canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation
edited by Tim Bowling
Nightwood Editions, 2002

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook 

Poetry seems always to be down at the police station confessing its crimes and promising to behave better in the future. - Sharon Thesen

This is an important book, not just for Canadian poets and poetry readers, but particularly for students and studies (both historical and critical) of Canadian literature; there aren’t enough such collections. Thirty-four poets are involved in these seventeen interviews: Tim Bowling has wisely asked younger poets to interview established poets. While each interview focuses on the elder poet’s work and views, the younger nonetheless briefly speak of their own work occasionally, as a point of comparison or to contextualize a question. Who is speaking to whom is certainly significant to readers, and the following is a complete list (interviewee on the left, interviewer on the right):

  • P.K. Page & Christine Wiesenthal
  • Michael Ondaatje & David O’Meara
  • Don McKay & Ken Babstock
  • Patrick Lane & Russell Thornton
  • Sharon Thesen & Helen Humphreys
  • Don Coles & Stephanie Bolster
  • Roo Borson & Julie Bruck
  • Jan Zwicky & Anne Simpson
  • Dennis Lee & Brian Barlett
  • Lorna Crozier & Elizabeth Philips
  • Margaret Avison & Sally Ito
  • Tim Lilburn & Shawna Lemay
  • Miriam Waddington & Barbara Nickel
  • Eric Ormsby & Carmine Starnino
  • Margaret Atwood & Norm Sacuta
  • Phyllis Webb & Jay Ruzesky
  • Don Domanski & S.D. Johnson
  • For the most part, the poets reside in, or originate from Western Canada, though Bowling has tried to cover a fair amount of the country, and to represent the genders equally. Who’s not in the collection is always a vexing question with anthologies of any kind; editors and publishers do have to be pragmatic. I find two omissions, however, particularly striking: Robert Bringhurst - clearly a major Canadian poet and mythologist, and from the West; and George Elliott Clarke, who has been writing the most original, passionate, intelligent and important poetry long enough. (Perhaps the argument there is that Clarke is too ‘middle-aged’ and falls in-between the old/young division). Other significant Canadian poets are not here -- readers no doubt will make their own lists; the point being not that Bowling hasn’t done his job, but that there is room for another such book.

    Bowling has, intelligently, asked each interviewer to include in their conversation the following three questions, exactly; (the first question is partially a tribute to Purdy, whose death in 2000 motivated Bowling’s project):

    1. In his poem “The Dead Poet,” Al Purdy, speculating on the origins of his poetry, asks “how else explain myself to myself/ where does the song come from?” Do you have any explanation of where your voice came from, of why you became a poet?
    2. How important have reviews, awards and other honours been to your feelings about your work? Is competition healthy or unhealthy for a poet?
    3. How have your feelings about poetry, the reading and writing or if, changed since you were in your twenties?

    Much more, of course, is discussed in these interviews than the editor’s requisite three questions: politics, religion, feminism, rhyme, rhythm, Canada (it’s landscape and culture), etc. And this is where Where the Words Come From is disappointing and frustrating: there should be an index. It is precisely an index which would make the collection most useful -- and I repeat that one of the best uses of the book is in the classroom; it is the book’s educational value that will preserve it longest. Perhaps creating an index was beyond the budget of the publishers (and the patience of the editor), but the recompense is the book’s utility and longevity. Institutions preserve and conserve, and, should such a book find its way onto a university or college reading list (and why not?), it will stay in print and keep selling. 

    There certainly was, and to a lesser degree still is a bias against academia among poets and writers in this country (though the opposite is sometimes the case as well) -- the argument being that academia kills literary creativity. Since most poets and writers now earn a livelihood from such institutions, it is time to get over this prejudice and to recognize the vital role of the academy in literary culture. (In fact, it would have been interesting if Bowling’s requisite question # 2, about the effect of publicity, were supplemented with a question about work - about the poet’s “day job” -- most often teaching --, how it influences his creative work, hinders or helps.)

