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What is wilderness and what is it doing in poetry?

By Sina Queyras

Ferry Island

“Wilderness. So overwritten it should probably be granted a reprieve from definition, maybe even a lengthy sabbatical from speech.” So the poet Don McKay writes in The Muskwa Assemblage. McKay is one of a handful of Canadian poets known for their intense connection with both philosophy and nature, or the land, or the thinking and singing of the land. I am intrigued by the writing of this group: Tim Lilburn, Robert Bringhurst, Jan Zwicky and Dennis Lee, all of whom have written about their complicated relationship to wilderness, and nature, both in their poetry and in the essay form. I’ll try to touch on each of these poets over the next month, and also on an anthology of poetry (that includes an excerpt from McKay), and brings some of these more contemplative lyric voices together with less traditional ways of covering similar terrain.

I wonder what we think of when we think “nature” or “wild?”  So does McKay: “Uninhabited? There is, says Simone Weil, an impersonal part of the soul. I think something like that part must be the place where wilderness resonates, where we sense ourselves to be, not masters of creation, not technological wunderkinds, but beings among begins…” Of course I find it hard to rid my mind of technology given that what is recorded, what we know, is largely due to technologies. We are inseparable. But I like to hear McKay’s musings on the matter for these questions remain just that for me, questions.

Edward Burtynsky’s photographic practice began the moment he realized that for every upward extension in the human world there must be a depression, and so on. He has made a career out of working backward from moments of witnessing, tracing the materiality of our products, from computer chips to oil. This tracing is fascinating. Finding the edges, where the seams are: bits of wild peak out amid cloverleaf’s and the sawed off ends of parking lots where the wolves prowl. The extreme shifts are instructive: parachuting from New York, or Toronto, or Montreal to a small lake in the Ottawa Valley, or to Botanical Beach, or the banks of the Skeena, one of the last great untapped rivers in North America, and now threatened by one of several plans for pipelines and other energy projects that will drastically change that last bit of “wild.”

On the other hand, walking in Ferry Island, a small island park in the middle of The Skeena river and in the town of Terrace, one realizes that the gorgeous trees one is walking in are all planted by human hands. Like so much of the area, the island was logged a hundred or so years ago. Human hands ordered the forest, as we see above, and put in the road to the park. Human presence is embedded in the trees, in the paths, on the rocks. And traces of the wild mark the deep city. Here is a bit from Lisa Robertson’s “Fourth Walk,” from the Office for Soft Architecture:

The sky over the defunct light-industrial district was still the sky, less sublime, but more articulate. And walking what we witnessed was, like a flickering appetite, the real end of sunlight, buildings torn out of the earth and forgotten, the superabundant likenesses of pictured products collapsed into our dream and over and over in the dark the flickering appetite now bunched under the ribs. We were partly in another place. It’s hard not to disappear. I pondered this ritual of crisis and form as my guide and I walked the unprofitable time of the city, the pools of slowness, the lost parts…(91)

Where is the uninhabited? The lonely industrial parks? The arctic? I try to come to terms with place, and of the ‘appropriate’ subjects for poetry, particularly for what we think of as nature, or eco-critical poetry. For Robertson, the city is pastoral. Filled with beauty and possibility. Filled with tensions too, strange juxtapositions, a blank canvas for thinking, and a catalog of evidence for gathering. A place where human drama plays out and accumulates in layers, one over the other. (Thinking here of Jean Luc Nancy’s densely intriguing The Creation of the World or Globalization, where he suggests that the world has lost its ability to form world rather it has gained instead the capacity of proliferating…)

So what does poetry yearn for? Imagine you had a land, and then you lost it: that is pastoral, as Robertson reminds us. It’s a simple gesture. We want things the way they were: untouched. We want to elude human presence, but of course we take us with ourselves wherever we go. What is wild? Do you have examples of wilderness rendered in contemporary poetry? How does the notion of wild play out for you?

