State of the Art?

The New Canadian Poets 1970-1985. Ed., and with an Introduction, by Dennis Lee. Toronto: MeClelland and Stewart, 1985. liii + 383 pp.

This challenging anthology should find a high place on the summer reading lists of those who claim or aspire to a competence in Canadian poetry; I expect they will find the experience as essential, and as disturbing, as I have. The volume's contribution to Canadian studies can best be measured as a function of public ignorance; until I opened the cover (and I think I am not alone in this) well over three-quarters of these poets were unknown to me, and of the ones known, easily another three-quarters were familiar only because their region of activity coincided with mine. Apart from such familiar names as Kroetsch, Dewdney and Musgrave, the book is full of poets whose careers — often beginning in the early 'seventies — have somehow remained obscured, although they represent, if Lee's assessment is balanced, the best of their generation. Why have they escaped the general and national notice given to the major poets of the 'sixties (Atwood, Ondaatje et al)?

     Lee himself, in his Introduction to the anthology, offers a few reasons for their obscurity, the most important of which are their explosion in numbers and the rise of regional presses: the hundreds of poets after 1970 were increasingly isolated, and as a result may have been known to one another, or to reviewers within their region, but were usually not known in any national sense at all. They are what Lee calls an "eclectic generation" (p. xxi), a sampling of quiet individuals, writing, often, from private and regional perspectives which tend to exclude the reader from other parts of the country. Given this situation, Lee's "primary aim has been to represent— as far as space permits — the wider range of endeavour in the period" (p. xxi).

     In practical terms this has meant including a number of poets who might well have been left behind. A browse through the last such anthology offered to the public, the Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 edited by Eli Mandel (and Lee himself vouchsafes the comparison, p. xxii), will turn up not a single poet forgotten today, indeed will turn up the best poets of the last twenty-five years — Atwood, Ondaatje, Purdy, Cohen and others. Can the same — will the same — be said of Lee's forty poets? From the simple law of averages I presume not; and I presume, moreover, that Lee himself is perfectly aware that a good many of his chosen poets will sink back into obscurity after the frisson of fame offered by their appearance here. He would seem to have decided to produce, not an anthology of excellent poetry, but an anthology which represents its period accurately, a decision that each reader will have to judge: to this reader at least it was an error. Had Lee been asked to produce a slim anthology comparable to Mandel's, he might have been forced to some exclusions which would much improve the volume he has offered us.

     On the other hand, had Lee interpreted his dates a little less rigidly, he might have included poets whose absence he regrets but insists upon, whose careers, although launched in the 'sixties, caught fire during the 'seventies — poets such as Davey, Lowther, Marlatt and Nichol. As a result of Lee's rules (no poet to be included who began publishing prior to 1970) these poets are excluded from the book, whereas the next anthology in the series after Mandel's should surely have found room for these important representatives of the decade. Instead they are lost like virtuous pagans in limbo, and The New Canadian Poets is impoverished for their absence. To be sure, Lee's lesser-knowns of the 'seventies deserve attention, but not distortingly exclusive attention, which is what they have received.

     Lee has divided his volume into two parts, a first part which gives ample room to twenty poets considered to be the most significant of their generation, and a second which gives honourable mention to twenty-five others, presumably of lesser note. The structure in itself is fine, but the simple fact is that very few of the poets in the second section are ready to face the public in an anthology. It would be much better to select a few of the poets of Part Two (I would choose Filip, Gom, Kleinzahler, Solway, Suknaski and Szumigalski, but others would choose others), excise the rest and give these few the same space and consideration as the poets in Part One. This would leave the book at about the same length and would eliminate some of the present unwieldiness of a cluttered anthology which is intended to permit a balanced and coherent assessment of a generation of poets who have been "virtually unheralded beyond their immediate circles" (p. xvii).

     Lee's Introduction is pleasant and competent, and frankly admits its biases. He leads us through the anthology by tracing certain stylistic and thematic interests of his own, and admits that "A reader interested in other themes . . . will want to track them through the poetry for him or herself' (p. xxvii). This is enough for any anthologist to acknowledge. I find only one quirk in the anthology which Lee has not acknowledged: he has chosen, on the whole, very long short poems. Small and refined forms are almost invisible here. This would appear to be a personal prejudice on the anthologist's part, since he has glumly acknowledged his inability to include any truly long poems in the volume. I cannot help but wonder if Lee's own tendency to the longer form has not directed his selection rather more than it might have. In fact some of the strongest poems in the book are short and immediate: Lorna Crozier's "Stillborn," Leona Gom's ''Nazis

     It may be, however, that some of the editorial problems noted are caused by the difficulty of maintaining definite attitudes to the poets in question. Very few of them show the kind of inclusive, comprehensive vision and perspective which make us feel the presence of strong poetry; many have developed a moving tone of voice, or a fine sense of the image, or a strong structural ability, but if one wishes a poet who combines these things, one looks long and hard. The most obvious candidate is Kroetsch. His well-known "Stone Hammer Poem" is here, for instance, and Lee has added "How I Joined the Seal Herd" and "Sketches of a Lemon," the latter a delightful experience for anyone who wants his preconceptions of "the poetic" altered:

            I had a very strong desire
            to kiss a lemon.
            No one was watching.
            I kissed a lemon.

