Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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In my last post, I wrote about our tendency in this country to abandon (or even scorn) our cultural history. It's a sin that becomes even more unforgivable when the history forgotten is still within people's living memory. For instance, I have noticed that members of my generation, even those of us predisposed to talk about poetry, generally don't discuss Canadian poetry before 1960. To clarify, we will talk about a lot of poetry written prior to 1960, just not the stuff that was written in Canada. And we will talk a lot about the Canadian poets who first came to prominence in the 1960s, people like Gwendolyn MacEwen, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, et al. Maybe because they are, for the most part, still alive and still writing important works, the venerable elder statesmen and stateswomen of Canadian letters; they have certainly earned this distinction and our attention. And maybe also, on a purely practical level, because of the availability of their work. Canadian publishing, as an industry, developed rapidly after the 1950s, and many of the books published then are still available, if not still in print, then readily available from the used and antiquarian trade, especially through online channels like ABE.

But what about the poets before 1960, those trailblazers who first brought modernism to Canadian literature? Perhaps the growth of our publishing industry after the 1950s has lead to the mistaken belief that our literature didn't deserve such growth beforehand. But this isn't true, of course. We had marvellous Modernist poets in Canada. Of this generation, Irving Layton remains unavoidably influential, and E.J. Pratt foundational. And yes, Earle Birney still comes up quite a bit, and P.K. Page, Dorothy Livesay, and a handful of others are still much admired. And many poets from this era still carry strong name recognition -- poets like A.J.M Smith, F.R. Scott, and Ralph Gustafson -- even if their work is now largely unread, even by poetry enthusiasts. But for the most part, this generation of Canadian poets has been unduly neglected and forgotten. What of Raymond Knister, W.W.E. Ross, and R.A.D. Ford? What of Anne Marriott, Patrick Anderson, or Kay Smith, whose poem "Words for a Ballet" begins:

Wilderness is not a desert, wilderness is mirrors.
When the sun burns the glass the image performs,
Sun-worshipper makes an arch of hands, flows a river,
And conjures in columns of bone white birds in storms.

Kay Smith's poems, the four of them that I now know, are marvellous, at once strange and intimate. I might never have read them, and loved them, had it not been for Brian Trehearne of McGill University. He has edited a indispensable new anthology called Canadian Poetry: 1920 to 1960 which chronicles the fascinating development of modernist poetry in Canada over four decades marked chiefly by geopolitical turbulance and extrodinary scientific and industrial development. Published for the spring season by McClelland & Stewart, Trehearne's anthology arrives just when my own curiosity about Canadian Modernist writing has peaked. According to McClelland & Stewart: "The poets in this anthology, all of whom matured creatively between 1920 and 1960, considered it one of their primary obligations to modernize Canadian writing, to bring the country's poetry out of late Romantic stasis after the Great War into a fertile and combative response to the cultural, political, technological, philosophical, religious, and economic conditions of the modern era. In their common reaction against Romanticism, and in their commitments to modern poetry's possibilities of profound newness, the poets in this volume make up one great movement in Canada's cultural history."

If you need more to convince you, here is the stunning concluding stanza to Patrick Anderson's poem "Boy in a Russian Blouse" written in 1946:

Why does the icy silence that folds your torso
go with the making bold of the legs, the crude
hand snap? And why, Timofyey,
are you so manic like this and so much a bride,
so awkwardly human, O brutal and half-a-girl?

Canadian Poetry: 1920 to 1969 is brimming with such poetry, torqued with linguistic freshness, imagistic vigor, and psychological depth. Alongside the small handful of poems you might already be familiar with, this book offers so much more, a fresh look at an all-to-often overlooked period of our literary past, and I am thrilled to be reading it.

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.

Paul Vermeersch

Paul Vermeersch is the author of The Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland & Stewart, 2010) and three other collections of poetry. He is also the editor of The I.V. Lounge Reader and The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology.

Go to Paul Vermeersch’s Author Page