Preface to An Uncollected Anthology

The author imagines that he has collected his ideal anthology of English Canadian poetry, with no difficulties about permissions, publishers, or expense, and is writing his preface.

     Certain critical principles are essential for dealing with Canadian poetry which in the study of English literature as such are seldom raised. Unless the critic is aware of the importance of these principles, he may, in turning to Canadian poets, find himself unexpectedly incompetent, like a giraffe trying to eat off the ground. The first of these principles is the fact that the cultivated Canadian has the same kind of interest in Canadian poetry that he has in Canadian history or politics. Whatever its merits, it is the poetry of his own country, and it gives him an understanding of that country which nothing else can give him. The critic of Canadian literature has to settle uneasily somewhere between the Canadian historian or social scientist, who has no comparative value judgments to worry about, and the ordinary literary critic, who has nothing else. The qualities in Canadian poetry which help to make Canada more imaginatively articulate for the Canadian reader are genuine literary values, whether they coincide with other literary values or not. And while the reason for collecting an anthology can only be the merit of the individual poems, still, having made such a collection, one may legitimately look at the proportioning [163] of interests, at the pattern of the themes that seem to make Canadian poets eloquent.

     It is not a nation but an environment that makes an impact on poets, and poetry can deal only with the imaginative aspect of that environment. A country with almost no Atlantic seaboard, which for most of its history has existed in practically one dimension; a country divided by two languages and great stretches of wilderness, so that its frontier is a circumference rather than a boundary; a country with huge rivers and islands that most of its natives have never seen; a country that has made a nation out of the stops on two of the world's longest railway lines: this is the environment that Canadian poets have to grapple with, and many of the imaginative problems it presents have no counterpart in the United States, or anywhere else.

     In older countries the works of man and of nature, the city and the garden of civilization, have usually reached some kind of imaginative harmony. But the land of the Rockies and the Precambrian Shield impresses painter and poet alike
by its raw colours and angular rhythms, its profoundly unhumanized isolation. It is still "The Lonely Land" to A.J.M. Smith, still "A Country without a Mythology" to Douglas LePan. The works of man are even more imaginatively undigested. A Canadian village, unlike an English one sprawls awkwardly along a highway or railway line, less an inhabited centre than an episode of communication. Its buildings express an arrogant defiance of the landscape; its roads and telephone wires and machinery twist and strangle and loop. Irving Layton says, looking at an abstract picture,

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

The Wordsworth who saw nature as exquisitely fitted to the human mind would be lost in Canada, where what the poets [164] see is a violent collision of two forces, both monstrous. Earle Birney describes the bulldozers of a logging camp as "iron brontosaurs"; Klein compares grain elevators to leviathans.

     Poets are a fastidious race, and in Canadian poetry we have to give some place, at least at the beginning, to the anti-Canadian, the poet who has taken one horrified look at the country and fled. Thus Standish O'Grady, writing of The Emigrant:

          Here forests crowd, unprofitable lumber,
          O'er fruitless lands indefinite as number;
          Where birds scarce light, and with the north winds veer
          On wings of wind, and quickly disappear,
          Here the rough Bear subsists his winter year,
          And licks his paw and finds no better fare. ...
          The lank Canadian eager trims his fire,
          And all around their simpering stoves retire;
          With fur clad friends their progenies abound,
          And thus regale their buffaloes around;
          Unlettered race, how few the number tells,
          Their only pride a cariole and bells. ...
          Perchance they revel; still around they creep,
          And talk, and smoke, and spit, and drink, and sleep:

There is a great deal of polished wit in these couplets of the modern ambiguous kind: the word "lumber," for example, has both its Canadian meaning of wood and its English meaning of junk. We notice that "Canadian" in this poem means French Canadian habitant: O'Grady no more thinks of himself as Canadian than an Anglo-Indian colonel would think of himself as Hindu. Here is an American opinion, the close of a folk song about a construction gang that spent a winter in Three Rivers:

          And now the winter's over, it's homeward we are bound,
          And in this cursed country we'll never more be found.
          Go back to your wives and sweethearts, tell others not to go
          To that God-forsaken country called Canaday-I-O.

