How New was New Provinces?
New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors, with an Introduction by Michael Gnarowski. Literature of Canada Series 20. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976. xxxii + 77. $12.50 cloth, $4.95 paper.
Modernism has come softly into the poetry of Canada by peaceful penetration rather than by rude assault. We all lie down together very amicably, the lions and the lambs; and no one is quite sure which is which, except that here and there a lamb may growl and a lion essay a propitiatory bleat.
The fundamental criticism that must be brought against Canadian poetry as a whole is that it ignores the intelligence. And as a result it is dead.
The first of these extracts comes from Charles G.D. Roberts essay, A Note on Modernism, which appeared in 1931; the second is from A.J.M. Smiths Rejected Preface to New Provinces, written in 1934 though not published until the mid-1960s. Smiths dismissive second sentence apparently gives the lie to Roberts cosy assertion, and suggests that the older poet was unaware of the committed zeal and sense of urgency on the part of the younger lions. Certainly, Roberts cannot be absolved by any theory of sudden revolt in the early years of the depressed thirties. F.R. Scotts delightful but devastating The Canadian Authors Meet had appeared in the McGill Fortnightly in 1927 (the year after Roberts had undertaken the presidency of the Toronto branch of the C.A.A.). Moreover, Smith was merely reiterating in the Preface sentiments that he had already expressed in 1928 in the Canadian Forum: Modernity and tradition alike demand that the contemporary artist who survives adolescence shall be an intellectual. Sensibility is longer enough, intelligence is also required. Even in Canada. Surely, then, the lions cannot be seen as favouring a non-aggression pact with the lambs.
In New Provinces E.J. Pratt appeared (somewhat incongruously) alongside five younger poets Robert Finch, Leo Kennedy, A.M. Klein, F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith of whom only one had so far published a volume of verse (the exception was Kennedy who, ironically enough, was the only one not to publish another). Literary history has come to regard the publication of this volume as the moment when the new poetry in Canada came of age. Despite the fact that it sold less than a hundred copies in the first year of publication, it is said to represent a turning-point a signpost towards a new poetic era. This in itself justifies the reprinting of the book (with both prefaces); and Michael Gnarowski, in his excellent historical introduction, vouches for its significance in carefully chosen terms: this entirely unpretentious anthology was a singular event in a literary process which stemmed from the origins of Canadian modernism and its beginnings in Montreal. There is no point here in reviewing a book that is close to half a century old, but it is perhaps worthwhile to report on the experience of re-reading it in the late 1970s. One cannot help asking the question: how new was New Provinces?
Smiths rejected Preface, reprinted between Gnarowskis Introduction and the 1936 text, reads as a manifesto. Impressive as it is, however, the material that it was intended to introduce hardly justifies such a ringing call to arms, and we can readily understand Scotts warning in a letter to Smith: You will have to be careful not to make claims for a greater radicalism than this volume will show. Again and again, hints of a modernist approach are offered only to be withdrawn. The subtitle, Poems of Several Authors, hardly suggests a united front. The opening sentence of Scotts substituted Preface, What has been described as the new poetry is now a quarter of a century old, severely qualifies any claim to the startlingly avant-garde. Moreover, the very title of the first poem, Robert Finchs The Five Kine, suggests continuities with the subjects and vocabulary of the poets of Confederation rather than the challenge of a new movement. All in all, New Provinces proves to be a complex, not to say puzzling, historical document.
The strongest statement about a new art required for a new age occurs in Scotts Overture:
But how shall I hear old music? This is an hour
Of new beginnings, concepts warring for power,
Decay of systems the tissue of art is torn
With overtures of an era being born.
Here, we might say, is a classic formulation of artistic revolt. But the most conspicuous feature of the stanza for a modern reader (it might not have registered so forcibly with readers of 1936) is the way in which content and form exist in a curious tension. We do not hear Decay of systems in the conventional rhymes and regular stanza-pattern. Indeed, when one comes to examine the collection from a technical standpoint, one is struck by the paucity of poems that look on the page like modern poems. There is little that can be classified as free verse; regularity and traditional metrics are the order of the day. This regularity may be disguised (the sonnet written out as prose in Kleins Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens is an obvious example), but some kind of sanctioned and self-imposed constraint is generally present. Perhaps Roberts image of lambs and lions is not so fanciful after all.
All this suggests that the inclusion of E.J. Pratt in the anthology may not have been merely diplomatic; his presence confirms the continuities that exist between old and new. Indeed, his poem Sea-Gulls provides an admirable example of a somewhat uneasy tension between the claims of traditionalism and modernism. The opening is at one with the diction and attitude of the younger contributors:
For one carved instant as they flew,
The language had no simile
Silver, crystal, ivory
The subject-matter links the poem with conventional, old-fashioned nature poetry, but the crispness of language (carved instant), the naturalness of rhythm and the fresh intelligence brought into play blend with the work of the others. But Pratt is either unable or unprepared to maintain the effect. The fourth line ends with a poetic inversion, the horizon blue, and the last three lines of the poem
No clay-born lilies of the world
Could blow as free
As those wild orchids of the sea
could have been written by a minor English Georgian twenty years earlier.
By contrast, Scotts Vanguard moves in the opposite direction. After some initial puzzlement, we are delighted with the wit and control of a poet who can begin,
he fled beyond the outer star
to spaces where no systems are
(which at first sounds suspiciously like Roberts in mystical mood), yet can manage to end, with only six couplets in between,
now you may see him virginal
content to live in montreal.
Scott has successfully moved along the poetic road towards modernism yet once again we notice that the modernist features are, as it were, smuggled into a traditional mould. There is no question of the new wine bursting the old bottles.
This traffic between past and present can be traced throughout the collection. One of Robert Finchs titles, Egg-and-Dart, brings a hint of both psychology and modern art to a traditional subject, but across the page we find Beauty My Fond Fine Care, which sounds as if it speaks to the 1970s across several centuries. Leo Kennedy turns traditional Christian imagery and reference into new (yet also age-old) patterns and shapes. Klein, represented by two longish poems, juxtaposes Spinoza in seventeenth-century Amsterdam with Velvel Kleinburger in a contemporary city. Pratt, characterstically, can slip a chilling contemporary reference to violence in Ethiopia into a poem about a domestic cat innocently entitled The Prize Winner.
