from 'Letters in Canada' 1956

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1956

     Poetry cannot be written by an act of will, and society cannot produce poets by an act of will. There is a strong desire in Canada to have fine poetry written in the country, but the will of society, as expressed in education, can be directed only towards building up a cultivated public for poetry, a public which would be able to recognize fine poetry if it saw it. Otherwise generous words about welcoming new poets will be accompanied by complaints that all the poets who have appeared so far are too "modern," and do not sound like poetry as the reader remembers it to have been when he stopped listening to it in Grade Six. Young people should certainly be encouraged to write, for everyone can learn to write poetry up to a point -- the point of discovering how difficult it is to write it unusually well. To get to that point is no mean achievement, as it is well past the substandard level of naive or doggerel verse which is the usual mode of amateur expression. But the main purpose of such encouragement is to breed a love of poetry, not to breed poets.

     First Flowering (Kingswood House, xiv, 210 pp., $3.00), edited by Anthony Frisch, is a collection of poetry and prose in both languages written by young people (twelve to nineteen) in high schools all across Canada. Mr. Frisch has received warm praise, which he assuredly deserves, for the skill and energy with which he has carried out his task. The importance of what he has done is very considerable, though we should realize that the importance is educational and not literary in reference. The book is not an anthology of the Canadian writers of tomorrow: it is evidence of intelligence and cultivated taste among Canadian teen-agers. I imagine that a comparable cross-section of any other age level in Canada would produce much the same literary result, though of course with less freshness and charm. I understand that Mr. Frisch is now busy with a similar anthology taken from an older professional group, which will do much to confirm or refute me on this point. Of the poems in First Flowering, we recognize all the familar conventions of poetry on that [58] level. There is the nostalgic poem, the realistic poem, the di-dactic poem, the parody or comic poem, the poem of observed or remembered beauty, and so on. Here and there something less predictable emerges, as in Charles R. Eisener's delightful "The Planets." But there is no reason to suppose that any of the contributors are about to start out on the lonely, uphill, flinty road of the professional poet. If there were any such, the book, for them, would be better entitled First Deflowering. ...

     Three Windows West, by Dick Diespecker (J. M. Dent & Sons, xvi, 160 pp., $3.50) is a strange mixture. Some of it is verse journalism of a type crisply described by W. H. Auden, in one of the better passages of "Under Which Lyre," as designed "For recitation by the yard In filibusters." A poem called "Prayer for Victory" was, the preface tells us, read to a million people in New York by Raymond Massey; it sold 35,000 copies on Canadian newstands and 200,000 more copies were distributed by a bank during a Victory Loan drive; it has reached an estimated total of over half a billion people:

          Then, Dear God,
          Make us worthy of Victory.
          Give us the strength
          To keep our pledges
          To make a better world ...
          So that never again
          Will there be a Hitler or a Mussolini,
          A Himmler or a Goebbels;
          Never again a blitzkrieg;
          Never again the bitter treachery
          Of Pearl Harbour. ...

It is easier to turn on the mechanism of a conditioned reflex than to shut it off, and Mr. Diespecker has not escaped the fate of the sorcerer's apprentice. The sense of his formidable captive audience has given him a fatal fluency, which he employs in alternately addressing Dear God and summoning memories of the ol' swimmin' hole type: [59]

          Betcha Mom's in the kitchen right this minute
          Making punkin pie.

     If this were all his book contained, there would be no occasion for mentioning it in this survey. But here and there one finds, if not always genuine poetry, at least a genuine effort to write it, and a poem called "Return to Labour," which would be good anywhere, is, in this context, shock-ingly good. The opening poem, with a South African setting, is also, in spite of a persistent misspelling of "its" and a somewhat discouraging first line ("A bok-ma-kerri scolds the lagging stars"), both honest and attractive. It is a disturbing thought that the writing of such stuff as "Prayer for Victory" and its congeners may have required the self-destruction of an authentic poet.

     The Poetry of E. J. Pratt, by John Sutherland (Ryerson, x, 109 pp., $3.75) is one of the few pieces of sustained Canadian criticism that I have read slowly, marking passages with a pencil. Pratt is a genuinely popular poet, and hence a difficult subject for criticism: most of his readers read him for other values, and for many of the remainder, a poet with all those editions, honorary degrees, and medals (one could almost call him a gong-tormented poet) is too obfuscated by another kind of recognition. Mr. Sutherland's book is of importance, not only because it takes Pratt seriously, but because it takes poetry seriously, and accepts Pratt as a genuine and valid kind of poetic experience. It is important also as the only major work of a critic whose premature death has deprived the country of one of its most selfless and dedicated literary citizens.

     Much of what he says about the relation of man to nature in Pratt, the ambivalence of Pratt's moral attitudes, and the point of identity between the slayer and the slain in his heroic narratives, is both new and sound. The symbolic expansion of Pratt's characters into Christian archetypes may not please every Pratt reader: granted the premises of this type of criticism, he does not falsify Pratt's meaning, but he does give the impression of straining his text. The reason for this may be that he seems to assume that Pratt is a poet who, [60] through his background and also through some inner bent in poetry itself, absorbed a great deal of Christian symbolism more unconsciously than deliberately. I imagine that Christianity means something quite as positive to the poet as it does to his critic, and something rather more mature and complex. I feel that Mr. Sutherland misinterprets "The Truant," which is the central poem in the Pratt canon as far as belief is concerned: the "great Panjandrum" in that poem is not God, and the attitude of the man to him is not "secular," otherwise he could hardly swear allegiance to the "rood" in the last line. But with these minor reservations the book is a fine and eloquent study, as worthy of its author as it is of its subject.

     The editor of The Selected Poems, by Raymond Souster (Contact Press, 135 pp., $2.00) is Louis Dudek, and he has done a good job, perhaps intended, as the rather odd title suggests, to be definitive. Mr. Souster is revealed as a most prolific poet: ten collections of his work are in existence, of which I have seen only six, and the selections from the four I have not seen have given me a quite new idea of him. Mr. Souster is a genuine poet whose qualities are subtlety and humour, but he often spoils his subtlety with repetition and his humour with moralizing. Mr. Dudek's introduction approves of the moralist, but his critical taste does not, and his selection disentangles Mr. Souster's genuine poems from the straggly excelsior packed around them in the original collections. Subtlety and humour are also the qualities needed for epigram, and epigram is the genre to which the poet has, wisely, devoted himself. The effects of his epigrams are made chiefly by theme: verbal wit and metrical dexterity, the normal characteristics of epigram, are both rare. Occasionally there is a punch line, either conventionally at the end ("The Bourgeois Child") or at the beginning, as in the study of the "Drummer Man" which flows easily out of its fine opening "Sooner or later he was bound to put his sticks by." Mr. Dudek quotes Whitman on the "perfect [61] candour" to which the poet is entitled, but the essential, or creative, candour in Mr. Souster is that of the candid camera. For in the main his method is photographic, a sharply focussed observation of life in the fourmillante cite/ and his moralizing is akin to the photographer's sentimental caption.

     There are still a few captions, but there is also a respectable body of serious and subtle verse. I like very much the snapshot of "Girls Playing Softball":

          But it doesn't quite come off.
          The voices are a little too high, the ball
          Never seems to behave properly, the bats
          Heavy and awkward.

There is a study of "Nice People," in which a poet Sits gravely in the back kitchen, arguing with the negro maid (almost an intellectual herself) the pros and cons of sterilizing the family cat now curled in the centre of the floor. There are some sombre but admirable hospital scenes, and "Old Man Leaning on a Fence" and "Bridge over the Don" catch another big-city vignette: the gloomy stare into darkness which seems to mean only a vacant mind but actually means that the will to live is ebbing:

          Haven't you seen
          The river before, don't you know it runs, smells like a sewer?

And there are some poems that are just good fun, like "The Opener" and the poem which concludes the book, "Flight of the Roller Coaster."

