Editors and Texts: Reflections of Some
Recent Anthologies of Canadian Poetry

The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English, chosen and with an introduction by Margaret Atwood. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982. x1 + 477 pp. $19.95 cloth

Canadian Poetry, Volume One and Volume Two, edited by Jack David and Robert Lecker with introductions to both volumes by George Woodcock. Toronto: General Publishing; Downsview: ECW Press, 1982. Each volume 320 pp. $5.95 paper


In his thoughtful introduction to the first volume of David and Lecker's Canadian Poetry, George Woodcock notes that "anthologies have always assumed a critical role in establishing standards within a country's literature and in marking changes in the criteria of appreciation — how we read and value poetry." Woodcock goes on to distinguish two basic kinds of anthology: one that emerges "at the height of a literary tradition" and passes "authoritative judgments on its most significant works"; and one that emerges "in young and developing literatures" and combines with literary criticism in defining "the nature of individual creation in such a situation and of the collective trends through which tradition is modified by innovation to create works that speak for a new culture" (I, 13-14). At first sight it is tempting to classify Margaret Atwood's Oxford Book — just because it is an Oxford Book — in the first category and David and Lecker's anthology in the second. That would be an over-simplification, but at least it provides me with a convenient way of discussing the two books under review.

I

     First, the Atwood. Woodcock points out that Helen Gardner's New Oxford Book of English Verse (1972) inevitably remains within the shadow of Quiller-Couch's original Oxford Book, a classic example of his first category. But in Atwood's case the matter is further complicated. Not only does she have two predecessors, Wilfred Campbell's Oxford Book of Canadian Verse (1912) and A.J.M. Smith's Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English and French (1960), but the series derives from the form set up by Quiller-Couch in 1900, one of Woodcock's "mandarin products that help to freeze taste over a considerable period of time" (I, 13). It seems clear that in trying to reconcile "Oxford" with "Canadian," Atwood is walking an especially perilous tight-rope, and I am happy to report that, with some reservations to be specified in due course, the performance is admirable.

     It is generally agreed, I think, that Campbell's Canadian anthology was a disaster. Not only is it packed full of bad poems by bad poets (its pages are littered with maple leaf and beaver), but it appeared at a high point in nationalist/imperialist jingoism and reflects the view that one of poetry's chief functions is to foster patriotic solidarity. So we encounter Sangster's "Song for Canada," the Duke of Argyll's "Canada: A National Hymn," Agnes Maule Machar's "Prayer for Dominion Day," Charles G.D. Roberts's "Canada," Campbell's own "England," etc., etc. There can hardly be a more dramatic indication of the change in poetic taste than the fact that Campbell's and Atwood's anthologies share only eight poems.

     Atwood obviously and rightly works on a less-said-about-Campbell's collection-the-better principle, and in fact says nothing at all. But just as properly she pays a fine tribute to A.J.M. Smith's book: "When covering once more the ground that he had covered before me I found, time after time, that he had chosen what I myself would have chosen.... His thoroughness, taste, and persistence were at all times an encouragement to me" (p.x1). By my count the collections share 53 poems (despite the fact that Smith's anthology included French-language texts as well), and it is worth noting that, of the poems available to all three Oxford Books, Atwood and Smith share 22. While I am in statistical mood, it may be worth observing also that out of Campbell's 100 poets, only 17 survive in Smith and 16 in Atwood. (These are not, incidentally, all the same people; Atwood reinstates Pauline Johnson and Robert Service, who had been dropped by Smith, but omits G.F. Cameron, J.H. Duvar, and Susanna Moodie.) While Atwood has clearly done some radical pruning by dropping a dozen or so of the poets who were Smith's contemporaries (just as, it seems fair to forecast, her successor a generation on will prune the later pages of her book), her selection bears indirect testimony to Smith's genius as an anthologist. At a time when it is becoming fashionable to denigrate Smith — or, perhaps worse, to be condescending towards him — it seems important to reiterate that we are the fortunate inheritors of a revolutionary change in our sense of the Canadian poetic revolution since 1912, that Smith was the man most responsible, and that he fully deserves the praise that Atwood has given him.

