"A Subtle Mourning:" P.K. Page's "The Permanent Tourists"

by D.M.R. Bentley

Long before encountering P.K. Page's "The Permanent Tourists" in my section of honours Canadian literature at the University of Western Ontario, students would have been asked to construct in their minds a schema whereby Canadian poetry is divided into two categories that correspond to the broad divisions of the Canadian landscape: a category of poetry whose primary orientation is that of the baseland and a category of poetry whose primary orientation is that of the hinterland.1   They would have heard it argued that a correspondence exists between the landscape preferences of Canadian poets and their philosophical assumptions and poetic practices.   Thus poets who find congenial the stable, historied, and European-oriented areas of the Canadian baseland will probably exhibit in their verse a tendency towards recollection, structure, teleology, and rational intelligence while poets who find attractive the relatively unstable, unacculturated, and American-oriented areas of the hinterland will similarly exhibit in their writing a tendency towards process, openness, chance, and uninterpreted experience.  These same students would also have heard it argued that, in ecological terms (i.e., in terms of the fitness of various imported poetic forms to survive in the Canadian environment), relatively closed and structured forms such as the couplet and the sonnet have proved most fitting for the depiction of the country's agricultural and metropolitan baselandscapes and, in contrast, relatively open and unstructured forms such as blank and free verse have proved most appropriate to the stretching terrains of the hinterland.  Students approaching "The Permanent Tourists" with these topocentric, analogical and mimetic arguments in mind would therefore not be surprised to learn that this poem of six sharply contoured and partially rhymed stanzas was written in Ottawa in the late 'forties when Page, an immigrant from England at an early age, was working at the National Film Board.2  Here, they might surmise, is a fairly typical example of the baseland orientation in Canadian poetry.

     A classroom discussion of the complexities of "The Permanent Tourists" might begin with an examination of the ramifications of the poem's rectilinear stanzas.  To begin with, the correspondence between the poem's stanza form and the rigid geometry of the cityscape that it depicts would be suggested, and detailed reference could be made to the "public squares" of the second stanza, to the "monolithic bronze" of the third stanza, and, in the final stanza, to the "plaza" which the tourists — and notice the rectangular resonances of the verb — "stamp" in their moment of curious beauty.  The discussion might then proceed to observe that the rectilinear and, in effect, marmoreal stanzas of "The Permanent Tourists" provide an analogue for the "sculptured immemorial stone" of the poem's final stanza.  Support for these inferences might be gained by observing that the only stanza in "The Permanent Tourists" that lacks an obvious end-rhyme — i. e. , the final stanza — is also the stanza that contains a reference to "ruined columns" — a figure conducive to pathos for the baseland-oriented sensibility.3  The apparent correspondence between typography and topography in "The Permanent Tourists" might generate references to other poems where similar relationships between paysage and page can be found — to Archibald Lampman's "In November," for example, where the "ploughman. . .  Turning back furrows through the white field"4 is analogous to the poet's creation of black lines on a blank page; to A.M. Klein's "Grain Elevator," where the "right angles"5 of the poem's subject are mirrored in the rectangles of its stanzas; or even — to add a more recent example — to Al Purdy's "The Country North of Belleville," where a ploughed field is reflected in the only rectilinear passage of a poem that fittingly uses free verse as a "language of disappearing forms."6

