Marshall on the Poetic Tradition in English

Tom Marshall, Harsh And Lovely Land; The Major Canadian Poets and the Making of a Canadian Tradition University of British Columbia Press, 1979. 184 pp. $18.50.

     Tom Marshall’s Harsh And Lovely Land is a book of mixed purposes and subsequently of uneven achievement. It is a sweeping survey of Canadian poetry from its beginnings to the present time, but in attempting to be all-inclusive Marshall too often is superficial and much of the book does not rise above the level of an introductory study. Further, while this book is not narrowly devoted to arguing a thesis, Marshall is, as his title suggests, attempting to counter the view of Canadian literature as pessimistic, limited to a concern with mere survival and isolation. This leads him to define and defend a particular tradition in Canadian writing, but the grounds on which he defends this tradition are questionable. Nonetheless, after all the studies of themes and image patterns that we have had, Marshall does return criticism to the task of evaluating the Canadian poets, and his often provocative judgments make this book, at its best, a lively, engaging study.

     Marshall divides his book into four sections dealing with what he sees as the four stages of Canadian poetry: the pioneers, the modernists, the inheritors, and the poet-novelists of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Irving Layton, Earle Birney, and in particular Al Purdy and Margaret Avison, are singled out for praise, and to a lesser extent, so are D.C. Scott and A.M. Klein. But, in fact, under his headings Marshall attempts to discuss virtually all the Canadian poets, and this desire to be comprehensive weakens the book. A chapter called “War Poets and Postwar Poets” might better have been called “Everybody” as Marshall “discusses” Louis Dudek, Miriam Waddington, Raymond Souster, Douglas LePan, George Woodcock, Anne Wilkinson, and George Johnston — all in nine pages. A later chapter, “Poets of a Certain Age”, is similarly inclusive and, for instance, Fred Cogswell, Alden Nowlan, and Elizabeth Brewster are dealt with in two paragraphs. This procedure leads to an inevitable superficiality in the treatment of individual poets, and makes Marshall’s subtitle, “The Major Canadian Poets”, patently absurd (unless we are to see these poets as constituting the “tradition”). It would have been more helpful if Marshall had simply given more attention to those poets whom he unquestionably does regard as “major”.

     The problems raised by the introductory quality of the book are most obvious in the section on the pioneers, which is by far the weakest part. The chapter on Roberts and Carman is both cursory, in that Marshall simply asserts his evaluations, and conventional, in that he essentially repeats the generally accepted view that Roberts is at his best in his realistic poems of observation. The chapter on Lampman too often presents quotations from the poems without any commentary. Further, Marshall is not directing us to any poems that we are not already familiar with, for all of the poems of the Confederation poets that he refers to are found in Malcolm Ross’s edition of The Confederation Poets. Bringing relatively unknown poems to our attention is one of the valuable jobs a critic can perform, but Marshall seems almost deliberately to forego this task. Rather, he often seems to intend the book to be an introductory work to be read in conjunction with the standard anthologies. But this is surely not the kind of thing we need at this point in Canadian criticism — certainly not in dealing with poets as well known as Roberts, Carman, Lampman and Scott.

     The rest of the book is better and is often useful even at the introductory level. Marshall quotes fairly extensively and thus is able to provide a reasonably good sense of the poets he is discussing; this is particularly helpful in dealing with poets like Avison, P.K. Page, and Douglas LePan, who probably are not as well known as, say, the Confederation poets. Moreover, Marshall’s brief over-views are often quite good; his remarks on P.K. Page, for instance, provide a useful introduction and a framework for viewing her poetry. Certainly once Marshall leaves the pioneers and turns to the modernists he begins to pick up. Too often, it is true, he provides only a running judgment on these poets, but he is interesting on Dorothy Livesay whom he praises highly and apparently sees as the best poet of the early modernist group. He has great admiration for Klein yet pinpoints the weakness of his early verse, describing it as “clumsy and fustian” because of “the dangerous tactic of a deliberately archaic diction and syntax as a Imeans of rendering the medieval and ancient world.” Mashall regards Layton and Birney as the best poets of their generation and he provides some useful observations on their work — on Layton and D.H. Lawrence, on the role of the comic persona in Birney’s later poetry — but he is not very successful in defining their poetic achievement. I generally share Marshall’s admiration for Layton’s earlier poetry, but at times I suspect that the complex imagery of some of Layton’s poems is not sufficiently controlled and in some of Layton’s most acclaimed poems — such as “The Cold Green Element” and even “The Birth of Tragedy”, both of which Marshall refers to — the coherence of the poems needs to be demonstrated; Marshall fails to do this. And his discussion of Birney focuses not so much on Birney’s poetry, as on his vision or response to life.

     The problems raised by the way in which Marshall deals with the poet’s view of life are most evident in his section on “The Inheritors”. This is clearly the most provocative part of the book for here he argues that Purdy and Avison are the two major Canadian poets. In order to understand how Marshall arrives at this judgment we need to look more closely at his view of what is distinctively Canadian and at what he sees as the distinguishing concerns of Canadian literature. First, “the obsession with space, with enclosure and openness”. Secondly, an insistence on “a particular kind of irony . . . a pervasive ambivalence characterizes the poem that is Canada”. Finally, and most importantly, a search for harmony, for communion and community, “a longing for unity with the world that leads to a greater and greater openness to and acceptance of the beautiful and terrifying universe in flux. This is the ultimately religious concern that informs the Canadian poetic idiom developed by writers like Al Purdy and Margaret Avison.” Here Marshall is obviously directly countering, among others, Margaret Atwood’s view of Canadian literature. Is he offering an “accurate” description? Well, yes and no. He is taking into account certain features of the literature that Atwood largely ignored, but, much as she did, he is giving a very personal response. Marshall obviously has a vague religiosity, and he often responds most deeply to those writers who express, to him, a comparable religious sense. However, the religious concern that Marshall takes as definitive cannot really be found in the poetry of Layton, Birney, Michael Ondaatje, Eli Mandel, Alden Nowlan, nor in many other Canadian poets — and I am not sure that Marshall is not stretching things when he claims that it is such a central part of Purdy’s work. But it is there in Avison, Klein, even Atwood, and others, and Marshall is right in calling attention to it. In any case, this is not a thesis book like Suruival — Atwood was selective and constantly stuck to her thesis, Marshall is comprehensive and will pick up and drop his argument about “Canadianism” — and I think it is finally less important to debate Marshall’s view of “Canadian” than to examine how he uses his assumptions.

