"Canpo," Thirty Years On
Reviewed by Amanda Goldrick-Jones
"No Canadian poet was ever mentioned at King Edward High School in Vancouver," begins the Preface to the fourth edition of Gary Geddes’s latest and largest collection of Canadian poetry. This is hard to imagine in an era when bookstore shelves are amply stocked with Canadian fiction and transit users can read snippets of Canadian poetry on their way to work. What was once quaintly known as "CanLit" and relegated to a shelf in the back of the bookstore has become so much a part of our cultural landscape that the appearance of one more collection of Canadian poets hardly seems remarkable. This happy state of affairs results substantially from the efforts of poets and editors like Gary Geddes, who recognized over thirty years ago that one of the best ways to promote "Canpo" was to make it accessible to Canadian students through widely distributed anthologies.
Once described by historian George Woodcock as Canada’s best political poet, Geddes is editor of 20th-century Poetry and Poetics-, used in classrooms since 1969. As well as numerous articles, reviews, and stories, Geddes has published over fifteen books of poetry, among them The Terracotta Army (1984), Light of Burning Towers: Poems New and Selected (1990), and Active Trading: Selected Poems, 1970-1995 (1996). 15 Canadian Poets x 3 is the latest descendant of 15 Canadian Poets, the 1970 anthology he co-edited with Phyllis Bruce.
In that first edition the editors articulated a single, clear purpose: *to suggest the unusual scope and variety of poetry written in English in Canada since the Second World War." Explaining their choice of fifteen particular poets, Geddes and Bruce admitted: "Ultimately there are no prescriptive criteria to offer for choices that are highly subjective; it can only be hoped that the book reflects what is happening in the art itself." The first edition’s extensive "Notes"—essentially mini-essays critiquing each poet’s language and structure, poetic development, and political and/or cultural influences—were often idiosyncratic in tone and emphasis. For example, Geddes and Bruce spiritedly defended then-emerging poet George Bowering: "A good deal of nonsense, most of it propaganda masquerading as aesthetics, has been written and spoken about Bowering’s poetry. " By comparison and quite understandably, the fourth edition has the luxury of taking a more retrospective approach to once-emerging poets like Bowering, Atwood, and Ondaatje, noting ways in which their work has essentially defined much of the Canadian literary landscape.
Fourteen of Geddes’s original favourites have survived subsequent editions to appear in 15 Canadian Poets x 3, a representation spanning canonical poets like Earle Birney and Dorothy Livesay as well as what Geddes calls "the emerging generation of mature poets." Readers looking for examples of the diversity, structural range, and political/ideological interests of contemporary Canadian poets will appreciate the inclusion of Dionne Brand, Anne Carson, Robert Bringhurst, Jan Zwicky, and Erin Mouré—only a few of the now-established poets whose work embraces ambiguity and paradox, evoking a Canada marked by cultural transformation, and acknowledging voices formerly muffled or silenced.
Most of the forty-five poets in this anthology are represented by ten or more poems, continuing the admirable practice of the first edition to provide as much scope and variety as possible. From a teaching standpoint, showcasing many poems by one writer in this manner is enormously useful. In a few cases, Geddes has chosen to represent a poet by a smaller number of longer works. Notably, Dionne Brand’s "No Language is Neutral" and Anne Carson’s "The Glass Essay" are printed in their entirety, providing valuable opportunities to study a single work in much greater depth.
Geddes also includes excerpts from long poems by Pratt, Livesay, Ondaatje, and MacEwan in order, as he puts it, to heighten a reader’s appreciation of "the importance of the long poem and poetic narrative." However, this can be problematic, in that what is provided is inevitably incomplete, a brilliant metonym perhaps, but still only a piece of a more complex whole. On the other hand, a new reader being introduced to an excerpt from a longer poem might be piqued enough to find and read the entire original. What teacher doesn’t wish fervently for that outcome?
Another useful feature of 15 Canadian Poets x 3 is the biographical and critical introduction to each poet, sensibly placed at the beginning of each section rather than as a separate section at the back. More condensed than the lavish mini-essays in the first edition, these notes nonetheless contain much useful information and analysis drawing from diverse sources. In cases where Geddes has retained poets from earlier editions, his critical comments have seen some minor changes and updates; others are entirely new. Many of these commentaries retain the idiosyncrasies of tone and much of the strong blend of the personal and political that characterized the "Notes" in the first edition. Given his long interest in peace movements and his critiques of political inequality, Geddes has, not surprisingly, used some of these commentaries to convey his empathy for poetry that takes a stance against oppression and injustice.
The Preface has expanded greatly since the first edition. It is helpful for both understanding Geddes’s editorial choices and appreciating his perspectives on the development of "Canpo" and "CanLit" over the past thirty years. Commenting on how the study of literary texts has changed, Geddes expresses some reservations about the fact that it "has been, to a considerable extent, supplanted by other interests— including feminism, ethnicity, gender [. . .] and post-colonialism." While these interests have, for good reason, become inseparable from the study of Canadian literature, Geddes wonders about the dangers of focusing too intently on such an "international" approach to Canadian literature. Citing George Grant’s assertion that "If you skip the stage of nationalism, you don’t become internationals [. ..] but Americans," Geddes insists that "Canada must preserve its cultural identity." This anthology, in its various manifestations since 1970, may be seen as his contribution to that enterprise.
Ultimately, one of the main purposes of 15 Canadian Poets x 3 is found in Geddes’s argument that Canadian identity can no longer be equated with "old myths" about what it means to be Canadian; rather, it is part of a "new reality," embodied in the increasingly diverse voices of "the poets, traditional keepers of the word-hoard, caretakers of the dialects of the tribe." Geddes invites readers to imagine the possibility, reflected in the works of this anthology, that poetry not only shapes a nation but can, perhaps, transform a troubled world.
- the edge of knowing by Anne F. Walker
Books reviewed: Obon: The Festival of the Dead by Terry Watada, Decked and Dancing: Poems by Christine Smart, and Loving the Alien by Laurie Kruk
- Not There Yet by Penny van Toorn
Books reviewed: Is Canada Postcolonial? Unsettling Canadian Literature by Laura Moss
- Rock, Paper, Histories by Travis V. Mason
Books reviewed: Deactivated West 100 by Don McKay, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination by Lawrence Buell, and History of the Book in Canada, Volume One: Beginnings to 1840 by Patricia Lockhart Fleming, Gilles Gallichan, and Yvan Lamonde
- Lyric Translations by Janet Neigh
Books reviewed: God of Missed Connections by Elizabeth Bachinsky, Joy is so Exhausting by Susan Holbrook, m-Talá by Chus Pato, and The Rose Concordance by Angela Carr
- Ombres miniatures by Thierry Bissonnette
Books reviewed: Averses et réglisses noires by Carole David, La marathonienne by Denise Desautels, Une écharde sous ton onglee by Louise Dupré, and Des ombres en formes d'oiseaux by Isabelle Gaudet-Labine
MLA: Goldrick-Jones, Amanda. "Canpo," Thirty Years On. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 152 - 154)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.