LET'S START WITH a declaration. Despite a certain familiarity with the English language I am at times totally lost in the byways of its traditions. As I perused these volumes, I recognized a few landmarks. Here a Black Mountain outcropping, there a Victorian panorama. Pausing to bathe, I smelled the lichenous odour of paleontology, saw the colourfully bloated corpse of Dada half submerged, the engulfing mists of imagisme drifting languorously downstream.
Let me begin with the fattest, which not surprisingly turns out to he an anthology: The New Long Poem Anthology (Coach House, 376 pages, $22.95 paper), edited by Sharon Thesen. The first thing I do when I open an anthology is scan the table of contents to find Out who's in it. In this case I also scanned the authors' biographies and lists of publications, noticing instantly that all of the 16 poets represented have visible connections with Coach House Press.
We seem to be talking about a school here, though Thesen (also a Coach House poet) does not say so in her introduction. Leaving matters somewhat vague, she makes reference to the "absences" that are "many and troubling," and can be explained by all sorts of things, including "limited space and the whims of taste." One can't help feeling that Thesen was asked to edit an anthology of long poems by Coach House affiliates, but that it was considered unnecessary or unwise to say so. One wonders about this approach, particularly given a certain tonal and stylistic homogeneity in the book.
This is not to say "bad anthology" in that tone of voice often used to scold a dog. I found myself at times moved by Bowering, impressed by Kroetsch, touched by Kiyooka, mystified by Webb, bored by Nichol, irritated and tickled in about equal measure by McFadden, erotically menaced by Marlatt, dramatically haunted by Hartog. But my impression was of reading the work of an unnamed movement, which anthologizes and critiques itself to the exclusion of all others. Is this a recipe for stagnation?
There were some low points. Christopher Dewdney is of course included, as the prophet of what Canadian poetry may look and sound like after a nuclear holocaust:
Metaphorical objects & models are precipitated by
synesthesia into mimics of the very adjuncts to
reality out of which human perception arranges itself.
("The Cenozoic Asylum ")
And Loins Dudek begins his selection with a promise he would never think of keeping:
or the vanity of writing poems,
I sit for hours without a word.
("At Lac en Coeur")
The cover image (of a rusted-out, beached freighter lying on its side at low tide in Dartmouth harbour) does have a strange resonance. I was struck (again) by the Canadian preoccupation with emptiness," "uneventfulness," and "aloneness," and by a certain earnest longwindedness in lyrically describing these states ad infinitum. Some "long poets" speak with forced tongues, and seem all fired up about the Void. Here's where a little more variety and soul-searching might have enabled this anthology to step outside the closed ranks of what often seems an interlocking directorate of poetic colleagues.
This leads me, as self appointed outsider, to speculate that the ante of poetic greatness and hegemony seems to be rising fast in what used to be called "our Country." Does this explain a certain stridency in the blurb department, as the millennium approaches with its grim threat of a final accounting?
Anne Walker's publisher calls her "One of the most talented of the new generation of poets," and "its finest imagist." Six Months Rent (Black Moss, 63 pages, $10.95 paper), her first book, is a kind of fragmented diary of Toronto life seen through the eyes of "an impoverished young writer." These poems have the feet of half developed Polaroids that rarely catch more than the surface. Young poets often need more than a few winters in the dark; this 9 collection struck me as premature, the poems somewhat voiceless and jumpy, a slide-show in need of a sound track.
Some older poets, too, could learn from a stay in the root cellar. In the House of No (Quarry, 90 pages, $10.95 paper) is Ken Norris's 17th hook, to which Louis Dudek has written a glowing introduction. For Dudek, "Personally, Ken Norris is the most important poet writing on the North American continent today, the most readable, the most meaningful."
Personally, reading this, I get the same feeling that comes over me when the police go on strike, or when I walk into the Metro and find no one occupying the glass booth - the feeling that, today tomorrow, anyone might jump the turnstile and win the Nobel Prize, and there would be nobody to turn to in protest. For me, personally, In the House of No triggers nightmares of an immensely cynical although outwardly pious world, in which people have totally forgotten the vast gulf separating poetry from the petty tediums of confession and complaint. In short, the world we live in.
