English—Canadian poetry of the twentieth century is not easily characterized, mainly because it is notable less for its schools or movements than for a small number of writers of singular talent and vision. This essay cannot attempt to be comprehensive but will discuss Canada's most accomplished and historically significant poets.
Archibald Lampman (1861—99), Duncan Campbell Scott (1862—1947), Sir Charles G. D. Roberts (1860—1943), and his cousin Bliss Carman (1861—1929), together referred to as the Confederation poets, were Canada's best-known writers in the thirty years after 1880. In the early decades of the twentieth century, 'lyrics' and 'ballads' by these writers appeared, sometimes posthumously, on themes related to the poet's confrontation with an idealized Canadian landscape. The Confederation poets were steeped in the English Romantic and Victorian traditions, and they are often dismissed as inadequate imitators of the art of the mother country. But they were also interested in Emersonian transcendentalism, and their encounters with the challenging natural world of a new country caused them to seek inventive rhetorical solutions to the artistic problems before them. Their attempts to write about Aboriginal peoples (Scott's 'The Forsaken'), to engage in social protest (Lampman's 'The City of the End of Things'), and to re-create the Canadian landscape in metaphysical terms (Roberts's 'Tantramar Revisited'), shaped the direction of at least the subsequent two generations of Canadian writers.
Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850—87), a writer of classical training, was another influential, even if sentimental, poet who was read in Canada in the early twentieth century; her collected poems were published in 1905. Pauline Johnson (1861—1913), daughter of a Mohawk father and an English mother, published volumes with titles such as Flint and Feather (1912) and was internationally known as a performer of her popular poetry, which blended indigenous traditions with the verse forms of Byron, Longfellow and Keats, among others.
Even though the poetry of E. J. Pratt (1882—1964) in several respects reflects the nineteenth-century poetic traditions of his national predecessors, the Confederation poets, it also signals the beginnings of modernism in English-Canadian poetry. Pratt's engagement with the landscape is modelled, at least in part, on the romanticism of his poetic forebears (both British and Canadian), and his sense of the poet's prophetic role is also theirs. His well-received first volume, Newfoundland Verse (1923), depicts a fierce but also mythical Canadian landscape that refuses the imported rhetoric of the Edenic new world of more traditional verse. Pratt's almost brutal realism is in part what defines his verse as modern, but his tendency to create myth in his depiction of the settler's struggle with his environment ties him to the previous century.
Pratt was a Christian in a time and culture that would not condemn him for grounding his art in his faith, and he was also a humanist and a student of Darwin's theories. Pratt infused his epic verse narratives with the principles of his expansive faith, which he felt were not incompatible with those of science. His humanism exhibited itself in a belief in humankind's ability to triumph through reason; when British and American poets were doubting, Pratt believed. Sandra Djwa and R. G. Moyles suggest in their introduction to the two-volume E. J. Pratt: Complete Poems that The Titanic (1953) (one of Pratt's best-known works) challenges Hardy's fatalism in 'The Convergence of the Twain, Lines on the Loss of the Titanic'. Pratt's other well-known works include Brebeuf and His Brethren (1940) and Towards the Last Spike (1952), both widely read and influential narratives that dramatized Canadian historical events.
The early modern period in Canada, like later phases of its literary history, is remarkable for the diversity of work its poets produced. The imagist poet W. W. E. Ross (1894-1966), who published two volumes in the 1930s and one in the 1950s, wrote on a smaller scale than Pratt and was one of Canada's first important practitioners of free verse. Other poets whose work shows traces of American imagism include Dorothy Livesay (1909-96), perhaps the only Canadian female poet of the 1920s and 1930s with a substantial reputation. Over approximately seven decades Livesay wrote and published verse on a wide range of topics, including social protest and erotica, but her strongest work was derived from the same imagist movement that shaped Ross. Livesay's Call My People Home (1950), a long poem written for radio in protest over the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, was one of many volumes published by Lorne Pierce, editor for the Ryerson Press (Toronto), an important vehicle for the development of Canadian poetry between 1920 and 1960.
Farther east, in the 1940s and 1950s, a group of poets who met in Montreal were writing verse that would dramatically alter literary history in Canada. These poets published their early work in two little magazines called Preview (1942-5) and First Statement (1942-5), which eventually amalgamated to become Northern Review (1945-56). These magazines, although they were in some cases circulating for only a few years, have taken on a literary-historical importance that is perhaps exaggerated. They went some way, however, to transfiguring the very early modernism of E. J. Pratt, and they expanded on the varieties of modernism that would characterize the century.
