And what's the news you carry¨if you know?
And tell me where you're off for¨Montreal?
Robert Frost, "An Encounter"
It is no accident that some of the best writing in English Canada is to be found in Montreal and that some of the finest poets in the country reside and work within a radius of a few blocks of one another. Michael Harris, Carmine Starnino, Robyn Sarah and Peter Van Toorn have lived "in town" from the very beginning of their literary careers. Eric Ormsby moved to Montreal from the U.S. in 1986 to take up the post of Director of Libraries at McGill University and Norm Sibum, a longtime resident of Vancouver (via Germany and Alaska), arrived only a few years past but has since become an integral contributor to the poetic revival fermenting in the city. Charlotte Hussey is associated with the very streets of Montreal¨an earlier collection is entitled Rue Sainte Famille¨and Robert Allen appeared on the scene in the mid-70s via Cornell to join the teaching staff at Concordia University and eventually to assume the editorship of the literary magazine Matrix. Bruce Taylor arrived in 1978 and although he has recently moved to the countryside continues to regard himself, in his own words, as "a Montreal poet if I am anything."
The reason for so dense a concentration of virtuosity has to do with a civic and municipal condition that I call the "double exile," a function of our peculiar demography. I refer to the fact that the small cadre of anglophone poets in Montreal is doubly cut off from an appreciative or at least available readership since it constitutes only a tiny insular minority in the midst of a sea of five million French speakers (who pay little attention to works in the "other" language). At the same time French literature is itself a minority phenomenon surrounded on every side by a nation of twenty-five million English speakers (who, for political reasons, will subsidize its token presence but without understanding or familiarity¨while ignoring the anglophone remnant almost completely). What this means for English Montreal poets, distinct from both their franco-QuTbTcois as well as anglo-Canadian counterparts, is that they form the literary wing of a twofold hostage community. Their voices are heard neither in Quebec City nor in Toronto, a twin-barrelled neglect which leaves them in their various cummings and Gioia, whether solitary or gregarious by nature, talking pretty much to themselves, to their predecessors, to posterity or to the Lord.
The odd thing is that this relative segregation has by no means been an unmitigated disaster. Quite the contrary. For some time now it has brought along with it certain inestimable advantages from which these poets have profited as writers though not as celebrities. Unlike their peers in the rest of the country whose work is publicized and aggressively circulated and who group together to safeguard the perks they enjoy and collect ideological pogey, these Montreal writers have worked in substantial isolation not only from the various nationally syndicated poetries at large¨the West Coast school, the Prairie School, the Southern Ontario school, the Torontocentric school, and so on¨but also from one another. Especially with regard to diction and prosody, the private shaping of a public medium has led to genuine originality.
In other words, this state of binary preterition has created an environment in which individual poets are free to choose their own sources, influences, usage, directions and identities, reaping what we might call benefit of ostracism to build their home in the domain of language itself, each in his or her own special manner. Lack of public attention has liberated them from the need or the tendency to affiliate themselves with political and regional ideologies in order to further their (nonexistent) careers, a providential disregard which has sponsored a renewed sense of the printed voice and kept its possessors in touch with the free vagrancies of mind that consolidate a signature.
