The Unmaking of Modern Poetry in Canada

Frank M. Tierney and Angela Robbeson, eds. Bolder Flights: Essays on the Canadian Long Poem. Reappraisals: Canadian Writers. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1998. 189pp.

Bolder Flights is one of the best of the invaluable "Reappraisals" volumes that the University of Ottawa produces from its annual conferences, in this case one held in 1996. A quick summary of the contents reveals that this book offers a good perspective on the current state of Canadian literary studies: a fine opening essay that surveys the history of the Canadian long poem as only D.M.R. Bentley could is followed by three essays on nineteenth-century long poems, two extraordinary essays on E.J. Pratt, and seven essays on contemporary long poems. The significant absence—and the point of my titular allusion to the Dudek-Gnarowski collection that was once so influential—is Canadian Modernism as it used to be understood. Only Bentley considers (briefly) the long poems of such Modernists as Dorothy Livesay, A.M. Klein, and Louis Dudek, while Ralph Gustafson remains in neglected grandeur. The two articles on Pratt restore him to his rightful place in literary history, but this is not the Modernism that Dudek and Gnarowski had in mind. None of the contributors to Bolder Flights is interested in the "stark terror" evoked by the Canadian landscape and by the "little magazines" of Montreal and Vancouver. "Modernism could not last forever," as George Bowering has it (524), but I wish that more of it were still available for academic study. As I write this review, the selected poems of Earle Birney, F.R. Scott, and A.J.M. Smith are all out of print. By contrast, and as Bolder Flights attests, many nineteenth-century poets are more accessible than ever before, thanks in part to the efforts of this journal and its editor. Meanwhile, the contemporary long poem continues to flourish, despite the challenges that face its publishers. If things go on this way, Robert Kroetsch’s remark that Canadian literature "had little contact with Modernism" (Neuman and Wilson 112) will change from tall tale to semi-plausibility.

Bentley argues that Canadian long poems include "works that comprehend, commemorate, construct, and contest Canadian and non-Canadian realities from many different perspective" (20). Some of these perspectives emerge in the three essays on nineteenth-century long poems. Both Adrian Fowler and Wanda Campbell use Carole Fabricant’s work on Augustan landscapes to discuss the role of gender in early topographical poems. In a more adventurous essay, Margot Kaminski investigates the status of early Canadian women in the "canon" of the Canadian long poem, which she compares to the American and Australian situations. I use the dubious tactic of putting quotation marks around "canon" because it seems odd to speak of the likes of Adam Hood Burwell and Adam Kidd as "canonical." Even Isabella Valancy Crawford is problematic in this regard. Kaminski asks if "setting Crawford as the standard for women causes women of different styles or sensibilities to suffer in composition" (54), but Canadian criticism would be a very different thing if anyone had ever raised such an early writer to such an eminence. To be fair, Kaminski is acutely aware that such variables as class, race, region, and aesthetic merit (however construed) also affect the publication, reception, and later republication of all poems. Following Carole Gerson and others, however, Kaminski finds a consistent pattern of male exclusion of female poets. Her essay succeeds, even if her argument is a bit programmatic, because of its tantalizing accounts of such neglected poets as Sarah Anne Curzon, Susie Frances Harrison, and Marjorie Pickthall. I hope to see some of these long poems reprinted, ideally with introductions by Kaminski. Before that happens, she should consider the critic who has most fully considered the status of women writers in Australia and Canada: Beryl Donaldson Langer, who finds that in Canada, unlike Australia, "women are not automatically excluded from the realm of the typical" (147). Kaminski might not agree, but she should not exclude Langer’s work.

