Regions and Eras in Ontario Poetry
by Elizabeth Waterston
Maritime regional poetry, prairie poetry, la poésie québécoise all can be recognized by characteristic themes, techniques, or tones. Ontario poetry is less easy to discern or discuss. In terms of physiography, Ontario seems not so much like a single region within the Dominion, but rather like a cluster of regions, in some ways a microcosm of the Dominion itself. Ontario, like Canada, has a lonely North and a more complex urbanized southern borderland; as in Canada, a harsh Scottish granite triangle in the east is divided from the more English parkland in the southwestern area by a central plain the flat region around Toronto demarcated to the west by the escarpment running up to the Bruce peninsula like a Rocky barrier, and to the east by the Haliburton highlands rolling to the Lakes like the country east of Winnipeg. Each of these areas is a recognizable region in a geophysical sense. It seems hard to argue that poetry emanating from any one area was in fact the poetic voice of the whole hodge-podge of a province. Yet it seems to me that in successive periods since 1790, poets speaking for and from one particular part of Ontario did voice attitudes to the land and to human life, common for the time being to the whole province.
Such an argument reveals the topocentrism of which Leon Surette warned us in a recent issue of this journal.1 Surette queried the validity of assuming that a collectivity, rooted in a particular place, will share intellectual and imaginative propensities and will produce literature as a local flowering; he queried also the value of a criticism based on such an assumption. For the moment, I will counter the questioning of the "topocentric axiom" with an Ontario poet's comment on rootedness and artistic flowering: Anne Wilkinson speaks collectively in "A Poet's Eye View,"
Place creates poets, poets create place; Ontario becomes a region when one part of its terrain spawns writers whose work is recognized, within and outside provincial borders, as an Ontario flowering. A cultural geographer defines a region as "an area where there has grown up one characteristic human pattern of adjustment to environment,"3 and poetry is one manifestation of that characteristic pattern. At successive periods, adjustment to the natural terrain climate, landforms, seasonal rhythms and to the cultural landscape the shapes added by man to the environment has been articulated in an Ontario voice, resounding from Toronto or Erin, Ottawa or Nairn; and for the time being the place from which the voice sounded seemed like the heart of the whole province, the point toward which all lines of desire ran.
Ralph Connor, for example, writing of "Glengarry" at the turn of the century, voiced the pattern of adjustment of second generation settlers to a land still rough and hard, but being gentled by old social patterns. Dwellers in Ontario, reading of Glengarry, responded with their own Edwardian version of the topocentric cry, "Here is us!" Beyond Ontario, other Canadians who had moved from or through the province recognized a remembered region; beyond Canada, readers added Ontario to an imagined map, as "Glengarry" writ large. Glengarry is a prose fiction of course. But I would argue that in other periods poets of particular areas of Ontario created not just a Niagara poetry or a Toronto poetry or a Prince Edward County poetry, but a contemporary Ontario poetry. Responding to life on their own home ground, incorporating into their language the cadence and diction of the local community, then straining their response through the dominant American or European style of the period, these poets produced works in which Ontarians recognized their own community, and other readers recognized Ontario.
Sometimes there is a clear explanation for why a specific area flourished at a particular time the existence of a press or of a meeting-hall, the presence of an engaging philosophical or political theorist, or of a charming social catalyst. Sometimes an arrival from "abroad" someone carrying excitement from the States or England or Europe turned on the current of self-awareness, the sense of significance and centrality. It is never easy to be sure why the literary heartland has shifted from one part of the provincial map to another, but it is always interesting to ponder the sequence and to enjoy the results.
One should preface these comments with a reference to the regional sub-sets of Indian songs. It would be useful, too, to recognize regional variants in the folk ballads of the squatters who straggled into Ontario before the emergence of any printed literature. We still hear faint echoes of these regional variations in the children's skipping-songs, which shift so interestingly in rhythm and language from one part of the Province to another. There was an Ontario folk literature before 1790.
But in 1793 there was something else. There was at Niagara a printing press Louis Roy's and there was Mrs. Simcoe, scribbling in her journal, and the gentlemen-officers sketching around the great cataract. As the new century opened, a tradition of belles lettres emerged, centred at Niagara-on-the-Lake. For the soldier-travellers, Ontario was a line of fortresses linked by military roads; the fulcrum of the line was Niagara. All visitors to North America dropped in to "do" the Falls and to contribute to the feeling that Upper Canada was excitingly on the world map. Tom Moore, in 1804, wrote of "this wondrous world":
Moore's urbane music is of course an import, like the water-colour skill of the gentlemen sketchers. But the buoyant sense of power in all the Niagara poems, from Moore's day to Kirby's, is a regional overtone added to the self-confidence of the garrison. Thoughts of Niagara and language of military might fuse in many of these poems. In 1818, for instance, in "Battle of Niagara" John Neal writes:
Early-Romantic in vintage, these Niagara region verses express poetic souls inflated rather than diminished by the great cataract, and by the nearness of the American border. They reflect a generally aggressive period in Ontarian adjustment to environment.
