Canada’s Most Memorable Poems: The LRC Contributors’ List (Part 1)

Atwood to Lowry, plus Anonymous

On New Year’s Eve 2006, at a dinner hosted by our co-publisher Helen Walsh, Molly Peacock and I were challenged by another guest to list Canada’s “most memorable poems.” After we poured another glass of pinot noir, we began talking and listing. Soon we realized that a Most Memorable Poems List really should not be designed by only the LRC’s poetry editors. We put the question to the poets who have been published in the LRC in the last two years, as well as to other poets and fans of poetry across the country. We received so many responses that we are delighted not only to publish half of them in celebration of April Poetry Month, but also to publish the other half — MacEwen to Webb — in our May issue.

Of course we anticipated that we would receive a spectrum of responses, but not that these responses would map the landscape of Canadian poetry, from Joan Crate to A.M. Klein. Jason Guriel notes that “despite the success of recent exports like Feist, Trailer Park Boys and David Bezmozgis stories, our worries about the worth of Canadian culture remain — are, perhaps, even ingrained. These worries, of course, aren’t entirely unproductive. They produce lists like this and, sometimes, great poems.” We are chastised by Susan Musgrave, who reminds us of her resistance to our endeavour. And Mark Abley of Montreal writes that “most memorable is not a synonym for best … We can discuss the typical poems that Canadians now produce; we can analyze them, respect them, even admire them. But can we also remember them, not just their meanings but their actual words?”

We invite your responses as we toast our Canadian poets: the established, the emerging and the anonymous.

Moira MacDougall
Assistant Poetry Editor

(To read Part Two of this special feature, CLICK HERE.)

Margaret Atwood, Margaret Avison, Elizabeth Bishop, Leonard Cohen, Joan Crate, Lorna Crozier, Gary Michael Dault, A.M. Klein, Douglas LePan, Malcolm Lowry, Anonymous

Margaret Atwood, “Death of a Young Son Drowning”
Nominated by Jane Munro

Atwood’s poem narrates an immigrant woman’s experience of loss — a loss embodied in the death of her child, that new life she’d conceived before the long trip with its tiring waves.

   He, who navigated with success
   the dangerous river of his own birth,
   again set forth

but this time he has sunk into “the land I floated on / but could not touch to claim.” We see him as the explorer (“his head a bathysphere”) of “a landscape stranger than Uranus / we have all been to and some remember.”

Atwood’s poem enters a conversation with other Canadian poems speaking in images of water, drowning and the cost of a plunge into the unknown — however creative the outcome might be. I think of “The Piper of Arll” and “At the Cedars” by Duncan Campbell Scott, “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” by A.M. Klein, “The Cold Green Element” by Irving Layton, and also “The Swimmer’s Moment” by Margaret Avison. But it is Atwood’s poem I remember best, especially the kernel of her final couplet. To me, it’s the poem’s seed: “I planted him in this country / like a flag.”

Click HERE to read this poem.

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Margaret Avison, “Not the Sweet Cicely of Gerards Herball”
Nominated by Michael Valpy

Avison, who died last year in Toronto at age 89, was Canada’s finest 20th-century metaphysical poet. She grew up in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where her mother and Methodist pastor father taught her to “read the Bible, to pray, to love, to enjoy” and be driven by a “Will To Be Good.”

Her writing was shaped by two of the West’s great spiritual forces: the land and social gospel. The Prairie landscape permanently captured her imagination of space; her experience of the Great Depression led her to discover “real hunger, real want.”

In my own writing — as a journalist, a Canadian nationalist, trying to talk to my country — I look for words that connect Canadians to their minds beneath their minds, to our Jungian narrative and the loss of our historic Red Tory collectivism, our caring for one another. Margaret Atwood, much more skillfully than I, does the same. From “Not the Sweet Cicely” we both have used three lines, Atwood in the introduction to her famous Survival, me often in columns in The Globe and Mail:

   With the maps lost, the voyages
   Cancelled by legislation years ago,
   This has become a territory without a name.