The two essays on Pratt are so good that they alone make this book indispensable. Both critics are intensely aware of the tensions between Pratt’s time and their own, and together they make an overwhelming refutation of Smaro Kamboureli’s case against Pratt. First to the fray is Sandra Djwa, who responds to Kamboureli’s charge that Pratt’s long poems had little influence on other poets (29). Taking Towards the Last Spike as her subject, Djwa traces Pratt’s vital influence on such poets as Birney, Atwood, Purdy, and Reaney, and on all the writers who were involved in Reaney’s journal, Alphabet. In one of many compelling examples, Djwa notes that "the combination of documentary and myth in Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid as in Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, published in the same year, was a direct reflection of all that Alphabet (and Pratt) stood for" (74). Even more boldly, she argues that "In theory a Foucauldian approach [like Kamboureli’s] should provide a deeper and richer strata; however, in practice the substitution of archaeology for history—when combined with a revised definition of the long poem— becomes an exclusionary formula" (68). Finally, in a carefully-orchestrated conclusion, Djwa establishes a series of resemblances between Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Towards the Last Spike, then asks the ironic question: "Perhaps it is only modern poets who have to be rigorously postmodern?" (77). Djwa is followed by Gwendolyn Guth, who focusses on Brébeuf and His Brethren. After observing that in the postmodernist rejection of Pratt "there is something here of history repeating itself, of the energetic aplomb that characterized the Canadian modernists’ dismissal of the Confederation poets" (82), Guth carefully dismantles the assumptions behind Kamboureli’s assertions that early long poems "express an aesthetic and an ideology extraneous to Canadian experience" (10), and that Pratt "remains a traditionalist by virtue of his anachronistic ideology and the way it is inscribed in his use of genre" (29). Demonstrating a superior understanding of Bakhtin and a greater suspicion of arbitrary borders, Guth argues as follows: "What makes genre dialogic is precisely its resonances of the past, actively incorporated, interrogated, reaccentuated in the present. Such resonances know no geographical or national borders; everything is ‘borrowed discourse,’ as our own rejoinders in the average dialogue attest" (83). In the rest of the essay, she shows that whatever its problems, Brébeuf and His Brethren has the "ability both to recover the context of the Jesuit Relations and consciously to foreground that work’s historicity, its otherness" (85), and therefore it is superior on Bakhtinian grounds to Eldon Garnet’s parody, Brébeuf. A Martyrdom of Jean De (1977), which Kamboureli prefers.

In a lively but uneven essay, Reinhold Kramer discusses several contemporary long poems. He too is critical of Kamboureli, as when he rejects her idea that "The ‘law’ of the long poem as a ‘new’ genre is its lawlessness" (xiv):

Neither the parody of older forms nor the destabilizing of older ideas creates unmappability. Long poems, like David McFadden’s baggy sonnet sequence Gypsy Guitar, which are much quicker to acknowledge traditional and metaphysical forms of knowledge (including poetic genre), are not more determinate just because of this acknowledgement.                                                                                         (102)

But when Kramer writes about The Journals of Susanna Moodie, he is not fair to Kamboureli, who argues that "Atwood subjectivizes history, lets Moodie speak what she left unsaid in her own narrative— the internalized that epic does not embody" (56). He reduces this as follows, with no ellipsis: "Atwood subjectifies [sic] history, lets Moodie speak" (104-05). Having altered her sense, Kramer then turns against Kamboureli: "Granted that the complaints against the land in Roughing It in the Bush are more insistent than Moodie herself realized, it is nevertheless curious that when Atwood ‘lets Moodie speak’ Moodie should speak so neatly counter to her conscious intentions" (105). The point is potentially a good one, but it should be made against Atwood, not her sympathetic commentator.

Perhaps this is the place to emphasize that Bolder Flights is not a sustained attack on Smaro Kamboureli. Charlene Diehl-Jones and Andrew Stubbs are both indebted to her work, which they put to good use in essays on Fred Wah and Dennis Cooley, respectively. The inescapable point is that Kamboureli is a fine critic when she deals with the postmodern writing to which she is sympathetic. On the Edge of Genre would be a better book without its opening attempt at a historical survey, which a good editor would have removed.

The other contributions to Bolder Flights are Karen Clavelle on David Arnason’s Marsh Burnings, Gary Geddes on Sharon Thesen’s Confabulations, Stephen Scobie on Bronwen Wallace’s Keep That Candle Burning Bright, and Meira Cook on Kristjana Gunnars’ Carnival of Longing. I particularly enjoyed the article on Wallace, because it features Scobie’s unique ability to situate Canadian literature between popular culture and literary theory. Who else could make the case that "the album-cover boots of Emmylou Harris, while remaining completely themselves…have so far transcended Freud’s reductiveness as to become the Platonic ‘idea of my foot’ [Wallace’s phrase] or the Logos of Saint John’s Gospel, The Word manifested as pedestrian flesh" (154-55)? What would John Sutherland have made of that?


Works Cited


Bowering, George. "Modernism Could Not Last Forever." 1979-80. Towards a Canadian Literature: Essays, Editorials, and Manifestos. Volume 2: 1940-83. Ed. Douglas M. Daymond and Leslie G. Monkman. 2 vols. Ottawa: Tecumseh, 1985. 524-30.

Dudek, Louis, and Michael Gnarowski, eds. The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada: Essential Articles on Contemporary Canadian Poetry in English. Toronto: Ryerson, 1967.

Kamboureli, Smaro. On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.

Langer, Beryl Donaldson. "Women and Literary Production," Australian/Canadian Literatures in English: Comparative Perspectives. Ed. Russell McDougall and Gillian Whitlock. Melbourne: Methuen, 1987. 133-50.

Neuman, Shirley, and Robert Wilson, eds. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Western Canadian Literary Documents. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982.

Tracy Ware