But it is in the work of the two central figures behind the book, Scott and Smith, that we see the blend most clearly. Not surprisingly, their editorials reflect their own dominant concerns. Scott stresses the enforced contemporary connection between poetry and politics: In confronting the world with the need to restore order out of social chaos, the economic depression has released human energies by giving them a positive direction. The poet today shares in this release. . . . Even here, however, we note the emphasis on orderindeed, the concern is for modern order to replace the chaos of the immediate past, a reading of the current socio-political scene that would have surprised both the elderly lambs like Roberts and the more violent of the revolutionary lions.
For Smith, of course, the emphasis is rigorously intellectual. While his insistence that the poets lofty isolation from events that are of vital significance to everybody was coming to an end would have been applauded by Scott, it is characteristic of Smith that he would set against the wishy washy dreams of his poetic predecessors not social action but exact ideas. The new provinces in question are for Smith not the administrative divisions of Canada but the provinces of the mind. There are ironies in his position. Just as Scott drew attention to the fact that the new poetry was a quarter of a century old, so Smith conceded that in advocating a poetry of sharply-chiselled phrase and finely-honed intellect he was only following in the path of the more significant poets in England and the United States. This new Canadian manifesto sounds strangely familiar. But Smith himself, though he has dined with Eliot and with Yeats, is never merely imitative. He looks outside Canada for stimulation to bring discipline and strength to a poetry that, in his view, was becoming narrowly (and here the title jerks us to attention once again) provincial.
Smiths ideal is to fuse thought and feeling. New thought, traditional feeling. And this, in the last analysis, I think, is what the best poems in New Provinces provide. How remarkably traditional in the best sense of the word is Scotts March Field (Now the old folded snow / Shrinks from black earth). And how often, despite Smiths sarcasm about the conventional poets being seared by the beauty of the red flame of a maple leaf in autumn, these modernist poets write about the traditional natural objects one might expect to be taboo. Kennedys Shore, Pratts Sea-Gulls, Scotts Trees in Ice and March Field, Smiths The Creek and The Lonely Land are only the most obvious. But the effect, of course, lies in the treatment, not in any stock response to the subject. The Lonely Land, perhaps the most brilliant example, is so familiar that to quote from it here would be an act of supererogation. Kennedys Shore is less distinguished but not so well-known and, moreover, is short enough to quote in full:
Sand shifts with every tide, and gravel
Slurs against the rock,
Weeds and a little lifted silt remain
Making the reach of water, the long shock
Of an absent tide.
Here no stencilled track of tern, no trace
Of the slight feet of curlews, here no lace
Of foam or the braided webs of gulls to press
Into the falling bosom of the sea.
. . . But silt left by the receded tide, a ravel
Of weeds thrown high by the wash of water, a crest
Of wave, distant, beyond the cove.
This is not one of the most remarkable poems in the collection but, with the possible exception of the ninth line, it is taut and disciplined throughout. The rhyme is only occasional and there is no regular stanzaic pattern, but order is maintained in the balanced phrases (long shock, slight feet, Of weeds . . . Of water) and the complex alliterative and assonantal devices. The words do not merely communicate the effect, they positively create itbut not in any grandiose romantic way.
All these poets know that poems are made out of words, not out of emotions or gestures or political attitudes or myths. As Smith noted in the rejected preface, the modern poet must try to perfect a technique that will combine power with simplicity and sympathy with intelligence. Here he is remarkably significantly close to Roberts description of the young but sane rebels at the close of A Note on Modernism: Now and again, to be sure, there may be a gesture, of defiant propagandism or of impatient scorn. But in the main they are altogether preoccupied with beauty. And beauty they not only see with new eyes, but show it to us with simplicity and truth. Sensibility and intelligence, form and content, simplicity and truth, thought and feeling, traditionalism and modernism, lions and lambs: can it be that all these are, in the words Smith used as the title of a poem included in New Provinces, The Two Sides of a Drum?
In “Like an Old Proud King in a Parable” (1943), the symboliste lyric that A.J.M. Smith first published as “Proud Parable” in December 1928 and subsequently used as a prefatory piece in all his collections of poems, the creation of a Modern Canadian poetic persona and stance is closely allied to the creation of a new imaginative place and habitation. In “anger to be gone / From fawning courtier and doting queen,” the “bitter king” of the poem’s opening verse paragraph “break[s] bound of all his counties green” and “ma[kes] a meadow in the northern stone” where he “breathe[s] a palace of inviolable air” (12). Very much an offspring of “the proud dreaming king who flung / The crown and sorrow away” (77) in W.B. Yeats’s “The Secret Rose,” Smith’s “old proud king” is an expression of the Modern poet’s desire to create in and for Canada a poetry remote from the gushiness that F.R. Scott so wittily satirizes in “The Canadian Authors Meet.”1 To juxtapose “Like an Old Proud King in a Parable” with Scott’s poem is to be reminded that the rage for newness that came to Canada with the McGill Group and other Modernists had both a transcendent and a satirical component, a visionary mode directed towards the future and an attack mode aimed at the present. In view of the central role that architecture has always played as an embodiment and signal of change in Western culture, it is scarcely, if at all, surprising that Canada’s Modern poets frequently turned to architectural structures and semiotics in their meditations on the present condition and potential future of Canadian society. For the obvious reason that Smith remained committed to the ideal of pure poetry expressed in “Like an Old Proud King in a Parable” and, moreover, spent most of his creative life in the United States, actual Canadian architectural structures rarely figure in his work. But this is decidedly not the case with Scott and A.M. Klein, both of whom lived in Montreal and wrote extensively about Canada and, especially during the nineteen forties and fifties, produced numerous Canadian architexts.
