"We French & English never lost/ our civil war/ endure it still/ a bloody civil bore," wrote Earle Birney in 1962, little knowing what new ennuis awaited us. The idea that one's own history is somehow lacking in truly inspiring material has appealed to many poets in their hours of despair. "To be born on a small island, a colonial backwater, meant a precocious resignation to fate. . Naturally I arrived at the heresy that landscape and history had failed me," wrote Derek Walcott in his beautiful essay "What the Twilight Says". What Canadians poets have most often wished for-to fight, to write, to excite them-is a civil war. In part, this may be the reductio ad absurdum of the Skydome school of nationalism: the English have one, the Yanks have one, why don't we? (I use the present tense since history, for the poet, is always something to be used.) Far more potent, because of the famous names it united and threw up, because of the apparently simple moral choices it offered, has been the Spanish Civil War. Ever since 1939, writers have been longing to fight it all over again-the forays of Susan Sontag and Juan Goytisolo into Bosnia are only the most recent attempts to revive that spirit. But the significance of the events chronicled in no way guarantees the inspiration of the poetry chronicling it. The real lack, we learn, most often lies with the poets, not the history.
Sealed in Struggle is an anthology of poems by Canadians about the Spanish Civil War; the poems are divided into two sections, poems written during, poems written after the war, and introduced with a very lucid and informative long essay by Nicola Vulpe. The first thing to be said is that they are poems of war, but with an important reservation: they all support one side (the Republic-no "talking bronco" here like Roy Campbell to rhapsodize over Franco) and are all written by poets who didn't fight in the war they write about. (As Vulpe notes, no poets were among the 1,600 Canadians who went to fight in Spain, unless one includes Norman Bethune and the two compositions he published.) These two conditions probably apply to most war poetry from the Iliad on.
Here, however, they lead to two further consequences: a) the bad guys never speak, and b) the good guys never have to do bad things. Serious handicaps-but if the book lacks drama or, for that matter, great poetry, it has both passion and relevance. It also allows us to question the sources of what Vulpe calls "the now prevailing view that poetry is and can only be political." (Though it's unclear whether that "now" refers to 1936 or 1996, it is clear he would like this view to prevail).
The interest Canadian poets took in the Spanish Civil War was ideological-they saw it as the battleground between forces that were also dividing Canadian society in the 1930s. But what drove those 1,600 Canadian members of the working class (as they almost all were) to join the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, and what drove the largely middle-class poets to write poems about them was not just words or, in Auden's phrase, windy militant trash. It was, as Vulpe points out, economic and political crisis in Canada. The anthology opens with a different kind of wind-"The Wind Our Enemy", Anne Marriott's powerful evocation of the depression on the Prairies, in which the only reference to Spain comes in one line heard over the radio: "Insurgents march in Spain." It is one of the best poems in the book-a relentless march over familiar terrain (Farm Family Fails, they call the genre in Canadian Drama) but one that gains immeasurably in its use of voices to bring that grim Prairie society to life. They convey both gallows humour (rainless clouds are "Just empties goin' back") and the limits of its hope:
Two figures stand, head close, arms locked,
And suddenly some spirit seems to rouse
And gleam like a thin sword, tarnished, bent,
But still shining in the spared beauty of the moon,
As his strained voice says to her, "We're not licked yet!
I t must rain again-it will! Maybe-soon-"
Though the poets stayed at home, it was not necessarily in their armchairs: Dorothy Livesay, Leo Kennedy, A. M. Klein, Frank Scott, and others all worked hard to support the causes of progress and social justice in Canada. In their words, however, they were free to travel, and their poems about Spain present a sometimes curious mixture of commitment and escapism. If the setting brought them face to face with Fascism, it also allowed them, as poets, to get away, to imagine new passions, and, often, to try to get away with things: the big abstract nouns (People, Freedom, Death), overheated rhetoric ("tyrant's will", "iron hell", "stinking bowels"), and-running, spattering, spilling everywhere-blood. In fact, Bethune, setting up the world's first mobile blood-transfusion unit on the Republican front, becomes the book's guidng spirit: what he did on the battlefield these poets carried to excess on the page). Since they never fought, the Canadian poets could continue to believe that good and evil were separated there as easily as the sun and shade on the plazas of their imaginary Spain. "On Spanish soil how everything comes clear," Irving Layton exclaims here in a poem written after the fact; readers of Orwell or Spender will know that he's talking about climate, not the war and the various Republican factions.
There is another, more troubling ambivalence. From the earliest times, poets have celebrated battle, weaponry, and the heroes it made; the First World War, like a land-mine exploding in a Georgian garden, changed all that. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, Wilfrid Owen told us, was an old lie. In Sealed in Struggle, the two conceptions vie: the satires of L. A. Mackay and others denounce "The battle planes of Wotan/The bombing planes of Jove", while the poems that dare more, hymns to the new day dawning and even the elegies for comrades fallen, celebrate both the fight and the sacrifice. This, as Owen and Keith Douglas remind us, is easy to do when you don't know what really happens in war.