            So much for that.        (p. 145)

There is in Kroetsch's poetry a liveliness, control and tenderness for words felt nowhere else so compellingly in the entire book. Without suffering the enervating presence of a self-involved "personality," we feel and enjoy the presence of a person, a man who seems to mean less to himself than poetry does. That is something that can be said of few others in the anthology.

     For many of the poems show a lack of restraint and subtletly that is painful and embarrassing. Consider Crozier's "Carrots," Pier Giorgio di Cicco's "Male Rage Poem," Sharon Thesen's "Dedication." The usual defence against my charge would be to claim that these poems are spoken by personae, that I should not attribute their utterances to the poets in any personal sense — that the poems undercut, in fact, the very hyperbolic attitudes they express. Very well, but the result is still a persona of such mindless simplicity that undercutting the voice is hardly worth the effort of a single reading. Such poems are cheap; personative perhaps, cheap nevertheless. And one cannot help feeling that the ostensible distance between "poet" and "persona" is rarely wide enough. Many of the poems would read better as diary entries; many would profit from the jealous privacy usually concealing such material. I am thinking, among others, of Judith Fitzgerald's "Past Cards 21":

            it was may, the emcee, and music
            coming out of our ears
            and too many misunderstandings
            that you just couldn't understand
            understand that I was meeting my father
            later that day, afterwards when
            at the emcee you disowned me
            claimed you'd never known me
            you came back from packing up
            your yellow Les Paul
            banging against your leg. . . .         (p. 287)

And so on. Of course, such material is not impossible to turn into poetry. But how is it done? Something must be transmuted; the personal experience must somehow become the universal; the maudlin tone of a personality remembering its own pain must somehow drop away, and leave behind the bedrock of experience which touches us all. Fitzgerald is certainly not alone; the poetry of David Donnell, Erin Mouré and Bronwen Wallace could benefit from a rigorous pruning of this diaristic tone. (Compare the work of Don Coles and Ray Filip for some examples of how the personal material of a lifetime can be turned into poetry.)

     The problem is that in a volume so full of people talking about private experience, we expect some true revelation, some laying bare of the hell-wracked soul (or whatever) that has motivated these people to write. This we do not get. Instead we have a great reliance on the surface details of life, on the daily incidents, the drifting emotions, the random phenomena; but nowhere do we find the exacting self-revelation of a Baudelaire, a Plath, a Donne, or even an Eliot, with all his talk of impersonality. It is fine not to write about oneself at all, but if one does, the reader has a right to expect more than ephemeral lament, more than mere reminiscence, more than brief mood.

     There are no easy recipes for the cure of this egoism. It would be comforting to claim that these poets lack "ideas," but some of them are smothered with ideas; it would be comforting to say that their subjects are not the stuff of poetry, but that kind of charge is easily discredited, and most of the subjects treated badly here are treated well elsewhere. There are no discernible disparities between the male writers and the female writers — they have the same virtues and flaws — so one cannot refer either sex to the talents of the other and hope they will find improvement there. But one suggestion I will tender. These poets are in desperate need of a deliberate soaking in tradition (I use the word in a formal sense): they need to rediscover traditional forms, they need to learn rhyme, they need to learn about versification from the old masters and the modern masters, they need to learn structure, harmony, balance. How can one not be disappointed (whatever one's attitude to traditional form) by a group of forty poets, the representatives of a decade and a half of ferment and vigorous activity, who can offer only two or three pieces of modern work in traditional forms? Look at the relative success of Peter van Toorn's "Mountain Tambourine" (a sensitive Petrarchan sonnet) or David Solway's "Apologia":

            It doesn't make much poplar talk now. The big
            clatter's gone out of it. On the older
            side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
            full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
            It leans to one side at a warm angle,
            like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.
                                                      (van Toorn, p. 214)

            Epigrammatic Frenchmen say,
               if temperate or staid,
            that "reculer pour mieux sauter"
               explains the retrograde.
                                                   (Soiway, p. 339)

Do the achievements of these poems have nothing whatever to do with the poets' absorption of traditional forms? Yet neither poem can be dismissed as merely traditional; they are living modern verse, skilful adaptations of older forms to the needs of 1986. Now I am not advocating a wholesale return to regimented forms. But I am convinced that if we could send a few of these poets to school to the old stanzas, they would return to free verse with a strengthened sense of voice, of structure, and of sheer poetic purpose— qualities that they lack, in general, as a generation, in this anthology.

     These are poets raised and nursed on free verse, poets to whom free verse was a received norm with at least a half-century of tradition behind it. Some sharper questioning of that received norm would have been appropriate. Lee comments in his Introduction that in his own creative experience Lampman, D.C. Scott and Pratt offered him nothing except "examples of personal artistic courage" (p. xliii); this is a different way of stating my point. Too many of these poets write as if the English poetic tradition had begun in 1922 with The Waste Land. More communication with previous centuries might have taught them the correct use of free verse and the possibilities of expression in more formal, sophisticated and literary traditions — might have taught them structure, and so intensity, joy, freedom. It is worth remarking that the one poet in the anthology who explicitly acknowledges his descent from ancient tradition, van Toorn, has also offered the most lively, vigorous, muscular and tough-minded series of poems in the book. Is this an indication for the others?

