Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reader's Diary #268- Malcolm Ross (editor): Poets of the Confederation (up to Archibald Lampman)

Poets of the Confederation is a collection of selected Canadian poems written shortly after confederation up to the early part of the 1900s. Only four poets are represented: Charles G. D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott. Malcolm Ross serves as editor and writes the introduction.

In Ross's intro, written in 1960, he states "Canada does not have, did not have, will not have writers as specifically and identifiably Canadian as Whitman or Hemmingway are specifically and identifiably American." Asides being a rather odd comment coming from the founder of the New Canadian Library, I wonder if it held true. I'm not sure why Ross thought he could predict such a thing, and if he's correct. I'm sorry if anyone's annoyed that I'm potentially rehashing the whole "what makes us Canadian" thing that springs up every so many years like a rebroadcasting of Anne of Green Gables. However I have to ask, have we no authors recognized as Canadian? Americans, would you mind weighing in on this as well? Wouldn't Margaret Atwood fit that bill? Perhaps Mordecai Richler? Farley Mowat? Pierre Berton? Douglas Coupland? Some of these at least are known globally, and I'd bet that most readers would know where they are from. Perhaps Ross meant there is still no recognizably Canadian feel to the book, no Tim Hortons and maple syrup scent, no theme that magically hockey tapes us all together. I'm not sure, but even then I'd question if we didn't have some writers that did just that, at least in a stereotypical sense. I'd love some feedback on this!

Recently on my trip to Ottawa, I went to see the National Art Gallery. One of the more memorable exhibits that stood out for me was the Group of Seven paintings. It wasn't that they were my favourites (though I did enjoy them), it was that they were so recognizable and such a part of Canadian art history. Yet they are landscape paintings and if anyone tried to mimic those today they'd probably enjoy minimal success at best being sold at Ducks Unlimited charity events.

For many reasons, the poems in this book have somewhat reminded me of those Group of Seven paintings. For one, they seem born out of the same time. If most people aren't painting landscapes any more, nor are most poets writing form poems with defined rhyme schemes any more. Related to that, the more obvious similarity between the poems and the paintings, is the focus on the land and nature. It's made me think a lot about the old adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words". To me, and admittedly I'm more into poetry than visual arts, some of these poems, especially those of Charles G. D. Roberts's, capture more, I think, than would a painting of the same scene. He uses visual imagery that conjures up real emotion, but arguably a talented painter could do that just as well. A painted symbol, in theory, could do the same as a written one. However, in a poem one doesn't have to rely on just the visuals. When Roberts for instance writes of "the long deep summonings of the supper horn" or potatoes being emptied from a basket that "jar the hush/ with hollow thunders" he employs aural imagery that a painting just cannot. But then, with a show of hands, who's heard of the Group of Seven and who's heard of Charles G. D. Roberts? Shows what I know.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I could even name the members of the Group of Seven, but admit I don't know Charles GD Roberts.

I know you were asking for non-Canadian feedback, but I would venture to guess that list of authors you posted are all recognizable by non-Canadians as distinctly Canadian. And I would add Robertson Davies, Carol Shields and Alice Munro to that list as well. But perhaps I am being overly optimistic.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, I was looking for both feedback actually. It might be interesting to see how accurate our perceptions are. I'm sure, there are plenty non-Canadians aware of all of those that we mentioned but are they seen as distinctly Canadian? The ones you mentioned simply slipped my mind, but yes, I agree. Carol Shields especially since she won the Pulitzer (she was born American, btw).

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Oh snap, you are so right! She lived here for so long that I forgot, but yes she was originally from Chicago.

I'm curious now as to whether the Canadianness of those authors is one of the first things that comes to mind for people.

John Mutford said...

I carried this conversation over to Litminds and had more responses. Check it out here.