    Bowling himself points out “how often the idea of silence comes up” in the collection:

    It perhaps comes as no surprise to poets, but might to others, that the act of writing poetry is so often informed by the idea of not writing poetry. After all, as most [of these] poets readily concede, silence is perfect in a way that language never can be. Yet it is the poet’s joy and curse to be forever seeking a companion perfection in words for the purity of silence.

    (Bowling’s latest collection of poetry, appearing at about the same time as this anthology of interviews, is entitled Darkness and Silence.) There is also much discussion of spirituality and religion. Margaret Avison, for example, says “I’ve often used poetry to ‘tease’ out meaning from scripture”, but points out that she couldn’t accept and be accepted by “the Lord” unless “I threw in the poetry along with myself”. As her interviewer, Sally Ito, worries, “I think that the topic of selfhood in Christ and selfhood through writing is a constant source of conflict for some believers.” (168-170) Patrick Lane, after describing his years as a poete maudite, argues, “Of all binding human concerns the spiritual is the greatest because it strives to take us to the past and future of our mortality, that which lies beyond us. The transformation the poet reaches for rests in language and its ability (combined with craft) to surround that mystery, not explaining it, but articulating its existence.” (73) His partner, Lorna Crozier, develops the analogy between poetry and faith:

    It was John Berger who I first heard say that poetry is closer to prayer than it is to prose. ... In poetry we are always addressing someone, but not a particular lover (although it sometimes sounds like it) or an ideal audience. As in prayer, we’re addressing the invisible, someone who doesn’t answer back. We try to speak the ineffable. Which, again, is what prayer does. As well, as in any ritualized language poetry convinces and moves us through its music, its repetitions. At the heart of poetry is something very primitive and close to magic. I believe that poetry really does change things, or at least hold onto things that would otherwise disappear. (152)

    Carmine Starnino sees

    great opportunities in [religious] myths and rituals. Much of the challenge in writing Credo, for example, was finding ways to appropriately translate the experience and vocabulary of those religious convictions. Most importantly, I wanted to write poems that could credit the instinctive religiosity of working with words, the notion of writing as worship.

    To which Eric Ormsby replies:

    I too believe that there’s a sacramental sense in my poetry, and I hope my language exhibits that quality: that of words vibrating over many octaves and possessing transformative power. I believe quite strongly in what Baudelaire called ‘correspondences’, the conviction that things are not only what they appear to be in themselves but that they correspond to something else, either from within the mind of within another realm. (199-200)

    Tim Lilburn and Don Domanski are particularly loquacious on the subjects of religion and poetry, both emphasizing the elegiac -- the sense of loss, sorrow, silence at the heart of the poetic and religious enterprises.

    The range of answers to Bowling’s three questions is interesting, as are the points of agreement: with some qualifications, the established poets in the book answered the second part of question two, about the influence of reviews and awards, in the negative, some adamantly. This won’t change the industry, but it may assure younger poets. Certainly the universal advice to ‘just keep writing’ and to ‘keep the faith’ is welcome, and the warning important -- writing to a contest or award is prostituting one’s Muse. This doesn’t mean poets shouldn’t be ambitious, but, as Richard Sanger has said, poets “should be ambitious for poetry.” And pragmatic; thus most poets admit reviews, awards and honours certainly can help. “The problem is,” says Sharon Thesen (whom I found to be one of the most articulate and intelligent poets in the collection),

    there either aren’t enough prizes to go around to properly recognize deserving poets or the few prizes that are awarded are... compromised by procedural, institutional, fashionable or political machinations. ... The problem is when a few prizes and awards become the only alternative to obscurity, penury and a sense of failure. What writers and poets could really use are more, and more generous, private, institutional and corporate endowments and grants. ... Writers and publishers shouldn’t have to live or die according to the whims of juries who all too often are either inexperienced or over-experienced. In the end, a jury is often really awarding itself by choosing the standard-bearer of its collective taste, or by forestalling the negative judgments of posterity. I like to think of literary prizes as gifts, wonderful surprises coming out of nowhere - not a writing goal. (84)

