Jail-Breaks and Re-Creations

On Thursday March 31, 2005, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Vancouver hosted a panel called After Survival: Where is Canadian Poetry? The five panelists — Barbara Nickel, Chris Patton, Ross Leckie, Stephanie Bolster, and Eric Miller — were asked whether Margaret Atwood’s seminal study, Survival, had enabled or constrained Canadian literature’s sense of itself. Each poet used Survival to consider recent developments in Canadian poetry in English. Is survival still our leitmotif? Is there a distinctly Canadian poetry? What does it mean that these questions still preoccupy us?

Starting in September, NPR will serialize their papers at a rate of one or two per month. Zach Wells has generously agreed to round out the feature with a trenchant response to the series.

Poet and critic Carmine Starnino, in his 2004 essay “A Lover’s Quarrel,” points to Canada’s lack of a serious presence on the international scene by noting the absence of a single Canadian poem in the 1998 anthology World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time. Starnino spends the rest of the essay in a very thorough and successful investigation of the crisis. I’d like here to locate it in the last chapter of Atwood’s Survival, as well as to offer a few case studies of poets whose work breaks with the constraints that hold us in this crisis.

I’ve stolen the title of Survival’s last chapter – “Jail-breaks and Re-creations.” The words come from “Snow,” a poem by Margaret Avison that first appeared in her 1960 book Winter Sun. Atwood, in the non-evaluative and reductive manner typical of thematic criticism, uses the poem briefly to support her suggestion that the “national tradition” can be used “as material for new departures.”

She devotes a much more significant space to Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, not of course to the title poem’s formal concerns, asking, for instance, what could possibly be the point of a wildly uneven and inconsistent line through 25 pages of rambling free verse, but to its cultural and national concerns:

Lee does not make explicit which comes first, rebellion against the dominating Empire or the individual and group self-confidence (call it faith) required to sustain such a rebellion. But both, it appears, are necessary if we are not to live forever on “occupied soil.”

Both “dominating Empire” and “occupied soil” reveal Lee’s belief in Canada’s victim position, rooted both in its colonial past and the influence of a powerful neighbour. This lies at the heart of Atwood’s survival thesis. But in “A Lover’s Quarrel,” Starnino reveals this position as a fabrication, one used to keep CanLit from drawing on the “dangerous” influence of the English language tradition. He writes, “The belief that we’ve been force-fed such a tradition by a colonial ideology, and that even the English we speak is an alien agency tyrannizing whole registers of Canadian experience, pushes the Canadian poet away from his only expressive resource…”

Starnino argues that Lee’s version of colonialism is false in that it likens Canada’s colonial experience to oppressions of a much greater magnitude elsewhere, that Lee “refers to a grievance that we simply have no franchise or privilege to feel” and that “It’s not that far a leap from…this group fabrication of colonialism as a force oppressing Canadians…to the idea that Canadian poetry will be happiest if encouraged to live as an amnesiac…a body of work that willfully ‘forgets’ its memories of a shared language, tradition and literature” concluding that “such nationalism has been, at least for the cause of Canadian poetry, deeply damaging.”

One aspect of this dismissal of tradition can be seen in the view of meter, rhyme, and traditional forms as somehow alien to the “Canadian voice.” In their introduction to the anthology Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets, released with the claim that its poets were “the best of the new and the best of the young…the voices of the nineties…” editors Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane state, “The free-verse lyric poem with an underlying narrative continues to be the most popular form with this generation as with the last” and at the end of that paragraph, “We saw…almost nothing of the new formalism beyond a single sestina and ghazal, and a few sonnet variations.”

My own sonnets in the anthology were those “variations,” only they weren’t variations but genuine Shakespearean sonnets, inspired not by Canadians but by the British poet Selima Hill and the American Melissa Green. Here they seemed diminished, an aberration, not quite to be trusted, something that was “almost nothing” when placed alongside the dominant narrative free-verse lyric, which also happened to be the prevalent form in the editors’ own work at the time.

