The Canadian Porkmodern: A Study of English Canadian Poetry*

by Ronnée Gonflam


Robert Kroetsch once said that “We write poems, in Canada, not of the world, but to gain entrance to the world. That is our weakness and our strength.”1 If that is so, then Mary Buchanan’s marvellously lively poem, Piggy, increasingly recognized for its significance in the popular consciousness of most twentieth-century readers,2 points to the struggle of a very particular imagination to come to grips with its materials and the external, social world of which the poem sings. This struggle is enacted as a performance in Buchanan’s poem, one to which readers’ attention is directed by the work itself. Such self-reflexivity, and by that I mean a self-consciousness that calls to us to recognize the devices of the poem’s own construction, is hardly unfamiliar to Canadian readers raised in a land of mirrors, whether northern lakes or television screens. I know of no place, no street corner or crossroads, in Canada where one can escape the habit of hugging oneself against the challenging cold winds of mid winter. Surely a nation of individuals who think nothing of public displays of auto-warming gestures would produce a poem of self-referential, as textually playful, as deliberately aware of itself, indeed, as porkmodern as Piggy.
     Much of this essay is constructed out of my attempt to understand how such a long-neglected piece of Canadian writing as Piggy could so appropriately define and shape an entire theoretical discourse, one that pervades not only the criticism of literature but of the visual arts and architecture, as well.3 That discourse is, of course, the sometimes vaguely appreciated term “porkmodernism,” a generic label with a decidedly provocative cache. How many of us know that Mary Buchanan’s Piggy stands behind our continuing reliance on the very word “porkmodernism” itself? It is an endearing mystery of English usage, of course, that words acquire signifying status over time, often quite independent of their etymological or historical sources. Fortunately, however, editors Bailey and Bentley, in foregrounding Buchanan’s Piggy as a distinctly cultural, as well as literary, artifact have wisely permitted us to recognize the ways in which “porkmodernism” easily and widely came to be identified as a Canadian cultural form.
     I began by asserting the self-reflexiveness of Piggy, and perhaps I ought to return now to the unconstrained way in which Buchanan’s work openly announces its membership in a specific cultural context. We now take the characteristically self-consciousness of “porkmodernism” so much for granted that we may have difficulty recognizing the temerity of the poem’s initial gesture, so conspicuously apparent in the subject’s declamatory statement, “Oh, I’ll sing of the pig, be he little or big.” What an astonishingly candid admission this must have seemed in 1915, the year of the poem’s first appearance,4 and so confidently expressed. Not content to “sing” merely of the porcine household “friend,” the poet draws attention to the act of singing itself, an act which when performed will have constituted Piggy, a poem in eight verses. The poet, then, openly acknowledges the poem as process and act, as art.
     Once initially established, such referentiality is braced by recurring signs of the subject’s presence, whether directly admitted (“as I’ve said he’s no beauty”) or by drawing the acknowledged reader directly into an exchange of meaning (“And to you I can send this good recommend”). The poet knows that Piggy is a poem—not an autonomous household tip or a recipe—so that we can easily partake of the irony that what we are reading is first and foremost a piece of literature. As Magritte might have said, Piggy is not a pig.5 Whatever disquiet may result from some ironic tension between what is fictive and what is factual, and between the object and its literary representation, is surely offset by a realization of the potential such tension has to liberate the reader from the binary cage of the real and the imaginary. In Piggy, these distinctions break down. The border between what is and what is not blurs before our amazed eyes. Now this may at first sound familiar to readers intimate with the tenets of High Modernism, which affirm the independent status of the art objet, but in Piggy we see something new happening, a signal of something that goes beyond the humanistic calling of Modernism’s belief in the power of the object to change social reality. In Piggy, we do more than overhear the poem’s utterance; we are led towards an engagement with the provisional nature of that utterance. That this process should proceed through the otherwise neglected and common figure of a pig, surely as curious and unsettling a barnyard creature as there is (more trouble than a cow, less attractive than a horse, more useful, perhaps, than either) points to the suitability of the term.” Modified by a snouty sus scrofal or sus type,6 “modern” is now capable of signifying a logically extended meaning. The porkmodern poem is neither self-sufficient nor a simple mirror to the world: it resists at once the absolute authority of art and any notion of transparent reference.
     What other country could have come up with such a notion? The Canada of the early part of this country, the period of Piggy’s inception, was no more cohesive of sure of its identity than the Canada of our troubled fractious age. Unlike the stable American united states from which we have so long pulled back, and the certain outreaching centre of the British Empire to whom we once so uneasily deferred, Canada was and is a less firmly realized geographical entity, dare I suggest it, more a round and pinkish, wriggling creature than a fixed, immobile beast. Others have shrewdly observed the paradoxical condition of Canadian political and social experience, a condition of ambivalence, as well, brought on by the pressures of being somewhere “between” American and Britain.7 Both on the margins of culture and geography and part of central western civilization, Canada enjoys the privilege of being able at once to share the values and conventions of the mainstream and to undercut and challenge these. Such a contradictory stance gives us our “ex-centricity” as well as our frequently observed common ordinariness. The porkmodern writer, as we have long seen in this century, is always consciously aware of his or her identification with the nation and uncomfortable with it as the same time. To return to Piggy, for a moment, we can easily recognize what Robert Kroetsch once called the “total ambiguity” of Canadian experience in Buchanan’s celebration of an animal that “hasn’t much beauty about him.”8 Indeed, all of Piggy really depends on the self-conscious play of oppositional attitudes towards a creature that itself embodies some troubling conflicts about what exactly “nature” might be up to. Itself an ex-centric member of the animal kingdom, the pig challenges our notions not only of what is beautiful, but also of what is good. How paradoxically Canadian, we might very well say—and, in other words, how porkmodern.