    Tim Lilburn says: “A perceptive review can make a great difference -- you feel heard. Friendships are far more important; what a handful of close readers make of my work... is more significant for me than larger, public recognition. I believe the books, in the end, find whom they need to find.” (183)

    Question three, about how a poet’s views on poetry change over time, is interesting (not just from the point of view of personal development, but for the historical perspective on Canadian literature it provides), though few of the answers are. Either the poet sees no essential change or, generally, an evolution from passion to precision (inspiration to perspiration). Michael Ondaatje, however, sketches a broader context for the question:

    One of the things that has happened is that all the arts have become much more prominent in terms of the media. Which is a good and bad thing. ... [T]here’s a sense that a writer has to hit it out of a ballpark right away... In comparison, when I began writing in the sixties, I think there really was a sense that you could fall down and it wouldn’t make much difference.... So there was that kind of nurturing that existed at that time in the late sixties and early seventies.” (40-41)

    Numerous poets refer to the genial, nurturing community among writers during this pivotal time in the history of Canadian literature when there was a communal sense of a national project. Younger writers have no doubt listened to this talk of the “good old days” with impatience and perhaps bitterness: the literary scene in the country today often seems chopped into competing, closed cliques. As Sharon Thesen says:

    The poetry world as I see it has become more fragmented but probably less polarized [between “lyric” and “language” poets] than it was ten or fifteen years ago. Today the divisions seem more between the haves and the have-nots, the celebrities and the pre- or post-celebrities, the famous and the obscure. ... Not just poetry but the whole of literary culture now seems to be mired in the machinery of marketing, promotion, prizes, awards and brand recognition. And not only is poetry the product, so is the poet. You can’t be published even in an anthology anymore without a photograph being attached..... It’s not even the publisher’s fault: to survive, they have to compete in a marketplace more and more devoted to image. [Unlike in the good old days, the few] poets who do travel around seem to be handcuffed to agents and publicists..... Another thing that hasn’t changed is my uneasiness about “being” a poet... Only in Europe and occasionally in Montreal have I not been embarrassed to admit that I write poems. Because poetry is still associated with emotionality, irrationality and the merely oppositional.... In Canada too it is expected that a poet will, or should, graduate into fiction writing. (79-80)

    (The relationship between poetry -- or more specifically a poet -- and prose is often mentioned: as Christine Wiesenthal, remarks “it’s a disturbing trend. Poetry is often quite unselfconsciously spoken of as one stop on the way to the Holy Grail of fiction.” (27))

    Obviously, much is said about Canadian culture in this anthology, specifically the role of poetry and criticism in the articulation and development of that culture. Asked if “there’s a Canadian identity to our poetry”, Eric Ormsby (an American immigrant) answers Carmine Starnino (second generation Italian immigrant), “Not yet... a true sense of the land itself [is missing ] ... I don’t find very many English Canadian poets doing, or even attempting, this -- to grasp the immensity of the Canadian earth in a visionary way.” (211). Ormsby does recognize efforts by E.J. Pratt, Bruce Taylor, Tim Lilburn, and Norm Sibum -- but not Al Purdy (whom many would defend on precisely these grounds) whose work Ormsby says is “too generic”. (What about our songwriters? Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, Stompin’ Tom Connors, for example, certainly seem to have a grip on the myth and distinctions of the land.) Don McKay, however, says his discovery of voice came as a “breakthrough ... with the love of landscape” (49), that in his poetic project he is “trying to take in both the physical landscape and the cultural landscape... and the cultural history of the natural landscape” (52-53). McKay goes on to discuss his book, Apparatus as

    an attempt to focus on those elements of the natural world that we’ve claimed, and made tools of. I made a very conscious effort to do that, and to look at landscape that has been made into apparatus, or even worse. So apparatus... is wilderness that we have relieved of its anonymity, its autonomy, and made ours, owned for the life of that object... I was also interested in this because of environmental devastation and my sense that it stems partly from our capacity to own tools permanently, to extinguish their wilderness. The thing will be ours forever. A manic ownership. (52)

