Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

Canada's Most Memorable Poems: The LRC Contributors' List: Part One: Atwood to Lowry, Plus Anonymous

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

Canada's Most Memorable Poems: The LRC Contributors' List: Part One: Atwood to Lowry, Plus Anonymous

Article excerpt

A Word of Introduction

On New Year's Eve 2006, at a dinner hosted by our co-publisher Helen Walsh, Molly Peacock and I were challenged by another guest to list Canada's "most memorable poems." After we poured another glass of pinot noir, we began talking and listing. Soon we realized that a Most Memorable Poems List really should not be designed by only the LRC's poetry editors. We put the question to the poets who have been published in the LRC in the last two years, as well as to other poets and fans of poetry across the country. We received so many responses that we are delighted not only to publish half of them ill celebration of April Poetry Month, but also to publish the other half --MacEwen to Webb--in our May issue.

Of course we anticipated that we would receive a spectrum of responses, but not that these responses would map the landscape of Canadian poetry, from Joan Crate to A.M. Klein. Jason Guriel notes that "despite the success of recent exports like Feist, Trailer Park Boys and David Bezmozgis stories, our worries about the worth of Canadian culture remain--are, perhaps, even ingrained. These worries, of course, aren't entirely unproductive. They produce lists like this and, sometimes, great poems." We are chastised by Susan Musgrave, who reminds us of her resistance to our endeavour. And Mark Abley of Montreal writes that "most memorable is not a synonym for best ... We can discuss the typical poems that Canadians now produce; we can analyze them, respect them, even admire them. But can we also remember them, not just their meanings but their actual words?"

We invite your responses as we toast our Canadian poets: the established, the emerging and the anonymous.

Moira MacDougall

Assistant Poetry Editor

Margaret Atwood, "Death of a Young Son Drowning"

Nominated by Jane Munro

Atwood's poem narrates an immigrant woman's experience of loss--a loss embodied in the death of her child, that new life she'd conceived before the long trip with its tiring waves.

   He, who navigated with success
   the dangerous river of his own birth,
   again set forth

but this time he has sunk into "the land I floated on / but could not touch to claim." We see him as the explorer ("his head a bathysphere") of "a landscape stranger than Uranus / we have all been to and some remember."

Atwood's poem enters a conversation with other Canadian poems speaking in images of water, drowning and the cost of a plunge into the unknown--however creative the outcome might be. I think of "The Piper of Arll" and "At the Cedars" by Duncan Campbell Scott, "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" by A.M. Klein, "The Cold Green Element" by Irving Layton, and also "The Swimmer's Moment" by Margaret Avison. But it is Atwood's poem I remember best, especially the kernel of her final couplet. To me, it's the poem's seed: "I planted him in this country / like a flag."

Margaret Avison, "Not the Sweet Cieely of Gerards Herball"

Nominated by Michael Valpy

Avison, who died last year in Toronto at age 89, was Canada's finest 20th-century metaphysical poet. She grew up in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where her mother and Methodist pastor father taught her to "read the Bible, to pray, to love, to enjoy" and be driven by a "Will To Be Good."

Her writing was shaped by two of the West's great spiritual forces: the hind and social gospel. The Prairie landscape permanently captured her imagination of space; her experience of the Great Depression led her to discover "real hunger, real want."

In my own writing--as a journalist, a Canadian nationalist, trying to talk to my country--I look for words that connect Canadians to their minds beneath their minds, to our Jungian narrative and the loss of our historic Red Tory collectivism, our caring for one another. Margaret Atwood, much more skillfully than I, does the same. …

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