Canadian Poetry – A Brief Note


Smith Street, Warwick - no's 55 to 61 Smith Street

Smith Street, Warwick – no’s 55 to 61 Smith Street (Photo credit: ell brown)

Poetry is that song of the soul which gushes like a spring on every season of human life and circumstances; whether it may be a time of joy, bliss, sorrow, melancholy, moody, drowsy, pleasant, etc. We also have come across various genre of poetry based on its style, origin, historical setting, culture, and language and even by its geographic terrain. Here I would like to speak of a particular genre of poetry originated from its geographical and cultural terrain – the Canadian poetical genre. Unlike the American and European poetical gatung/genre which is often spoken of, I do not think Canadian poetry is spoken that passionately everywhere in the world. I feel that its richness and uniqueness often gets camouflaged by English literature originating from other geographical and cultural terrains. Hence I thought of initiating some write ups, of course from various sources, about Canadian poetical genre, which may further enhance the interest of those who love poems and essays. And it is purely informative.

The idea of a distinct English Canadian tradition dates back to the middle of the 18th Century CE. When the English explorers and pioneer writers found the English language and their poetry inadequate to express their very different Canadian experience. J. Mackay writes in ‘Quebec Hill’ (1797 CE):

“Ye who, in stanzas, celebrate the Po,

Or teach the Tyber in your strains to flow,

How would you toil for numbers to proclaim

The liquid grandeur of St.  Lawrence Stream?”

Aspiring poets, like Mackay, have been concerned about the impact of the British and American traditions upon Canadian poetry and have been in continual quest for a distinct Canadian tradition.

In 1867 CE, a few states in North America joined together and confederated into a nation called Canada. This year is called the Year of Confederation. The four poets, C.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Archibald Lampman, and D.C. Scott, who lived and wrote during these years, were called the Confederation poets. For all practical purposes, Canadian poetry can be said to begin with these poets. These poets initially wrote a conservative and romantic mode of verse. They turned to such poets as Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats for their models. But their later poetry laid firm foundation for a tradition of Canadian poetry. This gradually developed into a distinct style of poetry.

E.J. Pratt stood in time between the Confederation poets and the Canadian modernists. He provided an essential link between the attitudes and assumptions of the Confederation poets on the one hand and modernist principles and practice on the other. It took Canadians a long time to come to terms with the poetic revolution of the early 20th Century CE associated with the names of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Pratt’s poetry can be seen as bridging the gap between the traditional and the contemporary. Pratt showed his kinship with the Confederation poets by his show of masculine force in rhyme, by his love of narrative and by the nature of his moral concerns. He resembled the moderns by his complexity and consistent reflectiveness and by the steps he took towards a considered solution of the moral problem. Pratt moved with comparative ease between the two worlds.

During the earlier 1920’s, a configuration of circumstance and career brought A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, A.M. Klein, and Leo Kennedy to Mc Gill University to form the “Montreal Group” or the “Mc Gill Movement.” Leon Edel recalls Smith’s influence on him at the time: “We would sit at the back of a classroom and pretend to listen … while Smith wrote poems and gave me T.S. Eliot to read … Smith first taught me the meaning of literature … He made me feel the modern idiom.” Commenting on the formation of the “Mc Gill Movement” under the leadership of Smith, Wynne Francis, a biographer wrote: “Smith’s enthusiasm, combined with his critical, creative and carry-forward talents made him the leader of the concerted effort to establish the New Poetry in Canada.” Thus, Smith spearheaded Canadian modernism in Canada.

The constituents of the “Montreal Group” came together, however, only to propagate modernism. In other aspects their works show heterogeneity. F.R. Scott was influenced by W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender for his satirical spirit, W.W.E. Ross and Ezra Pound for his imagism, Whiteman for his demotic poetry; A.M. Klein found his poetry from Jewish Chassidium, English Jacobean writers and James Joyce; Leo Kennedy shows a curious combination of the influence of John Webster and Emily Dickinson. Smith learnt from Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Pound and from Metaphysical poets like Herbert and Vaughan and from early French modernists like Laforgue and Mallarme.

This is a short briefing of the development and evolving as far as Canadian poetry is concerned. The interest in Canadian poetry will increase when one starts to read and reflect of their poems, which I am do shortly in my upcoming posts.

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2 comments on “Canadian Poetry – A Brief Note

  1. Thank you for helping keep Canadian literature and poetry out there in cyberland … and especially for linking to our site!

    I notice a dearth of women in your commentary, though… perhaps you can do another blog talking about all the marvellous female Canadian Modernists? Livesay, Marriott, Waddington, Smith, Page… and dare we include Pickthall? Certainly if you are talking about Canadian poetry more generally, there are a large number of eminent women who could be mentioned…

    • Surely will do when I come to write about individual poets. Your suggestion will be in my mind when I pen down about Canadian poets. Thank you for this pleasant, good and healthy insight.

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