Partly because of the prominence accorded to the Report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey Commission) (1951) in most discussions of post-war Canadian culture, it has been easy for students and scholars of Canadian literature to overlook the work of the Federal Advisory Committee on Reconstruction that was created in April 1942 to make recommendations in six areas: agricultural policy, conservation and development of natural resources, publicly financed construction projects, post-war employment opportunities, post-war problems of women, and, most important for the present discussion, housing and community planning. Chaired by C.A. Curtis, a professor of Economics at Queen’s University, the subcommittee on Housing and Community Planning issued its Report in March 1944 to a Canadian public already primed for government action by the League for Social Reconstruction (1932) and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (1933), both of which, of course, counted Scott among their founding members. Citing a “desire ... deeply rooted in the minds of people in all walks of life” for “better housing and better living standards,” the Curtis Committee recommended the implementation of a “housing program of large dimensions” that would utilize “pre-fabrication and mass assembly” (9, 22) as advocated by Le Corbusier in his enormously influential Vers une architecture (1923; trans. 1931) and given practical form in such texts as C. Sjonstrom’s Prefabrication in Timber: a Survey of Existing Methods (1943). 2 Unlike “construction” in today’s critical usage, the term “re-construction” in the years surrounding the Second World War was an expression of the wedding of progressive social and aesthetic ideas that lies at the heart of most strains of Modernist architecture and literature. In W.H. Auden’s words, “a change of heart” was to find expression in new styles of building and writing (7) as architects and writers were urged to join politicians and planners in “restor[ing] dignity” and idealism “to a world scarred by extraordinary inhumanity” (Reed 95).
As good a place as any to begin an examination of the relationship between Klein’s poetry and Canadian architecture is with one of the most striking and intriguing instances of that relationship: “Grain Elevator.” First published in 1948 in The Rocking Chair, and Other Poems and probably written a year or two earlier,3 Klein’s poem stands in a tradition of poetic meditations on the form and significance of a particular artefact that stretches back to and beyond Keats ’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but it is also a work that is unmistakably Modern in its inspiration and message. This is not just because of the particular architectural structure chosen by Klein – namely, one of the enormous grain elevators on the Montreal waterfront that were built earlier in the century – but also because these very elevators had been made locally and internationally famous before the Second World War by Le Corbusier’s enthusiastic endorsement of their mass and form in Vers une architecture.4 To make his point that the productions of engineers are aligned with “good art” by virtue of their employment of “simple ... geometrical forms” that “satisfy our eyes by their geometry and our understanding by their mathematics,” Le Corbusier includes photographs of Montreal’s grain elevators in Vers une architecture and implies by his surrounding commentary that their effect on the viewer can be spiritual as well as physical:
Architecture ... impresses the most brutal instincts by its objectivity [and] it calls into play the highest faculties by its very abstraction. Architectural abstraction is rooted in hard fact [but] it spiritualizes it, because the naked fact is nothing more than materialization of a possible idea....
· · ·
Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage.... It is for this reason that these are beautiful forms, the most beautiful forms. Everyone is agreed as to that, the child, the savage and the metaphysician. (25-26, 29)
These and other passages in Vers une architecture resonate loudly enough with the final stanza of “Grain Elevator” to support the conjecture that they provided at least part of the inspiration for Klein’s poem:
|A box: cement, hugeness, and rectangles – |
merely the sight of it leaning in my eyes
mixes up continents and makes a montage
of inconsequent time and uncontiguous space.
It’s because it’s bread. It’s because
bread is its theme, an absolute. Because
always this great box flowers over us
with all the coloured faces of mankind ...
(Complete Poems 2: 650-51)
Of course, the dialectical relationship between diversity and universality that is figured here in the conception of bread as an “absolute” that sustains people of all races is central to The Rocking Chair volume as a whole,5 but the stanza’s celebration of the grain elevator as a structure whose formal characteristics transcend its particular “time” and “space” smacks strongly of Le Corbusier’s insistence in Vers une architecture and elsewhere that architecture must free itself from history and the local if it is to serve the needs of twentieth-century humanity. For Scott in “Social Notes II, 1935” “grain elevators / Stored with superfluous wheat” and capable of “unload[ing] a grain-boat in two hours” are manifestations of the excessive “efficiency of the capitalist system” (Collected Poems 71). For Klein and Le Corbusier they are manifestations of fundamental and universal human traits and needs.
Vers une architecture also raises resonances in earlier stanzas of “Grain Elevator.” Immediately after the second of the two passages quoted above, Le Corbusier observes that “Egyptian, Greek or Roman architecture is an architecture of prisms, cubes and cylinders, pyramids or spheres” and proceeds to list several examples: “the Pyramids, the Temple of Luxor, the Parthenon, the Coliseum, Hadrian’s Villa ... the Towers of Babylon, the Gates of Samarkand ... the Pont du Gard, Santa Sophia, the Mosques of Stamboul ...,” and so on (29-31). In the opening stanzas of “Grain Elevator,” Klein also embarks on a wide-ranging search for similar architectural forms: after observing that the grain elevator rises above its surroundings “blind and babylonian / like something out of legend,” he relates it to “some eastern tomb,” to “the ... bastille,” and to a variety of near and far eastern locales and cultures: “here, as in a Josephdream, bow down / the sheaves.... Sometimes it makes me think Arabian ... Caucasian ... Mongolian” (Complete Poems 2: 650). So striking are the conceptual parallels between Vers une architecture and “Grain Elevator” that it is tempting to see something of Le Corbusier’s thinking even in the form of Klein’s poem, a series of four rhymed, eight-line stanzas whose rectangular appearance on the page mimics as well as a traditional poem can the “box ... and rectangles” of the architectural structure that they describe. (Anyone who doubts that Klein was intent on such mimetic effects should ponder his remark that in the statement “Saskatchewan / is rolled like a rug of a thick and golden thread” in the poem’s second stanza “[t]he longest syllabled flat province [is] in monosyllables unfolded” [Complete Poems 2: 1008].)6
“Grain Elevator” is an especially complex and layered instance of the relationship between and among architecture and architexts that is also evident in other poems in The Rocking Chair volume. In “Lookout: Mount Royal,” for example, Klein recalls “boyhood” excursions to Mount Royal Park but describes the view from the “parapet” there in decidedly adult terms that may also reflect a knowledge of Le Corbusier and other writers on architecture, urban design, and the buildings and layout of Montreal:
|... from the parapet make out|
beneath the green marine
the discovered road, the hospital’s romantic
gables and roofs, and all the civic Euclid
running through sunken parallels and lolling
in diamond and square, then proud-pedantical
with spire and dome
making its way to the sought point, his home.
