from 'Letters in Canada' 1959

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1959

     There is nothing particularly "modern" about the gap between poetry and its reading public, or about the charge that poets are wilfully obscure, a charge levelled with great enthusiasm against (for example) Keats's Endymion. In every age the envious readers -- a large group of every writer's contemporaries -- have resented the humility that close attention requires, and poetry has never been popular except when it provided some kind of middle distance, by telling stories or crystallizing into proverbs and slogans. But there are, perhaps, some additional hazards about our own age.

     Most people nowadays are accustomed to the double talk of journalism, and it is not the difficulty of poetry that they find baffling, but its simplicity. Vivid imagery and concrete language are too sharp for readers accustomed to the murkiness of dead words, and make them wince and look away. A recent Canadian book of verse was reviewed in an [107] American journal devoted entirely to poetry, by a reviewer who kept protesting that he couldn't understand a word of it. The writing could not have been clearer or simpler: but that was the trouble. Again, lyrical poetry cannot be read quickly: it has no donkey's carrot like a whodunit, and the developing of "reading skills," which enable the reader to come to terms with his own sense of panic, has no relation to the reading of poetry. The reading of poetry is a leisurely occupation, and is possible only for that small minority which believes in leisure.

     George Johnston's The Cruising Auk (Oxford, pp. 72, $2.50) should appeal to a wider audience than most books of poems surveyed in these reviews. Even the envious reader should be disarmed by the simplicity, which may make him feel that he could do as well if he set his mind to it, or that here at last is a "light" verse which "doesn't take itself too seriously," the favourite cliché of the culturally submerged. The critic, however, has to explain that the substance of Mr. Johnston's poetry is not at all the image of the ordinary reader that is reflected from its polished surface. He must explain that seriousness is not the opposite of lightness, but of portentousness, and that genuine simplicity is always a technical tour de force. In short, he must insist that Mr. Johnston's most pellucid lyrics have to be read as carefully as the most baffling paper chase of E. E. Cummings.

     The difference between the simple and the insipid, in poetry, is that while simplicity uses much the same words, it puts them together in a way that keeps them echoing and reverberating with infinite associations, rippling away into the furthest reaches of imaginative thought. It is difficult for a critic to demonstrate the contrast between the simplicity that keeps him awake at night and the mediocrity that puts him to sleep in the day. In The Cruising Auk, however, there is one major clue to the simplicity. Like Mr. Reaney and Miss Macpherson before him, Mr. Johnston has produced a beautifully unified book, the apparently casual poems carrying the reader along from the first poem to the last in a voyage of self-discovery. We begin with a Narcissus image, a boy gazing into a pool and feeling an identity with "the abyss. [108] he gazes on," and we end with "O Earth, Turn!" (the echo of Miss Macpherson can hardly be an accident) where the abyss opens up again inside the adult:

          I love the slightly flattened sphere,
          Its restless, wrinkled crust's my here,
          Its slightly wobbling spin's my now
          But not my why and not my how:
          My why and how are me.

     Between these two points, a state of innocence and a state in which all paradise is lost except a residual intuition, Mr. Johnston surveys the ages of man. He first explores the "pool" or pond, life or the objective side of existence, which remains the controlling image of the book. In "In the Pond" the poet lies beneath it; in "In It" he sails over it in a boat; in "The Queen of Lop" it enters a girl's dreams as a death symbol; in "Poor Edward" it forms the basis for a beautifully cadenced death-by-water poem of suicide; in "Wet" the death symbol modulates into rain. Human life is thus looked at as symbolically under water, hence the watching fish in "Rapture" and "Life from a Goldfish Bowl," and the fine "Eating Fish," where the fish disappears into the man, a quizzical analogue to Miss Macpherson's fisherman. The poet first discovers that the innocence of childhood is not self-contained but rebellious, a battle with invisible gods revealed in the noise of a small boy:

          Grievous energies of growth,
          Storms of pride and tides of sloth
          Sweep across his giant soul
          Against the gods, the small and whole.

As one gets older one comes to terms with experience, and the age of anxiety settles more or less contentedly into

          ... this excellent street-scattered city,
          This home, this network, this great roof of pity.

