BOOKS

Bitter wisdom of moral concern

Atwood, Purdy and Layton offer tough poetry for hard times

Mark Abley March 30 1981
BOOKS

Bitter wisdom of moral concern

Atwood, Purdy and Layton offer tough poetry for hard times

Mark Abley March 30 1981

Bitter wisdom of moral concern

BOOKS

Atwood, Purdy and Layton offer tough poetry for hard times

Mark Abley

Anyone who thinks of poetry as a private, soft-spoken affair will be in for a rude shock from recent collections by some of Canada’s finest poets. The new books by Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy and Irving Layton, among others, adopt a social role more usually occupied nowadays by novelists and playwrights. “We live in a time,” writes Layton, “when atrocity’s the norm/and survival the sole merit.”

Other poets affirm other merits, /rrTTTLsw VMSUVAV but the combination of moral concern and lyric voice remains constant.

Atwood’s ninth book of poetry, True Stories (Oxford University Press, $5.95), is centred on Notes Towards a Poem.

That Can Never Be Written, a sequence about present-day torture and the brutality of the past. “In this country,” she observes wryly, “you can say what you like / because no one will listen to you anyway.” Oppressive regimes, by contrast, pay writers the dangerous compliment of taking their work seriously. At moments, Atwood seems damaged by her own security; unable to shut her eyes on “darkness, drowned history,” she knows prison cells and death camps by a recurrent ache of the imagination. Some poems are painful to read, for she doesn’t flinch from showing us the methods and effects of evil. Yet perhaps the bitterest wisdom comes during a normal train ride from Vienna to Bonn when the landscape shimmers into nightmare.

She realizes then, “This is the old fear: / not what can be done to you / but what you might do / yourself, or fail to. / This is the old torture.”

Not all her poems are explicitly political, though many inhabit a borderland between private and public unease. As ever, Atwood moves with brilliant fluency from objects to emotions; her ideas often take shape and force from sharp physical details such as “cooking steak or bruised lips” and “mouthpink light.” That famous cool intelligence can be sardonic with a vengeance:

“There are whole / magazines with not much in them / but the word love, you can / rub it all over your body and you / can cook with it too.” In True Stories, however, the abrasiveness is subdued by tenderness, a surprising vulnerability and her consciousness of our need for love (an impossible word to define, an impossible word to do without). It’s a

measure of Atwood’s stature as a poet that the sheer excellence of the writing can be almost taken for granted. Because it is blooded by political comment, True Stories may not be one of her most immediately appealing books of poetry, but it’s among her best.

In the hands of other writers, moral attention may mingle with a sense of fun. The Stone Bird (McClelland & Stewart, $8.95), AÍ Purdy’s 25th collection, exemplifies the sympathy, versatility and humor that have made Purdy so popular and so distinguished. Critic George Woodcock observed that his writing “fit Canada like a glove; you can feel the fingers of the land working through his poems.” But in nearly half of The Stone Bird, fingers of other lands are at work as he documents his travels in Mexico, Spain, Soviet Asia, the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere. Purdy is an ideal traveller: wherever he goes, he takes a keen pair of eyes, a love of the earth and a refusal to stand on ceremony. Not many famous writers would

have the humble inspiration to begin a poem, “I have forgotten English / in order to talk to pelicans.” Purdy never grovels, never languishes in self-pity, yet his awareness of his own uncertainties can bring out marvelous poetry: “love which is the inexpressible / turn to me in this place / and from my continual turmoil / grant me some knowledge of myself / and of my residence on earth.”

Purdy has often infused his work with a sense of public responsibility (in 1972 he published a volume of Hiroshima Poems), and the beauty of The Stone Bird is underlined by his distress at the course of civilization. No Second Spring, his sequence of poems about a proposed atomic waste site in Hastings County, Ont., refers to “a black thing shaped like the human brain,” the technological evil of our own creation which haunts so many dreams. His interest in evolution, the topic of several new poems, may act as an imaginative refuge, a lens to put our “murderous” world in perspective. At moments, his relentless talkativeness becomes another sort of refuge. This makes The Stone Bird an uneven volume but it is never a boring one. Although Atwood’s cut-glass elegance is beyond AÍ Purdy, his vitality and warmth are unsurpassed. Only once does he go wrong, when a poem about a dog called Bumper describes his “frantic Buchenwald terror / at car travel.” The concentration camps were far too terrible to be mentioned as cheaply as that.

The camps are mentioned time and again by Irving Layton in Europe and Other Bad News (McClelland & Stewart, $8.95). For, as he explains in a foreword, the Holocaust is “the central moral and psychological fact of our times.” The foreword also includes, in three pages, assaults on Canada, Christianity, middle-class Judaism, critics, WASPs and Layton’s fellow poets.

New work that leavens sympathy with anger, and pain with hope, places poets in a social role

Not that such aggressive prose would matter if the poems in this, his 41st collection, were much good. But Layton has grown predictable and, regardless of the justice in some of his invective, his work no longer shows the care and gusto with which he used to write. Reputation makes a poor substitute for vision and revision, and he now exhibits dangerous signs of basking in easy controversy for the sake of his cherished image. A comparison of Purdy’s intimate travel with Layton’s tourism (“from a far hill the luxury hotel / looks down on the mestizos”) suggests that the problem may be that, unlike Purdy, Layton rests happily with a conventional attitude, a pose. A passionate fury about Gulag and the Holocaust feeds Layton’s work, but carelessness about language and a preening of his own ego spoil even his anger.

Many of Canada’s best poets—who may be less flamboyant but equally as accomplished as Layton—publish their work with small presses, where poetry is a lifeblood rather than a mere sideline. A case in point is Wilson’s Bowl (The Coach House Press, $7.50) by B.C. writer Phyllis Webb, a collection that has been eagerly awaited by other poets if not the general public. The anticipation arose because the hesitant eloquence of her early work was followed by a long silence: Webb’s last volume of new poetry appeared in 1965. She is a scrupulous, original craftsman and a perfectionist to the point of despair. Webb’s poems possess an austere, even wild intensity; her elegy for Dostoevsky uses the point of view of a beetle in the novelist’s bowl of cabbage soup. Like True Stories, Wilson’s Bowl includes a

group of poems written out of personal horror at public misdeeds: solitary confinement, Three Mile Island and the Treblinka gas chamber. But Webb is no polemicist, and the final words of the book suggest a mixture of anguish and serenity which distinguishes her finest work: “our cells destroy each other / performing music and extinction / and the great dreams pass on / to the common good.”

Destruction and the great dreams are also preoccupations of another western writer, Patrick Lane. Two years ago, his Poems New and Selected won a Governor-General’s Award, and his new collection, The Measure (Black Moss Press, $6.95), shows no decline in grace or intensity. Lane stands unashamedly in the bardic tradition: he is violent and romantic, sentimental and agonized, a yarnspinner and a lyric poet. He also has a consuming love for the land (especially the northern interior of B.C.) and a devotion to the bitter lives of victims and outcasts. Confronted by a wildcat, he calmly remarks, “Half-torn to pieces by this snow / he scrapes a beauty from my mind.” The Measure exists for such vivid scrapes, whether the subject be a pair of teen-age hitch-hikers, an alcoholic veteran of the Boer War or Lane’s two young sons. Like all these books, it leavens anger with sympathy, and pain with hope. In times of public unease, the private act of creating a poem has become a gesture of defiant faith.