home recognized: there: to be returned to –
lets the full birdseye circle to the river,
(Complete Poems 2: 686-87)
These lines are reminiscent of countless eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prospect pieces and, intriguingly, they also recall Pierre de Charlevoix’s description of early eighteenth century Montreal as “a long rectangle,”7 but their most insistent intertext is Wordsworth’s “Sonnet Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” However, where Wordsworth describes London in very general terms (“Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples ... All bright and glittering in the smokeless air” [3:38]), Klein provides enough details to enable buildings to be identified – “the ... romantic / gables and roofs” of the Hotel-Dieu (1860) and the “proud-pedantical / ... spire and dome” of McGill’s Palladian Arts Building (1839, 1862). The fact that Klein was once “nursed ... by the sisters of the Hôtel-Dieu” (Complete Poems 2: 1006)8 and, of course, had close ties with McGill University merely confirms that “Lookout: Mount Royal” is the product of a man who felt profoundly at home in the public spaces as well as in his own personal place in Montreal.
The impression that Klein was able to construe Montreal in quite other than the orthodox Modern sense of an Eliotic “Unreal City”9 of Durkheimian anomie is confirmed and reinforced in The Rocking Chair volume by such poems as “Pastoral of the City Streets,” “The Snowshoers,” and “Parade of St. Jean Baptiste” in which public spaces become vibrant places where the poet-speaker feels comfortably at home. In “Pastoral of the City Streets” a “friend’s father” pelting neighbourhood children with water from a garden hose temporarily transforms the “geometry” of the street and sidewalk into a “crystal stream ... cavelike and cool” (Collected Poems 2: 695). In “The Snowshoers,” “the street moves with colours” as the snowshoers “snowball their banter below the angular eaves,” and in “The Parade of St. Jean Baptiste” the floats “move as through a garden ... / of flowers, populous / of all the wards and counties” of the city and province (2: 652, 691). As will be seen in a few moments, some of Montreal’s architectural structures provoke expressions of disgust and condemnation in The Rocking Chair, and Other Poems, but far more common in Klein’s responses to the city are feelings of delight, gratitude, and tenderness. Nor is this true only of poems in The Rocking Chair volume or, indeed, of Klein’s poems about Montreal: in “Greeting on This Day,” a poem written in 1929 but not published until 1940, the “white roofs” of Safed in Galilee transform “prose” into poetry and in “Autobiographical,” a poem written circa 1942 and first published in The Second Scroll (1951), the “fabled city” that the speaker seeks in “memory” is the source of a “joy” that is tinged with “sadness” only because it is past (Complete Poems 1: 143; 2: 566).
Nowhere in Klein’s oeuvre does Montreal figure more as the ideal city of memory and imagination than in the poem in The Rocking Chair for which it provides a title. A linguistic tour-de-force designed to be accessible to both French and English readers, “Montreal” envisages the city as a living museum of its own history that exists as a “Mental” as well as an actual entity, “Travers[ing] [his] spirit’s conjured avenues” and “populat[ing] the pupils of [his] eyes” with its “scenes and sounds” (Complete Poems 2: 621-23). Unlike Le Corbusier, who had famously argued in Urbanisme (1925; trans. 1929) for the complete demolition of existing cities and their replacement by cities based on a single design and suitable to any locale, the Klein of “Montreal” revels in his city’s characteristic trees, distinctive architecture, and allusive cultural semiotics and continuities: “Splendor erablic of your promenades / Foliates there,” he exclaims in the opening stanza, “and there your maisonry / Of pendant balcon and escalier’d march, / Unique midst English habitat, / Is vivid Normandy.”10 With the aid of Gothic fantasy, Montreal’s streets, monuments, and buildings become catalysts to historical memory:
|Thus, does the Indian, plumèd, furtivate|
Still through your painted autumns, Ville-Marie!
Though palisades have passed, though calumet
With tabac of your peace enfumes the air,
Still do I spy the phantom, aquiline,
Genuflect, mocassin’d, behind
His statue in the square!11
Thus, costumed images before me pass,
In addition to being rich with “permanences” – buildings, artefacts, monuments, and streets that constitute a historical past that can still be experienced (see Rossi 57-58) – Montreal is for Klein a cosmopolitan and industrial city whose distinctiveness partly derives from its hybrid “music”: the “multiple / ... Lexicons” on its “quays,” the “double-melodied vocabulaire” of its English- and French-speaking inhabitants, the daily and weekly rhythms of its “manufactory” and “argent belfries.” A site of both modern commerce and collective or cultural memory, Klein’s Montreal is at once a living museum and a living city.
It is not until the final stanzas of “Montreal” that the city is fully recognized by Klein as the locus of his cognitive as well as his physical existence and, thus, as the place that more than any other engenders feelings of loyalty, homesickness, and nostalgia. “You are part of me ... You are locale of infancy,” intones the poet as he moves towards his concluding paean to Montreal as the home of his heart and, as such, a place in his heart:
|Never do I sojourn in alien place|
But I do languish for your scenes and sounds,
City of reverie, nostalgic isle,
Pendant most brilliant on Laurentian cord!
The coigns of your boulevards – my signory –
Your suburbs are my exile’s verdure fresh,
Your parks, your fountain’d parks –
Pasture of memory!