     The cosiness of domestic life among family and friends occupies much of Mr. Johnston's foreground: he depicts it [109] without rancour and without insisting, like so many more obsessed intellectuals, that only a damned soul can remain absorbed in it:

          My pleasures, how discreet they are!
          A little booze, a little car,
          Two little children and a wife
          Living a small suburban life.

For if one can be deeply moved (in "Cathleen Sweeping") by a three-year-old daughter struggling with a broom, one can appreciate that a small suburban life, even as lived by adults, may have something equally pathetic and dauntless about it. Thus Mr. Murple's mother, who gets a bottle of gin from her son on Mother's Day but defiantly buys her own flower:

          "A nice red rose to show I'm still alive:
          Fifty cents they asked me for it, thieves:
          Yellow to show you're dead is fifty-five
          All done up in ferny things and leaves."

In fact Mr. Johnston has a Dickensian sense of the violence of the life force in drab or even squalid surroundings, a sense not many modern poets show, apart from Thomas's Under Milk Wood. He admires his gigantic aunts and the vast pregnancy of Bridget, and wonders why Eternity should be too stuffy for the "bugs and bottles and hairpins" of Mrs. McWhirter's highly unsanitary existence and should reduce her instead to a more impersonal dust.

     Yet it is still the age of anxiety: the clock, a recurring image, keeps placidly ticking away the moments of life; the "spider's small eye" is watching and waiting, and all around is a sinister and conspiratorial darkness, of a kind that scares Edward reading "Light Literature" and eventually pulls him into it, and that forms the background of the very lovely "A Little Light." Actual ghosts appear in "A Happy Ghost" and the demure parody of Yeats's "All Souls' Night." Part of this world is a cheerfully murderous nature: a cat stalking a squirrel reminds us that [110]

          Life is exquisite when it's just
          Out of reach by a bound
          Of filigree jaws and delicate paws

and Miss Beleek is visited by "Moments almost too bright to bear" when she thinks of shooting the children who trample over her garden. A darker ferocity appears on the horizon in "War on the Periphery," in the marching of.

          The violent, obedient ones
          Guarding my family with guns.

Part of it again is the sense of a submerged communion in nature, like the dogs reconnoitering at posts in "Noctam-bule," or the "ecstatic edge of pain" in "After Thunder." Part of it is the hidden private world that everyone retires into in sleep, the world so prominent in sexual love, with its hard narcist core of self-absorption represented by "Elaine in a Bikini," by the Lorelei figure in "Music on the Water," and by the woman in "Home Again" who returns from a night on the tiles with this inner core almost, but not quite, violated:

          Now I am a bent doll,
          I shed my silky stuff
          And soon I'll be a sleeping heart.
          The gods got enough.

Even altruism may be expressed by the same kind of ego, like the contracting heart of Boom the "saint," or the pity that the poet feels for his other friend Goom.

     And as we go on we feel less reassured by "the savoir faire of doom" and by the poet's insistence, sailing his crowded boat on the sea of life, that "Important people are in it as well." Life is not going anywhere except into death, and its minor pleasures of beer and love and sleep are all rehearsals for death. In "Smilers" something of the bewilderment of Willy Loman appears in the successful extrovert surrounded by what he is beginning to realize are fixed and glassy grins: [111]

          After all, I made some dough,
          By and by I made some more;
          Anywhere I like to go
          Friends, my goodness, friends galore!

And eventually one begins to see that the "pond" has a bottom, familiarly known as death and hell, and that perhaps the "airborne" career of the cruising auk, an absurd and extinct bird that nevertheless manages somehow to get above himself, may have something to be said for it. At any rate it, or something like it, inspires Mrs. McGonigle into the stratosphere, frightens Mr. Smith, her protègé, into a coffin-like telephone booth, and sends Mr. Murple into a tree, where, in the curious Orpheus poem at the end of the second part, he sits charming the local frogs and bugs (in contrast to the crow at the end of the first part, who can only choose "Empty tree for empty tree"). Even a much rarer event, the "apocalyptic squawk" of the great dufuflu bird, does not pass wholly unheeded.

