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six contemporary Newfoundland poets as chosen
by Riddle Fence literary magazine editors Mark Callanan, Leslie Vryenhoek and Shoshanna Wingate; introduced by Mark Callanan
Mark Callanan is the author of Scarecrow (Killick Press, 2003), which was shortlisted for the Newfoundland and Labrador Book Award for Poetry; Sea Legend (Frog Hollow Press, 2010), shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award, and Gift Horse (Véhicule Press, 2011). His poetry has appeared in several anthologies, including Breathing Fire 2: Canada’s New Poets and Open Wide A Wilderness. He is currently the Poetry Reviews Editor for Canadian Notes & Queries. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
“Among Newfoundland’s favourite myths,” the late author and cultural commentator Harold Horwood once wrote in the St. John’s Evening Telegram, “is the belief that we have in this Province a very distinctive and flavourful culture which should be preserved at all costs [...] The truth is that Newfoundland has no literature, no music, no art, little philosophy and less science.” It must take a lot of nerve, and no small reserve of arrogance, to make such a dismissive statement about the creative output – or adjudged lack thereof – of an entire culture, but Horwood’s brash declaration did, at the time of writing in 1952, hold some truth—at least insofar as the literary output of the Canadian province of Newfoundland (1) was concerned. Everard H. King, poetry editor of the longstanding historical journal The Newfoundland Quarterly seems to be in agreement. Writing in his introduction to Choice Poems from the Newfoundland Quarterly, 1901-1981, King suggests that most of the poems published in the first sixty or so years of the Quarterly’s tenure were “insensitive to language as to life, or overwhelmed by flowery words and ornate images,” or in numerous other ways failed to meet his selection criteria.
The starting point of an accomplished indigenous Newfoundland poetry (2) is generally taken to be the publication of E.J. Pratt’s first book of poems, Newfoundland Verse, in 1923. Pratt was born in Western Bay in 1882, and left the island at the age of twenty-five, eventually becoming a professor of English literature at the University of Toronto. Though he was writing in the middle of the modernist period (The Waste Land appeared in 1922), in a time of experimentation and innovation, Pratt was composing poetry that sounded, in the stately regularity of its metre, and in the sonorous tone of its lines, anachronistic; at points, almost Victorian. Further, as Patrick O’Flaherty seems to suggest in The Rock Observed: Studies in the Literature of Newfoundland (University of Toronto Press, 1979), Pratt’s sympathetic, idealized vision of the lives of a working class betrayed something of a Romantic sensibility. For his part, Canadian poetry critic Carmine Starnino sees Pratt as a saviour of wider Canadian poetry. “Until Pratt,” Starnino writes in A Lover’s Quarrel, his book of reviews and criticism (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2004), “Canadian poetry was nothing more than an overacted, stump-pulpit sermon on Canadianness [...] Pratt introduced a tone – epic in its shape and accent – that was jubilant, sly, insurgent and provocative.”
Yet Pratt comes in for a drubbing at O’Flaherty’s hands: “Newfoundland functioned as little more than a convenient stock of images and illuminations for an aspiring imagist poet to draw upon”; he “showed no interest in Newfoundland history” and “had no interest in exploring the distinctive traditions and habits of speech of his people,” O’Flaherty continues, as if Pratt had failed to fulfill the requirements of a prescribed cultural curriculum. Ultimately, O’Flaherty sees Pratt’s Newfoundland-centred poetry as a romanticized version of a seafaring culture, convenient for Pratt’s purposes because of the heroic, apparently futile battle against the elements that that culture embodies. “Whatever Pratt may have failed to do,” O’Flaherty begrudges, having enumerated at length those failures, “he was, without question, Newfoundland’s finest poet.”
But if Newfoundland’s early print tradition had limited success, it excelled in other areas. In his essay on the Newfoundland poetry of the 1970s (3), academic and poet Adrian Fowler points out that, until relatively recently, Newfoundland’s was a predominantly oral culture. “The poetry of Newfoundland,” he writes, “is to be found in its folk culture: in the language being recorded in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English; in the expressions collected in the University Folklore Archive [...]; in the songs and stories that have filled volumes [...]; in the broadside ballad tradition typified by Johnny Burke.” (Harold Horwood, in his cynical estimations, takes none of this into account.) Later in that same essay, Fowler suggests that the sudden proliferation of Newfoundland poetry that occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century was, at least in part, a nationalistic reaction to historical circumstances that saw Newfoundland’s sense of self degraded: In 1949, Newfoundland relinquished the right to self-government and became Canada’s tenth province. The effects of that controversial union (the deciding vote was 51% in favour of Canadian confederation, 49% against) are still felt today, and, combined with the deleterious psychological effects of the provincial government endorsed Resettlement program – which saw the inhabitants of small coastal communities (“outports” in the Newfoundland idiom) relocated en masse to larger centres – gave rise to a reactionary period of nationalism-driven creative endeavour in the 1970s and 80s. Young Newfoundlanders, hitherto encouraged to smooth out their thick accents and otherwise conceal their cultural upbringing, displayed a sudden and fierce pride in their heritage.