     Before leaving the earlier Oxfords, I cannot resist recording one interesting result of my research for this review. Campbell shamelessly favoured his own work in the 1912 edition. This is somewhat obscured by the index that gives poem-numbers only, but he allowed himself 24 pages, the nearest contender being Carman with 19 and William H. Drummond [!] a poor third with 14. Smith cuts Campbell down to size (three poems in three pages) and includes none of Campbell's own selections. His own work is represented by a reasonable selection of appropriate length. Atwood reproduces Smith's selections from Campbell, adds another for good measure — and then treats Smith the way he treated Campbell by discarding all his own choices! She properly includes "The Lonely Land" (which Smith never cared for), though otherwise I find her selections somewhat eccentric. Finally, she does what both Campbell and Smith ought to have done, and persuades someone else (William Toye of Oxford University Press) to choose the poems from her own work. His selection puzzles me — The Circle Game, The Animals in That Country, Procedures for Underground, and Power Politics are not represented — but the principle is clearly right. All in all, these facts provide a fascinating insight into anthologists' ethics over seventy years.

     The New Oxford, of course, caters to a very different readership from the David and Lecker anthology. The latter is designed primarily for students; Atwood's is for the cultivated general reader (most of whom, one assumes, will be ex-students). Whereas David and Lecker are concerned to present an adequate selection of the major Canadian poets, Atwood reproduces the country's most admirable, well-known and representative verse whether written by major poets or not. Hence there is still room for John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," which Atwood records in her introduction as having been "hammered into [her] head at an early age" (p.xxvii). This seems sensible; an Oxford Book is an appropriate place to preserve competent verse that, for some reason or other, has become part of a nation's popular tradition. And "In Flanders Fields" is followed by "The Cremation of Sam McGee." Nobody (at least, nobody reading this journal) is likely to claim Service as a Canadian writer of permanent importance, but (Smith to the contrary) he deserves representation here. (I would have chosen "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" myself, but that is merely a personal preference.)

     The other side of the coin, of course, is that Atwood can print only modest selections from the numerous poets she includes. Out of 121 names, only 28 are assigned five or more poems; however, most of the old favourites are there, including Birney's 'David' (which the David and Lecker anthology omits). I miss D.C. Scott's "The Height of Land," some of the crisper of Pratt's lyrics like "From Stone to Steel," Klein's "Political Meeting," Layton's "The Birth of Tragedy," and Reaney's "To the Avon River above Stratford, Canada." The selection which, as a whole, I find least satisfactory is Klein's. Beside "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" (which poets consistently, in my view, over-rate), we have only "Heirloom," "The Break-Up," and "Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga." This seriously scants Klein's Jewish work (surely room could have been found for, say, "Autobiographical"). Moreover, his seven pages seem ungenerous in the context of Birney's 11, and Layton and Purdy's 10 apiece. On the other hand, I am glad that Atwood followed Campbell by restoring D.C. Scott's "The Forsaken," which Smith inexplicably dropped.

     On balance, then, Atwood has picked her way very carefully indeed between the extreme positions of conservatism and radical avant-gardism (though the scale dips a bit towards the end, as I hope to indicate later). She obviously feels somewhat defensive about her earlier selections: "Those who do not like Victorian poetry will not like Canadian Victorian poetry any better; but those prepared to accept its conventions may find much to interest them" (p.xxxi). In fact, she has been especially scrupulous in acknowledging the just claims of the earlier tradition, and the authority of her (perhaps unexpected) approval, linked with the judiciousness of her choices, will doubtless do good in drawing the attention of younger readers to work they might otherwise overlook. Her introduction is clear, firm and sensible without sacrificing her characteristic wit. I have recently had occasion to say some hard things about the unevenness of her criticism, and it is both a pleasure and a relief to record that here she is at her literary-critical best.

