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Archive for the category “Poetry”

Who Can Tell Canada from the Cayman Islands?

Ishion Hutchinson, House of Lords and Commons (2016)

The poem that mentions Canada is called “Pierre” and is a sort of character portrait set in a school, presumably in Jamaica. It’s a bit long, but I hate chopping up poems unnecessarily so I’ll quote it in its entirety:

It was a boy named Pierre Powell
who was in charge of the atlas

in the cabinet. He also ended days
by shaking the iron bell from Principal

William’s window, a work we grudged
him for very little; what cut our cores

twice a week and we had to endure,
was him being summoned to fetch

the key, again from William’s office,
to open the varnished box with the world

map, old and laminated, a forbidden
missionary gift trophied beside the Oxford

Set of Mathematical Instruments and other
things seen only by Pierre and teacher Rose,

who now only nodded to raise him
to his duty. We waited in quiet

his return, Miss Rose all crinkled blouse
and bones with chalk dust in her hair,

did not stir until he was back, panting
at the door. Another diviner’s nod

and he opened it, unrolled the map expertly,
kneaded out creases and held down edges

for the ruler our eyes followed,
screeching out countries, and etched

in the periphery, a khaki-pillared Pierre,
with a merchant’s smile, a fixed blur

in our cry of Algeria, Switzerland, Chile,
soon withered away, and we eyed the field

of dry grass outside, a rusty mule,
statue-frozen in the punishable heat,

Pierre, a phantom sea fraying
over Antarctica, Fiji, Belize, India

of those still in the rote, a liturgy of dunce
bats, whose one cardinal point, Tropicana

Sugar Estate, so close we could smell the sugar
being processed, whistled its shift change,

and terminated Geography. As if punched
from dream, those of us spared the map-

rolling-up and cabinet-locking ceremony,
saw him, with a cord-strung key, an earnest air

bearing him away in a portal of sunlight.
He was absent the week before summer,

and when Miss Rose, in rare fashion,
inquired, a girl said he had gone back home.

“Home,” Miss Rose sounded the strange word.
“Home,” the girl echoed and added, “him from Cayman,

Miss, or Canada, somewhere with a C.”
We turned to Miss Rose to clarify Canada

or Cayman, this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral,

but she pointed anonymously a crooked
finger and said, “Run to the principal

for the key,” the whole class scattered, paid
no heed that not a single one was ordained.    (36-39)

Beneath the “school days recollected” subject matter lies an intriguing subtext about the after-effects of colonialism. The map, which is called a “missionary gift,” and the set of Oxford Mathematical Tools are relics representing Jamaica’s time as a British colony. Within the school a system of status and power has been created based on proximity to these objects, which echoes the colonial system itself. This hierarchy separates those who are allowed contact with the objects stored in the locked cabinet — the principal, the teacher and Pierre — and the rest of the students, who can only look on as these objects are paraded before them. The poem focuses on the resentment the other students feel at Pierre, the one chosen to handle these precious “trophies”. When Pierre disappears, the teacher is for some reason unable to deputize another single student to take over his duties, and the  “teacher’s pet” system (like colonialism?) collapses into scattering chaos.

With the mention of Canada, a note of humour enters the poem. The joke, of course, is that after all the time with the map and the shouting out of countries in geography class, the student is still confused about “Canada” versus “Cayman” — the latter presumably meaning the Cayman Islands. This is a strikingly odd confusion, since the letter “C” is about the only thing Canada and the Cayman Islands have in common. Just the climate alone — as I write this, it is -5 C in Toronto, feeling like -12 and snowing heavily; in George Town, in the Cayman Islands, it’s 28 and sunny.

The question of where Pierre is actually from is never directly answered, as the teacher, when the students turn to her, offers no clarification. We do have these suggestive words:

…this elsewhere C curdled
to snow in our minds; foreign always spectral…

This couplet gives us as much resolution as we’re going to get on the question of Pierre’s homeland. I’m not sure I can parse the exact prose sense of the “C curdled to snow” — perhaps the idea is that snow can be lumpy, like milk when it curdles? — but the mention of snow does seem to suggest that Pierre is actually from Canada and not the Cayman Islands. Why else would snow suddenly enter the poem?

But then the following words, “foreign always spectral,” undermine the inference by suggesting that, to the children in the class, anything outside their homeland remains vague and mysterious to them despite their teacher’s efforts to drill them in geography. Maybe the snow in the poem carries different associations: perhaps it symbolizes something ephemeral — snow melts, after all. And so for the children in the class, the question of where Pierre has gone, the question of Canada or the Cayman Islands, creates only a vague and passing sense of some other, foreign place in their minds — an association that then fades like melting snow.

