The Garrison Revisited

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.

I. Survival – Northrop Frye wrote of a “garrison mentality” in the Canadian psyche – a vestige of the early European presence here, when civilization consisted of isolated garrisons surrounded by a harsh and forbidding wilderness. “In the earliest maps of the country,” he writes, “the only inhabited centres are forts, and that remains true of the cultural maps for a much later time.” The “garrison mentality,” as we will see, is a moral code the artist internalizes and reveals as sensibility. In the book that has brought us here today, Margaret Atwood refigures the “garrison mentality” as “survival” – a narrowing of scope that shifts our concern from sensibility to theme, from ethos to trope, from form to content. Reading Canadian literature thus becomes a search for embattled settlers, explorers, families, artists, and ecosystems variously surviving, or not, brute indifferent nature, hostile Indians, repressive Presbyterianism, obscurity, anonymity, and brute indifferent modernity. In a word, “thematic criticism.”

Riding a wave of cultural nationalism in the early 1970s, Atwood and others scoured our fiction and poetry for themes and motifs that made it distinctive, valued our literature on what they took to be its own terms, and sidestepped, as best they could, questions of comparative merit. Not surprisingly, critics since then have found this approach reductive, critically na�ve, condescending, a risible “vision of malcontents huddled indoors” that reflects only a small fraction of our literature. Before long, “thematic criticism” had been consigned to the critical waste heap. It is now forgotten, but for the occasional perfunctory kick, and Frye’s notion of a “garrison mentality,” having been conflated with the uses to which it was put, lies there entangled in it, rusty with disuse.

II. Garrison – The garrisons of early Canada were “small and isolated communities,” writes Frye,

that provide[d] all that their members [had] in the way of distinctively human values, and that [were] compelled to feel a great respect for the law and order that [held] them together.

The social and moral values of the garrison are those of the group. As a result, one’s greatest fear is not the French, the English, the Iroquois, or the weather, but oneself:

The real terror comes when the individual feels himself becoming an individual, pulling away from the group, losing the sense of driving power that the group gives him, aware of a conflict within himself far subtler than the struggle of morality against evil.

That is the “garrison mentality.” It is a sensibility, by which I mean an understanding the mind forms of itself, its place in the world, its appropriate engagements, the uses to which it may, or must, or may not, or must not, be put. Our sensibility begins with a physical edifice, the garrison, but long after the landscape has ceased to be dotted by forts and palisades, except for the few that have been turned to national historic sites for the edification of domestic tourists, it persists as a refusal to admit the unknown or the unnamed. The culture and the individual are always on guard then against incursions. Some of these incursions are from within. When they arise within the culture as a rebellion or a heterodoxy they are quelled or ignored. When they arise within the individual they are summarily repressed. One distinguishing mark of the Canadian sensibility is that “must” and “must not” predominate over “may” and “may not.”

The “garrison mentality” is a reluctance to individuate, in Frye’s words, a “dominating herd-mind in which nothing original can grow,” a “frostbite at the roots of the Canadian imagination.” As the society grows and complicates, garrisons multiply, and the poet, making a home in one or another, and internalizing its defensive posture, declines the difficult, lonely work of self-study, his capacity for which gradually atrophies. He resorts instead to a lofty rhetoric — a debased poetry — whose purpose is to stake out an argument against a rival garrison. Canadian culture, fostering these choices, and impoverished by them, thus becomes, Frye says, “a milieu in which certain preconceived literary stereotypes are likely to interpose between the imagination and the expression it achieves.”

Unlike Atwood’s, this account does not shy from evaluative judgements: it is a kick in the seat rather than a pat on the head. It also offers a far richer critical resource than Atwood’s “survival,” which, to be useful, must be applied in a fairly literal way, through a search for themes, plots, images, and structures that somehow entail survival against overwhelming odds or forces. The more broadly we construe “survival” the less meaningful it becomes: all lyric poetry, for instance, is about the survival of speech after the act of speech has ended, and about a survival of subjectivity beyond the body that harbours it. In contrast, if we take the “garrison mentality” to refer not to a set of themes — rockslides, plane crashes, abusive families, marauding Indians and the like — but to something less tangible, a sensibility, a cast of mind, it maintains its precision no matter how much we enlarge it.

III. Hologram – Frye composed his account of the Canadian imagination between 1943 and 1965. We have mostly outgrown, I think, our conformism as a culture, in part, perhaps, because our infamous French-English split has ramified into a broader multiculturalism. Somehow, though, in our poetry, the garrison persists. An example. Eldon Grier’s “Mountain Town – Mexico,” written in 1971, does not depict survival or a garrison, but it is written from a garrison mentality. This is the second stanza:

I must impress myself with certain things;
the honesty of mountain people, the lightheartedness
of a people never conquered by arms — and yet
the monster of the mines lies dead beneath their homes,
its scattered mouths decaying in a final spittle of stones.

The verse feels compelled to follow the thought through to its unsurprising and yet overwrought conclusion. Interestingly, when the poem breaks out of its imaginative enclosure, as it does in the next stanza, it falls quickly into disarray. As the world outside the physical garrison was a wilderness without, to the European mind, order, centre, or purpose, so here the imaginative world outside the poetic garrison is without design or proportion, prone to grotesque overstatement and obscurity, its tropes and devices overlapping artlessly.

Had I more time, I might now pluck a dozen or a gross of poems at random from last year’s literary magazines, and find the same constraint in them, either the orthodoxy of the rhetorical, autobiographical poem that thinks what it should think, and feels what it should feel, or the orthodoxy of the anti-rhetorical, anti-biographical poem, which, being post-modern, thinks how it shouldn’t think, and feels how it shouldn’t feel, that garrison. When the self is a protective enclosure, an array of barricades, the self-forgetting at the heart of artistic creation — the imaginative merging that allows Keats to become autumn, Whitman to become America, Sappho to become love — is unattainable. I am talking of course about negative capability. The garrison, ultimately, is a craving to be something rather than nothing, or one thing rather than everything, and it is ineluctably hostile to the creative act.

And yet. The shackles that hobble a sensibility may, as Keats discovered, dissolve under a certain kind of attention. This is from the last stanza of P.K. Page’s “Hologram”:

…after the fugal greys
and the near-invisible shafts of no-colour that had stained us,
how could our eyes adjust to so full a spectrum?
And yet in a flash, from infra-red to ultra-violet,
we saw the hologram glittering above us
glistening in air we could suddenly enter like swallows
as the whole citadel, rainbowed, immediate,
received us like time that has no break in it.

The citadel, examined from every angle, is found to be a hologram. And the garrison, for which we may take the citadel to stand, is insubstantial, nothing more than a mental construct, an edifice whose walls have either turned to, or turned out to be, smoke. “Hologram” is not an unqualified triumph. But its marriage of imaginative freedom, formal intelligence, and mystical apprehension suggests it has worked free of the garrison it takes as its subject. As Canadian poets we could do worse than follow its example. To do so, however, we will need to dismiss the old, outworn conventions of CanLit — the confessional prose lyric that gazes out the window at some weather while someone washes the dishes, the indulgent wanderings across a disordered open field – and undertake with renewed effort what Frye called “the steep and lonely climb into the imaginative world.”

Christopher Patton’s first book of poems, Ox, will be published next spring by Signal Editions. A winner of The Paris Review’s long poem prize, he is presently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Utah.