarathustra -- who has given him a motive for doing so:

          He also said pity was loss of power.
          Someone had to tell the people
          what was happening; it's indecent to let
          the death of the last god go by unnoticed.

     The objective pole takes the form of social caricature -- not satire or invective, for which Mr. Layton has no gift, but the mock-heroic, or, as in the lively "birds at daybreak," the mock-mythical. In "Golfers" he says: [52]

          And you see at a glance
          among sportsmen they are the metaphysicians,
          intent, untalkative, pursuing Unity ...

          And that no theory of pessimism is complete
          which altogether ignores them. ...

Exactly in the middle between the fantasy poems and the social poems comes the remarkable title poem, an ironic personal myth of the poet as a hanged god or nature spirit torn apart and distributed through the landscape. No quotation can do justice to the intricate unity of the poem, but we can see as soon as we read it that it presents the organizing image of the book. Again we note an odd coincidence: it is the same image as that of the central poem of Mrs. Wilkinson's book, "Carol."

     Of the poems mentioned, "Golfers" belongs to a second volume, The Blue Propeller (Contact Press, $1.00), where there are two or three other poems, including "Portrait" and "Mute in the Wind," that are witty and sharply pointed. Otherwise much of the book is an obstacle race for the sympathetic reader, a dark tunnel of noisy dullness. The Cold Green Element is infinitely better on all counts, and in it there are at least a half-dozen poems (including, besides those mentioned, the lilting "for Naomi" at the beginning) which have a rhythmical swing, an urbane humour and a technical finish guaranteed to make the reader's toes curl up in solid contentment.

     Louis Dudek's Europe (Laocoo%n [Contact] Press, iv, 139 pp., $2.00) is diary poetry: a sequence of ninety-nine short pieces recounting impressions of a trip to Europe, from England through France, Spain, Italy, and Greece, and ending with the discovery that what Europe, a shattered and demoralized civilization, really reveals to the North American is the virtues of his own culture. The century of meditation is a fatal idea for a facile poet, and although at his best Mr. Dudek escapes being merely facile, I find large stretches of [53] the book unrewarding. In the first place, the influence of Pound is oppressive. Pound is everywhere: the rub-a-dub three-and four-accent line, the trick of snapped-up quota-tions and allusions, the harangues against usura, the toboggan-slide theory of the decline of Europe after the Middle Ages, and so on. In the second place, the conversa-tional style brings the ideas into sharp relief, and the ideas are commonplace, prejudice reinforced by superficial tourism. To be told in rather pedestrian verse that the English are constrained by standards of what is and is not done hardly adds to the variety of one's poetic experience. Things improve however towards the end, where the rhythm firms up and begins to swing and lilt a bit, and where first-hand observation replaces second-hand theorizing. The eighty-first piece, a concise and ironic sketch of a Greek village, is an admirable vignette; and the ninety-fifth, on the sea, achieves the difficult feat of talking beautifully about beauty:

          Beauty is ordered in nature
          as the wind and sea
          shape each other for pleasure; as the just
          know, who learn of happiness
          from the report of their own actions.

     Raymond Souster's For What Time Slays (mimeo-graphed, 24 pp.) shows a more distinctive and unified style than any previous collection of his. There are still too many expendable poems, based on a preoccupation with the process of writing, on a substituting of ready-made moraliz-ing for observation and irony, and, most frequently, on an apparently unshakable conviction that the kind of sexual reverie indigenous to male boarding-houses is invariably poetic material. Such signs of immaturity are the result of too slavish an adherence to the conventions of his kind of poetry. In about every tenth poem he escapes these conven-tions and writes the kind of poem that only he can write. Usually it is an epigram based on observation unified by a single drop of emotional colouring: a type of epigram which for some reason has been more common in Chinese poetry than in our tradition: [54]

          I fear this skull-capped priest.
          He tells his viewers
          Someone must have Authority,
          And clearly he is thinking of himself.