However one takes “Pierre,” we have Canada and snow brought together, which indicates that at some level, even if only subconsciously, the idea that Canada is cold and snowy has percolated into the poem. And this, of course, is one of the most common ideas about our country.



Toronto, City of Boring Professorial Peccadilloes

Christopher Reid, Nonsense (2012)

The reference to Canada appears in the long narrative poem, “Professor Winterthorn’s Journey,” which makes up the opening section of the book. It’s about a retired literature professor who, following the death of his wife, goes “on a whim” to a conference in some unnamed, presumably European city in order to … see what’s new in his field? reconnect with old colleagues? get away from his own grief? give Christopher Reid an excuse to write a poem? The reasons aren’t completely clear.

It turns out that Professor Winterthorn, despite his frequent protestations of love for his wife and sorrow at her death, has carried on a number of affairs behind her back, mainly with colleagues at conferences like this one. (So perhaps we can add another option to the list of possible reasons for his trip?) At this point in the poem he is having dinner with a woman with whom he had an affair in Budapest; this is what leads to the little catalogue of affairs in which Canada features:

And before? Before Budapest?
Stockholm, Toronto, Buenos Aires —
Seven steps is all it takes
to trace the series
back to where it began.

A dance of seven steps
with pauses, sometimes of years, between:
how international,
how lightsome and how notional
his infidelity had been!

Yet that’s a living, breathing,
emphatically present
woman sitting and eating there.
And his wife was one more present than that:
till she began to disappear.

Or he did.

What happened?     (41)

What indeed? I’m not sure that question is ever really answered, but in this little catalogue of the locations where Winterthorn’s affairs have taken place, we can at least be mildly exicted to see Toronto included. Presumably the cities have been chosen to represent places where academic conferences are held, since Toronto and Stockholm don’t seem like the sort of cities one would automatically associate with romance. And the choice of Toronto will be particularly striking to Canadians, who tend to think of Montreal as our country’s city of “romantic love” — an opinion shared by U.S. President Warren Harding, to name just one. It’s hard not to feel that any love affair occurring in Toronto must have been of a rather grey and banal type — although perhaps that’s the point. Are we meant to think of Winterthorn’s affairs as rather drab and uninteresting, with the choice of Toronto, rather than Montreal, being intended to emphasize this?

That interpretation probably suggests Reid spent a lot more time thinking about adding Toronto to that list than is really likely.

For those interested in such things, the passage also gives a glimpse of Reid’s style. The drift from the concrete to the vague is characteristic. As can be seen, he seems to favour short lines of no particular metre, enlivened by occasional rhyme but not anything so onerous as a regular rhyme scheme.

One Book, Three Icons of Canadian Music

Adam Crothers, Several Deer (2016)

This marvellous first collection by Adam Crothers includes, among a number of wonderful poems, two familiar figures of Canadian music and a Canadian music group that we haven’t seen a reference to before.

We’ll begin with the familiar and go on from there.

Neil Young

First, another reference to the man who must be the most-mentioned Canadian musician in books written by non-Canadians:

Better to Burn Out

Better out than in, according to Neil Young,
who still can’t quite unfasten that note, make it detach
from its string. Hence this sort of knelling.
He says you should sometimes aim for the ditch:

hence this feeling of veering, this switch
to feigned loss from feigned sense of control.
Night drive home. The universe slows to watch
you flicker, tire, covet the centre. I pick up your trail.

The scent of epic fail. Petroleum; too long awake.
Lavender, and terror you can’t shake. I’m not
putting your scent down. Your wick
should be lovely as a long weekend,

and I would not have you sleep, or half. The half-asleep
Christian says it’s fine to be a sheep
but it matters what you want a sheep to be…!
It never counts. And even rust never sleeps with me:

it stays alert, lugging schemes through dense hazard of mind,
and on stirring I’m urged to keep up. Ever-losing,
I’d claim nothing valiant
for this flocky stubbornness, nothing worth praising,

nor’d I call us angels, me and my ilk:
backseat drivers, fevered, patching absurd
half-protective gestures onto sheep’s-milk
bedsheets, those our riven love will never dye.