     Thanks to the efforts of those who remained, this particular theme is now obsolete, although Norman Levine in [165] 1950 spoke of leaving the land of "parchment summers and merchant eyes" for "the loveliest of fogs," meaning England. Still, it will serve as an introduction to two central themes in Canadian poetry: one a primarily comic theme of satire and exuberance, the other a primarily tragic theme of loneliness and terror.

     It is often said that a pioneering country is interested in material rather than spiritual or cultural values. This is a cliché, and it has become a cliché because it is not really true, as seventeenth-century Massachusetts indicates. What is true is that the imaginative energy of an expanding economy is likely to be mainly technological. As a rule it is the oppressed or beleaguered peoples, like the Celts and the Hebrews, whose culture makes the greatest imaginative efforts: successful nations usually express a restraint or a matter-of-fact realism in their culture and keep their exuberance for their engineering. If we are looking for imaginative exuberance in American life, we shall find it not in its fiction but in its advertising; not in Broadway drama but in Broadway skyscrapers; not in the good movies but in the vista-visioned and technicoloured silly ones. The extension of this life into Canada is described by Frank Scott in "Saturday Sundae," by James Reaney in "Klaxon," a fantasy of automobiles wandering over the highways without drivers, "Limousines covered with pink slime/Of children's blood," and by many other poets.

     The poet dealing with the strident shallowness of much Canadian life is naturally aware that there is no imaginative change when we cross the American border in either direction. Yet there is, I think, a more distinctive attitude in Canadian poetry than in Canadian life, a more withdrawn and detached view of that life which may go back to the central fact of Canadian history: the rejection of the American Revolution. What won the American Revolution was the spirit of entrepreneur capitalism, an enthusiastic plundering of the natural resources of a continent and an unrestricted energy of manufacturing and exchanging them. In A Search for America, which is quite a profound book if we take the precaution of reading it as a work of fiction, Grove speaks of [166] there being two Americas, an ideal one that has something to do with the philosophy of Thoreau and the personality of Lincoln, and an actual one that made the narrator a parasitic salesman of superfluous goods and finally a hobo. At the end of the book he remarks in a footnote that his ideal America has been preserved better in Canada than in the United States. The truth of this statement is not my concern, but some features of my anthology seem to reflect similar attitudes.

     In the United States, with its more intensively indoctrinated educational system, there has been much rugged prophecy in praise of the common man, a tradition that runs from Whitman through Sandburg and peters out in the lugubrious inspirationalism of the Norman Corwin school. Its chief characteristics are the praise of the uncritical life and a manly contempt of prosody. One might call it the Whitmanic-depressive tradition, in view of the fact that it contains Robinson Jeffers. It seems to me significant that this tradition has had so little influence in Canada. I find in my anthology a much higher proportion of humour than I expected when I began: a humour of a quiet, reflective, observant type, usually in a fairly strict metre, and clearly coming from a country which observes but does not act a major role in the world.

     A song from a poem by Alexander McLachlan called, like O'Grady's, "The Emigrant," will illustrate what I mean:

          I love my own country and race,
          Nor lightly I fled from them both,
          Yet who would remain in a place
          Where there's too many spoons for the broth.

          The squire's preserving his game.
          He says that God gave it to him,
          And he'll banish the poor without shame,
          For touching a feather or limb. ...

          The Bishop he preaches and prays,
          And talks of a heavenly birth,
          But somehow, for all that he says,
          He grabs a good share of the earth. [167]

In this poem there is nothing of the typically American identification of freedom with national independence: the poet is still preoccupied with the old land and thinks of himself as still within its tradition. There is even less of the American sense of economic competition as the antidote to social inequality. The spirit in McLachlan's poem is that of a tough British radicalism, the radicalism of the Glasgow dock worker or the Lancashire coal miner, the background of the Tom Paine who has never quite fitted the American way of life.

