Sunday, November 29, 2009

Open Wide

An email from Nancy Holmes regarding her anthology, Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems:
Sina:  Thanks for a thoughtful commentary on OWW.  I have been expecting a response about the post-1960 representation.  Just a few words about intention:  I intended the anthology to be one that provided a foundation for a study of Canadian nature poetry, a historical foundation that included the poems that people of various eras would have selected as key (as the good Reverend of the United church noted—Campbell’s “Indian Summer” and Bliss Carman’s “Vestigia” being the two faves of the Edwardian or 1920s set) but also allowing diverse voices of women and some few indigenous writers of the pre-1960 era a place.  I also wanted to make room for poets who have become obscure or un-anthologized in recent years (e.g. Marjorie Pickthall or Kenneth Leslie)—to acknowledge their place in our national literature (if we have such a thing).  So I feel pretty good about the first 2/3 or ¾ of the book.  I think I did what I set out to do.  The post-1960s component was more challenging—first of all there was so much to choose from.  Some poets/ poems were already canonized in a nature poem sense—e.g. McKay and Atwood.  But I found that poems from the 60s and 70s are now being left out of recent anthologies—like the long poem The Great Bear Lake Mediations by J.M. Yates— a great deal of current long poem ecopoetics comes out of  that text, acknowledged or not. I needed to add poems like those which are part of the historical foundation I was attempting to create (and I should have likely added an excerpt from Marlatt’s Steveston—I had it on my long list but in the flurry of cuts, I decided to drop it and go with one of her shorter lyrics—probably a mistake.)   After the 1980s, there is such an explosion of poetry publications (accompanying the demise of an audience prepared to recite such poems as “Indian Summer”) it is nearly impossible to read it all (I probably managed to read nearly everything pre-1960!)  Oh the problems of contemporary poetics! Fraught with the various so-called controversies amongst aesthetic stances! The choices I made hauled up to support one “side” or another “side!”  Not my favorite place to be.

In fact, probably this last quarter of the book would change each year, depending on what I was reading at the time.  In my prefatory note, I said I hoped that some enterprising anthologist would take up the task of creating a contemporary nature poem anthology—I think such a collection is much needed to address the issues you raise and to include the poets you feel are missing, and that I feel are missing, too.   I haven’t seen Adam Dickinson and Madhur Anand’s new anthology—it might have some of the qualities that you sense are lacking in OWW.  I too would really welcome a volume that makes up for the deficiencies of mine. 

In the end, I chose shorter poems rather than longer ones (poets like Lisa Robertson are not very excerpt-able—extracting passages doesn’t do her justice—she does so much kneading of  language into  huge spatial forms.)  In the end, I also thought the book would have more coherence maintaining a lyric concentration.   In the end, I also do acknowledge my own allegiance to the lyric poem, the poem of the line and the voice and the image.  However, all your comments are fair and thanks for them.  Nevertheless, I hope that the book will function as a springboard for anthologies that will build on its work and I hope that people will discover poems and poets that they have forgotten or that please them.

Just one comment you made bothered me.  That is that you thought there was “not one complicated representation of nature” in the post-1960s selections—I’d take issue with this. Complicated representations of nature abound, I’d say, even in poems with a seemingly transparent and/ or “representational” use of language.  I’d argue that the last quarter of the book is complicated and implicated and ambivalent, as well as reverent, about tampons in the raccoon’s  supper and deer that raise the spirit of the hunt, the spirit of otherness, and the spirit of liminality of the interface zones of our suburbs.  All these things feel complicated to me no matter what their aesthetic energy.

Nancy Holmes

Here's a link to the post Holmes is referring to. There are some uneasy elements in the post-1960 poems. I do refer to Babstock's fabulous poem, and he, as well as Karen Solie do tend to startle the thing they are looking at it. In that sense, yes, they can be said to offer a more complicated depiction of nature. Tim Bowling offers a powerful political message in his poem "On the disappearance of Two Million Sockeye Salmon" in that deadly last reference to the chains dragging the ocean. George Murray's poem evokes the fear and hostility, as well as the disconnection from nature, when the father kills the snake because it "once could have" inflicted pain. Dickinson I also made mention of, and his poem does suggest a more complicated way of seeing "Homo Sapiens was a draft" certainly troubles the naive positioning one often senses afoot in "nature poems" too. Still...there is no sense of the urgency.

I have from the start of this discussion, revealed my uneasiness about the way nature is represented in poetry, but maybe Holmes is right in her response. Perhaps my resistance is more about the privileging of a lyric voice in the post-1960 work when there are so many other strong engagements (see my post), available. My point being that innovative work is accepted in mainstream discourse only at a minimal, and usually doesn't include people born after 1960. These depictions offer a skewed view of contemporary Canadian poetry, even (and maybe even particularly), poetry that is dealing with nature.

This is a beginning. And I think it's one of the important discussions, particularly because at a moment when people are in fact willing to face the reality of climate change and the urgency and complexity of environmentalism we need to have a variety of complex representations and assertions. These issues are not simple, and we need to have language, and imagery, and a sense of how to even begin to think about what nature is, not only what it was, or what we hope it to be. My concern comes from a very real sense of urgency.

Suffice to say it's a very important discussion and I appreciate Holmes taking the time to respond. She had initially intended to post this in the comment stream, but I think it deserves its own post. And I look forward to more responses to the anthology, these posts, the problem of post-1960 representation, the recent Regreen from YSP edited by Madhur Anand and Adam Dickinson, and the other texts that are now arriving on the scene.

Update 11/30/09. For me, this is the elephant in the room. Much of the poetry classified as nature poetry doesn't even acknowledge what's happening in/to/around it.


Paul said...

As an Australian, I'm glad to hear that somewhere in the world nature poetry and political poetry are taken seriously enough to engender this kind of discussion. The planet is in a sorry state after all and as poets we carry the same responsibilities as every one else.

Lemon Hound said...

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