The Preview poets, including F. R. Scott (1899-1985), A. J. M. Smith (1902-80), A. M. Klein (1909-72) and P. K. Page (b. 1916), were led by English poet and travel writer Patrick Anderson (1915-79), who encouraged his group to read and imitate foreign poets such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Irving Lay ton, Louis Dudek and John Sutherland (1919-56) published in First Statement. The cultural influences that shaped the writing of the Montreal poets were common to artists and intellectuals in 1940s Europe and America: Freudian psychology, antiwar sentiment, socialism and communism, to name only a few. The Canadian early modernist movement echoes but does not shadow similar movements in twentieth-century America and Britain. It follows trends in a somewhat zigzag pattern, some poets moving towards experimentation in verse form, while often simultaneously retreating to the poetic traditions of the pre-modernist period in English-language poetry.
F. R. Scott and A. J. M. Smith were for decades the most celebrated writers of the Montreal group. Brian Trehearne, in Aestheticism and the Canadian Modernists: Aspects of a Poetic Influence (1989), explores the myths that have grown up around the Canadian moderns and persuasively argues for a more nuanced appreciation of the strains of old traditions, especially aestheticism, identifiable in their work. Even while Scott and Smith (and others in their circle) often echoed nineteenth-century English traditions, they nevertheless successfully reflected the social upheaval Canada experienced during and after the Second World War and were undeniable leaders in Canadian modernism.
A. M. Klein was in the 1940s Canada's most highly acclaimed poet of Jewish life and social protest. The extraordinary poem 'Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens', published in Hath Not a Jew (1940), is considered by many to be among Klein's finest poems and one of the most philosophically challenging of the era. His The Rocking Chair and Other Poems won the Governor General's Award for 1948.
P. K. Page, who has written her best poems in recent years, emerged from the Montreal era to become one of Canada's most highly regarded writers. The admiration her work has attracted and her influence on younger writers cannot be adequately articulated here. Page's early verse protested the Second World War and the stultifying conditions of the female office workers who were left behind. Her first two books, an anthology, Unit of Five (1944), and a solo volume, As Ten As Twenty (1946), set out some of the themes and concerns that define her work into the present. She was typical of the 1940s poets in her refusal of the religious faith one finds in E. J. Pratt and his predecessors. Page's poetry moved increasingly inward in the 1950s; social protest gave way to a preoccupation with the self and the mind. In 1954 she won the Governor General's Award for The Metal and Flower.
In the late 1950s, living in Brazil as wife of the Canadian ambassador there, Page began to paint, under her married name, P. K. Irwin. After this turning point,
Page's poetry and visual art revealed her growing interest in mysticism, particularly sufism. (Her artistic transformation is recorded decades after the fact in the prose of Brazilian Journal, 1987.) Cry Ararat!: Poems New and Selected appeared in 1967, her first volume to feature her drawings prominently (both within the book and on the jacket). This volume hints at the link between her poetry and visual art. Page's Klee-inspired drawings of the early 1960s, with their careful attention to slivers of lineation, complement poems that depend on favourite metaphors for infinity: air molecules and atoms. These small points of connection suggest the invisible barrier between the realm we experience and a fourth dimension. In one of her finest poems, 'Another Space', published in P. K. Page: Poems Selected and New in 1974 (a volume selected and edited by Margaret Atwood), Page creates a notional world in which a vitalism conveyed through geometric configurations links the cosmos to humanity:
Those people in a circle on the sand are dark against its gold turn like a wheel revolving in a horizontal plane whose axis — do I dream it? —
vertical invisible immeasurably tall rotates a starry spool.
This poem features all of the recurring symbology in Page's verse: the mandalas of circles and wheels; the colour 'gold', consistently signifying transcendence; ekphras-tic images that express the metaphysical power of the sister arts; and metaphors of vision and inner sight. The thesis in this, and indeed in most of Page's work, is that art — be it poetry, music or visual art — is the only vehicle through which human beings may transcend the quotidian. Page's sense of the interconnectedness of the cosmos has led to a return, in some of her later poems, to social protest, particularly in the form of environmental advocacy.