Comments (42)

  • On February 2, 2010 at 11:14 am Don Share wrote:

    Robert Bringhurst, who isn’t read much here in the States, is really fascinating. Here are some quotes from his essays that touch (more or less) on poetry & wildness:

    “Metaphor, as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, is an informative kind of deviant predication. (The informative kind of deviant nomination is called metonymy.) But in Native American narrative, the metaphors, the deviant predications, are usually stated so directly, with so little rhetorical fanfare, that readers trained on European literature don’t notice them as literary figures. They are perfectly embedded in the narrative. They are what I like to call declarative metaphors. Take them out and there is not only no poetry left; there is no narrative, either. So I don’t suppose these metaphors are literary figures. I suppose they are structural components, each one syntatically related to the rest of the components of the poem where they appear…

    When you come down to elemental things – earth, air, fire, water, wind, sun, moon, a flake of lichen on the rock, a scrap of birdsong, Orion in the clear, winter sky – you find that metaphor – or poetry, to call it by its other name – is a fundamental property of things. You find that things are deviant predicates of themselves.”

    “I hold, like Eric Gill, that letters are things, not pictures of things.”

    “Humans have a proven ability to out-talk and out-eat everything else on the planet, at least in the short-term, and some people seem immensely proud of that. Why I’m not quite sure.”

    “The cheerful term postcolonial, which I often hear on campuses these days, might suggest that the age of destruction is over. In fact, the colonization is still at fever pitch. The great transformation of gold into lead and of forests into shopping malls continues. Some analogous transformations can be seen in the university itself. One of the reagents used for this purpose is the acid of postmodernism: the thesis that nothing has meaning because everything is language. It works especially well in parallel with the acid of unrestrained commerce: that nothing has meaning because everything is for sale. Repeated exposure to these ideological acids produces human beings who cannot wonder at the world because they are not at all sure the world exists, though they can wonder all the more at social power and reputation. When you take the world away from a human being, something less than a human being is left. That is the inverse of education.

    To me it is clear that things have meaning because they are meaning – or can have meaning – because it can speak, poorly but truly, of some of the things that language is not. For me, these facts have a practical outcome: because things have meaning, not everything is for sale…

    Language listens to the world. I listen with it. What I hear when I listen is a question, which is listening itself. The question often changes form: from silence to breathing to speaking to music to voices to visions to silence again. But that is my vocation. The trail it leaves, more often than not, is a text. Real texts are the products of a vocation, not the other way around. That is almost all there is to writing.”

  • On February 2, 2010 at 11:18 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    He is fascinating. I have his Selected Poems by my side. This entire group is fascinating, and read in tandem with people such as Susan Howe and Juliana Spahr whole new possibilities of thinking and writing emerge…something about balancing those edges pleases me.

    Fabulous:
    “Humans have a proven ability to out-talk and out-eat everything else on the planet, at least in the short-term, and some people seem immensely proud of that. Why I’m not quite sure.”

  • On February 2, 2010 at 11:43 am sassjemleon wrote:

    sina, not necessarily true, of course, as is so often the case with the “fabulous” quote.

    i would offer that while humans do incessantly chatter in ways that we sometimes understand, insects probably communicate and eat, proportionally speaking, just as much as we do, perhaps more. almost immediately, bees and termites come to mind….

  • On February 2, 2010 at 12:02 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Sure, but I don’t think they are displacing us quite yet.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 12:18 pm sassjemleon wrote:

    sina, termites and bees have tried to displace me on several, sometimes very painful and expensive occasions.

    regardless, the quote makes no case for displacement. perhaps you meant the quote was fabulous in terms of its fictitious sense, rather than as something very good. amusing, however, may have been a more accurate assessment. those words seem to be gathered more in jest than anything else.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 12:21 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Interesting that “wilderness” is an untranslatable word, going from English to Spanish. You have a choice between “naturaleza,” which is fuzzy, pleasant, greenish, and somewhat general, and “desierto,” which is primarily but not necessarily arid as in English, but certainly stark, uninhabited and brutish.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 1:26 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    That is interesting, John. I can’t tell how wedded my ideas of wilderness are either to my English language, or my experience as a north American…

    In Vis a Vis McKay says that by wilderness he is suggesting “not just a set of endangered spaces, but the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations.”