     Instances such as these of mise en paysage are not uncommon in Canadian poetry.  Nor are they uninteresting either in terms of the recent critical theory that stresses the inevitable difference between words and their ostensible referents or in terms of the evident existential7 concern in "The Permanent Tourists" with the lonely (and permanent) isolation of people from the world and from each other.  The theoretical interest of the mise en paysage resides in the fact that when a poem attempts to enact on the page certain features of the external world, it almost simultaneously calls attention to the unbridgeable gap that exists between words or arrangements of words and the objects to which they refer.  This failure of words and works of art to touch, let alone to make present, the things of the world is intensely pertinent to "The Permanent Tourists" where it helps us to recognize, not merely the parallel between the poet and the tourists as alienated individuals whose condition is one of seemingly permanent isolation from the world and from each other, but also that the modes of representation involved in the poem — poetry and photography — are both incapable of incarnating on paper either the objective reality of things (Sartre's en-soi) or the subjective reality of human consciousness (Sartre's pour-soi).  Could it not, then, equally well be said of the poet and the poem, the tourists and their photographs, that they "Verge upon statues in the public squares . . . yet never enter the entire event / as dogs . . . / move perfectly within their rainy climate"?  In a classroom context a question such as this about the implicit, perhaps even elective, affinity between the poet and the tourists might generate further discussion of the stanza form of "The Permanent Tourists" in terms of the poem/photograph parallel.  To what extent, it could be asked, are the rectangular shapes of the poem's stanzas analogous to the rectangular shapes of the "snapshots" into which the tourists lock themselves? Are there any further parallels between "The Permanent Tourists" and, to quote the poem's third stanza, "the subtle mourning of the photograph"?

     Very probably it is a sign of pedagogical insecurity or critical avarice to ask such questions without first divulging whatever extratextual information is available to assist in answering them.   In the present instance, that information is contained in two letters by P.K. Page about "The Permanent Tourists."  In the first she writes:

It's a dated poem, I guess. . . "mourning" referring to black and white photographs.  It was pre colour-film [.  .   .  . ] As I re-read it now, I see that the whole poem is grey, like a black-and-white photograph . . . the "dogs within their rainy climate," is a reference to a dog's eye only being able to see shades of grey.8

In the second letter, replying to a question about a possible stanza/photograph parallel, Page writes:

As to the form of the poem — the rectangular stanzas — I may well have thought of them as photographs.  I certainly thought of the stanzas of "T-Bar" in that way — saw them mounting the white hill.  It is a way my eye works.  But, frankly, in this case, I can't remember for sure. All I can say is that if I didn't think of it at the time, I should have!9

Once the parallels between "The Permanent Tourists," and a "black-and-white photograph" have been 'seen,' then it becomes quite easy to elaborate on the affinity between the poet and the tourists in terms of their respective "arts."  In both cases a coloured, three-dimensional world is reduced to a two-dimensional image consisting of variations on two colours.  In both cases the act of creating the artefact (poem, photograph) displaces, even eradicates, an authentic experience of the present ("all they are now incapable of feeling"), leaving in its place a past that can be only vicariously experienced and a future that can be merely surmised.  In both cases, life is reduced to a black-and-white negation (or negative) of itself.  All these parallels are especially applicable to the first four stanzas of "The Permanent Tourists" where the tourists and the poet are closely related in their ability to bleed life of its colour, in their alienation from authentic experience, and in their obsession with death and its cognates.  For the tourists, who "search . . . out" various dead, "stolid" and "forgotten" "heroes" and "Lock themselves into snapshots on the steps of monolithic bronze," have themselves been sought out and locked into rigid stanzas by a sensibility that insists on seeing them as "Somnolent," "nondescript," "almost anonymous" and "terrible" a sensibility, moreover, which dehumanizes them through canine comparison, pronoun elision ("They" are absent or displaced in the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas), and as will be seen in a moment through surrealistic drôlerie and rhymed sarcasm.  That the parallels between poem and photograph in "The Permanent Tourists" can in this way lead a reader towards a negative assessment of the poem's shaping sensibility may help to explain the recuperative shift that takes place in the last two stanzas, a shift away from a photographic and patronizing portrayal of the tourists and towards a richer and more connective response to them.  By imbuing "The Permanent Tourists" first with a painterly quality and then with a sympathetic tone in the last two stanzas, Page effectively turns the reader away from fully and finally implicating the poem and its creator in the colourless and inauthentic world of the tourists.