     It is not surprising to rind a good deal of satiric light verse in this imaginative resistance to industrial expansion and the gum-chewing way of life. Frank Scott we have mentioned: his "Canadian Social Register" is a ferocious paraphrase of an advertising prospectus, and his "Social Notes" are also something un-American, social poems with an unmistakably socialist moral. The observations of Toronto by Raymond Souster and of Montreal by Louis Dudek, Miriam Waddington, and Irving Layton have much to the same effect: of golfers Layton remarks "that no theory of pessimism is complete/Which altogether ignores them." But of course it is easy for the same satiric tone to turn bitter and nightmarish. Lampman's terrible poem, "The City of the End of Things," is not only social but psychological, and warns of the dangers not simply of exploiting labour but of washing our own brains. There are other sinister visions in A. J. M. Smith's "The Bridegroom," in Dudek's "East of the City," in Dorothy Livesay's "Day and Night," in P. K. Page's "The Stenographers," and elsewhere. Canadian poems of depression and drought, like Dorothy Livesay's "Outrider" or Anne Marriott's The Wind Our Enemy, often have in them the protest of a food-producing community cheated out of its labour not simply by hail and grasshoppers but by some mysterious financial finagling at the other end of the country, reminding us of the man in Balzac's parable who could make his fortune by killing somebody in China.

     There are of course more positive aspects of industrial expansion. In Canada the enormous difficulties and the central importance of communication and transport, the [168] tremendous energy that developed the fur trade routes, the empire of the St. Lawrence, the transcontinental railways, and the northwest police patrols have given it the dominating role in the Canadian imagination. E. J. Pratt is the poet who has best grasped this fact, and his Towards the Last Spike expresses the central comic theme of Canadian life, using the term "comic" in its literary sense as concerned with the successful accomplishing of a human act.

     The imagery of technology and primary communication is usually either avoided by poets or employed out of a sense of duty: its easy and unforced appearance in Pratt is part of the reason why Pratt is one of the few good popular poets of our time. Technology appears all through his work, not only in the poems whose subjects demand it, but in other and more unexpected contexts. Thus in "Come Away, Death":

          We heard the tick-tock on the shelf,
          And the leak of valves in our hearts.

In "The Prize Cat," where a cat pounces on a bird and reminds the poet of the deliberately summoned-up brutality of the Fascist conquest of Ethiopia, the two themes are brought together by the inspired flash of a technical word:

          Behind the leap so furtive-wild
          Was such ignition in the gleam
          I thought an Abyssinian child
          Had cried out in the whitethroat's scream.

As a student of psychology, before he wrote poetry at all, he was preoccupied with the problems of sensory response to signals, and the interest still lingers in the amiable joggle of "No. 6000," one of the liveliest of all railway poems:

          A lantern flashed out a command,
          A bell was ringing as a hand
          Clutched at a throttle, and the bull,
          At once obedient to the pull, [169]
          Began with bellowing throat to lead
          By slow accelerating speed
          Six thousand tons of caravan
          Out to the spaces -- there to toss
          The blizzard from his path across
          The prairies of Saskatchewan.

     In Behind the Log, Canadians undertake a mission of war in much the spirit of an exploration: there is a long journey full of perils, many members of the expedition drop off, and those that reach the goal feel nothing but a numb relief. Nothing could be less like the charge of the Light Brigade. Yet perhaps in this poem we may find a clue to the fact that Canada, a country that has never found much virtue in war and has certainly never started one, has in its military history a long list of ferocious conflicts against desperate odds. Douglas LePan's "The Net and the Sword," the title poem of a book dealing with the Italian campaign of the Second World War, mentions something similar:

          In this sandy arena, littered
          And looped with telephone wires, tank-traps, mine-fields,
          Twined about the embittered
          Debris of history, the people whom he shields
          Would quail before a stranger if they could see
          His smooth as silk ferocity.