In this way, place has been displaced into language, which becomes not simply an agency of communication but both a patrimony and an embodiment. To live in Montreal is now tantamount, for the best of these poets, to moving about fully and jubilantly in the language they explore, construct, reassemble and ultimately dwell in. Where you live has in their case become what you say and how you say it: locality disappears and re-condenses as a dialect of thought. Having absorbed the reality of exile into their inmost selves and consequent practice¨having had, so to speak, autonomy thrust upon them¨each of these poets has developed a distinctive style and idiolect that resists co-optation by a collective. Language has become a house with many mansions.*
I give several titles as evidence for my claim. Peter Van Toorn's Mountain Tea is in a class by itself; the sizzling pyrolalia of a master wordsmith in his element, the likes of which has never been published in this country. Michael Harris' Grace and In Transit represent the kind of work that Ted Hughes would have wanted to write had he been able to. (I have long maintained that Harris is a better poet than his beloved mentor.) For a Modest God, as has been noted by more than one reviewer, displays the verbal gemminess of Hart Crane and the meditative sweep of Wallace Stevens, but is entirely Eric Ormsby: it stands as one of the major poetic achievements of the decade in English-language poetry. His latest book, Araby, is perhaps even more impressive. Questions about the Stars by Robyn Sarah and The November Propertius by Norm Sibum share few thematic and prosodic features, yet the former in its technical self-assurance and the latter in its elegiac hearkening are equally classical productions. Robert Allen's best book of poetry might well be his novel Napoleon's Retreat, a veritable tour de force of poetic prose, and Charlotte Hussey's latest divan of versicles, Sonnets for Z¸e, improves on her already fine, partly MontrTalais collection. Bruce Taylor won the QSPELL Poetry Prize for Cold Rubber Feet and again for his most recent collection, facts. Finally, Credo, Carmine Starnino's second book, with its innovative sixteen part sequence "Cornage," has brought him early and justifiable acclaim.
The work, then, is uniformly accomplished, and yet nothing can be more different one from the other than the verses of Ormsby, Harris, Sarah, Sibum, Van Toorn, Allen, Hussey, Taylor and Starnino, all of whom as poets could just as well be living on different planets (although some of them, it must be admitted, are fellows of the Jubilate Circle). They will meet often, of course, to discuss, argue, compare and disagree, as a talented and amicable community of independent poets whose mutual influence, while occasionally technical or prosodic, is emphatically social and personal. That is, they reinforce each other in their reciprocal and productive solitudes but stay resolutely clear of the schools and movements, the topographical identities, cultic franchises and power politics that constrain and obviate the work of the scribbling classes in the other parts of the country. And while they may, as I have said, engage occasionally in mutual critique, they stay pretty well out of one another's work. The result is that the imaginative flora and fauna are different here and in some instances almost wholly singular, so that what we are seeing is the literary equivalent of Australian evolution. This is just another way of saying that these poets are not, properly speaking, Canadian (or Australian). They are merely unique.
But English Montreal, as we have seen, is in many respects a small and lonely city despite its exotic aura, "over four centuries of cobblestones/sequined with bottle caps," as Hussey puts it. Besieged by two generations of neglect, it has forced its writers in upon themselves in a kind of literary quarantine. This state of affairs, as I have argued, has compelled a number of the poets to shape their own distinctive and indelible styles, which of course does not necessarily alleviate a feeling of oppression or misprision. Opportunity permitting, there is always the temptation either to leave the premises entirely for a distant arboretum, as did Leonard Cohen in the late sixties, or to establish a defensive huddle in order to create a "culture of belonging," a doctrinal and theoretical shelter from the storm of indifference and rejection impacting from the rest of the country.
Indeed this latter option was adopted in the seventies by the first VThicule school of pseudo-demotic poets. Affecting the open-ended poetics of the Black Mountain bunch as it filtered through the West Coast anagrammatic TISH movement, a byke of these early VThiculists unleashed what seemed to many observers a veritable hemorrhage of forgettable books. The bleeding stopped in time to save these poets for other careers as pedagogues, editors and Canadianists. Finally, after a brief interregnum, an abused VThicule Press was brought under more enlightened editorship, restored to health and reinvented, in part under the Signal Editions imprint, to be what it is today: a home for a select group of poets who have nothing in common except an abiding passion for a rigorous muse and a refusal to share an aggregate, homogenizing poetics. The lesson, long in the learning, had been well learned.
Regrettably but perhaps inevitably, the managerial sensibility of the initial VThicule movement still carries on as the Blue Metropolis annual literary symposium, in which some of the same old names tend to resurface administratively or to orbit those of the invitees, putting in effect the wrong Montreal on the map¨the one that hankers for international vetting and cachet. (When Michael Harris was improbably invited to give a brief reading, he was plaided among the clan of visiting Scottish poets.) The festival is in the business of borrowing prestige which it repays in the usual provincial fashion with adulation and cash¨a superannuated Norman Mailer receives $10,000 to make an appearance (accompanied by a wife with literary ambitions of her own) and local media types are dewy-eyed over the prospect of interviewing Margaret Drabble of all people. Put a Yank or a Brit in their midst¨even if, to cite a line of Rob Allen's, they are "played out, done in, defunct"¨and the festival organizers and fellow travellers circle round and round in noisy excitement like fourteen doves spooked by a Cabbage White. The occasional quality reader who does turn up, resident or foreign, merely accentuates the general lack of spark and animation.