     If I have not demonstrated how simplicity reverberates, at any rate I have shown that Mr. Johnston is an irresistibly readable and quotable poet. His finest technical achievement, I think, apart from his faultless sense of timing, is his ability to incorporate the language of the suburbs into his own diction. He does not write in the actual vulgate, but he manages to suggest with great subtlety the emotional confusions behind the pretentious diction and vague syntax of ordinary speech:

          Mrs. Belaney has a son
          -- Had, I should say, perhaps --

          Who deeds of gallantry has done,
          Him and some other chaps.

Or the elusiveness of large ideas as their shadows pass over an inarticulate mind:

          And as it happened we agreed
          On many things, but on the need
          Especially of mental strife
          And of a whole new source of life. [112]

It is this controlled portrayal of the ineffectual that gives Mr. Johnston his unique bittersweet flavour, and a "disconsolate" tone, to use one of his favourite words, that would be merely coy if it were less detached, or merely brittle if it were more so.

     Ronald Bates's The Wandering World (Macmillan, pp. vi, 60, $2.75) is another voyage of discovery, this time of Canada. We begin with a section called "Histories," dealing with early voyages of exploration, with the sense of vast spaces in front and the illusion of some ineffably glamorous Cathay in the distance that has given its name to Lachine. In "Parallels in a Circle of Sand" the poet describes how the oppressiveness of the lack of tradition, the feeling of time cut off at the roots, pulls the Canadian back into Europe, only to make him realize how his real traditions are those of the explorers, and that the mutilation of time in his experience is hereditary. The next section, "Myths," deals with the huge mythological figures in which an imagination first tries to conquer a new land, some of them assimilated to modern life, like "Overheard in the Garden," very Audenesque in its linking of the immemorial lost garden symbol to a detective story. Next are the "Interiors," where the themes are drawn from ordinary civilized life, and the "Landscapes," the corresponding images of nature outside. Finally we come to "Constructions," where the poet reaches the end of his journey in his own mind, the one fixed point of the wandering world, not only the world of space but of time also:

          Each man must come at last upon that point,
          Where all roads meet, all currents cross,
          Where past and future are valid,
          And now.

Thus we go from the open world of endless space to the contained world of the mind, and from exploration to self-knowledge.

     As this brief summary indicates, an extraordinary variety of themes, moods, and techniques are attempted in [113] the book. The histories employ what might be called a documentary style, much of it in unrhymed verse, which imitates historical narrative:

          What one cannot remember
          Concerning the customary rites,
          Prayers, plans and polymorphous
          Duties, can be improvised.
          Some died of scurvy, the first winter,
          Some were tried for theft and shot.

In the "Landscapes" there are more lyrical measures, stanzas in fairly strict metrical patterns; the "Interiors" are longish descriptive poems in an irregular meditative rhythm approximating blank verse. I find the poems in the tighter stanzaic patterns more consistently successful. Mr. Bates seems to me a romantic poet, in the sense that he often uses abstract and unvisualized language but is keenly sensitive to evocative sound. Thus the forsaken god Pan whispers in his sleep:

          Chill as the night air is
          In the garden
          Still I will not be their guardian

     Mr. Bates's Canadian landscapes are mainly of winter, and he is eloquent about the delicate cruelty of winter, the feelings of menace it can arouse in a child which are "not of cold or fear," and the way that it seems to make visible the hidden death-world of primary qualities, where colour and warmth are gone and only the measurable remains. Winter also seems to symbolize for him both the source of imaginative energy in Canada and that curious offbeat rhythm of modern life where sterility has priority, so that one somehow never seems to have time for the important experiences, like love. In the fine "Ornithomachy" both of these are symbolized by the swan-song:

          But far away where the swans belong,
          In fields of iridescent snow, [114]
          The songs of flesh and blood arc blown
          Like leaves about the cold, the shrill
          Throat where all the singing starts.

In "The Fall of Seasons" the same association of winter and a failure of experience recurs in the life of a married couple, studied under the imagery of the seasons. Courtship comes in the springtime, where "Nobody came to bother them"; summer brings an oscillation of love and routine worries, the former growing increasingly furtive as the latter take over the mind, and an ironic refrain recurs in the autumn of old age:

          They stand together in dusty photo albums,
          The last repository of dreams.
          But nobody bothers to look at them.
          Nobody bothers at all.

     There is nowhere in The Wandering World that we do not feel a contact with a richly suggestive intelligence. It sometimes happens that a poem succeeds by the interest of its controlling idea even when the texture of writing is unsatisfactory: I am thinking in particular of "I Skjaer-gaarden Ill." I find, especially in the histories and myths, a good deal of talk, and too ready a satisfaction with such phrases as "all and sundry," "meticulous care," "fall from grace," or "absolutely certain." There are inorganic adjectives, like the "chthonic" and "powerful" which make "After Pan Died" more pedantic than it should be; bleak allegory in "Industrious Revolutions," where the fly-wheel of pride meshes with the cog-wheel of man; vague words like the "pawn" which weakens the otherwise lovely "Bestiary," and rhymes like those in "The Unimaginable Zoo" which seem to be dictating the thought. But there is much to return to, from the meditation on memory as a cable laid along "The ancient mountain ranges of the sea" near the beginning to the poet building himself a tower, like Yeats, and feeling that he can "put my hand on my hand's hidden power" near the end. In a first volume we can have all this and promise too.

     Irving Layton's A Red Carpet for the Sun (McClelland & Stewart, pp. xxii, 212, $1.95 paper, $3.50 cloth) is a [115] collection, according to the author, of "all the poems I wrote between 1942 and 1958 that I wish to preserve." As such, it is, of course, a volume of great importance, and if it is not examined in detail here, that is because the poems in it have been commented on before. It needs a full-length separate review and another reviewer. The introduction, in the first place, is Mr. Layton's first articulate statement in prose, and shows that, although he still admires the energy of his own reaction to modern life, he has become more detached from it. Hence his refusal to be content with the merely poetic, to make aesthetic pearls out of his irritations, has not landed him outside poetry but into the realization that "all poetry ... is about poetry itself."

     All Layton is here: there is the satire based, like Swift's, on the conception of man as characterized less by reason than by an ability to rationalize ferocity which makes him the only really cruel animal ("Paraclete," "Abel Cain"). There are the recurring symbols of this cruelty: the tormenting and massacring of animals ("Cain," "The Bull Calf," "The Mosquito"), the desire for castration of those with more life ("Mr. Ther-Apis," "Letter to a Librarian," "The Puma's Tooth"), the refined efforts to ignore the democracy of the body ("Seven o'Clock Lecture," "Imperial," "Anti-Romantic"), the passion for envy and backbiting and every form of murder that cannot be punished ("The Toy Gun," "Now That I'm Older," "The Improved Binoculars"). There are the "atheistic" reflections on those who hope for eternal life but have never come alive ("Rose Lemay," "Two Ladies at Traymore's"), the refusals to make the compromises of pity and gregarious love ("New Tables," "Family Portrait," "For Mao Tse-Tung"), and the sense of the interpenetration of love and death ("Orpheus," "Thanatos and Eros"). There are the images of the Heraclitean fire that will burn up all the human rubbish of the world ("Love is an Irrefutable Fire," "The Poet Entertains Several Ladies"), and of the sensuous and relaxing water that will drown it ("The Swimmer," "The Cold Green Element," "Thoughts in the Water," "Sacrament by the Water"). There is the figure of poet, outcast ("The Black Huntsman"), madman ("The Birth of Tragedy," "I [116] Would for Your Sake Be Gentle"), "Jewboy" ("Gothic Landscape," "The Statuettes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah"), Chaplinesque clown ("Whatever Else Poetry is Freedom"), yet with the prophet's lion voice ("Woman," "Rain at La Minerve"), who occasionally disappears into a strange world where all the expected associations come loose and get reassembled ("It's All in the Manner," "The Poetic Process," "Winter Fantasy"). It is all here, and a great deal more, and as rich an experience as ever.

     Yet Mr. Layton seems tired of his present achievement, and one wonders if there is anything in his work so far that a reader might tire of too. In all genuine poetry we can hear the voice of a distinctive personality; but this is the poetic personality, not the ordinary one -- nobody's ordinary personality can write a poem. Neither is it the deliberately assumed stage personality with which one meets the public. Mr. Layton's stage personality has recently been embalmed in the clichés of the Star Weekly, which carefully refrains from quoting anything from him except obiter dicta of the "sex is here to stay" variety. This stage personality has much the same relation to the poet that the begorra-and-bejabers stage Irishman has to Synge or O'Casey, and Mr. Layton clearly takes this view of it himself, as anyone may see who compares the poems in this collection with what has been rejected from the twelve volumes out of which it was made. Some writers have to kill themselves with drink and apoplexy before those who cannot read poetry will believe that anyone is writing it: Mr. Layton has been more ingenious. He has satisfied the public with an image of its own notion of what a genius should be like, and has thereby set himself free for his serious work.