I won’t attempt to analyze this whole poem for you — you can work it out for yourself! — but there are a couple of interesting points about Neil Young here. The title is a quote from either “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” or “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” (both contain the line “it’s better to burn out”), and the reference to “the ditch” invokes Young’s famous statement about “Heart of Gold”:

That song put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.

(His subsequent three albums — Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach — are sometimes called “The Ditch Trilogy.”)

Neil crops up again at the end of the fourth stanza in the line “even rust never sleeps with me,” which demonstrates Crothers’ fondness for the fluidity of meaning and his punning way of taking phrases and changing their sense by slightly altering or recombining them (see also, “love will never dye”): here Young’s idea of the relentlessness of decay is seemingly transformed into a suggestion that rust won’t have sex with the poet — though the unexpected continuation in the next line seems to change the meaning back again. (I get dizzy trying to keep up!)

Leonard Cohen

Another Canadian singer-songwriter comes up in the poem “September,” which is too long for me to quote in its entirety; here are the relevant lines:

Brothers Grimm, come eat my heart.
The sisters of mercy have gone and depart-
ed — pace, pace Leonard Cohen.
Pace about your patchy cabin:

I’ll pace myself about my mansion,
note floodwaters’ surface tension,
buoy my mark, enunciate,
but skim the script and come in late.

The reference is to the song “The Sisters of Mercy,” in which Cohen insists that the sisters of the title have not departed or gone — Crothers clearly has a different idea. (And just note, by the way, how elegantly “Pace” picks up “pace” from the previous line — the sort of wordplay Crothers delights in.)

Cowboy Junkies

And finally, at the end of the book, we find this note to the poem “Vorticists off Earth Now!!”:

Cowboy Junkies’ 1986 debut album, Whites off Earth Now!!, opens with a version of ‘Shining Moon’ by Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Well this is a first — and perhaps, dare I say it, a marker of a generational shift? The Canadian musicians we’ve encountered before have generally been icons of the 60s and 70s, such as Young, Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, but now we have a band that came to prominence with The Trinity Session in 1988 — when Crothers, born in 1984 (good lord!) was a preschooler. As this book shows, Young and Cohen are still a part of the cultural conversation, but a younger generation of Canadian musicians has moved into the consciousness of the world beyond our borders.

What is perhaps most remarkable about these references is how completely absent Canada is from them: our country is never named in the book, and the singers mentioned are never identified as Canadian — even in the note about Cowboy Junkies, where such a mention might seem more natural than it would in the body of a poem. Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Cowboy Junkies — they have joined the pantheon of world culture, and are invoked without reference to their country of origin. They have escaped the burden of Canadianness — they are free.

This is thrilling and admirable but also, perhaps, a little sad. Or is it we who are sad — we who insist, every time one of these artists is mentioned, on saying, “And did you know he’s Canadian?” or  “They’re Canadian, you know”?

Opportunities for Further Study

For more on references to Canada in Irish literature, you can check out our post on Flann O’Brien, our post on Derek Mahon and our series on Paul Muldoon: Part I, Part II and Part III. We also have a number of posts on Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, which can be browsed at our Neil Young Archive and our Leonard Cohen Archive.

Personal Reminiscences, Of No General Importance — Please Skip

Forgive me, but his book calls up a host of memories for me. Both The Songs of Leonard Cohen and The Trinity Session were among the first (vinyl) records I bought when I was in high school, and I can recall a time when the Cowboy Junkies version of “Sweet Jane” was constantly on the radio — followed, a couple of years later, by “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning,” a song that was so ubiquitous I can still recall most of the lyrics. It was from The Caution Horses, which also, incidentally, contained a cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” — as Pound would say, “What splendour — it all coheres!” As for Whites off Earth Now!!, I never owned it but I recall holding a (vinyl, again) copy of it in my hands at a little used record store up a flight of narrow steps on Yonge Street (cf. Muldoon Part II, linked above) and finally deciding not to buy it. The band was popular by then and, being rare, it was probably expensive.

And Now, A Little Music

Neil Young & Crazy Horse doing “Hey Hey, My My” from the Weld/Ragged Glory period:

Leonard Cohen, with the original album version of “Sisters of Mercy”:

Here are Cowboy Junkies with their version of “Shining Moon”:

And here is the original Lightnin’ Hopkins version:

And if none of that entertains you, then nothing will.