II

     David and Lecker's Canadian Poetry seems closer to Woodcock's second category, the anthology that helps to define a culture in the process of emergence. Of the 46 poets they include, 33 are still living, and although the percentage is fractionally higher in Atwood's, the difference lies in the fact that this anthology is claiming to identify the country's leading poets when so many of them are still in mid-career. It is desirable, I believe, that such a process should be initiated, though the results will inevitably be tentative. None the less, Woodcock detects "signs of more sharply defined choices than in earlier anthologies" (I, 14). I am not entirely convinced that this is the case (it could be argued that, for all their faults, the four equivalent New Canadian Library volumes, containing 28 poets, performed no less stringent a selective function in their time), but the claim deserves careful consideration.

     When this two-volume paperback was first announced, those of us who teach Canadian poetry thought that here at last might be the answer to our needs. We have muddled along for years with various permutations of the NCL volumes, Geddes and Bruce's Fifteen Canadian Poets, Newlove's Canadian Poetry, and the various anthologies that contain both verse and prose. As it is, I have to report disappointment, but before being specific in my criticisms I should state that an ideal anthology for senior high-school and university use should, in my opinion, include the following:

a) accurately printed texts;
b) clear information concerning the volume (with date) in which the poem first appeared, and the text that is being reproduced;
c) a clear statement of editorial principles;
d) line-numbering for longer poems;
e) brief biographical and critical notes on the poets;
f) concise annotations of unusual words, historical and geographical references, etc.

How does Canadian Poetry measure up in these areas?

a) In the Bliss Carman section (I, 81), the last stanza of "At the Great Release" is followed without warning by four lines from "Songs of the Sea Children," no. 76, a poem not included in the anthology. Presumably, a change of plan occurred at a late stage and only part of the poem was extracted. Other poems, unfortunately, are incomplete. The three concluding lines of Raymond Knister's "The Plowman" (I, 148) are missing. Similarly, only the first 14 lines of F.R. Scott's "Trans Canada" appear; the remaining 20 have vanished into oblivion (I, 152). In addition, there are numerous errors, typographical and otherwise, in both the poetry and the prose commentaries. Thus in the opening paragraph of Woodcock's introduction to Volume 2, reference is made to Pratt's first book, identified as Newfoundland Poems published in 1925 (II, 13). Newfoundland Verse (1923) is intended, but no one seems to have noticed. In Phyllis Webb's "Breaking" (II, 109), reference is made to "Henry II of Pirandello," which will certainly confuse the diligent student. Elsewhere stanza-breaks are garbled (I, 55 [twice]; I, 122); on at least one occasion a word has dropped out (II, 70); and in the commentaries there are a number of fairly elementary spelling mistakes as well as obvious printing errors. Quotations from Dudek and Mandel in Woodcock's introduction are set out on the page in rather different ways in the text itself (cf. II, 18 and 35, 21 and 66). All in all, the editing does not inspire confidence. [For further discussion of the generally cavalier attitude of other editors to Canadian texts, see the appendix to this review.]

b) The volume in which individual poems first appeared is not given, nor are any dates, and the text reproduced is not identified. (This makes it difficult to check up on suspected errors in transcription.) If the poems are still in copyright, some but by no means all of this information may be found in the acknowledgments pages — though errors and omissions are involved here also.

c) David and Lecker are totally silent as general editors. Woodcock informs us that each poet was farmed out to an individual scholar who chose the poems to be included (though there must have been some changes here  —  witness the acknowledgments pages to Volume 1 where thanks are offered for permission to reprint D.C. Scott's "The Height of Land" and "Powassan's Drum" [I, 30], neither of which is in fact printed!). The same scholar contributed a short biographical and critical account of poet and work for the close of the appropriate volume. This is a perfectly reasonable procedure, but we are told nothing about what instructions were given (what principles of textual selection to follow, what to do with misprints in the chosen text, etc.) Consistency is difficult to establish. Thus Robert Allan Burns seems to use first printings for Isabella Valancy Crawford, while Don Conway follows revised texts for Roberts and L.R. Early the posthumous Poems for Lampman. If there is a consistency, I cannot make it out; and even if there is, shouldn't we have been told?