    Lorna Crozier, too, discusses the influence of landscape on her work and “prairie literature” generally:

    that stark, clear openness ... represents something inside me... [I]t’s not empty space that we’re seeing. A lot of people think of it that way, because it’s made up of so many absences. But the openness of the prairies feels like space just before something’s about to happen, to announce itself.... This place makes you feel: there’s a presence, almost palpable, but it’s a mystery, it’s ineffable... Here we see the distance and we’re not sure what it means. We know it’s not our future, it’s not even a destination in the physical sense, it’s not the place we’ll end up, but it takes us out of ourselves in a funny way. ... On the prairies we live in a great nothing that is something, and we arrive at meaning through absence rather than through presence. (147-149)

    Miriam Waddington complements Crozier’s point: the prairie “teaches a good lesson -- honesty. There are no barriers to seeing what’s there. The lesson of the prairies is honesty, openness, clear vision.” (195) (It would be very interesting to study the relationships between literature and landscape in Canada in all their specificity because landscape has such an obvious and profound influence on poets).

    Several poets slag the superficiality of our culture, specifically reviewing: Christine Weisenthal, commenting on “well-publicized” awards like the Griffin, says, “And yet poetry, on the whole, as an artistic practice... is ever more obscure in the wider culture.” P.K. Page responds that while “people turn out in droves to hear” such readings,

    I don’t think half the audience is remotely interested in poetry; I think it’s a sense of getting something for nothing, or a manifestation of the aimlessness that seems to have overtaken our culture, or the hope of titillation. You only have to say the word ‘fuck’ and you bring the house down!... And then there are open mics where people get up and read stuff that should never have been written in the first place.... Rather than developing an ear for poetry, this practice diminishes, reduces it. It may well contribute to the place of poetry in our society. It doesn’t treat it as a holy thing, which at best, I think it is. (27)

    Domanski argues “There is a strong leaning towards the accessible poem, the quick read, not just in Canada but across the English-speaking world. There’s a real laziness to explore language, to take chances, to leap across meaning and discover new conveyances to deepen our ties with the world.” (249) Tim Lilburn concurs, “Our culture is anti-erotic, anti-philosophical ..., anti-metaphoric: it loves it when poetry is modest in its ambition.” (179) Michael Ondaatje says, “poetry might be more popular but we are less educated about it. Much of the criticism is appallingly facile, even in our serious journals -- more involved with quick judgments, a rave or a dismissal...” (40). Asked by Carmine Starnino, “is there an artisanal duty in writing criticism?”, Eric Ormsby answers in the affirmative,

    Writing criticism is important because the standards by which works of art are judged today are appallingly low. Good poetry can’t flourish where bad standards prevail. Look at what garners acclaim, the squalor of the work, the pretension and sham! If we had good criticism we might have better poetry. Yet most reviews in North America are too easy: they tend to praise when they should criticize. Worse, Canada doesn’t have a large enough number of good venues for publishing essays and reviews. Still the chief problem here is lack of a good critical sense, or the fear of exercising it. If anybody comes along and is critical of a work -- as you yourself have often done -- it causes consternation, because people are not used to it. But there should be consternation; unthinking praise is not only meaningless, it is harmful.

    Ormsby then proceeds to comment on the work of Canadian poets, like Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane: “Their work didn’t impress me. The constant muting of the voice, the smug understatements, the obsessive use of the plain unadorned phrase, was unappealing. It seemed as though most Canadian poets were refugees from some American poetic movement of fifties [sic].” Elsewhere, Lorna Crozier has a tit for that tat:

    If the quality of reviewing in Canada had kept pace with the quality of the poetry, then maybe reviews would make a difference to one’s writing and enrich the work to be written next... I’ve noticed a particular nastiness in the newspaper reviewers in the last couple of years or so. Solway and Starnino in the Post, Fitzgerald in the Globe. They don’t write insightful criticism that informs and enlightens. Instead their “reviews” are personal attacks on writers, full of the vitriol that can only come from jealousy and bitterness. That kind of small-minded review is detrimental to sustaining a rich literary environment. It destroys rather than enhances. Nothing good comes from it, including good poetry from the reviewers themselves. (155).