     In this kind of poetry all freshness and novelty come from the choice of subject: the whole creative energy is expended in looking for appropriate scenes and getting them into focus. Reflection and comment are left to habit, and habit produces only the commonplace: in Mr. Souster's poetry it produces mainly grousing. Mr. Dudek's poetry is a contrast in subject-matter, but the same general principle holds. Mr. Dudek is introverted and emotional: what takes [62] fresh and novel shape in his poetry is a sensuous reaction. In The Transparent Sea (Contact Press, 117 pp., $2.00), a retrospective collection, the best pieces are songs conveying an immediate mood, such as the one beginning "A bird who sits over my door"; or studies in the movement and sound of words, like "Tree in a Snowstorm"; or ideas that suddenly twist round into paradoxes, like the admirable opening poem on the pineal gland, or his comparison of the universe to a watch which makes religion a search "for larger regions of clockwise justice"; or quick vivid sketches like "Late Winter" or "Lines for a Bamboo Stick," the latter with an Oriental reference; or a study of swift movement, like his picture of a little girl skipping called "The Child."

     One of his favourite adjectives is "wet," and some of his best poems have the quality of the wet water-colour that is done quickly and makes its point all at once. Sometimes an image strikes him in a grotesque form, as in the astonishingly successful "Mouths"; sometimes as a muttering and brooding anxiety, as in the near-prose fantasy "The Dead." One often feels that a poem is inconclusive, but then one often feels too that the inconclusiveness is part of the effect, as it is in a sketch. An example is one of the few photographic poems, "To an Unknown in a Restaurant." In such poetry the ideas or comments have to be equally unpremeditated. When they are, they break out with the oracular tone appropriate to ideas that are not hooked on to others:

          What we call nature is nothing else than
          the triumph of life other than our own --

In short, I feel that when the poet says

          The world I see (this poem)
          I make out of the fragments of my pain
          and out of the pleasures of my trembling senses

he is telling us the exact truth about his poetic process.

     It follows that he is working against his best qualities when he writes in a sequence, whether of description or [63] thought. Here he is dependent on habit, and produces the cliche/s of habit. In the "Provincetown" sequence there is the same kind of maunderlust that filled so much of Europe. Sexual imagery is also a trap for him, for sex is something he feels self-conscious and explanatory about. At other times he is not satisfied with inconclusiveness, and some of the poems sag into platitude in an effort to round off, as in "On Sudden Death" and elsewhere. Yet, as the examples above have made clear, there is much to be grateful for in Mr. Dudek's book, and a great variety of pleasant and melodious writing.

     Phyllis Webb's Even your Right Eye (McClelland & Stewart, 64 pp., $2.75) in the Indian File series, is contemporary in technique: one senses Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens respectively in a pair of poems called "Poetry" and "In Situ," though of course this may be general idiom rather than actual derivation. But it is not the technique but the combination of decorative elegance in the diction and melancholy in the mood that marks her affinities. Such poems as "Standing" and "Double Entendre" are almost a kind of verbal embroidery, making one wonder about the role of the typewriter carriage in the twentieth-century poetic process, or, as she says:

          shapes fall in a torrent of design
          and over the violent space
          assume a convention. . . .

The attitude which corresponds to such diction is one of amused detachment. She has a talent, not fully exploited, for sophisticated light verse, and the concluding "Earth Descending," which appeared in Trio two years ago and is like an adult version of the "Planets" poem in First Flowering, is still perhaps her best single poem. But the general principle holds that her most sharply realized writing comes in moods of doubt, loneliness, and unhappiness. When such writing occurs, the reader feels that he is no longer listening in on an educated monologue, but being directly spoken to: [64]

          where does it dwell, that virtuous land
          where one can die without a second birth:

     There are some uncertainties in the style. Strained is the syntax in "sensed is the green grape pulse" and "Sprouts the bitter grain," and the latter poem, for all its eloquence, has not quite sifted the allegorical ash from the metaphorical flame. On the other hand, "The Second Hand" seems to me successful all through, and "Sacrament of Spring," based on an April-is-the-cruellest-month theme, is something more than successful, with its haunting refrain and its line "The flower and the whip are wed." "Incidental," with its admirable final couplet, is brief enough to quote in full:

          In that indelible year
          when the soldiers came
          and the dogs and harpies visited churches
          the creatures of my infant dreams
          rose up in agony and fear
          and splayed the air with foetal screams
          and left the year uncompromised.