LePan finds the source of the ferocity in the simplicity of the Canadian soldier's vision: "Skating at Scarborough, summers at the Island," but perhaps it is also a by-product of engineering exuberance. We notice that the looped litter of telephone wires and the like belongs here to Europe, not to Canada, and the same kind of energy is employed to deal with it.

     The tragic themes of Canadian poetry have much the same origin as the comic ones. The cold winter may suggest tragedy, but it may equally well suggest other moods, and does so in Lampman's sonnet "Winter Evening," in Patrick Anderson's "Song of Intense Cold," in Roberts' "The Brook in February," in Klein's "Winter Night: Mount Royal," and [170] elsewhere. Other seasons too have their sinister aspects: none of Lampman's landscape poems is finer than his wonderful Hallowe'en vision of "In November," where a harmless pasture full of dead mullein stalks rises and seizes the poet with the spirit of an eerie witches' sabbath:

          And I, too, standing idly there,
          With muffled hands in the chill air
          Felt the warm glow about my feet,
          And shuddering betwixt cold and heat,
          Drew my thoughts closer, like a cloak,
          While something in my blood awoke,
          A nameless and unnatural cheer,
          A pleasure secret and austere.

     Still, the winter, with its long shadows and its abstract black and white pattern, does reinforce themes of desolation and loneliness, and more particularly, of the indifference of nature to human values, which I should say was the central Canadian tragic theme. The first poet who really came to grips with this theme was, as we should expect, Charles Heavysege. Heavysege's first two long poems, Saul and Count Filippo, are Victorian dinosaurs in the usual idiom: Count Filippo, in particular, like the Albert Memorial, achieves a curious perverted beauty by the integrity of its ugliness. His third poem, Jephthah's Daughter, seems to me to reflect more directly the influence of his Canadian environment, as its main themes are loneliness, the indifference of nature, and the conception of God as a force of nature. The evolutionary pessimism of the nineteenth century awoke an unusual number of echoes in Canada, many of them of course incidental. In a well-known passage from Charles Mair's Tecumseh, Lefroy is describing the West to Brock, and Brock comments: "What charming solitudes! And life was there!" and Lefroy answers: "Yes, life was there ! inexplicable life,/Still wasted by inexorable death"; and the sombre Tennysonian vision of nature red in tooth and claw blots out the sentimental Rousseauist fantasy of the charming solitudes.

     In the next generation the tragic theme has all the more eloquence for being somewhat unwanted, interfering with the [171] resolutely cheerful praise of the newborn giant of the north. Roberts, Wilfred Campbell, Wilson Macdonald, and Bliss Carman are all romantics whose ordinary tone is nostalgic, but who seem most deeply convincing when they are darkest in tone, most preoccupied with pain, loss, loneliness, or waste. We notice this in the poems which would go immediately into anyone's anthology, such as Campbell's "The Winter Lakes," Wilson Macdonald's "Exit," Carman's "Low Tide on Grand Pre/." It is even more striking when Carman or Roberts writes a long metrical gabble that occasionally drops into poetry, like Silas Wegg, as it is almost invariably this mood that it drops into. Thus in Roberts' "The Great and the Little Weavers":

          The cloud-rose dies into shadow,
          The earth-rose dies into dust.

     The "great gray shape with the paleolithic face" of Pratt's Titanic and the glacier of Birney's David are in much the same tradition as the gloomy and unresponsive nature of Jephthah's Daughter. In fact the tragic features in Pratt mainly derive from his more complex view of the situation of Heavysege's poem. Man is also a child of nature, in whom the mindlessness of the animal has developed into cruelty and malice. He sees two men glare in hatred at one another on the street, and his mind goes Away back before the emergence of fur or feather, back to the

          unvocal sea and down deep where the darkness spills its wash
          on the threshold of light, where the lids never close upon the
          eyes, where the inhabitants slay in silence and are as silently

From the very beginning, in Newfoundland Verse, Pratt was fascinated by the relentless pounding of waves on the rocks, a movement which strangely seems to combine a purpose with a lack of it. This rhythm recurs several times in Pratt's work: in the charge of the swordfish in The Witches' Brew; in the "queries rained upon the iron plate" of The Iron Door; in the torpedo launched from "The Submarine"; in the sinking of [172] the Titanic itself, this disaster being caused by a vainglorious hubris which in a sense deliberately aimed at the iceberg. In Brébeuf the same theme comes into focus as the half-mindless, half-demonic curiosity which drives the Iroquois on through torture after torture to find the secret of a spiritual reality that keeps eluding them.

