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« Molly Peacock, Guest Blogger January 25-31 | Main | "Fortunate Ones" [by Ernest Hilbert] »

January 26, 2009


Molly is certainly right about Avison. She had a prickliness to her poetry and could be very prickly in an interview. If anyone is interested, an interview I did with her appears in Lives and Works: Interviews with Canadian Writers (Black Moss Press, 1991). It was one of the few interviews Avison gave. The other side of Avison, however, was her charm, her ability to see a kind of delight in things from an askance point of view that was, at times, harder on herself than on her subject matter. I hail Molly Peacock's interest in Canadian poetry because it comes from her unique position as a passionate observer and a continual student of Canadian literature while at the same time from someone who is as astute a reader of poetry as you'll ever meet. If anyone is interested in Avison's work, they might want to see if they can catch up with Winter Sun or any of Avison's more recent volumes such as Wild Carrotts.

One further comment about Avison and Canadian poetry's unwillingness to hit one over the head (Molly is correct, we're not that flashy here -- we whisper rather than roar, are comic rather than tragic, and go places quietly because we really aren't that much into marching bands) -- Avison has a poem from the 1950s -- I can't recall the title of it -- where she is having a picnic at Brock's Monument in Queenston (another point of contact between Canadians and Americans...although I heartily prefer this method over the former) where she hits her head on the inside upper wall of the viewing area at the top of the monument (by the way, the monument was one of the first terrorist targets in North America and was blown up by a Fenian in the 1850s and Brock's arm had to be replaced on his effigy at the top) and responds by saying "plash!" and having a religious epiphany. It is a cool poem. Thanks Molly for sharing Avison with American readers.

I approve most heartily, and without a shrug of my French-Canadian shoulders, mais c'est la verity avec la difference. Bruce makes free use of the first-person-plural: who is this "we" who go places quietly and are comic? The statement is courageous, if only because no American poet would risk such a generalization. But it doth to these ears have ze ring of strangeness.

Molly’s quite right about tastes in the USA. It has a stubborn insular streak in reading poets. A few months ago I found that the beautiful Poetry Foundation (Chicago) Web site didn’t list Canadian poets Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Leonard Cohen, Stephanie Bolster, Dennis Lee, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Tom Wayman … and many more.

The Foundation site does have an essay by Jason Guriel that slaps Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon” around for his north-border blindsidedness. Bloom misses “E.J. Pratt, Milton Acorn, Al Purdy, Earle Birney, Gwendolyn MacEwen, bpNichol, Robert Kroetsch, Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, or Susan Musgrave.”

But the Poetry Foundation also misses Pratt, Acorn, bpNichol, Kroetsch, Crozier, Lane, and Musgrave.

Harriet Monroe in 1912 promised that Poetry Magazine (Chicago) would “print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” Has someone since then erected a mirror along the 49th parallel?

Better luck, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, India, the Caribbean, and all those English-speaking enclaves outside America and the UK!

When I was asked to choose a poem by another author to read at the launch for Best Canadian Poetry in Montreal, I pounced on this one by Avison. It's punishing to read: enunciate the line-ends? read the phrases in parentheses in a hush or staccato? those polysyllabic monsters that lie in wait? But the challenge was worth the prize: to make a dense, complex poem immediately appealing to an audience, and use inflections to share what I had learned from this precise, fabulous (try to take the "u" out of that one) poem.

I'm thrilled with all these responses, both to The Best Canadian Poetry in English idea as well as to Margaret Avison herself. To Bruce Meyer's love of Avison's prickly distance, I should add her comments about this poem, written shortly before her death: "Hag-Ridden" was written in Margaret's eighty-eighth year, when she was well-acquainted with a need to use a cane on her daily walks out under the "mysterious (some days dazzling) sky." This comment can be found in the end notes to The Best Canadian Poetry 2008.

Sylvie Planet, thank you for reading this blog at 2am and adding that non shoulder shrug! Americans don't have much awareness of the dual languages of Canada. That's why the "we" is so fraught, you readers out there. . . Nous avons besoin d'un anthologie en francais aussi.

This blog is honored to hear from Professor Ian Lancashire, the pioneer of the fabulous website Representative Poetry On Line. If you've never been to this site, it's quite amazing. It's one of the most comprehensive and august sites for poetry in English on the web. (I say this with prejudice, since I sit on its Board of Advisors.)

The names that Ian reels out pack a punch for Canadian readers, but hardly make a "ting" in the ears of Americans, so I'm glad to hear this litany. Just to add: Jason Guriel, who takes Harold Bloom to task, is in The Best Canadian Poetry 2008.

Thanks for the comments, and just a quick note: I didn't find the absence of the names I mentioned in my essay to be a particularly terrible thing. I could do without the work of some (though not all) of those names. I would like to have seen a few of them on Bloom's list. The point is, the names I list, whatever you may think of them, are among the better known in Canada. While I don't think one should cede too much authority to any one critic's opinion, I do note, in my essay, that I found Bloom's list of eight names "instructive," because, when I first encountered the list, it seemed counter-intuitive in its inclusion of people like Daryl Hine who are (or were) not part of the Canadian canon that was being aggressively promoted, or so it seemed, when I was younger.