City, O city, you are vision’d as
Appropriating Eliot’s “O city, city,” Klein reworks the phrase into an expression of affection rather than dismay that is entirely consistent in emotion and attitude with the echo of Wordsworth’s “Westminster Bridge” sonnet (and his own “Lookout: Mount Royal”) that sounds in “tower and dome.” Here as elsewhere in The Rocking Chair, and Other Poems the Montreal that “reside[s]” in Klein’s heart is partly “vision’d” and “script[ed] by Modernism,” but its deeper affinities lie with the “beauteous forms” of the “sylvan Wye” that Wordsworth “fe[els] along the heart” in “Tintern Abbey” (2: 260).13
This is not to say that Klein (or, indeed, Wordsworth) was blind to the negative aspects of life in the post-industrial cities of Europe, North America, and elsewhere that gave birth to the urban realism of William Hogarth, Friedrich Engels, Charles Dickens, and countless other artists and writers. Surrounding “Lookout: Mount Royal” and “Montreal” in The Rocking Chair volume are numerous poems such as “Commercial Bank,” “Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga,” and “Quebec Liquor Commission Store” in which the social institutions and architectural structures of contemporary Canadian culture occasion dismay and satirical commentary rather than affection and emotive reverie. The marbled and hushed interior of the bank in “Commercial Bank” is in reality a “jungle” in which the “beasts” of capitalism are no less deadly for being “toothless, with drawn nails” (Complete Poems 2:618-19). The Mohawk reserve in “Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga” is not a “home” but a “museum,” a “crypt,” and a “grassy ghetto” in which specimens of an exotic and supposedly vanishing species can do little other than cater to the demands of gawping tourists (Complete Poems 2:242). The nondescript sales area of “Quebec Liquor Commission Store” is “Nonetheless” an Ali Baba’s “cave” whose contents rival Aladdin’s lamp in their power to create illusions and thus perpetuate social inequalities (Complete Poems 2:659). In these and similar poems, Montreal is “vision’d” and “script[ed]” by Klein’s socialism and, hence, seen and written, not as a site of Rossian “permanances” that have become internalized in positive memories and feelings, but as a site of institutions that are so destructive and dehumanizing that they demand radical change.
The earliest and one of the most scathingly critical architexts in The Rocking Chair, and Other Poems is “Pawnshop,” which was written in about 1942 (thus at approximately the same time as “Autobiographical” and “The Hitleriad”) and bears a deeper imprint than most poems in the volume of the social democratic sensibility that had produced such pieces as “Barricade Smith: His Speeches” (circa 1938) and “Of Castles in Spain” (circa 1937). The final but first-written stanza of “Pawnshop” provides an almost Foucauldian analysis of the power embodied in the “grim house” “Near [the] waterfront, a stone’s throw from the slums” and, thus, from its most vulnerable clients:
|This is our era’s state fair parthenon,|
the pyramid of a pharaonic time,
our little cathedral, our platonic cave,
our childhood’s house that Jack built. Synonym
of all building, our house, it owns us; even
when free from it, our dialectic grave.
Shall one not curse it, therefore, as the cause,
type, and exemplar of our social guilt?
Our own gomorrah house,
the sodom that merely to look at makes one salt?
(Complete Poems 2:576-7)
This remarkable verse paragraph effectively figures the pawnshop as the paradigm of space arranged on the capitalist principles enunciated by Adam Smith, whose name is in fact mooted earlier in the poem as its “architect” (Complete Poems 2:576). A site of exploitation and incarceration that should have been “razed ... to the salted ground / antitheses ago” (as was Carthage, another centre of rapacious commerce), the pawnshop is a visible testament to the power of “kapital” to make masters of some, slaves of many, and inmates of all (Complete Poems 2:576-577), for, even if they delusively imagine themselves “free,” all members of a capitalist society are metaphorically housed in its structures. The final lines of the poem might seem to suggest that no escape is possible from capitalism’s all-encompassing pawnshop, but, of course, it was only Lot’s wife who was turned to stone by the sight of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 20: Klein’s namesake, Abraham, was able to look “toward all the land of the plain” where the cursed cities lay burning and go on to found a new religion and a new people. In the dialectic of The Rocking Chair, and Other Poems, to look unflinchingly at architectural structures that exemplify the negative aspects of human nature is as important as it is to take to heart those that bespeak humanity’s capacity to build a good and better world.
For much of the century that was supposed to belong to Canada, the locus of Canadian hopes for social renovation was less likely to be a city steeped in history and tradition such as Montreal than the West or the North, two regions scarcely mentioned by Klein but central to the thinking and writing of F.R. Scott from the nineteen twenties to the nineteen fifties. Before the Second World War, Scott, like Smith, saw the North partly through the works of the Group of Seven and their associates as a pristine and all but uninhabited repository of a fresh, vivid, and manifestly Canadian natural beauty. “Child of the North,” Scott urges in “New Paths” (1926),14
|Yearn no more after old playthings,|
Temples and towers and gates
Memory-haunted thoroughfares and rich palaces
And all the burdensome inheritance, the binding legacies,
Of the Old World and the East.
Here is a new soil and a sharp sun.
(Collected Poems 37)
After the Second World War, however, the focus of Scott’s northern poems shifted from the icy waters and granite river courses that he had celebrated in such poems as “Laurentian” (1927), “Old Song” (1928), and “North Stream” (1930) to the social and economic consequences of the development of the Canadian North that was to become the basis of “a ‘new National Policy’” (Abele 314) in the “Northern Vision” articulated by John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives in the federal elections of 1957 and 1958. In Scott’s pre-war poems, “winds that have swept [the] lone cityless plains” of the North tell principally of “fresh beauty.” In his post-war poems, they herald and document economic growth and new cities.
An early indication of this shift appears in “Laurentian Shield” (1946) where the silence and emptiness of North are read by an unapologetically masculinist observer as evidence of a desire to be made productive. Envisioning the North as it was, is, and could be from a socialist perspective15 and, with a linguistic metaphor, as an ordinal, Scott sees “Cabin syllables, / Nouns of settlement,” and “steel syntax” where once there were “the cry of the hunter” and the “bold command of monopolies” and where now there is “the drone of the plane scouting the ice, / Fill[ing] the emptiness with neighbourhood / And link[ing] our future over the vanished pole” (Collected Poems 58). The concluding vision of “Laurentian Shield” is of a Canadian North that has been humanized rather than merely exploited:
|... a deeper note is sounding, heard in the mines,|
The scattered camps and the mills, a language of life,
And what will be written in the full culture of occupation
Will come, presently, tomorrow
From millions whose hands can turn this rock into children.