     Marshall comes very close to letting his idea of what is appropriately “Canadian” determine his sense of poetic value. Purdy is praised for evolving “a flexible free-verse idiom all his own, a kind of run-on poem in which the Heraclitean flux and flow of Canadian space is embodied as rhythm.” And Marshall further insists that “The invention of the Purdy line, either as long or short as suits his immediate purpose, and of the run-on Purdy poem, gives A1 a claim to the title of the first truly native poet.” Even if this is true it does not, as Marshall seems to think, necessarily make Purdy our best poet. Marshall’s judgment sounds like W.C. Williams exalting Whitman while regretting Eliot and this kind of response is more of a nationalist (what is “native” is good) than a literary evaluation. Marshall’s tendency to praise poets for achieving the appropriate Canadian vision is most evident, however, in his chapter on Margaret Avison and lies behind his somewhat surprising claim that she is one of our two best poets. He praises Avison for offering the proper “solution” to Canadian life: “Canadians must live in those physical and mental enclosures and sets that are necessary for survival and at the same time venture forth imaginatively into the open.” Avison acknowledges the need for limits but she also issues a call to “imaginative freedom”, and, being perhaps the most visionary of Canadian writers, she comes closest to offering us a Canadian religious solution. The grounds on which Marshall praises Avison are essentially ideological and could, I suspect, convince only those who accept this “answer”. He offers us very little in the way of a literary analysis of Avison’s work. He says nothing, for instance, about Avison’s remarkable handling of language, yet surely if Avison is one of our best poets — and I think she is — it is not because she has worked out the “correct” or appropriate Canadian solution, but because her religious vision is presented with a verbal energy that brings to mind Hopkins and that sets her apart from most Canadian poets. Her command of the medium, the richness and complexity of her language is her undoubted strength, and her ability to embody her religious vision in language — not simply the vision itself — gives her work its distinction. Set against this strength, however, is the perhaps excessive difficulty of her work, a difficulty that can pass over into obscurity. Marshall acknowledges the difficulty of her poetry and in fact begins his discussion with two poems (“The Valiant Vacationist” and “The Swimmer’s Moment”) that he believes offer “relatively easy access to Avison’s difficult journey.” But Marshall avoids facing the critical implications of his conclusion that “both poems remain vague about what precisely is happening”. Marshall would have done more towards helping Avison win the recognition that she deserves if he had really confronted the problems with her work and given us a literary analysis of her strengths.

     In his final section Marshall examines the turning of the poets towards fiction. While he takes into consideration the earlier novels by poets, he regards the flowering of the poet-novelists as primarily a phenomenon of the 1960’s and 1970’s and he contends that the turn to fiction is a movement “toward a fuller sense of community and a fuller communication and revelation of the interior life of everyone.” He studies this process in the work of LePan, Leonard Cohen, Ondaatje, Gwendolen MacEwen, Atwood, and David Helwig. The discussion of LePan’s The Deserter is justified largely by Marshall’s claim that it is the first poetic-novel of this period. Whether the novels of MacEwen and Helwig belong in this company, though, is doubtful. Marshall treats MacEwen far too briefly to establish a case for her, and Helwig, as far as I can tell, is included largely because he writes about Kingston, Ontario (where Marshall now lives). Cohen, Atwood and Ondaatje are surely the three major poet-novelists, and while what Marshall has to say about their particular works is often disappointing, the general position he takes on the poetic-novel is, I think, of considerable value. In discussing Lady Oracle he offers a decisive judgment on Atwood as a novelist — and suggests some of the problems of the poetic-novel: “Though a serious emotional resonance seems quite clearly intended, it is not achieved, mainly because recurrent poetic imagery is finally no substitute for depth of characterization.” Obviously the various aspects of a literary work — imagery, language, and character — all blend into one another, but some separation can be made and I agree with Marshall that the use of imagery in the poetic-novel — even the often brilliant imagery in Surfacing and Coming Through Slaughter — should not be given precedence over depth of characterization in assessing the merits of a novel. Marshall generally shows a nice sense of tact in balancing the respective claims of language, imagery and characterization, but his assumption that a “poetic” achievement in fiction is not finally enough perhaps lies behind his judgment that not one of the poetic-novels “is of the same order of achievement as, say, As For Me and My House, The Mountain and the Valley, The Sacrifice, or The Stone Angel.” This in itself is perhaps acceptable enough, but Marshall goes even further and asserts: “As poets alone, moreover, they cannot match the achievement of our finest living poets: Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Margaret Avison, and Al Purdy.” In the face of the enormous reputation — and achievement — of Atwood and of the justifiably growing reputation of Ondaatje, this is a challenging position to take. One might quarrel with particular judgments that Marshall makes but the fact that he offers a challenging position, that he puts himself on the line and makes a serious attempt to evaluate the Canadian poets, gives this book its interest and its value.

R. P. Bilan