Phyllis Webb, Canada, Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, creativity, Canadian literature, Eli Mandel, poet, The poet, Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet, Jewish parents, English literature, literature, Walter Whitman, Canadian Forum, McGill University, Swagata Bhattacharya, English Canadian poets, Contemporary Verse, John Sutherland, Affiliation, Paper Coordinator, Eli Mandel Elias Wolf Mandel, Harry Houdini, Jewish tradition, Abraham Moses Klein, the Canadian Authors' Association, North Saskatchewan, Tutun Mukherjee, McGill Fortnightly Review, Arthur Stringer, allegorical poem, British Columbia, nature poem, Royal Canadian Air Force, Al Purdy Alfred Wellington Purdy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Phyllis Webb Phyllis Webb, Margaret Atwood Margaret Eleanor Atwood, Earnest Hemingway, Michel Foucault, Canadian Poetry, University of Hyderabad, Mandel, Jadavpur University Name & Affiliation, Suchorita Chattopadhyay, Jadavpur University, Saskatchewan, Canada, University of Saskatchewan, Irving Layton Irving Layton
MHRD-UGC ePG Pathshala - English Principal Investigator
& Affiliation: Prof. Tutun Mukherjee, University of Hyderabad Paper No & Title: Canadian, Australian and South Pacific Literatures in English (Paper 07) Paper Coordinator & Affiliation: Prof. Suchorita Chattopadhyay, Jadavpur University
, Kolkata Module Number
& Title: Modern Canadian Poetry (17) Content Writer's Name & Affiliation: Dr. Swagata Bhattacharya, Jadavpur University Name & Affiliation of Content Reviewer: Prof. Suchorita Chattopadhyay, Jadavpur University Name & Affiliation of Language Editor: Prof. Suchorita Chattopadhyay, Jadavpur University In this module you are going to learn the following topics: Background of Modern Canadian Poetry The history of Jews in Canada Short bio notes on seven poets Earle Birney, A.M.Klein, Eli Mandel, Irving Layton, Al Purdy, Phyllis Webb and Margaret Atwood Critical appreciation of twelve poems: `Can.Lit', `Bushed', `Portrait of the Poet as Landscape', `Heirloom', `From the North Saskatchewan', `Houdini', `The Birth of Tragedy', `The Fertile Muck', `Poem', `To Friends Who Have Also Considered Suicide', `Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written', `Variation on the Word Sleep'. Background:
In the early 20th century
, Pauline Johnson and Robert Service were the most popular poets writing on the tales of the Yukon Gold Rush. The first tentative experiments in the 20th century poetic technique began in 1914 with Arthur Stringer's free-verse collection of poems
called Open Water. F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, Leon Edel
of McGill University ushered in the Modernist principles in Canadian poetry. Later, A.M. Klein and Leo Kennedy also joined in. Together, they launched the McGill Daily Literary Supplement (1924-25), followed by the McGill Fortnightly Review (1925-27). Around the same time, the Canadian Forum (established in Toronto in 1920) promoted debate on current art and the quality of Canadian criticism. Felix Walter, E.J.Pratt and Dorothy Livesay were part of this debate. In the early 1930s, the Great Depression dampened creative activities. In 1936, New Provinces, a pioneer anthology was published by Scott. W.E. Collin's The White Savannahs was published in 1936. Around the same time, the Canadian Authors' Association (CAA) was founded by Pratt and the Canadian Poetry Magazine was founded. When the Second World War broke out, Canadian poetry appeared to be firmly set in two camps the modern and the traditional. From 1942-45, a little magazine called First Statement was run by John Sutherland, Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. It published article
s and reviews on literature in which the issue of national identity
in Canadian writing found voice. Contemporary Verse (1941) and Northern Review (1945-56) were the other poetry magazines of the period. In 1942, Ralph Gustafson's Anthology of Canadian Poetry carried English Canadian poets to a large readership under the prestigious imprint of Penguin Books
. It paved way for subsequent anthologies such as Smith's The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943). The 1950s saw the establishment of Northrop Frye
as a major critic and literary theorist. He influenced Jay McPherson, Eli Mandel, D.G. Jones and, later, Margaret Atwood. The Contact
Press appeared in 1952 and published the poems of Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Phyllis Webb, Frank Davey, Eli Mandel and others. A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959) established Irving Layton as a major poet and marked the ascendency of second generation Modernism in Canada. The House of Anansi and Coach House Press in Toronto, Oberon Press in Ottawa and Talon Books in Vancouver were the other publication houses established in the 1960s which helped in spreading Canadian poetry to a wider readership. Since the 1990s, Jan Zwicky and Tim Lilburn have been writing poems on philosophy and Canadian culture. The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, edited by Margaret Atwood is the most notable and representative text of modern Canadian poetry. Earle Birney (1904-1995): Earle Birney was born in Calgary, Alberta. He tried his hand at various jobs before pursuing English Literature as his subject. He then studied at the universities of British Columbia
, Toronto, Berkeley and London. Birney served in the Canadian army during the Second World War. In 1946, Birney began teaching at the University of British Columbia
where he founded the first `Canadian Creative Writing Program'. Earle Birney has been one of the most prolific among the Canadian poets and has written several books of poems, three novels, plays and also nonfiction. Among his notable books of poems are David and Other Poems (1942), Now is Time (1945), Trial of a City and Other Verse (1952). He is one of those rare poets to have written and acted in films. `Can. Lit'
`Can. Lit' is considered to be the representative poem of Canadian Literature
. The name of the poem is by itself suggestive enough Can. Lit is the abbreviated form of Canadian Literature. The poet in this small poem expresses his anguish at how the entire corpus of Canadian literature is made to fit within a shrunken abbreviated form Can. Lit. He rues that when eagles fly out, they leave shadows no bigger than wren's. Here, the eagles represent English literature which has overshadowed Canadian literature to such an extent that it has remained as minuscule as a wren. According to the poet, Canada had kept herself busy in fighting battles and building bridges and railways across the nation. Since the initial days of colonization, the English and the French have fought over land rights and have engaged themselves in advancing themselves technologically and scientifically. They had never bothered to create history specifically Canadian. It is this lack of identity which later became the symbol of Canadianness. What Walter Whitman did for the literature of the United States of America, was never done by anyone Canadian simply because no poet of such caliber took birth in Canada. Birney feels that more than a Whitman, what Canada actually needed was a cultural history of her own. It was the absence or lack of a cultural history and a specific identity of her own which damaged the chances of Canadian literature into emerging as a major literary force of the world. Thus, the Canadian poet is left to lament that the entire corpus of Canadian literature is so small and insignificant that it can be termed as Can. Lit instead of being referred to by the full name of Canadian literature. `Bushed' Earle Birney's `Bushed' chronicles the struggles of the early Pioneer who decides to settles in Canada and make a livelihood out of the land. Determined to overcome all obstacles, he endures tremendous hardship and starts from scratch. Inspired by the natives of the land, he learns to hunt and cook and build shacks on the shores of the sea. The beauty of nature, the Canadian
mountains, woods, seas fill him with awe but, at the same time, the ruggedness of nature thwarts all his endeavours to progress. Slowly and steadily, he learns to face and overcome all obstacles coming from nature as well as from the indigenous people living side by side. The poet refers to the Valkyries, the mythological female figures who decide who shall die in a battle. The Pioneer compares himself with the primitive man who had once started out on the path of survival and had later been successful in becoming civilized. Just like the primitive man, the Pioneer settlers in Canada had won their battle for survival and progressed in the way of winning civilization and culture in the hitherto `uncivilized and uncultured land'. The name `Bushed' has a particular significance in the context of Canadian literature. `Bush' represents wood or uncultivated land, it is a symbols of the untamed and uncivilized expanse of land which dominated the nation called Canada. Hence, to be `bushed' is to be thrust into the woods from where the struggle for survival begins. In this poem the struggle ends on a note of hope and the Canadian bush gives way to cultivation and civilization. The History of the Jews in Canada: Before 1760, there were officially no Jews in New France because Kung Louis XIV made Canada officially Catholic. In 1760, General Jeffrey Amherst seized Montreal and several Jews were members of his regiment. By 1850, there were only 450 Jews living in Canada, mostly concentrated n Montreal. With the growth of anti-Semitism in the early 1900s, Jews began to flee to the United States and Canada in large numbers. They were mostly tradesmen and usually quite prosperous. Canada has a tradition of Jewish poets such as A.M.Klein, Irving Layton and Eli Mandel, all of whom have been prolific and famous. A.M.Klein
