Canada’s Most Memorable Poems: The LRC Contributors’ List (Part 2)

MacEwen to Webb

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

In this month’s poetry we continue our list of Canada’s Most Memorable Poems with nominations submitted by poets we’ve published in the past two years and friends of the LRC. Our hope is that these nominations send you running to your poetry anthologies, bookstores, the internet or the library to reread—or perhaps read for the first time—some of Canada’s most memorable poems.

Moira MacDougall
Assistant Poetry Editor

Gwendolyn MacEwen, Anne Marriott, David McFadden, A.F. Moritz, John Newlove, Michael Ondaatje, P.K. Page, Al Purdy, Knut Rasmussen, Robin Skelton, Norm Sibum, Raymond Souster, Phyllis Webb

Gwendolyn MacEwen, “Dark Pines Under Water”
Nominated by Kate Braid

“Explorer,” she addresses us, and every childhood heart rises up. We can’t escape our own questions, MacEwen says, can’t escape our landscape. “This land like a mirror” is clearly our land — it is pines, not eucalyptus or banyan trees that lure us.

“Dark Pines Under Water” by Gwendolyn MacEwen is a chant, a call (“it is good here, and green”) to everyone who has ever gone for a walk under Canadian trees and heard that quiet, half frightening, half irresistible voice that lures us deeper into the place in which we live. “Come closer,” it says. And as we are curious, as we are brave, we say yes and look, here we are, “sinking, sinking” … It doesn’t have to be an actual forest, MacEwen says. Our minds are only “like” a forest and yet we all know exactly what she’s talking about. That call: it is not what we thought, not what we’d planned, and yet … We nod, yes, yes. We “want it told.”

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Anne Marriott, “The Wind Our Enemy”
Nominated by Maureen Scott Harris

Anne Marriott’s 1937 “The Wind Our Enemy” is certainly my most memorable Canadian poem. It was the first poem I read that reflected the world around me. It may also have been the first that did not uniformly rhyme. In my Manitoba grade six reader of the mid 1950s it was illustrated with tiny sketches, including one of a crumbling barn with wind fiercely inscribed in a flurry of curling lines. Rereading it today, I remember its opening and closing passages echoing the wind’s ceaseless erasure, and its loving description of a spring wheat field unrolling over the earth “like a giant’s bolt of silk” rippling in the wind, “as if a great broad snake / Moved under the green sheet / Seeking its outward way to light.”

More than 70 years later we may fault the poem for its depiction of nature as a force opposed to human presence, but love of the land is also written here. Although climate can still break a farmer, smallholders today face other forces. Marriott’s enemy wind offers an apt metaphor for contemporary turbulences: corporate greed and agribusiness farming practices that have as little regard for the living soil as did the winds of the 1930s.

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David McFadden, “Secrets of the Universe”
Nominated by Jeanette Lynes

There are many great Canadian poems worthy of recognition. But in this present moment of reflection, I nominate “Secrets of the Universe” by David McFadden. This relatively short, unpretentious poem encapsulates what is, for me, the essence of memorable Canadian poetry. McFadden writes, “there is too much snow / and not enough music.” You can’t get much closer to a key aspect of our culture (except, perhaps, for West Coast dwellers). “Secrets of the Universe” is driven by an anecdote, a surreal encounter between two people at a bus stop. A colloquial speaking voice energizes the poem — a talker, a storyteller. In this, too, McFadden pegs our oral, discursive culture. In the poem, a woman approaches a man and insists they danced together the previous night. He can’t remember where. She says “up there / on the roof / and she points to the roof of Hipperson Hardware.” The woman brings a bigger wisdom to the encounter, since apparently, they also danced on “other planets.” The man is left to wonder “about the part of your life / that is secret even from you.” I love the poem’s playful undertow, how it does not take itself too seriously. Yet “Secrets of the Universe” reminds us that even our everyday lives are, recalling Alice Munro’s famous formulation of deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum, unfathomable. We inhabit psychic bus stops in the cold, poised between our quotidian and ultimate destinies.