     It is Pratt who has expressed in Towards the Last Spike the central comic theme, and in Brébeuf the central tragic theme, of the Canadian imagination, and it is Pratt who combines the two in "The Truant," which is in my anthology because it is the greatest poem in Canadian literature. In it the representative of mankind confronts a "great Panjandrum," a demon of the mathematical order of nature of a type often confused with God. In the dialectic of their conflict it becomes clear that the great Panjandrum of nature is fundamentally death, and that the intelligence that fights him, comprehends him, harnesses him, and yet finally yields to his power is the ultimate principle of life, and capable of the comedy of achievement only because capable also of the tragedy of enduring him:

          We who have learned to clench
          Our fists and raise our lightless sockets
          To morning skies after the midnight raids,
          Yet cocked our ears to bugles on the barricades,
          And in cathedral rubble found a way to quench
          A dying thirst within a Galilean valley --
          No! by the Rood, we will not join your ballet.

     We spoke at the beginning of certain principles that become important in the study of Canadian poetry. One of these is the fact that while literature may have life, reality, experience, nature or what you will for its content, the forms of literature cannot exist outside literature, just as the forms of sonata and fugue cannot exist outside music. When a poet is confronted by a new life or environment, the new life may suggest a new content, but obviously cannot provide him with a new form. The forms of poetry can be derived only from other poems, the forms of novels from other novels.

     The imaginative content of Canadian poetry, which is often [173] primitive, frequently makes extraordinary demands on forms derived from romantic or later traditions. Duncan Campbell Scott, for instance, lived in Ottawa as a civil servant in the Department of Indian Affairs, between a modern city and the Ungava wilderness. If we think of an Old English poet, with his head full of ancient battles and myths of dragon-fights, in the position of having to write for the sophisticated audience of Rome and Byzantium, we shall have some parallel to the technical problems faced by a Lampman or a Scott who had only the elaborate conventions of Tennysonian romanticism to contain his imaginative experience. Pratt's attempt to introduce the imagery of dragon-killing into a poem about the Canadian Pacific Railway is another good example; and I have much sympathy for the student who informed me in the examinations last May that Pratt had written a poem called Beowulf and his Brothers.

     It is more common for a Canadian poet to solve his problem of form by some kind of erudite parody, using that term, as many critics now do, to mean adaptation in general rather than simply a lampoon, although adaptation usually has humorous overtones. In Charles Mair's "Winter" some wisps of Shakespearean song are delicately echoed in a new context, and Drummond's best poem, "The Wreck of the Julie Plante," is an admirable parody of the ballad, with its tough oblique narration, its moralizing conclusion, and its use of what is called incremental repetition. According to his own account, Pratt, after his college studies in theology, psychology, literature, and the natural sciences, put every-thing he knew into his first major poetic effort, an epic named "Clay," which he promptly burnt. Soon afterwards all this erudition went into reverse and came out as the fantasy of The Witches' Brew, in which parody has a central place. Since then, we have parody in Anne Wilkinson and Wilfred Watson, who use nursery rhymes and ballads as a basis; Birney's Trial of a City is among other things a fine collection of parodied styles; and Klein's devotion to one of the world's greatest parodists, James Joyce, has produced his brilliant bilingual panegyric on Montreal: [174]

          Grand port of navigations, multiple
          The lexicons uncargo'd at your quays,
          Sonnant though strange to me; but chiefest, I,
          Auditor of your music, cherish the
          Joined double-melodied vocabulaire
          Where English vocable and roll Ecossic,
          Mollified by the parle of French
          Bilinguefact your air!