    How does poetry handle this scale, these folds? This is what I ponder, and I don’t think it’s an easy task…these poets have been in dialog about these questions for years now. I am very much on the outside looking in.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 2:28 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Here’s one that is or is not dealing with wilderness, but I thought of it as I was reading through, gathering bits of poems for the follow up post to this. It’s from an early poem of my own titled “Snapshot of My Mother in Nature”

    “no hamburgers

    hard to walk in heels”

  • On February 2, 2010 at 2:59 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    “no hamburgers

    hard to walk in heels”

    I associate wilderness with “purple herbies”, which is what we called the “burgers” we made out of fried canned blueberry pie mix, when we ran out of other foodstuffs up in the Ontario woods. That night a bear came, & ate all our remaining purple herbies, & then rolled around moaning in front of our tent for a very long time. We assumed he had an upset stomach.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:11 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Or perhaps delight? I spent a lot of time tracking bears in my youth. Ridiculous in retrospect. We would, at nine, or ten, head off into the woods, following some trail or other. The few times I have come close to bears I have of course run in the opposite direction. Wilderness is best viewed through a glass?

    It seems that many “nature poems” present such encounters.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:22 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    >Or perhaps delight?

    Now that we never considered… but you may be right. They were so heavy we were almost glad the bear ate them.

    Yes, delightful, those old days! I was followed back to camp by a bear once. A little nerve-wracking. The timber wolves were spookier (at night, howling).

    Wilderness for me = woods & swamplands of northern MN, Ontario. The whole region emanates some kind of mysterious, cold, elusive, mournful aura. Very Russian. Birch trees & owls. Ultimate quiet.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:27 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    I think wilderness is a place where people have relearned their true importance in the long slow dream of this planet. I think wilderness can enter the city, and the finest poet in the deepest wood can lose the touch of wildness forever with a single footstep from this path. I think we can all find that path every day, under pavement, in an aircraft/vimana, i n a library musing over wood-bound glories of the past – the trees can spring up around us in the very wires and stones, yea in the very bones of your skull, made from the chalk of Mother’s bones and animated by the mud of her everbirthing, everfertile womb.
    P

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:32 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @HenryG: I’ve only experienced the Eastern woods once upon a long canoe jaunt, in Algonquin park. I spooked at my first moose (though it was going to come and Git me) and crossed a lake in record time. A fine peace, poking through wet frogfilled flats so that it seems you are floating across a drowned prairie, the waters only inches deep and many frogs hidden brown green in the whorled drowned grasses.

    I used to get my outdoors kicks riding deertrails out here in TFL’s, parks, and anywhere else that seemed good. Now I get ‘em through the perforated walls of my manywindowed trailer, unless I limp to the store.

    Thanks everyone for their reminisces/thoughts. A pleasure after a looooong morning transcribing.

    P

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:34 pm Mabool wrote:

    Run twenty-one dawg Fort Yukon t Mayo’s Landin the warmest it ever got was fifty-six below.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:37 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    ps: re: riding: a pedal-bike, mind, what we once called a mountain bike. I still have my longest-lived and finest horse, a hand-built ’93 Rocky Mountain Blizzard. Samurai steel. It doesn’t ring when you let go of the brakes anymore (like a bell it was), but it still rides itself in that mysterious way that lets you enjoy the woods.

    And no, I never skid(ded – crippled now), unless it’s an emergency or an established fire road where one might use speeds in the excessive-insane range were one so inclined.