MacKay's "Murder Most Foul", the one poem to deal with what disillusioned Orwell et al., the fighting amongst various Republican factions-which figures so largely in Ken Loach's recent film Land and Freedom-is also the only longer poem that portrays the war as something less than a glorious crusade, expressing regret for the deaths on both sides and those caught in the middle. In criticizing it, Vulpe reveals his bias, insisting that the war should be seen always as a cause and not as a "meaningless bloodbath". The fact is, the Civil War was a bloodbath for the Canadian volunteers-less than half of them returned-and, whether meaningful or not, Vulpe's haste to cast the conflict in an ideological light obscures the human tragedy.
Vulpe should be corrected on another count: he tells us that Kenneth Leslie knew so little about Spain that he gave the Italian name "Guido" to one of the characters in his ambitious 1937 poem, "The Censored Editor":
Guido, good Bourbon, good Republican,
good Jingo-Socialist, good Black-is-Whitist,
composer of cleverly balanced articles
[...] his mind an open vacant space,
his swivel chair a veering weather-vane...
In fact, the name comes from Antonio Machado's wonderful satirical portrait of an Andalusian *senorito, his "Lament for the Virtues and Verses on the Passing of Don Guido", a poem that Leslie echoes and that Charles Tomlinson has translated brilliantly. In pitting Ines, a stalwart Republican mum, against Guido, her dithering, vain son, Leslie brings to life some of the war's complexity and drama before lapsing into windy allegory.
The most interesting poetry comes in the book's first section; the better written, in the second. Dorothy Livesay's nine poems span both sections and provide the book's most powerful moments. Contrasting particulars with the big picture, she gives us not just the issues but the feeling of a life in which they mattered passionately. The sonnet that the book takes its title from, "Comrade", breaks every rule of literary modernism (old images, abstractions, metrical padding) and yet with its simplicity and directness rings absolutely true:
Once only did I sleep with you;
And sleep and love again more sweet than I
Have ever known; without an aftertaste.
It was the first time...
And we read on...to end with one of the lies lovers tell each other: "sealed in struggle now, we are more close/Than if our bodies still were sealed in love." Likewise, the sequence "In Time of War" presents love in the shadow of history: "It seemed no time for love, when the hands/Idled in empty pockets, and coffee was five cents a cup...." No poet in Canada registered the turbulence and feel of the period better.
Among the poems written after, we find work by Page, Gustafson, Layton, Waddington, Dudek, and others. My impatience with the various post-mortems, tourist poems, and elegies (Bethune and Lorca) found here is that, in siding with the angels and the anarchists, in fighting over the good fight lost so long ago, they slip into an easy risk-free nostalgia that ignores all the hard questions. The best of all, perhaps, is P. K. Page's "Let us by paradox" a poem that begins by placing us on the other side, amongst the priests and "pale nuns, handless as seals," and then swiftly, deftly, brings us back. And as far as elegies go, Patrick Anderson (for Lorca) and Laura McLauchlan (for Bethune) prove more powerful and interesting than the familiar names. (Surely before his own elegists pull out their pens someone should tell Louis Dudek that Lorca was more than "an agile songster".) In his "Ballad for W. H. Auden"-"Oh leader lost of my twenties/Who elected for faith and flight"- George Woodcock echoes with irony both the master and Robert Browning's condemnation of the late Wordsworth; it is a comparison that Auden would have loathed and one that should give his admirers (such as myself) pause.
"This issue is not ended with defeat," Vulpe begins his introduction and ends his anthology with F. R. Scott's words. There is a tendency now to lament the apparent lack of " political poetry" in Canada, as if that were the solution to poetry's apparent lack of relevance. But whether or not we call poetry political depends entirely on how we read it, and what we mean by "political". The real problem in Canada is amnesia-one generation that pretends poetry started in 1960, another that believes it's easier to write a poem than to read one. Sealed in Struggle reminds us how an earlier generation sought relevance and of the dangers it courted in doing so. In the words of the above-mentioned Machado, it is often more difficult to rise to the occasion than to be above the fray.
As for poetry and politics, since the terms are so ill-defined, we can talk about it till the cows come home and still not get anywhere. The best answer I know is this cold paradox: the one political thing all poetry must do is to defend poetry from politics-that is, remind us that there are strange, beautiful, and obdurate parts of human experience that cannot be explained in the language and rhetoric of ideologies or demographics. But take instead the poet's word for it: "The wind our enemy". Or, as an earlier revolutionary wrote, "There is a blessing in the gentle breeze."
Shadow Cabinet, Richard Sanger's first collection of poems, has just been published by Véhicule; his play Not Spain was produced earlier this year at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto and the Grand Theatre in London.