Click HERE to read this poem.

Margaret Avison, “Thaw”
Nominated by Stephanie Bolster

As an undergraduate in my native Vancouver, where “thaw” was but a concept, I came upon this poem by the now-late Avison and was utterly absorbed in an experience that felt quintessentially Canadian and an awareness that was quintessentially lyric. This poem remains a lens through which I experience the world in all regions and seasons: whenever I come upon a few pigeons lifting, the blue of dusk; whenever I smell the yielding tang of raspberries. Avison’s control of rhythm (the tumbling away from iambics in the third stanza) is impeccable, her slant rhymes elegant, her phrasing (“liquorice light”! “saucepantilt”!) both delighted and delightful. “Thaw” takes me back to my childhood fascination with Escher’s print “Three Worlds” (in which a pond holds infinite depths and reflections) and forward to my daughter’s first hockey-whacks. The imperatives of the fourth and fifth stanzas affirm that this is a poem about memory (those sticky children were us), and as such linked to other memorable Canadian poems that I cannot resist mentioning here (most of Don Coles’s work, much early Atwood, Jane Siberry’s poem-lyrics to “Hockey”). At once fresh and Pompeii-ancient, “Thaw” reminds me not only of why I write, but of what it is to live.

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Elizabeth Bishop, “The Moose”
Nominated by Rachel Vigier

For me, Canada’s most memorable poem is “The Moose,” written by Elizabeth Bishop and dedicated to her Aunt Grace, a lifelong resident of Great Village, Nova Scotia. “I’ve written a long poem about Nova Scotia. It’s dedicated to you. When it’s published, I’ll send you a copy.” That was in 1956. The poem was finished 16 years later, when Bishop gave the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard. Ironically, the occasion interfered with a planned trip to Nova Scotia. “What has really prevented me from coming was that I had to give the Phi Bata Kappa poem here this year … and I had to get the damned poem written, first.”

Anyone raised in rural Canada who has taken bus rides at twilight will recognize the long, slow rhythm of movement away from home interrupted by the sudden jolt of an otherworldly creature. When I read the poem I feel myself saying yes, that’s what it’s like, the quiet talk, the barking dog, the gravelly road and always the possibility of mystery and adventure.

But the ultimate voice of authority on “The Moose” belongs to Bishop’s family. In a letter to James Merrill, Bishop wrote of “The Moose”: “Well, that is about the only poem of mine that branch of my family has really taken to. (One second cousin … had just taken out his moose licence for the season. I asked my cousin what on earth one would do with a shot moose and she replied, ‘Roast it!’).”

Click HERE to read this poem.

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Leonard Cohen, “Marita Please Find Me I Am Almost 30”
Nominated by Joe Cummings

Wordsworth told his poets to surge with what he called the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. So the great romantic was there more than 150 years later when Leonard Cohen sat carving “Marita,” graffiti-like, into the wall of that Montreal café. In eight words, Cohen displayed for Wordsworth (and us) the universal human fever of longing, desperation and loneliness. Wordsworth knew who Marita was and so do we. She is anyone who is not there, anyone needed, in Cohen’s café or anywhere under Wordsworth’s watch where we’re all almost 30.

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Joan Crate, “I Am a Prophet”
Nominated by Cornelia Hoogland

“I write poems for you. I re-invent you. It is not your words I want, your books of verse, your stories and legends. It is the sound of your voice … your toughness, your pretense. And your loneliness. Your death. Under headlights, a thin white tongue unravels the night. A face shifts.”

“I Am a Prophet” isn’t about aboriginal poet and performer Pauline Johnson; it is, rather, the reader’s encounter with Johnson on one of her performance tours across Canada in the late 1800s. For ten bucks, with pen knives, Métis poet Joan Crate’s narrator invites the reader into a striptease of Canada’s history of colonization, betrayal and genocide of native peoples. Similar to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” “Prophet” is a dramatic poem, a monologue in which readers witness an embodied voice as it slides into desperation. “Prophet” complicates the geographies of body and land, defaced and imprisoned in glass cages. Crate freely mixes Christian and Native myths to ironic effect and, following Pound’s instructions, Crate makes it new — Crate makes Johnson, and history, hers. (As she says in her introduction, “It’s either you or me, Pauline.”) “Prophet” is one of the most memorable Canadian poems in our literature; it is brilliantly written from a Native perspective.