    It’s possible to vibrate your eyeballs so much you can’t see, on the right terrain. Deer know the best ways for people but they are awfully agile.
    P

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:39 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Sounds like a wordbot, Mabool, another kind of other, as it were.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 4:43 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Very Russian. The kinds of cold, and the kinds of isolation, are quite powerful up here. But we’re not supposed to talk about it. Shh. (We are not our relationship to landscape.)

  • On February 2, 2010 at 6:46 pm Mabool wrote:

    I had never heard of wordbots. I checked the web which didn’t help much. Evidently something like the following. The above script is an attempt to render spoken English a la Mark Twain. Mayo’s Landing is in Canada. The original speaker was American. Canadian dialect is not like as above.

    magalo, megalo
    mani
    morkati issopoulo
    barguenda flosh messitill
    floakamaw mlostee
    ishbeguenuer.
    voolue.moss voolue.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 8:10 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    .

    “Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl: it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.”

    Henry David Thoreau

    .

  • On February 2, 2010 at 8:47 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    “A fine peace, poking through wet frogfilled flats so that it seems you are floating across a drowned prairie, the waters only inches deep and many frogs hidden brown green in the whorled drowned grasses.”

    *

    Your moose reminded me of a trip about 40 yrs ago, canoing with my brother on a remote little river near Lake Vermilion, MN. We came around a reedy bend, & there was a large moose, standing in the water, about 6 ft away. We just floated along, very still. & she watched us drift on by.

    My mother’s nickname in college was “Moose”, because she spent so much time away from class & out in the woods (she LOOKS nothing like a moose…). Much later she specialized in a genre of oil paintings called “forest floors”…

    One of her sons (Bill) became an arctic biologist, mapping the vegetation in the Arctic Circle… his wilderness stories could put us all to shame…

  • On February 2, 2010 at 9:13 pm Eric Landon wrote:

    Connected

    Walking the rhodedendrum-sheltered road
    from McLoughlin’s to a cottage, I became connected
    to the patchwork of field, bog and peat smoke:
    where even dead brown heads of wild rhubarb fell
    into being with dog-bark and bird call, puncturing
    the silence wrapping the island completely
    .. save for the foam-white horse-water prancing
    at the Atlantic’s Eastern edge.

    And calling to the half-bright moon as a ruby-pink
    finger of crimson cloud ringed atop of Slievemore
    mountain, gently paled to white mist and disappeared
    into the ether that warm May night – I felt
    a silken velvet light of Achill hold within
    its grasp, all the waves of time that ever broke
    upon the ridges of this nunatak mountain
    and wind-ravaged fir trees .. always ever-blooming
    in the moment always now no sweeping hand can measure

    silence in a tribal heart beating its Bunacurry blood beneath the May moon.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 9:23 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Wooden alveoli erect and fragile
    in the rarefied air of October, leaves
    frosted-glass,rock chapel orange and red.
    The sky no longer enclosing us. The sound
    Of a distant airplane blossoming into clarity
    and not enclosed. Eels pulled from
    the canal. Even the planets are motile,
    hoary with diamonds above the chiming
    sunset. She swims alone and naked
    in a clear October lake. A white building
    stands free and O the spirits look dimly
    out from there.

    –Christopher Dewdney

  • On February 2, 2010 at 11:17 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    My then-wife Jan and I hiked into the Siskiyou Mountains in June 1978, backpacking in from a place on route 96 named Fort Goff almost to the Oregon border. A couple of long days to aptly named Lonesome Lake at timberline (maybe 5600 feet) where we hung out a day and two nights. One day walking in we saw two bears, they crossed the trail ahead of us like great furry pigs huh-huh-huhing it down into underbrush. We saw no other human beings the whole time we were in there.

    The next to last day we hiked out halfway to a place we’d stayed the first night, Sugar Pine Camp, on the shoulder of a big hill in very deep woods. We had an operatic fight over dinner, the marriage was almost over. Possibly relevant. We made up and crawled into sleeping bags and were awakened at midnight by the godawfulest racket I ever hope to hear.