Evening Dance of the Grey Flies (1981), in part through its innovative juxtaposition of poetry and prose, reveals some of the sources of Page's ideas. Doris Lessing's notions of social justice, for example, play a role in this volume's central prose piece, 'Unless the Eye Catch Fire . . .'. The next volume of uncollected poems did not appear until 1994, when Page published Hologram: A Book of Glosas, in which she adapts the fourteenth-century Spanish stanzaic form to produce stunning intertexts that acknowledge her indebtedness to poets as diverse as T. S. Eliot, Mark Strand and Sappho. Page's work has remained in print over the years in collections, including The Glass Air: Selected Poems (1985 and 1991, expanded) and The Hidden Room: Collected Poems (1997, two volumes).
Although, like Page, Irving Layton (b. 1912) writes verse that could be described as metaphysical, he eschews any aestheticizing of experience. One of the most internationally renowned of the poets who thrived in the never-duplicated milieu of English-speaking Montreal in the first half of the twentieth century, Layton has had a remarkable impact. At his best, Layton produced difficult, allusive poems that suggest an intellectual cast of mind thoroughly educated in Western culture. His good poems are poems of ideas; the figure of the poet is fairly consistently depicted as a prophet. Most of his poetry is well known, however, for its vehemence and directness and daring. Some of his major themes are the Holocaust, sex and art.
Layton has never been interested in linguistic experiment for its own sake, and he is not the kind of poet who reflects the trends and practices of his time, except that the preoccupation with themes Nietzschean one observes in his work was more fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s than it is now. One of his most widely studied poems is 'Tall Man Executes a Jig'. In it Layton creates the lone male artist figure that resides in much verbal art of the twentieth century; he is burdened, heavily burdened, by art, history and human misery:
And the man wept because pity was useless.
'Your jig's up; the flies come like kites,' he said
And watched the grass snake crawl towards the hedge,
Convulsing and dragging into the dark
The satchel filled with curses for the earth,
For the odours of warm sedge, and the sun,
In Butterfly on Rock (1970), for years a cornerstone in Canada of the now-unpopular thematic criticism, D. G. Jones writes, 'The grass snake is transformed, becomes the cosmic serpent, the ambiguous symbol of the universal power which is both dark and light, the speaker's identification with a cosmic power that comprehends both life and death' (Jones, 1970, p. 133). This notion of a 'cosmic power' could be found in a great deal of poetry and criticism in the 1960s and 1970s and was in fact endemic in popular culture, a not-surprising result of the refusal of both conventional belief and total scepticism that characterized the last forty years of the twentieth century. A metaphysical poetry, diffuse in nature, was the by-product of these profound changes in culture.
The metaphysical nature of the dense early verse of Margaret Avison (b. 1918), published in Winter Sun to much praise (1960, Governor General's Award), grew out of the poetic traditions that prevailed in mid-century. Avison asks the big questions in her early work and creates appropriately complex conceits in order to pose them:
Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes.
The optic heart must venture: a jail-break
This kind of verse was transmuted into the language of Christian faith by the time she published The Dumbfounding (1966) and Sunblue (1978). No Time (1989, Governor General's Award) is one of her strongest and most accessible volumes, its elegiac tone not surprising from a poet born in 1918.
Writing on the West Coast, Phyllis Webb (b. 1927) is separated by more than just vast distance from the writers of her generation, writers such as Layton, even though they began publishing in roughly the same period and moved in some of the same literary circles for a time. Webb's near-isolation on an island off the coast is an index of her need to work alone. She is a poet with no obvious literary debts, so singular is her vision. Like other writers who published in the turning-point sixties, she is interested in cosmic power, in left-leaning politics, in social justice, etc., but Webb has consistently demonstrated a meticulous devotion to a continual rethinking of the line. She is therefore often called a poet's poet, and in spite of her relatively infrequent publications, is revered. One of her most stunning works is Naked Poems (1965), a volume that can be interpreted as a reworking of the haiku in an era fascinated by minimalism and the haiku in particular. In the 1980s Webb published many of her best works, among them Wilson's Bowl (1980) and The Vision Tree: Selected Poems (1982). Her most recent volume, Hanging Fire, appeared in 1990.