In the 1820s, with lessening border tension and the shift of the provincial capital to York, Niagara's literary light dimmed. Another garrison literature might well have emerged at York or London, Ottawa or Kingston; but exposing my local bias I will suggest that instead the next literary heartland was in fact at Guelph. Here again there was a printing-press, established in 1828 on John Galt's orders, and here too was a writers' constellation, swinging in and out of orbit: Gait, Tiger Dunlop, John Mactaggart, Major Strickland. Galt by-passed Niagara on his first visit to Upper Canada, and it was part of his ironic stance to continue to mock the romantic rhapsodies of the Niagara-lovers. In Fergus, Elora, and Galt, a new regional tone emerged. Here was a society of carpenters, weavers, millers: working-class, empirical, concerned with politics and currency. The land was a broken north-western extension of the Niagara escarpment: a land of moraines, of hilly stony loams, drumlins, and gravel deposits.6
The Guelph-area writers did not at first develop a local style, since all were sending their poetry and essays, travelogues and novels back to Scotland, to Blackwood's or Constable. Like one of the characters in Galt's Bogle Corbet, most people in the Guelph region were "ay threepin of Glasgow". Most of the poets adopted the now old-fashioned metres of Burns.
In the periphery of Guelph lived Alexander McLachlan, moving physically nearer to Guelph from 1840 on from Orangeville to Caledon to Erin. McLachlan's pithy verse defies hierarchies, and belittles natural grandeur:
McLachlan's great popularity throughout Canada West suggests that his compatriots accepted his verse as voicing their own pragmatic, unromantic response to the subsistence landscape of small clearings and stumpy, untidy, unlevelled fields.
McLachlan's poetry shows the infiltration of the imported "poetic" language by local dialect forms. He maintains the Burns verse pattern with its bobbed refrain and its ingenious rhymes:
Here "facts" rhyming with "ax" is the localism, as is the phrase in the last line: the poet is responding as Burns did before him to the problem of writing in an imported "high-culture" language. McLachlan also modifies Walter Scott's long narrative form in "The Emigrant". Unlike Scott's long poems, "The Emigrant" is a virtually plotless narrative, focused on the points of view of a succession of story-tellers; like Scott's long poems, it is interspersed with brief songs. David Sinclair, among other critics, has seen this as a development of a privileged genre in Canadian poetry9; I would suggest that the ramshackle shape as well as the disorganized content is peculiarly appropriate for the post-garrison period in Ontario.
McLachlan sent his poetry to lakefront Toronto to publish, but his audience remained in the villages and farmhomes of the encircling rough country. Toronto, in spite of the presence of several presses in the 1830s and 40s, was not a literary centre. Mrs. Jameson, herself living in a rickety personal house, had found no network of poets in Toronto. Governor Sir Francis "Bubbles" Bond Head had a strong literary reputation but protocol kept him from visiting Mrs. Jameson;10 that denial of audience to a fellow-writer marks the failure of Toronto to emerge as a heartland for the province at this time.
Instead, East of Toronto in the Rice Lake district near Peterborough, the Moodies, Stricklands, Traills, Langdons, and other English expatriates lived and wrote together. Theirs was neither a garrison nor a shanty perspective. Mrs. Moodie's response to her Indian neighbours on the Kawartha Lakes is a major mark of a new literary era. Mrs. Jameson, in 1837, had travelled into the bush to observe Indian life, and had written several interesting poems out of the experience; but Mrs. Moodie spread her observation and her poetic response over decades. Living in the heavily forested "Land O' Lakes", she sensed the presence of "red meteors of the murky night."11 Symbolically, she saw these dark beings as mediators between herself and the strange new world:
Her style tends to Victorian sententiousness, but genteel poetic touches in phrases such as "the finny prey" or "the bosom of the silent stream" are offset by the sharpness and suggestiveness of observed detail as in the emblematic pose of the Indian fisher:
The lakeland scenery, seized upon by such an imagination, becomes an upland in a poetic sense, a land lifting succeeding poets, such as Isabella Valancy Crawford and Archibald Lampman, to a feeling of the significance of the self within such a haunted space.