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Lorna Crozier, “Carrots”
Nominated by Alice Majors

I’ve chosen “Carrots” from Lorna Crozier’s 1985 The Sex Lives of Vegetables — though really I am choosing the whole sequence of 17 short poems. Whenever the sequence comes up in conversation, women will slide their eyes toward each other, laugh and murmur, “oh, the carrot one …”

The sequence is memorable mainly for the startling rightness of its imagery. Once the connection between an unshelled pea pod and a firmly shut clitoris is made, it is permanent. A carrot may be fairly obvious as a phallic symbol, but the anxious thrusting into a giant, absent-minded earth makes you laugh. Crozier revives the ancient poetic technique of personifying the natural world with cheerful freshness. Our human preoccupation with sexuality is projected on the mindless fecundity of plants, poking fun at our perceived place in the universe.

During the 1970s and into the early ’80s, the big voices in the poetry tent were male, still pegged down by names like Layton and Cohen. The League of Canadian Poets had gone through an acrimonious convulsion in the creation of a feminist caucus. “Carrots” and its sister poems emerge from that period as a confident, witty, female take on sexuality, as frank as anything Irving Layton wrote. Neither strident nor defensive, it is embracingly human.

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Gary Michael Dault, “Branch Line”
Nominated by Gili Haimovich

What is the most memorable Canadian poem for a “newcomer” poet? I remember inquiring into Canadian poetry at a dinner party during my first week living in Canada. Our host gathered everybody’s recommendations of Canadian attractions. “What about Canadian poetry?” I asked. Absolute silence surrounded the table.

So, like a detective, I started investigating Canadian poetry, but the poem I am nominating, “Branch Line” by Gary Michael Dault, found me as I rode the subway.

The poem captures the urban longing for nature, as a subway car becomes an estranged container, holding individuals with different lives and baggage, placing them in the specific aloneness only possible in a crowd. The poem then unites the passengers in their ability to look up, to search for something more, more than the dark, limiting underground. The falling leaf in the subway (from the Canadian flag?) hints at this potential.

By following traditions of writing of shedding leaves in relation to loneliness and isolation, with only few finely segmented prosaic words, without even capital letters, the poem does this and more. The reference to the subway ceiling as metal grill connotes an altar on which the passengers sacrifice being in direct contact with the sky and the wide, borderless notion they represent for the attempt to get somewhere.

Click HERE to read this poem.

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A.M. Klein, “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape”
Nominated by Priscila Uppal

A major Canadian writer of his time, who should not be forgotten in our own, A.M. Klein produced an oeuvre that is intelligent, provocative, playful, culturally and politically relevant, emotional and original, all of which is evident in his masterpiece “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape.” The poem is an interrogative whodunnit, investigating the whereabouts and status of the modern poet, our “shelved Lycidas” (dead? almost dead? invisible? irrelevant? drowned? — certainly unmourned). Normally, I hesitate to praise poetry about poetry (we have far too much of it); however, here Klein’s vibrantly flexible mind (an anxious but idealistic detective who waxes ethereally on “the torso verb, the beautiful face of the noun” and “the integers of thought, the cube-roots of feeling”) stands in for our collective human potential; a characteristic hailed not only in artists, but in all readers, and by extrapolation, in our complex universe. The poet works not for fame, but undertakes “a green inventory / in a world but scarcely uttered,” to bring “new forms to life, anonymously, new creeds.” This supreme secret waits with our ghostly poet like a treasure at the bottom the sea. Our epic task is to unearth it, and to use it wisely.