Canada as a Hopeless Hospital Room

Thom Gunn, The Man with Night Sweats (1992)

The poem that mentions Canada, “Lament,” traces the stages of a loved one’s death (of AIDS, presumably), and might be the most beautiful piece in this stunning collection. It’s far too long for me to retype here, but you can read it in full via the Poetry Foundation, and if you aren’t familiar with it, I suggest you do that right now.

Here is the passage that’s relevant for our purposes:

No respite followed: though the nightmare ceased,
Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased.
Four nights, and on the fifth we drove you down
To the Emergency Room. That frown, that frown:
I’d never seen such rage in you before
As when they wheeled you through the swinging door.
For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you from
Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom
The hedonistic body basks within
And takes for granted—summer on the skin,
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea
In a dry mouth. You had gone on from me
As if your body sought out martyrdom
In the far Canada of a hospital room.
Once there, you entered fully the distress
And long pale rigours of the wilderness.
A gust of morphine hid you. Back in sight
You breathed through a segmented tube, fat, white,
Jammed down your throat so that you could not speak.

That, for my money, is the real thing: clear, powerful statement and sharp imagery wedded to seemingly effortless rhythm and rhyme.

As for Canada, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a brief reference used so effectively. The comparison of the hospital room to Canada, and the contrast it creates with the idea of “the sun’s kingdom” a few lines earlier, captures so many of the common ideas about our country — that it is cold, that it is distant, that it is an obscure and menacing wilderness (note that word two lines later) where struggle is constant and survival an unlikely accident. The phrase “the far Canada” already tells us much of what is to come in this poem: that the distance being covered by the sick man is too far to be crossed back again, and that the journey to this metaphorical “Canada” is a hopeless one from which there will be no return.

The choice of the word “martyrdom” in the previous line is also interesting. How much would Gunn have known about Canadian history? He was born and raised in England but moved to the U.S. in his mid-twenties — would his English education have included anything about a British colony like Canada? Would he have known about the so-called “Canadian Martyrs,” the Jesuit missionaries killed in Canada in the 1600s? If so, it seems possible that some idea of Canada as a far-off place where people go to die painful, lingering deaths may lie behind these lines.

Whatever its origin, it’s a grim image — this particular hospital room offers no possibility of cure. Also, though, an image that has a stark, almost cruel beauty about it, particularly when coupled with the “long pale rigours of the wilderness”.

We might compare Paul Muldoon’s lovely “gateless gates of Canada,” which has a similar wilderness element to it, but seems more an image of untapped possibility, whereas Gunn’s lines strongly suggest a harsh, unpleasant and unavoidable ending.

Those Pesky Geese Again


A.M. Juster, Sleaze & Slander (2016)

One of the many charms of this collection of comic and satirical verse is that, among the versions of Martial, Horace and Ausonius, and various other witty poems, it contains one that specifically addresses Canada:

A Stern Warning to Canada

If you want peace
withdraw your geese.

This is a very funny little poem, and as there’s nothing worse than explaining a joke, I’m going to try not to go on about it at such length that I spoil it.

In two brief lines, however, it implies a lot about Canada-U.S. relations. Of course the title and minatory tone of the first line are intended playfully (aren’t they…?). For the joke to work, however, there has to be a kernel of truth behind it, and that kernel is that the U.S. is a much more militarily powerful nation than Canada, and so at least the possibility of a threat is real.

The demand that Canada remove its geese, while absurd, also implies that there has been an unwanted influx of Canada geese into the U.S. We could read this as a sly reference to our famously undefended border, which has recently been in the news, and which wildlife can cross even more easily than people.

For more about Canada geese in poetry by non-Canadians, check out our post on Derek Mahon.

Shameless Self-Promotion

To learn more about the book, you can read my review of Sleaze & Slander, which appeared earlier this year in The Literateur.



The Vanishing Business Men of Canada


Marianne Moore, Observations (1925/2016)

This is a re-issue of the 1925 edition of Observations, published after Moore had made minor revisions to the original 1924 edition, but before the drastic revisions she made later (such as cutting “Poetry” (“I too dislike it”) from a couple of pages to three lines). I’m biting my tongue a bit here, on the principle that one doesn’t argue with genius — I’ll just say that I’m happy this book is now easily available in essentially the form that established Moore as one of the foremost voices of modern poetry. (And, while I’m generally pro-epigram, I just don’t like the three-line version of “Poetry” that much. There, I said it.)