     Much of Canada's best poetry is now written by professors or others in close contact with universities. There are disadvantages in this, but one of the advantages is the diversifying of the literary tradition by a number of scholarly interests. Earle Birney's "Anglo-Saxon Street" reminds us that its author is a professor of Anglo-Saxon. Louis MacKay, professor of Classics, confronts an unmistakably Canadian landscape with a myth of Eros derived from Virgil:

          The hard rock was his mother; he retains
          Only her kind, nor answers any sire.
          His hand is the black basalt, and his veins
          Are rocky veins, ablaze with gold and fire.

Robert Finch, professor of French, carries on the tradition of Mallarmé and other symbolistes; one of his most successful poems, "The Peacock and the Nightingale," goes back to the older tradition of the medieval de/bat. Klein, of course, has brought echoes from the Talmud, the Old Testament, and the whole range of Jewish thought and history; and the erudition necessary to read Roy Daniells and Alfred Bailey with full appreciation is little short of formidable. It may be said, however, that echoes and influences are not a virtue in Canadian poetry, but one of its major weaknesses. Canadian poetry may echo Hopkins or Auden today as it echoed Tom Moore a century ago, but in every age Echo is merely the discarded mistress of Narcissus. This question brings up the most hackneyed subject in Canadian literature, which I have left for that reason to the end.

     Political and economic units tend to expand as history goes on; cultural units tend to remain decentralized. Culture, [175] like wine, seems to need a specific locality, and no major poet has been inspired by an empire, Virgil being, as the Georgics show, an exception that proves the rule. In this age of world-states we have two extreme forms of the relation-ship between culture and politics. When cultural developments follow political ones, we get an anonymous inter-national art, such as we have in many aspects of modern architecture, abstract painting, and twelve-tone music. When a cultural development acquires a political aspect, we frequently get that curious modern phenomenon of the political language, where a minor language normally headed for extinction is deliberately revived for political purposes. Examples are Irish, Norwegian, Hebrew, and Afrikaans, and there are parallel tendencies elsewhere. I understand that there is a school of Australian poets dedicated to putting as many aboriginal words into their poems as possible. As the emotional attachments to political languages are very violent, I shall say here only that this problem has affected the French but not the English part of Canadian culture. As we all know, however, English Canada has escaped the political language only to become involved in a unique problem of self-identification, vis-à-vis the British and American poets writing in the same tongue. Hence in every generation there has been the feeling that whether poetry itself needs any defence or manifesto, Canadian poetry certainly does.

     The main result of this has been that Canadian poets have been urged in every generation to search for appropriate themes, in other words to look for content. The themes have been characterized as national, international, traditional, experimental, iconic, iconoclastic: in short, as whatever the propounder of them would like to write if he were a poet, or to read if he were a critic. But the poet's quest is for form, not content. The poet who tries to make content the informing principle of his poetry can write only versified rhetoric, and versified rhetoric has a moral but not an imaginative significance: its place is on the social periphery of poetry, not in its articulate centre. The rhetorician, Quintilian tells us, ought to be a learned and good man, but the critic is concerned only with poets. [176]

     By form I do not of course mean external form, such as the use of a standard metre or convention. A sonnet has form only if it really is fourteen lines long: a ten-line sonnet padded out to fourteen is still a part of chaos, waiting for the creative word. I mean by form the shaping principle of the individual poem, which is derived from the shaping principles of poetry itself. Of these latter the most important is metaphor, and metaphor, in its radical form, is a statement of identity: this is that, A is B. Metaphor is at its purest and most primitive in myth, where we have immediate and total identifications. Primitive poetry, being mythical, tends to be erudite and allusive, and to the extent that modern poetry takes on the same qualities it becomes primitive too. Here is a poem by Lampman, written in 1894:

          So it is with us all; we have our friends
          Who keep the outer chambers, and guard well
          Our common path; but there their service ends,
          For far within us lies an iron cell
          Soundless and secret, where we laugh or moan
          Beyond all succour, terribly alone.

