How New was New Provinces?

New Provinces:  Poems of Several Authors, with an Introduction by Michael Gnarowski.  Literature of Canada Series 20.  Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 1976. xxxii + 77. $12.50 cloth, $4.95 paper.

Modernism has come softly into the poetry of Canada by peaceful penetration rather than by rude assault.  We all lie down together very amicably, the lions and the lambs; and no one is quite sure which is which, except that here and there a lamb may growl and a lion essay a propitiatory bleat.

The fundamental criticism that must be brought against Canadian poetry as a whole is that it ignores the intelligence.  And as a result it is dead.

The first of these extracts comes from Charles G.D. Roberts’ essay, “A Note on Modernism,” which appeared in 1931; the second is from A.J.M. Smith’s “Rejected Preface” to New Provinces, written in 1934 though not published until the mid-1960s.  Smith’s dismissive second sentence apparently gives the lie to Roberts’ cosy assertion, and suggests that the older poet was unaware of the committed zeal and sense of urgency on the part of the younger “lions.”  Certainly, Roberts cannot be absolved by any theory of sudden revolt in the early years of the depressed ’thirties.  F.R. Scott’s delightful but devastating “The Canadian Authors Meet” had appeared in the McGill Fortnightly in 1927 (the year after Roberts had undertaken the presidency of the Toronto branch of the C.A.A.).  Moreover, Smith was merely reiterating in the Preface sentiments that he had already expressed in 1928 in the Canadian Forum:  “Modernity and tradition alike demand that the contemporary artist who survives adolescence shall be an intellectual.  Sensibility is longer enough, intelligence is also required.  Even in Canada.”  Surely, then, the lions cannot be seen as favouring a non-aggression pact with the lambs.

     In New Provinces E.J. Pratt appeared (somewhat incongruously) alongside five younger poets — Robert Finch, Leo Kennedy, A.M. Klein, F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith — of whom only one had so far published a volume of verse (the exception was Kennedy who, ironically enough, was the only one not to publish another).  Literary history has come to regard the publication of this volume as the moment when the “new poetry” in Canada came of age.  Despite the fact that it sold less than a hundred copies in the first year of publication, it is said to represent a turning-point — a signpost towards a new poetic era.  This in itself justifies the reprinting of the book (with both prefaces); and Michael Gnarowski, in his excellent historical introduction, vouches for its significance in carefully chosen terms:  “this entirely unpretentious anthology was a singular event in a literary process which stemmed from the origins of Canadian modernism and its beginnings in Montreal.”  There is no point here in reviewing a book that is close to half a century old, but it is perhaps worthwhile to report on the experience of re-reading it in the late 1970s.  One cannot help asking the question:  how new was New Provinces?

     Smith’s rejected Preface, reprinted between Gnarowski’s Introduction and the 1936 text, reads as a manifesto.  Impressive as it is, however, the material that it was intended to introduce hardly justifies such a ringing call to arms, and we can readily understand Scott’s warning in a letter to Smith:  “You will have to be careful not to make claims for a greater radicalism than this volume will show.”  Again and again, hints of a modernist approach are offered only to be withdrawn.  The subtitle, “Poems of Several Authors,” hardly suggests a united front.  The opening sentence of Scott’s substituted Preface, “What has been described as the ‘new poetry’ is now a quarter of a century old,” severely qualifies any claim to the startlingly avant-garde.  Moreover, the very title of the first poem, Robert Finch’s “The Five Kine,” suggests continuities with the subjects and vocabulary of the “poets of Confederation” rather than the challenge of a new movement.  All in all, New Provinces proves to be a complex, not to say puzzling, historical document.

     The strongest statement about a new art required for a new age occurs in Scott’s “Overture”:

But how shall I hear old music? This is an hour
Of new beginnings, concepts warring for power,
Decay of systems — the tissue of art is torn
With overtures of an era being born.

Here, we might say, is a classic formulation of artistic revolt.  But the most conspicuous feature of the stanza for a modern reader (it might not have registered so forcibly with readers of 1936) is the way in which content and form exist in a curious tension.  We do not hear “Decay of systems” in the conventional rhymes and regular stanza-pattern.  Indeed, when one comes to examine the collection from a technical standpoint, one is struck by the paucity of poems that look on the page like “modern” poems.  There is little that can be classified as “free verse”; regularity and traditional metrics are the order of the day.  This regularity may be disguised (the sonnet written out as prose in Klein’s “Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens” is an obvious example), but some kind of sanctioned and self-imposed constraint is generally present.  Perhaps Roberts’ image of lambs and lions is not so fanciful after all.

    All this suggests that the inclusion of E.J. Pratt in the anthology may not have been merely “diplomatic”; his presence confirms the continuities that exist between old and new.  Indeed, his poem “Sea-Gulls” provides an admirable example of a somewhat uneasy tension between the claims of traditionalism and modernism.  The opening is at one with the diction and attitude of the younger contributors:

For one carved instant as they flew,
The language had no simile—
Silver, crystal, ivory
Were tarnished.

The subject-matter links the poem with conventional, “old-fashioned” nature poetry, but the crispness of language (“carved instant”), the naturalness of rhythm and the fresh intelligence brought into play blend with the work of the others.   But Pratt is either unable or unprepared to maintain the effect.  The fourth line ends with a “poetic” inversion, “the horizon blue,” and the last three lines of the poem —

No clay-born lilies of the world
Could blow as free
As those wild orchids of the sea —

could have been written by a minor English Georgian twenty years earlier.

