Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada

by Ross Leckie
ISBN: 0864923139

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A Review of: Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada
by W. J. Keith

I may or may not be an appropriate reviewer for this book, since the editors' introduction includes the now almost predictable barb about the provincial nature of "Toronto regionalism." I am, however, no friend of what I have come to call global rootlessness, and can claim a reasonable awareness of historical tradition and context. One aim of this collection, after all, is to spread the reputation of the poets represented beyond the boundaries of Atlantic Canada. So be it.
This anthology contains specimens of the work of sixty poets. A dozen or so are already fairly well known, and I am happy to report that I found close to forty of the rest to have produced accomplished and satisfying verse-surely a surprisingly high percentage. For the most part, I detect a welcome concern for the sounds and rhythms of language and an even more welcome independence from the fashionable "-isms" that make so much contemporary verse tedious.
On the other hand, the language, though skillfully employed, is generally lacking in exuberance. The notable exceptions are George Elliott Clarke's "Haligonian Market Cry" and "Blue Elegies: I.v." There is also a lack of humour, though an exception here is Rita Joe's "Plawej ans L'nui'site'w (Partridge and Indian-Speaking Priest)." Moreover, most of the poetry seems curiously lacking in passionate commitment; for this reason, Milton Acorn's well-known "I've Tasted My Blood" stands out from the rest. The newer poets are skillful at evoking maritime scenery, weather, and the hard work of sheer survival in a rugged climate, but a larger dimension is missing. I registered a number of original images, some effective juxtapositions of phrase, but few thought-provoking insights. Indeed, the only poem from the less established poets that both impressed me technically and excited me intellectually was Thomas O'Grady's "A Prayer for my Daughters", which courageously raises echoes of the mature Yeats and successfully survives the comparison. And can it be coincidental that this is one of the few poems by younger writers independent or old-fashioned enough to employ an elaborate stanza-pattern and rhyme-scheme?
The editors are to be congratulated on the successful outcome of an extremely complex and demanding task, though I feel bound to voice a few reservations. First, the subtitle, The Poetry of Atlantic Canada, is somewhat deceptive since selections are confined to the period since 1950. Charles G. D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, and E. J. Pratt are all properly mentioned in the introduction, but at the very least these poets should have been represented in any anthology bearing this title.
The point is important because it leads to my second reservation. The editors refer on more than one occasion to the "renaissance" in Atlantic poetry, when I would have thought "continuity" to be the more accurate term. Even if we ignore earlier poets (or poetasters) like Henry Alline and Oliver Goldsmith, the Atlantic provinces have been prominent in the history of Canadian verse ever since the publication of Roberts's Orion in 1880. The next generation was dominated by Pratt, and the next, though obscured by current neglect and the classification of poets by their passports, was more than adequately served by Alfred G. Bailey, Charles Bruce, and Elizabeth Bishop. From them we move to the age of Acorn and Alden Nowlan, and now to the majority of the poets represented here.
And this, in turn, leads to my most serious criticism of Coastlines. Despite the fact that they claimed to have created "a comprehensive and historical anthology of the past fifty years" (my emphasis), the editors appear to have gone out of their way to obscure the historical development that I have just mapped out.
In the first place, the poets are arranged by provinces. I have no particular quarrel about that, though I detected little change of style or atmosphere as I passed from one section to another. (These days, moreover, residence is determined by such matters as work opportunities, and is no longer particularly meaningful.) Within the provinces, however, each poet is listed alphabetically. Such ordering may be diplomatic when dealing with bickering prima donnas, but makes no sense here and can only prove confusing to serious students. The absurdity becomes immediately apparent. We begin with Tammy Armstrong, whose one poetry volume appeared in 2001, and then move to the oldest poet in the collection, Alfred J. Bailey, born in 1908, whose first book appeared in 1927. The inevitable disjunctions can be dizzying.
Any historically-minded reader has to proceed much in the way that I did. I first read the selections, then turned to the biographical notes (which are often limited to non-poetic publications), then to "Bibliography" (which for some perverse and unexplained reason lists individual volumes in reverse chronological order!), and then to the cramped and difficult-to-locate entries in "Acknowledgements", where I finally found at least approximate dates for individual poems. I grant that the chronological approach is only one among several, but there is no need to put unnecessary obstacles in its way. Most serious anthologies nowadays give dates at the end of each poem indicating year of composition (when known) and year of first publication. Alternatively, the poets could be ordered (at the very least within provinces) according to a system of floruit-dates.
Finally, the biographical information at the end of the book relies far too heavily on the listing of honours and prizes, of which there are clearly so many that they have become meaningless. Besides, given the track-record of such prizes from the Governor General's awards downwards, this has never been a reliable criterion. The editors' selections should command respect on their own merits.
Still, there is a sufficient number of accomplished poems here to make the anthology worth compiling-and worth owning. Moreover, several writers of the younger generation should develop into poets of considerable interest. One hopes so.

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