Nature Poetry in Canada Since Survival

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.

For a book advertised as a simple guide to Canadian literature for high school, community college and university teachers, Margaret Atwood’s Survival had an extraordinary impact, helping remake the institutions by which Canadian literature was received and studied. By the time it was published in 1972 I had not studied a Canadian book in high school or university. When presented by a friend with my first Canadian poetry books, by Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, I was aware that these two poets were from Montreal, but we didn’t think of them as Canadian poets.

Atwood did not invent Canadian literature, obviously, but she was a crucial part of the invention of the institution of Canadian literature. In this sense, Survival was not simply presenting itself as a thematic guide for school teachers, it was a political document, emerging from the context of the fervent Canadian nationalism of the late Sixties and early Seventies, that meant to place at the centre of the study of literature the question of Canadian identity. Atwood suggested that, as she famously put it, “The central symbol for Canada – and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature – is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance.” This myth, she notes, is comparable to the American myth of The Frontier or the British myth of The Island. If the American myth is about “making it,” then the Canadian myth is about “making it back.”

Atwood’s argument slides easily from the idea of physical survival in the bush to cultural and political survival; in French Canada it is the “hanging on as a people” after “the English took it over” and in English Canada survival acquires a similar meaning “now while the Americans are taking over.” It is easy to forget that the book existed in a particular political context. Canadians were well aware that a myth of the bush was becoming just that, and uncertainties about what it meant for a culture that had recently moved from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban and suburban society fuelled anxieties about what was known as “the branch-plant economy.” English Canadians were genuinely concerned with the question as to whether we were different from Americans in any significant way and this was reflected in anxieties about the Americanization of popular culture. And if Atwood’s “La Survivance” seems a mere gesture toward French Canadian writing, it must be remembered that Survival was published less than two years after the FLQ kidnappings and the invocation of the War Measures Act, a form of Canadian martial law that saw the military deployed in the streets of Quebec.

So, what does all of this mean for nature poetry? Well, the mythology of survival is essentially a psychological theory of poetic interaction with nature. Atwood avows that “I’m talking about Canada as a state of mind” and again literature is “a geography of the mind.” The politics of this vision is one of victim positions, which involves levels of consciousness of the ways in which Canada is a victim of colonization. Some of the themes Atwood identifies include death by nature, nature as monster, the obsession with casual death and the futility of heroic death, the family as imprisonment, and nature as dangerous woman or ice goddess. In the Seventies and Eighties attempts to contextualize these themes appear frequently in such poets as Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, Alden Nowlan and many others.

At the end of Survival Atwood considers briefly two poets, Dennis Lee and bill bissett, whom she sees as moving from ideas of nature as monster to nature as a potential home. This signaled the future of nature poetry. For one thing, if nature is monster, then the beast has been slain. The intervening years have seen clear-cuts visible from the moon, remote lakes and rivers poisoned with mercury, slag heaps, tailings, open pits, the logging of old growth forests, the extinction or near extinction of numerous species, particulate fallout in northern mill towns worse than the smog of North America’s largest cities, astonishing quantities of air pollution residue registered in mountain snow fields and the ice of the high arctic or at the bottom of lakes, the collapse of the cod fishery, an agribusiness that has produced monocultures saturated with chemical fertilizers, weed and insect killers, global warming, and a precarious commitment to the Kyoto Accord which scientists tell us is unlikely to be enough, etc. I wish to emphasize that Canada, frequently seen as a vast wilderness preserve, has no wilderness that has not been contaminated. Survival can no longer be seen as against nature, but only, as Atwood suggests, in abidance with nature’s survival.

As poets in Canada moved to articulate what living with nature as home might be like, a new conception of both nature and home arrived in Don McKay’s extraordinary essay, “Baler Twine: thoughts on ravens, home and nature poetry,” which first appeared in Studies in Canadian Literature in 1993, and was then reprinted together with further essays in the book Vis � Vis in 2001. McKay radically redefines wilderness as that in the world which resists human acquisition and it exists as much in familiar objects we use in daily life as it does in remote preserves. A tool retains a residual wilderness and eventually breaks down toward wilderness as it loses its tool use. “To what degree do we own our houses, hammers, dogs?” asks McKay. Employing the philosophy of Levinas, McKay views the notion of home as one in which the self makes the first appropriation, the primordial grasp towards wilderness, only to discover the self is made of the other, from wilderness, in a doubling process. As McKay notes, finding the place of home “turns wilderness into an interior and presents interiority to the wilderness.”

McKay makes a transition from Atwood’s psychological or thematic understanding of wilderness to one that is ontological. Wilderness is not a geographical location, it is being-in-and-of-itself as it slides past beyond the mind’s analytical categories. McKay quotes Levinas: “Culture can, first, be interpreted . . . as an intention to remove the otherness of Nature, which, alien and previous, surprises and strikes the immediate identity that is the Same of the human self.” If wilderness is ontological, however, the first principle of this philosophy is ethical. There is something in the ego of the human self that moves toward a second-order appropriation, beyond that of tool-making, to a representation or putting on display of a colonization or denial of death. “We inflict our rage for immortality on things,” says McKay. Following Levinas, McKay seeks a way of giving a face to the other. As with hammers and houses, language is a tool, but in poetry there is a use of metaphor that can surprise or disrupt our apprehension of the world in such a way as to give us a glimpse of wilderness.

In Lyric Philosophy the poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky was already suggesting that lyric thought provided a way of knowing that could not be reduced to analytical thought. “It is not an accident that nearly all Wittgenstein’s writings are composed of fragments,” she notes. Other Canadian poets and philosophers have been thinking through similar questions: Dennis Lee in his essays on “polyphony,” various poets in the book Poetry and Knowing edited by Tim Lilburn, and Lilburn’s own book Living in the World As If It Were Home provide a few examples. It is in Wisdom & Metaphor, however, that Zwicky identifies metaphorical thinking as an epistemology distinct from that of analytical cognition. It is metaphor’s ability to hold distinct entities in both sameness and difference, absence and presence, that allows it to shape the act of perception into a form of knowing. To explain Zwicky’s vast and remarkable book in this short essay is beyond me, other than to say that no discussion of metaphor is complete without it.

Nature poetry is thriving in Canada and I think all five of us you see here are writing nature poetry. It is crucial to understand that nature poetry is not nostalgic in an escapist sense; it risks nostalgia because emotions such as regret may be of more poetic and political use than ironic detachment. Nature poetry is political in the deepest sense of the word in that it explores the epistemological groundwork for a politics that is flexible enough to encompass the complexity of what it is to be human. It is not about the pretty; it is not about the romantic influx or inspiration or about the picture postcard. When I say things like this I’m reminded of Atwood’s characteristic sardonic wit and the moment in Survival when she remembers reading a mystery novel in which the victim is tied to a tree during black fly season. Nature poetry is about displaying the primacy or immediacy of perception as it is organized by metaphor. Nature poetry articulates what I like to think of as lyric subjectivity, that location we occupy in space/time and the awareness of it that grants us capability, that allows us agency.

Ross Leckie was born in Lachine, Quebec, and is currently Director of Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Leckie’s work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is the author of a number of collections of poetry, including Gravity’s Plumb Line, The Authority of Roses and A Slow Light.