Canadian Poetry

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Running Horse Canadian Poetry
written by Huntly Kay Gordon
The Pervert
From The Canadian Forum, March 1921, p. 178



Despite flattering reviews of "excellent and truly Canadian poetry", English Canada fails to produce a distinctive verse of literary value. New volumes appear continually and are, for the most part, as quickly relegated to their deserved limbo. Nothing depresses the Canadian lover of poetry more than these exhibitions of verse making and he soon learns to despair of finding a poet who will picture for him characteristic scenes and people with that sure touch which calls them up, living and vivid, before his mind's eye. Only by the reality of its impression can poetry succeed, and seldom does Canadian poetry achieve reality.

I do not here speak of the French poetry of Quebec, the habitant songs of Drummond and others, nor of the unauthored songs of camp and trail. That they have a true and distinctive spirit and poetic merit I am ready to believe, but am unfitted to judge. It is the verses of known and English speaking authors that are so profoundly disappointing that one is tempted to conclude that they are neither poetry nor Canadian. They leave the poetry lover more unmoved the more he delights in their subjects. There is something fundamentally wrong in such poetry.

Nevertheless we have poets of decided, though not of outstanding ability, — Lampman at the head. Bliss Carman, Duncan Campbell Scott, Marjorie Pickthall, and many would name others. Lampman and the Canadians as a whole feel deeply the distinctive beauties of prairie and mountain, bushland and farm, and love their people and their ways. But one sometimes wonders whether they do not "see, not feel, how beautiful they are", so insincere sounds the sincerity of their praise, and so unreal is their description. Even their most personal subjective verses fail to touch the reader home. It is in this insincere, this unconvincing expression that one must seek the fault that destroys our claim to a distinctive poetry.

Lampman is perhaps the truest singer and the most Canadian of our poets. He knew the wide waters and islands of Temagami when it was scarcely heard of in southern Ontario. The silent rivers and the tangled bush of the North filled him with that [179] sense of beauty which struggles for poetic expression, while many of his poems give us vividly enough pictures of the exceeding heat and cold, drought and storm, and the changing labours of Ontario farm life. They call up the mental vision, but from a prolonged reading of his poetry we turn away disheartened. His expression is continually marred by words and phrases which recall customs and scenes as foreign to us as are the subjects of his "classical" verses. For instance, the really fine poem "In November" has these lines on the dead mulleins in a typical bush clearing:

"Not plants at all they seemed to me,
But rather some spare company
Of hermit folk, ..."

The one word "hermit" destroys the unity of impression of the poem. It is expressive of medieval Europe, but in Canada there "ain't no such animile." This criticism may sound petty and cavilling, but the use of such words demonstrates that Canadians have not a sure native touch in their expression. Had there existed a sound tradition when Lampman began to write, or had he been great enough to found and follow scrupulously one of his own, he might have achieved much. As it was he found no well worn road for his guidance and no Burns has arisen to deepen and correct the path left by this straying Ferguson.

If this false Canadianism is true of Lampman, it is much more depressingly so of others. In a short essay there is no room for discussion author by author, but The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, our best anthology, may be taken as a fair representation of Canadian verse. Its introduction announces as the standard of selection truly Canadian verse of high literary quality. Yet, though the majority of its 251 poems deal with Canadian themes, a half-dozen at most give delight over familiar things revivified by the writer's insight. The rest are for the most part heavy, solemn, and sometimes drearily Shelleyesque. One asks for bread here and receives a stone.

Take "The Whitethroat" for instance. No birdsong is sweeter or more characteristic of our southern spring and northern summer than that of this little sparrow. You may hear his sad and lonely call any evening in the Georgian Bay, ringing out from some pine-darkened channel among the islands, and to many he is the very voice of the North. Here is what Theodore Harding Rand does with him:

"Shy bird of the silver arrows of song.
That cleave our northern air so clear,
Thy notes prolong, prolong,
I listen, I hear:
'I - love — dear — Canada,
Canada, Canada.'
O plumes of the pointed dusky fir,
Screen of a swelling patriot heart,
The copse is all astir,
And echoes thy part! . . ."

And so on. No picture of the silent Northland will arise at this. Take also "The Canadian Herd Boy". As a youngster I have fetched the cows from the river bank through bush and rail-fenced fields but find nothing familiar or real in Mrs. Moodie's verses except one word, "Cobos", a somewhat unhappy member of this Scott-like poem.

To repeat, there is nothing more Canadian than these subjects and nothing less Canadian than their treatment. The same is true of the great mass of our poetry. The truth is there is scarcely material for a pretentious Canadian anthology. If a new one of any worth is printed it must be extremely small and exclusive, including perhaps only fifty poems. Everything, however, is to be gained by waiting till there is a larger body of writers and a higher standard of work.

The cause of unreality in Canadian verse is not far to seek, though its cure may not be so simple. Lampman gives us the key to the weakness of the rest. His finest verses often failed through a false or exotic expression. Those who followed him, far from avoiding his error, have in many cases exaggerated it grossly. It is scarcely necessary to mention the authors of Scottish Canadian Poets. Despite the theory that the Canadian is more akin in his sentiments to the Scot than to the Englishman it is obvious to the most casual reader that these verses are neither Scottish nor Canadian in sentiment or expression. They serve, however, to point the faults of authors writing in English. These might with equal justice be called English-Canadian poets and likewise their work is neither English nor Canadian. Such expressions as "bosky dell" and "grove" are as foreign to us as are "corrie" and "shaw" and yet expressions such as these, descriptive of typically English scenery are the stock in trade of our poets. For the most part they ignore the native for English expressions, and those by no means the purest and most universal.

This outland phraseology is all the more obvious because we seem to set ourselves almost consciously to write on native subjects. One almost expects to find "Made in Canada" on the last page so direct and obvious is the treatment. But one looks in vain for that loving familiarity by which British writers take the distinctive characteristics of their countrysides in the stride their poems. A strange corollary of this is found in our subjective poems. The charm of a vast number of English lyrics of this nature can be traced to the well-nigh unconscious use of familiar, almost local, sights or sounds to interpret the mood. Such a deep knowledge of Canadian life does not seem as yet to run deeply and unconsciously through the being of our poets and their work is the loser by much charm and simplicity, and above all by that reality and concrete value without which no school can prosper for long.

We come to the conclusion of all this unpleasant [180] fault-finding. Before a poetry can achieve universality it must paradoxically attain nationality. All countries producing great poetry have left their indelible stamp upon it and Canada as yet is content to derive her forms and expression from England. I do not infer that there should or can be any drastic break with English literary traditions; our language is basically the same and the example of those who are most akin to us must be our safest guide. Yet, if we are to produce poetry of any value, we must shun derivative expression and sentiment as we would the devil and follow our characteristic bent as eagerly as we are learning to do in other spheres. We have our own expressions and names for the features of the countryside ("bush" is as poetic as "grove") and above all we have a characteristic spirit. We must learn to use and purify them, and develop a native tradition, or die to literature.

Huntly K. Gordon