Poetry in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Poetry in English

Addressing the poets of the classical, European tradition in Quebec Hill (1797), J. MacKay asks: "Ye who, in stanzas, celebrate the Po,/Or teach the Tyber in your strains to flow,/How would you toil for numbers to proclaim/The liquid grandeur of St. Lawrence' Stream?"
Pratt, E.J.
Poet E.J. Pratt, c 1930 (courtesy David Pitt)
Layton, Irving, Video
Poet Irving Layton speaks out in an episode of the CBC-TV debate program Fighting Words, broadcast on 9 December 1956 (courtesy CBC-TV).
Purdy, Al (II)
Poet Al Purdy (photo by Sheldon Grimson).
Dennis Lee, poet
Lee's works try to create poems rooted in the words and activities of their everyday lives (photo by Susan Perly/Macmillan of Canada).
George Bowering, author
Bowering's over 40 books are marked with a witty sense of play (photo by Bliss Swift/courtesy Penguin Books Canada Ltd).
Earle Birney, poet
Birney's poetry explores the resources of language with passionate and playful curiosity (courtesy Plum Studios/Bruce Cole).

Addressing the poets of the classical, European tradition in Quebec Hill (1797), J. MacKay asks: "Ye who, in stanzas, celebrate the Po,/Or teach the Tyber in your strains to flow,/How would you toil for numbers to proclaim/The liquid grandeur of St. Lawrence' Stream?" Besides pointing to a major concern of pre-Confederation poetry - the representation in European verse forms of the Canadian physical and social landscapes - MacKay's question anticipates similar concerns in much later Canadian poetry, suggesting the continuity that exists through poetry written in Canada from the earliest to the most recent times.

Pre-Confederation Poetry

It is convenient to divide pre-Confederation poetry, somewhat arbitrarily but justifiably, into two chronological categories: poetry written before 1825 and that written between 1825 and 1867. Before 1825 the verse written in what would become Canada (primarily in Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) was largely dominated by neoclassical models. Among the major influences on the poetry of this period were the heroic couplets of English poets Alexander Pope and Oliver Goldsmith and the blank verse of James Thomson's The Seasons (1726-46), a poem with evident application to a land with Canada's seasonal variations. Whereas the relatively fluid and continuous form of blank verse seems to have been a fitting vehicle for such subjects as the sublime spectacle of Niagara Falls and the "liquid grandeur" of the St Lawrence, the rational order of the heroic couplet was a formalistic means by which the early poets affirmed and reflected a sense of governance in their environment and in themselves.

After 1825 the influence of romanticism (which had been present in Canada earlier, just as neoclassicism would continue to be felt later) came increasingly to be evident in Canadian poetry. The result was that from the 1820s writers turned to such poets as Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley and Thomas Moore for their models. Frequently employed forms now were ottava rima (for satire), the Spenserian stanza (for framing picturesque scenes and momentary insights) and the sonnet. Also in evidence after 1825 were the romantic narrative and the "dramatic poem" (Adam Kidd, "Preface," The Huron Chief and Other Poems, 1830), genres that were appropriate to the depiction of emotionally and spiritually complex issues, conflicts and quests.

By 1864 there was enough Canadian verse in various forms to enable Edward Hartley Dewart (although ignoring material from before 1825) to produce Selections from Canadian Poets (1864) - the first anthology of Canadian poetry in English and the only one before Confederation. The anthology's division into poems "Sacred and Reflective," "Descriptive and National" and "Miscellaneous" (a category that includes pieces entitled "Heroes," "Childhood," "Twilight," "Taapookaa - A Huron Legend," "GIimpses of Highland Superstitions" and "The Beech-Nut Gatherer") indicates the emphasis and content of pre-Confederation poetry.

Practically all the verse of this period was written by amateur poets, men and women who did not attempt to make their living as writers but wrote to occupy "a few leisure hours" (Thomas Cary, "Preface," Abram's Plains, 1789). Like Cary, these amateurs usually produced only one poem of note that they published in a newspaper, as a pamphlet or in a slim volume with "Other Poems." Yet the recreational products of these amateurs were not merely belletristic amusements written to beguile the time between sermons, mess dinners, harvests, household duties and other employments; the early poets aimed to describe the aesthetic and economic attractions of Canada, to chronicle the achievements of their colonial society, to warn their readers of life's moral pitfalls, and to express the spiritual and cultural aspirations of sensitive people in a new land. All these things are attempted in what is probably the most important treatment of pioneer life (in Nova Scotia) from the early period: The Rising Village by Oliver Goldsmith (grand-nephew of the Irish author of the more famous The Deserted Village, 1770). The publication history of The Rising Village - as a pamphlet in 1825 in England, in excerpts that year in The Canadian Review (Montréal) and finally with "Other Poems" in 1834 in Saint John - also runs the gamut of available possibilities. Throughout the pre-Confederation period there were poets such as Jacob Bailey, Charles Heavysege and Charles Sangster, whose poetic output would fill several substantial volumes and might have permitted them to make a living by writing poetry if the population had been larger.

