Canadian Poetry Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Long before the vast region that is now Canada was explored and settled by Europeans, it was home to a number of aboriginal peoples. Each group had its own culture and language, but the groups were similar in some ways. Like aboriginal tribes in other parts of the world, they had stories about the creation of the world and humanity, their natural surroundings, and animals that behaved like humans and, in some cases, actually became human beings. One of the common elements in these tribal stories was the inclusion of a trickster figure, whose function was to add suspense and humor to narratives.

How and when orally transmitted aboriginal stories became literature, which by definition means something that has been written down, is difficult to determine. Although the Canadian aboriginal peoples depended primarily on the oral transmission of their cultural heritage, contemporary observers reported that some tribes recorded texts on wampum or in hieroglyphic letters inscribed on birch bark. The first alphabetical transcriptions and translations of the poetry of the Canadian aboriginal peoples can be found in letters written by Jesuit missionaries and British and French military officers to their friends in Europe. The Jesuit missionaries taught their own writing system to aboriginal children.

In the late nineteenth century, Tekahionwake (1861-1913), a First Nations poet, became famous for English-language poems about her culture. The daughter of a...

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Early francophone poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French established settlements in Nova Scotia and in Quebec. In 1713, most of the area in Nova Scotia, which was known as Acadia, was turned over to the British, but the French held onto the rest of their settlements in Canada until the fall of Quebec in 1759. With the Treaty of Paris in 1763, England took over New France. However, many of the people in the Maritime Provinces and most of the natives of Quebec continue to speak and write in French. The nationalistic fervor of the 1960’s impelled those who lived there to insist on being called Québécois, leaving the label “French Canadian” for the French-speaking Canadians in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the western provinces. In this essay, however, the authors of francophone works will be referred to by the more general term.

The earliest French Canadian works to appear were written by travelers and missionaries and published in France. However, after a printing press was established in Quebec in 1764, bilingual and French-language newspapers appeared. They published poems by such writers as the French dramatist Joseph Quesnel (1746-1809). In 1830, Michel Bibaud (1782-1857) published the first book of French Canadian poetry, Épîtres, satire, chansons, épigrammes et autres pièces en vers (epistles, satire, songs, epigrams, and other verses). In the 1840’s, the École Patriotique de Quebec, a conservative, Roman Catholic literary group dedicated to the preservation of French Canadian traditions, formed around the poet and bookseller Octave Crémazie (1827-1879). In 1863, the Romantic poet Louis Fréchette (1839-1908) published a collection called Mes loisirs (my leisures), which was the first volume of lyric poetry to appear in Quebec. In 1880, a volume of his verses won for Fréchette the French Academy’s Prix Montyon. Thereafter, he was thought of as the poet laureate of French Canada. His La Légende d’un peuple (1887; the legend of a people) is considered the most important francophone poetic work published during the nineteenth century.

Francophone poetry in the twentieth century

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

At the turn of the century, Montreal was not only a thriving commercial center but also a city with a cosmopolitan culture, closely linked to intellectual developments in France and in Belgium. The Parnassian and Decadent movements in Europe provided the impetus for the founding of the École Littéraire de Montréal (the Montreal literary school), primarily to introduce the kind of poetry popularized by the French Symbolists and the Parnassians. Among the members of this group were Jean Charbonneau (1875-1960), Émile Nelligan (1879-1941), Charles Gill (1871-1918), and Charles Lozeau (1878-1924).

The poets associated with the periodical Le Terroir (the land), founded in 1909, were called the regionalists because their verse, although often neoclassical in form, tended to have patriotic themes; local, usually rural, subject matter; and sometimes religious content. Among the more distinguished regional poets were Nérée Beauchemin (1850-1931), Blanche Lamontagne-Beauregard (1889-1958), and Lionel Léveillé (1975-1955).

During the 1940’s and the 1950’s, the poets of Quebec turned inward, exploring their own psyches, feelings of alienation, and spiritual needs, as well as the meaning of mortality. Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau (1912-1943) was joined in these efforts by Alain Grandbois (1900-1975), Anne Hébert (1916-2000), and Rina Lasnier (1915-1997). Since the 1960’s, under the influence of a more open, less repressive...