I would argue, though, that many of the poets whose work is often cited in the context of what is described as the “Newfoundland Renaissance”(4) are critically lacking. They tend toward the kind of limp colloquial phrasing that the allure of free verse (with its democratic, deceptive simplicity) has damned us to suffer, I’m sure, for many years to come. The six poets included here are, to my mind, among the best writing in Canada. They were either born in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, grew up there, or are current residents.
Of the six, the work of Mary Dalton most overtly fulfills O’Flaherty’s yearning for a poetry that explores “the distinctive traditions and habits of speech of [her] people”. Her third poetry collection, Merrybegot, is a poly-vocal act of ventriloquism in which she transcribes the compact, sly-witted metaphorical flights of Newfoundland idiomatic expression into a verse equivalent that is musically intriguing. Her subject, here and elsewhere, is the friction between traditional ways of life and contemporary impositions.
Richard Greene is the most likely heir to E.J. Pratt’s tradition of long narrative poetry (though the selection here, by necessity, comprises samples of Greene’s shorter works), and tends to divide his writing equally between a nostalgic mode that celebrates a bygone era, and a more contemporary lyricism that observes and records, often with wry amusement, our twenty-first century setting.
In many ways, James Langer’s poems are a descendent of Dalton’s and Pratt’s combined. Much of his poetry draws on images of work or play in the small outport setting of his youth, often describing it in violent, morally ambiguous terms—in this, he diverges completely from Pratt, whose interest was in making heroes. As in Dalton (if less overtly) the friction in Langer’s writing comes from the adversarial relationship between personal or cultural identity, and the encroaching other. Language and accent, in Langer, are things to be grappled with.
Carmelita McGrath’s work turns a critical, feminist lens on gender roles in traditional Newfoundland culture – as one, with impish pluck, might turn a magnifying glass on a sheaf of paper to watch it scorch – often criticizing patriarchal conceptions of work and family with a typically barbed wit. Later poems like “Before Electricity, Demons Were A Regular Occurrence” describe a mythically-proportioned Newfoundland past in which ordinary happenings were filtered through a spiritual belief system that imbued them with greater significance.
Don McKay is the unofficial Canadian laureate, a poet whose deft lyricism can make bird-watching or geology into the stuff of jazzed-up colloquial speech. His dual perennial concerns of birds and rocks would risk falling into stereotypical conceptions of a Canadian nature poetry tradition but for the mad vitality of McKay’s language (think here of one in a manic state, whose very person seems to crackle and fizz with energy), which elevates them far above the commonplace, transforming them into deeply symbolic aspects of ourselves.
Patrick Warner’s poems (to crib from my own earlier writing on his poetry), “like mischievous children at a church service, [...] crack jokes aloud and tug their sister’s hair, pull faces and loudly masticate the host even as they participate in the divine”. His concerns are numerous, but tend to accrue around the tension between the lyrical “I” and the world that “I” attempts to bend, like an Uri Geller spoon trick, in constructing its own identity. Warner’s poetry is a slippery thing.
The poetry that follows is intended as an introduction to the work of the aforementioned six poets. It is not meant to be a definitive selection of contemporary Newfoundland poetry. Hopefully, though, it is representative enough to provide a useful entryway into the poetry of this Canadian province. Some other poets whose work might have equally appeared here (but for the editors’ self-imposed constraint to keep the number limited to a half a dozen) are: Ken Babstock, Michael Crummey, Tom Dawe, George Murray, John Steffler, and Agnes Walsh. We hope you find here reason enough to further investigate the poetic output of our sparsely, fully inhabited province.
(1) Since December 2001, the official title of the province has been Newfoundland and Labrador. For brevity’s sake, I’ve mostly used “Newfoundland.” (Back to text.)
(2) It is generally believed that Quodlibets, Lately Come Over from New Britaniola, Old Newfound-land was the first book of English verse to have been written on the continent of North America. The book was composed by Robert Hayman during his time as governor of the English colony at Bristol’s Hope, Newfoundland (modern day Harbour Grace), and printed in 1628. Its intent being to encourage colonial growth, Hayman’s monograph reads like department of tourism rhetoric, and tends to elide the less desirable aspects of living on a sparsely inhabited island in the middle of the North Atlantic. (Back to text.)
(3) “Newfoundland Poetry in the 70s: The Context” was published as part of a Newfoundland poetry issue of the Canadian literary journal CVII (otherwise known as Contemporary Verse Two—Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring 1982). (Back to text.)
(4) “The Newfoundland Renaissance” was the title of a 1972 Saturday Night article written by journalist Sandra Gwyn. It profiled what Gwyn called “some of the freshest, brashest, most compelling art in [Canada].” (Back to text.)
©2012 Mark Callanan
Riddle Fence literary magazine
Mark Callanan's website
Callanan at Newfoundland & Labrador Heritage