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January 27, 2009

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How do you get the attention of the myopic? How do you get those wearing blinders to turn their heads? Maybe a loud noise would do the trick. Even if we could do it convincingly, it might turn into just another sound bite.
But we might ask ourselves, Is promotion necessary? Like neglected children, do we crave attention? Are we suffering?
Poetry is alive and doing very well in Canada. If others choose to pay attention, well, it’s there for all to read. Poetry in Canada has great identity and strength. The best we can do is present our work.
And yes, thanks to Molly Peacock for The Best Canadian Poetry in English and this blog. The impact will be interesting to see, while we continue reading poetry made in Canada.

Hi Molly -- Very interested to come across this blog (through the League of Canadian poets listserve), since I'm selecting an issue of Canadian poetry for summer 2009 for the e-litmag SugarMule, which originates from the States. Your description of Canadian poetry strikes me as very apt. When I've finished my editing this spring, it will be interesting to see what my opinion of CP is at that point.

I don't know your own poetry, but will see if I can find a volume in a bookstore or library near me (I'm in Ottawa) -- or perhaps you sell it through a web site?

(With a kind of submissive stubbornness which I also think of as very Canadian, I think I'll pass on reading your collection of "best canadian poems" until after I've completed my selection for SugarMule. Then I'll pick up a copy.)

And James, I also agree with you. Oh, sigh, how -- again -- Canajun of me...

Hi Molly,

At the risk of appearing unCanadianly impolite, I'm afraid I don't find your distinction terribly persuasive. Generalisations about the poetry of a given language or nation, in general, make me uneasy, as they establish a paradigm that fences out exceptions.

Which is one reason I recently published my own anthology of Canadian sonnets (as you know, since one of your poems is in it!): conventional wisdom says Canadians don't write sonnets and while you can find the odd one in the canon-forging anthologies, the vast majority of the work in those books is in a loose, anecdotally naturalistic free verse, much of which favours the slow build-up to an epiphany that fits with your pool/lake analogy.

But there are a lot of people here who don't buy that particular story about Canadian poetry. And there's a lot in BCP that contradicts it. One example, appropriately titled _Americans_, is by James Arthur, who comments above. But another is the very poem you use to illustrate your post's point. Al Moritz has lived in Canada for a while, but he's a US expat. Not only that, but much of his success has come in the States, where much of his audience resides. His bio in BCP lists several honours, including a Guggenheim (US); an Ingram Merrill Fellowship (US); the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institue of Arts and Letters (US); the Beth Hokin Prize from _Poetry_ (US). He's also appeared in 4 editions of Best American Poetry and the Best of the Best, edited by Harold Bloom, whose name came up in your previous post. While Al does have a considerable following in Canada, I think it's safe to say that next to none of his influences are Canadian.

Speaking of influences, another example of where your analogy breaks down is Jeffery Donaldson's "Museum," one of the longer poems in BCP at 7 pages. Expat Canadian critic James Pollock (now resident in Wisconsin) has a piece in the new issue of _Canadian Notes & Queries_ magazine about Donaldson, in which he makes a pretty airtight case for Donaldson's prime contemporary influences being James Merrill and Richard Howard.

I'm right now immersed in the work of two Canadian poets, Catherine Graham and Souvanham Thammavongsa, whose commitment to minimalist aesthetics is completely at odds with the "lake school." There are many many more examples. I'm very glad to have someone like you promoting poetry being written here to an American audience, but I wish you didn't perpetuate the same stereotypes that have stunted cultural growth this side of the 49th.

Best,

Zach

I like what Zach says, but just to give credit where credit is due, very considerable influences on me are the English Hector de St. Denys Garneau of John Glassco, and the English Anne Hebert of Alan Brown. Also John Newlove. Just as Montale was the only teacher of how to write out of Holderlin and still be completely contemporary, so Newlove was one of the best teachers of how to write out of (believe it or not) Keats and Wallace Stevens and still be completely contemporary.