     Two new series of collections of verse provide some very interesting work in small compass. Emblem Books are tiny little booklets put out by Jay Macpherson with covers by Laurence Hyde. There are three of them to date. Daryl Hine's Five Poems is a remarkable first volume, if one can call five poems a volume. Reading his long meditative lines is like watching heavy traffic at night: a brilliant series of phrases moves across a mysteriously dark background, the central driving force of the poem remaining elusive. It sounds condescending to speak of promise and a future, yet the sense of powerful gathering forces is stronger than any other reaction. The main line of development is probably indicated in such passages as this, from a dialogue of Theseus and the Minotaur (the Minotaur is speaking):

          I am Charon, and I wait
          beside this lightless river for rny gold;
          my boat is paper; I am cold;
          the winds upon the water celebrate

          the soul's long shadow and the heart's
          red beacon; I perceive
          the wormy lover wearing on his sleeve
          funerals foreshadowed by his art. ...

     Jay Macpherson's O Earth Return is almost exactly the opposite in technique, using stanza forms, usually quatrains, with expertly varied timing, and with an interest in myth that classes her with the formal poets. The title indicates a Blakean influence, which is discernible, but the tradition is rather that of the Elizabethan lyric, where -- as in Campion -- the use of a mythical or conventional theme releases the emotion by detaching it from direct experience and containing it within the convention. Thus a poem that might seem at first glance to be only an allusive literary [55] exercise becomes a kind of reservoir of feeling in which one's literary and personal associations mingle and are held in the kind of variable emotional contemplation that it is one of the primary functions of poetry to provide:

          Where is your god, Sibylla? where is he
          Who came in other days
          To lay his bright head on your knee
          And learn the secrets of Earth's ways?

          Silence: the bat-clogged cave
          Lacks breath to sigh.
          Sibylla, hung between earth and sky
          Sways with the wind in her pendant gave. [?]

     There are fewer surprises in the third Emblem Book, Dorothy Livesay's New Poems, where the main impression is of a disciplined and experienced handling of modern poetic idioms. A sense of a lonely pessimism, of the shutting off of communication, of the inevitable victories of winter and darkness, gives the poems a plaintively muted quality: they seem to struggle against a conviction that they cannot say much:

          And deeper than flash
          Of fin in well
          Your thoughts dot, dash --
          But never tell.

          O when will you freeze
          Glassy, clear
          Frost-breathing image
          On polished air: ...

     This survey was originally bibliographical as well as critical, and it may well be thought that a review which mentions twenty-three separate items can have only a bibliographical interest. There is perhaps some point in explaining the critical principle. The ideal reader often visualized by founders of little mags, who is eager to read contemporary poetry but has no ambition to write it, barely exists. Practically everybody who habitually reads poetry [56] habitually writes it as well. That is as it should be: there are many things wrong with the position of the poet in modern society, but this is not one of the wrong things. The cultivated amateur is the backbone of all the arts, especially poetry, as the professional poet who lives by his verse is usually a writer of newspaper doggerel. Criticism concerned primarily with measuring the distance between amateur verse and great poetry is essential, but there will never be any lack of it. Meanwhile, what with an indifferent public, the conscientiously contemptuous critics, and perhaps his own frustrated ambitions, the amateur poet has a hard time of it. Yet in Canada, where there is no sharp line between the regular and the occasional poet, it seems more appropriate to look at a year's output inclusively, as a total power of articulation, shading from a luminous centre to a pleasantly blurred periphery.

     In every year in Canada, including 1955, most of the published verse shows the features of occasional amateur writing. Lines will be pumped up with adjectives; rhymes in a sonnet will clang like a typewriter bell; stodgy rhythms will be harried into movement by starting every line with a heavy accent; a sentence will begin in poetry and finish in vague prose; a failure in accurate expression will be concealed by an exclamation, and so on and so on. These faults also occur even in the best poetry, and many of the virtues of the best poetry reappear in the slighter books. Hence while much Canadian verse could be honestly described, by the highest standards of the best twentieth-century poets, as metrical doodling, it could also be described, just as honestly and perhaps more usefully, as the poetic conversation of culti-vated people. After all, there are many who will read detective stories with pleasure even when they have the style of a riveting machine, the characterization of a tombstone, and the plot of a charade: perhaps poetry too might be approached with some tolerance for the convention as well as evaluation for the achievement. ...[57]

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