As in the case of prose, the Maritimes - where many Loyalists had settled - were the centre of poetic activity prior to 1825. Long before the Loyalist influx. John Hayman had celebrated Newfoundland as a settlers' paradise in Quodlibets (1628); and in the pre-Loyalist period Henry Alline wrote his accomplished Hymns and Spiritual Songs (2 vols,1782-86). With the Loyalists and their descendants, such as Bailey (author of several Hudibrastic satires), Jonathan Odell and Joseph Stansbury (whose Loyal Verses... appeared posthumously in 1860), Joseph Howe and Goldsmith, came the flowering of early pre-Confederation poetry. This took the form of a body of work that treats of both the present and future of the Maritimes and the present and past in the US.

Not all poetic activity before 1825 occurred in the Maritimes: in 1690 Henry Kelsey had written a versified description of the prairies and in 1825 James Lynn Alexander published a dramatic narrative, The Wonders of the West, centered on Niagara Falls. Between these years the poems of Cary, MacKay, John Hood Burwell (Talbot Road, 1818) and numerous others attest to the existence of poetic activity in what is now Québec and Ontario, as do 2 later poems by John Richardson, Tecumseh (1828) and Kensington Gardens (1830).

An important node of activity around 1825 was Montréal, the home of several flourishing newspapers and periodicals (see Literary Magazines) . A number of poems and volumes were published there in the 1820s, including the suggestively similar Byronic imitations of Levi Adams (Jean Baptiste, 1825) and George Longmore (The Charivari, 1826), which remain interesting for their satire, depictions of life in Canada and poetic accomplishment. Adam Kidd's The Huron Chief is among the more adroit of the Montréal publications, but the work of William Hawley, Margaret Blennerhasset and Ariel Bowman will also repay the sympathetic reading (demanded by all pre-Confederation poetry) that is attentive to its combination of imported form and local subject. With the founding of the Literary Garland (1838-51), the longest-running pre-Confederation periodical, Montréal's position as a literary centre was consolidated. In the Garland appeared the work of such poets as Rosanna (Mullins) Leprohon. And from Montréal publishers in the late 1830s and 1840s came such works as Standish O'Grady's The Emigrant (1841), with its frank descriptions of the Canadian environment.

Although numerous volumes of interest, including the Sonnets (1855) and Jephthah 's Daughter (1865) of Charles Heavysege and Canadian Ballads (1858) of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, were published in Montréal in the 1850s and 1860s, other centres, particularly Toronto in Canada West, were publishing their share of poetry. Charles Sangster, who had published The St. Lawrence and the Saguenay and Other Poems in New York in 1856, saw his Hesperus (1860) published in both Montréal and his native Kingston; Alexander McLachlan had his works, including The Emigrant and Other Poems (1861), published in Toronto, and William Kirby's The U.E.: A Tale of Upper Canada (1859) was printed in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The long, narrative poems of Heavysege, Sangster, McLachlan and Kirby have been subjected to closer critical scrutiny than most pre-Confederation poems, probably because the grandeur of their design does much to compensate for their unevenness of execution.

Several poetic productions of the pre-Confederation period did not appear in print until after 1867, when the natural self-examination of the new nation prompted the publication of Howe's Poems and Ballads (which included Acadia ), Kirby's Canadian Idylls and Leprohon's Poetical Works, volumes belonging, in form and approach, to an earlier era. That era produced a quantity of poetry which, though only sporadically distinguished by real talent and too frequently characterized by acquiescent imitativeness, cannot be dismissed as devoid of interest for later readers or of significance for Canadian culture.


Poetry in English, 1867-1918

The honour of publishing the first volume of verse in the newly confederated Canada belongs to Charles MAIR, whose Dreamland and Other Poems appeared in 1868. Negligible as verse, the volume gained interest when Mair escaped after being captured by Louis Riel during the Red River disturbances of 1869-70. His Tecumseh: A Drama followed in 1886, and although its blank verse is pedestrian and untheatrical, Mair's attempt to interpret Canadian subject matter in a traditionally heroic manner gives the play a certain power.

Far more promising, though notoriously uneven, is the work of Isabella Valancy Crawford, whose Old Spookses' Pass, Malcolm's Katie, and Other Poems was published at her own expense in 1884. She lived a lonely, frustrated life in Peterborough and Toronto, with few literary contacts, but at its best her poetry is remarkable for presenting the Canadian landscapes with an almost Blakean visionary power, often containing diction and imagery derived (not altogether accurately) from Indian life and tradition. "Malcolm's Katie", a long and somewhat melodramatic narrative poem of love and deception set against a background of logging and pioneering, is remembered for passages of vivid scenic description, whereas shorter poems, especially "The Camp of Souls," "Said the Canoe" and "The Dark Stag" employ seasonal and elemental imagery with colourful intensity.

The "Confederation Poets," so called because they were born within a decade of Confederation, were in no way a cohesive group. They did, however, lay firm foundations for a tradition of Canadian poetry - a tradition, moreover, that attracted attention beyond the boundaries of Canada. Their early work was naturally imitative (following British and, to a lesser extent, American models), but they gradually developed a modestly distinctive native style. Charles G.D. Roberts, who later became well known for his animal stories, set an example with Orion and Other Poems (1880). This volume displays considerable technical skill; it concerns itself, however, with "alien matters in distant regions." His next book, In Divers Tones (1886), makes more conspicuous use of Canadian subjects, and contains the well-known "Tantramar Revisited," whereas Songs of the Common Day (1893) includes a series of descriptive sonnets that evoke the landscapes of his native New Brunswick. Unfortunately, his later poetry, written mainly in the US and Europe, only fitfully maintains the promise of his earlier work.

