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Canadian Poets: Look about you in foreign nations

Much as I enjoyed Carmine Starnino’s essay ‘a Lover’s Quarrel’ and in it, the call for Canada to recognize poets ‘who don’t see foreign influence as pernicious, who have no time to be ‘Canadian,’ who don’t want to want their poems abbreviated to a common cultural denominator, who don’t believe that certain things are impossible or undesirable in the range of effects available to [them]…’ (evidently the view held by Margaret Atwood and Denis Lee)…

Much as I think this position…and the one that calls for contemporary poetry to anchor itself in tradition and technique…much as I think this message has value, and needs to be broadcast and embraced…it isn’t exactly…new…

Goethe made it new in the 1820s:

"…but each must say to himself that the gift of poetry is by no means so very rare, and that nobody need think very much of himself because he has written a good poem.

But, really we Germans [Canadians] are very likely to fall too easily into this pedantic conceit, when we do not look beyond the narrow circle which surrounds us. I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise every one to do the same. National literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of World Literature is at hand, and every one must strive to hasten its approach. But, while we thus value what is foreign, we must not bind ourselves to anything in particular, and regard it as a model…but if we really want a pattern, we must always retrn to the ancient Greeks, in whose works the beauty of mankind is constantly represented. All the rest we must look at only historically, appropriating to ourselves what is good, so far as it goes."

This is not, however, to say that Starnino doesn’t revive the old to make it newly Canadian without charm. Quite the contrary, he does so with verve and panache. Read this winning thrust:

"I don’t mean to be seen rubbing the bloom from the Canadianist enterprise, but our resistance to the sense-shaping strategies of rhyme, syntax and stanza has been brutal. Take a look at what’s on permanent display in our anthorlogies and you’ll see a body of verse staring back at you with all the boredom that comes from having bee coddled in captivity rather than reared in the wild; what you’ll see is that, in our effort to clear an imaginatvie sapce for ourselves, we’ve resisted the very afflatus poetry depends on for its legitimacy and authority; and most importantly, what you’ll see is that our practice of infantilizing ourselves, of shunning the very poets whose talent and seriousness sustain peotry-writing as an adult endeavour in this country, has hampered the proper international appreciation of our real achievements. In short, we’ve turned out a picture of Canadian poetry – vacuous, jejune, synthetic, bloodless, second-rate – at odds with the thrilling ambitious species actually stalking our shelves."

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