Milieu and the Individual Talent

Robert Lecker, Jack David, Ellen Quigley, eds., Canadian Writers and Their Works: Poetry Series, Volume Five (Birney, Dudek, Layton, Souster, Waddington), 350 pp.; Poetry Series, Volume Nine (Atwood, Jones, Lane, Lee, MacEwen), 288 pp.; Toronto: ECW Press, 1985.

These two volumes are the first I have seen of the projected twenty in ECW's Canadian Writers and Their Works series and, insofar as they may be representative, I think the series is off to a very good start.  The volumes are well bound and attractively organized and, unlike general literary histories and dictionaries of literary biography, they offer overviews which have substance and depth.  Although readers may balk at the cost of acquiring the whole set, at $40. 00 a volume they can acquire only those volumes that most interest them.  In any case, this is not the place to enter into dark mutterings about the cost of books.

     Each volume consists of an Introductory essay by George Woodcock, and five essays (each with a bibliography), and an index.  Each essay consists of sections on "Biography," "Tradition and Milieu," and "Critical Overview and Context," followed by lengthier discussion of the subject's "Works." A selected, though often comprehensive, bibliography concludes each entry; in one or two instances the contributors might have been more scrupulous in updating bibliographies compiled well before the volumes went to press.  This format works very well, even in those few instances where the "Critical Overview . . . ." is simply a mechanical rehearsal of the extant criticism.  Generally, the essays are well-written and some, Blodgett on Jones, Goldie on Dudek, and Middlebro' on Lee, for example, are excellent.  Before passing on to a consideration of the individual volumes, however, I have a bone of contention to pick with some editorial decisions.

     Why, since they have published monographs on their subjects only recently, did the editors choose to go with Aichinger and Bartley on Birney and MacEwen?  It seems to me that anyone interested enough in Birney or MacEwen to acquire these volumes will already be familiar with Aichinger's and Bartley's views, and may be justly annoyed to see them recycled.  In a discipline where the need to extend critical debate is so apparent (and is that not the rationale for this whole project?), this kind of redundancy is hard to fathom.  Instead of a contribution to the scholarly debate on these two writers we get, albeit unwittingly, a canonization of critical perspectives.  Perhaps I am nitpicking but I cannot help thinking that fresh approaches would have contributed more to the value of this project.

     Of these two volumes, I think Volume Five will prove to be the more enduring contribution to scholarship.  The authors dealt with, we can assume, have already passed their most prolific years, and their impact on other writers can be more surely addressed; they are members of a generation that comes more clearly into focus as we stand back from it a bit.  In this regard Bruce Whiteman's essay on Souster and Terry Goldie's on Dudek are especially noteworthy.  Both critics praise Frank Davey's volume Louis Dudek/Raymond Souster but both also beg to differ.  Whiteman, for example, takes issue with Davey's "Marxist-based aesthetic," while Goldie downplays the relationship between Souster and Dudek and questions the influence on younger poets which Davey attributes to Dudek.  Critical divergence of this sort is a healthy phenomenon, and can generate the kind of debate which is necessary if these somewhat neglected authors are to assume their rightful place in future critical histories.

     Also stimulating in this regard is Wynne Francis's essay on Layton, which offers a lengthy appraisal of Layton's more recent work.  Some readers may feel that more attention should have been directed to the earlier, more frequently-anthologized poetry, but the early Layton has not suffered for lack of commentators; Francis is to be commended for boldly shifting the focus to work that has received scant but needed critical attention.  Layton has long been susceptible to the charge that he publishes too much and the effect of this has been that many readers have simply tired of him; for them, Layton is still the raging, alienated prophet of the 1960's volumes.  By focusing on Layton's "increasing respect for the tradition of Judaism, and a deepening curiosity about the nameless and hidden God who so strangely favours the Jews" (p. 197), Francis facilitates a reevaluation of the entire canon.

     Miriam Waddington's poetry receives a very fine and intelligent reading from Peter Stevens.  Unlike previous critics (and only three have said anything substantial), Stevens focuses on the form of Waddington's poetry, arguing that it is not nearly as imprecise as it has been made out: "her approach to poetry will be part of her approach to life, not simply an academic exercise or an excuse to be theoretical or dogmatic about art" (p. 324).  Tying her poetry concretely to her life, Stevens does much to dispel misconceptions about her poetry which arise from too generalized an approach.

     I have mixed reactions to Volume Nine; most of the writers in this group are in mid-career and so I find myself resisting critical overviews which have the tendency to 'fix' writers whose art and vision are still evolving.  But, this niggling anxiety aside, the essays in this volume are of a very high calibre.  Jean Mallinson's article on Atwood may cause some distress to readers unfamiliar with rhetorical terms, but otherwise there is nothing particularly recondite in her approach.  Starting with the premise that "criticism is a cantata for mixed voices, not a solo performance" (p. 28), Mallinson aims to "make up for a certain lack in formal criticism, to provide a supplementary and in some cases a corrective reading of certain poems, and to trace certain continuities in the poetry which may add to, rather than gainsay, the patterns observed by other critics" (p. 29).  For me, this essay works as both a lucid introduction to Atwood's poetry, and as a fine retrospective which never loses sight of the fact that Atwood's poetry continues to change.

     The poetry of D.G. Jones has always struck me as unusually delicate and finely nuanced; fittingly, the essay on Jones is by E.D. Blodgett, to my mind one of the most sensitive critics of Canadian writing today.  Having said this, however, I must confess that I think T.G. Middlebro's article on Dennis Lee is the best essay in the collection.  Middlebro' treats Lee's philosophical sources, the writings of Heidegger, Grant, and others, in a manner which makes them accessible to lay readers without insulting the intelligence of the specialists.  He is also very good in his treatment of Lee's formal concerns, with the elegy and the ode in particular.  The result is a well-integrated commentary which does not shrink from discussing Lee's failures as well as his many successes.

     Although Jan Bartley has updated her material on Gwen MacEwen, her entry is a repetition of her argument in Invocations: The Poetry and Prose of Gwendolynn MacEwen.  I have already used these pages (Canadian Poetry, Fall/Winter, 1984) to take issue with her emphasis on MacEwen as a postmodernist, and I will not rehearse those objections here.  Suffice it to say that I still think this emphasis is misplaced, but in keeping with my insistence on extending and broadening critical debate, I will desist from further sniping.

     Finally, a few words about George Woodcock's essay on Patrick Lane, and his introductory essays to each volume in the series.  Lane's work still suffers from critical neglect arid I have the feeling that Woodcock was dragooned into providing a commentary in the absence of other visible candidates.  Since his views on Lane correspond so closely to views I was publishing on Lane as this volume went to press, I will observe simply that this is not Woodcock at his best.  By contrast, there are the introductory essays, particularly to Volume Five, which sparkle with the assurance of one who has read these writers and their critics again and again, and knows how they fit into his overview of Canadian writing.  Not only, then, do these introductions establish a context for the essays that follow; as well, taken together, they constitute a literary history by a critic who has worked tirelessly for the advancement of criticism in Canada.  This double thrust, of essays which establish breadth, the milieu, followed by essays that have depth, individual accomplishment within the milieu, should ensure that these volumes serve a critically useful function for years to come.

J. M.  Zezulka