A.M. Klein, “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape”
Nominated by Jason Guriel

A.M. Klein’s “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape” worries about its relevance for over 160 lines. And yet, in spite of their classically Canadian insecurities, those 160-plus lines, minted back in the 1940s, are among the most aesthetically self-assured in our literature. Not for Klein the verbal impoverishment of The Canadian Poem®, that museum piece that was content merely to survive as starved, frostbitten free verse. Line by majestic line, Klein’s ambitious poem climbs

   another planet, the better to look
   with single camera view upon this earth —
   its total scope, and each afflated tick,
   its talk, its trick, its tracklessness — and this,
   this, he would like to write down in a book!

Although the poem’s subject — the neglected poet — finally and famously hunkers down “At the bottom of the sea” to wait out his unworthy culture, the poem itself (Klein’s best by a kilometre) belongs on the upper slopes, if not the peaks, of lists like this.

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Douglas LePan, “Coureurs de Bois”
Nominated by Don Coles

There’s a line in this poem that I would want preserved even if every other line written by countrypersons of mine faded from sight, and it’s this: writing of the coureurs de bois, LePan says they are those “Who put their brown wrists through the arras of the woods.” Wonderful image, wonderful re-siting of “arras.” The line is followedbya series of images of these “swarthy men,” one of whom had been seen “at Crêve-Coeur, deserted and starving,” another “at Sault Sainte Marie shouldering the rapids,” all of them half-glimpsed in “rivers that seldom ran in the sun.” Later in the poem there is a reference to one who “could feed his heart with the heart of a continent, / Insatiate, how noble a wounded animal,” which feeds my heart in its own way, since it brings to mind my all-time preferred prose line, “But man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes and pompous in the grave.” I don’t know if LePan was consciously invoking Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial here or not, but he was a finely read man, and I like to think that yes, he was.

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Malcolm Lowry, “Christ Walks in This Infernal District Too”
Nominated by Mark Abley

“Most memorable” is not a synonym for best. One of our most memorable poets may also be our worst: a furniture dealer in Victorian Ontario named James McIntyre. How many poems in the standard anthologies can match this for an unforgettable opening: “We have seen thee, queen of cheese, / Lying quietly at your ease, / Gently fanned by evening breeze, / Thy fair form no flies dare seize.”

I’m not quoting McIntyre merely to be facetious. His cheesy odes are much easier to remember than the vast majority of poems written in free verse. We can discuss the typical poems that Canadians now produce; we can analyze them, respect them, even admire them. But can we also remember them, not just their meanings but their actual words?

I don’t think so. And therefore my choice is one of the rare Canadian poems I know by heart. I could suggest George Johnston’s “In It,” or Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song.” But I’ll opt for a sonnet by Malcolm Lowry. Over Vancouver’s lower east side — “This place where chancres blossom like the rose” — Lowry sees “the mountains gaze in absolute contempt.” We have other poems as angry as this. But nowhere is the despair so elegant, the rage so memorable, the very rhythm so fierce, as in “Christ Walks in This Infernal District Too.”

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Anonymous, “Young Offender’s Facility, Yellowknife, NWT”
Nominated by Susan Musgrave

I have a lot of resistance to coming up with “the best of” anything. I don’t have any poem in mind that is memorable, until a situation presents itself where my memory conjures it up. Often it is a few lines or an image, not a whole poem, that helps me make sense of the world as I hang on to the side of this planet with suction cups.

Nine years ago I led a poetry workshop at a young offenders facility in Yellowknife for half a dozen Inuit teenagers who claimed they knew nothing about poetry. Today I found a package of the poems by these young boys, simple and honest words they did not know they were allowed to write. No one had told them that their lives, too, were important, or that what they had to say might help others feel not so all alone.

I choose this, for today, as a memorable Canadian poem, because it speaks for so many who have no voice. I am not allowed to identify the author, because he was a “young offender.” (The poem was untitled, so I have taken the liberty of giving it a title of my own.)

   My life is like a can
   and everybody is stepping on it.
   The first time I got here
   everybody was telling me what to do.
   From there it didn’t change at all.
   I was my own life before I got here.

(To read Part Two of this special feature, CLICK HERE.)