Of course the best thing about this book (as you may have guessed by now) is that it mentions Canada. The reference comes in the poem “An Octopus,” which John Ashbery (for whatever you think his opinion’s worth) calls “one of the truly great poems of the twentieth century” on the back cover. The poem is much too long for me to re-type in its entirety, but here are the relevant lines:

No “deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness” is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where “when you hear the best wild music of the mountains
it is sure to be a marmot,”
the victim on some slight observatory,
of “a struggle between curiosity and caution,”
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with “glass eyes,”
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by “business men who as totemic scenery of Canada,
require for recreation,
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch trees, ferns, and lily pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paintbrushes,
bears’ ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the mossbeds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American “menagerie of styles”
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting rigid leaves
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.  (88-89)

The quoted passages are annotated in the back of the book; here is the note for the reference to Canada:

“business men”: W.D. Wilcox. “A crowd of the business men of Banff, who usually take about 365 holidays every year, stands around to offer advice.”  (108)

This is a quote from The Rockies of Canada, by W.D. Wilcox, published in 1903, and appears on page 116.

What to make of all this? In her introduction to this edition, Linda Leavell says, “‘An Octopus’ similarly celebrates the biodiversity of Mount Rainier National Park as a model for democracy,” which may offer some hints on interpreting the whole poem, but doesn’t help us much with Canada.

So what can we say? The reference to Canadian business men is obviously drawn from Wilcox, and demonstrates Moore’s technique of weaving fragments from other written works into the fabric of her poems. It’s interesting that she has changed “Banff” to “Canada”; Banff is, of course, in Canada, but maybe she thought readers were less likely to recognize the name of a specific place, and so she changed it to the whole country — which we could argue is symptomatic of a typically American lack of interest in specificity when referring to our country. (In a nutshell, “If it’s not Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, then it’s just Canada.”)

But how are these business men “totemic scenery of Canada”? And how is that status connected to the fact that they “require” 365 holidays a year? I would think a Mountie might be considered totemic scenery of Canada — Niagara Falls could maybe be called totemic scenery of Canada — perhaps even totem poles could be called totemic scenery of Canada — but business men? And yet Moore seems to feel that these Canadian business men are somehow the quintessential representatives of our country. And what does the joke about being on holiday 365 days a year mean? Are Canadian business men considered lazy? Is the idea that Canada is such an undeveloped country that while we do have business men, they have no actual business to transact, and so are on holiday all year?

Wilcox seems to mean that the Banff business men have nothing better to do than stand around and offer advice, while having no intention of actually doing anything themselves — they are, in short, the most irritating type of onlookers. But in Moore’s poem, the syntax of the whole sentence suggests that the “little horses” are “instructed … to climb the mountain by” these business men, though “none knows how.” This is a much more active role than they seem to play in Wilcox, though it’s not clear (to me) why they would be instructing horses to climb a mountain.

Wait, What Happened?

Fair warning: things only get worse from here.

While I will admit I’m a little baffled by the question of what to make of these Canadian business men, I was, nevertheless, glad to find them in “An Octopus.” Imagine my horror, then, when I consulted Moore’s Complete Poems (Penguin, 1994) and found these lines:

Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year….

(Un)Fortunately, my reaction was captured on video:

How could you, Marianne? How could you?

The reference to Canada has gone — and, what’s worse, this version of the poem is Moore’s final revised version, representing her ultimate thoughts on how the poem should appear to posterity. In the end, she decided the whole thing would be just fine — and, dare I say it, perhaps better? — without the reference to Canada. This seems, somehow, typical of the American attitude to Canada — we’re so insignificant that it doesn’t really matter whether we get mentioned or not. I doubt Moore agonized over the removal of the lines — she probably didn’t even stop to consider that she was cutting out the only reference to Canada in all of Observations. Why would she?

I hate to argue against my own interests (who doesn’t?), but it does seem, in this case at least, as though Moore’s later instincts may be correct. As my struggles (above) to untangle the plain prose sense of the lines show, things get a little oblique (not to say opaque) at the point in the poem where the reference to Canada appears; and does it matter that the business men are Canadian? Do we miss the description of them as “totemic scenery”? Is the poem somehow less (for purposes other than those of this website) for lacking the reference to Canada? It’s hard to say that it is; in fact, the lines feel a little cleaner and less cluttered as they are in the Complete Poems.

I’m still not sure how the business men instruct the horses to climb, but then the poem says no one knows, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?


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.