     In Piggy, then, can be traced the earliest source of porkmodernism’s refusal to resolve contraries. In both acknowledging modernism’s persistent urge to recreate order and establish value and showing the problematic, provisional terms of the urge for such order, porkmodernism offers us an exhilarating option of borderless possibility. In Buchanan’s “And there’s lard—snowy lard—sometimes, soft, sometimes hard,” we see prescient evidence of Kroetsch’s typically epigrammatic observation that the “escape from definition excites the Canadian beyond all reason” (68). Piggy may be cast in the conventional, ordering quatrain verses of popular poetry, but no stanza escapes the ambivalent, even equivocal voice of the speaker whose almost palpable uneasiness with certainties problematizes the desire for and the nature of truth. The porkmodernism of Piggy, then, becomes a useful paradigm in which to discuss, for example, the obsessive dialectics of our most widely read poets. Think of Margaret Atwood’s “There is no use for art,” even while she spends a lifetime dedicated to satisfying its demands.9 Similarly, the superficial insouciance of Patrick Lane’s “Cattle are stupid” is belied by his strenuous effort to make sense of such a deceptively simple truism.10 In George Bowering’s “What am I doing in the kitchen / I’d rather be upstairs with my toys” we have quintessential expression of porkmodernism’s ironies.11 Bowering is, after all, probably not in the kitchen when we are reading his poem—or he may be. Porkmodernism asserts and undercuts.
     Perhaps no Canadian writer so fully understands the strategically destabilizing power of porkmodernism’s uncertainties than Leonard Cohen. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in Piggy Cohen would have recognized the inherent exclusivity of Buchanan’s choice of subject, a pig as the very emblem of membership in a circle of Christian—that is, non-Jewish—privilege. To speak of the pig, at all, is, of course, to adhere to a specific ideology of religious and spiritual belief. To write Piggy is to place a non-Christian reader in an even more marginalized position than he or she would normally be accustomed. But the porkmodern ironies and ambivalences of Piggy, such as we have already seen, in turn generate new ironies, new levels of commentary which we might call porkmodern meta-friction. By this I mean a friction that comes about because of the discomfort occasioned for Jewish readers and writers who already see themselves as wandering ex-centrics in a world which takes certain dietary practices for granted. In this way, we might understand the trajectory of Cohen’s career to be a continuing engagement with porkmodern meta-friction. And we might also appreciate the astonishingly rich contributions that Jewish porkmodern writers have made to Canadian reading since Piggy first appeared. Already poised at the edge of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, the Jewish porkmodern writer fully appreciates the need to remain critical of the conventions which make certain menus—and thus certain social behaviours—acceptable. But he or she, while interested in offering a critique of the assumptions inherent in the Christian actuality of Piggy, wishes to embrace its material advantage. This is why “porkmodernism,” as a critical term and a writing practice, so well conveys the ironies of the Jewish writer’s position. And this is why even such early works as Let Us Compare Mythologies and Flowers for Hitler might be read paradigmatically as porkmodern texts. In his Book of Mercy, Cohen writes “The surface is thick, but it has flaws, and hopefully we will trip on one of them,”12 surely an impressively self-referential and paradoxical utterance from one who has also given expression to the porkmodernism of this verse: “Come down to my room / I was thinking about you / and I made a pass at myself.”13
     Cohen’s porkmodernism echoes and resounds that of A.M. Klein and Irving Layton, of course. The meta-frictionalism of Cohen’s most allusively rich writings find a shared sympathy in the unresolved disquietude of Klein’s assimilatable Jews, “We will munch ham, and guzzle milk thereto,”14 and in the persistent railings from Layton’s “hot Hebrew heart” against the Christian culture with which he must live in “aching confraternity.”15 But the full realization of porkmodernism’s far-reaching meta-frictional self-consciousness can be seen in Michael Ondaatje’s widely celebrated and often fragmentary literary expressions. Not a Jew, no, but as culturally outside the mainstream of the dominant culture as any Klein or Cohen, Ondaatje is one of the many Canadian writers who now articulates the porkmodern different: the ex-centric marginality of our personal and national experience. What is read as a critique of the economy of the household in Piggy is eventually refigured by Ondaatje into an interrogation of the nature of houses and families and the whole construct of property laws in “Pig Glass.”16
     Ondaatje hears the ironic affection in Buchanan’s lament that her friend, the pig, “may dig, he may root, and our gardens oft loot,” transmuting it, as he does, into a full porkmodern admission of the value of the fruits of such looting, “nosed out of the earth by swine” (p. 84). Presumably the poet of “Pig Glass” can afford the indulgence of celebrating the ironies of such eco-destroying earth-tunneling, his own historic moment allowing for a century’s worth more of buried “faded history” than Buchanan’s pig of the early nineteen hundreds might snout up. Moreover, Ondaatje’s swinish discoveries remind him—he who is above ground and on the outside, so to say—of the layered lives and earth-covered histories of those who are beneath him, securely on the “inside.” But the poet of “Pig Glass” occupies the same imaginative, border space once claimed by the poet of Piggy, a place from which one can challenge the unexamined assumptions of the present. At the turn of the century the porkmodern question might have been—will we balance our household accounts or preserve the sanctity of animal life? By Ondaatje’s time the question might be qualified somewhat differently—will we balance our household accounts or keep the swine around to inspire poems like “Pig Glass”—but the general questioning of the value and meaning of making firm distinctions between various forms of writing, and even of living, remains strikingly and tellingly similar. In both instances, we have poetic materialization of an examination of what Foucault once labelled the archaeology of meaning.17 In our own Canadian poetic examples, Foucault’s pig, so to say, happily fulfils the porkmodern impulse to uncover buried histories and excavate truths.
     This brings me, finally, back to the realization that porkmodernism in its broadest sense is the name that we give to our culture’s so(rro)wful but necessary obsession with the nature of its own workings—historical or in the present moment. I have not spoken here of the value that porkmodernism holds for us in our visual fields, as I initially suggested, but there is much evidence around us to confirm that porkmodern strategies of representation are now easily accommodated, even appropriated, by these areas of endeavour. Further inquiry along these lines will yield prolific results for all of us, not only for Canadian readers.18 Certainly we can now state with only a small measure of caution that Buchanan’s Piggy, in its first signalling of the pressures and challenges of porkmodern life, opened the way for a new vitality, a willingness to root around in old forms, however much we make our noses dirty in the process, in order to fashion new and active processes of engagement with a multiplicity of forms and processes. Skeptical of unifying visions of culture, porkmodernism affirms the existence of the many, “be he little or big,” in any notions of singularity. In the porkmodern moment, anything seems possible.


