150+: Canada’s History in Poetry
150+: Canada’s History in Poetry
This is a book intended to celebrate Canada but not to whitewash it. In the poems you can see the harmonies and oppositions that make up our history and our country. Readers may empathize with the native peoples and with the various groups that came to Canada from countries in which they were suffering displacement, injustice, poverty, famine, war and other threats, faced difficulties here, and looked to find and maintain a balance as a country altogether. . . .
Unlike an academic historian these poets have made no attempt to be neutral. Each wrote because he or she felt passionately about something. This is a view of history that’s close up and personal. But the poems also serve as windows through which to look further into the historical events and persons they describe. (From “Editor’s Comments”, pp. 261-262.)
A splash of celebratory fireworks illuminates the front cover of 150+: Canada’s History in Poetry. Inspired by an all-day British history poetry reading event, Judy Gaudet, PE poet, teacher and librarian, wondered if it were possible for Canadians to spend a whole day reading poems about their country’s history. Her curiosity piqued, she searched numerous volumes, hoping to find 150 poems in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial. This anthology is the result, offering a collection of 150 poems, written by a grouping of poets whose names literally span from “A” (Abley) to “Z” (Zieroth).
Arranged chronologically, the collection begins with poetry telling of the era prior to European settlement and first contact and ends in the 21st century, including a poem written in recognition of Canada’s 150th (Deirdre Kessler’s “Celebration (for Canada’s 150th)”). The book is divided into sections which group the poems according to major historical eras: Early European exploration and French settlement, the British era, Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, Confederation, and so on. As well, the “Table of Contents” references specific individuals and events so that the reader is aware that Al Purdy’s “The Runners” is about the Viking explorers, Erick the Red and Leif Ericsson, or that Lorna Crozier’s “The Leaving”, the story of a farm couple who pack up and sell their farm, is set during the Depression dust-bowl years of the 1930’s.
Interestingly, poems appearing in designated historical sections are not necessarily a product of that particular historical era. Some, like Don Gutteridge’s poem, “What I Remember”, are reflective not only of “his grandfather’s war” (i.e. World War I), but also of events from the era of Canada’s exploration. Gutteridge was born in 1937, two years prior to Canada’s involvement in the Second World War. Margaret Patricia Eaton’s “Canadian Soldier’s Bride – 1946” tells the story of women who married World War II combatants; Eaton was born in 1947, clearly a member of that post-war baby boom resulting from those unions.
Of course, there are also plenty of poems which are clearly situated in the time of their writing. “Sir Wilfred Laurier – Diplomatist”, written by Alexander MacGregor Rose, at some point in the latter half of the 19th century, is almost cringe-worthy and politically incorrect in its transliteration of the speech rhythms of a Franco-Canadien for whom English is definitely a second language:
I live on Canada en Bas- De fines’ lan’ you see - An’ Oncle Sam, a fr’en of mine,
He live nex’ door to me. (p. 103)
Even if the economic concerns of that poem are still current (especially with the contentious state of the NAFTA talks), presenting them in this fashion might be somewhat offensive to Franco-Canadiens. At the same time, it also offers an insight into how times and tolerances have changed.
Reading through this collection, I encountered Canadian poets who were new acquaintances. Yes, there were “standards”, like John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (the one poem always found in American high school collections of Canadian poetry), works by Bliss Carman, E. J. Pratt, F. R. Scott and Duncan Campbell Scott. As an elementary school student in the 1960’s, I recall having to learn some of their poetic works by heart, and I still remember walking to school reciting excerpts of their works in preparation for having to write them out to demonstrate mastery of their memory. I was surprised to see works by Thomas d’Arcy McGee, Henry David Kelsey (who knew that either man was a poet?), an extract from Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Rising Village” (a British poet, although the village might be reflective of any European settlement left empty by those who have gone to the New World to seek a better life), and I had a truly nostalgic moment as I read the lyrics of Bobby Gimby’s 1967 celebration of Canada’s Confederation, “CA-NA-DA”.
But there are also plenty of works by poets who are lesser-known, published in the small press, academic journals, and regional publications. There are powerful works of social commentary; Greg Yarrow’s “My Daddy Was a Busdrivin’ Man: A Paen to Medicare” is a grim reminder of the real terror, prior to the advent of Canada’s medical safety net, of medical bankruptcy due to catastrophic illness; yes, it can still happen in Canada, but not with the frequency that it did in the past, or still does, south of the 49th parallel. Don McKay’s “Glenn Gould, Humming” and David Helwig’s “Olympic Champions: Virtue and Moir” celebrate Canadian culture and athleticism, topics not often the subject of Canadian poetry, at least in poems studied in the school system.
Perhaps because Gaudet is a native of PE, there were works by many Maritime poets (David Helwig, Bliss Carman, Alden Nowlan) with which some readers might be unfamiliar. Some eras and events have evoked much poetic response, and some, very little. In her “Editor’s Comments”, Gaudet remarks that “this collections covers a lot of Canadian history, but not everything that happened to us or that we are about is here. There are poets who simply don’t write about historical events. And there are hundreds of books of poetry published in Canada every year, not all of which I’ve read.” Any anthology necessitates editorial selection. I think that it would have been helpful to have biographical dates and, if possible, a short biographical note on the poets, but I realize that, in some cases, the information might not be readily available.
For those history teachers who wish to use the anthology to offer a literary perspective on Canadian historical events, Canada 150+: Canada’s History in Poetry can be a useful supplemental resource. And high school English teachers, especially those interested in the promotion of Canadian poetry, will also find that this anthology offers contemporary material that they might not readily find elsewhere.
A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba