from 'Letters in Canada' 1950

from 'Letters in Canada' University of Toronto Quarterly - 1950

     Readers of Canadian poetry will often have seen the name of Mr. James Wreford, both in literary periodicals and in the fine little anthology of a few years back, Unit of Five. A collection of his verse, Of Time and the Lover, makes the fourth volume in McClelland and Stewart's "Indian File" series. Mr. Wreford lives in Ottawa, and has several qualities in common with his predecessor Lampman, notably a tendency to be much more at ease with the vegetable than with the human world. He has, however, worked harder to reconcile his love of nature and his vision of the city of the end of things. His imagery turns on the antithesis of winter and spring: he associates winter with the contemporary world and spring with the promise, not only of better times, but of deliverance from the winter world through the infinity of the moment of love and faith in the Resurrection. The central theme that love's not time's fool thus applies to patriotic and religious as well as sexual love. A conventional frame of ideas, certainly, but a solid one to build on.

     Mr. Wreford is a pensive and elegiac poet: his best phrases are usually embedded in long ruminating poems, and seem to need that kind of context. Sometimes, too, a sudden poignancy breaks out, as it were unawares, from a more commonplace setting: [1]

          The little children of her hands
          run with the horses on the sands
          cry and are fastened into bands.

Metaphysical poetry is not a good influence on him: the echoes of Donne and Hopkins in his religious poetry merely add discord: some of his puns are striking ("To part, it is to die in part"), but verbal conceits and satiric rhymes are often laboured. He is not a poet who can absorb either the prose statement or the prosaic world; his social comment is generally querulous and preoccupied, and he is ill at ease with commercial clichés and technological images. He is best in straight couplet and quatrain and in a Housman-like baldness of statement:

          no strong men and no heroes,
          no brave, eternal youths,
          but only fiddling Neroes
          and purple, proud untruths.

This is from the title-poem at the end, which is by far his finest work, and which shows many skilful variations in its octosyllabic metre:

          found pure when the snow is shadowed with
          the whiteness of a cloud of snow,
          how can you now destroy
          the host of your essential joy:

There are lapses of inspiration and of taste in Mr. Wreford's book, but there is also a dignified simplicity and a sincere eloquence.

     Norman Levine's The Tight-Rope Walker shows a high level of competence in what is so far a rather restricted range.Mr. Levine is an expatriate, or regards himself as one: he has left what he calls the land of "parchment summers and merchant eyes" for England, and many of his poems have a Cornish setting. His poems are also elegiac, even to the point of using a lamenting refrain, but he has more affinity with paradox and complex statement. "Cathedral by Sea" works [2] out a fine contrast between the physical energy of the sea and the spiritual energy and physical stillness of the building. The title-poem makes an oddly touching symbol out of its central theme:

          He was not lost. Only a little lonely
          He walked as a graveyard while around him
          Cities were no more than small lights
          Severed at the head by fog.

"Airman and Seagull Killed by Water" manages to reach an admirable final line, "What floats is dead," through some vigorous but tangled imagery. ...

     This is clearly not a banner year for Canadian poetry: the above practically exhausts the more sophisticated part of the output. In Canada, however, as elsewhere, there appears every year a fair quantity of naive or primitive verse, to use terms more familiar in the criticism of painting. There is no reason why all of this should be out of the range of critical interest: a good deal of Burns, of Wordsworth, of Kipling, even of Emily Dickinson, is naive poetry, and what Mr. Goodridge MacDonald calls "the truisms of popular song" are always well worth stating. One looks hopefully and constantly, in reading through this material, for some signs of an ability to express the simple rather than the commonplace emotion, to use traditional metres without unenterprising monotony, to make the art of writing a poem a fresh experience instead of a conditioned reflex of nostalgia. Occasionally one is rewarded, but self-consciousness and schoolmarmism hang cloudily in the poetic atmosphere. Some achieve a certain uniform competence, but otherwise there is nothing for a reviewer to say except to hope that they will find their audience. The same may be said of the Poetry Books of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The latter has a picture of a wildcat on its cover, but the poetry is unvaryingly gentle. ... [3]

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