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 . . .

Writing Activity #4

  1. Identify some person whom you admire because he or she has taken a firm stand on some issue and supported it in the face of strong opposition. You could choose as a subject someone you know personally, or a public figure. Write an essay characterizing this person and explain what it is you admire in him or her. OR
  2. Write an impassioned defense of some idea that you have proposed without success, but that you still feel is valid. The cause you support should be one that is generally unpopular. You may, if you like, treat this essay humorously, inventing a cause that is obviously indefensible and defending it with mock seriousness.

Writing Activity #2

  1. Imagine that a friend who frequently finds himself or herself left out of social activities has asked you to explain why. You want to be helpful. Write a personal letter explaining, as tactfully as possible, what it is that makes your friend an outsider. OR
  2. In a well organized and carefully written essay of about 350 words, discuss the topic “Conformity: Who Needs It?” Your essay should identify three areas in which you (or people in general) are pressured into doing things that are distasteful, boring, harmful, or undesirable or some other reason.

Writing Activity #1

Find several colour pictures of Canadian scenes such as those available on scenic calendars.

Write two descriptive paragraphs, using as a subject one of the scenic pictures or a remembered scene from your own experience.

  • In the first paragraph use a completely objective approach to your description. Your purpose should be to enable the reader to picture the scene. You should avoid using any language that would provide atmosphere to the scene or in any way influence the reader’s attitude to it.
  • In the second paragraph use a subjective approach, choosing language to create associations in the mind of the reader–associations that will make the scene appear attractive, unattractive, gloomy, threatening, peaceful, barren, or however you wish.