Thus it makes some sense to say that there are really two Montreals in competition with one another: the burgravial, agenda-dominated camarilla of movers and shakers connected with Blue Metropolis as well as with a cliquish outfit misnomered as the Quebec Writers Federation and the party of excellence associated with Signal Editions, the one denying the condition of exile and the other exploiting it. But it is to be expected that the former will continue to attract more attention from the media and to promote its version of what passes for a literary event for some considerable time to come.
Yet such is merely the institutional form of a cultural mediocrity whose half-life is at least as long as literature itself and must be regarded as an ineluctable feature of any literary landscape. After all, it is only natural that Montreal, like any other place, should harbour its complement of mavens and speculators as it does its quota of weak and even catastrophic poets, but this is an unavoidable deficit in the creative budget of the race as a whole. And certainly it needs to be acknowledged that the city even at its best does not enjoy an absolute monopoly on good poetry. One will find a sprinkling of first-rate poets here and there beyond the gates of what Cohen once called "a holy city...the Jerusalem of the North".**
But the fact nevertheless persists: in Canada at the present time, most poetry of value, interest and consequence is being written and/or published in Montreal, which thanks to that small cohort of brilliant poets and editors who have gathered here is experiencing the spirit of renewal and invigoration once again, as it did in the fabulous forties with A.M. Klein, Louis Dudek, P.K. Page, Frank Scott and Irving Layton. Liberated from the trammels of program, region and coalition, the poets writing here and now in the "tradition of excellence" are those who have expanded the linguistic and architectonic spectrum, permitting themselves to use all the crayons in the box instead of just a few favourite colours like narrative yellow or confessional rust, the mainstays of what we might call the Group of Seven Million in this country. While remaining members of the larger community of poets, they have gone their own way with astonishing originality. Perhaps what we are seeing at work is, mutatis mutandis, a specialized instance of what Montreal thinker Charles Taylor means by "deep diversity," each of these poets being "a bearer of individual rights in a multicultural mosaic," that is, belonging to a common entity while hewing to a heteronymous sense of his or her own specific identity.
The Montreal poets I have hi-lited are the real thing, writers whose work, like Ormsby's garden snake, "silvers the whole attention of the mind," or like Van Toorn's mountain heron, refuses to be deflected from its purpose, "Still fishing the lake,/same spot¨after all that rain." These are writers who can hold their own with and even surpass the achievement of their more celebrated contemporaries anywhere in the world¨though it may take yet another generation before the truth comes to light. Meanwhile, the state of double exile¨a paradoxical condition of twice solitary yet richly communal productivity¨has unexpectedly turned out to be a creative godsend for which the more cuddled poets in Victoria and Calgary and Toronto, if they had an eye to permanence and an ear for Promethean language, might well envy their Montreal counterparts. ˛
* As Norm Sibum phrased this peculiar dynamic in a letter to me, our no's are the same but out yes's are quite our own. Sibum regards the Montreal phenomenon as a subset of a larger mondocultural process, the advent of Neomodernism. I see Montreal as very much in the vanguard of this aesthetic drift or tendency¨"movement" is a word I would prefer to avoid.
* *For example, Tim Lilburn, Don Coles, Richard Outram, Stephanie Bolster, Robert Bringhurst and Ricardo Sternberg. The Maritime provinces might also make a strong case for themselves as a center of genuine poetic creativity while avoiding the homogeneity of a regional dialect¨what with poets like Brent MacLaine, J.A. Wainwright, Ross Leckie and John Steffler¨but I leave it to others to account for the reasons. Interestingly, Sternberg, Leckie, Coles, MacLaine and Bolster (who has recently moved to Montreal), like the nine poets mentioned in text, have all been published by VThicule/Signal, and Steffler is soon to join the roster.