Friday, April 03, 2009

Reader's Diary #475- John Robert Colombo (editor): Songs Of The Great Land

I wasn't far into John Robert Colombo's Songs of the great land before I started to compare it, unfavourably, to Jeannette C. Armstrong and Lally Grauer's Native Poetry in Canada. Both claim to be anthologies of poetry from Canada's aboriginal population, but the Armstrong and Grauer collection is far superior. Of course, it should go without saying that not all poetry is created equal, but why were Armstrong and Grauer able to find the good stuff?

I should note another difference between the two books: Native Poetry in Canada is a contemporary anthology while the poems in Songs of The Great Land date all the way back to the mid 1800s. I think this provides an important clue as to where the quality discrepancy comes in. It's not that the native people back in the 1800s weren't as good poets, it's that most weren't poets at all!

Colombo has titled his book Songs of the great land but in his introduction-- despite acknowledging that these are merely lyrics, are lacking context, and no longer have any form of accompaniment-- suggests that it is perhaps "wisest to regard these songs, these texts, as poems."

Ultimately, I think it was a faulty assumption of Colombo that we could easily brush aside those factors. Sometimes lyrics do translate well to paper. Other times, however, they are so intertwined with the musical arrangement and/or context that they don't work as separate pieces. Taken as song lyrics, Songs of the great land could be considered an important book from an anthropological viewpoint but it doesn't contain much in the way of great poetry. There are occasional glimpses of decent poetry, but it's as if by chance, almost like found poetry. Most often, Songs of the great land just left me wishing to hear the songs in full. The poets of Native Poetry in Canada set out to write poems, not songs, and the results are superb. The songwriting days of their ancestors paid off.

Here are a couple rather short ones that I enjoyed:

All too often
Words fade away
Words melt away
Like hills in fog

--from the Netsilik Inuit*

Initiation Song
Into thy body
I shoot
The spirit.

--from the Ojibway*

(It bugged me that none of these were credited to particular individuals. If I truly believed they were all traditional folk songs, going back so far that everyone sang it and no one knew where it came from, I'd be okay with no one person being named. However, I'm more than a little skeptical. I think many early researchers merely heard these songs once and just didn't bother recording whose creation it was, seeing culture instead individuals.)


Wanda said...

Sounds like an attempt was made ... too bad it lacks the poetic merrit it seemed to strive for. Two duds in as many weeks, John? Let's hope Howard Jones got it right when he sang, "Things can only get better..."

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I can certainly see the problems with trying to pass off lyrics as poetry. It's probably a very good thing that the people whose songs ended up in this anthology were not listening to someone like the Jesus and Mary Chain at the time.