The Peterborough district remained a literary centre in spite of the absence of a local press. Members of Mrs. Moodie's circle sent their work eastward to the Montreal-based Literary Garland, or to Britain; efforts to form an area journal such as the Belleville Victorian Magazine proved abortive. The Literary Garland ceased publication in 1851; Roughing it in the Bush was published in 1852. But Isabella Valancy Crawford, born in 1850, still found regional strength in the Peterborough area during her maturing period. In particular her use of Indian motifs shows the influence of the earlier Rice Lake poets. True, Crawford had been born in a different region and had had childhood experiences with a different group of Indians and with Indian legends different from those Moodie knew. But the childhood experiences were less important in producing, for instance, "The Camp of Souls" than was the presence of a model for a poetic stance toward the Indians and of a symbolic method of appropriating details from their vocabulary and traditions and using them for personal adjustment to local experience. Although the human story of Max and Katie in "Malcolm's Katie" is set in a cultural landscape similar to McLachlan's, Crawford swings into an upland epic mode in her legendary descriptions of seasonal changes. For Crawford, as for Moodie, Indians add fire to the other landscape elements of earth and lake and sky. Typically, it is in a canoe that she is lifted to a fine affirmative wilderness vision. Pearl-like sky meets its jewelled reflection a wonderful affirmation in the Confederation period of unity and centrality; and in particular a poetic correlative of Ontario optimism in the 1870s.
By the 1880s Toronto publishing flourished, and writers were drawn to that centre, to the Star and the Globe (Isabella Valancy Crawford was drawn to these papers from Peterborough) and to Goldwin Smith's The Week (Charles G.D. Roberts was drawn in to it from Fredericton, Wilfred Campbell from Wiarton). But except for a few lines by Crawford, these writers did not write "Toronto poetry". The next Ontario heartland was to be in Ottawa.
Duncan Campbell Scott went to work in Ottawa in 1879, Archibald Lampman in 1883, Wilfred Campbell in 1891. Lampman, moving to Ottawa from his home region of Morpeth, drifted first through the Rice Lake area and then through Toronto. He seems to have pulled the creative strings of the country with him northward to Ottawa. And there, in the 1890s, a new Ontario note was sounded. Kipling's phrase, "Our Lady of the Snows", epitomized a world-wide emphasis in the 'eighties and 'nineties on the Northernness of Canada. "Nordicity" the moral and aesthetic power of the north was a concept widely held. It was particulary emphasized in Ontario journals such as The Week. Yet this rapidly urbanizing province felt also at the end of the century the appeal of city life: sophistication, complexity, mechanization. As a new and beautiful city, Ottawa caught the imagination; as a capital city, poised to look northward, Ottawa epitomized both the loss of the wild, lonely country, and its persistent power. The Ottawa poets helped Ontarians possess imaginatively their own northern region. The capital city, a visible mark of Ontario's centrist power, admirably enhanced Ontario's self-image as the nineteenth century ended.
The Ottawa poets polarized the city-wilderness tensions of the late nineteenth century province. Having perfectly described the distant line of a city "The far-off city towered and roofed in blue / A tender line upon the western red"15, Lampman and Scott and Campbell opted instead for scenes of the northern wilderness "Lonely hidden bays, moon-lit, ice-rimmed, winding".16
Ottawa as a city of lawns and fountains and lights within reach of picturesque countryside appears in the poems of Scott and Lampman; but the poems diminish and distance the city of bureaucracy and mechanization, and move to the impinging wilderness a lonely country, "far to the northward lying."17 The Ottawa poets thus define themselves as rejecting rather than adjusting to the city; but their style has a fin-de-siècle modishness, and a very civilized intricacy of linked sounds and stanza patterns. The Ottawa group thus expresses the double dream of late Victorian Ontario: the dream of developing urban sophistication, and the pull toward raw northern strength.
In the early twentieth century, the regional marker moved southward down the Ottawa valley to Glengarry. By 1900 a new group dominated Ontario imagination. From the granite lands around Kingston, Gilbert Parker, Agnes Machar, E.W. Thomson, and above all "Ralph Connor" created a literary record in prose, mostly of another kind of regional human adjustment. Now the focus was on the homely indoor realities of school and manse and workshop, small human places built in the pockets of a sparse landscape. The Glengarry themes were social: temptation, ambition, the desire for political power, the struggle for spiritual strength. Readers and writers throughout the province accepted the Eastern codes. Leacock's Sunshine Sketches proffered ironic laughter from Mariposa but Mariposa is still on the outskirts of Glengarry. Kingston, Queen's University and the Presbyterian code of work and duty and self-control imposed themselves on popular verse as well as on popular fiction. Curiously, though, the most idolized poet of the era was Pauline Johnson. In genteel late-Victorian verse forms she voiced the ecstasies, exhaustion and anguish of the Indian hinterland, that region of the heart beyond the limits of Glengarry. And Marjorie Pickthall offered a paler version of Indian motifs, in Drift of Pinions (1913) and other volumes: little poems about small beauties, and gentle legends.
