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First, read the essay “Preface to ‘The Bush Garden'” by Northrop Frye on page 107 of The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature.

What, according to Frye, are the essential characteristics of Canadian Literature?

Now, which one of the following poems exemplifies best these essential characteristics?

Milton Acorn: “The Island,” “The Fights”
Margaret Atwood: “Death of a Young Son by Drowning”
Margaret Avison: “In a Season of Unemployment”
Earle Birney: “Bushed”
George Bowering: “Prairie,” “Mud Time”
Leonard Cohen: “God is Alive”
George Johnston: “The Pool,” “In It”
D.G. Jones: “Pastoral”
Robert Kroetsch: “Stone Hammer Poem”
Patrick Lane: “The Carpenter”
Irving Layton: “Berry Picking”
Gwendolyn MacEwen: “The Armies of the Moon”
Jay Macpherson: “The Anagogic Man”
Michael Ondaatje: “Letters and Other Worlds”
P.K. Page: “The Stenographers”
F.R. Scott: “W.L.M.K.”
Miriam Waddington: “Advice to the Young”
Phyllis Webb: “Lament”

Additional Quotes:

All discussion of literature produced in the Canadian West must of necessity begin with the impact of the landscape on the mind. – Henry Kreisel, The Prairie: A State of Mind

We are all immigrants to this place even if we were born here: the country is too big for anyone to inhabit completely, and in the parts unknown to us we move in fear, exiles and invaders. This country is something that must be chosen -it is too easy to leave – and if we do choose it we are still choosing a violent duality.
– Margaret Atwood, Afterword to the Journals of Susanna Moodie

In recent years the tension between his appearance of being just like someone else and the demands of authenticity has become intolerable – both to individuals and to the society. The major writers resolve the paradox -the painful tension between appearance and authenticity – by the radical process of demythologizing the systems that threaten to define them. They uninvent the world. – Robert Kroetsch, Unhiding the Hidden: Recent Canadian Fiction.

The first task is to recognize your condition, to articulate it. The second task is to change it. – Patrick Lane

All Literature is a conscious mythology: it creates an autonomous world that gives us an imaginative perspective on the actual one. – Northrop Frye

Someone who lives in one place and believes himself in another is insane. – Margaret Atwood, Survival

It seems to me that the Canadian sensibility has been profoundly disturbed, not so much by our famous problem of identity, important as that is, as by a series of paradoxes in what confronts that identity. It is less perplexed by the question, “Who am I?” than by some such riddle as “Where is here?” – Northrop Frye, Literary History of Canada

Synthesis of 15 “essential characteristics” from Frye:

  1. We are myth destroyers.
  2. We are paradoxical – we search for our own identity.
  3. We celebrate victims.
  4. We celebrate individual suffering – defeated by rebellion.
  5. Truly authentic Canadian experience is shrouded in violence and paranoia.
  6. External world defines who we are.
  7. Fear of America, Europe, “Old World.”
  8. Interior Separation
  9. Garrison Mentality
  10. Exploration and Discovery: Quest
  11. Canada is the great asylum for victims the world over.
  12. Long periods of death followed by the rush to (re)produce.
  13. Authors explore three key relationships to determine who we are:
    • our relationship with the environment
    • our relationship with each other
    • our relationship with the Divine.
  14. Societal barriers, systems of all kinds are pulled back to uncover briefly who we are.
  15. Immigrants could not control the land or nature – so they controlled the Indians.

Write a personal essay on a philosophical theme or discuss some fantasy in your life. Base your essay on an idea suggested by one of the following:

  • I used to pretend . . .
  • Kids can come up with some of the craziest ideas.
  • “All of the animals except man, know that the chief business of life is to enjoy it.”
  • “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”
  • When I have kids, I’m going to teach them . . .

Using “The Carpenter” as a model, create a fantasy of your own and write about it in prose or poetry.

How has the poet’s idea of what is important in life changed since her children were small? Explain both philosophies in your own words.

In “Lament” Webb says that everything is wrong in life. In “Sitting” she recommends withdrawal from life as the only way of coping with an “extraordinary world.” In view of this philosophy, what is it that leads her, in “Poetics Against the Angel of Death,” to “run ragged to elude” death?

