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.