After the War, of course, the pious village seemed insipid and the romantic Indian memories irrelevant. The place to be, to write in and to write about, was the city. Toronto offered a vantage-point for observing the social issues and the problems of post-war and then depression years, a place to develop local variants of the Chicago style, or the Bloomsbury one. Toronto artists might still follow the Group of Seven out to the ragged hinterland; the poets express the more widespread desire to stay at the core of the city. A Toronto style emerges, contained, a little flat, reticent and careful. There is a Toronto look to the Canadian Forum, to the solid books from the big established publishers such as Ryerson, Clark-Irwin, McClelland and Stewart, to the novels of Callaghan. The form of poetry is tight: "This form now. Expressive now," as W.W.E. Ross put it.18 The emphasis on art by Robert Finch is one part of the response to the city's pressures, but Souster, the major voice emerging in Ontario between the wars, faces the city's realities:
An Earle Birney, living in Toronto's Anglo-Saxon streets between 1936 and 1941, might probe the dreams between the "rattling / pebbled smalltalk"20 of the unkempt city; an E.J. Pratt, drawn to the city from Newfoundland, might bring with him the rhythms of the sea and the harshness of the cliffs; but long-time Torontonians such as Raymond Souster spent the forties reporting local realities: the Rollerskate Man, the Downtown Newsstand Man, Yonge Street Saturday, City Hall, and
The city "As Is" to quote a Souster title lay heavily in the Ontario imagination in the forties.
Then in Toronto's University, Northrop Frye enunciated a counter view of reality. Because of the fiery glimpses Frye gave into a realm of archetypes, Toronto became for many critics the mythopoeic heartland of the world. But Frye's poetic disciples, the producers of mythopoeic poetry, created their own regional centre, not in Toronto but in London. James Reaney's presence in London in the 'sixties, following Selwyn Dewdney's in the 'forties, and followed by Greg Curnoe's and Jack Chambers' in the 'seventies, formed a poetic focus; the inter-connections between these artists suggests the inter-generic and inter-generational nature of the regional flowering. Reaney had gone West, to Winnipeg in the 'fifties, and had returned confirmed in ideas about bodily presence, in space and in time. His Twelve Letters to a Small Town (1962) is an intensely localized cry of identity, continuing his delineation of small contained spaces. Like his earlier poetry and his later plays, Letters defines local space: pond, field, playbox, farm, coffin. In London, these sacred spaces are overlaid by the civic web of roads and railways, schoolyards and libraries and hockey rinks, and by all the Middlesexes the College, the County, the suburban society.
From London as middle earth a myth of containment spun out to touch Alice Munro, Graeme Gibson, and a group of poets (including Colleen Thibaudeau and Don Mackay). All these artists perceived and realized and transfigured the Western Ontario commonplace. This pastoral from the western parkland of the province had a gothic underside; yet it restored, with the force of magic realism, memories of a shared Ontario childhood.
The mystique of smallness and of non-centrality was part of the counter-culture of the 'sixties and 'seventies; and the emphasis on Ontario locales fitted into anti-American sentiments; so, for a variety of reasons, the whimsy and intensity of the London poets succeeded Toronto flatness as the accepted articulation of Ontario.