  1. Both of these poems suggest the longing of the individual for escape from the realities of life. Why is the trade of the carpenter appropriate for the thought of the poem?
  2. “The Bird” is a poem about the necessity for freedom. According to Lane, how does the poet free himself from the realities of life?
  1. What comparison does the opening stanza suggest? Why is it appropriate?
  2. What is the bell that rings in stanza four? Whose voice “draws the pencils”?
  3. Where are the stenographers in the seventh stanza? What are they doing? Note how the poem carries them through the day.
  4. In what sense are the stenographers like marathon runners racing around a stadium track?
  5. In your own words explain what the poet is suggesting about the life of a stenographer.
  1. What does the pool represent in “The Pool”? How does the reference to the pool in “In It” clarify the meaning of the first poem? Notice that the boy in the poem is a part of the thing he gazes on, but the man is a thing apart from the pool and sees it from the outside. What does this suggest about the way our attitude to life changes as our understanding develops?
  2. How does the meaning of “world” in “In It” differ from the meaning of “earth” in “O Earth, Turn!”? Is there any contradiction in the poems? Do all three poems suggest the same philosophy of life?
  1. What does the bird represent in this poem?
  2. What happens to the poet when the bird flies away?
  1. What is the meaning of the term “bushed”? What happens to the man in the shack?
  2. Notice how the mountains changes character and becomes more and more personified, and how the sights and sounds of the woods take on terrifying significance as the poem progresses. Experienced trappers say that you should never approach a trapper’s cabin, even the cabin of a friend, without first calling from the shelter of the woods and making your presence known. Can you suggest a reason for this?
  1. Identify some person whom you admire because he or she has taken a firm stand on some issue and supported it in the face of strong opposition. You could choose as a subject someone you know personally, or a public figure. Write an essay characterizing this person and explain what it is you admire in him or her. OR
  2. Write an impassioned defense of some idea that you have proposed without success, but that you still feel is valid. The cause you support should be one that is generally unpopular. You may, if you like, treat this essay humorously, inventing a cause that is obviously indefensible and defending it with mock seriousness.
  1. So far in this unit we have looked at Jabez Harry Bowering, who strode through life planting his feet firmly on whatever obstacles he encountered, and Leonard Cohen, who asserts the validity of his own personal view of life. In both instances it is an individual human being who stands firm. What is the firm element in this poem by Jones?
  2. The elements in this poem are all a part of nature–the creek, the plants, water, rock, metals, the sky–until the jet is introduced at the end. Why is the jet appropriate as the only man-made object?
  1. A number of ideas move through this poem, changing shape and repeating themselves and blending one into the other. What effect is produced (a) by the repetitions (b) by the frequent reversal of word order?
  2. The sentences in the poem are all short and the rhythm is abrupt and jerky, suggesting a collection of isolated thoughts rather than a logical development of a central theme. What does this device contribute to Cohen’s purpose?
  3. Notice the contrasting elements that appear and reappear in the poem: life and death; strength and weakness; sickness and healing. Is there any contrasting idea for God? For Magic?
  4. Identify as many of the biblical references as you can. What evidence of Cohen’s Jewish heritage can you find?
  5. The final sentence of the poem is noticeably longer than the other sentences. The poem begins and ends with the word “God.” Can you explain the purpose of these two devices?
  6. What does Cohen mean when he says that “mind itself is Magic coursing through the flesh, and flesh itself is Magic dancing on a clock, and time itself the Magic Length of God.” What does he mean by Magic? Why does he capitalize it?
  7. After reading the two poems by Cohen that are included in this unit, would you say that he is an individualist or a conformist? Traditional or innovative? Strong or weak?
  1. In this poem Cohen lists a variety of things he has not done. What do these things have in common?
  2. Why do you think Cohen says that he has not done these particular things? What do people expect of a poet? Of a philosopher? Of a religious man? Cohen is a poet. Is he a philosopher? Religious?
  3. Notice that the final four lines of the poem are entirely positive in their outlook, contrasting sharply with the negative construction of the rest of the poem. How does Cohen feel about the things he does, in contrast to the things he does not do? Does he feel guilty? Apologetic? Smug? Satisfied?
  4. Suggest a theme for the poem.
  1. Notice that the poem is written without punctuation. What effect does this have on the movement of the poem? How is this appropriate to the life and character of Jabez Harry Bowering?
  2. Throughout the poem Bowering uses the ampersand (&) instead of writing out the word “and” in full. Can you suggest a reason for this?
  3. Bowering’s diction is important in creating atmosphere in this poem. What is the effect of such words as “strode,” “hacking,” “squared,” “snarled,” “blast,” struck,” “prodding”?
  4. Explain the image “six years on the road to Damascus till his eyes were blinded/with the blast of Christ.”
  5. Where and with whom did Bowering’s grandfather live for the four years between leaving home and sailing for Canada?
  6. What is ironic about the fact that the old man died in a Catholic hospital?
  7. Bearing in mind that he had just been “blinded by the blast of Christ” (become a “reborn” Christian), what do you think Jabez Bowering’s relations were with the sporting crowd and the “heathen Saturday nights’ of Brandon? (The Brandon Wheat Kings were a hockey team).
  8. Examine the tempo of the poem. The tempo is one of vigorous action, filled with explosive sounds – alliterated ps and bs and chs, suggesting belligerent attack. It builds to a climax with the rapid passage across the western provinces until “lord god almighty,” the second line of the vigorous hymn that has become the old man’s theme, suddenly doubles as the subject of the fatal word “struck.” From here to the end of the poem inactivity replaces activity; the alliterated ps and bs become obstacles rather than attacks, and only the remnants of the former vigour remain in the irascible proddings of the grandchildren. In the final line the firm ps and bs are replaced by elusive h and sh and wh sounds of “hospital sheets white as his hair” – airy insubstantial sounds suggesting the loosening of the old man’s grasp on life.
  9. What do you think Jabez Bowering’s relationship was with his wives, his children, and his grandchildren? Do you think George Bowering’s attitude to his grandfather has changed since the time in childhood when he was prodded by the old man’s crutches?