His cousin and fellow Maritimer, Bliss Carman, became known as much for his personality as for his poetry. He is the most lyrical of the group, and his more characteristic poems envelop a simple, romantic story or theme in a wealth of evocative, though vague, imagery. His collaboration with American poet Richard Hovey in Songs from Vagabondia (1894) and its sequels gave him a reputation for wandering Bohemianism. The title poem of his first volume, Low Tide at Grand Pré (1893), is probably his best.

The other members of the group were products of Ontario. Archibald Lampman was inspired to devote himself to poetry after reading Roberts's Orion. He spent his short working life as a postal clerk in Ottawa, and his poems are for the most part close-packed melancholy meditations on natural objects, emphasizing the calm of country life in contrast to the restlessness of city living. Limited in range, they are nonetheless remarkable for descriptive precision and emotional restraint. Although characterized by a skilful control of rhythm and sound, they tend to display a sameness of thought. Best known are "Heat" from Among the Millet (1888) and the nightmarish "City of the End of Things" from Alcyone (1899).

Duncan Campbell Scott, who did much to popularize Lampman's poems after his early death, worked as a civil servant in the Department of Indian Affairs and derived much of the inspiration for his poetry from official trips into northern Ontario. He communicates a vivid sense of the northern landscape, and in poems such as "The Onondaga Madonna" in Labor and the Angel (1898) and "The Forsaken" in New World Lyrics (1905) he writes poignantly about the decline of the Indian way of life. "The Height of Land," in Lundy's Lane (1916), a meditation on human culture and the mystery of life in a symbolically appropriate setting, is a central poem which brings together Scott's major poetic and philosophical preoccupations. Also loosely associated with the Confederation Poets was Wilfred Campbell, who proved most successful when writing about the "lake region" of western Ontario.

The generation of Canadian poets that began to publish at the turn of the century was more varied in approach but noticeably less distinguished. Pauline Johnson, daughter of a Mohawk father and an English mother, achieved popularity as a poet and reciter; her poems about Indian life and legend possess a facile charm but little permanent value. William Henry Drummond became extremely popular on the publication of The Habitant and Other French-Canadian Poems (1897), but the dialect he employed, though considered amusing in its time, now reads as unpleasantly condescending. Robert Service aimed at verse rather than poetry, and celebrated the worlds of trapping, ranching and the Klondike Gold Rush. Volumes such as Songs of a Sourdough (1907, containing "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," for which Service is best known) and Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912) were popular for their strong stories and emphatic rhythms. Francis Sherman and Marjorie Pickthall both wrote poems that combine technical competence with an eloquent lyricism but which lack originality and depth. They are minor figures who could offer little more than a civilized conventionality. These poets failed to match the work of their immediate predecessors, and the achievement of the Confederation Poets remained unchallenged until the emergence of E.J. Pratt after WWI.


Poetry in English, 1918-60

The first rather tentative experiments in 20th-century poetic technique began in 1914. The earliest evidence of this activity came from the pen of poet and popular novelist Arthur STRINGER, who that year presented his free-verse collection Open Water. A truly consistent expression of modernist principles did not occur, however, until a configuration of circumstance and career brought F.R. Scott, A.J.M Smith and Leon Edel to McGill University. In 1925 Smith and his associates (who later included A.M. Klein and Leo Kennedy) launched the McGill Daily Literary Supplement (1924-25; followed by the McGill Fortnightly Review, 1925-27), in which they published poems in the modern manner and articles on contemporary trends. At the same time the Canadian Forum (established in 1920 in Toronto), with a wider cultural focus, promoted debate on current art and the quality of Canadian criticism. It featured a series of articles and statements by young writers and critics comparing the old poetry with the new, thus claiming the attention of the informed reader and laying the groundwork for a vigorous Canadian criticism. Felix Walter, E.J. Pratt and Dorothy Livesay, to name only a few, were part of this debate.

The early 1930s were not a good time for the new poetry. The Great Depression dampened creative activity in some poets and drove others into political action. The better-known, older and more conservative poets continued to publish, but the new movements, with the exception of Kennedy's The Shrouding (1933), were still not accepted. In 1936 the situation changed with the appearance of the first serious offering of the new poetry in a pioneer anthology called New Provinces. Its publication had been orchestrated - with difficulty - by Scott, who had assembled poems by Pratt and Robert Finch of Toronto with those of Smith, Kennedy, Klein and himself. A bold and forward-reaching introduction by Smith was set aside as too provocative, and was replaced by the moderate tones of Scott's tiny "Preface." The anthology sold very few copies. That year also, W.E. Collin, a professor of French at the University of Western Ontario, published The White Savannahs, the first collection of criticism of contemporary poetry from the modernist point of view. It admirably complemented New Provinces. The modernist credo - rejecting past poetic practice, discarding the norms of punctuation, typographical conventions and traditional verse forms and cultivating new subject matter, which drew on the modern city with its variousness, its social ills, its machinery, its politics, its intellectual predisposition for the new in art, its ironies, tensions and structural complexities, and its new vocabulary - pointed in a fresh direction. But the gestures of 1936 were not exclusively modernist. That year the Canadian Authors Association established Canadian Poetry Magazine, which soon became identified with a more traditional poetic line. The CAA, in which Pratt took a strong hand, stood adamantly for a more conventional approach to poetry.

