The Essential Canadian Poem

First, read the essay “Preface to ‘The Bush Garden'” by Northrop Frye on page 107 of The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature.

What, according to Frye, are the essential characteristics of Canadian Literature?

Now, which one of the following poems exemplifies best these essential characteristics?

Milton Acorn: “The Island,” “The Fights”
Margaret Atwood: “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”
Margaret Avison: “In a Season of Unemployment”
Earle Birney: “Bushed”
George Bowering: “Prairie,” “Mud Time”
Leonard Cohen: “God is Alive”
George Johnston: “The Pool,” “In It”
D.G. Jones: “Pastoral”
Robert Kroetsch: “Stone Hammer Poem”
Patrick Lane: “The Carpenter”
Irving Layton: “Berry Picking”
Gwendolyn MacEwen: “The Armies of the Moon”
Jay Macpherson: “The Anagogic Man”
Michael Ondaatje: “Letters and Other Worlds”
P.K. Page: “The Stenographers”
F.R. Scott: “W.L.M.K.”
Miriam Waddington: “Advice to the Young”
Phyllis Webb: “Lament”

Additional Quotes:

All discussion of literature produced in the Canadian West must of necessity begin with the impact of the landscape on the mind. – Henry Kreisel, The Prairie: A State of Mind

We are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here: the country is too big for anyone to inhabit completely, and in the parts unknown to us we move in fear, exiles and invaders. This country is something that must be chosen -it is too easy to leave – and if we do choose it we are still choosing a violent duality. – Margaret Atwood, Afterword to the Journals of Susanna Moodie

In recent years the tension between his appearance of being just like someone else and the demands of authenticity has become intolerable – both to individuals and to the society. The major writers resolve the paradox -the painful tension between appearance and authenticity – by the radical process of demythologizing the systems that threaten to define them. They uninvent the world. – Robert Kroetsch, Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction.

The first task is to recognize your condition, to articulate it. The second task is to change it. – Patrick Lane

All Literature is a conscious mythology: it creates an autonomous world that gives us an imaginative perspective on the actual one. – Northrop Frye

Someone who lives in one place and believes himself in another is insane. – Margaret Atwood, Survival

It seems to me that the Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question, “Who am I?” than by some such riddle as “Where is here?” – Northrop Frye, Literary History of Canada

Synthesis of 15 “essential characteristics” from Frye:

  1. We are myth destroyers.
  2. We are paradoxical – we search for our own identity.
  3. We celebrate victims.
  4. We celebrate individual suffering – defeated by rebellion.
  5. Truly authentic Canadian experience is shrouded in violence and paranoia.
  6. External world defines who we are.
  7. Fear of America, Europe, “Old World.”
  8. Interior Separation
  9. Garrison Mentality
  10. Exploration and Discovery: Quest
  11. Canada is the great asylum for victims the world over.
  12. Long periods of death followed by the rush to (re)produce.
  13. Authors explore three key relationships to determine who we are:
    • our relationship with the environment
    • our relationship with each other
    • our relationship with the Divine.
  14. Societal barriers, systems of all kinds are pulled back to uncover briefly who we are.
  15. Immigrants could not control the land or nature – so they controlled the Indians.

Writing Activity #6

Write a personal essay on a philosophical theme or discuss some fantasy in your life. Base your essay on an idea suggested by one of the following:

  • I used to pretend . . .
  • Kids can come up with some of the craziest ideas.
  • “All of the animals except man, know that the chief business of life is to enjoy it.”
  • “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”
  • When I have kids, I’m going to teach them . . .

Patrick Lane, “The Carpenter” and “The Bird”

  1. Both of these poems suggest the longing of the individual for escape from the realities of life. Why is the trade of the carpenter appropriate for the thought of the poem?
  2. “The Bird” is a poem about the necessity for freedom. According to Lane, how does the poet free himself from the realities of life?

P.K. Page, “The Stenographers”

  1. What comparison does the opening stanza suggest? Why is it appropriate?
  2. What is the bell that rings in stanza four? Whose voice “draws the pencils”?
  3. Where are the stenographers in the seventh stanza? What are they doing? Note how the poem carries them through the day.
  4. In what sense are the stenographers like marathon runners racing around a stadium track?
  5. In your own words explain what the poet is suggesting about the life of a stenographer.

George Johnston, “The Pool”, “In It”, and “O Earth, Turn!”

  1. What does the pool represent in “The Pool”? How does the reference to the pool in “In It” clarify the meaning of the first poem? Notice that the boy in the poem is a part of the thing he gazes on, but the man is a thing apart from the pool and sees it from the outside. What does this suggest about the way our attitude to life changes as our understanding develops?
  2. How does the meaning of “world” in “In It” differ from the meaning of “earth” in “O Earth, Turn!”? Is there any contradiction in the poems? Do all three poems suggest the same philosophy of life?

Earle Birney, “Bushed”

  1. What is the meaning of the term “bushed”? What happens to the man in the shack?
  2. Notice how the mountains changes character and becomes more and more personified, and how the sights and sounds of the woods take on terrifying significance as the poem progresses. Experienced trappers say that you should never approach a trapper’s cabin, even the cabin of a friend, without first calling from the shelter of the woods and making your presence known. Can you suggest a reason for this?