Choosing the Best Canadian Poetry

Article excerpt

PERHAPS YOU HAVE A COPY OF MARGARET Atwood's New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English on your bookshelf. (Go ahead, blow the dust off it: ah, there it is.) This last real attempt to formulate a canon of English-language Canadian poetry for the common reader was published three decades ago, in 1982. It is true that a handful of classroom anthologies have appeared since then, but they are as full of howling gaps and bewildering misjudgements as a pre-Mercator map of Nouvelle France. A reader in a hotel in the city of Canadian poetry will wake up tomorrow morning not only without a concierge, but without so much as a Baedeker, and will have to rely heavily on a rack of pamphlets advertising local attractions and tourist traps. It is an intolerable situation. A very few clear-eyed poet-critics are out there visiting the museums, sampling the new restaurants and publishing their reports--Carmine Starnino's book of essays and reviews, A Lover's Quarrel, is the most valuable collection of such reports to appear so far--but we are still a long way from having any guidebook that is both reliable and comprehensive.

We have our excuses. It is hard to know what is happening overall, people say, because so many new poets and new books are published every year--although we have a mere market garden compared to the annual industrial farm crop in the United States. The truth is we need more good critics. There is also a desperately needed re-evaluation of our older generations just getting under way, and this complicates things further. For every reputation that remains strong--P.K. Page's, for example--there are, or ought to be, half a dozen teetering on the brink: I am thinking of George Bowering, Eli Mandel, bpNichol, Raymond Souster and Fred Wah, among others. And, excitingly, there are a few excellent older poets, such as Daryl Hine and Richard Outram, who are only recently beginning to get the critical attention they deserve. There is no widespread agreement about all this; what looks obvious to me will probably be hotly disputed by others. In order to sort this all out, what we need is a huge critical effort--excuses be damned--and a furious debate.

Two generations of poets have come of age since Atwood's anthology appeared. In the older, middle-aged group are several poets who have achieved a pair of rare and beautiful things: technical mastery and an authoritative engagement with international poetic traditions. Atwood more or less predicted that the first of these things would happen when she wrote in her introduction that "there is a renewed interest among many of [the younger poets] in the intricacies of rhetoric, and an emphasis on the poem as consciously crafted."

I remember laughing out loud when I read this for the first time: it was as if she had announced that, among the new generation of hockey players, there is a renewed interest in skating. It helped prepare me for my gut-wrenching disappointment in reading the poetry of so much of Atwood's celebrated generation, many of whose poets turned against rhetoric and conscious craft with a vengeance. What is astonishing to me now is who the supposed young virtuosos were that she was talking about: not Anne Carson, Eric Ormsby, Jeffery Donaldson or George Elliott Clarke--masterful poets who would come along a decade later, often publishing their first books relatively late--but mostly middling talents or worse, like Susan Musgrave and Christopher Dewdney.

The younger generation, more or less in its twenties and thirties, is, I am happy to report, full of excellent poets--many of whom you have probably never heard of because they have yet to publish a first book, or have produced just one or two. The more prolific and well-known include Ken Babstock, Stephanie Bolster, Tim Bowling and Karen Solie, but there are plenty of others who are, for the moment, more obscure, although no less gifted. What they all have in common is a deeply informed deployment of the whole magical repertoire of rhetoric and prosody, and a strong engagement with poetic traditions, including those of the best poets in other countries. …