Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Norwegian Theory of CanLit

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I did a reading last night in Oslo with two Norwegian poets. I don’t speak Norwegian which meant that I could not follow the themes, images, and semantic content and organization of the poems. They were quiet and intense readers though and I felt free to enjoy the cadence of the Scandinavian language, the lifts and lilts that shaped the works. I allowed myself the illusion of listening to sound poetry – and there were enough unique vowels and letters to sustain the phantasy (Norwegian has 29 letters in their alphabet, for instance). Sarah Selmer read from her book brytningsanomaliene which combines the medical discourse of vision science with more poetic tropes of vision, identity, and landscape. Consequently, the frequent medical latin terms broke through and were hung out, dry and visible in the soundscape. Her reading was followed by a long discussion. Silja Vethal read next, and in the discussion afterwards I was able to ask about a line I found sonically haunting. She translated this as “it is not perfect, it is not beautiful / it is only cold.” The hard k’s in the original clicked a rhythm that was itself rather metallic.

I had intended to read from my forthcoming book of poems The Others Raisd in Me, poems that use the “plunderverse” technique – surely a Viking trick – to steal poems in William Shakespeare’s language and letters. Paal Andersen, the organizer, however introduced me by describing my previous book If Language, which is a collection of paragraph-length anagrams. The assembled group wanted to hear more about the project – yes, there was much more open discussion throughout the reading than happens in Canada! They actually insisted that I read the book’s epigraph – the source paragraph for all of the anagrams from an essay by Steve McCaffery. I have been doing readings from If Language for nearly five years now and this was the first time I have ever been asked to read the epigraph. Some of the anagrams are perfectly readable, but others are tangled knots and riddles. I read a selection of both, rereading passages that people wanted to hear again and discuss.

Paal used the occasion to propose a theory of contemporary Canadian poetry as having a distinctive and focussed exploration of rich vocabularies shaped by conceptual rather than lyrical or self-expressive projects. He connected If Language to other books such as Christian Bök’s Crystallography, Nathalie Walschots’ Thumbscrews, Jordan Scott’s Blert, and a.rawlings’ Wide Slumber for Lepidopterists. As these are all books I believe represent the very best of new Canadian writing, I wanted to agree with him. But these writers represent a school in CanLit, a subset, rather than a general shared aesthetic.

In order for his theory to be right, we would have to completely ignore (or undo) books like Molly Peacock’s The Second Blush. Peacock is an extremely popular poet who writes universal lyric poems – poems stripped of particularities and self-consciousness, let alone conceptual orientation. Peacock has been called one of Canada’s best living writers, but her writing seems to me an echo of A.J.M. Smith’s non-nativist, modernist poems. These are poems that stay fuzzy and unfocussed by relying on abstract nouns – loneliness, sadness, melancholy, and the like. There is no sense that these words are barely approximations of experience, trapped in a shell of language, empty husks. Peacock edits The Best Canadian Poetry in English annual anthology series, which is, I should note, guest-edited. Peacock's poems and her favoured poems struggle to duplicate the achievements of an older figure like Seamus Heaney rather than working from his accomplishments to uncover new literary ground. The popularity of her work has been quite successful in obscuring the more interesting work happening in the country, and has the remarkable distinction of ignoring all of the very best of the new Canadian currents of the past half-century.

Paal’s theory, though, allowed me to imagine these currents, these writings – such as by bpNichol, McCaffery, Brossard, Gauvreau, Marlatt, Gail Scott, Darren Wershler-Henry, and many others – as equivalents to Selmer's latin words in a Nordic poem. They stand out from the local marketplace of language, and share a different history, a different lineage. This body of writing confirms the existence of a Canadian current that is collecting, despite the obstructions, and growing into at least an inland sea.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page