So while I think Bloom's list could've been much longer I don't think it's entirely blind. His few choices are great ones, in my opinion, and they suggest the sort of choices that we Canadians need to make, in the years to come, as we rethink our always-shifting canon. If we discover and promote the 'right' (that is, the best) talents others will come, a point made by Carmine Starnino in his book A Lover's Quarrel. This is probably not made clear enough in my essay.

I think Bolster's selection is excellent - though not just because I'm in the book! Indeed, it's refreshing to NOT find someone like Atwood in the book, especially since, as Bolster's introduction seems to suggest, Atwood could've been included. (But I'm not advocating for a ferociously and self-consciously 'alt' canon, either. If an Atwood has a good poem - as, for example, Atwood has had in the past - then that person should make the cut.)

I am so glad this discussion is transpiring between Best American and the latest 'new' Best of Canadian Poetry in English. Kudos to Molly! Not only is it a look at the relationships between the poet and his/her nation (US) (Canada) (Britain) and so on but it is also a 3 dimensional discourse in such that it offers a look at the poet in relationship to his/her nation then that body vs. the other body of poets from a different country and the relationship of those works to the nation. Molly has looked at the US, Canada and Britain: a healthy dialogue. Most notable for me, however, is the fact that the first Best of Canadian Poetry in English also invites a newer potential canon of writers to the fore showing diverse national identities and that Canadian poetry is on the brink of new frontiers with new poets establishing a diversified and a post-2010 era canon that has grown out of those 20th century poet fore-fathers/mothers. Yes, Harold Bloom points out the 20th century poets--an era that modestly set the stage for what is happening now. The time, I believe, for poets like Avison and Babstock, as mentioned above, begin to map out the onslaught of a new canon of Canadian Poets in the post-2010 era is arrived. Thus, inviting all poetry aficionados into a new epoch of Canada's widely best recognizable poetry, Barry Dempster, Helen Humphreys, A.F. Moritz, Adam Sol, and Carmine Starnino to mention just a few!

Molly, thank you for these fascinating, intrepid and pioneering explorations of differences between American and Canadian poetry-- and for this startling poem by Avison.

I love the toughness of it, the articulate and uncompromising self-assessment, the choice of a kind of double-jointed back-handedness—and reclaiming of the subjective if not the individual-- over rue.
She uses the technical in a particularly cutting-in way—and of course the technical, the unhuman, here goes to what remains or becomes of humanness in old, mechanically- aided, old age.

I remember a poem, I think printed in The New Yorker, also on old age… the speaker sees the women of her youth at a reunion—and in seeing them suddenly sees how *she* is seen and what she has become. She pictures the company—-all as a large reptile, simply cut into more or less identical segments. I would like to read it again but have no way of finding it.
And speaking of The New Yorker, whose fiction editors quite rightly prize Alice Munro, what is it that makes Canadian poetry alien and unappetizing to their poetry editors? ( Perhaps this is not true—yet I can’t remember seeing a Canadian poet published there.)

As a backdrop to this discussion, the book Canadians Are Not Americans: Myths and Literary Traditions by Katherine Morrison (Second Story Press, 2003) may be of interest.

I'm just catching up on responding to these posts, and I want to thank Craig Poile for reading that Avison poem aloud. It's worth the "punishment" to figure out how to deliver it. She thanks you, I'm sure, from wherever she is now . . .

All the best,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Jason. I'm glad you were impressed with Stephanie Bolster's choices. I was, too. As the General Series Editor I didn't want to interfere with her process, and I must say it was absolutely meticulous. She found many stunning poems, yours included.

As for naming the names of Canadian poets, I think we need to do that wherever and whenever we can. It keeps bringing these poets into the light of an American readership -- a readership that only knows a very few of them So I'm very glad you have added to Bloom's list, even while appreciating his opinions.

Sonia Elizabeth Di Placido makes an important point about the new canon: that's very much why we're engaged in this project. By naming names we're enlarging the existing canon, or at least changing it. I also like to think of projects like this as shaping the landscape of contemporary letters -- or perhaps simply acknowledging that the landscape is now being influenced by new weather and new upheavals.

Susan Cody, thank you so much for those comments on Avison and her "double-jointed back handedness." It's too bad that The New Yorker's website doesn't have a way of helping people identify poems such as the one you remember. And I wonder if anyone out there has been tracking Canadian appearances in that magazine. . . .Anyone?

Susan Ioannou, I'm going to look for that Canadians Are Not Americans book. . .

I know George Johnston published at least a couple of times in the New Yorker. I think maybe David Solway. Maybe Eric Ormsby. But not sure.

Gute Arbeit hier! Gute Inhalte.

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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