Earle Birney (1904-95), also a West Coast poet, was a mentor figure for Webb and for many others and a major poetic voice well into the 1980s. He founded the first creative writing programme in Canada at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver) and went on to become a celebrated innovator on the contemporary scene. He was particularly interested in unusual verse forms. Birney wrote concrete poetry, narrative and travel verse, and he embraced the experimentation of younger writers more readily than his contemporaries. His long narrative poem 'David' (1942) was for decades one of the most frequently taught poems in Canadian schools. Light echoes of Birney's work can perhaps be heard in the poetry of George Johnston (b. 1913), the well-known scholar of Icelandic sagas. Johnston's poems show a careful attention to rhythm and syllabification that has influenced many poets, including P. K. Page. Johnston's Endeared by Dark: The Collected Poems was published in 1990.
Margaret Atwood (b. 1939), who is today considered a major English-language poet (with awards and honours too numerous to list here), began her career in Canada as one of the leading voices in the vibrant 1960s. This was a period that saw a sudden and enormous increase in the production of poetry, partly encouraged by government grants and the rise of small presses. Atwood is a writer of considerable integrity, who has consistently demonstrated a strong personal commitment to social justice. The political climate in which she wrote in the late sixties encouraged dissent (and made possible Dennis Lee's unprecedented Civil Elegies (1968); read more widely in its revised version of 1972, this long poem shows the influence of the Canadian thinker George Grant in its extended consideration of nation and community). Like Lee's, Atwood's poetry of the 1960s and 1970s is political in tone; gender politics and national mythologies are her themes. Circle Game (1966), Atwood's first major poetry publication, was immediately recognized with a Governor General's Award. 'This is a Photograph of Me' from that collection is representative of this period in Atwood's development for its arch new take on introspection.
In The Animals in that Country (1968) and The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) Atwood reveals the influence of Northrop Frye (whose ideas about myth in Western literature could also be detected in the work ofJay Macpherson, author of The Boatman (1957, Governor General's Award), a poet, once Atwood's professor, whom Atwood greatly admires). Atwood, reflecting Frye's notion of the garrison mentality, reconstructs the pioneer's fearful sensibility using the vernacular of the twentieth century. Through extended metaphors related to descent and re-emergence and through a lean, terse, even barbed poetic language, Atwood dissects the psyche of a colonial culture. Procedures for Underground (1970) invokes Aboriginal myth, in a manner fashionable during the period, to explore many of the same concerns, fear of the unknown a central one. 'Further Arrivals', from The Journals of Susanna Moodie — based on the life of an English pioneer who immigrated in 1832 to Upper Canada (Ontario) — is typical of the poems in this outstanding and highly lauded collection in its tight evocation of paranoia:
My brain gropes nervous tentacles in the night, sends out fears hairy as bears, demands lamps; or waiting for my shadowy husband, hears malice in the trees' whispers.
The poems of Power Politics (1971) have come to embody, for many readers, Atwood's stance on gender relations. The point-blank delivery of these lines was sharpened into a powerful feminist weapon, and Atwood used it to advantage in You are Happy (1974). Two-Headed Poems (1978), True Stories (1981) and Interlunar (1984) deal with various issues to which Atwood returns periodically, including the problematics of Canadian nationalism, foreign politics, and the poet's relationships to family and the natural world.
Morning in the Burned House (1995) marks a deepening of Atwood's writing and a departure from her early persona. Her poems in honour of her father are particularly moving:
In the daylight we know what's gone is gone, but at night it's different. Nothing gets finished, not dying, not mourning;
the dead repeat themselves, like clumsy drunks lurching sideways through the doors we open to them in sleep; ('Two Dreams, 2')
Experimentation in 1960s Vancouver was associated with a group of young writers (born between 1935 and the early 1940s) called the Tish poets, who, like the Montreal poets more than a generation before them, published their work and their ideas in a literary magazine. Tish (1961—9, intermittent publication) was small in scale and mimeographed. It was heavily influenced by America's Black Mountain poets, especially Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. Largely a regional movement, Tish maintained loose ties between the West Coast and the Toronto— Montreal axis through Raymond Souster and Louis Dudek. Colloquial speech and the use of breath in free-verse prosody were all-important principles of composition. The Tish editors that went on to establish national reputations include Frank Davey, Fred Wah and George Bowering. Sharon Thesen, influenced by this movement, nevertheless emerged an extraordinary poet who shows none of the weaknesses generated by Tish orthodoxies. The verse of Roger Greenwald, a Toronto poet with no connection to Tish, provides a compelling example of the best use of the rhythms of breath.
