Canadian Writers and Their Works: Poetry Series, Volume Nine
Contains Bibliography, Index
W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.
This is one of a series of books (20 are projected in all) that conform to the same format. In each volume, an average of five Canadian writers will be treated in separate essays by separate scholar-critics. Each will focus on a detailed critical study and interpretation of the writer’s works but will also contain short sections devoted to biography, cultural context, a discussion of previous criticism, and a bibliography. Each volume begins with a connecting introduction by George Woodcock, and each essay will be simultaneously published separately in pamphlet form.
This volume considers the poetry of Margaret Atwood, D.G. Jones, Pat Lane, Dennis Lee, and Gwendolyn MacEwen, all poets who began their literary careers in the late 1950s or early 1960s. The resemblances between their poetry are only fitful, however, and, taken in bulk, they bear witness to the remarkable variety of poetic production in that crucial period of Canadian literary development.
The discussion of sensitive poetry requires a sensitive prose, and it is therefore not surprising that Woodcock, here not only introducer but contributor of the study of Lane, should offer the most satisfying criticism in the book. He is consistently lucid and perceptive, offering a demonstration of how to read poems as poems and not just as mental constructs. Moreover, in a few words he succeeds in placing Lane in a large intellectual context (“he stands among the pessimistic moralists, like Céline and Swift and Orwell,” p.158). This kind of comment seems to me more helpful to the intelligent general reader than Jean Mallinson’s references to “trope[s] of extended apophasis” in Atwood (p.62) or E.D. Blodgett’s to “thematic isotopy” in Jones (p. 122).
Woodcock, then, is a hard act to follow, but T.G. Middlebro’ rises to the occasion with an excellent study of Lee, probing deeply and shrewdly into the intellectual background of that still underestimated (because intellectual) poet yet offering some sound critical insights at the same time. Blodgett’s discussion of Jones begins well, but I have to report that he eventually lost me in a mass of abstractions. Mallinson on Atwood and Jan Bartley on MacEwen seem somewhat constrained, perhaps in obedience to the rules of the series. At any rate, they limited themselves to the poetry of their subjects and so neglected their fiction. As a result, the emerging critical portraits seemed to lack a dimension.
There is useful information in all these essays, and readers will receive reliable accounts of the literary development of each writer. The standard of critical insight is uneven, but at its best, with Woodcock and Middlebro’, it is more than welcome.