          The year then knew its form and fled
          into the cities of the dead.

     A Window on the North, by R. A. D. Ford (Ryerson, v1, 48 pp., $2.50) is the work of a poet who has been in the diplomatic service in Brazil and in Russia. The poems include two translated from Brazilian poets, one, "Confidences of an Itabirano," being a remarkable poem which makes one wish for more such translations. Six poems are translated or adapted from modern Russian poets. Four of them are from Sergei Yessenin, who, like Mayakovsky, committed suicide in the early years of the Communist re/gime. The implied contrast in imagery between the brilliant and turbulent south and the grey mechanized north enters the Canadian poems too, and is brought into focus in the long concluding poem, "Luis Medias Pontual in Red Square." This poem depicts the hollow ache in the soul of a disillusioned Spanish refugee in Moscow, who notes that Russia and Spain have both been touched by the Orient, and are alien to both East and West. [65]

     I have seldom read a book of poems so uniformly bleak and desolate in their imagery, yet bleakness, especially to a reader brought up in Canada, is a very appealing imaginative mood. Mr. Ford is in the tradition of Carman, Campbell, D.C. Scott and others who have communicated the sense of the lonely winter afternoons, the struggling sun, the lynx and wolf lurking in the black woods, the long white expanses of fields. and the resulting fear in the mind of the beholder who feels, so to speak, spiritually responsible for the landscape, stretching as it does "to the Arctic ends of the earth." It is essential that the mind should set itself against such a world, otherwise the world will move in and reduce the mind to its own level of merciless terror and death. This has already happened in a grim poem called "Roadside near Moscow," where the poet sees, but dares not look too closely at:

                    the almost human-like
          Column of prisoners, waiting for the snow
          To fill in their tracks.

     His favourite pattern is an extension of his south-and-north imagery, the contrast between the brilliant reds and yellows of autumn and the black and white winter. The symbol of the hunter, pursuing death in his red coat across the stubble fields, seems to reflect the world of the middle twentieth century, fading from its past heritage into its future dispossession. Sometimes a symbolism of fertile valley and bare hill is used instead, with the same meaning. In "A Delusion of Reference" the "delusion" is an instant of pattern or design, perceived a moment before "the universe Settles into its usual disarray." Mr. Ford's style is lucid and sober, qualities especially valuable in translators: it can be dull but is thoughtful and not sloppy, and his cosmopolitan influences and settings give his book unusual claims on our attention.

     Leonard Cohen, Let Us Compare Mythologies (McGill Poetry Series, Contact Press, 79 pp., $2.00) is the first in a series of books featuring McGill poets, which we owe, as we [66] owe so much, to the generous enthusiasm of Louis Dudek. The poems are of very unequal merit, but the book as a whole is a remarkable production. The erotic poems follow the usual convention of stacking up thighs like a Rockette chorus line, and for them Mr. Cohen's own phrase, "obligations, the formalities of passion," is comment enough. But it is an excess of energy rather than a deficiency of it that is his main technical obstacle. Sometimes moods and images get tangled up with each other and fail to come through to the reader, or allusions to books or paintings distract the attention and muffle the climax, as in "Jingle." In short, this book has the normal characteristics of a good first volume.

     To come to his positive qualities, his chief interest, as indicated in his title, is mythopoeic. The mythologies are Jewish, Christian, and Hellenistic. The Christian myth is seen as an extension of the Jewish one, its central hanged god in the tradition of the martyred Jew ("Saviors"), and Hellenism is the alien society which Christianity has come to terms with and Judaism has not. The mythical patterns of the Bible provide some of the paradigms of his imagery:

          The sun is tangled
                    in black branches
          raving like Absalom
                    between sky and water,
          struggling through the dark terebinth
          to commit its daily suicide.

