They make relatively little money. Their children, wives or husbands are supported on the tenuous stints they wangle as writers-in-residence at universities or the proceeds of onenight stands in basement halls. One of their works may become part of a school’s required curriculum and, suddenly, they know the small financial caress (perhaps $5,000 a year) that steady royalty cheques can bring. They are Canada’s poets. They range from travelling circuses of jesters emitting meaningless gargles and calling their performances “sound poetry” to yellowhaired matrons singing soulfully about
men who make them feel 17. But the handful of real bards number among our rarest natural resources, our nation’s slim chance for immortality. Canadian academics and bureaucrats may continue to indulge in fitful excesses of national pride and humiliation, worrying about our culture, our identity—but in this one area of human endeavor, Canada needs no one’s concern. “Among all the poetry being written in the English-speaking world today,” says poet and critic Dennis Lee,“some of the best and most original work is being done by Canadians.” Though Lee may be biased, a few weeks’ reading of the major works of contemporary English and American poetry will confirm his view.
Last year new books came from several of our major poets: Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, Irving Layton and AÍ Purdy. The year before it was Alden Nowlan. And in the sudden clarity of a
good poem, Canadians seeking to understand themselves can find an amazing shortcut. For poets have traditionally performed these two functions: first, the exorcism of their readers’ personal ghosts through casting a spell on their own, and second, the mythologizing of their country’s turmoil and ecstasy.
He is 60 years old and though he had started writing poetry in his early ’20s it wasn’t until he was over 40 that AÍ Purdy dented the Canadian poetry scene. From that point on he dented, good-naturedly, the ribs of a number of Canadian poets as well. A freight train
rider in the Depression and a factory worker later on, at six-feet three-inches and still growing, Purdy seemed never to realize his own physical strength. A bear hug given to the “people’s poet,” Marxist Milton Acorn, at a poetry conference at Collingwood, Ontario, reduced Acorn to a limp form draped unceremoniously over a beer-strewn table. The same physical energy animates Purdy’s poetry. If anyone, it is he who is Canada’s working man’s voice, enjoying our land with his fingertips as well as his mind. Purdy longs to revisit Baffin Island “. .. if only someone will finance the damn trip. I think I once got $500 as an advance on a book of poetry and it has taken six years for my Selected Poems to sell out 10,000 copies.” His home in Ameliasburgh, Ont., was built over 20 years ago by himself. Now, a Governor-General’s Award and numerous prizes later, it has grown in size but it still has no plumbing and Purdy complains about the increasing encroachment of nosy neighbors. “I like being alone. Isolation and space. That’s what this country is about.”
Sometimes he is accused of sentimentality in his outspoken love affair with Canada’s sheer physical attraction. But Purdy is too wise, shrewd and goodhumored for sentimentality. It takes rare reservoirs of rage, love and common sense to capture the contrasts and contradictions of a country as strong and weak, as ultramodern and prehistoric as Canada. Take poet Purdy trying to empty his bowels in the Arctic wilderness, with nothing but an Eskimo boy between a pack of snarling sled dogs and the more tender parts of his anatomy:
Dear Ann Landers/what would you do?/Dear Galloping Gourmet/what would you do/in a case like this?/Well I'll tell you/NOTA DAMN THING/You just squat there cursing hopelessly/while the kid throws stones/and tries to keep them off and out from under/as a big black husky dashes in/swift as an enemy submarine/white teeth snapping at the anus—from Being Alive (1978)
Though her voice is a vulnerable monotone and her face, framed by the soft look of wispy curls, adds to the impression of frailty, Margaret Atwood’s work has a razor-edge incisiveness. Best-known for her literary thesis, Survival, 39-year-old Atwood’s extraordinary talent is in her poetry. Though unmistakably of this country in her im-
ages and tone, as a poet Atwood has always been more concerned with private than with public ghosts: the crippling boredom that can strangle love; the vicious cycle of self-gratification that tears men and women apart, and, on a more metaphysical level, the stubborn task of reconciling civilization with this land studded with rocks and peopled with indifference. From her farm near Alliston, Ont., where visitors are treated to a domestic tour that includes a view of her new child, and the latest investment in farm machinery, this singular woman writes with a steeliness unequalled in English poetry today. Her magnificent new book, TwoHeaded Poems, is a spare, exquisite and merciless look at the many selves of the poet’s persona. Such an examination might be a mere self-indulgence in the hands of a less inspired practitioner, but Atwood’s art makes it universal. The two-headed poems are about every one of us:
But most hearts say, I want, I want,
I want, I want. My heart
is more duplicitous,
though no twin as I once thought.
It says, I want, I don’t want, I want, and then a pause.