  1. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989), 132. [back]
  2. Mrs. Walter Buchanan, Piggy, Ed. Susan Bailey and D.M.R. Bentley (London: Canardian Poetry Press, 1991). [back]
  3. Here I must acknowledge the many people, friends and students, who have so richly contributed to my understanding of forms and trends in Canadian literature. I especially wish to thank the students in my graduate seminar at In Memoriam University with whom I have had the good fortune to share my ideas: Darlene Farquharson, Lina Stowe, Susan Dodge, Dale Block, Sheilagh Noseworthy, Barbara Rosey, Squib Newton, Medina Pacey, Roxanne Lundrigan, and Madonna Hickman. I should also like to thank the various audiences across the country whose challenges and questionings find their way into my essay—I hope, to their advantage: McGill University, the University of Alberta, and the University of Western Ontario. [back]
  4. See the “Letters by Buchanan,” elsewhere in this Snorton Critical edition, for convincing evidence. [back]
  5. For an apt discussion of the way Magritte’s work figures in what Linda Hutcheon calls “the postmodern novel,” a term cleverly if obviously borrowed from the porkmodernism of Buchanan’s poetic achievement, see her The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988), 22. [back]
  6. For this little known piece of biological typology I am grateful to my friend and mentor, Mendel P. Byzantine, scientist and after-dinner speaker. [back]
  7. See everything that Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, Robert Kroetsch, and Linda Hutcheon have written, and see, also, everything ever written by their spouses, partners, and students. [back]
  8. See Robert Kroetsch and Diane Bessai, “Death is a Happy Ending: A Dialogue in Thirteen Parts,” in Figures in a Ground: Essays on Modern Literature Collected in Honour of Sheila Watson, ed. Diane Bessai and David Jackel (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978), 208. [back]
  9. The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1970), 47. [back]
  10. Beware the Months of Fire (Toronto: Anansi, 1974), 42. [back]
  11. Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto: Coach House, 1984), 55. [back]
  12. Book of Mercy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), psalm 13. [back]
  13. The Energy of Slaves (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), 84. [back]
  14. Complete Poems, Part 1: Original Poems, 1926-1934, ed. Zailig Pollock (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 168. Note that a later version of the poem, “Now We Will Suffer Loss of Memory,” revises the line to “We will eat ham, despite our tribe’s tabu,” an even more obvious reminder that porkmodernism coexists in complicity with the very cultural dominants it seeks to subvert. [back]
  15. Collected Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977), p. 32. [back]
  16. There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning To Do: Poems 1963-1978 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979), pp. 84-5. [back]
  17. See all of Foucault, but especially The Archaeology of Knowledge & the Discourse of Language, trans. by A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972). “This term [archaeology] does not imply the search for a new beginning,” Foucault argues (131), a useful observation that underlines porkmodernism’s implicit questioning of the notion of the possibility of beginnings. Possibilities may be deployed and borders announced and renounced, but beginnings have no place in porkmodernism. Note then the irony in Ondaatje’s wry multi-cultural greeting in “Pig Glass”: “Bonjour.” [back]
  18. My own The Aesthetics of Porkmodernism, forthcoming from Oxford, examines this very phenomena, especially as evidenced in the grand porkgermanic transformative canvases of Anselm Kiefer: “I work with the disturbing physical properties of the earth and its creatures, whether people or Schwienhund” (personal interview with the artist, 1992). Likewise, my Poetics of Postmodernism: Mystery, Theory, and Friction (Theory/Culture Series, U of Toronto P) studies more of the same with a few otherwise unfamiliar visual artists added to merit publication. [back]

