I love desert island lists, and I suspect Harold Bloom does too. His book, The Western Canon, reads like one big desert island list. At the back there's even a country-by-country breakdown of the best writers in the world. The American list takes up over six pages, and deservedly so. The Canadian list, on the other hand, runs to a mere eight names. More interesting than the Canadian list's brevity, however, is its content. Although the usual suspects—Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood—are present and accounted for, there's no sign of E.J. Pratt, Milton Acorn, Al Purdy, Earle Birney, Gwendolyn MacEwen, bpNichol, Robert Kroetsch, Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, or Susan Musgrave. Non-Canadian readers of Poetry, unfamiliar with some or even all of these names, should be apprised that up here, the aforementioned are big fish, considered among the best we've got. But they don't make Bloom's list, and while I don't want to give too much authority to the old aesthete's opinion, it was instructive for me, as a young Canadian, to discover what a prominent non-Canadian critic thought of my country's accepted canon—which was not very much. It was particularly instructive to discover on Bloom's list a Canadian poet I'd never heard of, a poet who'd never been discussed in any of the Canadian literature courses I'd taken at university, nor featured in 15 Canadian Poets X2, the flag-red and rigorously dull handbook with which you were apt to be equipped in such courses.
Perhaps, though, Bloom should have placed Daryl Hine offshore, in the blank geopolitically neutral margins of The Western Canon's pages. Born in British Columbia in 1936, Hine left Canada in 1958 and describes himself as "stateless" in the tart introduction to his new Recollected Poems. With a hint of curmudgeonly triumph, Hine writes:
At first temporary, my Eurocentric exile metamorphosized into an alien residency in the United States when opportunities denied in my native land opened, first in New York and then in Chicago.
I compensated for my lack of a BA (which I thought correctly that I should never need) by taking a PhD at the University of Chicago, and instead of the work in a bookshop that I had been offered in Montreal, found myself editor of Poetry.
I wince at the uniquely Canadian foresight that offered a future editor of Poetry no more than a retail job. But our loss was Chicago's gain and, in Canada's defense, Hine's dense, formal poetry, with its rich verbal play and cosmopolitan allusions, would have been out of step with the nationalist project that took hold of my country in the sixties, embodied in lines like these by Al Purdy, from his poem "At the Quinte Hotel":
I am drinking
I am drinking beer with yellow flowers
in underground sunlight
and you can see that I am a sensitive man
And I notice that the bartender is a sensitive man too
so I tell him about his beer
I tell him the beer he draws
is half fart and half horse piss
and all wonderful yellow flowers.
"Song of Myself," this ain't. And yet many Canadian critics consider Purdy to be Canada's Whitman and "At the Quinte Hotel" a classic. The poem was even turned into a short film, starring a major Canadian rock star as the pathetic, half-soused speaker, a recurring figure in Canadian literature. Indeed, Margaret Atwood's industry classic, the 1972 survey, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, argues that the central Canadian character is basically a loser, a victim of British and American imperialism, struggling to survive a hostile, perpetual winter. Atwood's book cleverly doubles as a self-help manual, designed to help Canadians acknowledge their status as victims. It's as dreary as it sounds and now quite dated. Nevertheless, as recently as the late nineties, Survival was still being distributed among Canadian high school students like some sort of grim, state-sponsored inoculation.
Daryl Hine, who published his first two collections in Canada, is nowhere to be found in Survival, nor are these vigorous, almost joyous stanzas from a 1967 poem of his called "The Trout":
I lean on air as prisoners on time
Not to let them down. My impetus,
In the interest of my kind sublime,
Appears in person merely perilous:
To climb the stair of stone where I was spawned,
Where ponds are oceans and the rapids give
Gasps of an unreachable beyond
I try, I fail, I wriggle loose, I live
Drop by drop against the stream I am,
And in death's shallow waterfall belong
Forever to the torrent and the dam
As defunctive music and recurrent song.
Spilt in sperm the mating pair ignore,
Caught in each other's scales as in a net,
I hung about above the ocean floor,
Part of the liquid pattern of the carpet.
The speaker may be a survivor, struggling upstream, but Hine's robust language sure doesn't struggle. It gleams with what sonneteers used to call sprezzatura, the confident, making-it-look-easy gloss that greases great art: note the gamy alliteration of "give/Gasps," the almost aquatic rhyme of "spawned," "ponds," and "beyond."
