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Sunday, December 11, 2005

The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry

Time and Place: December 11 at 7:30 pm. Arts Court, 2 Daly Avenue Phone: 564-7240 Readings by Andrew Steinmetz, Steve Heighton, Anita Lahey, Asa Boxer, Geoff Cook, Susan Gillis, and David O'Meara.
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I was looking at my thesaurus tonight. I think I found a word to describe the book being launched tonight. I came up with 'portentous'. You might come up with other words. I like portentous. It sounds important. With a title like The New Canon, it behooves one to at least buy the book, and even more so, attend its Ottawa launch. I did. I still haven't read all of the twenty-two pages of its introduction. This will take some time. In general, I don't like long introductions, especially ones that are apologetic. I have reservations about any author included as part of a literary canon who was only born in 1975. Good God, I had my first sip of beer that year! However, any anthology of Canadian poetry is good if only as a way of stimulating conversation and showing our poetic talent on the international stage.

On my bookshelf beside me sits several anthologies. One is A Book of Canadian Prose and Verse by Edmund and Eleanor Broadus. Compared with The New Canon, their introduction was of a different era when it was first published in 1923. I have the revised and enlarged edition of 1934. In the preface to the first edition on the first two paragraphs of the first page the word Canadian or Canada appears a whopping ten times! Even the word 'patriotic was used, albeit, they aptly point out that some of its inclusions of verse "is to be more patriotism more than poetry". Still, the contents are divided along similar lines "Canada and the Canadian Spirit"; "The People"; "The Nation Builders". The introduction weighs in just over a mere three pages.

Likewise, A New Canadian Anthology edited by Alan Creighton (assisted by Hilda M. Ridley) in 1938 also provides a brief three pages of introduction. This was Canadian poetry in its infancy. They allude to another anthology that preceded their book by John Garvin that was published in 1926. Though I never read this book, I bet you the introduction is short. Anyway, in Creighton's foreword, it is explained,

"Until quite recently, the average Canadian knew little or nothing of Canadian poetry. He had a traditional regard for Burns, Longfellow and Tennyson, but, as he had heard of no Canadian writer of similar standing, he assumed that the national mind did not rise above farming, lumbering, fishing, hydro-power and pulp. The preponderance of American and British magazines on the newsstand further convinced him that the Canadian voice was too frail to warrant his attention. So he developed a distrust, an almost studied disregard, toward the feeling and thinking of his own people. This attitude, although less marked in recent years, still persists."

I am lucky own a first edition copy of New Provinces -- the 1936 copy signed by the late Canadian poet Leo Kennedy no less. New Provinces was published when hardly any poetry was being published at all, in the height of the depression and on the brink of a second world war. But it's important to point out the book's sub-title, Poems of Several Authors. The slim book was not meant to be comprehensive by any stretch.

Ralph Gustafson even apologizes in his poetic contribution, Anthology of Canadian Poetry, which came out in 1942: "Most non-Canadians will be surprised to learn that Canadian Poetry exists at all." But his preface reads just over one page. Succinct. Just the way I like it.

And with the publication of Unit of 5 edited by Ronald Hambleton, the forward is delightfully short, and again very apologetic. This taken from the two paragraph introduction: "The appearance within two years of a third collection of poetry by Canadian writers needs some justification, if not an apology, especially when no relation between poetry and the social revolution can be immediately discerned." This was the first appearance in book form of all five of its authors. Inicidentally, Unit of 5 was published in 1944, not in 1943 as noted in Carmine Starnino's introduction (pg. 15).

Time will tell how this 'new cannon' of fifty poets, that Starnino provides us, will stand up to criticism (if any?). Until then, we await inevitable next anthology of 'Canadian' poetry. Let the debate begin.

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