Out of the Garrison and Into the Garret

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.

My own education as a reader and writer of Canadian poetry — whatever we take that term to mean — has been haphazard, to say the least. I’ve only ever taken one course in Canadian Literature, an honours seminar in my third year at Dalhousie University, one term of which was dedicated to novels, the other to poems. Like Stephanie Bolster, I don’t recall Survival being an explicit part of the course. This is probably because my professor was more obsessed with C.G. Jung and intelligent extra-terrestrial life (her other area of expertise was speculative fiction and she wore every day a large yellow button on her denim vest proclaiming that she was “Just Visiting This Planet”) than with themes of survival. But it is also perhaps due to the fact that Atwood’s thematic approach had been so thoroughly internalized by 1998 that Survival no longer needed to be taught. At any rate, it was perfectly “natural” for a twenty-one-year-old me to write an essay for that course on the theme of marginality (a kissing cousin to survival) in the poetry of Alden Nowlan, without paying much attention to Nowlan’s poetic technique per se.

Hermeneutic (as opposed to evaluative or aesthetic) criticism has certainly long been a stock-in-trade of the academic study of literature. It is not in and of itself a wrongheaded way to plumb a poem — unless we make the mistake of placing it ahead of artistic merit as grounds for close reading. In order for a book’s themes to gain a purchase on our imaginations — without benefit of scholarly intervention — it must first give us a thrill of emotional and aesthetic pain or pleasure. The true depth of a poem, to borrow from Ashbery, is not to be found in its subject, but in the exposed core of its surface. And this is where, as most members of this panel seem to concur, Atwood steers us into an increasingly narrow blind alley where she bludgeons us with bad books, “the really positive virtue” of which is their prosaic and protestant “insistence … on facing the facts, grim though they may be.” It seems to me now, however, that the factual is in poetry, as David Solway has written, “merely factitious.”

When I made my first ardent, halting, awful efforts in the composition of poems — right around the same time I was taking that honours seminar — I was, as Stephanie seems to have been, very heavily under the influence of years of misguided teaching of poetry and the plain prose technique (even twenty years ago, M. Travis Lane was complaining about the “impoverished” style adopted by the majority of Canadian poets to convey “what they perceive as the linguistic and cultural barrenness of the Canadian “landscape,” the Canadian experience”) such pedagogy did nothing to discourage. I was perhaps fortunate to have stumbled into this odd realm of endeavour alone, a wanderer in the wilderness, if you will. None of my friends was writing poems, and I had no live mentors guiding my hand. Rather, I embarked on a course of random self-study (the dearth of which Christopher Patton is dead right to identify as a common problem, if not the greatest communicable illness, in today’s overcrowded garrisons) that began in short order to have a detoxifying effect on my system. I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the standard modes of academic analysis — although I must say that the Dalhousie English department was mercifully untainted by the faddish trends of so-called Literary Theory — and increasingly aware of an enormous gulf in quality between the really exciting work I was reading (including Hopkins, Hardy and Thomas to name a few) and the mostly dull stuff that was published, lauded and taught as exemplary Canuck product — or, as Barbara Nickel argues, the dull way in which exciting verse is often rendered easily comestible.

I don’t know whether Survival is to blame for this or if it is merely a major symptom of an illness already extant, if not well-advanced, in 1972. Whatever the case, we cannot let Atwood off the hook for her role in disseminating and legitimizing the study of a nation’s literature through the lens of a single overarching theme, particularly now that her dated piece of nationalist propaganda, at best a historical curiosity, has been re-issued. It’s heartening to read these panel contributions and realize that poets with such different backgrounds and sensibilities can more or less agree that the victim morality of Survival has done more harm than good to the cause of Canadian poetry, both at home and abroad.

But Stephanie’s conclusion that we’ve come a long way since 1972 and that we will continue to progress, “creative non-victims all,” seems a pretty facile bit of optimism to me. I’m more inclined to agree with Patton when he says that “the garrison persists.” For whatever cluster of sociological and ideological reasons, a great deal of mediocre non-verse continues to be written, fostered, published and awarded, while a body of work that is smaller in quantity but far more significant in quality is consistently overlooked. (Here I must confess that I only got around to reading Survival a few months ago, as a means to help me understand why a poet as singularly brilliant as Peter Van Toorn could be so grossly ignored.) Our terms of reference are still the “literary community” and “generations” of writers; our methods of instruction are increasingly institutional; our anthologizing continues to be more normative (as Barbara Nickel illustrates with the example of Breathing Fire) than reflective of eccentric development; our journals advise us to consult back issues to see what sort of poem they will publish; our publishers look for credits in those journals; our award juries more often reach their decisions through conciliation and compromise (if not through blatant nepotism) than because anyone is really excited about the winner. With or without Survival, there is a great deal of pressure on today’s talented ephebes to conform to a set of values, however amorphous and ill-defined they might be. Stephanie betrays this fact when she says that “thanks to the recent international success of such poet-novelists as Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels, [students] aren’t interested in fitting in to a national tradition, but in winning prizes on the world stage.” In other words, in being fashionable. I fail to see what’s better about one set of confining mores than another, unless it’s the commercial potential for greater distribution and sales.

That said, I agree with Stephanie that we must be wary, as writers and readers, of avoiding topics simply because they seem to mesh with approved thematics. As Patton suggests, it is no less constraining to define one’s poetics in opposition to a dominant orthodoxy than in conformity to it; a brief glance at the history of revolution should be enough to confirm the truth of this observation. My own first book could hardly be more “Canadian” in its Arctic subject matter. My publisher was quick to capitalize on this angle in his promotional material, obliquely comparing Unsettled with Purdy’s North of Summer, evoking our “fear” of “the idea of North” (Glenn Gould’s phrase) in my “modern tales of courage and survival” (emphasis added). Quite a crafty bit of salesmanship, but it’s my hope that readers of my poems judge their success or failure not in terms of how Canadian they are, but of how well or poorly they are put together. At any rate, the poems are the product of someone emotionally and intellectually engaged with the place in which he lives, as well as with the craft he practices, and my model was more the regionalist Hardy than the tourist Purdy. I don’t wish to tell the reader how to interpret my work, but I see my book’s final lines (“And never more can I know/What it is I was born to”) in part as a statement of liberation from handmedown ideas of national heredity, with all the ambivalence and anxiety that attends such a separation.

The most comforting — and consequently most harmful — idea in Survival is that literature can be the product of a nation, when in fact a country’s poetry should be one of the things that shapes it. America did not produce Whitman as much as Whitman has created America — as, for that matter, has Emily Dickinson in a completely different way. Poetry is not produced by public funding or the proliferation of special interest magazines. Poetry is not produced by the focus-group sandpapering of workshops. And poetry is certainly not produced by a codified and contagious neurosis. Poetry — real poetry and not the ersatz stuff peddled on every streetcorner and campus quad — is the product of an individual genius in deep dialogue with the individual geniuses of the past and with her present environment (as Nickel correctly points out is the case with David O’Meara’s “Letter to Auden”). There has been some really fine work produced in this country and there seems, improbably, to be more exciting new writing now than ever. If this excellent art survives, it will be in spite of — not because of and not even in protest of — harebrained theses like Survival.

Zachariah Wells is the author of the poetry collection Unsettled, a prolific critic and essayist, a translator and an editor. In previous lives, he has been an ice cream slinger, cargo handler, security guard and bartender. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he has since lived in Ottawa, Montreal, Nunavut and Halifax.