Abraham Moses Klein (1909-1972) was a poet, journalist, novelist, short story writer and lawyer. He was born in Ukraine and moved to Montreal probably at the age of 3 or 4. A victim of persecution, the Klein family had fled from Ukraine and took refuge in Canada. Klein belonged to a very orthodox Jewish sect and wrote poems such as `Heirloom' which speak of the Jewish tradition and culture. Among his notable works are New Provinces (1936), Hath Not a Jew (1940) and The Second Scroll (1951). `Portrait of the Poet as Landscape' A.M.Klein's `Portrait of the Poet as Landscape' has, since its publication, been at the centre of much of Canadian criticism regarding the genre of Canadian poetry. In A.J.M. Smith edited Towards a View of Canadian Letters, one whole chapter has been dedicated to the issue which is the central concern of this poem. That chapter is aptly titled `Poet'. Klein's poem deals with this poet-figure who is at a loss as to how to define itself. Like the Canadian landscape, the poetfigure is indefinite and indefinable. The poet is someone who fails to realize what role he actually plays and what role he should play in his society. What he actually realizes is that in reality not only is he playing any role at all but his absence is not being felt anywhere. It is as if the society does not need any poet and is thriving well enough in the absence of one. It is up to the poet to make his presence felt because he himself cannot forget that he has a special gift the gift of creativity. It is this gift which can create a huge difference in his life as well as in the lives of others who shall be his readers. Unfortunately the absence of the reader is causing the poet tremendous pain. He is unable to figure out whether the absence of the poet has resulted in the absence of readership or vice versa. However, he keeps on hoping that poetry shall flow out of him. He "stares at a mirror, all day long, as if to recognize himself" and keeps on saying to himself that the difference shall one day be recognized. The fact that the creative soul of the poet
is not given any recognition has maimed his sensitivity. He has come to the conclusion that in the progressive, technologically advanced Canadian society
there is no place for arts and creativity, the Canadians do not consider the poet as a vatis. It is this hostile atmosphere in which the Canadian poet has to struggle everyday for his existence. To him, fame is too far-fetched, recognition and illusion. The Canadian poet is the lonely figure of a solitary man struggling for survival and often failing to do so. He has the option of choosing another career, a career which might be able to entertain the masses appropriately. However, he sticks to the ambition of remaining a creator and wears the halo of anonymity. Discouraged and disgraced by the society, the Canadian poet finally learns to keep his creativity to himself. It is his ultimate desire to know that he can create, no matter how far he is thwarted. `Heirloom' `Heirloom' is a nostalgic poem of a Jewish poet who is aware and proud of his Jewish heritage. He states that he has acquired holy books from his ancestors instead of jewels and treasures. They have not been rich in terms of money but rich in terms of culture and tradition. He fondly remembers the pamphlets and prayers bequeathed to him by his father. To him, the sermons, the scorpion printed on the paper, the picture of the Virgin floating on the scriptures are more precious than any material comfort. They remind him of his noble lineage and his proud ancestry and protect him as a court of arms spread around him. Along with the letters, his tears also shine brightly and stain the papers as he goes through them. In his exploration he suddenly discovers a white hair which had fallen from his father's beard. These treatises protect his lineage and his memory and keep him reminded of his distinct cultural heritage in the multicultural land of Canada.