     The penultimate stanza of "The Permanent Tourists" achieves at least a two-fold effect: it colourfully portrays the tourists and their more exotic haunts ("café" conveys a strong sense of French place) in a manner which invites the reader to envisage a scene akin to a surrealist painting; and it gently satirizes the notion that has sustained the tourist mentality for centuries, namely the "fable" that, in Frances Brooke's words, "the pleasure. . . in travelling" arises from a "delight in acquiring new ideas. . . ."10 With the stanza's opening words — "Look, you can see them" — the reader is commanded to transcend with the speaker the black-and-white world of the tourists and the page, to conjure up in the mind's eye something like a Rousseau or Magritte canvas, complete with nudes in a "café" (as Kenneth Clark points out, the word "nude" connotes "a form of art"11) and "Philosophies" that "bloom" "like ferns" (as Page herself points out " 'ferns' is the only word with colour"12 in the poem).  Having invited the reader to perceive the tourists as absurdly incongruous in their environment, the stanza proceeds by means of clichéd diction ("travel is broadening") and chiming rhyme ("fable"/"table") to ridicule the very assumptions of tourism.  At this point in "The Permanent Tourists" the gap between, on the one hand, the seemingly ludicrous and deluded tourists and, on the other, the evidently detached and ironical speaker has widened in a manner suggestive of satire.  Although the distance placed between the tourists and speaker brings the poem in its penultimate stanza to the verge of distasteful smugness, that distance may be necessary because it also removes from view the mise en abime that could result from a recognition that the touristic activities of photographing monuments, "reading . . . histories," "creating futures," and elaborating "Philosophies" are disconcertingly accurate reflections of the activities of the poet and the poem.  Among the many features of "The Permanent Tourists" that mark the poem as a product of high modernism (including, of course, its depiction of the ordinary and extraordinary sights of the city) is its elevated conception of art and the artist, a conception adhered to here almost at the expense of human sympathy.

     A possible third effect of the penultimate stanza of "The Permanent Tourists" is that, by placing the tourists in the relatively exotic setting of a café (and the "plaza" of the poem's final stanza is, if anything, more exotic to an English-Canadian sensibility), it may convert a sympathetic reader into a tourist, into an aesthetic traveller in a strange place (a foreign city or poem) who is as vulnerable as the permanent tourists to exposure and ridicule.  In this way the poem's penultimate stanza helps to prepare the way for the increase in sympathy for the tourists that occurs in the final stanza where the initial word "Yet" signals the speaker's retreat from the partly condescending attitude of the previous stanza and the beginning of a pensive reassessment of the tourists and their mentality.  Now curiously attractive ("somehow beautiful") and psychologically — indeed, existentially — interesting ("Classic in their anxiety") they almost cease to be "nondescript," "anonymous," and "terrible," becoming instead the objects of the gentle sympathy that the poem conveys at least in part through the sonorous musicality of its final stanza's long vowels, repeated labials, and dulcet sibillants.  More than this, in the final stanza of the poem the tourists almost cease to be the vacuous and displaced somnambulists who were denied authentic contact with reality earlier in the poem. Not only are they now seen to "stamp the plaza," to actively impress themselves upon and give character to their exotic environment, but they are also seen as more active in their approach to what was earlier seen as mere monument-gazing:

               . . . they call
all sculptured immemorial stone
into their passive eyes, as rivers
draw ruined columns to their placid glass.

While both of the active verbs in this passage serve to modify the passivity of the tourists (and notice that both "call" and "draw" are placed in positions of emphasis at the beginning and end of a line), the word "draw" is especially interesting for its implication that the reflective realism practised by the tourists and the rivers is a sort of artistic activity which, at least (and like the empathetic conclusion of the poem itself) attempts to close the gap between en-soi and pour-soi.  Only 'attempts' because, though the tourists of the final stanza are no longer being denied direct experience by the camera, and while the speaker of the poem's conclusion has entered through sympathy into a state of Sarterean being-for-others, there still exist unbridgeable gaps between and among the things and the beings of the world.  No one can be more aware of these gaps than the reader of "The Permanent Tourists" who recognizes that what he is really seeing in the scene of reflection at the end of the poem is black words on a white page and mental images from his own consciousness.  Such a reader might be tempted to reject the suggestion that the sights and feelings generated by the conclusion of "The Permanent Tourists" are analogous enough to those of the poem's creator to indicate that an act of genuine communication has taken place.  What the rejection of this suggestion would seem to imply is that the condition of being a permanent tourist is an inescapable one.  Yet (and I use Page's conjunction deliberately) it is surely the assumption of "The Permanent Tourists," as of all poetry of the baseland orientation, that on our journeys "through landscapes" and in our encounters with fellow tourists, there will be at least moments of clairvoyance and empathy when gaps diminish, barriers drop, and communication occurs — when there is at least a calling into and a drawing towards.