Write a personal essay, short story, or poem using material suggested by one of the following sentences:

  • I sure blew that one!
  • He/She never learns!
  • That was a day when I should have stayed in bed.
  1. The title of this poem establishes its theme: the essential separation between the two worlds that the narrator’s father lived in – the world of his writings and the world of his unhappy daily life. (The word “letters” here is probably used to mean written materials.) What kind of world was the world of his writings?
  2. Ondaatje says that the father “hid that he had been where we were going.” What do you think he means by this? What was the relationship between father and son?
  3. “His early life was a terrifying comedy.” To whom was it terrifying? Himself? His wife? His family? To whom was it a comedy?
  4. What characteristic is suggested by the metaphor “He would rush into tunnels magnetized/by the white eye of trains”?
  5. What was the father’s occupation? Ondaatje suggests two incidents that were instrumental in bringing about Home Rule in Ceylon. How serious is he?
  6. What is the narrator’s attitude to his father. Does he condemn him? Is he sympathetic? Analytical?
  7. Can you explain what it was in the character and mentality of the father that led to his tragic life and death?
  1. In what way is the concept of Shakespeare like the idea of “God” or “Death” or “the start of the world”?
  2. The poem is divided into four stanzas. Can you briefly summarize the idea that is expressed in each stanza?
  3. How many of the quotations from Shakespeare can you identify?
  4. Layton sees Shakespeare as the poet’s “unclimbable mountain.” Can you suggest individuals who might be “unclimbable mountains” in other lines of endeavor? Are there any in your life?
  5. Do such unclimbable mountains tend to discourage or inspire people? Discuss.
  6. What is the tone of the poem? Is Layton angry? Amused? Discouraged? Envious? What reaction does he expect from the reader? Amusement? Sympathy?
  1. From whose point of view is this poem written? What is it about the fugitive that the hunters cannot forgive?
  2. The specific events of the manhunt are suggested in a very compressed form. How many of the events can you list? Compare you list with the events as they appear from reading of “The Naming of Albert Johnson” on page 504
  3. Kroetsch relies on diction and unexpected juxtaposition of words for much of his effect. What is suggested by “blood reason”? “red authority”? “baited their pride”?
  4. Examine the phrase “the brave running/by which he will become poet of survival/to our suburban pain/” What combinations of ideas are suggested? The word “survival” is obviously appropriate to Johnson’s flight. In what sense might he be a poet? Might his skill in eluding his pursuers be considered artistic?
  5. What is suggested by the words “suburban pain”? Is Kroetsch suggesting that the hunters, dependent on the city for survival, are out of place and less at home in the north than Johnson is? Is he suggesting that the general public, safe in their suburban homes, find the circumstances of the hunt painful? What were the odds against Johnson? What is the natural human reaction to the underdog? What was there in Johnson’s performance to inspire admiration?
  6. How is the incident in parenthesis at the end of the poem used to influence our attitude to the posse?
  7. In what way might Johnson be considered “the poet of our survival”? Is Kroetsch perhaps suggesting that the life of every individual is a fight for survival?
  1. What contrasts does Avison suggest between nature and the structures placed upon it by the circumstances of life in a city?
  2. The title of the poem suggests that the man on the park bench is unemployed. How has “progress” contributed to his unemployment? Would he have something to do if he lived in a more primitive society?
  3. The astronaut in the newspaper story is separated from the world, disoriented, confined within a man-made structure, bound by his relation with the scientific world. How does this parallel the situation of the unemployed man?
  4. What is suggested by the quotation marks around the final word “smiling”?
  5. What do you think the theme of the poem is? Does it have something to do with what we call “progress,” and its effect on the freedom of the individual and the quality of human life?
  1. In the first stanza of this poem why does Acorn refer to a “gillettes width” rather than a razor’s width? How do the connotations differ? Which suggests the more personal image?
  2. Explain the phrase “a rude brush-cut to the chin/tucks on brain safe under another.” (Note that the word “rude” here means rough or simple, rather than impolite.) How does this add to the impression of the fighter as a human being?
  3. Throughout the poem Acorn is concerned with the effect of the fights on the mind inside the boxer’s target – the human being inside the trained fighter. How does the contrast between the TV picture and the actual fight contribute to this idea?
  4. In the first stanza Acorn likens the brain of the fighter to a coconut set up as a target in a carnival game. Who has the best chance of winning in a carnival game? The player? The promoter? The coconut? Do the players have a fair chance? How does this parallel his concept of the fights in stanza three?
  5. Acorn pictures the fighter, finally, as a jerky bum/humming with a gentleness less than human.” Is this another way of suggesting that boxing is a brutalizing sport? Would the effect have been the same if Acorn had used the term “brutalizing”?
  6. “We need something of its nature, but not this,” Acorn concludes. What aspect of the fights is he suggesting that we need?