Eli Mandel Elias Wolf Mandel (1922-1992) was born in Saskatchewan, Canada to Jewish parents who had migrated from Russia. He studied English at the University of Saskatchewan
and later taught English and Creative Writing at the Universities of Alberta, Victoria, Toronto and York. His first publication was Trio in 1954 in which he was the third poet along with Phyllis Webb and Gael Turnbull. Black and Secret Man (1964) was his famous work. `From the North Saskatchewan' `From the North Saskatchewan' is a nature poem where the poet describes a boat ride along the river Saskatchewan up to its northernmost banks. It is a journey taken when the wind was high and the night was beautiful. It was that time of the day when the sun had just set and the poet was unable to see in the darkness how far the trees marked the skyline. The clouds in the sky had seemed to the poet like corpses lying in a battlefield after the battle is over. The scenery had made the poet philosophical and had raised the question as to who had sent him here down on the earth. Just as the destination of the shore cannot be seen from this point of the journey, similarly the poet felt that from the point where he stood in his journey of life the destination could not be seen. He did not know what lay to the north of the Saskatchewan just as he did not know what lay ahead in his life. `Houdini' The poem is named after Harry Houdini
(1874-1926), the famous American magician. A Hungarian by birth, Houdini was born as Erik Weisz. Houdini was famous as an escapologist. It is this identity of the great magician which had appealed to Mandel. In this poem, he refers to the famous trick which had made Houdini a huge success internationally. It was a trick in which the
magician used to lock himself up in an iron chest which was then bound securely with iron chains, not only were the chains locked up separately, the magician himself was also tied up with ropes and handcuffs inside the chest. The chest was then thrown deep into the sea. Just when the audience thought that it was impossible for the magician to reappear alive, he used to come up every time, safe and unhurt. It was this ability of the magician, to squirm out of any situation, however difficult it might be, that appealed most to the poet. In his imagination the Canadian poet is also like the magician who comes up every time he is considered to be dead. Not unlike Klein, Mandel too brings in his poem the peripheral role played by the Canadian poet in the society. The poet is someone whose absence shall never be felt nor his death be mourned. But he is like Houdini who manages to escape death every time he faces it. With all his chains hanging around him, Houdini used to come out of the water
to the astonishment of the spectators. Similarly, much to the amazement of the general mass, the underestimated Canadian poet manages to come out of doom in the most unexpected manner. His magical quality allows him to generate surprise in his readers however much they ignore him. Irving Layton Irving Layton (1912-2006) was born in a small town in Romania to Jewish parents. The family migrated to Montreal in 1913 when he was just a year old. Layton became interested in politics and social theory
since his school days. After graduating in Agriculture, he took to writing poems. In 1942 he got himself enlisted in the Canadian Army. Since the 1950s, Irving Layton became an internationally acclaimed poet. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 but the honour eventually went to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His first book of poem was published in 1945 called Here and Now. He was a free thinker and some sort of a rebel. Throughout his life, he fought against Puritanism.