     But the chief flaw of the poetry from The New Canadian Poets is its misuse of the vernacular. Lee appears to consider the vernacular one of the generation's achievements, distinguishing between substandard vernacular ("honeybunch, you stupid fucker" — Sharon Thesen) and literate vernacular, intelligent Canadian English spoken by a relaxed persona. To be sure, drawing on the vernacular can break open well-springs of freshness and vigour for the poet, and that right cannot be denied. But, as Lee himself asks, "how do they keep the poem from just lying there on the page — flat, prosy, superficial and unresonant?" He answers first, to his credit, "that many vernacular poets are unable to keep that from happening" (pp. xxxii-xxxiii). Recognizing the subjectivity of any response, I must state nevertheless that very few of Lee's "eclectic generation" are able to keep that from happening. So many of these poems are like sliced-up prose (an old charge, I realize) that sooner or later any reader is bound, I think, to experience some irritation with them.

            A man and a woman sit in an all night
            restaurant. She's smoking cigarettes,
            he's drinking cup after cup
            of black coffee, double sugar.
            They're in one of those conversations
            you don't need words to follow . . .
                                              (Wallace, "Reminder", p. 228)

            All over the plant, through the long hours.
            Up to Test to replace a grille's side shell, I hear Jim Pope's
                            steady voice:
            "When my first wife left me, I phoned in to take the day off.
            I had the locks changed by ten o'clock, and was down to the bank
            to make sure she didn't get a cent . . ."
                                               (Wayman, "The Death of the Family", p. 242)

And so on. This vernacular voice (if that is what we are to call it) contributes to an aimless quality in much of the new poetry; partly because, as the natural speaking voice drifts towards and away from the point, so do these poems drift, with a lack of intensity and direction that is lamentable. (I have the feeling that William Carlos Williams has something to do with this; so many Williams poems come and go so gently, simply happen on the page and are gone, effaced so lightly and quickly, that his influence throughout the 'sixties would appear to have spilled over into the 'seventies as well. If I am right, more vigorous attention to the gift of the master would have been in order.)

      The best of the poets in the anthology escape these problems, of course, and with a flair. I have already mentioned Kroetsch and van Toorn; I should also highlight Robert Bringhurst, whose use of the dramatic monologue (learned from Browning?) is completely effective. I particularly recommend his "The Stonecutter's Horses" as among the best poems of the volume. There are fresh and distinct voices used by Marilyn Bowering and August Kleinzahler. Anne Szumigalski's "Shrapnel" is possibly the finest poem in the volume, building to a climax which is overwhelming in its fierce sensitivity to life, sex, pain and violence. Andrew Suknaski's reminiscences of prairie characters are very pure as well, with a lightness of touch vaguely reminiscent of Robinson. Raymond Filip's "Torchy Wharf: Verdun Boardwalk" gives us what Wordsworth's Prelude gives us: intensely personal experience made intensely universal, so that we live and breathe what the remembered young boy lived and breathed — an impressive achievement. Tom Wayman's self-deprecations are so delight ful and compelling at once that they can hardly fail to be noticed as among the pleasures of the text. If less room had been given to Christopher Dewdney's endless search for the "equation for a pure random" (p. 69), the book would not suffer, but his presence no doubt enriches and complicates our sense of the generation. This is no slight list, and the presence of such work certainly redeems the volume.

     And "redeem" it is exactly what I should like to do, by way of conclusion. While the solid, strong poet is very rare in these pages, so is the poetaster, the complete fumbler. Don Coles, Leona Gom and Roo Borson touch some of the finest poetic moments in the volume, for instance. And the others, however nameless here, are able to attain, now and again, the imagery, sensitivity or power of real poetry. Any one of them may, in future volumes, learn to draw out their true strengths and extend them well beyond the poets who seem, at present, to be their betters. Others, inevitably, will fall silent in the next few years, or will be ignored into silence. But the volume, for all its flaws, is a rich cacophony, one cannot deny it. As Lee's purpose was to represent the poetic zeitgeist of the last decade and a half, he may be said to have succeeded: he has produced a volume which contains, without doubt, the best and the worst of that generation, and the wide mediocrity between. This may not be what we ask of an anthologist, but then (as A.J.M. Smith told us) the ideal anthologist does not exist. Lee has leapt into an ocean and brought this volume back with him, and we can be grateful for the pearls once we have peeled off the seaweed.

     Finally, a challenge to fellow scholars of Canadian poetry: take up this book and learn it. I would say there is more to learn here of the state of Canadian poetry today than in all the critical texts currently available. To be sure, some of the best of the 'seventies (Davey, Marlatt and the others) are not included, but that is only a problem if we pay attention to the parameters of Lee's selection. If the volume were entitled Canadian Poets of Today,it might be a more appropriate (if equally unsettling) selection; and it would be that much more imperative that we read it, to know what it is that we have encouraged.

Brian Trehearne