     A classroom discussion of "The Permanent Tourists" might conclude on a light and expansive note with the observation that, after all, it is hardly surprising that a poet named P.K. Page would register on paper time and time again her awareness of the difference between the three dimensional world of reality and the two-dimensional realm of the page. "I am a two-dimensional being," writes Page in a series of meditations on the "Connections and Correspondences between writing and painting,"

I live in a sheet of paper.  My home has length and breadth and very little thickness.  The lines of a fork pushed vertically through the paper appear as four thin silver ellipses . . . .  My two-dimensional consciousness yearns to catch some overtone which will convey that great resonant silver object.

The yearnings and frustrations expresssed in this passage are not, of course, the explicit focus of "The Permanent Tourists."  Nevertheless, as a poem written on a page as well as by a Page, it cannot help but deal with the implications of "two-dimensional consciousness" and representation as very explicitly do other Page poems such as "Arras," "Photos of a Salt Mine," and "Portrait of Marina."


I am grateful to David Clark and Tracy Ware for very valuable discussions of ideas used in this essay.  I am also grateful to Laurie Ricou for inviting me to participate in his session at ACUTE on "The Permanent Tourists," and to P.K. Page for taking the time and trouble to answer my letters and questions about her fascinating poem.

  1. The ideas outlined here are discussed at some length in the following articles: "A New Dimension: Notes on the Ecology of Canadian Poetry," Canadian Poetry, 7 (Fall/Winter, 1980), pp.   1-20; "A Stretching Landscape: Notes on Some Formalistic Continuities in the Poetry of the Hinterland," CV II, 5 (Summer, 1981), pp. 6-18; and "The Mower and the Boneless Acrobat: Notes on the Stances of Baseland and Hinterland in Canadian Poetry," Studies in Canadian Literature, 8, 1 (1983), pp. 5-48.[back]

  2. P.K. Page in a letter of January 7, 1985.[back]

  3. By contrast, a poet of the hinterland orientation will tend to see ruined structures (barns, houses, farms) as heartening signs of nature's resistance to acculturation.[back]

  4. The Poems of Archibald Lampman (including At the Long Sault), ed., and with an Introduction, by Margaret Coulby Whitridge (University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. 117.[back]

  5. The Collected Poems of A.M. Klein, ed., and with an Introduction, by Miriam Waddington (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974), p. 301.[back]

  6. Eli Mandel, "Introduction," Poets of Contemporary Canada, 1960-1970 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972), p. xiv.[back]

  7. Although existentialism was born in Europe between the two World Wars, it did not become well known in Canada until after the Second War.[back]

  8. P.K. Page in her letter to me of January 7, 1985.[back]

  9. P.K. Page in a letter to me of January 25, 1985.[back]

  10. The History of Emily Montague, ed., with an Introduction, by Carl F.  Klinck (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961), p. 190.[back]

  11. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Princeton Univ. Press, 1956), p. 5.[back]

  12. Letter of January 7.[back]

  13. In her letter of January 7, Page writes: "I remember being very keen to use the word 'plaza' for the absurd reason of the 'z' in it linking for no known reason with the 'z' in zebra (it could just as well have been with zero and even that is not entirely beside the point) and so, indirectly (oh, indirectly indeed) providing an exotic note.  'Plaza,' then, through its vowel [sic] sound, set the tone for the whole stanza."[back]

  14. Or the discussion might conclude, more darkly, with a commentary on Atwood's view of the poem as a sort of national allegory (Canadians as victims of "cultural exile" are "permanent tourists") in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto: Anansi, 1972), pp. 190-191.[back]

  15. "Traveller, Conjuror, Journeyman," Canadian Literature, 46 (Autumn, 1970), p.  36.[back]