    It was muttering and screaming and whistling and gnashing with a weird harmonica-like whine on the inhale, and then continued. I shone the flashlight uphill in that direction. Nothing, trees and black shadow of treetrunks. I spoke up, using all the projection and mellow authority I would employ to bring a class of unruly fifth graders in line. I said we don’t want any trouble but it’s time for you to leave now.

    King Kong noises in the blackness holding place awhile and then started to move away uphill. Moving away fast uphill in the pitch black but heard for a long way and then finally fading into crickets. We looked for tracks in the morning but it was all deep pine duff.

    A couple of months later somebody played me a tape purported to have been made in the wilds by Bigfoot seekers. It was the same sound we heard that night.

    I never did get a poem out of it.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 12:27 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    “Imagine you had a land, and then you lost it: that is pastoral, as Robertson reminds us. It’s a simple gesture.” Absolutely stunning. Thank you, Sina, for this invitation: trance, posture, site. The wild, for me, has been periphery. Literally, jungle space. The skin of a white – -WHITE! – cobra strewn over a rotted log. That you pluck with a stick. Stepping into that space, and understanding, from its spaciousness and quality of light, that it was in fact: culled. Re-planted. A post-colonial forest. And what it would take to go further in. (Text. Lantern.) Here, ideally, I would quote Brecht but I am shivery from taking my dog from a walk.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 8:28 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Post-colonial forest. Thanks for adding that, and periphery. I was thinking how white our idea of wilderness is here in Canadian poetry…what does wilderness mean in Haiti? What does it mean in Africa? I know it means something different in Europe. We need new ways of thinking about wilderness, it seems to me, and re-planted, is probably one of them. Culled. Cordoned off? Built up? Protected sites? Is wild simply what we have no use for? And how does all this work in poetry?

  • On February 3, 2010 at 9:06 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Ah yes, the mythical Bigfoot. The late 70s were filled with sitings and reports of the beast, and strange goings-on in the western forests. We had a few hysterical encounters ourselves, though likely they were squirrels stuck in a garbage can, or a skunk trying to ferret out the last chip of a bag of Old Dutch…

    The “encounter” is one of the great nature/wildnerness poems. I’m not sure I’ve read one about bigfoot.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 9:18 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    “As everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands and the space around the hands and the space of the room and the space of the building that surrounds the room and the space of the neighborhoods nearby and the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the cities and the space of the regions and the space of the nations and the space of the continents and islands and the space of the oceans and the space of the troposphere and the space of the stratosphere and the space of the mesosphere in and out…”/Juliana Spahr herself. In a long poem, the chance to transcribe endocrine flows as they pass through bodies and territories of different kinds. The question of pollution mixed with the question of the meme — of what enters an environment of its own accord. A record of a pathway, a pollutant, that’s not always a visual presence. The poem itself as the cull. As a place where the dirty bits shore up. A shore that glitters not with sand, not with pleasure, but debris.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 10:43 am Mabool wrote:

    The Yedi.
    The yedigarabombayarniskaybubbabblebeebooshnyash.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 11:57 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Love that book of Spahr’s.

    And yes, “a record of a pathway, a pollutant, that’s not always a visual presence” absolutely. I recall driving across the prairie with the fabulous Peter Butala, a rancher in Saskatchewan, north of the Montana border. He gave his 1,000 acres to the Nature Conservancy shortly before he passed away. Looking at the land with him revealed the layers of intrusion, visible–as in farm lands–and non-visible, as in the toxins pooling in the ditches along the road side…an amazing person. A big loss. Not to be romantic, but practical: what he knew of the land, how he read it, was remarkable.

    If you want to spend time in this landscape, look into the Stegner House and give the town of EastEnd a big wave from me.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 2:20 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Or the Yedi. Glad to know you’re not a bot Mabool.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 4:05 pm Mabool wrote:

    I’m not the Yedi. The habitat was as you describe: western wilds of 1970s, but the stenographic account comes from the Internet in recent times. The Yedi is no longer on the Internet. Some language in the above vein is on my blog, scrambled. Those who misappropriate the Yedi’s language are torn limb form limb.