     By contrast, Scott’s “Vanguard” moves in the opposite direction.  After some initial puzzlement, we are delighted with the wit and control of a poet who can begin,

he fled beyond the outer star
to spaces where no systems are

(which at first sounds suspiciously like Roberts in “mystical” mood), yet can manage to end, with only six couplets in between,

now you may see him             virginal
content to live in montreal.

Scott has successfully moved along the poetic road towards modernism yet once again we notice that the modernist features are, as it were, smuggled into a traditional mould.   There is no question of the new wine bursting the old bottles.

     This traffic between past and present can be traced throughout the collection.  One of Robert Finch’s titles, “Egg-and-Dart,” brings a hint of both psychology and “modern art” to a traditional subject, but across the page we find “Beauty My Fond Fine Care,” which sounds as if it speaks to the 1970s across several centuries.  Leo Kennedy turns traditional Christian imagery and reference into new (yet also age-old) patterns and shapes.  Klein, represented by two longish poems, juxtaposes Spinoza in seventeenth-century Amsterdam with Velvel Kleinburger in a contemporary city.  Pratt, characterstically, can slip a chilling contemporary reference to violence in Ethiopia into a poem about a domestic cat innocently entitled “The Prize Winner.

    But it is in the work of the two central figures behind the book, Scott and Smith, that we see the blend most clearly.  Not surprisingly, their editorials reflect their own dominant concerns.  Scott stresses the enforced contemporary connection between poetry and politics:  “In confronting the world with the need to restore order out of social chaos, the economic depression has released human energies by giving them a positive direction.  The poet today shares in this release. . . .”  Even here, however, we note the emphasis on “order”—indeed, the concern is for “modern” order to replace the “chaos” of the immediate past, a reading of the current socio-political scene that would have surprised both the elderly lambs like Roberts and the more violent of the revolutionary lions.

    For Smith, of course, the emphasis is rigorously intellectual.   While his insistence that “the poet’s lofty isolation from events that are of vital significance to everybody was coming to an end” would have been applauded by Scott, it is characteristic of Smith that he would set against the “wishy washy ‘dreams’” of his poetic predecessors not social action but “exact ideas.”   The new provinces in question are for Smith not the administrative divisions of Canada but the provinces of the mind.  There are ironies in his position.  Just as Scott drew attention to the fact that the new poetry was a quarter of a century old, so Smith conceded that in advocating a poetry of sharply-chiselled phrase and finely-honed intellect he was “only following in the path of the more significant poets in England and the United States.”  This new Canadian manifesto sounds strangely familiar.  But Smith himself, though he has dined with Eliot and with Yeats, is never merely imitative.  He looks outside Canada for stimulation to bring discipline and strength to a poetry that, in his view, was becoming narrowly (and here the title jerks us to attention once again) “provincial.

    Smith’s ideal is “to fuse thought and feeling.”  New thought, traditional feeling.  And this, in the last analysis, I think, is what the best poems in New Provinces provide.  How remarkably traditional — in the best sense of the word — is Scott’s “March Field” (“Now the old folded snow / Shrinks from black earth”).  And how often, despite Smith’s sarcasm about the conventional poet’s being seared by the beauty of “the red flame of a maple leaf in autumn,” these modernist poets write about the traditional natural objects one might expect to be taboo.  Kennedy’s “Shore,” Pratt’s “Sea-Gulls,” Scott’s “Trees in Ice” and “March Field,” Smith’s “The Creek” and “The Lonely Land” are only the most obvious.  But the effect, of course, lies in the treatment, not in any stock response to the subject.  “The Lonely Land,” perhaps the most brilliant example, is so familiar that to quote from it here would be an act of supererogation.  Kennedy’s “Shore” is less distinguished but not so well-known and, moreover, is short enough to quote in full:

Sand shifts with every tide, and gravel
Slurs against the rock,
Weeds and a little lifted silt remain
Making the reach of water, the long shock
Of an absent tide.
Here no stencilled track of tern, no trace
Of the slight feet of curlews, here no lace
Of foam or the braided webs of gulls to press
Into the falling bosom of the sea.

. . . But silt left by the receded tide, a ravel
Of weeds thrown high by the wash of water, a crest
Of wave, distant, beyond the cove.

This is not one of the most remarkable poems in the collection but, with the possible exception of the ninth line, it is taut and disciplined throughout.  The rhyme is only occasional and there is no regular stanzaic pattern, but order is maintained in the balanced phrases (“long shock,” “slight feet,” “Of weeds . . . Of water”) and the complex alliterative and assonantal devices.  The words do not merely communicate the effect, they positively create it—but not in any grandiose “romantic” way.

    All these poets know that poems are made out of words, not out of emotions or gestures or political attitudes or myths. As Smith noted in the rejected preface, the modern poet “must try to perfect a technique that will combine power with simplicity and sympathy with intelligence.”  Here he is remarkably — significantly — close to Roberts’ description of the young but sane rebels at the close of “A Note on Modernism”:  “Now and again, to be sure, there may be a gesture, of defiant propagandism or of impatient scorn.  But in the main they are altogether preoccupied with beauty.  And beauty they not only see with new eyes, but show it to us with simplicity and truth.”  Sensibility and intelligence, form and content, simplicity and truth, thought and feeling, traditionalism and modernism, lions and lambs:  can it be that all these are, in the words Smith used as the title of a poem included in New Provinces, “The Two Sides of a Drum”?

W.J. Keith