When WWII broke out, Canadian poetry appeared to be firmly set in 2 camps, the modern and the traditional, although the conservative group was much more successful in reaching its audience and in finding publishers for its work. The war seemed to provide a new impetus for poetry, chiefly in the surge of activity involving little magazines, which had suffered during the economically troubled 1930s. In 1941 Contemporary Verse, a periodical of eclectic taste edited by Alan Crawley, began to publish in British Columbia. In Montréal in 1942 F.R. Scott joined forces with newly arrived Patrick Anderson to launch a group publication called Preview (1942-45), which was intended to keep the writing of a poetry work shop before its readers.

Within a few months a newer generation of writers with a more realistic bent and a stronger political tone gave notice of itself in Montréal with a mimeographed little magazine called First Statement (1942-45). This group, headed by John Sutherland, included Irving Layton and Louis Dudek, and its poetry would be characterized by stronger social concern and a more direct sense of urban experience. In First Statement were published articles and reviews on literature in which the issue of national identity in Canadian writing found voice. Out of this group and its periodical there developed a modest series of books published under the First Statement imprint and featuring the early work of Layton, Anderson, Raymond Souster and Miriam Waddington. The group also published the important anthology of this generation, Other Canadians (1947). The small press movement in Canada was truly established, and now helped to focus attention on, and to pull together, the work of solitary spirits who had been writing modernist poetry. Dorothy Livesay, Raymond Knister, R.G. Everson and W.W.E. Ross had made their mark as early as the 1920s and 1930s, but the real momentum for modern poetry would be supplied by the little magazines (see literary magazines) and small presses, and the collective action that they were able to generate. First Statement did not function only as a vehicle for the work of a group of like-minded writers. It was as much a little magazine in the classical sense, an outlet for new critical thinking on Canadian writing and a centre for activity destined to supply the motive force for a little press. It would later provide the energy to fuel the pivotal little magazine cum literary periodical, Northern Review (1945-56) (see Literary Periodicals).

The years of WWII, when writers were traumatized by mass slaughter and the destruction of much that was prized by civilization, also witnessed an unusual burgeoning of Canadian poetry. In 1942 Ralph Gustafson scored an international coup with his Anthology of Canadian Poetry, which carried English Canadian poets to a large readership under the prestigious imprint of Penguin Books. Gustafson's selection included writing not only by poets who had by now become familiar (Scott, Klein, Smith, Kennedy, Pratt and Finch), but also by the relatively unknown Livesay, P.K. Page and Earle Birney. In 1943 Gustafson was guest editor of No 113 of Harold Vinal's quarterly Voices, in which the new names to appear were Anderson, Layton and Souster. A "pattern of notice" had begun to develop, as a result of which modern Canadian poetry was being recognized in its own right through being featured in a number of significant international magazines. Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (Chicago) had featured a "Canadian Number" in April 1941. It bore the mark of the cautious taste of E.K. Brown, who in 1936 had initiated the annual review of Canadian writing under the "Letters in Canada" section of University of Toronto Quarterly; his selection for Poetry reached back to Duncan Campbell Scott and forward to Livesay, F.R. Scott, Finch, Kennedy and Anne Marnott. The issue also featured Brown's essay, "The Development of Poetry in Canada, 1880-1940," which foreshadowed in its scope and approach his important study, On Canadian Poetry (1943). This book complemented, almost as opportunely as The White Savannahs had done with New Provinces in 1936, the Canada-US publication of A.J.M. Smith's milestone anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943). Smith's book is distinguished by his high critical standards and by a controversial introduction that segregated the Canadian moderns into "The Native Tradition" and "The Cosmopolitan Tradition."

Smith's classification anticipated a split in Canadian poetry which occurred in the second half of the 20th century between a poetry deriving from the large framework of ideas, structures and literary influences of Britain as the mother country, and a poetry written in the language of Canadians, based on an outlook and experience peculiar to this country, and showing a North American sensibility.

At the end of the war, Preview merged with First Statement to form Northern Review, under the editorship of John Sutherland. But the modernists soon began to draw apart. The critical quarrel between the "cosmopolitans" and the "natives" grew sharper. The late 1940s and early 1950s were grim years for Canadian poetry. Publishers other than The Ryerson Press were painfully modest in their efforts, nor were the poetry magazines doing much. Fiddlehead was active in Fredericton, Northern Review and the Canadian Forum in central Canada, Contemporary Verse in Vancouver, while Canadian Poetry Magazine functioned nationally. But the mood was one of disillusionment, even of failure. It was as if the momentum of the war years had spent itself completely.