The Toronto poet bpNichol (1944—88) was associated briefly with Tish when he lived in Vancouver; his concrete poetry, his performance work, and his lifelong interest in word-play complement the work of the Tish writers. He became a widely admired mentor, editor and leader in avant-garde verse, with especially strong ties to Coach House Press. His most famous work is the multi-volume The Martyrology (1972—90).
Robert Kroetsch (b. 1927), a prairie poet of considerable distinction, echoes some of Nichol's textual strategies in the compilation of his various long poems into one project called Completed Field Notes (1989). His serious engagement with post-structuralist literary theory has meant that his readership tends to be university students and critics who are familiar with the theoretical foundations of his writing. Writers such as Patrick Lane (b. 1939) and Lorna Crozier (b. 1941) embody the changes that occurred in poetry in the 1960s and 1970s while also resisting innovation for the sake of it. These two popular writers — often identified, like Kroetsch, with western Canada — have acted as unofficial ambassadors of free verse and the poetry of personal experience in their various roles as writers-in-residence across the country.
Al Purdy (1918—2000), considered by many to be one of Canada's greatest poets, was remarkable for his ability to write about labouring in rural Ontario while also drawing on his wide reading in poetry and fiction. He wore his learning lightly and was embraced by readers across the country for his openness and lack of pretense. He published many volumes and is perhaps best known for The Cariboo Horses (1965,
Governor General's Award) and an often-anthologized poem, 'The Country North of Belleville'. Sam Solecki's The Last Canadian Poet: An Essay on Al Purdy (1999) demonstrates, through its ample research, the allusiveness and impressive learning that runs throughout Purdy's work.
The novel The English Patient (1992) made the novelist Michael Ondaatje (b. 1943) internationally famous, particularly after it was turned into an Oscar-winning film. Many readers, however, believe that Ondaatje should be better known as a poet. In his poems, Ondaatje's genius for provocative images and sharp verbal patterning is unencumbered by the constraints of narrative and the delineation of character.
Each of Ondaatje's volumes of poetry is an innovation on the one before: The Dainty Monsters (1967), The Man with Seven Toes (1969), The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970, Governor General's Award) Rat Jelly (1973), There's a Trick With a Knife I'm Learning To Do: Poems 1973—1978 (1979, Governor General's Award), Elimination Dance (1980), Tin Roof (1982), Secular Love (1984), The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1989; 1994) and Handwriting (1998). Born in Sri Lanka in 1943 (then Ceylon), Ondaatje arrived in Canada in 1962 after spending his early years in Sri Lanka and England. After the publication of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid he was embraced as the Golden Boy of Canadian letters; the outpouring of love and admiration that came his way from local poets and Can. Lit. academics cannot be overstated. His books were regarded as the work of an astonishing new voice with no Canadian antecedents. And he was handsome, shy and mysterious, attributes that fostered the cult of personality that grew up around him and, in a peculiar ripple effect, spread to other writers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Many readers believe that Ondaatje's early poems are among his best. One of his most frequently anthologized poems, 'Letter & Other Worlds', about his alcoholic father, is a 1973 narrative full of lines that, despite their use of metaphor, depend on a confrontation with his subject that is one of Ondaatje's trademarks:
On the last day he enclosed himself in a room with two bottles of gin, later fell the length of his body so that brain blood moved to new compartments that never knew the wash of fluid and he died in minutes of a new equilibrium.
Secular Love was written out of the anguish of a disintegrating marriage and produced some of the most moving poems in the Canadian canon, poems that embody the authenticity of experience espoused by British and American late modernists. Perhaps no network of images demonstrates more clearly this poet's capacity to turn experience into art than that of the underwater world of the brilliant 'Claude Glass', a central poem thematically in Secular Love. Almost ten years after meditating on his father in verse, the poet creates strikingly similar imagery to castigate himself:
from now on I will drink only landscapes - here, pour me a cup of Spain.
Opens the gate and stumbles blood like a cassette through the body away from the lights, unbuttoning, this desire to be riverman.
Ondaatje's greatest writing has always involved an intensely private quest. In Handwriting he searches, as he did in the prose and poetry of Running in the Family, for a past that has disappeared:
The last Sinhala word I lost was vatura.
The word for water.