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A.F. Moritz, “The Chinese Writing Academy”
Nominated by Myna Wallin

A.F. Moritz may have been born in Niles, Ohio, but he came to Canada in 1974, and we have claimed him as our own ever since. Moritz’s prodigious talent can be found among his 15 prize-winning books. But at a recent reading at the Rowers Pub Reading Series in Toronto, his poem “The Chinese Writing Academy,” from The Tradition, stopped all movement in the room.

His poetry asserts that the political and the personal resonate, and one cannot function without first acknowledging the other. That is not to say there is not a heavy layering of irony here as well: “We know that bureaucrats write all the poetry. / We will be bureaucrats / and know the sorrows of being out of power / and of being powerless even when in power.”

In just a few stanzas, Moritz’s speaker realizes: “For we who know the sorrows of being out of power / know poetry is only part / of a larger question / which also we will ignore with all our art.”

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John Newlove, “The Weather”
Nominated by Lorna Crozier

What I find remarkable about John Newlove’s “The Weather” is its ability to shift the tone in such a small space from a kind of cranky seriousness to humour to awe. As in other Newlove poems, the voice convinces, exasperates and delights a reader. His poems never end up where I expect them to. In “The Weather” he takes an unexpected turn with “Do the shamans / do what they say they do, dancing?” It has got to be one of the great unanswerable questions you can find in a poem. Then there is the direct address to the reader in the phrase “you beautiful dead to be.” Such a Newlovian reminder of our mortality, such a small, wry note of praise. And what about the topic! What’s more Canadian than a poem about the weather. It is the weather, as John says, that writes us here.

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Michael Ondaatje, “The Cinnamon Peeler”
Nominated by Molly Peacock

Let’s add a sensuous note to the list of Most Memorable with “The Cinnamon Peeler” by Michael Ondaatje. It operates with the vigour of a single, vibrantly sexual (and therefore absolutely memorable) metaphor that rides the poem just as the lover does in the first stanza:

   If I were a cinnamon peeler
   I would ride your bed
   and leave the yellow bark dust
   on your pillow.

Poets are forever admonishing their students to use all five senses, but the fact is that the lyric poem often excludes all but visual images. “The Cinnamon Peeler” restores tactile imagery to the lyric, using such phrases as “buried my hands in saffron” and lavishly repeating the verb “touch” four times as Ondaatje infuses the story of an arranged marriage with an alluring sense of anticipation. Best of all, the poem luxuriates in odour and, as the wife finally speaks back tothe husband, the one who has wooed her, with the final two words, “Smell me,” the perfume of the cinnamon works its Proustian magic, materializing the evanescent.

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P.K. Page, “This Heavy Craft”
Nominated by Sandy Shreve

The first time I read P.K. Page’s “This Heavy Craft,” it stayed with me for days. Since then, Ihave thought of the poem often, drawing on it for the kind of sustenance only great writing can offer.

Page turns the Icarus myth into a metaphor for perseverance and hope. Here, Icarus lives on in us as we strive to transcend the limitations of the human condition (“grounded / in my flesh”), even though “the wax has melted” and we have but “phantom wings.”

The rich associations in this poem give it much of its reach, its deep and abiding resonance. For example, “heavy” alludes to what weighs us down and to something important; “craft” to art, science (and Daedalus), intelligence, skill, the body (as vessel) … “Bird” suggests the soul and the Phoenix, while “one bright section in me” and “starry night” invoke the spiritual sense of light, both inner and universal. At the end, “practises” powerfully brings home the beauty of the endeavour, of not giving up. This last word is also a beginning, as it works with all those other associations to open doors, inviting us to wander through the lines again and again, to discover what we will.

Contemplating the poem is further enriched by its music — the internal rhymes, for instance, or the sprung rhythm — a subtle (subconscious?) nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins, another inspired poet, and one Page counts among her early and important influences.