     But if one's stage personality is separable, the poetic personality may be too. Minor poets have only one voice; major ones speak with the gift of tongues, the multitudinous voices of sea and forest and swarming city. If one tires of anything in Mr. Layton's book, it is, perhaps, the sense of too insistent a speaking voice, and of being never out of listening range of it. One is grateful for such poems as "Song for Naomi," where the poet is talking to someone else and the [117] reader has only to eavesdrop. There is great variety of theme and imagery and mood, always touched with distinction, but little variety of tone. I imagine that Mr. Layton's future work will show a greater impersonality, which means a larger stock of poetic personae, as he becomes less afraid of not being sincere and less distrustful of the merely poetic.

     Fred Cogswell's Descent from Eden (Ryerson, pp. x, 38, $2.50) contains, in the first place, a good many vignettes of New Brunswick life of the type that he has done hitherto. He has an excellent eye for this genre, and one wishes that his ear always matched it. I don't see why they all have to be clumping sonnets with rhymes like typewriter bells, and the two in a freer form, "In These Fall Woods" and "Lefty," I like better, as the form gives him more scope to tell his story. But he catches very well the prurient wistfulness of a small community for whom the beautiful, the sinful, and the ridiculous are so closely linked that every pretty girl ill-advised enough to grow up in it has to run away and go into burlesque, like "Rose" and the mother of Lefty, or else remain and take it, like "Beth" with her miscarriage, whom the poet compares to an angleworm squirming "As some one shoves a fish-hook up her gut."

     Of the epigrams and satires, there is a pungent "Ode to Fredericton," and a quatrain which ends:

          A poem is a watch designed
          To tick forever in the mind.

There are also two ballads, plaintive and melodious, "The Ballad of John Armstrong" being the odyssey of a sailor who has a response of indifference in every port. In mood the theme has some resemblance to Patrick Anderson's "Summer's Joe." There is a lively fantasy called "The Jacks of History," too well integrated to quote from, and as well realized a poem as any in the book. There are several fine lyrics turning on well worked out conceits, including "The Water and the Rock" and "Displaced."

     The title poem and a few others that go with it add a new mythopoeic dimension to Mr. Cogswell's poetry. Eden is [118] presented as the life in the trees enjoyed by our simian ancestors before famine forced them on the ground to become "the scourge and terror of the earth," and which still survives as a kind of social memory of a paradisal tree "With fruit and innocence among its boughs." "The Dragon Tree" continues this theme of the lost garden which children can still enter but which a dragon guards against adults, and in "The Idiot Angel" and "The Fool" we are brought closer to the perversity of mind that makes us lose it. A most eloquent poem, "The Winter of the Tree," sets up the opposing symbol of a tree dying in winter "Caught in the body of its death." This last is a Biblical phrase, and links the poem with a number of religious poems ("The Web: for Easter," "A Christmas Carol," and "For Good Friday") which associate the dead tree with the cross as a central image of the post-paradisal world. So far the versatility of Mr. Cogswell's talents has been more in evidence than their concentration, but the present volume is a remarkable achievement, and the general impression is one of slow and rich growth.

     The title poem of Peter Miller's Sonata for Frog and Man (Contact, pp. 82, $2.00) contrasts the bullfrog's spontaneity of song with the curse laid upon "man, greedy for meaning," which makes him "seek the symbolism of nightbirds." I find it hard to understand why one should look for sermons in stones when the inability to preach is so attractive a feature of stones. But there are bullfrogs who loaf and invite their souls with Whitman, and men like Emerson who explain that they are not really wasting time picking flowers because every one "Goes home loaded with a thought." Mr. Miller is on the side of Emerson in this matter. For a poet, he seems curiously insensitive to the sound and movement of words: poem after poem bogs down in shapeless free verse and gabbling polysyllables. His poetic interest is mainly in allegory, and most of the poems are fables, based on conceits of comparison like "The Thaw" or "Railroad Perspective," or on moralized emblems like "Past President" or "The Bracelet." When the conceit is good and consistently worked out, the poem makes its point. "People are 8 Parts Deep" compares the visible part of an iceberg to [119] the eyes which focus the consciousness in the body; "Private Eye" reflects on the smugness inspired by the thrillers that identify one with the hunter instead of the victim, and "Lemmings," of course, comments on the human analogies to the death-march of those lugubrious rodents.

     Mr. Miller appears to have travelled widely, and many of the poems with Mexican, Continental, and Levantine settings are full of sharp observation, as are some of the Ontario countryside. I find, however, the more reflective poems like "Passage to Thule" more arresting, and "The Prevention of Stacy Miller," based on a theme like Lamb's "Dream Children," is, to me, much the most moving poem in the book. But "The Capture of Edwin Alonzo Boyd" is a skilful adaptation of the idiom of the naive ballad, and in some of the later poems, such as "Your Gifts," the rhythm picks up and the lines start to swing. "Hour in the Warren" is based on a sharp contrast of semantic and metrical rhythms, a little like Marianne Moore, and the third "Murder Jury" poem reaches a carefully muted conclusion:

          From this turret, vision is vast,
          all heaviness lifts at the last
          and certainty, as an aerial thing,
          takes wing.

     George Walton's The Wayward Queen (Contact, pp. 64, $1.50) is light but highly cultivated verse, much of it in an idiom of familiar address rare in Canadian poetry. It is a retrospective collection, some of the poems being dated as far back as 1919. The poems are least successful when adhering to certain literary stereotypes, as in the Falstaff poems, and occasionally, as in "Prairie Village," a poem talks all around a theme without finding the central words. They are most successful when the poet realizes that the lightness of light verse is a matter of rhythm and diction and not of content. Thus in the title poem: [120]

          The Queen of Cilicia slept with Cyrus --
          Xenophon says they said,
          now, dust is Xenophon, scattered Cyrus,
          the Wayward Queen is dead.

The content is deliberately commonplace, which, when the rhythmical lilt is so attractive; is a positive virtue: one gets the feeling of popular song, as one often does in Housman, whom Mr. Walton seems to be echoing in "Isolt the Queen." Similarly the poems with refrains or repetitive sound pat-terns, like "Madrigal" or the opening "Security," which begins with the jingle "No noise annoys an oyster," often give an effect of rising from talk into singing. Such increased intensity gives a well rounded conclusion to an otherwise less interesting "Borrowed Themes."

     Mr. Walton is a well read poet, who delicately calls a politician a jackass by means of a reference to Apuleius, and gets Panurge into a poem about the female sexual appetite. Once in a while he exploits the opportunities of light verse for a casual treatment of solemn themes, as in "Dies Irae," which tells how "Through the clear aether Gabriel flew horning," and, more frequently, its ability to express anger or contempt, as in "November Il." But on the whole his range is more domestic and familiar: whether satire or love song, the tone is quiet and controlled. Thus "For My Daughters" ends with the mixture of truth and detachment from truth that such a poem requires:

          Disregard advance, accept
          not the proffered rose --
          there's a door he'd open
          Time will never close.

("He" is Love.) Similarly "Miranda's Mirror" ends with an irony which has enough sympathy in it to keep clear of glibness, and "Where I Go," again close to popular song, has the emotional resonance that an unresolved situation often produces when abandoned at the right point.

     Anerca (Dent, unpaged, illus., $2.00 paper, $2.75 cloth) is a collection of Eskimo poems edited by Edmund [121] Carpenter, and illustrated with delightful little drawings by Enooesweetok, an otherwise unknown Eskimo artist whose work was preserved by the late Robert Flaherty. Mr. Carpenter has collected the poems from a variety of sources, and has added a few bits of prose comment which have the same kind of expectancy about them that the printed introductions to Flaherty's silent documentaries had. For one poem Mr. Carpenter supplies the Eskimo text, which indicates that the originals are intensely repetitive in sound, and have a kind of murmuring magical charm about them that no translator could reasonably be asked to recapture.

     It is difficult for us to imagine a life in which the fight to keep alive is so intense, in which the will to live is as constant and palpable as the heartbeat. One ghoulish story in prose tells how a party comes upon a starving hag who has eaten her husband and children, most of her clothes, and finally, as she confesses, "I have eaten your fellow-singer from the feasting." The response is only "You had the will to live, therefore you live." The same will is strong enough to make an old man hurl defiance at the Eskimo Cerberus who comes for him on his deathbed:

          Who comes?
          Is it the hound of death approaching?
          Or I will harness you to my team.

What is still more difficult to imagine is that when life is reduced to the barest essentials of survival, poetry should turn out to be one of those essentials. "Anerca," Mr. Carpenter tells us, means both "to make poetry" and "to breathe." Its primitive rhythm, which we interpret as "magic," is part of the physical energy with which the living man maintains his life as he seeks for his food:

          Beast of the Sea,
          Come and offer yourself in the dear early morning!
          Beast of the Plain!
          Come and offer yourself in the dear early morning! [122]

     Nature cannot exterminate such a people: only civilization, with its high-powered death-wish, can do that. It is very comfortable in the settled parts of Canada, and hard to hear such things as the screams of trapped animals, much less the thin delicate cry, faint as a wisp of snow and yet as piercing as the revelation by word itself, that comes to us in this -- a song to ensure fine weather, Mr. Carpenter says:

          Poor it is: this land,
          Poor it is: this ice,
          Poor it is: this air,
          Poor it is: this sea,
          Poor it is. ...

     Perhaps the most distinguished of all this year's chap-books is Dorothy Roberts' In Star and Stalk (Emblem Books, unpaged, $.50). This is poetry in a sombre and heavily churning rhythm, showing a unified imagination of unusual power. It is an imagination for which the spoiled word "mystical" still has some relevance. In the background of her imagery are the free-wheeling rhythms of nature, the spinning earth and the setting sun, the stream of time that carries away the childhood memories of grandparents, the violence of storm and the fragility of birth. In the foreground is the image of the "shell," the home occupied by the lonely and uncertain self in the "almighty sea" of nature. Its products are the body itself, the house, and the stone buildings of civilization, the bus clinging to the white line of the highway, the memories of the past, and finally the gravestones of a cemetery. What matters, of course, is the intensity with which these images are realized. In "Our Shells" the birth of a child is set against the two backgrounds at once, making what is perhaps the most impressive and memorable poem of the group:

          In this pattern of silent homes and heavenly bodies
          The walls have been pushed out to a vast wandering --
          How many stars to lead me to this child? [123]
          Only the constellations house with fables
          Like brilliant parables upon church windows,
          Making of night a high roof for the spirit.

     With this review I complete a decade of observing Canadian poetry, and retire from the scene. The fifties have been a rich and fruitful time: no other decade in our history has seen such variety of originality. Towards the Last Spike, Trial of a City, In the Midst of My Fever, The Boatman, A Suit of Nettles, The Cruising Auk: this is an extraordinary range of new discoveries in technique and sensibility, created at every age level from the veteran to the newcomer. Victorian House, The Colour as Naked, The Net and the Sword, Friday's Child, The Selected Poems (Souster), The Transparent Sea, and many others represent what may be called the resonance of tradition. This does not mean that they follow after the other group, necessarily: in literature it is the traditional book that pioneers, the new settler who has his roots elsewhere. There are also a number of poets -- I think particularly of Eli Mandel and Margaret Avison -- who have not received their due of attention only because no published volume has been available to the present writer.

     The reviewer knows that he will be read by the poets, but he is not addressing them, except indirectly. It is no part of the reviewer's task to tell the poet how to write or how he should have written. The one kind of criticism that the poet himself, qua poet, engages in -- the technical self-criticism which leads to revision and improvement -- is a criticism with which the reviewer has nothing to do. Nor is it his task to encourage or discourage poets. To encourage a genuine poet is impertinence, and to encourage a mediocre one is condescension. Discouragement is an even more dubious practice. To say that no one should write poetry except good poets is nearly as silly as saying that no one should read it except teachers of English. There are some who write poetry not because they care about poetry but for more devious [124] reasons, but such people can be discouraged only by implication, by showing from the real poets that an ignorant or anti-intellectual mind can never be good enough.