    The first of Bowling’s requisite questions, about the origin of the poet’s voice, inevitably involves a variety of responses; more significantly, such discussions lead to attempts to define ‘voice’. It is generally acknowledged that what is meant by a poet’s “voice” is his/her uniqueness, or ‘signature’, deriving from the interface between ‘tradition and the individual talent’ (and biographical experience), if you will, involving influences, form, technique, linguistic knowledge, ideology, psychology, family history etc. A poet’s “voice “ is like a person’s “character”. A distinctive voice is what readers listen for (or have been taught to listen for) and poets most strive to attain. A voice is sellable, soothing in its familiarity (though the voice may be anxious, annoying etc.) This apparently universally recognized value seems, however, at odds with another “rule” of poetic thumb -- diversity and range: for surely it is at least theoretically true that one test of a poet is his or her ability to effectively exploit the numerous resources of poetry (forms, persona, tones, etc.) all of which can alter aspects of a ‘voice’, if not change that voice completely (consider Yeats and his ‘masks’, for example).

    Dennis Lee says voice is “rhythm. And on top of that, I mean the feints and twiddles and full-tilt crescendos you get when the level of diction keeps dancing around.” (133) (As evidenced in this snippet of dialogue, Lee clearly has a unique voice.) Lorna Crozier, speaking of her background of working class poverty, says voice results from being “driven to put something into language that we haven’t found there before.” (141) Eric Ormsby describes voice as “a strange sort of talking in my head that had nothing to do with my speaking voice and which demanded an almost trance-like attention on my part.... [W]riting entailed the utmost attention followed by a struggle to transcribe that innermost voice. By ‘transcribe’ I mean finding a style in which to reproduce that interior summons literally.” (199) Thesen, again, is astute on the subject:

    Creative writing students are often enjoined to try to find their own voice. This seems to me to be inviting them to develop habits of articulation that may be successful in a creative writing class situation but which may come to haunt them later. Young poets should be interested in poetic diction, not their own voice. Their own voice already exists and will emerge naturally, but most often it is the weakest part of the equation.... In poetry I like, I’m always aware of a spirit or ghost or signature that is unique to that poet, but when I sense that voice becoming the dominating ego of the poem, I’m turned off.... Voice has to be both there and not there, a phantom. It’s where voice (as desire) meets text (as constraint) that the possibilities of something wonderful lie.”

    Asked by Helen Humphries, “What drives a poem then, if not voice?”, Thesen answers:

    an intuition about language which moves along a stream of rhythm, narrative or image. By ‘language’ I mean whatever is being generated in my mind as it meets or sense a sort of ghost-language that surrounds me. ‘Voice’ here is really nothing but the management of the complications. I try as I’m writing to stay just ahead of the words I’m writing down, otherwise I get pulled into controlling, evaluating, etc. (76-77)

    Jan Zwicky and Anne Simpson -- whose dialogue is one of the more intellectually rigorous in the book --discuss the use of “polyphony” in poetry (referring to the work of Robert Bringhurst as well). Don Domanski, whose responses are also particularly interesting, says, “I don’t think a poet’s voice ever attains fruition. That tongue can never be realized. If it did the poetry would stop... [V]oice is always in a state of becoming, the only thing ‘authentic’ is that becoming.” Domanski’s comments on voice are an appropriate final word here: “Poems continue ‘becoming’ through the reader... [acquiring] other lives, other points of view and other views of being. The reader is always the second birthplace of the poem.” (251)

    Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's poetry editors.







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