The renewal began in 1952 with the appearance of a new mimeographed poetry magazine, Contact (1952-54). It was the brainchild of Raymond Souster of Toronto, who had aligned himself during the 1940s with First Statement; he had served his own little-magazine apprenticeship by editing Direction (1943-46) from an RCAF base in the Maritimes and by producing 6 issues of Enterprise in Toronto in 1948. Prompted by a desire to challenge the conservative drift that had become apparent in Sutherland's thinking, Souster, egged on and joined by Dudek and Layton, launched Contact. The new direction taken in Canada was similar to a shift towards the new poetry taking place in Europe and the US in the second half of the century. The 1950s also saw the emergence of the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, who coedited the magazine Explorations (1953-59), and the establishment of Northrop Frye as a major critic and literary theorist.

Frye's work had a major effect on certain young Canadian poets. In 1949 The Red Heart, a collection of poems written by James Reaney, a student of Frye, won the Governor General's Award and marked the beginning of the "mythopoeic school" in Canadian poetry. This movement included others influenced by Frye, such as Jay MacPherson, Eli Mandel, D.G. Jones and later Margaret Atwood.

Contemporaneously, and through the effort of Contact, there appeared Contact Press (1952-67), which became an important publisher of Canadian poetry. Created in order to give young poets a chance to publish, despite seeming indifference on the part of commercial publishers, Contact Press produced the work of Dudek, Layton and Souster, and gave a start to many of the poets who went on to create the poetry of the 1960s and the 1970s. Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Eli Mandel, Phyllis Webb, Gwendolyn MacEwen, John Newlove, Frank Davey and Ron Everson all published under its imprint. The press also kept in touch, through the translations of Gael Turnbull and Jean Beaupré, with the contemporary poets of French Canada.

As the 1950s progressed the poetry scene began to change rapidly once again. In 1954 Fred Cogswell began to publish a series of chapbooks called Fiddlehead Poetry Books, which featured Purdy and Nowlan, among others. In 1956 Tamarack Review was established by Robert Weaver. Dudek launched the McGill Poetry Series, in which the first books of Leonard Cohen and Daryl Hine appeared. Canadian poetry was becoming diverse, and with the help of a general popularization of the arts, poetry was on the verge of finding a broad audience. In this it was helped by the sudden popularity of coffeehouses, the marriage of jazz to poetry, the new vogue for public readings and the effects of McLuhan's message which confirmed the importance of the reading as a happening and supported the idea of the concrete in poetic self-expression. The poet had "gone public," and no one succeeded better at projecting a popular persona than Irving Layton, who boldly and outrageously carried poetry to its Canadian audience. In 1959 Layton, who had hammered at the insensitivity of the public and had been misunderstood and neglected by the critics, broke through with his collection A Red Carpet for the Sun to win the Governor General's Award. A new phase had begun.


The New Generation: After 1960

A Red Carpet for the Sun marks both an end and a beginning: it established Irving Layton as a major poet and marked the ascendancy of second-generation modernism in Canada. The Layton of Red Carpet is an interesting mixture: essentially traditional in form, yet popular in content and often aggressively colloquial in speech. The attitude to poetry he championed, along with his Contact Press colleagues Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster, triumphed in the years to come, but although he continued to publish voluminously his influence has proved slight beyond winning poets the right to use all aspects of language.

The important advances or transformations in art tend to be formal, and Layton is essentially conservative in form. Far more important for the possibilities it presented, in Canada as well as in the US, was The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, edited by Donald Allen; it affected the writing of at least one generation of Canadian poets, bringing up to date the open forms promoted by William Carlos Williams after Ezra Pound. Here the contemporary North American voice clearly challenged the traditional British one; if, as some critics argue, Canadian poets only shifted from one colonial master to another, at least the accent now belonged to their own continent.

It is therefore fascinating to read Irving Layton & Robert Creeley: The Complete Correspondence, 1953-1978 (1990), and see how Layton at first listened to the highly perceptive formal criticism of his younger admirer, one of the leading figures in the New American poetry, before turning away, and back, to his own Romantic egotism.

The early 1960s saw the emergence of many new poets. One of the most important was Al Purdy, an older poet who had been steadily learning his craft throughout the 1950s. With Poems for All the Annettes (1962) he achieved a unique personal voice which contained the lessons of modernism, yet was determinedly Canadian, even regional (central Ontario, United Empire Loyalist, mid-20th century). In The Cariboo Horses, which won the Governor General's Award in 1965, Purdy consolidated his poetic: here was a colloquial, quizzical, wide-ranging and engaging bumbler who somehow articulated the Canadian presence as never before.

Although not as popular as Leonard Cohen, whose The Spice Box of the Earth appeared in 1961, Purdy became a more important model to younger poets, for his laconic, open-ended, mytho-colloquial yarns suggested formal possibilities previously barely recognized in Canada. Purdy's second Governor General's Award, for The Collected Poems of Al Purdy in 1986, confirmed his continuing centrality.

Meanwhile, excellent young poets began to publish during the early 1960s: Margaret Atwood, John Robert Colombo, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Joe Rosenblatt in Toronto; George Bowering, Frank Davey, Lionel Kearns, Daphne Marlatt, John Newlove and Fred Wah on the West Coast; Alden Nowlan on the East Coast. Atwood and MacEwen, the first of a growing number of fine female poets, neatly divided the literary terrain between them: the former was restrained, ironic and modernist; the latter exuberant, mythic, passionate and romantically postmodernist in sensibility.