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Early Canadian poetry in English

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Although most of the early anglophone Canadian writers turned out narrative and descriptive prose rather than poetry about the new country, Halifax, Nova Scotia, was becoming a cultural center as early as 1789, when it became the home of the first Canadian literary journal in English, Nova-Scotia Magazine. A native of New Brunswick, Oliver Goldsmith (1794-1861), wrote the epic poem The Rising Village, which was published in England in 1825. The poem, which celebrated pioneer life in Nova Scotia, was clearly meant as a response to The Deserted Village (1770), in which Goldsmith’s granduncle, Oliver Goldsmith (1728 or 1730-1774), had deplored the fate of emigrants to the New World. Like The Rising Village, most of the poetry written during these early years was upbeat in tone and patriotic in theme, as can be seen in the first anthology of Canadian poetry, Selections from Canadian Poets (1864), edited by Edward H. Dewart (1828-1903). Not surprisingly, the poems in that volume are derivative, for Canadians had yet to develop a sense of who they were. In fact, that effort would dominate Canadian literature for the next hundred years.

When Canada became a self-governing dominion within the British Empire in 1867, Canadian writers were even more motivated to develop a distinctive national literature. In the next two decades, six of them founded a group that became known as the Confederation poets. Charles G. D....

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The modernists

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

One of the most influential poets of the next generation was E. J. Pratt (1882-1964), a native of Newfoundland. Like his predecessors, Pratt excelled in natural description, as he demonstrated in his book Newfoundland Verse (1923), but he also wrote distinctive long narrative poems, such as The Titanic (1935) and Dunkirk (1941). Pratt also dramatized Canadian history in documentary narratives such as Brébeuf and His Brethren (1940). The fact that Pratt emphasized the heroic qualities of the Iroquois and those of the Jesuit missionaries whom they killed drew negative comments from some critics. However, the work won the Governor-General’s Award for poetry. The independence Pratt displayed in his treatment of subject matter and in his willingness to experiment with new poetic forms links Pratt with the group who introduced modernism into Canadian poetry.

In the middle 1920’s, A. J. M. Smith (1902-1980) began editing a literary supplement that soon became the McGill Fortnightly Review. His intent was to introduce the innovative spirit of modernism into Canadian poetry. What became known as the McGill movement and, later, the Montreal group included F. R. Scott (1899-1985), A. M. Klein (1909-1972), Leo Kennedy (1907-2000), and Leon Edel (1907-1997). In 1936, Smith and Scott brought out a collection called New Provinces, which contained poems by Smith, Scott, Klein, and Kennedy, as well as by Pratt and...

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Contemporary poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In the late 1950’s, Warren Tallman (1921-1994), an American-born poetry professor at the University of British Columbia, became interested in the theories of Robert Duncan, the San Francisco poet, and other Black Mountain poets, such as Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Charles Olson. The British Columbians who met with Tallman and Duncan were especially interested in Olson’s insistence that poetry is essentially oral, rather than written. This theory would eventually stimulate the growth of performance poetry.

In September, 1961, George Bowering (born 1935), Frank Davey (born 1940), David Dawson (born 1942), Jamie Reid (born 1941), and Fred Wah (born 1939) published the first issue of a magazine called Tish. Meanwhile, in Ontario, Al Purdy (1918-2000) began to write poems that derived their form from casual conversation. Thus, postmodernism came to Canada.

During the 1960’s, Margaret Atwood (born 1939) began her long and distinguished career as a poet, novelist, short-story writer, and literary critic. In her poetry, Atwood explored such issues as love and death, human alienation, and social injustice. Another contemporary writer is Anne Carson (born 1950), a classics professor who merges past and present in poems that are noted for their timeless appeal.

Like Atwood, Michael Ondaatje (born 1943) has attained recognition in a number of different genres. His prizewinning novel The English Patient (1992)...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Atwood, Margaret, ed. The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A comprehensive collection, especially valuable for its inclusion of many early writers not represented elsewhere. Atwood’s introductory essay is especially noteworthy. Index.

Blouin, Louise, Bernard Pozier, and D. G. Jones, eds. Esprit de Corps: Québec Poetry of the Late Twentieth Century in Translation. Winnipeg, Man.: Muses, 1997. Especially useful for anglophone readers.

Brandt, Di, and Barbara Godard, eds. Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s...

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