She Liked Short Lines
The lyrical voices of Carol Shields
For her 1987 novel, Swann: A Mystery, which was reissued as simply Swann and as Mary Swann in foreign markets, Carol Shields composed several poems as representative works of her protagonist. Mary Swann is a poet from the countryside around Kingston, Ontario, who is murdered by her husband, at fifty, on the same day that she drops off her manuscript at a small publisher. The Peregrine Press — not one of “the simpering ‘little mag’ people, the offset people,” as Shields amusingly puts it — is run by the editor of a fictional Kingston newspaper, the Banner, one Frederic Cruzzi, along with his wife, Hildë, who is a Rilke specialist. The poems, which are rather good in an Emily Dickinson sort of way, get printed in an edition of 250 copies, most of which disappear (the usual fate of small-press books), making life challenging for the growing band of Swann scholars. When it seems that the entire edition has been lost or stolen, the text must be reconstructed from memory by a group of professors gathered at a conference table, like witches around a cauldron. It’s all rather fun, though the plot stretches credulity more than a little. But the poems proved to readers of Shields’s fiction, if they were not already aware, that the novelist was also an accomplished poet.
Even before Small Ceremonies, her first novel, Shields published two books of poetry. Much later she would publish a third, and these three works — Others, Intersect, and Coming to Canada — make up the bulk of The Collected Poetry of Carol Shields, compiled by Nora Foster Stovel, a professor retired from the University of Alberta. The poems from Swann are also included, and in the context of Shields’s larger poetic corpus, it becomes clear that the Dickinson-like cast of those sometimes cryptic pieces was devised for the character of Mary Swann and does not constitute Shields’s natural voice.
Shields was surely perpetrating a joke on academic criticism (and on herself) when she had Hildë Cruzzi declare Mary Swann to be “as fine a poet in her way as the great Rilke.” Yet Stovel quotes actual CanLit critics who have compared Shields as a poet to Louis Zukofsky, to Robert Graves, and to Dickinson; who have evoked Philip Larkin as an influence, an idea that seems mostly far-fetched to me, despite Shields’s own admission that she found Larkin’s poetry “a wonderful revelation”; and who cite Jacques Lacan as intellectually adjacent, so to speak — as though every poet who deals with the Self and the Other has to have read the psychoanalytic literature. Of course, every poet has read other poets, and a reading of Shields’s complete poems suggests there were Canadian influences as well: Raymond Souster, for one, who like her was interested in dailiness, but maybe also Anne Wilkinson, who seems a much more likely companion in poetry than Graves or Lacan. Wilkinson, like Shields, liked short lines and unpredictable rhyme.
Many critics have noted the small-scale nature of Shields’s poems and their obsession with family, daily life, memory, and domesticity. Most do not extend beyond a single page, and the language is largely kept quite simple, in line with her advice to students to avoid complicated wording or “pretty language.” There is much that is anecdotal, and rarely would one violate the normally helpful rule not to confuse the poetic voice with the poet’s actual self by assuming that Shields really did, for example, have an Aunt Alice or a Great-Grandma whose name was Catherine. Shields’s real self in all its emotional and historical dimensions is constantly the subject at hand. She speaks unselfconsciously about — and sometimes in the voice of — her children, her husband, and her extended family members. But mostly she speaks in her own unruffled and straightforward way, as in “Suppertime 1950”:
Six o’clock. This hour
encircles itself, measured
out in voices and doors,
running water and the graceless scraping
of vegetables and showers
of steps on patterned floors.
We are so easily reassured
by mere clatter
by the sweet pleasing rise
of familiar steam shaping
what we’ve more or less
come to recognize
As many of Shields’s poems do, this one uses assonance (“sweet pleasing rise / of familiar steam”) and end rhyme, though in a non-repeating pattern. Equally typical is the feeling she expresses of being “happy enough,” to borrow a phrase from George Johnston, a poet of an earlier generation who also focused on domestic life. While the voice is mostly conversational (“what we’ve more or less come to recognize”), it can rise to more metaphoric language (“the graceless scraping / of vegetables”). Phrases from other poems, like “a kitchen rinsed / with milky light” or “the flushed breath / of the furnace switching on,” or her description of a cottage bathtub as a “white-sided cow,” all demonstrate Shields’s gift for rhetorical sophistication. But even when she is speaking in the voice of a suburban mom, she can be imaginative and deadly accurate, as when she writes of a former friend that “her blank bones / support the soul of a turnip.” There’s an insult worthy of Mary Swann, if she had a sense of humour!
Shields was a lyric poet, sometimes using the conventions of rhyme and even metre, and sometimes writing in free verse. Her freest verse dominates in a sequence called “Snow,” which appears for the first time in The Collected Poetry. Stovel calls the pieces “prose poems,” but they are not. They are simply free-verse poems in which the poetics are essentially those of prose. (Stovel is also in error when she claims, in a note, that Susanna Moodie’s husband, John, served in the Rebellions of 1837–38 “under Mackenzie.” In fact, he fought in the militia against the newspaper publisher William Lyon Mackenzie.) The sequence’s parts are undated, according to the editor, but presumably they were composed around the time Shields was researching Moodie for her master’s thesis at Carleton University in the 1970s.
“Snow” takes its place on an extensive list of Canadian long poems and poetic sequences that are based in history or on the lives of historical persons. (Don Gutteridge wrote several of this kind, also in the 1970s.) The dry style accurately reproduces the manner of nineteenth-century sisters corresponding across the ocean, with one in Suffolk and the other in “the bush” in eastern Ontario:
As I lift my pen
I record the twenty-third day of snow
The stunning morning surprise of snow
across the doorway. Snow rising
to the very sills of the little windows
one on each side of the door
Like the Mary Swann poems, the “Snow” sequence demonstrates Shields’s ability to mimic other voices, a skill obviously important to fiction as well as to a certain kind of poetry. Her skill developed early. Stovel includes a handful of poems originally published in college literary magazines that barely qualify as “not, strictly speaking, a juvenile work”— a sonnet and poems in rhyming couplets. But it’s apparent from this book that Carol Shields had established a mature poetic voice well before she turned to fiction, and that she was an important Canadian writer long before The Stone Diaries made her internationally famous.