Ian Rae. from Cohen to Carson: The Poet's Novel in Canada

By Weaver, Andy | English Studies in Canada, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Ian Rae. from Cohen to Carson: The Poet's Novel in Canada


Weaver, Andy, English Studies in Canada


Ian Rae. From Cohen to Carson: The Poet's Novel in Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's up, 2008. 388 pages. $85.00.

The poet's novel holds a rather liminal position in Canadian literature; in some ways, it has helped to shape the Canadian canon, as poet's novels by Michael Ondaatje, Daphne Marlatt, Leonard Cohen, and others are regularly taught in English departments across the country. These texts helped to substantiate postmodernism in CanLit, providing an alternative in Canadian fiction to the realist tradition epitomized by Hugh MacLennan and carried on by Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, and a great many other Canadian fiction writers. On the other hand, the poet's novel has also come under considerable attack in recent years, with critics such as David Solway and Stephen Henighan attacking the poet's novel as lacking in structure, as needlessly metaphorical, and as overly fragmented. In his careful study of poet's novels in Canada, Ian Rae works to discount these attacks by arguing two intertwined points: that critics of the poet's novels have unfairly viewed the texts according to the conventions of realist fiction and that Canadian poet-novelists have crafted a distinct style of literature with its own subtle set of conventions.

At the heart of Rae's discussion is the relationship between the poets' poetry and their fiction. Rae sets the stage in the first chapter, as he examines a narrative progression from lyric poetry to serial poetry to long poems, arguing that "as the long poem attempts to novelize the traditional lyric sequence by introducing competing voices and styles, it has radically transformed concepts of narrative coherence and sequence in the Canadian novel by adapting the devices of contemporary poetry to prose fiction" (3). The resulting poet's novels therefore reject the causal connections of realist fiction, instead "modify[ing] serial strategies to create narratives out of seemingly discrete units. These units [...] are primarily connected through patterns of iteration (of diction, symbolism, and myth)" (25). Rae goes on to argue that the poet-novelists hold their narratives together through a series of devices that provide a narrative framework; these frames, however, also simultaneously point out their artificial and subjective nature, thus providing the narrative with a frame that unframes itself. Rae uses the term (un)framing throughout his study to refer to this double move of presenting while refuting.

Rae moves from this more theoretical discussion to discussing specific examples of the poet's novel in Canada. He devotes each of the following five chapters to a particular poet's novel, focusing on how each performs its act of unframing. The first poet's novel Rae examines is Leonard Cohen's The Favourite Game, which Rae convincingly shows is both heavily indebted to and also written against A.M. Klein's The Second Scroll. The chapter also goes on to provide careful exegesis of the novel, while explaining the narrative relationship between the novel and Cohen's own poetry, all the while arguing that Cohen works in his novel to (un)frame the narrative. This basic template reoccurs throughout the following chapters, as Rae looks at, in turn, Michael Ondaatje's Coming Trough Slaughter (which (un)frames the poetic series), George Bowering's A Short, Sad Book (which (un)frames the serial novel), Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic (which (un)frames the quest narrative), and Anne Carson's Autobiography in Red: A Novel in Verse (which (un)frames myth). The study ends with a discussion of Ondaatje's The English Patient and Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces, both of which Rae uses as bulwarks against the attacks on the poet's novel by several critics.

From start to finish, Rae makes sure that his arguments are both very clearly presented and extremely well researched. He offers a series of sharp exegetical readings of the texts, both poetry and fiction, with which he deals. …

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