Friday 8 April 2011

The Death of Modern Canadian Poetry

Here’s a really smart review by Jacob McArthur Mooney on the Modern Canadian Poets anthology. Jacob bills my recent Quill and Quire column as a “defense” of the Carcanet book, and, while I can see how you can read it that way, I was really trying to make a case for a growing number of younger poets—or “rebooters”—rediscovering and promoting neglected names. It’s an idea that seems to have caught fire (you might almost call it a generational effort) and I see the Carcanet anthology has a part of that trend. So the piece wasn’t meant to be a review of the anthology, per se.

Now, I can’t lie: I do get indecent pleasure from so many blue-chip names (McKay, Purdy, Atwood) being dropped. And I'm very grateful the editors included Coles, Bailey, Outram, Ormsby, Dalton and Partridge among others. But I don't want to ignore my frustrations with the book. I question some of the inclusions, from the bizarre (Joan Murray) to the you've-got-to-be-kidding me (David Moses). And I mourn the missing: Charles Bruce, D.G. Jones, Peter Van Toorn and David Solway.

But the Swift and Jones anthology is a lot like Donald Davie’s dream of rediscovering a “native” English-language tradition via Hardy. Or Yvor Winters’ alternative canonmaking (elevating Fulke Greville over Yeats). Or Ron Silliman’s “neglectrinos” (that subculture of the shunned). The editors, in other words, will argue that they are simply dramatizing an unrealized alternative. And they would be absolutely right. This is why comments about them getting it “wrong” miss the point. In a sense, Modern Canadian Poets can be called a counterfactual novel. By exaggerating certain facts and ignoring others, the anthology conjures an altered historical outcome for Canadian poetry—or at least gives us a glimpse into such a world. That’s why it sometimes makes more sense to treat anthologies like this as acts of make-believe rather than gate-keeping. As I’ve written before, the genre, by definition, is about making a statement through selection. And that statement is what you’d expect from any speculative fiction worth its salt: a radical break with the present.

Frankly, I think Swift and Jones have assembled probably the most daring Canadian anthology since Mainstream, which Peter Van Toorn completed in 1973 and never published (rumor is it was rejected). The only evidence of the anthology comes from the preface D.G. Jones was invited to write. It was eventually included in The Insecurity of Art: Essays on Poetics (1982) edited by Ken Norris and Peter Van Toorn. Here’s how the preface starts:
"Dear Peter,

This is a radical, challenging, fine anthology. It must meet quite a challenge after leaving out Roberts, Carman, D.C. Scott, A. J. M. Smith, P.K. Page and Margaret Avison, not to mention others still. Certainly, even on its own terms, some poems by these poets might be included, but I gather not enough from your point of view. In any case, I think your selection can meet the challenge and justify itself."
Doug, you took the words right out of my mouth.


Todd Swift said...

Hi Carmine, Thanks for this post. I am not sure though what is "smart" about Mooney's review. The language borders on libel: "dishonest" is a big word to throw at editors who took years to thoughtfully compile a book for British readers to discover unknown Canadian poets. Mooney fails to note that our anthology mentions Atwood, and Cohen, in the Introduction, and explains their omission. He also fails to note that we end the Intro by encouraging British readers to explore more widely. By no means is this meant to be a definitive mismapping of the terrain. I do like your idea of the artfullness of the anthologist. Such selections are a creative act. I admire Yvor (not Yvon) Winters' contrarian anthologies. Fulke Greville is also great. Mooney has done us all a service by way of a disservice: his review clearly flags up the disconnect between the protective and defensive view in Ontario, and how Canadian poetry is read in England, where, for instance, Sir Motion can say that (even) Dr Carson is under-read. I should add that Joan Murray is not as strange a choice as you might think: Auden loved her poems and gave her a Yale prize - or is Auden's taste eccentric to your sense of the tradition? I fear it may be the Canadian taste that is not (always) up to that of Auden's tongue.

Carmine Starnino said...

Libel? Give me a break. Jake knew exactly what you and Evan were up to, He just didn't like it. You're surprised? My advice that is you embrace words like "dishonest." They should make you stronger. If you're not offering up this anthology in glee -- like some master tailor handing the emperor his invisible outfit -- then you had no business doing it. And I don't give a shit what Auden liked. I can make up my own mind about poets. And my sense is that Joan Murray was a too-eccentric choice is an already eccentric book.

Marius Kociejowski said...

Wasn't Carmine being a shade ironic in describing Mooney's review the way he did. Shouldn't there be a sound of popping champagne corks? Isn't the G & M response exactly what Todd and Evan had been hoping for?