Canada: You Can’t Leave Fast Enough


Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2014)

This book is a re-working of The Canterbury Tales, in which each poem presents a contemporary version of one of Chaucer’s stories. Agbabi covers a wide range of poetic styles and voices, from the rhymed couplets of the “Prologue” to the rap battle of “Sir Thopas vs Da Elephant” and along the way shows not only her mastery of form, but also conveys a multiethnic, polyphonic vision of England.

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the individual poems appealed more to me than others; I think most readers would feel the same way, though of course the ones they preferred would vary. For me, “Joined Up Writing” (The Man of Law’s Tale) was a standout, its linked stanzas being not only brilliantly executed, but also a clever commentary on the act of writing itself, which is at the centre of that particular tale; “What Do Women Like Bes’?” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale) is a fitting successor to its original (what greater praise than that?); and “That Beatin’ Rhythm” (The Merchant’s Tale), composed largely from song titles, works remarkably well, and also recalled for me one of my favourite lines in all of Chaucer: “Gan pullen up the smock, and in he throng.”

The Flight From Canada

Each poem has a fictional author’s name attached, usually some sort of pun or play on the name of the tale-teller in Chaucer, and then at the end of the book we find “Author Biographies,” in the manner of the “Contributor’s Notes” section at the end of a journal or anthology. This is one more clever touch in what is already an immensely witty book, and it is in these author’s notes, rather than in the poems themselves, that we find the book’s only reference to Canada:

Yves Depardon: is a French-Canadian Professional Speaker and Business Coach living in Soho, Central London with his long-term partner. He’s published 20 self-help books and six novels, including the multi-million bestseller, Young, Free and Sinful (Impress, 2007). He regularly uses poetry in his presentations. His ‘love2Bme’ lectures attract a 2,000-strong online audience.  (116)

The transformation of Chaucer’s Pardoner — one of literature’s most compelling hypocrites — into a motivational speaker and self-help author is an inspired choice. I’m not sure why Agbabi chose to make him a Canadian, other than the punning connection between the name “Depardon” and the Pardoner, but I suppose it’s a kind of compliment that anyone thinks a character of such vertiginous hypocrisy could come from our country, and it’s certainly a sharp contrast with the usual image of Canadians as polite and uninteresting. (Though, based on our reading of Michel Houellebecq and Lorrie Moore, perhaps we can say the world has a slightly different impression of French-Canadians than it does of Canadians generally?)

In terms of ideas about Canada, Depardon’s biography contains an interesting reversal that I don’t think we’ve seen before. Immigration to Canada from the UK, and the possibility of a new beginning that Canada offers to immigrants, is something we’ve come across in authors like Charles Dickens, Basil Bunting and Derek Mahon, to name a few. All these writers convey the same view: that leaving the UK for Canada will offer a fresh start and open up a range of new possibilities that can’t be found in the “old country.”

In Agbabi’s book, though, the relationship between the old world and the new is switched; Depardon is from Canada, but he has left it for England, where he has found fame and fortune as a motivational speaker and author. There is no explanation of this, but behind it must lie some idea that Canada is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, and that Canadians whose families might have immigrated from Europe a century or more ago are now making their way back to Europe from North America in search of the same sort of opportunities that brought their ancestors in the other direction in the first place.

The Poetry

Because Canada isn’t mentioned in the poems, I didn’t have the chance to quote any of the actual poetry; in lieu of that, here are a couple of videos of Patience Agbabi reciting parts of Telling Tales. Here’s the Prologue:

And here is her take on the Wife of Bath:


The Western Buddhists of Nova Scotia


Allen Ginsberg, Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992 (1994)

I can’t say I loved this book; there were a few really good poems in it, but it struck me as the sort of book a poet publishes when he’s reached that level of fame that lets him publish essentially anything he takes the time to write down. The opening poem, “Improvisation in Beijing,” contains the line “I write poetry ‘First thought, best thought’ always,” which is, I suppose, a noble sentiment. But, while I hate to be churlish, and I certainly don’t have any desire to add to the already overwhelming level of snark burdening the world, it’s hard not to feel the lack of revision shows, and that some of the poems — and so the book itself — might have benefited from second thoughts, and perhaps even third and fourth ones.

But it contains two poems that mention Canada — would second or third thoughts have removed those references? — and so I can’t complain — or, I should say, I won’t complain any further, since I see that, like Fielding with his digression, in talking of my complaint, I have made it.

On to the poems.