If, as was suggested, a garrison still survives in our poetry, and a garrison can be a jail, and one aspect of that jail is a resistance to our English tradition because it might victimize our distinct national voice, then Avison was breaking that jail just as Atwood was constructing it. In the Foreword to Volume One of Always Now, her recently released collected, Avison lists as “potent influences” D.H. Lawrence, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Bishop, and Langland. And she departs from many of her contemporaries of the sixties, including Atwood and Lee, in her extensive use of regular metered/stanza forms and sonnets. Here is her sonnet “Snow” in its entirety:

Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes.
The optic heart must venture: a jail-break
And re-creation. Sedges and wild rice
Chase rivery pewter. The astonished cinders quake
With rhizomes. All ways through the electric air
Trundle candy-bright discs; they are desolate
Toys if the soul’s gates seal, and cannot bear,
Must shudder under, creation’s unseen freight.
But soft, there is snow’s legend: colour of mourning
Along the yellow Yangtze where the wheel
Spins an indifferent stasis that’s death’s warning.
Asters of tumbled quietness reveal
Their petals. Suffering this starry blur
The rest may ring your change, sad listener.

Note Avison’s extraordinary play with rhyme, i.e. the significant pairing of “eyes” with “rice” in the first quatrain, which leads the eye and ear to the odd and dense music of “Sedges and wild rice/Chase rivery pewter.” The voice gains a distinct edge when nouns are turned into adjectives; in this case “rivery” also sets up the later leap from snow to the Yangtze.

The poem spins around a phrase placed almost exactly at mid-point — “Creation’s unseen freight” — another plane of existence. Every word in the poem does the work of turning the wheel of this other plane so that the venturing soul, the optic heart might glimpse it. Strong verbs like “trundle,” defined as “to move or roll on a wheel, esp. heavily” not only describe — economically, originally, accurately — the movement of those “candy-bright discs,” but set up the “u” and “d” sounds of “shudder under” to evoke the enormity of this other world.

The allusion to death in mention of the Yangtze, with its ancient coffins suspended in the cliffs above it, the paradoxical “tumbled quietness” of the asters, which also resemble wheels and come from the Greek root meaning “star,” bring us back to the paradox of life in death found in rhizomes, those stems creeping just below the soil’s surface. On and on this sonnet spins its metaphysical course, far from Atwood’s Canadian wilderness and basic victim positions. Yet in service to this national thematic project, the poem itself became a victim, peeled away from the very musculature that gives it life.

To read Avison is to jailbreak; each reading reveals the possibility of a new angle, an allusion not thought of before, a syntactical puzzle solved that might just allow a miraculous passage through. Reading Avison is like reading no other; her music is as distinctive as Heaney’s or Bishop’s.

If Canada is to export a distinctive poetry, it must be made up of voices with this kind of individual distinction, of poets drawing on all the linguistic and imaginative resources necessary to reach the height of their powers. There are many such poets writing in Canada today; I’ll close with the work of one. Here is a line and the twenty-second stanza of David O’Meara’s “Letter to Auden”:

Then happiness might mean
Attending, at last, to what is most commonplace:
Unbounced cheques, our neighbours’
Warm affection, the friendship of rooms
With sun and hardwood floors,
(If only life could arrange itself neatly as a rhyme,
Or the balanced way we climb
And relax inside a hammock)
But nothing we’ll ever know is that
Patly epigrammatic-

The poem – all twenty-six stanzas of it – acknowledges the legacy of the English language tradition not only by addressing Auden, but by following in the tradition of his lengthy addresses to other poets, most notably his “Letter to Lord Byron.” A lesser poet, working within such a tradition, might have come off sounding derivative, intimidated, or high flown. This voice remains consistently original; the poem sustains for its entire length, within its innovative structure of meter and rhyme, a conversational tone of its own, never stiff or too-compressed, but crammed with small tensions and releases that give it flow. For instance, the word “climb” tenses with enjambment, then relaxes into the word “relax” on the next line. And the unpredictable rhyme pair of “hammock” and “epigrammatic” creates an echo and sense of closure, but also a kind of friction that opens into the next stanza.

Here, then, is a Canadian jailbreak; poetry that is both in and out of the tradition, in debt to Auden but wholly O’Meara’s own.

Barbara Nickel’s new book of poetry, Domain, will be released in April 2007 by House of Anansi. Her previous book, The Gladys Elegies, won the 1998 Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Poems from that collection won The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize and Honourable Mention in the National Magazine Awards. Widely published in magazines and anthologies, including Poetry Ireland Review and Notre Dame Review, her work was featured in The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, and was a finalist for the 2004 CBC Radio Literary Awards. She lives and writes in B.C., and has taught creative writing at The University of British Columbia.