P.K. Page, “Planet Earth”
Nominated by John Reibetanz

Never mind that the collection named for it made the Top Ten on amazon.ca’s list of Fifty Canadian Essential Books. Never mind, either, that it was the poem Page chose to read, memorably, at the Griffin awards. But do pay attention to another accolade: “Planet Earth” was chosen as the standard bearer for the United Nations’ year-long Dialogue among Civilizations through Poetry in 2001.

What a great way for Canada to enter the 21st century! Written by a woman who arrived on Planet Earth before most of the previous century (with its absence of dialogue between nation and nation, between humanity and the rest of the planet), this poem stakes a claim for both international and environmental concord. As a glosa, “Planet Earth” engages in a cross-cultural dialogue with Pablo Neruda’s “In Praise of Ironing,” its source poem. Page takes Neruda’s image — of poetry as a “pure white” remaking of the world — and opens it out like a freshly laundered sheet to demonstrate the “love” we all need to show in “smoothing the holy surfaces” of the planet itself. No eco-sermon, but an extended metaphor that delights and leaves us wiser.

Also nominated by Kate Braid.

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Al Purdy, “The Country North of Belleville”
Nominated by Sam Solecki

Al Purdy often said that most poets were lucky if at the end of the day they could look back on five or six first-rate poems. Of his own half dozen, the outstanding poem for me is “The Country North of Belleville,” one of the central works of the Canadian imagination. As with certain poems of Yeats, Neruda and Milosz, it suggests a sense of inclusiveness and national proprietorship. Read with other similar poems of place, it is part of a poetic cartography that is simultaneously an imagined Canadian way of being in the world.

Describing the landscape that he knew best, Purdy somehow manages to extend the poem’s significance beyond any particular time and place or set of mundane rural events. The very timelessness, the opening and closing catalogues of township names — “the country of our defeat / Wollaston Elzevir and Dungannon / and Weslemkoon lake land” — and the reiterated “we” and “country” turn this surprisingly melancholy poem into a powerful national ode.

Pierre Trudeau’s response to “A Handful of Earth” (a poem dedicated to René Lévesque) in a letter speaks equally to “A Country North of Belleville”: “I received your poem … and found it very touching and beautiful. It is that beauty and emotion which Canadians must feel surging within their hearts, if we are to will this country into its future.”

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Copper Inuit “Song” (recorded and translated by Knut Rasmussen)
Nominated by Jody Aliesan

Someone alone in a kayak, blown far offshore, thought himself in danger. Now he remembers this fear, among so many other small fears that were magnified by “all the vital things / I had to get to and to reach.” Then comes the illumination:

   And yet, there is only one great thing,
   the only thing:
   to live to see
   in huts and on journeys
   the great day that dawns,
   and the light that fills the world.

Everything unfolds in 16 lines: memory, humility, recognition, awe. “It is only the truth of solitude,” writes Leonard Cohen. This lone figure, representing the first of our three founding cultures, finds himself in Sharon Butala’s “intermingling of place and person,” and sings of a landscape that cannot be dominated, that is itself conscious. “The Canadian sensibility is that of the edge, the unknown, the uncontrolled,” writes John Ralston Saul. “Poetry still lies at the core of our creativity and so reverberates out through other expressions of culture.”

Rasmussen asked the shaman Aua about Inuit beliefs and was told: “We don’t believe. We fear.” But Najagneg, another guide, said the “eye of the world” has a voice so gentle that it soothes children, and what it says is Sila ersinarsinivdluge: “Be not afraid of the universe.”