Al

I stand corrected! Great observation about Newlove, Al. It hadn't occurred to me before, but it makes perfect sense.

Hi Zach, Thanks for joining the fray! You mean you don't like my swimming pool/lake analogy? I kind of enjoy your notion of a "lake school" (and a "pool school" for that matter). It's true, I haven't fit minimalism into my categories, and it certainly belongs there. I'm quite a fan of Catherine Graham's work myself.

Still, isn't there some value in hungering to describe what's distinctive about national poetries? Even if it propels one to resort to a cliche? Whenever I ask Canadian poets what distinguishes them from their US counterparts, I get only the vaguest answers. Have you got an analogy that makes better sense?

Perhaps its all a point of view problem: the closer a commenter becomes to this poetry, the fewer distinctions the commenter can see? But literature thrives on distinctions! So I'm going to go on making them. Even a stereotype, properly framed, can foster cultural growth.

Thanks for your your non-Canadian impoliteness. (And I'm proud to be in 99 Sonnets.)

Hi Molly,

Ha, I noted after I posted about Graham that you'd endorsed her book.

I think the key statement in your response is "literature thrives on distinctions." My problem is that generalisations obscure and elide distinctions.

I think one can reasonably generalise about the run-of-the-mill poetry produced in a nation. One can do this precisely because it is run-of-the-mill. What stands out tends to be, in all senses of the word, exceptional. And hence distinctive. One could generalise about, for instance, the poetry being written in the US in the 19th C. But at the time Whitman was self-publishing (even self-reviewing!) and Dickinson wasn't publishing at all. What do we remember, the poetry produced by the nation and the fads of the day, the stuff that cluttered the stuffy anthologies, or the poetry produced by these two eccentric individuals?

Especially now that nations, particularly Canada and the US, are far from culturally homogeneous, now that literacy is much more widespread and there's so much cross-pollination, I don't think it's safe or reasonable to talk about how a country writes poems. Countries don't write poems; countries have poems written in them. I tend to think about poetry in Canada, rather than Canadian Poetry, per se.

I've lived in six different provinces and territories over the last 18 years and one thing that's struck me is how distinct the various regions are from each other. Often, there are more commonalities across the US/Canadian border than across provincial boundaries. (Don't forget the border between Alberta and BC is a great big honkin' mountain chain. The one between Ontario and Manitoba is miles and miles and miles of barely populated shield country. The only border Newfoundland has with another province is the almost completely uninhabited northern region of Quebec.) Maritimers and New Englanders (see the work of Elizabeth Bishop). Vancouverites and Seattlites (if this isn't the right term, it should be!). Winnipeggers and Minnesotans. Albertans and Texans (kidding, but not really). In many ways, Newfoundland (a real hotbed for poetry in recent years) has more in common with Ireland (one of Newfoundland's best poets is Patrick Warner, an Irish expat) than it does with British Columbia. Which is why there has been a series of Newfoundland/Irish poetry anthologies published recently. The people of the Eastern Arctic have more in common with, and more cultural exchange with, Greenlanders than with Haida or Micmac. So no, tho I understand the impulse towards seeking out distinctions, I think the best you can come up with is the most superficial of differences. I don't think you can make any kind of accurate generalisation about the poetry of Canada, or about the States either. The only responsible way to talk about these things is on a poet by poet, poem by poem, basis.

Which is precisely why BCP is a welcome addition to poetry publishing here. In the hands of an editor as capable as Stephanie, you get a lineup of poems that's not merely strong, but remarkably varied.

I am intrigued by Molly’s post of January 28 linking cultural differences between poets in Canada and the United States to their different relationships with Britain. Not to neglect activity in the United States, an exciting development in Canada has been poets working out new ideas through established forms. Maybe Canadian poets’ facility using forms like the sonnet connects with our particular history. Their popularity and success may be a function of the poet’s willingness to “play with the net up.” I do hope we’ll see an example or two of such work in this blog.