d) There is no line-numbering for longer poems, which makes reference awkward.

e) Biographical and critical notes are, as I have already indicated, provided at the end of each volume. But they vary drastically in quality, and the general editors should certainly have held a firmer editorial rein. For instance: (1) Don Conway on Roberts: "Roberts' critics failed to observe that he was a Symbolist employing familiar terms ironically to restore to sentimentally religious and morally conservative concepts the vitality and intellectual rigor they lacked for him even as a youth" (I,282). How is it possible to restore intellectual rigor through irony? I find the whole argument baffling. (2) Robert Billings on Pratt: "Pratt's concern for metre, rhyme, heroism, complex narrative and symbolic patterns, morality, and the place of man in the universe — in short, all the elements of classical poetry — unfortunately limit contemporary appreciation of his work" (I, 291). Apart from being ungrammatical ("concern . . . limit"), this is as wongheaded a statement as I can imagine. All the subjects and qualities listed can be found abundantly in the up-to-date poets gathered in the second volume. What superficial notions of, say, rhyme and morality are involved here? It grieves me not only that anyone supposedly qualified to take part in an enterprise of this kind should write this but that editors as shrewd and intelligent as David and Lecker should accept it when written. (3) Robert Billings (again, alas) on Geraldine MacEwen: ". . . one of the few Canadian poets whose work benefits from an applied knowledge of classical mythologies. She can thus be placed in the mythological tradition of W.B. Yeats and Robert Graves" (II, 314). The mind boggles at the first statement (Roberts? Carman? Smith? Layton? Mandel? Macpherson?). And the second is extraordinary: what mythological tradition? is Billings aware of Graves's opinion of Yeats? Besides, it is an assertion that betrays insensitivity to both tone and style.

      I should say once again that many of the commentaries are admirably compact yet lucid. I would mention especially Michael Darling on Smith, Douglas Barbour on Newlove, Jean Mallinson on Atwood. And Woodcock's introductions are models of quietly mature commentary. But the editorial direction seems spotty. Some writers confine their reference to anthologized poems; others refer to poems outside the collection. Dermot McCarthy, for example, in a perfectly adequate discussion, refers constantly to individual volumes of Ralph Gustafson's poetry without perhaps having been told that the provenance of single poems was not going to be indicated. The result is frustrating.

f) There are no explanatory notes, save for rare instances where poets append notes to their own work. I have never been able to understand why compilers of Canadian anthologies think that the contents need no particular annotation. (Russell Brown and Donna Bennett's Anthology of Canadian Literature in English is virtually the only text-book that tries to remedy this situation.) A particularly obvious instance occurs here. Zailig Pollock is to be congratulated for including Klein's "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens" in his selection, but does anyone believe that this fine poem is less allusive and presents fewer difficulties than, say, The Waste Land? Anyone who thinks that Canadian poetry is easily comprehensible to beginners can never have set foot in a classroom when the subject was being discussed.

     There are, of course, various aspects of Canadian Poetry that deserve praise. The books are a convenient size, the print is easy to read; moreover, while it is always possible to quibble about inclusions and omissions — especially in the second volume — the poets have been chosen with care, and appropriate discriminations have generally been made. At the same time, the "committee" or collective procedure has its disadvantages. Woodcock points out that "any single critic's sympathies are uneven" (I, 16); true, but I do not consider evenness a conspicuous quality here. Once again I fear that the general editors must bear the responsibility, since they do not seem to have maintained the necessary liaison with their contributors. To take an elementary instance, Woodcock states that "ten items are included from most of the selected poets, sometimes one or two less, and often two or three more" (I, 17). This may well have been the original intention, but it is not an accurate account of the volumes themselves. Purdy has 11 poems, while Roberts, Smith, Birney, Mandel, and Acorn have 10 each; the remaining 40 poets have less. Surely the editors should have noticed the discrepancy. This kind of carelessness seriously limits the credibility and the usefulness of these books.

