Thursday, October 15, 2009
I’ve always thought the argument for or against a more nationalist stance in Canadian poetry a little odd. For me, it conjures up an image of some ghostly pater familias looming over the shoulder of poets in Vancouver or St. John’s working feverishly away at their verses with injunctions about the “spirit of place” and other such overworked nonsense whispering in their ears. The truth is the nationalist credo may form a critical backdrop against which some poets have worked, but the principal considerations for most remain, inescapably, the creation of decidedly personal poetic arguments clothed in fitting forms.
Those who feel resistance to cultural colonialism remains the sine qua non and distinguishing feature of Canadian letters, but are anxious to break free, might take comfort from W. H Auden. Auden famously turned his back on his native England on the eve of the Second World War to live in the U.S. Roundly pilloried by younger English poets who once venerated the complex "comintern" of English poetry, Auden later offered his deep-seated fears about his poetic powers atrophying to explain what drove him into the arms of America. England, despite a rich legacy, he said, had become “dead” for him.
England to me is my own tongue,
And what I did when I was young.
Auden settled into a house in Brooklyn, New York in 1940 where he lived for about five years and assumed American citizenship. His housemates included the wonderful Irish poet Louis MacNeice, composer Benjamin Britten, novelist Carson McCullers, the stripper Gipsy Rose Lee and Golo Mann, brother to Erika (who'd married Auden in the early 30's and so escaped Nazi Germany using a British passport). Their father was the acclaimed German author, Thomas Mann (see Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain, two great novels). More importantly, Auden's poetry entered a new and arguably more interesting phase that ultimately prolonged broad interest in his career.
Am I suggesting that Canadian poets emulate Auden by abandoning Canada for other shores? Not really. His example simply reminds us that poets and writers of any significant talent should husband it carefully and that, stay or leave, interesting places can be found just by crossing the street into a different neighbourhood. Wander. Ponder. Puzzle out the different ways human beings choose to live. Consider if the landscapes you've been nurtured in might not be too familiar, too much filled with old and debilitating ghosts.
Several excellent essays in Stan Smith’s The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden provide detailed descriptions of Auden’s life and his development as poet in America, Italy and the U.K. If you don’t mind his great rant on how Eliot and Pound killed poetry for the 20th century and tricked Auden into following their lead, Karl Shapiro’s In Defense of Ignorance also provides some interesting insights into Auden’s work.
The real place to discover the man many believe was the principal trailblazer in 20th century poetics is in Auden's poetry, in particular W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Auden biographer Edward Mendelson (First Vintage International, 1991). A tremendous body of work, with only minor elisions by the master. Or for just a taste, see a wonderful love poem in the "Great Poems" link at the right of this page.
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