Bowering, Davey, Kearns, Marlatt and Wah were associated with the poetry newsletter Tish and with the new poetics championed in The New American Poetry by such writers as Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and Jack Spicer. The Tish group was more cohesive than most associations of writers.

This had both advantages and disadvantages. The Tish poets gave each other support and criticism, but they also generated a certain paranoia: they felt they were ignored while poets in the rest of Canada felt ignored by them. These feelings did not dissipate until the mid-1970s.

It seems obvious, in retrospect, that what happened in Vancouver in the early 1960s has deeply influenced Canadian poetry. Although not part of the Tish group, writers as different as John Newlove, Gerry Gilbert and Bill Bissett were also writing there; bp Nichol came from Vancouver, although he has done most of his writing in Toronto; Pat Lane went there with Barry McKinnon later in the decade; UBC began its creative writing program; and a number of poets of different persuasions found positions at Simon Fraser. Vancouver became and has remained a hotbed of poetic activity, even into the 1980s, when Writing and the Raddle Moon, magazines associated with the Kootenay School of Writing and its "readings, talks, writers in residence, and workshops dealing with current aspects of poetics," as well as the revamped West Coast Line, signalled a continuing interest in the newest New American Poetry, language-centred and highly theoretical in its attitudes.

Older poets, too, were excited by all this energy: Earle Birney's Selected Poems 1940-1966 revealed, in its revisions and typography, how taken he was by the formal concepts of the New American poets, as did Dorothy Livesay's first new collection in over a decade, The Unquiet Bed (1967). In Edmonton, Eli Mandel, earlier identified with the "Frye school," won the Governor General's Award for An Idiot Joy (1967), a book announcing a new directness in his poetic speech and an awareness of personal politics that such later books as Stony Plain (1973), Out of Place (1977) and Life Sentence (1981) would build on and intensify.

Some later critics argued that the lessons taught by Olson and the others were a form of American imperialism, but this was to miss the point. As Marlatt put it: what these poets taught about language and "composition by field" was "one of those crucial developments one has to come to terms with in some way. And to ignore it or try to divide it off as simply a regional American phenomenon" would be absurd. Moreover the charge that Canadian writing incorporating these lessons would somehow prove not fully Canadian was simply "ridiculous." Indeed, one of the basic tenets of the new poetics was that poetry must be rooted in the place of its imagining. Purdy taught the same lesson, for no matter how far he travelled, his language and perceptions were rooted in the harsh Loyalist "Country North of Belleville," to which he always returned.

Alongside the influence of "composition by field" poetics, such eastern US poets as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, as well as older Canadians such as F.R. Scott, Birney, Livesay and Ralph Gustafson, also made an impression on younger writers. Essentially modernist, they did not have the profound impact of The New American Poetry and certain contemporary European Influences, yet they demonstrated that a contemporary Canadian poetry was possible.

Then in 1965 Phyllis Webb published Naked Poems, reinventing the long poem in Canada along the lines of contemporary poetics. Its impact has continued to be felt; its suites of brief lyrics present with exquisite craft the same lessons concerning language and seriality of composition as the American works. Transformed into something new, rich and strange, the long poem emerged as perhaps the most important poetic genre in Canada in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, as Robert Kroetsch, himself the author of one of the most innovative long poems, Field Notes, argued in his innovative and imaginative essay, "For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem" (1981).

Among the most important early works in this tradition are Margaret Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) and Power Politics (1971), George Bowering's Autobiology (1972) and Allophanes (1976), Frank Davey's King of Swords (1972), Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Daphne Marlatt's Steveston (1974) and bp Nichol's The Martyrology: Books 1 and 2 (1972).

If there are important outside influences on contemporary writing, there was also a renewed Canadian nationalism associated with the centennial of 1967, which asserted itself in the appearance of a number of small presses dedicated to the publication of the new writing. Whereas Contact Press had stood almost alone in the 1950s (with Fred Cogswell's Fiddlehead Books), by the late 1960s there were the House of Anansi and Coach House Press in Toronto, Oberon Press in Ottawa and Talonbooks in Vancouver.

Since that time, many other little presses have arisen throughout the country and some have fallen. Without their industry and commitment to the new Canadian poetry, much of the excitement and discovery of recent years would never have occurred. In one of its final acts, Contact Press published New Wave Canada (1966), edited by Raymond Souster. Of the 17 poets represented there, at least 8 - Daphne Buckle (Marlatt), Victor Coleman, Gerry Gilbert, Robert Hogg, David McFadden, bp Nichol, Michael Ondaatje and Fred Wah-have been influential innovators whose work continues to surprise and delight; David Cull, David Dawson, E. Lakshmi Gill and George Jonas continued to write and publish poetry into the 1970s, which leaves only 4 who have given up poetry.

The publication of New Wave Canada announced the triumphant arrival of the young poets; individual books soon confirmed it. In 1966 Margaret Atwood's first full-length collection, The Circle Game, won the Governor General's Award. By 1968 Nelson Ball, Wayne Clifford, Dennis Lee, Tom Marshall, bissett, Coleman, Hogg, Lane, McFadden, Marlatt, Nichol, Ondaatje, Rosenblatt and Wah had all published first books, most with small presses.