Supplication for the Rebirth of the Vidyahara Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

Dear Lord Guru who pervades the space of my mind
permeates the universe of my consciousness,
still empties my balding head and’s stabilized my wand’ring thought
to average equanimity in Manhattan and Boulder

Return return reborn in spirit & knowledge in human body
my own or others as continual Teacher of chaotic peace,
Return according to your vow to pacify magnetize enrich destroy
grasping angry stupidity in me my family friends and Sangha

Return in body speech & mind to enlighten my labors
& the labors of your meditators, thousands from L.A. to Halifax
to relieve sufferings of our brothers, lovers
family, friends, fellow citizens, nations and planet.

Remember your vow to be with us on our deathbeds
in living worlds where we dwell in your tender perspective
breathe with your conscious breath, catch ourselves thinking
& dissolve bomb dream, fear of our own skin & yelling argument
in the sky of your mind

Bend your efforts to regroup our community within your thought-body
& mind-space, the effects of your non-thought,
Turbulent ease of your spontaneous word & picture
nonmeditative compassion your original mind

These slogans were writ on the second day of June 1991
a sleepless night my brother’s 70th birthday on Long Island
my own sixty-fifth year in the human realm visiting his house
by the Vajra Poet Allen Ginsberg supplicating protection of his
Vajra Guru Chogyam Trungpa

June 2, 1991, 2:05 A.M.

I’m not sure why he adds the date and time, given that the last stanza already includes that information, but he’s the poet.

There isn’t much about Canada here, really; Halifax simply marks the furthest extent from Los Angeles, suggesting the sheer number of meditators who are praying together. If you took a map of North America and, starting in L.A., drew a diagonal line across the continent to the northeast, you would probably end up somewhere near Halifax, though Ginsberg could just as easily have said L.A. to, say, Portland, Maine, and created essentially the same effect.

Which begs the question: why does Ginsberg choose to mention Halifax here? I found out while doing a little research on a later poem in the collection:

Who Eats Who?

A crow sits on the prayerflagpole,
her mate blackwinged walks the wet green grass, worms?
Yesterday seagulls skimmed the choppy waves,
feet touching foamed breakers
looking for salmon? halibut? sole?

Bacteria eat parameciums or vice versa,
viruses enter cells, white cell count low —
Tooth & claw on TV, lions strike down antelopes —
Whales sift transparent krill thru bearded teeth.
Every cannibal niche fulfilled, Amazon
hunters eat testicles —
Enemy’s powers & energy become mine!

August 13, 1992
Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia

I like that one, especially the “bearded teeth” of the whales.

In this case Canada isn’t actually mentioned in the body of the poem, but based on the Canadian location added at the end, I think we can assume that it was written in Nova Scotia and therefore reflects the poet’s view of a Canadian scene. So what impression does “Who Eats Who?” give?

The most obvious thing to note is the focus on wildlife, to the exclusion of everything else: we get the sense that Canada is occupied mainly by birds, fish and whales — there are no honking cabs or corner stores here, not even the fishermen we had in Whitman, which were an indicator of at least some level of human occupation and activity. If anything, the state of civilization in Canada seems to have regressed in the century between Leaves of Grass and Cosmopolitan Greetings, and we are back to nothing but animals and the poet sitting, looking at them, and writing down what he sees.

How does this poem explain the reference to Halifax in the previous one? Gampo Abbey, where “Who Eats Who?” was written, is a Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. So that probably explains why Halifax is mentioned in “Supplication”; the monastery isn’t actually in Halifax, but Ginsberg is presumably thinking of this Nova Scotia monastery when he imagines the meditators “from LA to Halifax”. We can forgive him, I think, his slightly sketchy Canadian geography.

Video Evidence

Here is some video of a marvellous reading Ginsberg gave to launch Cosmopolitan Greetings in 1994 — the poems really come alive in performance:

That was so much fun I can’t resist putting up the third part, which includes “To Jacob Rabinowitz” (one of my favourites from the book) and also Ginsberg singing (!):

Whitman’s Kanadian Snow-shoes and the Future of Newfoundland


Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (from Leaves of Grass, 1892)

I should begin by saying that I read the entire Library of America edition of Leaves of Grass (pictured above) many years ago. I picked it up recently and re-read a few poems here and there, and that’s when I actually noticed the references to Canada in “Song of Myself.” I did not, however, re-read the entire book, so there may be other references to Canada in other poems — something left to discover, perhaps.

“Song of Myself” is obviously much too long for me to re-type here; since the main reference to Canada that I want to discuss comes in section 16 of the poem, I am presenting that section. (If you care to re-read the whole poem — and why wouldn’t you? It’s Poetry Month, after all — it’s available via the Poetry Foundation here.)