III

     When we come to consider the two anthologies side by side, some interesting points emerge. Although the principle on which their volumes are based means that David and Lecker can find room for fewer poets than Atwood, they include seven poems by Leo Kennedy while Atwood omits him entirely. This is the only instance where (rightly or wrongly) Atwood ignores a poet whom David and Lecker consider significant. On the other hand, although Atwood has to be far more selective within the work of each poet she chooses, she prints Birney's "David" and Newlove's "The Pride" when David and Lecker do not. This last fact raises a serious problem so far as the usefulness of their anthology as a prescribed text is concerned. "David" and "The Pride" are important and well-known poems; I cannot imagine trying to teach the work of Birney and Newlove without discussing them. Above all, "The Height of Land" (absent from both anthologies) is surely a seminal poem for the study of D.C. Scott. These omissions seem to me deeply disturbing.

     On balance, it has to be said that Atwood's anthology is much more carefully prepared than David and Lecker's, though there are the occasional errors. The incorrect date of Roberts's death is carried over from Smith's Oxford Book, and I am saddened to find Oxford University Press misspelling "elegiac" (p.xxxi). Both anthologies could have been improved if a little more thought had been given to the reader's situation. Thus David and Lecker do not explain that MacEwen's "Tall Tales" is from The T.E. Lawrence Poems (unless one thinks of checking the acknowledgments page), and the reader may therefore have unnecessary difficulty in identifying the "I." Atwood is meticulous in her equivalent selections from that book, but by the same token omits to explain that her own "Death of a Young Son by Drowning" is spoken by Susanna Moodie. Again, both anthologies order the poets according to their dates of birth and in alphabetical order within the same year. At first sight this seems a sensible practice, but it leads to some odd results. These are most evident in the case of Purdy, who appears sandwiched between Dudek and Souster, although his impact upon Canadian poetry came almost twenty years after theirs. Similarly, Robert Kroetsch appears way ahead of Jay Macpherson, though he was another late starter so far as poetry is concerned. There is no easy way of resolving this problem, but a floruit-date has much to recommend it, perhaps established by the publication-date of each poet's first influential book of poems.

     Finally, both anthologies, as they come closer to the year of publication, show a decided bias towards the experimental and the avant-garde. In selecting from our older living poets, David and Lecker pass over George Johnston, Douglas LePan, and Elizabeth Brewster. Of the younger, or at least more recent poets, Jay Macpherson and Patrick Lane represent the more traditional or "available" poets, but are decidedly outnumbered by the radical experimentalists (Kroetsch, Rosenblatt, Bowering, Bissett, Marlatt, Ondnaatje, Nichol). There is no sign of, say, Don Coles, David Solway, or Stephen Scobie. Even Atwood, whose format allows her to give wider coverage (she floods the last hundred or so pages of her book with over thirty poets, many of whom are unlikely to survive a fourth Oxford Book) omits the last two. It is, of course, notoriously diff~cult to be confident about the lasting merits of contemporary writers, and selection in this area will always be a problem. Yet selection, as Woodcock rightly points out, implies valuejudgments, and editors should try to be aware of the personal preferences lying behind their judgments. I have my own preferences (Solway over Bissett, for example, and I have a greater regard for Douglas Lochhead's verse than for much represented in these two books), but if I were compiling such an anthology I would take care to create a more representative balance than is offered here.

     I have gone into considerable detail in this review because I believe anthologies to be extremely important in nurturing awareness of a country's literary heritage. Canadian poetry has been fortunate in finding in Smith an anthologist of genius at a crucial stage in its development. In Atwood, David, and Lecker we have potentially worthy successors. Atwood is one of our most accomplished and intelligent poets, David an enterprising and energetic publisher, Lecker one of our most reliable younger critics. In her Oxford Book Atwood has produced a sound up-dating of Smith's, and the general reader is well served. But teachers and students have a right to expect anthologies suited to their special needs. These have not yet appeared, and it is a pity. Canadian poetry deserves better from its scholarly editors.


