Friday, November 19, 2010

Not a Moose in Sight

What I know about Canadian poetry and poets can probably be written on the back of a (very small) Maple Leaf, but ignorance isn't always bliss of course. I attended the launch of the new Carcanet Modern Canadian Poets anthology at the Anthony Burgess foundation , with Joni Mitchell songs wafting through my head, but not a lot else in the way of preconceptions.

Editors Todd Swift (he of the Eyewear blog) and Evan Jones read in turns from an anthology that, perhaps surprisingly, covers the whole of the 20th century - with the youngest poet born in 1962. No new generation then, more a re-appraisal, for a British and worldwide audience of a neglected canon. Anne Carson aside, few of the names will be familiar to a British audience, yet from the poems they read, this seems a matter for some regret. The poets may not be that well known here, but the poems that the editors chose to read were strong, immediate - and perhaps more surprising than anything to me, rooted in 20th Century Modernism. In choosing their selection the editors had realised that they had not a single dominant figure - a Les Murray, an Auden, a Heaney, a Walcott - around which a national poetry could be hung. A.M. Klein, a Jewish, Ukrainian whose family moved to Montreal, became that figure for them.

Other poets in the collection also had an internationalism to them, particularly British connections. It has always seemed a paradox to me, that Canada, through its Commonwealth connections, should remain so close to Britain, when physically it is so close to America. As he himself is a Canadian poet based in London, Swift felt those connections were important.

A quick search of Amazon sees that there have been other Canadian anthologies, and it will be interesting to read the introduction of this latest one, to see to what extent a canon unknown to me is being refreshed or rejected. There wasn't really time - or inclination - for questions, but one inevitable one came up. Where was Margaret Atwood? A poet before she was a novelist. "Read the introduction," said Evan, "but with Atwood and Ondaatje, their poetry wouldn't be in bookshops if it wasn't for their novels." I can hardly imagine a British anthology being brave enough to leave out its biggest names. Those other "poets", Young, Mitchell and Cohen are perhaps easily excusable omissions, yet I'm always intrigued by how so many of the best North American songwriters were actually Canadian. (A trend continued by Arcade Fire.)

But this was about the poetry - and the poems they read out sounded fresh, accessible, and with a certain sensibility that a closer reading may well define as Canadian. I have a little quibble with the use of the word "modern" in a book with writers born in the 19th century in it - they are clearly not "contemporary", but it was fascinating to hear a little bit of social history alongside the poems themselves. The Great War as a particularly monumental event for Canadians; or the love of "ice hockey", their national sport, finding its way into verse, just as cricket (rather than football) often has in England.

I didn't have much time to stay and chat, but there was a good crowd, of forty so people attending, and I'm sure the book will be a useful counterpoint to other national narratives. After all, Canada's another country with a fair share of English-speaking poets. It's literature remains both a pride, and a puzzle - having never won the Nobel for Literature, yet regularly appearing in Booker lists - and I look forward to looking more deeply into the anthology itself.

Another take on the night and the anthology is here.


EYEWEAR said...

Thanks for this thoughtful take on the anthology and the launch, Todd

Adrian Slatcher said...

Cheers, sorry I didn't get a chance to say hello, had to get off.