Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
|Reviews||Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing
Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2005
In the Summer of 1973, I had occasion to travel to the Niagara Peninsula to interview a high school English teacher named Jim Foley. Among secondary school educators, he was a driving force in support of “CanLit”. His energy was boundless, his commitment was sincere and his mission was to increase young Canadians’ awareness of their literary heritage. He seemed convinced that Northrop Frye had been right, when he wrote in 1965 of “the obvious and unquenchable thirst of the Canadian cultural public to identify itself through literature.” He aimed to quench that thirst.
In Foley’s world, novels, short stories and poetry were elements of a benign nationalism, the stuff of an elusive Canadian identity. “Canadiana” was inherently valuable and meritorious irrespective of what some might call the inferior quality of the writing when compared to serious world literature.
Absent was any thought of literary criticism or cultural analysis. Literature was primarily a mirror to be held up in front of citizens for the purpose of showing us who we were. If criticism was at all relevant, it was useful mainly to allocate works to genre categories and maybe to make some generous evaluation of the material before us. Whether dealing with the scenic or the satirical, with wilderness or with war, with survival in an alien land or with social relations between alienated solitudes, the task of the commentator was to sort things out according to their dominant themes so that we might more easily understand and relate to the authors’ intentions.
According to Eli Mandel, Canadian critics swung wildly between a “monomaniacal” obsession with the wild and an almost inhuman eclecticism”; somehow or other, though, we always found ourselves in the loving, suffocating arms of Susannah Moodie. Mr. Foley would have been offended, I suspect, by either opinionMandel’s or mine.
Jim Foley’s preoccupations were representative of the mainstream educator of the day. He seemed wholly uninterested in theorizing. If he had even heard of notions such as deconstruction, poststructualism and postmodernism, I can imagine him giving a sniff of disapproval, dismissing such matters as intellectual abstractions and academic pretensions having nothing to do with the soul of Canada. Realism and imagination were equally valuable, so long as they spoke to the truth of our common experience and aspirations.
Times have changed. Thanks to a couple of generations of creative writers and criticsnames like Linda Hutcheon and Robert Kroetsch come prominently to mindand to the growing international praise accorded to the likes of Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje, it is possible to step out from under the weight of the colonial mindset and embrace new versions of what literature might or might not be. Names such as: Barthes, Beaudrillard, Walter Benjamin and Kenneth Burke; Eagleton, Eco and Empson; Jacokson and Jameson; Lacan, Leavis, Levi-Strauss and Lukács; I. A. Richards and Paul Ricoeur; and Derrida, Foucault, Gadamer and Saussure no longer make us cringe in a defensive anti-intellectualism. We are learning to hold our own and even, on occasion, to give something back.
Enter George Bowering. Canada’s first Poet Laureate, a double winner of the Governor General’s Award (once for poetry and once for fiction), he is advertised as a quintessentially Canadian writer. This means, in part, that he lives in dynamic tensiontorn this way and that by conflicting perspectives, and seeking to negotiate stability between a multitude of dualisms.
His remarks on the foolishness of American pride are sharp and devastating, but balanced by his frank acknowledgement of his childhood ambition to become an American. He eschews naturalism in writing just before painting a becoming portrait of life in the Okanagan. He celebrates postmodernism both in literature and literary criticism, and betrays a concern with the author, the text and the context of writing that smells sweetly of traditionalism. He is attached to local circumstances, landscapes and people going about their neighbourhood business, while ruminating on the Canadian identity and cheerfully acknowledging that it is a “work in progress” and, we suspect, is a work that will and should never be finished.
Bowering offers trenchant insights into some of the major poets of our time. Some are his own, and some are borrowed. We should be grateful to be reminded of George Woodcock’s description of Margaret Atwood as the complete literary anglerhence the title “Left Hook.”
Bowering’s essays on familiar word artists like Milton Acorn and Al Purdy are astonishingly fresh. His thoughts on bpNichol, the postmodern prankster, are reverently irreverent.
There is nothing mean in Bowering’s commentaries. They are not uncritical celebrations, but they do display generosity, empathy, joy and intelligent understanding. Reading what he says about poets we know well makes us want to read them again; reading what he says about poets we know less well makes us want to go exploring.
Paeans to those we admire commonly come funerally, all starched and stiff-collared, holding in the mummified remains of a once adventurous spirit. No matter what the celebrant’s intention, the finished product too often displays the sincerity and spontaneity of a greeting card or a fortune cookie.
Bowering’s book is not like that. It speaks of everything from boyhood baseball to Ezra Pound to the Vancouver culturescape of the 1960s, and it does so in a way that makes us surprised we finished the entire book at one sitting, and sad that the ride is over.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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