But while "The Trout" practically pops out of the water with aesthetic vigor, most of the Canadian poetry I grew up reading—including Purdy's poems and much of the work discussed in Survival—exhibited an almost embarrassed distrust of virtuosity. As critic Carmine Starnino explains,
The Canadian voice, under the tenure of nationalist influence, became a reduced thing—effete, etiolated—rather than an instrument marked by a prodigious expressive range, a rich breadth of capability.
Even Canada's few virtuosos, like Irving Layton, A.M. Klein, and P.K. Page, were often less celebrated for their formal achievements than their Canadian credentials. It's not hard, then, to see why poems like "The Trout" didn't much appeal to the generation of poets, critics, teachers, and journalists whose search for an authentic, capital-C "Canadian" poem was accompanied by a wariness of poems with too much breadth, too much capability. Canadian poetry, it was felt, should itself be a survivor, scoured clean of foreign influence: a tough, gaunt underdog. Hine, though, is a very capable poet, and as a consequence of at least one country's literary fashions, he has suffered for it.
Not that Hine was embraced with bunting at the 49th parallel; editorship of Poetry aside, Hine the poet remained square peggish in the United States of the sixties and seventies, where free verse was form of choice for many social movements and formal verse a conservative anachronism. But the so-called "New Formalism" that emerged in the early eighties hardly claimed Hine as heroic forefather. If he belongs to any lineage it's that of gay American poets like James Merrill, Richard Howard, and Howard Moss. Like his peers, Hine demonstrates a lifelong investment in language—not, mind you, language in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E sense, but good old-fashioned words that just might, if they're the right ones, become inseparable from what they describe. Here's the first stanza of "Don Juan in Amsterdam," a poem of exile from 1960, two years into Hine's own exile:
This also is a place which love is known in,
This hollow land beneath a lifeless sea,
Remote from whatever region he was born in,
How far it is impossible to say.
The brackish water as I crossed
A bridge was delicately creased
And stained and stale, like love-disordered linen.
A virtuoso, Hine cuts the near-naive rhyme of "known in"/"born in" with the unnerving off rhymes "sea"/"say" and, even better, "crossed"/"creased," the stanza maturing and souring as it slumps, via the assonance of "stained and stale," toward its exquisitely musty final image. "Love-disordered linen" easily tops my desert island list for Best Image of Polluted Canal Water, Ever (or Best Image of Soiled Post-Coital Bed Sheets, Ever).
However, although he would likely hate the label, Hine is not just a poet's poet—Richard Howard, John Hollander, and Mark Strand have all praised his work—but a formalist's formalist, whose poems sometimes feel like feats pulled off for the sake of their having been pulled off. In other words, virtuosity has its downsides, and in 1991's "Canzone," the rhyme scheme first distracts, then irritates, transforming the opening stanza into an echo chamber:
Such grainy elements of the obvious would
Make up the basic building-blocks of matter,
Which our ancestors understood as wood,
Whatever the primitive root-word for wood,
That substance time and energy will weather.
Unlike earth and air and water, wood,
A material to do with what one would,
More often overlooked than understood,
May misrepresent the stuff for which it stood—
The world is after all not made of wood,
As you will notice if you look around,
Any more than the earth is obviously round.
I tend to favor a rich, rhyme-saturated lyric (especially since I was reared on the impoverished, self-consciously "Canadian" free verse of poets like Purdy), but Hine's verbal effects can sometimes drown out his verse.
To be fair, Hine seems to have had little interest in a purely descriptive function for poetry. He defines a poem as "a verbal object capable of giving a specific kind of aesthetic pleasure in itself. As such it is like a painting or a sculpture, more than merely representational." Richard Howard confirms this when he suggests that, for Hine, "the poem is always the statement of itself." Poetry is not a means to an end; poetry is the end, just as "the lines and masses of a statue"—according to Wyndham Lewis (an exile to Canada)—"are its soul." Indeed, "art has no inside," writes Hugh Kenner (also Canadian), "nothing you cannot see." But Hine's descriptive chops remain considerable, and when he strikes the right balance between sound and sense, as in the latter half of "Panta Rhei," he achieves a state that critics sometimes shy away from judging and perhaps no longer much believe in, aesthetic perfection:
But what if all this flim-flam simply means,
Ourselves apart, that nothing moves at all?