In contemplating Sri Lanka, as he does in Handwriting (1998), Ondaatje faces social pressure to focus on and somehow to illuminate - or at least condemn - all the violence in that terrorized part of the world. He approaches this problem in what is for him a completely new way: by writing about religious faith. He is, in this latest volume, and for the first time in his published work, quite obviously fascinated by Buddhism. 'Buried' which describes the local priests' efforts to preserve their religion and culture by burying statues of the Buddha during violent conflict, agonizes over the history of political turmoil in Sri Lanka without didacticism or agenda. The graphic violence of his poetry of the late 1960s and 1970s is somewhat subsumed in Handwriting by soulful contemplation. This is not to say that Ondaatje shrinks from confronting horror when he must. In 'Buried', images of 'the large stone heads' of statues about to be hidden, 'surrounded by flares', are mirrored in the closing lines, where the shock is created almost through the virtuosity of the recognizably Ondaatjean conceit:
Above ground, massacre and race.
A heart silenced.
The tongue removed.
The human body merged into burning tire.
The powerful images of 'Buried' reflect but do not overwhelm the devastating issues they explore. Equally moving are poems in a completely different register that offer cinematic frames, and epigrammatic tercets and couplets on the themes of love and passion.
If the cult of the personality played a role in Ondaatje's fame, it was everything in the career of Leonard Cohen (b. 1934), whose persona as the contemplative renegade in search of fulfilment is at the centre of all his work. The ideas in Cohen's poetry tend to oppose those of the dominant culture and range over sexual freedom, sainthood, madness, suicide, violence and pornography. It was these themes, the disarming directness of his voice, and his self-presentation that won him a large following as a poet and singer in the 1960s. His song albums outnumber his small number of poetry books. His most famous poem, 'Suzanne Takes You Down', is a version of his most famous song, 'Suzanne'. Cohen's first volume of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956, and he maintained his poetic stance until the publication of one of his most widely read volumes, Death of a Lady's Man, which appeared in 1978. His dark, sardonic early volumes are somewhat relieved by Book of Mercy (1984), a collection of devotional and meditative verse that draws on Cohen's Jewish heritage.
The poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941—87) grew out of the same coffee-house culture as Cohen's, even if MacEwen's coffee-house was in Toronto. Like Cohen, MacEwen developed ties to Greece, and she also acquired a persona that mirrored the counter-culture. The multilingual MacEwen, however, was more interested in mystical ideas and in adventuresome historical figures than Cohen. Both MacEwen and Cohen represent Canadian poets attempting to develop a profile as writers and yet also, because of the dictates of the period, exiling themselves as anti-heroes, if not always in fact then in the rebelliousness of their verse. MacEwen's The Shadow-Maker won a Governor General's Award for 1969, but a late book, The T. E. Lawrence Poems (1982), might well offer the best of MacEwen for its skilful execution of the male narrative voice she seemed to favour.
Of the Canadian poets who rose to prominence in the 1980s, Anne Michaels (b. 1958) has received some of the highest praise. Internationally known as the author of the Holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces, she was awarded the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas for her strongest collection of verse, The Weight of Oranges (1985). She is the most skilful of a whole body of Canadian poets whose work is a distant outgrowth of the imagist movement. These poets depend heavily on the distillation of a mood. In Michaels's case this mood is achieved largely through imagery associated with the manipulation of light, through an intense lyricism, and through the uncanny ability to produce a variety of dramatic voices.
Other notable poets whose work will carry Canadian literature into the next century include the following: Sharon Thesen (b. 1946), a poet who consistently produces outstanding verse; Richard Outram (b. 1930), whose Benedict Abroad (1998) won the City of Toronto Book Award for 1999; Dionne Brand (b. 1953), George Elliott Clarke (b. 1960) and Daniel David Moses (b. 1952), who use their considerable art as an expression of social conscience; Christian Bok (b. 1966), whose experimentation with poststructuralist ideas has opened up exciting possibilities for verse; Jan Zwicky (b. 1955), whose poems on music and philosophy reflect a contemporary trend towards greater erudition; and Stephanie Bolster (b. 1969), whose allusive poetic forms include a modern form of ekphrasis (roughly defined as poetry about visual art).