(Collected Poems 58)
It is a vision curiously tainted by the military-resonances of the world “occupation” and strongly reminiscent of the perception of the Canadian West that drove “Manitoba fever” in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and provided Isabella Valancy Crawford with part of the inspiration for Malcolm’s Katie, one difference between the two being that, regrettably, Scott seems to have been less apprehensive in 1946 than Crawford was in 1884 about the environmental impact of “mines ... camps and ... mills.16
That Scott perceived homologies between and among poetry, architecture, town planning, and statecraft is nowhere more evident than in the paper entitled “The State as a Work of Art” that he delivered in 1950 in “The Search for Beauty” series of the McGill Department of Architecture.17 After tracing part of the inspiration of “Laurentian Shield” to a “description of the English Black Country” (that is, the industrial Midlands) by Stephen Spender and then reading the poem itself, Scott explains that the “potential social evolution in Canada’s northland is not just a question of economics, but also of aesthetics in the sense that we really can choose the language which shall be the mode of living in this new world”:
Geology has given us the mineral wealth, history has given us the legal title, to this gigantic workshop; our own creative energy, our social imagination, or lack of it, will determine what use we make of this opportunity. Let us hope it does not become another Black Country. If everything man makes and builds is a language, I fear that we Canadians have so far spoken more in prose than poetry. Yet we can create a beautiful social language through our daily work of making and building a society, and in this sense the social order is a work of art and we ourselves are the artists. (9)
Later in the paper, Scott refers admiringly to the American jurist and educator Roscoe Pound, whose concept of “the law [as] ‘social engineering’” provided impetus to the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and hails the TVA itself as a shining example of what can be achieved by “direct[ing] the dynamic forces of society into socially desirable channels”: “it took a region [that was] depopulated and economically depressed ... and by ... building ... dams, producing cheaper power under public ownership ... and above all by teaching people how to live co-operatively, subordinating selfish interest to public welfare, restored the faith of whole communities ... ” (14). “[I]f [the law-maker] is a social engineer, may he not also be called a social architect?” Scott asks; “[i]s [the work of the TVA] not something more than good government and good economics? Is it not more than social justice? Is it not also beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word? ... And if it can be done in a single community or region, cannot it be done in the state as a whole?” (14). It is but one of many intimations of the Romantic and Victorian underpinnings of Scott’s Modernism that his conception of the lawyer, the politician, the engineer, and the architect as the poets of a progressive society recalls both the Shelleyan notion of the poet as the unacknowledged legislator of the world and the Arnoldian notion of the poet as the physician of the age of iron.
Six years after he wrote “The State as a Work of Art,” an opportunity for Scott to see for himself whether or not the Canadian North was being developed in a manner that could be described as “beautiful” came by way of an invitation from Michigan State University to deliver a series of lectures on “Canada and Canadian-American relations” (Djwa 318). When Scott and his travelling companion, Pierre Trudeau, flew north from Edmonton in August 1856, Diefenbaker’s “Northern Vision” was still a year in the future, but the pace of northern development had already been accelerating for several years as a result of the Second World War (which, among other things, had led to the construction of the Canol Pipeline from Norman Wells to Whitehorse), the Cold War (which had resulted in the continuation of American military activity in the North), and a number of initiatives by the federal government, including the creation in 1943 of a Department of Mines and Resources, the publication in 1947 of Canada’s New Northwest (a DMR report that “treated the region as an economic unit of potential importance to the national economy” [Abele 314]) and the consequent establishment of an Advisory Committee on Northern Development (1948) and a Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources (1953).18 Scott had good reason to visit the North as preparation for a series of lectures on “Canada and Canadian-American relations.”
As he flew courtesy of Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited towards Fort Smith, the one-time Hudson’s Bay Company trading post on the Slave River north of Alberta, Scott saw “A huge nowhere / Underlined by a shy railway” and apparently cast his mind back to “Laurentian Shield” for appropriate metaphors: here was an “arena” as “Large as Europe ... Waiting the contest” in “Silence”; here, “Underground,” were “cities sleep[ing] like seeds” with the rocks as their “coins” (that is, their economic wealth and/as their corner-stones) (Collected Poems 223). In the Company’s camp near Fort Smith at Bell Rock, where Scott and Trudeau had to wait for a Northern Transportation Company tugboat to take them downriver to Fort Providence, Scott continued to experience the romance of the Northwest, “dipp[ing] his hand in water / That muddies the Beaufort Sea;” remarking that “The Slave river rolled past / Downhill to the North, / Running away from America / Yet bringing America with it”; chanting the exotic names of the places visited by riverboats (“Radium Dew, Radium Yellowknife, Radium King,” and so on); and proclaiming the human and material cargoes of the boats fluent in “the language” (Collected Poems 224-25). The poem from which all these affirmations are taken, “The Camp at Bellrock,” concludes with a figure for Canadian hybridity that anticipates in its bathetic lack of subtlety the child with one “deep brown” and one “blue” eye that results from the relationship of an English explorer and a Native woman in Rudy Wiebe’s A Discovery of Strangers (1994) (314)
|Walking behind the bunk-house|
We saw a great white dog,
Long-haired for cold, feet broad for snow,
Standing firm and friendly,
No husky, but mixed with the breed.
Behind him his ugly mother
Slept, a short-haired bitch
Brown and patchy, an import,
Half his size, but source of his power.
So it is in the North
Where opposites meet and mate.
(Collected Poems 225)
In this lamentable passage and elsewhere in the two poems that begin “The Letters from the Mackenzie River” sequence, the architectural structures of northern development – here, the “bunk-house” – are merely imagined or mentioned in passing, but in “Fort Smith” and ensuing pieces they become of central importance as Scott seeks to understand the economic, social, and cultural ramifications of northern development.
Beginning, significantly, with the sound of the “town siren,” a signal of disaster that causes curious children to “Bound ... like little wolves” to the scene of a supposed fire (it turns out to be a false alarm), “Fort Smith” narrates Scott’s recovery of moral perspective through a recognition of the resemblance between the “gentle Anglican face” of his father, Frederick George Scott, and a local Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Burt Evans (Collected Poems 226). At this point, Scott’s concerted attempt to sound a real alarm at the ramifications of northern development for the region and its peoples plunges the poem into another paroxysm of bathetic over-determination from which, however, it quickly recovers to provide an increasingly disturbing catalogue of the architectural structures that embody the process of economic, religious, bureaucratic, social, and cultural colonization that is underway:
|The Rev. Burt Evans|
Picked us out as strangers
And offered to show us around
In his new Volkswagen.