Toronto of the TV, the film-studios, the CBC, the magazines, the new presses, the old publishers, the underground printers, the radio and phonograph empires and disc-producers, was perforce home to many writers in the 'seventies. Joe Rosenblatt, bp Nichol, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, all surfaced as poets in Toronto, experimenting visually and psychologically with ways of coping with the new McLuhanite world of stereosound, psychedelic colour, and self-destruct form. But the work of these poets celebrated escape from the city:v to the past, to animal life, to dreams. The minimal forms of their poems the reduction to concretism, or to emblems or sounds marked a resistance to the magnitude of the city, a rejection of its labyrinthine mass. And indeed, like the fragmented shape of the new City Hall, the new Toronto consisted of discrete worlds: Cabbagetown and the high-rise margin; Kensington ethnic sub-worlds, and Mississauga. Only Dennis Lee brought the city into focus: he carried the neuroses of Rosedale and Rochedale to Nathan Phillips Square, where towers, pool, sculpture, people and circling traffic gave point to the gray, worn-down, bickering city. Such a city, Lee says, may fail to
But Lee's citified melancholy was not shared by other Ontario poets of the late 'seventies. The place to go in imagination at least was again, and more idealistically than in the 1890s, north. Journals such as Northern Journey, Copperfield, and Boreal appeared, marking the shift northward of poetic focus. Al Purdy moved in important poems from north of Belleville to north of the tame tree-line. From Sudbury came a song:
It is hard to pinpoint a heartland on the map of the 'eighties. In Sudbury, Windsor, Nairn, Erin, Ottawa, Kingston, Hamilton, and in Harrowsmith, and in farm basements, the presses are less busy now, though the poets are still reading to each other and to anyone else who wanders by. Ontario has moved too far into the twentieth century for pastoral, even for the inverted or convoluted pastoral of Ameliasburgh. Poetry seems to be gathering to a head once more in the metropolis. Or rather, the poets are building a region of their own, on the verge of the metropolis, on land reclaimed from the lakes, on the shoreline near "Ontario Place". Maybe this is the new poetic Ontario Place: the Harbourfront. Here poets like Pier Giorgio Di Cicco and Mary Di Michele read, "Flying deeper into the century"25 with a new Ontario poetry, powerful, angry, funny, tough, resonant.
For many of the Harbourfront poets, a British or American cultural heritage is not to be assumed. Their language is Canadian in idiom, their form post-modernist. Yet the movement to these poets has been to some extent cumulative. Some of the notes of the earlier regions remain: the elitist finesse of the Niagara garrison poets; the homely, canny quality of Erin and Guelph; the Peterborough willingness to be open to primitive native light; the Ottawa tension over the nearness of the north; Glengarry sense of duty; flat Toronto realism coming up from the pavement; an apocalyptic London realization that "Everything was / The bicycle of which I sing".26
While many of the new poets work under the pressure of a learned language, all work on a man-made strand, in buildings transformed, a cultural landscape wrenched from its first purposes. Maybe at the Ontario waterfront in the 'eighties we are hearing the next regional sound, witnessing the new pattern of adjustment, watching yet another discovery of the uniqueness and singleness of the province. On the new shore, the new poets prove the presence of a potent Ontario body, in space and time, again pinioning "the fabulous thin highborn skin of air."
Poet's Eye View," in The Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson, ed. A.J.M. Smith
(Toronto: Macmillan, 1968), p. 15.[back]
Minshall, Regional Geography: Theory and Practice (London: Hutchison
University Library, 1967), p. 9.[back]
the Lady Charlotte Rawdon", in Poetical Works (New York: Leavitt and
Allen, 1857), p. 139.[back]
of Niagara, a Poem, without Notes (Baltimore: N.G. Maxwell, 1818),
Hoffman, "The Lay of the Land", in On Middle Ground: Landscape and Life in
Wellington County, 1841-1891, ed. D.W. Hoffman and M.E. Waterston
(Guelph: University of Guelph, 1973), pp. 20-29.[back]
Anglo-Saxon", in The Poetical Works of Alexander McLachlan, ed. E.M. Fulton
(Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974), p. 34; rpt from Poems (Toronto:
Man Who Rose from Nothing", Poetical Works, p. 204.[back]
Narrative Poems, ed. David Sinclair (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972).[back]
Thomas quotes Jameson's response to the Governor's comment "that Etiquette did not
permit him to visit in person the ladies of the place," in Love and Work Enough (Toronto:
University of Toronto, 1967), p. 112.[back]
Indian Fisherman's Light," The Literary Garland (February, 1843), rpt. in Canadian
Anthology, eds. C.F. Klinck and R.E. Watters, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Gage,
1974), p. 60.[back]
Katie", in Collected Poems of Isabella Valancy Crawford, ed. James Reaney
(Toronto: University of Toronto, 1972), p. 197.[back]
Lampman, "Winter Uplands", in Canadian Anthology, p. 133.[back]
Campbell, "The Winter Lakes", in Canadian Anthology, p. 95.[back]
form now", in Shapes and Sounds (Toronto: Longmans, 1968).[back]
in Collected Poems of Raymond Souster, vol. I (Ottawa: Oberon, 1980, p. 21.[back]
Ebb begins from Dream", in Collected Poems (Toronto: McClelland and
Stewart, 1975), p. 134.[back]
"False Spring", in Collected Poems, vol. I, p. 36.[back]
Reaney, in Poems (Toronto: Newpress, 1972), p. 204.[back]
Elegy", in Civil Elegies (Toronto: Anansi, 1968), n.p.[back]
Dickson, "au nord de notre vie" (Sudbury: lithograph, 1975).[back]
James Reaney, "The Bicycle", in Poems, p. 229.[back]