In 1927, the Canadian poet F.R. Scott could wax satirical about the state of the art in his country with the following:
Expansive puppets percolate self-unction
Beneath a portrait of the Prince of Wales.
Miss Crotchet's muse has somehow failed to function
Yet she's a poetess. Beaming she sails
From group to chattering group, with such a dear
Victorian saintliness, as is her fashion,
Greeting the other unknowns with a cheer--
Virgins of sixty who still write of passion.
Two generations later, Canadian poetry is no longer unknown, Victorian or imitative. It is, as is suggested by Margaret Atwood, "its own unique organism." This new anthology of Canadian poetry is a revised and updated version of "The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse," published in 1960 and edited by Canada's then preeminent anthologizer (and no mean poet) A.J.M. Smith (1902-1980). In the intervening years Canada experienced what is often described as a "cultural renaissance," and the product of that and more individualistic ones are here included for the first time.
Atwood acknowledges her debt to Smith, and indeed the greater part of her choices, especially from the earlier period, are also his. These begin with such 19th-century "versifiers" as Standish O'Grady and Alexander McLachlan who, Atwood writes in her introduction, are "read as we would read travel writers, for their reports of a strange country that later became our own."
American readers may be familiar with some of the older "chestnuts." This, for example, from John McCrae: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row . . ." Or: "There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold;/The Arctic trails have their secret tales/That would make your blood run cold . . ." (from "The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert Service). Some of Atwood's choices are made unrepentantly, partly, as she says, to propitiate "a collective ancestral ghost."
Atwood pays due obeisance to the grand old men and women of Canadian poetry who either preceded the aforementioned renaissance or lived blissfully and obliviously through it. The likes of the narrative poet E.J. Pratt (often described as the first of the moderns), the populist Dorothy Livesay, the multi-talented F.R. Scott (winner of two of Canada's Governor General's Awards, one for "Essays on the Constitution," another for "The Collected Poems of F.R. Scott"), and the indefatigable Earle Birney. The latter three poets, born before the Great War, are still soldiering on.
There is sufficient in this anthology to satisfy most poetical palates, from the Victorian to the romantic to the experimentalist. Americans can get a view from abroad in John Newlove's "America":
Even the dissident ones speak
as members of an Empire, residents
of the centre of the earth. Power
extends from their words
to all the continents and their modesty
is liable for millions . . .
Children of the '60s can revisit the gentle satire of Leonard Cohen (50 years old next year!) in "A Kite Is a Victim":
A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool.
Atwood, wisely, is wary of categorization. This is just as well in the case of Irving Layton, who has fashioned a substantial career and reputation with his talent to amuse and, no less, to outrage ("e'pater le bourgeois"). Atwood describes him as appearing on the scene "like a brightly coloured frangipani." This is from "Grand Finale":
Rather than howl and yowl like an ailing cat
on wet or freezing nights or mumble thin pieties
over a crucifix like some poor forsaken codger
in a rented room, I'll let the darkness come only when I
an angry and unforgiving old man yank the cloth of heaven
and the moon and all the stars come crashing down.
Canada's contemporary poets are well and ably represented by, among others: bp Nichol (one is reminded of e.e. cummings), Michael Ondaatje, Susan Musgrave and Atwood herself. One of the youngest poets included is Dale Zieroth, whose vision and craft attain an equally high standard.
The single failing of "The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse" is the exclusion of poetry written in French. A.J.M. Smith's 1960 edition broke ground--and opened minds--by including poetry in both English and French. Several other anthologies of contemporary poetry followed suit in the '60s, but the practice, sadly, has waned. Atwood attributes this omission to the cornucopia of poetry since 1960 as well as to her own "ignorance." Pshaw! A comparative look at the two main poetical traditions in Canada would have added immeasurably to the collection. Not to sample the likes of Emile Nelligan, Gaston Miron and Gilles Vigneault, leaves the neophyte reader less than well versed in Canadian poetry. (The intrepid may wish to seek out John Glassco's "The Poetry of French Canada in Translation" 1970 or cut their teeth on the original poems.)
In her thoroughly interesting, always lucid and often witty introduction, Margaret Atwood muses on the nature of poetry north of the 49th parallel. She says that "geology and archeology are far more dominant as motifs than is botany: the images of permafrost and granite bedrock, blizzard, mountain, and glacier are repeatedly set against the state of being human." So it is, the land having put its stamp on all the arts in Canada.
On the whole, "The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English" is a welcome compendium. It shows Canadian poetry to be, as Atwood claims, "spiky, tough, flexible, various, and vital and its own." It will delight and educate those who read it.