In 1970 the Governor General's Awards ratified the place of the new writing in Canadian culture: all 3 awards for writing in English went to experimental works. In prose and poetry, Michael Ondaatje won for his long collage poem The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, while bp Nichol won for 4 books, including a box of minimalist visual poems, Still Water, and an anthology of "concrete poetry," The Cosmic Chef. All these books were published by small presses. Although visual "concrete poetry" had appeared in the work of bissett, Nichol and others in the early 1960s, The Cosmic Chef clearly signalled its importance as an experimental form to a wide range of writers.

Bissett and Nichol had also begun to experiment with "performance" or "sound" poetry, chants and chantlike structures, ways of breaking down intellectual meaning in order to involve audiences with more basic emotional connections to the poet's voice. In 1970 Nichol, Steve McCaffery, Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera formed The Four Horsemen, Canada's first sound-poetry ensemble.

During the 1970s other ensembles formed and performed across Canada-the Cold Mountain Group in Montréal, Owen Sound in Ontario, Re: Sounding in Alberta - as did many solo performers. Other forms of experimentation include various kinds of "found poetry" and "homolinguistic translation" - the translation of texts in a language into new texts in the same language by a variety of methods. What these experimental forms share is a fascination with potentialities of language.

While the newer poets were making their presence felt, many older writers continued to work with undiminished, even renewed, vigour. In 1972 Livesay published her Collected Poems: The Two Seasons. In 1974 Gustafson won the Governor General's Award for Fire on Stone. One feature differentiating the contemporary period from earlier ones is that the younger writers do not feel the need utterly to displace the old. Instead a very broad range of writing continues to appear and to gain an audience.

This breadth is signalled not only by continued output by, and recognition of, older and more traditional writers, but by the variety of approaches taken by new poets. For example, in 1973 alone, first books appeared by John Thompson, a learned, highly symbolic poet; Tom Wayman, a post-Purdy narrative poet; and Christopher Dewdney, a complex and stringent explorer of language-centred poetics.

In the 1970s, there was a resurgence of regionalism, a shift away from Toronto as the centre of culture. The West Coast, protected by the mountains from both the harsh climate and the cultural assumptions of the rest of Canada, had always been a place unto itself, and the poetry scene continues to flourish there. But now the Prairies asserted their identity, especially as the import of the poetry of Robert Kroetsch and Andy Suknaski made itself felt. Purdy's influence was important here, especially first on Suknaski's historical and family poems, for his narrative line and colloquial speech provided a means for Prairie poets to tell their own stories (a method that soon tended to degenerate into a standard "Prairie-anecdotal" form that is too often banal and prosaic).

Kroetsch's lessons were more complex, for although he purveyed an easy colloquial tone, he also explored a variety of formal possibilities that subverted the conventions of traditional lyric poetry. At first, the new Prairie poets were mostly male, but in time a number of important women poets have appeared, including Anne Campbell, Lorna Crozier, Leona Gom, Kim Morrissey and Anne Szumigalski. As poets appeared in the Prairie west, so did regional publishing houses: NeWest Press, Longspoon Press, and rdc press in Alberta, Thistledown Press and Coteau Books in Saskatchewan and Turnstone Press in Manitoba. Dennis Cooley's Inscriptions: A Prairie Poetry Anthology (1992) confirmed the place of Prairie poetry in Canadian literature.

Of course, there had been an active scene in Montréal throughout the 1940s and 1950s; in the 1970s a number of poets, including Richard Sommer, Artie Gold, Ken Norris and Stephen Morrissey, many of them associated with Véhicule Press, created new excitement, and in the 1980s, another press, The Muses' Company. In the Atlantic provinces, many young writers appeared to bolster the Fredericton group centred on the late Alden Nowlan and The Fiddlehead magazine.

Most of these poets are not known nationally, since they have been published by presses unable to promote their books across the country (see Authors and their Milieu). Two major exceptions are Don Domanski, whose visionary poems are published by Anansi and Coach House, and the late John Thompson, whose 2 important books were also published by Anansi.

In the early 1980s, many of the new poets and presses of the early years of the period appeared to be as well established as they could hope to be. The differences between now and then are many, however, and include funding by the Canada Council and various provincial arts councils, which have provided generous support for writers and presses, despite continuing cutbacks during the Mulroney years and since. Indeed, in late 1994, the Canada Council underwent a thorough revision of its mandate, seeking ways to make less money do at least as much as previously. How the culture of cuts will eventually affect culture itself remains to be seen.

Exciting new poets continued to appear through the 1980s and early 1990s, so many that even a short list reveals a wide range of poetics and backgrounds. Such poets as Pamela Banting, Roo Borson, Dionne Brand, Di Brandt, Dennis Cooley, George Elliott Clarke, Jeff Derksen, David Donnell, Patrick Friesen, Kristjana Gunnars, Claire Harris, Diana Hartog, Karen MacCormack, Anne Michaels, Colin Morton, Daniel David Moses, Erin Mouré, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Gerry Shikatani, Sharon Thesen, Lola Lemire Tostevin and Jan Zwicky reveal a wide range of ethnic and poetic inheritances. While many are not making quite the great steps into new poetics which the generation of the 1960s made but instead building on the poetic innovations of that earlier period, a few, like Derksen and MacCormack, are extending the possibilities of the avant-garde, while Erin Mouré and Lola Lem Tostevin imaginatively apply feminist and deconstructive theory in their innovative poetry.