  • On February 3, 2010 at 5:30 pm David Buuck wrote:

    Worth reading when critically thinking the category of ‘wilderness’ –

    http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html

    DB

  • On February 3, 2010 at 9:51 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    I will go there one day. I have always wanted to. “Also, I like the idea of the “possible” or that which you are looking for being just outside the periphery.” [Your words]:Transplanted from the vertical index beneath Thom’s newest post, in which you currently exist.

  • On February 5, 2010 at 2:48 pm Gillian wrote:

    a lot of canadian wilderness poetry or nature poetry or eco-poetry is what we already do to the natural: own it, reform it, make it bite-sized and palatable. even story-telling we do that. it’s natural. and human. I think you have to come at every poem understanding that whatever it is you are writing ABOUT is greater than any rendering you can muster.
    this thinking about eco-poetry and nature poetry is important and McKay, Bringhurst, Zwicky, Lee et al. are doing a fine job. ownership of the natural carries on unabated, however, and I wonder if we can’t think of new ways to relate, new ways to represent, other methods that do something greater than what’s already done in that genre of poetry. it’s been the same for years, now. we think we’re reverent toward the wilderness, but we’re not or we are (too much) or it’s not enough: we’re still making list poems about the ditch flowers and appropriating the voices of the trees – I dare canadians to do something different.

  • On February 5, 2010 at 6:00 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Hi Gillian,
    In some ways I think Canadians do do something different in their poetry–not in the way that someone like Juliana Spahr does, but in our own way. On the other hand, it may be just that we are further behind in terms of what we have and will do…that’s a fear being realized in places like northern Alberta, and so on. So yes, I hear you, we certainly could do, need to do more. There are people who think poetry should do nothing, or can do nothing…I’m not one of those people. I actually think poetry can help us imagine new ways of interacting…

    More to come, on the poets you mention etc. Hope you’ll stop by and add some depth and specific locale to the conversation.

  • On February 5, 2010 at 7:43 pm roz wrote:

    Do you think the Canadian poetic response to wilderness has anything to do with your wilderness being so vast and northerly? I’m speculating on how this orientation might differ from continental US-ers’ attitudes towards our own wilderness, which occurs mainly in pockets circumscribed by developed metropolis, or in vast containments in the interior west. I was in the Albertan Rockies once and Canadian wilderness to me seems to stretch on and on, reaching for polar north. And I think also of Glenn Gould’s Idea of North…

  • On February 6, 2010 at 9:16 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Well, the question of wilderness is a prickly one for contemporary Canadian poetry–an attempt to cast out earlier alignments and ideas about our relationship to nature/wild. There is also a desire to be seen as more urbane, formal, international. This is what I sense, in any case, and all of this makes sense. On the other hand, Tim Lilburn (I’ll post on him soon) talks about the relative unease with which North Americans relate to the vastness we find ourselves in, and at 250 years the relationship of “white north American culture” to the land is young and awkward, out of alignment.

    Any attempt to offer a sweeping description will fall woefully short…but one thing I feel quite certain of is that because Canada is younger, wilder, and has perhaps messed up less of itself (so far!), or is closer to the act of messing it up, the edges seem more apparent. And we have the luxury of being conscious of these edges, the receding glaciers, the changing landscape of the oil sands, the vanishing fish etc. One might argue broadly there is less disconnection…

    And of course we have the luxury of contemplation. How does environmentalism or eco-thinking function in an space such as Haiti, for example? Or Somalia? Gillian’s point about “we’re still making list poems about the ditch flowers and appropriating the voices of the trees” is also quite relevant here…it’s not easy.

  • On February 6, 2010 at 1:07 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    If we’re going to talk about such Canadian stereotypes can we stipulate that virtually none of the country’s better [known] poets fit it? Not Cohen, not Ondaatje, not Bök, not Solie, not Clarke or Simpson on the print side and certainly not Gamble, Kristalo, Lindley or Watson among the onliners.