So all commuters know
The disconcerting, transient sensation,
As a train begins to leave the station,
Of stationary motion,
Refreshment- and shoeshine-stand, newspaper stall
And platform appearing to slide away, although
In fact the world stands still and still we flow.
The recurring themes that animate Hine's poetry are hardly as unfashionable as its methods. Exile, adolescence, fraught love—poetry's classic concerns are also Hine's. In fact, although Hine has dated the poems in Recollected Poems, the book eschews chronology in favor of old-school thematic sections (like art, love, place, and time) that seem aimed at the sort of mythical general reader who occasionally needs to look up a Valentine's Day verse—and fast. Such readers may find themselves surprised. 1979's "Letting Go" exposes an unusually naked vulnerability, apt to make us uncomfortable when it describes how
Candid as a cadaver on the couch
I could have slept on, but I went away
Ashamed to stay, afraid almost to touch.
Those prepared to follow the book's dates (to jump back and forth, as in one of those old "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories) will discover that Hine's work, over time, grows increasingly intimate, especially compared to his earlier language experiments. For example, 1991's "Splendidior Vitro" shifts its focus from love to the deeply unsexy subject of friendship, which,
tempering the grim extremes
Of fire and ice, thrives at room temperature;
Patient and forgiving, it disdains
Love's ecstasies, anxieties and pains
In shaky equilibrium, secure
From ever being recognized in dreams.
Friendship is hardly popular fodder for poetry, but Hine reminds us that such a "room temperature" subject—"secure/From ever being recognized in dreams"—may ultimately be more valuable than we ever dreamed. Friends, after all, pick up where distraught sonnets and slam performances leave off; they bring poets, and all of us regular lovesick civilians, back from our various brinks of despair. Friends rarely make it into poems, though, and Hine's unfashionably brave recognition of friendship's value is all but avant-garde in our culture.
Hine can also treat usually solemn themes like exile with an unexpected and slangy energy. You wouldn't guess Hine had it in him if you had read only the erudite critical attempts by Northrop Frye and Richard Howard to disentangle Hine's many themes and allusions—attempts that leave his poems more knotted and forbidding than they were in the first place. However, in Hine's poem "Ovid's Sorrows of Exile" the speaker is but an iPod away from resembling an ironic, post-everything Ovid when he observes
the steep, seaweedy stairs
Where I braved the brutal, stupid stares
Of hairy bystanders bundled up in bear-
Skins, beneath a broad and bare
Sky light. These hicks can't speak a word of Latin!
These fun, slightly funky lines from 1999 succeed because they marry their potentially gimmicky conceit to genuine rigor—in this case, the risky but rewarding structure of rhyming couplets. Even as early as 1975, in the anapestic In and Out: A Confessional Poem, Hine can explain a "truth" of Heraclitus through pop culture imagery that would make Paglia proud:
Instantaneous Spring had attacked
Montreal overnight like a laxative,
loosening snow from the slopes
of the mountain, from rooftops and sidewalks
and streets, where it piled up in barricades
during our annual siege,
till the city began to resemble
a dissolute snowball dissolving.
My favorite example of Hine loosening up, though, is a terrific love poem from 1979 that compares a departed lover to a mythic god and concludes with the damning couplet: "Is he visiting with the Hyperboreans? God/Forgive me, what made me think he was a god?" Serious stuff, right? The poem is called "What's His Face."
These days, Hine devotes his time to translation, including most recently his Works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. He still writes poems; the best are the short ones, some—like 1996's "Singular Sunset"—as sad and poignant as Hardy's late poems to his deceased wife. There hasn't been a new collection of Hine's own poems in sixteen years, but the fact that a Canadian publisher has brought out Recollected Poems suggests that Canadian readers may finally be ready to embrace him. At the very least, the nationalist activists of yesteryear have begun to give way to a newer, more globally minded generation of Canadian poets increasingly dissatisfied with defeatist verse about a defeatist colony. Asked by Evan Jones if it is even correct to think of Hine's work as Canadian, Hine responded, "Not really; I've never been self-consciously Canadian, as a writer at least. By default, perhaps." Even if Hine only makes Bloom's desert island list by default, Canada is all the better for it.