Other mythical figures, such as the femme fatale at the centre of "Letter," "Story," and "Song of Patience," and the dying god of "Elegy," are of white-goddess and golden-bough provenance. Mr. Cohen's outstanding poetic quality, so far, is a gift for macabre ballad reminding one of Auden, but thoroughly original, in which the chronicles of tabloids are celebrated in the limpid rhythms of folksong. The grisly "Halloween Poem," with its muttering prose glosses, is perhaps the most striking of these, but there is also a fine mythopoeic "Ballad" beginning "My lady was found mutilated," which starts with a loose free verse idiom and at [67] the end suddenly concentrates into quatrains. The song beginning "My lover Peterson" is simpler but equally effective, and so is another disturbing news item called "Warning." In "Lovers" he achieves the improbable feat of making a fine dry sardonic ballad out of the theme of a pogrom. No other Canadian poet known to me is doing anything like this, and I hope to see more of it -- from Mr. Cohen, that is.

     The year 1956 is certainly Irving Layton's year, as far as English Canadian poetry is concerned. Three collections of his work have appeared. The Improved Binoculars (Jonathan Williams, 106 pp.) is a selection of his poems, mainly from the collections of the last three years, with an introduction by William Carlos Williams. Dr. Williams writes with com-mendable enthusiasm, and I find only his epithet "backwoodsman" difficult -- perhaps that is how Montreal looks from the perspective of Paterson, N.J. The collection is strongly recommended to those who are becoming curious about this poet, and who have missed the individual volumes from which it has been made. This is also the third year that Mr. Layton has issued two books of verse, one containing most of his more serious poems, the other devoted chiefly to expressions of his poetic personality. The latter group comprise The Long Pea-Shooter, The Blue Propeller, and now Music on a Kazoo (Contact Press, 59 pp.). Mr. Layton's poetic personality is entertaining enough, but is altogether a more stereotyped and predictable character than the actual poet. Music on a Kazoo is chiefly remarkable for "The Dwarf," a Kafkaesque murder trial which brings out such evidence as this:

                    The manufacturer excused
          himself, saying he had loved her, that he was
          not a sentimental philistine but a poet: he
          had provided the money.

     There is perhaps nothing of major importance in The Bull Calf and Other Poems (Contact Press, 49 pp.), at least nothing with the excitement of the title poem of The Cold [68] Green Element or the better poems in In the Midst of My Fever. But there are some excellent poems, which emphasize the growing serenity and precision in Mr. Layton's best work and his power of telling the whole disinterested imaginative truth about his subject, free of both querulousness and posing. These are qualities which the more self-advertising poems give little hint of. Mr. Layton has spoken of the influence of D. H. Lawrence, and there are certainly signs of that influence. There is the same sacramental conception of sex in "The Dark Nest," "Sacrament by the Water," and elsewhere, and the same ability to humanize the animal world in the title poem (about a newborn bull calf killed because he is unprofitable), and in a poem about a mosquito.

                    with a queer sort
          of dignity clinging to its inert legs.

     There may be some Lawrence, too, in his sacrificial symbolism, which enters the bull calf poem and crops up elsewhere, as in a poem about chokecherries where the caterpillar-ridden leaves are a sacrifice for the cherries. But he has, for one thing, a sense of ethical reality that Lawrence lacked. He notes the "stale melodrama of guilt" in the brooding resentments of the inner mind; he notes the curious parody of self-sacrifice which will make a man deliberately undercut himself in order to maintain his good opinion of himself; he notes the alliance of morality and desire in sexual relations when he advises a seducer to make a wife feel that she is lying with her husband. This shrewd insight into the self-satisfactions of evil brings him closer to Kafka, even to Eliot, particularly in an extraordinary "hollow men" poem called "Letter from a Straw Man" and another called "Halos at Lac Marie Louise," where the skilful use of assonance-rhyme indicates an unobtrusive mastery of technique:

          It was a white skeleton
          Of a tree orninously gnarled;
          And around the singular crow
          The stark crows whirled. [69]

In short, Mr. Layton appears to be gathering together the powers and range of what is certainly the most considerable Canadian poet of his generation, and may soon become something more. ...

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