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Peacock on Canadian Poetry

Molly Peacock has blogged about the ways in which American and Canadian poets relate to their British peers. Now, blogs are always a bad place to locate someone's poetics, or deepest thoughts, but I for one was a little disappointed by this simplistic take on things. Now, I need to say, I am in the book she has series edited, Best Canadian Poems in English 2008, and am very proud to be; I admire her work immensely, as poet, and editor.

Still: I feel it's not enough to observe the cultural and aesthetic differences of American and Canadians, by commenting on the fact Canucks have the Queen on their money, or "stayed at home" with "mom and pop" while the noble Yanks broke free of the British empire. I think American poetry is a lot more complex than that (many American poets draw on British and European traditions) - and I know for sure British and Canadian poetry is far more complex. For one thing, Peacock doesn't really observe the biggest shadow of all hanging over her blog post: the American one.

America, despite suddenly being wonderful again, has bothered Canadians since day one, because its economic, political, and cultural clout is so impressive and often dominant. Canadians spend more time breaking away from America, without having to break away from Britain. On that point, few Canadians actually read much new British verse these days - though I agree that Babstock and Starnino do. Nor is "British poetry" monolithic - it has many streams that diverge, from the work of Prynne, to that of Lumsden.

It's ironic, to me, that Peacock hears so much Britishness in Canadian poetry, when what I tend to hear (being in Britain) is how American the Canadian poets tend to sound. Sure, Americans that have read some canonical poems by Brits - but still swaggeringly, robustly, loosely, American in tone and style. I for one think Canadian poetry would be wise to move back closer to some of the British and Irish roots of its own poetry, rather than locate all its force in the immediate geocultural facts of its environment. Poetry may come from local things, but style, form, and the conversation poems have with each other need to extend, broadly, beyond such limits, to enter the canons of the future - diverse and global as they look to be.


Harold Rhenisch said…
Well said, Todd.

Still, I wonder if the issue might be a little broader yet. Perhaps it's not a question as to whether Canadian poetry imitate American or British, but whether Canadian poetry as a whole more actively engage with them. That can be interpreted in multiple ways, which is a good thing, but the main point I think is valid: it's not only tradition with which we engage, but the nature of our engagement with tradition. That speaks volumes. Besides, in British Columbia today, what is engagement with British tradition? Asian poets are writing out of an Asian engagement with British tradition, which gives an entirely different poetic. Other poets, such as myself, engage with British, American, and European traditions. Other poets are, of course, French. Perhaps it's not British tradition that matters, but deep connection with traditions, period. American poetry has become pretty transparent these days. It often passes without notice, especially without notice of its foreignness. In a sense, that means we engage with it, I guess, but in another sense it means we no longer see it. Seeing can be helpful. At least British verse remains foreign, yet also, paradoxically, more local. Identity is so complex. Let's keep it that way.

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