In at least 2 areas in particular, new and radical writing is very strong: feminist poetry and poetics have become a major source of poetic power, especially since the groundbreaking Vancouver Women and Words/Les Femmes et Les Mots conference of 1983; and poetry from such previously marginalized groups as African and Caribbean, Japanese, Chinese and Native Canadians has taken its place in the centre.

The rise of feminism and theory in the poetry of the past 20 years can be traced in such projects as the continuing Women and Words/Les Femmes et Les Mots writing workshops, the rise of such journals as Room of One's Own, CV/2, Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly and Tessera, the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets and its publications, many lesbian publications, and a few wholly feminist presses.

Many of the writers who have made the greatest mark as feminist poets have worked in collaboration with similar poets in Québec like Nicole Brossard. Feminist politics and poetics reaches far wider than those few name writers associated with feminism in the public's mind, and many writers, both male and female, have benefited from the feminist push. Writers of colour and First Nations writers have also made a strong impact, and the 1980s and 1990s have seen a striking rise of published poetry from writers with a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Best known among these poets are Dionne Brand, whose No Language is Neutral was short-listed for a Governor General's Award, George Elliott Clarke, Claire Harris, Daniel David Moses and Marlene Nourbese Philip, but many other, younger writers are appearing in their wakes. As the country continues to argue about the merits and dangers of multiculturalism, and conferences like Writing Through Race, held in Vancouver in July 1994, create their own controversies, these writers and their works simply insist that they have a place in the Canadian literary mosaic.

Special issues of absinthe and West Coast Line - The Skin on Our Tongues: a collection of work from writers of colour and aboriginal writers (1993) and Colour: An Issue (1994) - provide an intriguing introduction to the whole matter.

During the past 2 decades, the long poem has maintained its position as a centrally important Canadian genre. Two full-length critical studies confirm this: Smaro Kamboureli's On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem (1991) and Manina Jones's That Art of Difference: "Documentary Collage" and English-Canadian Writing (1994). The ongoing poem by bp Nichol, The Martyrology (despite his tragic early death in 1988, all 6 volumes containing Books 1 to 9 were back in print from Coach House by the mid-1990s) is, with Kroetsch's Field Notes, our most important extended poem.

Partly under the influence of these 2 major works and partly as further workings-out of the "tradition" of "the documentary poem," many diverse long poems have appeared. Three very different examples of extended form, Stephen Scobie's McAlmon's Chinese Opera (1980), Fred Wah's Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985) and Erin Mouré's Furious (1988), won Governor General's Awards; other important examples of this loosest of genres include Robin Blaser's The Holy Forest (1993), another lifelong sequence, Bowering's Kerrisdale Elegies (1984), Dionne Brand's No Language Is Neutral (1990), Dennis Cooley's Bloody Jack (1984), Christopher Dewdney's ongoing A Natural History of Southwestern Ontario, Roy Kiyooka's Pear Tree Pomes (1987), Dennis Lee's Riffs (1993), Gwendolyn MacEwen's The T.E. Lawrence Poems (1982), Daphne Marlatt's Touch to My Tongue (1984), David McFadden's Country of the Open Heart (1982), Sharon Thesen's Confabulations: Poems for Malcolm Lowry (1984), John Thompson's Stilt Jack (1978) and Fred Wah's Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985) and Music at the Heart of Thinking (1987; continued in Alley Alley Home Free [1992]). Michael Ondaatje's now out of print The Long Poem Anthology (1979) gave the genre critical respectability; Daniel S. Lenoski's A/Long Prairie Lines: An Anthology of Long Prairie Poems (1989) and Sharon Thesen's The New Long Poem Anthology (1991) offer readers a wide selection of examples of the form.

Many small presses, seen originally as anti-establishment, have become entrenched and necessary parts of our culture. Coach House Press, for example, which began by publishing only new and experimental authors, published D.G. Jones's Governor General's Award-winning Under the Thunder the Flowers Light Up the Earth (1977) and Phyllis Webb's extraordinary return after more than 10 years' silence in Wilson's Bowl (1980), as well as her 2 late brilliant works, Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti Ghazals (1984) and Hanging Fire (1990). It has also published a number of important translations of Québecois poets.

House of Anansi, after an absence of some years, has returned in the 1990s with a new editorial board and is publishing a number of younger established poets. Midway through the 1990s, poetry of every kind remains healthy all across Canada. Indeed, with the return of a kind of coffee house culture in many cities, and such events as Edmonton's annual Stroll of Poets, it seems to have gained a new popularity with the young, at least as a kind of performance art. If perhaps too many mediocre poets are being published, that is a small price to pay for an active and lively culture. Poetry is, after all, still the one form of literature where, finally, the language is served most selflessly. While it remains in good health, the prospects for Canadian culture as a whole are good.


Selections of Poetry in English

Further Reading

External Links