Norris's work is self-explanatory:
1 have failed in my attempts
at everything, my life overcrowded
with emotion and useless junk.
Sometimes he uses the royal We, as if implicating an entire generation in his own romantic decline:
We are overly dramatic,
create high tragedy
where there is only life.
("The Drama of the Heart's Debate with Actuality 11)
Norris's poem-studded career has always been fuelled by relentless tenacity:
He went on
after it seemed
he must have ended his days,
it was him all over again.
("Ode to the Common Man")
In this translation of Neruda, Norris himself seems to surface as a composite proletarian, eternally journeying across some literary dust bowl: "a man without an inheritance, / without cattle or a coat of arms; / nothing distinguished him."
Norris has been compared -- in Books in Canada yet! - to "Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and William Wordsworth." Has everyone died and gone to California? Before we enter the Twilight Zone, let's press on to some other recent poetry titles. Were there any I liked? Yes, in fact several, and with them I'd like to praise the presses who are holding their critical centre even as literary standards seem to fluctuate like the stock market.
First, Paul Dutton's Visionary Portraits (Mercury Press, 79 pages, $9.95 paper) has a spare suggestiveness reminiscent of Philip Glass, its images growing through association and repetition. Of the nine long poems included here, I was most impressed by "Seven," with its well-drawn universe of human suffering-through-relationship bursting suddenly into visionary geometry:
the "I" a lone perceiver of
the snake's head hovering,
hypnotic stare unwarmed by tears,
the eyes unclosed,
the forked tongue flicking-from
the lipless mouth,
the structure known,
the seeing being more than what the eye perceives
Gerald Godin is something of a legend in Quebec, a Parti Quebecois member of the National Assembly since 1976, but, say the liner notes of Evenings at Loose Ends (Vehicule/Signal, 88 pages, $9.95 paper), "first and foremost" a poet. Well translated by Judith Cowan, the poems have a peculiar, stumbling grace and a humour that at times seems angelic. Reading Godin, one does not constantly glance at one's watch. For a politician, he is remarkably self-effacing. He writes as a man bent over a wound; perhaps he is speaking to his wound, but it's one we can all recognize.
Upon six months of snow
that was sticky
have 1 built my life
until the next blizzard
Naomi Guttman's Reasons for Winter (Brick, 64 pages, $9.95 paper) displays a gifted new poet with a fine musical sense, a clear eye, and a way of being true to both the emotion and irony of experience. She has created a warm poetic landscape, which she explores with precision, depth, and humour.
A group of sweatered men
plays cards in an opaque language. The sun
sets north and late this Sunday afternoon
barely picking out the dark tableaux
of History which hang above us
Nancy Holmes, J. E. Sorrell, and George Woodcock can be grouped together for several reasons. All seem a little outside the self proclaimed "mainstream" of poetry in Canada, all have produced collections with a historical slant, and all work with "personas"
In Down to the Golden Chersonese: Victorian Lady Travellers (Sono Nis, 114 pages, $9.95 paper), Nancy Holmes has written poetic travel diaries of five 19th-century women tourists. An award-winning writer with an impressive command of her material, Holmes creates characters who act, speak, and evolve through lyric fragments that have their own intensity and integrity.
J. E. Sorrell's In Broad Daylight (Mercury Publishing, 78 pages, $12 paper) spins out monologues, working within a dramatic tradition that appears tied to an earlier era. This is partly due to the rather rigid stanza structure suggestive of 19th-century narrative verse. For some reason, the publisher calls these poems "stories," and tells us that many of them are based on "intimate interviews." The poems themselves are more than competent, at times gripping. It's mainly the packaging that is odd.
George Woodcock's Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana and Other Poems (Quarry, 120 pages, $10.95 paper) takes the life of the Russian writer as the subject of its "series of epic fragments" Written as a dialogue between Tolstoy and his younger daughter Sasha, the book suffers a bit from a didactic tone. At times, Tolstoy quotes himself. "Happy families are all alike / every unhappy family / is unhappy in its own way." We learn that Tolstoy's family fell into the second category.
Woodcock is concerned with the spiritual journey through which the artist resolves the great conflicting forces (Art vs. Life, male vs. female) that both entrap and propel. There's a calm wisdom in this collection that shines most strongly in its middle section of lyric poems.