    Whether or not Canada has more Lampmans than the U.S. has Thoreaus is something I’ll leave to the statisticians. There’s just too many variables for this simple mind to process.

    -o-

  • On February 6, 2010 at 2:46 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Colin, it would be good to hear more about what you’re thinking. One post can’t scratch the surface, but it’s good to start somewhere isn’t it? Or should one just not speak because there are too many variables?

  • On February 6, 2010 at 11:52 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    @Sina:

    FWIW, I was responding originally to Gillian’s remark:

    we’re still making list poems about the ditch flowers and appropriating the voices of the trees – I dare canadians to do something different.

    My point is that no one needs to “dare” Canadian poets to do something that most of them have been doing for longer than any of us have been alive. As you stated, “I think Canadians do do something different.”

    “Or should one just not speak because there are too many variables?”

    Well, we could, at least, define them and put them into perspective. Are we talking about poets whose readerships extend beyond their circle of friends, family, students and sympathizers? If so then, as I mentioned, any attempt to cite the expanse as a defining characteristic of Canadian poetry fails. If talking about all Canadian poets, good, bad or indifferent, we might suppose:

    1) s% write primarily about the onerous/onanistic ownership of a navel;
    2) t% write primarily about philosophy, psychology, mythology and/or literature;
    3) u% write primarily about language itself;
    4) v% write primarily about politics, current events and/or history;
    5) w% write primarily about romance;
    6) x% write primarily about other traditional genres or themes: drama, comedy, elegy, life, death, etc.
    7) y% write primarily about other specific genres or themes;
    8) z% are too weird, incoherent or versatile to be categorized.

    Plug in any figures you figure are appropriate. (Me, I keep going over 100% before I get to #6.) How many are left to be considered nature poets? Feel free to run the numbers again for poems. Is the percentage of wilderness poems/poets anywhere near double digits, let alone the majority? If not, what does this say about the stereotype that Canadian poets are fascinated by the environment?

    As for the notion “that we are further behind in terms of what we have and will do”, the less said the better. FWIW, if I were trying to make an argument that contemporary Canadian poets are fixated on the wilderness–does this include Toronto and Montreal poets?–I would have contrasted them to, say, British ones rather than to those of a country whose Poet Laureates have included Robert Frost and, more recently, Ted Kooser. That’s just me, though.

    Incidentally, as of 2001 Canada’s population was 79.6% urban. A year earlier, the percentage of U.S. citizens living in urban environments was 79.219%.

    http://www.ccsd.ca/factsheets/demographics/demographics.pdf
    http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/census/cps2k.htm

    Best regards,

    Colin

  • On February 7, 2010 at 6:07 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Thanks for the statistics, and your thoughts. Obviously it’s difficult, and dangerous to generalize. One can try to identify thrusts though, peaks, concerns, etc. And statistics are strange–what is urban is very different in Canada I think. Our cities are much less dense. How does that play out? Maybe it doesn’t… One clarification, what I was referring to with the statment “that we are further behind in terms of what we have and will do” is actually development, marking and reshaping the land.

  • On February 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    @Sina:

    One clarification, what I was referring to with the statement “that we are further behind in terms of what we have and will do” is actually development, marking and reshaping the land.

    Ahem. As you may know, I’m the furthest thing from a Canadian nationalist (assuming that isn’t an oxymoron), especially insofar as 21st century print poetry is concerned. Nevertheless, I would hope that the Manitoba floodway (along with the Canal, one of only two human accomplishments visible from the moon), James Bay and Labrador power projects (which provide most of the hydroelectricity for the central and eastern states, respectively), Expo ’67 and the cutting edge technology of the tarsands are about all that needs to be said about Canada’s ability to reshape the land. Space, too, if we consider the Canadarm.

    Best regards,

    Colin


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 by Sina Queyras.