Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

What the Kids are Learning (#1 of 2)

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It’s the first week of September. The air is tightening up, assholes in CNE-sponsored fighter planes are buzzing my apartment in Parkdale at 8:30 in the morning, the city is as it wishes to be. And that great fall ritual of going back to school kicks into its frantic final movement. I took some time out from quietly hoping for a two-plane collision this morning to take a look at what a poetry-minded young adult could get him or herself into at Toronto’s two largest institutions of higher learning. Let’s review what the reading lists have to offer:

University of Toronto:

Ah, tradition. Ah, walking paths and mahogany and Peggy Atwood taking long strolls through the middle of soccer matches. The University of Toronto quite desperately wants to be Ontario’s, if not Canada’s, canonical hall of higher learning. So it should be incumbent upon them to provide their student body with opportunities to see the great works of our nation’s repertoire. However, the pickings this year promise to be as skinny as the jeans on this year’s crop of new freshmen males.

Introductory Level: The auspiciously titled “Literature for our Time” offers a little Eliot (Prufrock and Waste Land) but nothing Canuckian, which is fair enough. First year classes are about establishing contexts, and our literature has always been something of a reaction (to England, to America, to ourselves). Freshman year is for the colonial powers, most schools give that much up at least.

Middle Levels: The second-year course “Reading Poetry” is a little more involved than the name suggests. You apparently also have to complete assignments and sit exams. That poetry mostly comes from version four of the Norton Anthology, which has stopped many a dorm room door through the generations. The Canadian Lit Survey plays it safe with the inarguable (Lives of Girls and Women) as well as the common but inexcusable (Two Solitudes? Really?). One section does some individual poems, but I don’t see any collections. The poets studied trend old, banal, and initialled (Charles G.D. Roberts, as a representative example). Shout-outs to the cool kids are offered in the form of Coupland, Thom King, and Al Purdy.

One of the two sections of U of T’s “Contemporary Poetry” has been cancelled. I can only imagine this was because the stampede of registrations caused their computers to freeze up and destroy all the bookkeeping. The “Canadian Poetry” course has exactly who you would expect, and seems to have escaped the riots unscathed.

Advanced Levels: Nothing specific to the Canadian Poetry scene, unfortunately. Sinclair Ross gets a class. As do Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. Imagine being the U of T English major who powers through The Waste Land in their first week of year one, then throws it away thinking: Never Again!, only to arrive for their final seminar as a serious-minded senior and be presented with the exact same text. Mmm…canonical wisdom.

Overall Grade: I don’t know what I expected, but I expected more. I went to an underfunded university at the far edge of the country, took exactly three English courses, and still got exposure to the likes of Solie and Babstock. What’s stopping the University of Toronto from doing the same?

And why is The Waste Land an introductory text, exactly? I’ve read The Waste Land twenty times, and there’s still stuff in there I can’t quite wrap my head around. What is it about the instruction of poetry that makes us begin with poems that are as distant and foreign to their students as possible, and slowly move toward things like Al Purdy’s Rooms for Rent on Other Planets (English 354Y)? I’m not talking about degrees of difficulty, you understand. Al Purdy can occasionally be a very difficult poet, but he writes about a life far more coherent to a crowd of 1991 births than a Spenser or Keats or even Eliot or Pound.

That’s not to take away from the importance of establishing literature as a symptom of history, I understand that an appreciation of The Faerie Queen deepens one’s appreciation of Power Politics, but my experience is that the reverse is also true. I wouldn’t suggest we abandon a historical view of the study of poetry, but does that historical view demand a complete linear narrative? Can we not say, for example, that The Waste Land comes from a time of great ideological confusion in its author’s country, and so too does Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and Dionne Brand’s Inventory? In a curriculum that begins with contemporary Can-Con and moves to the transnational stalwarts, my fellow children of the 21st century are allowed a greater initial foothold. Compare a long poem built around the line “One year she sat at the television weeping” (Inventory) with one built around the line “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,” which, though part of something vital and engaging and incendiary, feels more like a destination than a point of departure.

We look at Canadian content in the classroom like it’s some sort of incursion by lesser works into a space set apart for the great names of the Western canon. This does a disservice both to our national literature and, not for nothing, to our city’s students. Canadian literature is an obvious part of a curriculum because the classes are filled with Canadians. And 21st century poetry is part of 21st century life. It’s a shame that books tailor-made for these introductory classes sit unconsidered in the library stacks, hoping for some bored underclassmen to happen by on a slow day and read them.

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That’s it for U of T. Sometime when I feel like it, we’ll do York. You hear that York? You’ve got maybe a week, tops, to hire me as a curriculum consultant, or your next!

Ah, petty tyrannies….
-Jake.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page