     The reviewer's audience is the community of actual and potential readers of poetry. His task is to show what is available in poetic experience, to suggest that reading current poetry is an essential cultural activity, at least as important as keeping up with current plays or concerts or fiction. He has the special problem, too, of bridging the gap between poetry and its public, already mentioned. I have spent a great deal of my space in trying to explain as clearly as I can what the poet is saying, and what is characteristic about his handwriting, so to speak, in imagery and rhythm. I have felt that it is well worth insulting the intelligence of some readers if one can do anything to breach the barriers of panic and prejudice in others.

     The ordinary reader of poetry may exercise a preference. He may have a special feeling for religious poetry or landscape poetry or satire and light verse or narrative; he may like poetry that expresses involvement in society, or poetry written in certain technical forms, or poetry that is dense in texture, or poetry that is loose in texture. The reviewer must take poetry as he finds it, must constantly struggle for the standards of good and bad in all types of poetry, must always remember that a preference for any one kind of poetry over another kind is, for him, laziness and incompetence. The poets themselves are sometimes eager to tell him that if he thinks less of their poetry than they do, it is because he underestimates the importance of their kind of poetry, being too Philistine or modern or bourgeois or academic or intellectual or prudish -- I list only a few of the things I have been called myself. Assuming a certain amount of technical competence, the reviewer can be satisfied with his efforts only if he feels that he has tried to be honest: no batting average of hits and errors is either attainable or relevant.

     Finally, the community that I have been addressing is the Canadian community. As Canada is a small country, that fact raises the problem: do you estimate Canadian poets in Canadian proportions or in world proportions? I have [125] considered this question carefully, and my decision, while it may have been wrong, was deliberate. I have for the most part discussed Canadian poets as though no other contemporary poetry were available for Canadian readers. The reviewer is not concerned with the vague relativities of "greatness," but with the positive merits of what is before him. And every genuine poet is entitled to be read with the maximum sympathy and concentration. When he is, an astonishing amount of imaginative richness may be obtained from him, and without reading into him what is not there. Shakespeare is doubtless an infinitely "greater" poet, but there is a limit to what a limited mind can get out of Shakespeare, and if one continually tries to break through one's limitations in reading one's contemporaries, one may also achieve a clearer vision of greatness. In the context of their importance for English-reading posterity as a whole, many poets may have been considerably over-praised in these reviews. But I am not writing for an invisible posterity anxious to reduce the bulk of its required reading. The better poets of every age seem all the same size to contemporaries: it takes many years before the comparative standards become clear, and contemporary critics may as well accept the myopia which their near-sighted perspective forces on them. Then again, poetry is of major importance in the culture, and therefore in the history, of a country, especially of a country that is still struggling for articulateness. The appearance of a fine new book of poems in Canada is a historical event, and its readers should be aware that they are participating in history. To develop such awareness it is an advantage to have a relatively limited cultural horizon. Ubi bene, ibi patria: the centre of reality is wherever one happens to be, and its circumference is whatever one's imagination can make sense of.

     The last ten reviews have recorded what T. S. Eliot calls the horror, the boredom, and the glory of their subject: writing them has been of immense profit to me, and some, I hope, to my readers. But if I could go on doing such a job indefinitely it would not have been worth doing in the first place. At a certain point diminishing returns set in for both reviewer and reader. No poet has written more good poetry [126] in Canada in the last decade than Irving Layton, yet Mr. Layton has just announced that he is dead, and that a new Mr. Layton is to rise from his ashes. If so, new critics should welcome him, as well as other newcomers, should find different reasons for helping established poets to defend their establishments, should respond to new currents in imaginative life and to new needs in society. The critic to whom falls the enviable task of studying Canadian poetry in the sixties will, I trust, be dealing with a fully matured culture, no longer preoccupied with the empty unpoetics of Canadianism, but with the genuine tasks of creative power. For the poets of the next decade will have the immense advantage of the tradition set up by the poets of the last one, whose imaginative feats, as far as this critic is concerned, have been, like the less destructive efforts of Milton's Samson, "not without wonder or delight beheld."

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