And here is a poem by E. W. Mandel, published in 1954:

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

Lampman's poem is certainly simpler, closer to prose and to the direct statement of emotion. All these are characteristics of a highly developed and sophisticated literary tradition. If we ask which is the more primitive, the answer is certainly [177] the second poem, as we can see by turning to the opening pages of the anthology to see what primitive poetry is really like. Here is a Haida song translated by Hermia Fraser:

          I cannot stay, I cannot stay:
          I must take my canoe and fight the waves,
          For the Wanderer spirit is seeking me.

          The beating of great, black wings on the sun,
          The Raven has stolen the ball of the sun,
          From the Kingdom of Light he has stolen the sun. ...

          The Slave Wife born from the first clam shell
          Is in love with the boy who was stolen away,
          The lovers have taken the Raven's fire.

     When we look for the qualities in Canadian poetry that illustrate the poet's response to the specific environment that we call approximately Canada, we are really looking for the mythopoeic qualities in that poetry. This is easiest to see, of course, when the poetry is mythical in content as well as form. In the long mythopoeic passage from Isabella Crawford's Malcolm's Katie, beginning "The South Wind laid his moccasins aside," we see how the poet is, first, taming the landscape imaginatively, as settlement tames it physically, by animating the lifeless scene with humanized figures, and, second, integrating the literary tradition of the country by deliberately re-establishing the broken cultural link with Indian civilization:

                    ... for a man
          To stand amid the cloudy roll and moil,
          The phantom waters breaking overhead,
          Shades of vex'd billows bursting on his breast,
          Torn caves of mist wall'd with a sudden gold,
          Reseal'd as swift as seen -- broad, shaggy fronts,
          Eire-ey'd and tossing on impatient horns
          The wave impalpable -- was but to think
          A dream of phantoms held him as he stood.

And in the mythical figures of Pratt, the snorting iron horses of the railways, the lumbering dinosaurs of The Great Feud, [178] the dragon of Towards the Last Spike, and above all Tom the Cat from Zanzibar, the Canadian cousin of Roy Campbell's flaming terrapin, we clearly have other denizens of the monstrous zoo that produced Paul Bunyan's ox Babe, Paul Bunyan himself being perhaps a descendant of the giants who roamed the French countryside and were recorded by the great contemporary of Jacques Cartier, Rabelais.

     We are concerned here, however, not so much with mythopoeic poetry as with myth as a shaping principle of poetry. Every good lyrical poet has a certain structure of imagery as typical of him as his handwriting, held together by certain recurring metaphors, and sooner or later he will produce one or more poems that seem to be at the centre of that structure. These poems are in the formal sense his mythical poems, and they are for the critic the imaginative keys to his work. The poet himself often recognizes such a poem by making it the title poem of a collection. They are not necessarily his best poems, but they often are, and in a Canadian poet they display those distinctive themes we have been looking for which reveal his reaction to his natural and social environment. Nobody but a genuine poet ever produces such a poem, and they cannot be faked or imitated or voluntarily constructed. My anthology is largely held together by such poems: they start approximately with D. C. Scott's "Piper of Arll," and continue in increasing numbers to our own day. I note among others Leo Kennedy's "Words for a Resurrection," Margaret Avison's "Neverness," Irving Layton's "Cold Green Element," Douglas LePan's "Idyll," Wilfred Watson's "Canticle of Darkness," P. K. Page's "Metal and the Flower," and similar poems forming among a younger group that includes James Reaney, Jay Macpherson, and Daryl Hine. Such poems enrich not only our poetic experience but our cultural knowledge as well, and as time goes on they become increasingly the only form of know-ledge that does not date and continues to hold its interest for future generations.

(1956) [179]

No comments:

Post a Comment