`The Birth of Tragedy' Layton's poem `The Birth of Tragedy' is another poem on the art of creativity in the likes of Klein and Mandel. The poet expresses his joy and satisfaction as he gives birth to his poems. It gives him happiness and a sense of power; it makes him feel as he is like nature giving birth to trees and pools. He watches the beauty and colour of nature and her creations, her sights, sounds and odour. Poetry sustains a passionate meditation within him. Yet, he is aware that he is giving birth to a tragedy. When the creation goes out of him, the poet is left alone and devastated. Drained and exhausted, the solitary poet rests himself on a chair and looks out solemnly at the leaves and blossoms outside. He feels that all creations are mortals, that they have a definite time period of survival. Their liveliness and happiness shall one day be taken away by someone from afar. A single gesture from that power shall blow away the candle of life. This thought makes him sad and pensive as he realizes that all births are essentially tragic as they shall one day be transformed into death. This takes away much of the happiness he had felt on his ability to give birth to a poem. `The Fertile Muck' `The Fertile Muck' is a philosophical poem in which the poet insists on the supreme design and force of the Creator who has control over nature and human beings. Man tries to dominate nature and his surroundings with all his might but ends up being a loser. Trees, fruits, flowers, insects everything live in their own cycle of life over which man has no control. The poet feels that there are only two ways of dominating the reality one is love, and the other, imagination. It is only by loving another soul that man can forget himself and his ego. It is imagination which transforms a man and makes him see and feel things which are beyond reality. It is only when
reality can be transgressed that man can actually reach the state of happiness. Hence, what is mundane, what is muck, is actually fertile, a breeding ground of possibilities. Al Purdy Alfred Wellington Purdy (1918-2000) was born in Ontario and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Later he became a teacher and started writing from the 1960s. His celebrated works include The Enchanted Echo (1944) and Sex and Death (1974) `Poem' Al Purdy's `Poem' is an allegorical poem which shows two sets of relationships between a lover and his beloved and between a creator and his creation. On the surface level, it is a lover addressing his beloved and expressing his concern on her illness. He lifts her up, takes her to bed and sits beside her in a dark room holding her hands. It is a gesture signifying that he shall not leave her when she is suffering. The lover knows that the illness is not serious and that his beloved shall recover after a few hours of sound sleep. What he is required to do is to clutch her hands and hold on to her. He simply cannot afford to leave her in such a state. The entire setting has a layer of inner meaning in which the lover is the creator and the beloved is the created. The creator is the Canadian poet who is aware of the rough patch his creativity is going through. That is the illness, the creator's block which is preventing him from creating something new. But, no matter how far his creativity is suffering, the poet cannot afford to leave it and go away. Like a true lover, he finds it impossible to detach himself from his beloved poetry when she is suffering. Thus, he finds himself alone in a dark bedroom desperately
clutching on to his creativity with a feeling that it is a temporary phase which shall soon go away. He knows that there is nothing else that he can do but to stay close to his creativity and hope and wait. Phyllis Webb Phyllis Webb (1927-) was born in Victoria, British Columbia. In her early life, she served as a radio broadcaster in CBC. She has taught Creative Writing courses at the Universities of British Columbia and Victoria. She is mainly a poet who writes occasional prose. Her most famous work, The Vision Tree, won the Governor General's Award in 1982. The Sea is also a Garden (1962) and Grapevine (1992) are among her other famous works. `To Friends Who Have Also Considered Suicide' In `To Friends Who Have Also Considered Suicide', Phyllis Webb expresses her desire to connect Canadian poetry with the poetic traditions of other countries by linking it by the theme of suicide. Suicide has been a literary tradition
in almost all major literatures of the world. Hart Crane, Virginia Woolf
, William Inge, Earnest Hemingway were all victims of self destruction. In fact, suicide is a tradition which has united the major literary traditions throughout the world. Michel Foucault
was a great proponent of suicide. In Webb's poem, the poet considers suicide to be a "good idea". Its exercise can even be deemed as a discipline. In the first part of the poem, she lists the possible ways of committing suicide carelessly crossing streets, jumping in front of cars, and even fasting. The art of killing oneself is one of the finest exercises of the imagination. One has options of drowning oneself, taking sleeping pills, slashing wrists, turning on the kitchen fire, pressing the trigger of a revolver on one's head, hanging by neck the options are practically endless. The imaginative mind of the person committing suicide can also rebel in the