So we shoved aside a baby-crib
And filled up the Nazi car
To explore Canada’s colony.
There was the Bank of Commerce
In a new tar-paper bunk-house
Opened six days ago,
The Hudson’s Bay Store and Hotel,
Government Offices, Liquor Store,
RCMP Headquarters, Catholic Hospital,
Anglican and Catholic Churches,
The Imperial Oil Compound,
The Barber Shop and Pool Room,
A weedy golf course, the Curling Club,
And the Uranium Restaurant, full of young people
Playing song-hits on the juke-box.
(Collected Poems 226)
Once identified by the signage of capitalism, a “tar-paper bunk-house” reveals itself for what it is: an architectural structure whose external material – “tar-paper” – embodies the logic of the economic imperialism of which it is a part – the logic, that is, of extractable resources and cheap labour in exchange for expertise, capital investment, manufactured goods, and the various institutions necessary for the process to function in an efficient and “enlightened” fashion: law, health care, religious education, metropolitan culture. Whether serving as a bank, a “guest-house” (“The Camp at Bell Rock”), or a workman’s home (“Steve, the Carpenter”), a “bunk-house” is a manifestation of an alliance between development and consumerism that is powerful enough to determine not only where and how people earn and spend their money, but also where they live, how they relax and conduct themselves, and what they eat, hear, and think. As Scott must already have been becoming painfully aware, the development of the Canadian North was not following the blueprint of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In the ensuing verse paragraph of “Fort Smith” Scott turns his attention to the racial assumptions and social hierarchies that are manifest the town’s built environment:
|We drove on sandy streets.|
No names yet, except “Axe-handle Road.”
There was the “native quarter,”
Shacks at every angle
For Slave Indians and half-breeds,
And overlooking the river
The trim houses of the civil servants
With little lawns and gardens
And tents for children to play Indian in.
(Collected Poems 227)
“[T]ents for children to play Indian in” insists too much, but denotation and connotation fuse quite effectively in “Slave Indians,” and Scott’s perception that the local people are treated as inferiors – literally looked down upon – by southern bureaucrats gains in stature through corroboration by Native commentators. “We [saw] how ... the housing provided to us was very inferior,” the one-time President of the Inuit Tapirisat, Michael Amarook, would observe many years later, “[a]nd ... at the same time we saw government employees in ever increasing numbers arriving in our communities and being provided with high quality housing, with running water, furniture and lots of space, often at lower rents ... ” (qtd. in Robson 18).19 That it was a southern perception of the cultures and therefore needs of northern Natives that determined the levels of housing observable in Fort Smith is an obvious enough point that Scott brings home later in the poem by having the Reverend Evans explain, not without regret, that a shrine to the Virgin Mary near the Roman Catholic church “‘has an appeal ... / To the superstitious element in the population’” (Collected Poems 227).20 No more than the bureaucrats and the corporations is the Catholic church exempted from Scott’s charges of racist imperialism and condescension. “Fort Smith” ends with the well-known vignette of Trudeau stripping himself naked, walking into a rapid, and
|Standing white, in whiter water,|
Leaning south up the current
To stem the downward rush,
A man testing his strength
Against the strength of his country.
(Collected Poems 227)
Djwa is right in hearing an echo of “the romantic nationalism of the twenties” in these lines (324) but surely the lines also imply that Trudeau has the ability to resist the potentially devastating power of the south-north (black gold) “rush” whose negative effects are chronicled earlier in the poem.
To a greater or lesser extent, the poems that follow “Fort Smith” in “Letters from the Mackenzie River” display the same combination of insight and lugubriousness as they further chronicle the manifestations and ramifications of the flow of people and materials into and out of the North. Surrounded by “pin-ups” and family photograph albums in “Steve, the Carpenter,” Steve Bard laments his loneliness in terms tellingly reminiscent of the juke-box (“‘Sometimes I get so lonely I could cry’”) while outside his bunk-house the Slave River, now a correlative for his status as well as his loneliness, “roll[s] on, / Farther and farther from home” (Collected Poems 228-9). On a “tug ... dedicated / To a single purpose – / Pushing freight in the Territories,” in “The Radium Yellowknife,” “George Bouvier the Pilot” is a Métis whose “father came from the Red River by canoe / And married into the Lafferty’s [sic] at Providence” (Collected Poems 232). In the galley on the same tug in the same poem, Grace Fischer, the “sole woman aboard,” “utters her soul in pastry” and “reads long letters from daughters / Who are peopling the world ‘outside’” (Collected Poems 233). Like Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Town down the River, the communities on the Slave in “Letters from the Mackenzie River” contain characters who are of interest because they exhibit certain psychological traits or cultural qualities, in Scott’s case those that dispose individuals to live and work in the North and thus to participate in one way or another and more or less harmfully in its colonization and development.
In sharp contrast to Scott’s relatively sympathetic portraits of Steve Bard, George Bouvier, Grace Fischer, and the Reverend Burt Evans is his depiction of Father Denis, “an Oblate from Rennes, Brittany,” in “Fort Providence,” the poem named for the small community on the Mackenzie River that came into existence in the nineteenth century because of the presence of an HBC trading-post and a Roman Catholic mission (Collected Poems 230). “Young, cheerful,” and informal, Father Denis seems benign enough until he shows his visitors over the Catholic mission school, a building “four storeys high, / Grey, square, isolate, / More fortlike than anything in Fort Providence,” and at least as implicated as any other corporate or bureaucratic entity in the business of colonization. Writing about the nineteen fifties in The Government of Canada and the Inuit, 1900-1967, Richard Diubaldo observes that, despite the fact that “[i]n 1955 the federal government announced a new educational programme for the Northwest Territories after reaching certain understandings and agreements with the Roman Catholic and Anglican [C]hurches,” the missionaries continued to provide “the bulk of educational services” in the North, a situation that was distressing to people in the Department of Indian Affairs “who may have been suspicious of missionaries or held a low view of their teaching abilities” (150-51). That Scott shared this distress is abundantly evident from the remainder of “Fort Providence,” where the priests and nuns of Father Denis’s school are roundly condemned, first for the promulgation of American corporate propaganda, then for their abominable teaching, and finally for their aggressive proselytizing: “In the entrance hall / Walt Disney illustrations for the Kleenex Company21.... Priests from France, nuns from Quebec, / [Teaching] Slaves (who still speak Indian) / Grades I to VIII, in broken English.... Everywhere religious scenes, / Christ and Saints, Stations of the Cross, / Beads hanging from nails, crucifixes ... ” (Collected Poems 230-31).
