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September 23, 2009

Canadian Poets

Judith Maclean Miller

"I write in case someone, anyone, is listening."  Lorna Crozier

"Listening” is, of course, the operative word. Poetry was for many eons a verbal form, and only recently has it become a form people think of as written, as on the page.

Poetry on the page can be pleasing to the eye, but it is poetry in the ear or at least in the mind’s ear which really comes alive. The sound of poetry matters. Hence sound poets, who avoid specific meaning, playing with sound—of letters, words, bird calls, car engines—to remind us that poetry is closely linked to sound.

Which Canadian poets would I recommend?

I don’t suppose it is entirely reasonable to say “all of them.” It is the case, though, that tastes differ, and sometimes the best way to find a poet who seems accessible or comforting or stimulating is to search widely and then choose.

Born in 1909, Dorothy Livesay lived through critical decades in Canada, and her work mirrors each decade in turn, opening out into some of the earliest experimental verse in this country, taking on social issues as they arose. Livesay’s long poem, written for radio performance, Call My People Home was one of the earliest public voices lamenting the treatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. 

Livesay demonstrates how the personal can be the political in lines about a woman wandering in her world who came back to face a gaping wood stove, which “could not be fed on flowers.”  Livesay cared deeply about social justice and fairness, about language and about the importance of speaking out against injustice.

Rienzi Crusz, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, writes Canada as a place where people’s mouths can be filled with ice, where a man used to sunshine and a flamboyant natural world can be disoriented by ice and snow and cold. Crusz writes critiques of Canadian society, but he also celebrates it. He writes family poems and poems about poetics, about how a poem works or presents itself. He has a wry humour when he writes about himself and a warm generosity in his conversations with God about his present whereabouts.

Tim Lilburn is a difficult poet for many people. A former Jesuit, he fills his poems with theological and Roman Catholic church references which puzzle many people. He also writes some of the most beautiful poems in English about the natural world of Canada. It is well worth working through his sometimes difficult language.

How much poorer the world would be without Leonard Cohen. His love poems, his social critiques, his sharp-eyed commentary on politics, his poems making fun of his own singing voice continue to delight audiences. He is thoroughly a Montrealer. In a TV interview, he said that he thought his raspy voice needed the sweetness of women’s voices in the background. For whatever reason, it works.

Early on in his career, Cohen made the decision to perform his poems rather than publish them in books. He wanted the direct connection with an audience, with listeners. He has been warmly received, especially in Europe, where people respond to his mix of romanticism and world-weariness. There is nothing naïve about Leonard Cohen. Speaking of his life, he said, “Je ne regrette rien.” (I regret nothing.)

When F. R. Scott speaks of the beauty of the Canadian north as “a beauty broken by strength and still strong,” his words resonate.

Michael Ondaatje builds images in his poems and in his novels which linger a long time with a reader. Margaret Atwood began as a poet, and her poems are still among the best of her pieces. The same is true for Jane Urquhart, Anne Michaels, Joy Kagawa, Robert Kroetsch.

We are a nation of poets. We even inscribe quotations from poets and novelists on our money, a practice which astonished some visiting professors from China a year ago.

Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier, Fred Wah, Duncan Campbell Scott,  Dionne Brand, Anne Szumigalski, Erin Moure, Al Purdy, Susan Musgrave, P.K.Page, George Elliott Clarke, Robyn Sarah. . . try any or all of them.

A good place to begin is

. www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry

WLU press has a wonderful series of small books of Canadian poets, including selections of their poems, an essay about each and an article by each poet.

www.wlupress.wlu.ca

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