It forces me to listen,
and at night it is the infra-red third eye that remains open while the other two are sleeping but refuses to say what it has seen.
—from Two-Headed Poems (1978)
The juvenile ’60s made it not only respectable to be a poet but vital — if one wanted to impress the opposite sex and have one’s opinions on politics, life and the eternal verities cited in the nation’s newspapers. By then, Irving Layton had been writing poems for a number of years, printed in the traditional 300 copies and sold to sympathetic friends. But Layton was no phenomenon of the ’60s. It simply took that period to give him the attention he richly deserved. His poetry was unparalleled in Canadian letters for sheer exuberance and the pleasure he took in the physical self. Though much has been made of Layton’s celebration of his private parts, it was in no small measure Layton, with his thick hair swept back off an impish face, his turtleneck sweaters, medallions and groupies, who permitted Canadians to acknowledge that they, too, had private parts and
fantasies. Now at 66, he sums his ecstasy up in a love poem to his new 30year-old wife, Harriet, in The Tightrope Dancer (1978): I know again such ferverous delight/such happiness without misgiving or guilt/as once in my fabulous boyhood long ago.
But Irving Layton and Governor - General Award winner Alden Nowlan, perhaps more than any of our major poets, also bring to us a welcome clarity of political vision in these decades all too easily enamored of social utopias. Erudite, bearded, the Maritime working classes’ answer to Ontario’s Robertson Davies even though a school dropout at 15, Nowlan, 45, proves to be that rare phenomenon: a renaissance man
without benefit of formal education or a renaissance civilization to help illuminate his vision and talent. Whether it is a simple poem describing a woman hanging out a line of washing to dry or the first wry mention of his own conception (‘“I’m in trouble,’ she said”) few poets can match Nowlan for his extraordinary range of subject matter and technique or for his humor, compassion and sensible sensibility: At first he treated her/as his equal,/the woman he loved,/but this made her weep./So out of pity he changed her/into a doll/that he works with strings./Now she sings all day/and smiles at him in her sleep, —from Smoked Glass (1977)
In the end, of course, all our poetry roads lead to Earle Birney. More than any other contemporary Canadian poet (except perhaps Atwood) his work has been recognized abroad and reviewed in publications that are the hallmark of international acceptance— from the London Times Literary Supplement to The New York Times Book Review. Still, it is not this foreign acceptance that gives Birney his place in Canadian letters, but his uncanny ear for the nuances of Canadian language. He is the recorder of our dialects, the transcriber of rhythm and patterns in our speech. “I’ve tried concrete poetry,” says Birney, “but I’m a sound man. I like my poetry to be able to be read aloud. As a personnel officer in the Second World War I became fascinated by
the sound of Canadian accents. I must have interviewed 2,500 Canadians and all the regions had their own dialect.”
Together with this ability to capture nuance and transpose it into that fragile creation—a poem—is Birney’s occasional excursions into tender lyricism. Some of our finest love poems have in fact been written by Birney. In a poem to his 28-year-old love in Fall By Fury (1978),the 74-year-old Birney makes it all seem so effortless: my love is young & i am old/she'll need a new man soon/but still we wake to clip and talk/to laugh as one/to eat and walk/beneath our five-year moon/good moon good sun/that we do love/i pray the world believe me/& never tell me when it's time/that i'm to die/or she's to leave me
Reflecting the current strains on the social fabric of our country, Canadian poetry, too, is being pulled apart by regional interests and the insularity of such fashionable obsessions as the current public search for roots. Recently, anthologies of West Coast, Montreal English, Maritime and practically everything but blue-eyed poets have been published. A book full of ItaloCanadian poets, many of whom were born in Canada, write of their longing “to roam on the hills of Tuscany” but leave readers with the suspicion that most of the contributors would be unable to ask the way down to the bottom of the hill in any other language than midtown Torontonese. Such problems coalesce with the perennial complaint that too many people are writing nonsense at public expense.
Still, a fine poem is a work of magic and a good poet may write hundreds of poems before perhaps even one will triumph over form and language to reach the sublime. It is necessary to survive the deluge of inadequate poets in order to reap the marvelous rewards of the work of such writers as Atwood, Purdy, Layton, Nowlan and Birney. They, along with many others, are accessible to a broad public in such popular anthologies as the just-released The Poets of Canada, edited by John Robert Colombo. Here, along with the five poets mentioned, are the next five poets and perhaps five more after that whose work also rivals the best written in the English language anywhere in the world. If we could say the same thing of 10 novelists, playwrights, critics or journalists, Canada would occupy a very distinguished place in the world of letters. As it is, some generations hence, people might well be amused and amazed on reading that we ever had doubts about our culture or identity. Our poets, at least, have a good chance of making our times appear the golden age of the Canadian spirit,
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