I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)  (203-204)

Not a passage that requires much explanation in and of itself; it’s one of Whitman’s many expansions on the idea succinctly expressed in the oft-quoted “(I am large, I contain multitudes)” line (section 51), as he insists he is all different kinds of people in typical list-making, paradox-piling Whitmanian style.

The reference to Canada marks a shift: in the first nine lines, Whitman says “I am” these different types of people (a Yankee, a Georgian, a Hoosier and so on), but in line 10 he switches to “At home …” and the next three lines enumerate places where he feels at home. And so Whitman is not directly associating himself with Canadians — he does not say, “I am the Kanadian on his snow-shoes” — but rather that he is:

At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,

That single line contains a remarkable little cluster of ideas associated with Canada: the snowshoes, obviously, carry the standard notion of Canada as cold and snowy; they are immediately followed by the phrase “up in the bush,” which shows again the way Americans conceive of us as “up” because we are to the north of them and also, in the word “bush,” the idea that Canada is an undeveloped wilderness; and then, with the fishermen off Newfoundland, we come to the image of Canada as a country rich in natural resources (here fish — perhaps even the “glutinous codfish of Newfoundland” so beloved by Casanova?) to be exploited.

We might even draw in the following line, with its “fleet of ice-boats”: they are not labelled as “Kanadian,” the way the snowshoes are, but given their proximity, and the fact that no other place is mentioned until Vermont in the following line, it is tempting to wonder if they also have a Canadian connection. If they do, they obviously further the association between Canada and the cold.

The more you consider them, though, the more elusive the references become. Does “At home on Kanadian snow-shoes” imply that Whitman has actually been to Canada, and that he went snowshoeing there? Does it mean that he is comfortable wearing snowshoes in winter, and that he thinks of snowshoes as somehow distinctively Canadian, or as coming from Canada? (Did he own snowshoes? Were they made in Canada? The unanswerable questions pile up.) “Up in the bush” might or might not refer to Canada, but it’s certainly suggestive coming right after the “Kanadian snow-shoes.” (The idea of Canada’s “northerliness” is definitively stated in section 31, where Whitman writes, “the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador.”) And even the mention of Newfoundland could be disputed, since Newfoundland was not actually part of Canada at the time Whitman was writing (I explained my attitude to this in a post on John Donne). Strangely, though, its placement in that line seems to associate it proleptically with the country it would ultimately join, almost as if Whitman, ever oracular, could see the future of our easternmost province.

Of course Whitman isn’t really talking about Canada here; we come in merely as one of the many regional identities he associates himself with, but this is not a record of personal experience — it’s a poetic stance and a philosophical statement of oneness with all humanity.

Or perhaps that requires a qualification: this is not a statement of oneness with all humanity, but with American humanity. It’s striking, is it not, that this one line, with its Canadian snowshoes and Newfoundland fishermen, is the only line in all of section 16 that refers to a place outside the United States?

In fact, in a quick re-reading of “Song of Myself” I found, in addition to the line above, a couple more references to Canadians and one mention of Labrador, but nothing about any other country or nationality except the English ship in section 35 (I may have missed something) — almost as if Whitman were aware of the U.S., and had some notion of the existence of Canada, and beyond that … nothing much. Whitman seems to be at great pains to associate himself with the representatives of every region of the U.S., but doesn’t show much interest at all in the people beyond its borders. And this absence of other nationalities makes the references to Canadians that much more striking: why are we alone represented here in “Song of Myself”? Did Whitman feel some sort of brotherhood with Canadians that he didn’t feel with other nationalities? Did he see Canada as a new nation, like the U.S., that was in the process of forging its identity — a process of which his own poetry was a part? Or does he simply think of Canada as an extension of the United States, and a “Kanadian” as a regional type on the same level as a Georgian or a Hoosier?

I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a reminder of how quintessentially American — or North American? — a poet Whitman is.

Finally, what to make of the fact that Whitman apparently spelled “Canada” as “Kanada”? (It’s not a one-time accident: he also mentions a “Kanuck” in section 6 and a “Kanadian” in section 39, both times in lists of different “types” of people). I think the “C” spelling must have been pretty much settled convention by the latter half of the 19th century (see Dickens’ 1857 novel Little Dorrit, for example), but Whitman is idiosyncratic in many ways, and if this is another of his idiosyncrasies, well, who am I to argue?

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