Appendix

     In the course of writing this review I have been led to undertake some basic research into the ways of Canadian editors and their respect for the texts that they reproduce. I make no claims to be an expert in these matters, but the subject ought to be of interest to readers of this journal, and it seems proper to share the results of my investigations in the hope that it may arouse a greater concern for scholarly sophistication in textual matters.

     I choose to focus on three textual cruces in early Canadian writing and see how editors have responded to them:

     a) Roberts's "Tantramar Revisited": This is a useful text to examine since it contains (so far as I am aware) two textual variants: one in the title ("The Tantramar Revisited" in In Divers Tones [I ignore here the original "Westmoreland Revisited" when it first appeared in The Week]); one in the twelfth line ("orchards, and meadows, and wheat") where the first "and" is later omitted. Both changes date from the 1901 Poems; neither, of course, is substantial, though the second has interesting rhythmic implications. What have our editors done about this?

     The majority (including those under review here) follow the 1901 readings consistently; a minority follow the earlier text in both instances. Both decisions are perfectly defensible, though the textual principle ought to be made clear. David and Lecker, as usual, are silent on the text followed, while Atwood dates the poem 1886 without noting that a later text is reproduced. This, I maintain, is unscholarly — but not nearly as unscholarly as the practice of some other editors. I find that some reprint the 1886 title with the 1901 reading of the twelfth line. This practice seems to have been instituted (for no apparent reason) by Desmond Pacey in his Selected Poems of Charles G.D. Roberts (1955). He was followed by Malcolm Ross in Poets of the Confederation (1960), who admits to reproducing Pacey, by A.J.M. Smith in the 1960 Oxford Book (who gives the 1886 date), and by Robert Weaver and William Toye in their Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature (1973), who give no dates but mention the 1936 Selected Poems in their acknowledgments. On the other hand, Wilfred Campbell in the 1912 Oxford Book gives the later title but the earlier reading of line 12 (plus some silently revised punctuation of his own). The same mixture of readings is offered by Brown and Bennett in An Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature in English (1982), who append the 1886 date. Why editors should go through such contortions to produce a muddled text is beyond me. The matter is a small one, but a principle is involved which is by no means trivial.

     b) Carman's "Morning in the Hills": This poem first appeared in Echoes from Vagabondia (1912), where the fifth line reads: "In the deep-wooded wind-enchanted clove." This reading survives in Later Poems (1921), but in Bliss Carman's Poems (1931) the last word is either misprinted as or amended to "cove." Anthologists that reprint the poem follow the original reading, and this at first puzzled me (as a simple-minded reader), since "cove" seemed to make more sense. At last, however, Brown and Bennett came to my aid by explaining that "clove" means "ravine." This is a rare usage recorded in the OED but not in most modern dictionaries. The editors (save for the anonymous ones who put together Bliss Carman's Poems) are exonerated, but am I being unduly meanspirited in wondering how many did the right thing for the wrong reason? At all events, this is an excellent example of the need for textual annotation. (In the same poem, alas, I have to report that Atwood prints "cahon" (1.2) — which makes no sense in context — when all Carman texts I have examined read "canon.")

     c) Lampman's "In November": This involves the history not so much of a crux as of a misprint. In its first publication in Lyrics of Earth (1895), lines 8-10 read:

And, all about, the vacant plot
Was peopled and inhabited
By scores of mulleins long since dead.

A totally unnecessary and confusing comma appears at the end of the first line in the 1900 Poems of Archibald Lampman. Most editors (including Atwood) omit it but the David and Lecker anthology duly reproduces it without any apparent question. Either the oddity passed unnoticed or an editorial decision was made to stick pedantically to the reading of a particular (unspecified) text. This example points up the importance of (1) taking editorial responsibilities seriously; (2) coming to commonsense decisions; (3) explaining the editorial principles that have been followed.

     So I end with a plea to editors from an uninitiated reader and critic: isn't it time that the editing of Canadian texts is practised with the rigorous scrupulousness that is taken for granted elsewhere?

W.J. Keith