Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “June, 2016”

Newfoundland, a Distant Beacon

beattycover

Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996)

The White Boy Shuffle isn’t an easy book to summarize; I suppose you could call it a satirical coming-of-age novel. It follows Gunnar Kaufman as he grows up in Los Angeles, becoming a high school basketball star and poet, and on to Boston University, where he publishes his first collection of poetry, Watermelanin, which sells “126 million copies” and causes him to be seen as a “saviour” to African-Americans. You can tell Beatty himself started out as a poet — the novel is written in the dense, allusive, metaphorical style characteristic of much contemporary poetry.

The only reference to Canada comes near the end of the novel, when Gunnar and his best friend, Nick Scoby, are students at BU. At this point, Gunnar has made a speech saying that African-Americans “need some new leaders … who are ready to die.” Inspired by this speech, Gunnar’s “followers” begin killing themselves after writing “death poems,” which they send to Gunnar. Here Scoby is planning his own suicide — he will later jump from the roof of the BU law school — though I don’t think Gunnar realizes it:

Nick stared past the coastline, and my eyes followed his. The only thing barely visible in the foggy night was Boston’s pathetic skyline. The top of the glassy Hancock Building poked through a cloudbank that covered its lower floors in a vapory trenchcoat.
“Tallest building in Boston, right?”
“Fifty some-odd stories, the Sunday afternoon brunch from the top supposed to be the move. You can see to Newfoundland or some shit.”
“They don’t have no nighttime dinner thing?”
“Nope. Closed up.”
“What’s the second tallest building?”
“The Prudential Building, but I think BU’s law school is the third.”
“Can you get in there at night?”  (204)

Newfoundland again! The reference is rather indefinite, though: “You can see to Newfoundland or some shit” means, essentially, “You can see to Newfoundland or some other place that’s far enough away that it’s impressive you can see it from Boston” — the focus is on the quality of the view provided by the Hancock Building, and Newfoundland is brought in merely to mark the distance. This seems like a typically American view, with a point in Canada being used as a way of measuring the greatness of something American (in this case, the view); there is no interest in the distinct qualities of Newfoundland, and it has no identity of its own.

The idea of distance also seems to imply a certain kind of obscurity, in that the view is only remarkable if the place you can see is a long way away. And Newfoundland, way off in another country, is just the kind of far-off, unvisited, almost mythical place that would make the view seem impressive.

Music — In Memory of Nick Scoby

Since Sarah Vaughan is one of Nick Scoby’s favourite jazz musicians (and one of mine too), here she is singing “Misty” (which seems appropriate to the foggy scene above — though I suppose I could have used “A Foggy Day”):

This is my favourite version of “Misty” — no video though:

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?

Alice-Oswald

Jared Bland, “Griffin Prize Judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry’s humour, modesty,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016

I prefer to focus on books, but this brief article/interview contains a stunning concentration of ideas about Canada held by people from other countries, and also illustrates a key aspect of how we Canadians feel about ourselves — I just couldn’t resist it.

You can read the full article here; the essentials are that British poet Alice Oswald is one of the judges of this year’s Griffin Prize, and Jared Bland (the Globe’s Arts editor) is interviewing her, mainly about her impressions of Canadian poetry. What’s striking about the article is how closely her ideas about Canadian poetry track more general ideas about Canada and Canadians that we have noticed repeatedly here at Wow — Canada!

Before we even begin to consider the content, the fact that this article exists at all speaks to the Canadian character. I hate to get into the ugly habit of quoting myself, but in the interests of economy I will reproduce the first paragraph of the “About” section of this website:

We Canadians judge our country by the opinions of outsiders. Every time a celebrity of any wattage touches down in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, some breathless local journalist can be counted on to ask them, “What do you think of Canada?” They say something politely anodyne and we all sigh with relief and go back to admiring their glorious foreignness.

This article perfectly expresses that impulse; confronted with a British poet, come (literally) to judge us, we can’t help but ask that almost pleading question, “What do you think of us?” (It is phrased as “What do you think of Canadian poetry,” but the larger implication is clear.) In fact, Bland’s first three questions are basically three different re-wordings of this same question.

And what does she think of us?

Oswald first mentions Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, but seems to set them apart from her idea of Canadian poetry, which is based more on Moosewood Sandhills — a book I haven’t read, but the title strikes me as a two-word compendium of ideas non-Canadians associate with Canada. Based on this book, Oswald describes Canadian poetry as “a quiet discipline — watchful and outdoor”. We’ve noticed the word “quiet” before, and it carries the standard suggestion that we are a humble, unassuming people quite happy not to attract any notice.

“Watchful and outdoor” is interesting, and Oswald restates it when she talks about “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” in her answer to Bland’s third question. Both “outdoor” and “natural world” express the common view of Canada as a wilderness nation, but Oswald extends this idea, implying that when you live in a country like Canada, where the natural world is so dominant, the work of poetry will naturally (sorry!) focus on observing the elements of nature that surround the poet. (Just by the way, here is my favourite example of this idea of Canada as an untamed wilderness: a gorgeous Sylvia Plath poem that enacts this process of poet observing nature, and then questions how nature might affect the poet in return.)

Oswald also says, with apparent surprise, “Poetry is hard at work out there!” — “out there” meaning, of course, here in Canada. This politely patronizing phrase is typical of a British person speaking of a (former) colonial possession, and suggests Canada is a distant, rugged outpost — the sort of place our colonizers have heard of but never actually been, and certainly not the sort of place where poetry is written (she was “astonished at the quantity and variety” — she doesn’t mention the quality). She goes on to say that it was “particularly good” for her “to come across so much urban Canadian poetry.” Why particularly good? Oswald doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to feel that urban Canadian poetry was unexpected for her because she thinks of Canada as a wilderness rather than an urban nation, and she was happy to have that preconception shattered. (There may be a little self-interest involved here too: if her tasks as a Griffin Prize judge require her actually to come to Canada, I’m sure she’s relieved that we have hotels, and she won’t have to stay in a tent à la Plath and Hughes.)

Finally, we come to the word “modesty,” which echoes “bashful” and seems to be the keynote word in Oswald’s impression of our poetry: it is picked up in the headline, and Oswald herself repeats it several times. Like “quiet,” “modesty” seems a close cousin to “politeness” and repeats a generally accepted idea about the diffidence of Canadians. Regarding the books she read for the Griffin Prize, Oswald noticed “a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions” — “Modesty is a good quality,” she hastens to add, “although….”

Yes, there it is, the “although,” and as soon as we reach that word, the questions begin. Is “modesty” code for “not very ambitious”? Is “not very ambitious” code for “not very good”? And suddenly, looking back over the whole article, we become aware of an undercurrent of ambiguity in all Oswald’s comments on Canadian poetry, as though she is trying to say enough to make us feel like she thinks it’s good, without actually coming right out and saying it’s good.

Am I over-reading? Am I such a typically insecure Canadian that I’m searching for hidden criticism where perhaps there is none? Oswald also identifies “anxiety” as a Canadian characteristic, and the whole article is expressive of that Canadian anxiety about what others think of us — and this entire post is, by extension, a form of meta-anxiety, as it were, an enactment of anxiety about Canadian anxiety.

But I’m tying myself in knots. I think I need to get outdoors and pay some bashful, modest attention to the natural world, all leavened with a soupçon of self-deprecating humour. That will soothe me.

 

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