“waist-deep in the criss-cross river of shadows”

Reviewed by Ryan J. Cox

Margaret Prang, addressing the Canadian Historical Association in 1977, implored her fellow historians to pay attention to what was happening in Canadian literature. She argued that “the sharpest and most convincing portrayals of [limited] identities . . . come not from historians but from our poets, novelists and short story writers” and, furthermore, “[b]oth the general reader and the social historian find their sensitivity to the impact of place and history heightened by [these writers]” (qtd. in Weingarten). Reflecting on Canadian literary history, this argument makes a great deal of sense. While Canadian poetry has long had an interest in the historical and a firmly established documentary tradition, there is a shift after 1960 in the way Canadian poets engage with both place and history. Attributable to both the structural changes in literary production brought on by the establishment of the Canada Council and the contentious debates about Canadian identity—or its absence—that occurred in the shadow of the national centennial, this shift, as J. A. Weingarten argues in Sharing the Past: The Reinvention of History in Canadian Poetry since 1960, is marked by a modernist scepticism in the mould of T. S. Eliot and the development of what Weingarten calls “lyric historiography.”

Lyric historiography is “a creative study of the past that brings readers away from the distance inspired by an elite, academic history and closer to the historical and cultural experiences of people.” Sharing the Past suggests that the lyric mode is essential to the reinvention or revision of historical discourse because the lyric “I,” being inherently limited, cannot make claims to objective authority. This, as Weingarten suggests, places it in opposition to more impersonal kinds of historical writing—including the work of professional historians—but also opens it up to engaging with historical narratives sceptically. Lyric historiography’s particular kind of modernist scepticism is one that questions and interrogates in order to move back towards belief, which Weingarten positions in opposition to postmodern scepticisms that embrace uncertainty. Effectively, this serves to delineate the literary genealogy that Sharing the Past traces from Al Purdy through John Newlove to Barry McKinnon and Andrew Suknaski, and through Margaret Atwood to Joan Crate.

The work that Sharing the Past does to establish and explore this genealogy is one of the book’s great strengths. The connections, both personal and poetic, are firmly established with thorough research and detailed close readings. This is a significant work of literary history that seeks to recover an underexplored aspect of Canadian literary history, to show the connections between this group of poets and shifts in the practice of Canadian historians, and to engage with what, excepting Purdy and Atwood, was very much a prairie poetic movement during a period when there was a rising consideration of the Prairies as place and people. These interventions are important, as revealed in particularly strong sections of the book dealing with the neglect of Barry McKinnon’s I Wanted to Say Something, and situating Joan Crate’s Pale as Real Ladies within the network of contentious representations of E. Pauline Johnson. They are also important as acts of recovery; this history and these texts speak to a crucial moment in the development of both Canadian literature and Canadian identities. Understanding them necessarily deepens the reader’s understanding of the overall development of these structures.

There are some notable limitations to what Sharing the Past is able to accomplish. The way in which Weingarten constructs lyric historiography to specifically exclude the postmodern leads to some noticeable gaps in the texts and poets covered, given the interest in historical subject matter within Canadian poetry between 1960 and 1990. The book suffers little by excluding George Bowering or Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, but, given the degree to which Sharing the Past engages western Canada and familial history as a field of poetic composition, Robert Kroetsch’s absence is noticeable. Indeed, some of the theoretical distinctions between modernism and postmodernism or the lyric and non-lyric are less distinct than they are presented here. And while they are arguably necessary both to link this particular group of poets and to connect their work to trends within Canadian historiography, these distinctions seem to prevent a full exploration of the construction of history in Canadian poetics in the centennial period. Despite these limitations, Sharing the Past is a well-researched contribution to the field, and an important examination of the relationship between Canadian poetics and historiography during a time of change.

This review ““waist-deep in the criss-cross river of shadows”” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 31 Aug. 2020. Web.

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