It is somehow fitting to reserve the last segment of this essay for a discussion of poets who do not fit easily into any of the traditions, trends or movements discussed so far. Anne Carson (b. 1950) is perhaps the most successful English-language poet Canada has ever produced. Her poetry does not resemble the work of any other Canadian writer, except perhaps that of Michael Ondaatje, whose imagery and phrasing the reader occasionally 'hears' in her lines. In June, 2000, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Grant, commonly called the 'Genius Prize', in recognition of her fine body of poetry and prose. In 1996 she received the Lannan Literary Award (US). A professor of classics at McGill University in Montreal, she earned her B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Toronto. Often taken to be an American poet because her work has been published and celebrated largely in the United States, Carson is an important exemplar of a cross-border culture between the US and Canada that is broadening and gaining in power. Increasingly, partly as a result of both a weakened literary regionalism and the absence of discernible poetic movements, Canadian poets are finding their influences in American and British writers, a trend that has on the whole strengthened Canadian poetry. When a poet of the first rank, such as Carson, decides to publish in the US, that country will not only readily embrace her but also claim her as one of its own.
Anne Carson's publications include Short Talks (1992), a collection of prose poems, the only book to date published in Canada; Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995); Glass, Irony and God (1995, poetry), a New Directions book, released as Glass and God in England, in the Cape Poetry series; the widely acclaimed Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay (1996, literary criticism); Autobiography of Red (1998, a novel in verse); Men in the Off Hours (2000, poetry and prose); Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan (2000, literary criticism).
Carson's poetry holds a central place in the contemporary canon partly because it exhibits a breadth of learning almost unprecedented in the work of her peers. Carson uses her education, as she should, to ponder what it means to feel. She re-sees her own experience through many, often dense allusions to classical myth, biblical history, metaphysics, modernist verse, nineteenth- and twentieth-century English fiction, and Christian theology (to cite only a partial list of the crucial intertexts). Her best poems recover a role for wisdom in verse, for humour and for faith.
One of her greatest works, a long poem titled 'The Glass Essay' (in Glass, Irony and God), is a kind of Yeatsian 'dialogue', written out of the tradition of the duality of soul and body. Carson's context is, as it must be in this kind of poem, personal — a lost relationship. Like all poems that leave one reeling, 'The Glass Essay' offers sensuous and bold surfaces that also call up unutterable subtexts. 'First Chaldaic Oracle', published in Men in the Off Hours, a collection that demonstrates the impressive range of Carson's formal skill as a poet, engages in word-play that lightly echoes John Ashbery's. Carson's poem showcases her ability to move in the undercurrents of the language, but some might say that accessibility succumbs in these swift-moving waters:
keep Praguing the eye of your soul and reach -
mind empty towards that thing you should know until you get it.
That thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is.
In its allusiveness and in its moral seriousness, Carson's work signals a new dimension in Canadian poetry observable in other very able poets writing at the turn of the millennium. Several of these poets teach in universities and, even if they do not intend to, write against the anti-intellectualism of the 1960s. A. F. Moritz (b. 1947) is one of the most accomplished and prolific of this group. His work has been featured in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, and he has held a Guggenheim Fellowship in poetry. American-born, Moritz has been living and writing in Canada since the 1970s; some of his best work has emerged in the last decade. His fine book Mahoning (1994), indebted to William Carlos Williams's Paterson, acknowledges — through its structure, echoes and parallels — not just Williams, but the role literary ancestry plays in the work of contemporary poets who read. Moritz's extended consideration of a river in his home state is a sophisticated dialectic on the tension between the natural world and the mechanized one that reflects the questioning of a late-century sensibility. Other titles by Moritz include The Ruined Cottage (1993), Phantoms in the Ark (1994) and Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1999).
John Reibetanz (b. 1944) and Jeffery Donaldson (b. 1960) are part of this group that is more likely to echo Elizabeth Bishop than Margaret Atwood, a group that has rekindled interest in traditional forms and in modernist forebears such as W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot. Reibetanz's faith and his deep reading in theology give him the authority in some of the poems of Near Finisterre (1996) to consider the moral failings of practising Christians in their neglect of those who suffer. Peremptory dismissals of religion abounded in the anti-establishment poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, making it difficult for devotional poetry to find an audience until late century, when the political movements that propelled a stillgestating canon finally dissipated. The late 1990s were a productive period for Reibetanz; among his titles published in this decade are Morning Watch (1995) and Midland Swimmer (1996).
Donaldson's verse is formalist in nature, his use of the tercet particularly effective. Once out of Nature (1991) and Waterglass (1999) show the influence of American writers such as James Merrill and Richard Howard in the reconciliation of a highly cultivated sensibility with the language of conversation. Urbane and affectionate references to modernist art and European cultural figures depart entirely from the concerns of earlier Canadian poets who faced the daunting task of establishing a local voice.
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