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Robin Skelton, “Night Poem: Vancouver Island”
Nominated by George McWhirter

My nomination, “Night Poem: Vancouver Island” by Robin Skelton, from its opening — “the wind’s in the west tonight, / heavy with tidal sound” — has all the drama of weather and love on the island, heading into storm, domestic and atmospheric — “the house, awash with air, / swings into the dark.” I lived my first years in Canada at the island’s centre, the Alberni Valley; this epic is by an immigrant who became an integral part of the island’s literary geography, whose spirit and poem still surround it. The verses’ rhythms androlls are mimetic of storm waves surfers covet on the West Coast, where they risk the same dangers as the poem’s lovers, who “reach out … almost touch, but are swimmers pulled apart by arbitrary tides … swept out on the night.” Best of all, the poem shows how to ride the tempest of love to a resolution — “your lips upon mine / solves nothing / but is good” — which is the most any of us, conflicted lovers, can say. Robin always said he used a half Yeats/Roethke line; the shortening doubles the roll of Yeats and Roethke, both of whom were West Coasters, no unlikely coincidence in the ear all three had for poetry.

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Norm Sibum, “Girls and Handsome Dogs”
Nominated by Eric Ormsby

Norm Sibum’s “Girls and Handsome Dogs” — from the book of that title published in 2002 by the Porcupine’s Quill — strikes me as one of the most memorable Canadian poems I know. It made a powerful impression on me when I first read it, over six years ago; whenever I reread the poem, I am struck afresh by its startling originality. “Girls and Handsome Dogs” might have been written to illustrate W.H. Auden’s definition of poetry as “memorable speech.” With its conversational cadences turned to music, this is a poem that saunters as it soliloquizes.

  Girls and handsome dogs
  High-stepped on the avenues.

Everywhere there are “comic shades / Of the absolute” — a phrase that perfectly captures Sibum’s inimitable poetics — and these are sharpened by “time’s touch.” Dinner at Delia’s awaits the speaker but who is Delia? She serves cucumber soup and has “a passion for baroque strings.” Suddenly the title phrase takes on new force: “I will sit at the Delia-table and be stroked — I’ll rise up on my hind legs, beseech … ” At Delia’s, he will learn that “To love is to go hungry and it is to banquet.” Rarely has the doubleness of all we hold dear been so memorably expressed.

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Raymond Souster, “Lake of Bays,” and Giles Vigneault, “Mon pays”
Nominated by Fraser Sutherland

The choice of most memorable Canadian poem in French is easy for this anglophone. It is Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon pays,” with its signature line “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.”

The English choice is trickier: plentiful candidates appear in John Robert Colombo’s Penguin Treasury of Popular Canadian Poems and Songs. For its complex mythopoeia of the Fall and Redemption, I would choose Al Purdy’s “Wilderness Gothic,” although my reasons would not please the author, requiescat in pace. I once told Purdy that I thought he was a religious poet, specifically a pantheist. He snorted in disgust.

For simplicity’s sake and peace of mind, I’ll choose Raymond Souster’s “Lake of Bays,” in which, on a bet, a ten-year-old girl jumps into the water from a 50-foot-high bridge. The poet’s mother sniffs, “That one will never grow up / to be a lady.” But the poet knows that he will remember “her brown body dropping like a stone / long after I’ve forgotten / many many ladies … ”

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Phyllis Webb, “Breaking”
Nominated by John Barton

Phyllis Webb opens “Breaking,” from her 1962 collection The Sea Is Also a Garden, with an imperative she instantly qualifies as a question: “Give us wholeness, for we are broken. / But who are we asking, and why do we ask?” and closes 30 lines later with a question that reads rhetorically: “What are we whole or beautiful or good for / but to be absolutely broken?”

In between falls a closely argued internal debate, where Webb makes a case for the value not only of suffering, but also of exposing oneself to it ardently, even recklessly.

What makes “Breaking” remarkable, especially as a poem about suffering, is Webb’s avoidance of personal tragedy in an era when the confessionals were first asserting their influence, inspiring the less adept to voice a publicly degrading narcissism from which poetry has yet to recover. Webb’s scrupulous intensity rates comparison with the transcripts of struggle left us by the metaphysicals, of whom she is perhaps one of Canada’s literary descendants. None can argue with:

  Greek marble white and whiter grows
   breaking into history of a west.
   If we could stand so virtuously white
   crumbling in the terrible Grecian light.

Few poems I know stand as well the scrutiny of rereading or the enlightening test of time.

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