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1970.

Bowering, George. Kerrisdale Elegies. Toronto: Coach House, 1984.

Buchanan, Mrs. Walter. Piggy. Ed. Susan Bailey and D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canardian Poetry P, 1991.

Bessai, Diane and David Jackal, eds. Figures in a Ground: Essays on Modern Literature Collected in Honour of Sheila Watson. Saskatoon: Westerner Producer Prairie Books, 1978.

Cohen, Leonard. Book of Mercy. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

———. The Energy of Slaves. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

———. Flowers for Hitler. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.

———. Let Us Compare Mythologies. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Coholic, A.L. If You Let Me Close My Office Door and Look Under Your Dress, Little Blonde Undergraduate Girl, I Promise to Write a Poem About It That Will Help Me Win the Nobel Prize for Literature: Selected and Erected Poems 1945-92. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

Hamilton, Edmond. The Lights in the Sky are Pigs. Toronto: Cat House P, 1989.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988.

Klein, A.M. Complete Poems, Part 1: Original Poems, 1926-1934. ed. Zailig Pollock, Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

Lane, Patrick. Beware of the Months of Fire. Toronto: Anansi, 1974.

Layton, Irving. Collected Poems. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Ondaatje, Michael. There’s a Trick With Your Wife I’m Yearning to Do: Poems 1963-1978. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979.