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Brian Trehearne. Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960.

Brian Trehearne. Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010.

Thirty-seven of the 44 poets included in Brian Trehearne's Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960 formed the bulk of "Part IV: Modern Poetry" in A. J. M. Smith's classic anthology, The Book of Canadian Poetry, first published in 1943 and in two subsequent editions in 1948 and 1957. Surely a great deal has changed in 70 years. Most of these poets have been forgotten and few of them were ever a cultural force. The consequence of perpetuating such an outdated picture of Canadian modernism is an intimidatingly heavy, boring book of mostly embarrassing work (except for the poems of E. J. Pratt, A. M. Klein, Irving Layton and a handful of pieces, lines, and images). Perhaps the poem in this collection with the most pernicious half-life is Earle Birney's "David." This long, graceless babble of a poem, traditionally used to make schoolchildren hate poetry, deserves a place in The Stuffed Owl; An Anthology of Bad Verse for some of the silliest lines ever composed. Among my favourites: "Past / The inlet we grilled our bacon, the strips festooned // On a poplar prong." "Festooned"? Bacon? Really? Funnier still is the following line from the end of the poem, when the speaker is most horrified and in earnest: "I staggered clear to a firewaste, tripped//and fell with a shriek on my shoulder." Now, I'm not sure what a "shriek" might be in this context or how it ended up on the speaker's shoulder, but it sounds like something out of Lewis Carroll. Not only does work like this (and there's globs of it in this anthology) significantly lower the bar for critics and aspiring poets within Canada, it gives readers outside the country a very poor impression of Canadian letters. I'd hate to criticize this anthology for not being what I personally think it should be, but I have trouble assessing its actual usefulness to anyone. If it were to be valuable, for instance, to a cultural historian, then why leave out those the editor says in his Afterword, "were prolific and / or highly popular poets active in the period"? Is it because they complicate the UK and US models of modernism by "not feel[ing] that imperative of renewal"? Why assume that Canada had a meaningful modernism in the first place? Trehearne quotes Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound, but fails to quote any Canadian critics or writers (other than Robert Kroetsch) on the modernist movement. What have Canadianists been doing all these years in terms of fleshing out what exactly happened in this country during those decades? Also of concern is the fact that there isn't one French poem and no mention of the anthology's exclusive focus on English writing in the title or elsewhere. So as a cultural study, Canadian Poetry 1920 to 1960 is misleading; and as a poetry resource, it's pretty damn fusty.

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Author:Boxer, Asa
Publication:ARC Poetry Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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