drama and the possible explanations that will be offered on the discovery of the body. Whatever be the cause and the effect, one thing is sure and that is that there is no shame in the concept of suicide. Some of the world's most powerful and most popular men and women have committed suicide and have inspired others to do so. The poet addresses all those who consider taking their lives and assures them that they are not alone, rather they are in good company. It is better than a tame death, it is better than dying slowly day by day. In order to survive, one must live and life is not always in the lives that we lead. Life can also be in death. Survival is possible even in death and if Canadian literature can connect itself to the tradition of greater literatures, it can survive. Margaret Atwood Margaret Eleanor Atwood (b. 1939) is a poet and novelist who began writing since the age of 6. Born in Ottawa, Atwood was a professional poet by the time she became 16. She has taught at various universities including the University of British Columbia, University of Alberta
, York University and New York University
. Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature is the standard introduction to Canadian literature in all Canadian Studies programs internationally. A prolific writer
, Atwood has tried her hand in all genres inclusive of short stories
, novels, children's books and even television scripts. The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), The Blind Assassin (2000) are some of her notable works. `Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written' `Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written' is dedicated to Carolyn Forche, Atwood's fellow American poet. This poem can only be understood if read in conjunction with Klein's Portrait of the Poet as Landscape. According to Atwood, there is no poem that a poet can write
because whatever he/ she writes does not matter to the readers. The poet persona realizes deep within that no matter what is written, "nothing works". This crisis is a specific Canadian crisis where the society is no longer in need of a poet and hence anything and everything can be passed off as poetry. Unlike Klein, who insists on keeping the creation within the creator, Atwood expresses her anguish at the lack of recognition to the poet who is simply unable to keep his creation to himself. The creator is forced to express through the creation and is bound to feel frustrated by failure. As a conclusion, Atwood says that had the poem been written somewhere else it would have fetched the desired effect and the desired recognition. `Variation on the Word Sleep' `Variation on the Word Sleep' can be thematically linked to Al Purdy's poem where the poet puts his creativity to sleep. In this poem, too, Atwood creates the persona of the poet who is watching his creativity lying asleep. The poet says that he too would like to fall asleep i.e. in other words it would be better if he were to give up creating any more poems. Unfortunately or fortunately, it is not possible for the creative soul to stop creating. He laments because he is aware of his lack of significance in the society, he is aware that he is neither noticed nor is he necessary. Still, he cannot give up writing. He has to watch painstakingly as his creation goes off to sleep and can do nothing but hope to revive it sooner or later. His only hope lies in reviving his creativity by acknowledging the fact that he would not receive recognition. It is the only way in which he can continue to write. In that way, he might be "unnoticed and unnecessary" yet alive. There can be another layer of meaning, another interpretation of the poem. It may also be that through sleep, which is a symbol of death, the poet might want to achieve what he cannot achieve in life. Death might make him unnoticeable but might provide him with the opportunity to create which life eluded him.
To sum up: In this module we discussed the growth of Canadian poetry from the post-Confederation days up to the 1960s. We have touched upon the major movements in Canadian poetry and the main poets such as Earle Birney, A.M.Klein, Eli Mandel, Irving Layton, Phyllis Webb, Al Purdy and Margaret Atwood have been discussed. It is also interesting to note that many of these poets can be thematically linked. The position of the poet in Canada, the Canadian identity crisis, and the metaphor of death recur as themes in almost all the poems in the modern era. There are also a few poems on nature but they have taken a back seat in modern Canada and are overshadowed by poems which harp on the problems of Canada rather than her scenic beauty. This module eventually gives us an idea of the trajectory of white Canadian poetry starting with Pioneers such as Goldsmith, passing through the hands of the Confederation poets who concentrated on Canada's physical beauty to the modern poets who Rperfeesreennt cthese:problems of twentieth century Canada. Atwood, Margaret ed. The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. Ontario: Oxford University
Press, 1985. Benson, Eugene and William Toye eds. The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Oxford :Oxford University Press, 2001. Berner, Neil. `Birney, Alfred Earle'. Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988. Butling, Pauline. Seeing in the Dark: The Poetry of Phyllis Webb. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1987. Cameron, Elspeth. Earle Birney: A Life. Toronto: Viking, 1994. Cooke, N. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto: ECW, 1998. Drache, Sharon. `Mandel, Eli'. Canadian Encyclopedia. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1988. Frye, Northrop. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.
Gustafson, Ralph ed. The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse. Ontario: Penguin, 1967 Jacobs, T. Irving Layton: A Biography. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2001. Kroller, Eva-Marie ed. The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 2004 Smith, A.J.M ed. Towards a View of Canadian Letters. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1973.