As repellant to Scott was the almost complete neglect of Canadian and Native cultures in the educational programme of the Oblate mission school: “Silk-screen prints of the Group of Seven” provide glimpses of the Canadian landscape, but “No map of Canada or the Territories” is anywhere to be seen, and “crayon drawings and masks / Made by the younger children” are “The single visible expression / Of the soul of these broken people” (Collected Poems 231). In the final lines of the poem, the mission school is recognized as less “fort-like” than prison-like:
|Upstairs on the second storey|
Seventy little cots
Touching end to end
In a room 30’ by 40’
Housed the resident boys
In this firetrap mental gaol.
By the end of “Fort Providence,” the architectural structure in which the mission school is housed has become the outward and visible sign of an educational programme whose primary goal – the purgation of one culture and the inculcation of another – is eerily similar to the processes of extraction and imposition at work in the Imperial Oil Compound and the Uranium Restaurant in “Fort Smith.”
Despite the fact that the Northern Transportation Company tug that transported Scott and Trudeau downriver from Fort Smith was engaged in the same business (and, indeed, “burn[ed] diesel oil / Pumped at Norman Wells / And so live[d] off the land” (Collected Poems 232], it is largely exempt from the ideological criticism directed at other targets, the reason apparently being that, more than any other entity encountered in the North, it resembles a socialist society. On its “upper-deck” strolls a representative of the era’s most celebrated welfare state, “A wise old Swede”22 named Captain Svierson who wears “No braid” and below him is George Rush, a “talkative man” who “Jollies the crew along” (Collected Poems 232). In short, “Nobody seems to give orders, / Yet everyone knows what to do.” Even the external appearance of George Bouvier, the Métis pilot, and Grace Fischer, the soulful pastry cook, seem to reflect a sense of near-utopian well-being: Bouvier’s face is “As wild and gentle as riverlands seen from a plane” and Fischer, although a “Mother of nine,” “look[s] thirty-five” (Collected Poems 232-33). Certainly, the microcosm of society aboard “The Radium Yellowknife” appears to draw from each of its crew members according to his or her abilities and, in return, to reward each with a sense of respect and dignity that is denied to the majority of northerners by the hierarchies of the federal bureaucracy, the mission schools, and the extractive industries.
As “The Radium Yellowknife” nears Norman Wells (which has the distinction of being “the first settlement in the N[orth] W[est] T[erritories] to be established entirely as a result of non-reversible resource development” [Pool]), the ideological ideal and satirical norm represented by the community on the tug is brought to bear with clumsy stridency on the extractive activities and proprietorial attitudes of such companies as Imperial Oil (a subsidiary since 1898 of Standard Oil):
|Now we see tanks of oil|
Standing white on the rocks
Amid stacks of cans and drums.
The first industrial wealth
Marked by Mackenzie himself –
Power and light and heat
For whatever the uses of man.
Bringing out Yellowknife gold
And the burning ore from Port Radium,
Driving the tugs and planes
And keeping the bureaucrat snug.
· · ·
|Curing in toward shore|
We read on a kind of gallows
In the utterly public land
The words PRIVATE PROPERTY.
Behind is its counterpart:
TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED
BY ORDER, IMPERIAL OIL.
Trespassers! In the North!
Man is the absent fact
Man is the aim and need
Man is the source of wealth
But Property keeps him out.
And the Indians wonder, who first
Lived off this soil
And now are outcast and dying
As their substance is drained away.
(Collected Poems 233-34)
As Djwa has observed, this passage is “full of politics” (330), not least but certainly most subtly in its deployment of metaphors of hanging (“a kind of gallows”) and blood-letting (“their substance ... drained away”) to figure the deadly and vampiric effects on the Native peoples of the (American) extractive industries. “Norman Wells” ends, somewhat lamely, by naming a white man, Jimmy O’Brien, who was also a victim of Imperial Oil (this time in collusion with Canadian Pacific Airways) and by suggesting that if the “bomb on Hiroshima” had not hastened the end of the Second World War the depletion of the Norman Wells oil fields through the Canol pipeline would have completely exhausted “this Canadian wealth” (Collected Poems 234). In the last poem that Scott wrote during or immediately after his Northern tour of 1956, “Norman Wells to Aklavik,” the onslaught against American and Canadian corporations continues with a jibe at CPA for “Exact[ing] a first-class fare / Plus an extra charge / To prove its monopoly power” (Collected Poems 235).
Scott’s conviction that corporate and bureaucratic insensitivity were killing the Canadian North and its peoples reemerges architecturally in the penultimate poem in the “Letters from the Mackenzie River” sequence, “A New City: E3,” which was begun in 1956 but not completed until 1970.23 Here “Indian and Eskimo watch / The slow, inescapable death / Of this land which has waited so long / For the sentence already pronounced” as “America’s overspill / Invades the tundra and lakes / Extracting, draining away, / Leaving a slum behind ... Like brown water on snow” (Collected Poems 236). Neither entirely accurate nor merely figurative, the word “slum” in these lines provides an imagistic transition to Scott’s heavily ironical assessment of Inuvik or, as it was initially known, E-3, the settlement on the Mackenzie Delta that was constructed in the late ‘fifties to replace Aklavik, which had come under threat from erosion:
|But wait! A new city is planned.|
Across from Aklavik’s mud,
Free from the perma-frost,
Set upon solid rock,
Blue-printed, pre-fab, precise,
A model, a bureaucrat’s dream.
(Collected Poems 236)
Following this round condemnation of a bureaucratically driven scheme that owed more than a little to Le Corbusier’s championship of planned cities and mass-produced houses in Vers une architecture and elsewhere, Scott turns his irony on “The first Council meeting / North of the Arctic Circle,” an event that he and Trudeau witnessed in E-3/Inuvik in September 1956. Disdainfully and “‘mischievous[ly]’”24