A point of clarification here. I am not the James Arthur Zach Wells, Susan McMaster and maybe others think I am. Much as I like his poem, “Americans,” it is not mine. I would not want my comments attributed to the other James Arthur (unless he agrees with them). But is the James Arthur of BCP the author of the chapbook_Rowlock_published by Junction Books in 2000?

Best regards,
James Arthur

Dear Zach,

Thanks again for adding zest to this discussion. Poetry in Canada rather than Canadian Poetry is a great way to reinvigorate the aesthetic/national talk that, you're right, breaks out into superficialities at every turn. But I do notice that the subtitle to your fab anthology Jailbreaks is, um, 99 Canadian Sonnets, not 99 Sonnets from Canada. There is something sticky about those national adjectives! And, as you note, something fascinating about geographical proximity. The closeness of Newfoundland and Ireland, for instance, and the powerhouse literature being made in Newfoundland.

Again, I appreciate all you've said as our Canadian-American week comes to an end.

All the best for breaking us out of the jail of these distinctions,

Molly


James Arthur! So there are TWO of you! Thanks for bringing up the issue of form. Besides Zach's sonnet anthology, there is also the intriguing anthology IN FINE FORM edited by Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid a collection of all kinds of forms followed by and even invented by Canadian poets. It's published by Polestar Books.

Cheers,
Molly

Heh, I had the feeling you'd be mentioning that. And I'm glad you did. Trouble is, "Sonnets from Canada," besides being awkward-sounding where awkward-sounding is least appropriate (the job of a cover being to sell a book, after all), would be factually inaccurate, since a lot of the poets _weren't_ writing from Canada and a lot of the sonnets are set outside of Canada. One of my hopes with the anthology was complicating the adjective Canadian (an ambition with which FSG did not wish to assist, as they denied me permission to reprint an Elizabeth Bishop poem in an "all-Canadian" anthology). Also, I hoped that readers would make the connection between the sub-title and the sequence of "Canadian Sonnets" by EA Lacey, which I excerpted for the book. For those unfamiliar with the poems and Lacey, the man loathed Canada with an intensity that, as his friend Fraser Sutherland has put it, was tantamount to love. At any rate, his sonnets are the opposite of patriotic--and even mock the patriotism of Frost's "The Gift Outright."

"Canadian" has long been a term of contestation amongst the poets of this country. Irving Layton used to twit Al Purdy about it, Layton being the cosmopolite whose canvas was world-historical and Purdy being the ardent nationalist. Dennis Lee, a disciple of Purdy's who would become his editor and publisher, has written about how, early in his (Lee's) career, he wrote a sequence of sonnets that was particularly unsuccessful. He had an epiphany that the failure of those poems was due to his being a colonized poet. He was, to his mind, writing in a form that came from the Mother Country and that was not appropriate to Canadian reality. Maybe this was true for him, but it seems to me that not only was he committing the logical fallacy of generalizing from a particular ("I failed at writing sonnets, therefore sonnets must be wrong"), but he is mythologizing his failure as being part of some kind of titanomachia ("by no longer writing sonnets, I am slaying my father and asserting my independence"), when really it was probably just a case of a young poet trying something that didn't work out; he might as well have failed at something else at that point, as most young poets do.

Well and good, but the problem is that this dubious reasoning didn't only inform Lee's aesthetic choices, but has proven far more persuasive than other meta-narratives of Canadian literature--or than less grand, but rather more realistic notions. Such as, "I like writing sonnets and I'm pretty good at it, so I'm going to carry on doing it." This is more what's happening now that there's more distance and time between empire and colony and we're not all neurotic about being symbolically tied to the British throne. Most people of the younger generations are writing the poems they want to write, the poems they have it in them to write, and not worrying about if it's too John Bull or too Uncle Sam--or too Captain Canada. We've grown up in, or at least been exposed to, more pluralistic communities, by and large, than the WASP dominated Toronto of Dennis Lee's youth. We see Canada, to use another water analogy, more as umbrella than bucket.

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