From The Idea of a Poem: an Interview with Milton Acorn

Respondent: A favourite quotation of mine—I don’t know where it’s from—is “There are no boundaries in nature; nevertheless, you must make boundaries”.

Interviewer: How does this apply to the poem?

Respondent: Well, how could you distinguish between the dancer and the dance? In a very wide sense, all of life is a dance; a person’s life is a dance. So where is the dancer and where is the dance? How can you distinguish between the two? Well, anyway, I have always found myself in that dilemma: in the end you can’t distinguish, but you must. That is, you say all is one: this is true. All is but one universe. However, it is not a very good approach to analyze the universe. But in analyzing the universe, you must consider the universe as one. There must be, along with all your analysis of stars and quasars, galaxies and metagalaxies, black holes and the void, a recognition that the universe is one. But of course “all is one” is no answer. My favourite illustration is to go back to the statement “There are no boundaries in nature; nevertheless, we must make boundiares”. Where is the boundary between the sea and the land? It changes twice in more or less twenty-four hours. Does the tide ever stop at the same place? No. What’s the high tide mark? I used to mark it by the wreckage, but that doesn’t always work. Where is the low tide mark? The lowest mark amidst the wreckage? No. The tide has risen farther in the past and will rise farther again in the future. So will it fall lower.

Interviewer: How do you apply this to a poem? If the poem is like nature, it has no boundaries, yet we have to make some boundaries. Do you have that in mind when you are writing poems?

Respondent: I have in mind one thing, one idea. What am I to you? In the context of a poem, I am my voice. Here there is a centre—one of the centres. It’s me. My voice reaches out and inspires my brain. My voice reaches out and strikes common or close to the centres of your brain. What you are hearing is literally me. At the same time, in another sense, it’s literally you. My poems are one long varitoned shout to reach you and get an echo. All this has got to be incorporated in the idea of a poem, the end of a fantasy. I have spoken. Amen.

  1. Imagine that a friend who frequently finds himself or herself left out of social activities has asked you to explain why. You want to be helpful. Write a personal letter explaining, as tactfully as possible, what it is that makes your friend an outsider. OR
  2. In a well organized and carefully written essay of about 350 words, discuss the topic “Conformity: Who Needs It?” Your essay should identify three areas in which you (or people in general) are pressured into doing things that are distasteful, boring, harmful, or undesirable or some other reason.
  1. What is foreshadowing? Can you find some examples of foreshadowing in this story?
  2. How do you react to the situation of the Desjardins? What details does Scott include that affect you emotionally?
  3. What does Philippe mean when he says, “It is hard, but there is only one thing to do.” What is the one thing? Why?
  4. This story is written by the same man who wrote “The Forsaken.” What do the two selections suggest to you about the author’s character and interests? Can you see any similarity between the old woman in “The Forsaken” and the brother and sister in “The Desjardins”?
  1. Purdy suggests two possible causes for the destruction of the Dorsets. What are they? Was the disappearance for the Dorsets inevitable?
  2. What similarities does Purdy suggest between the Dorsets and modern man? Does modern man have similar interests and reactions? In what ways do the two cultures differ?
  3. Were the Dorsets victims of progress? How would you define progress?
  4. Why do you suppose Purdy chose a swan as a subject for Kudluk’s carving? Does the swan suggest qualities of Kudluk’s mind that would not be suggested by a polar bear or a walrus or a seal? In what sense does one of Kudluk’s thoughts turn to ivory?
  5. What meaning does “After 600 years/the ivory thought/ is still warm” suggest to you? In what sense do the Dorsets still live?
  6. In one well-written paragraph explain why Purdy “laments” the passing of the Dorsets.
  1. Who was Houdini?
  2. The poem suggests a parallel between Houdini and the poet. Why did Houdini continually bind himself? What is it that binds the poet?
  3. Examine the diction (word choice) of the poem. How does Mandel suggest a parallel between the tools used by Houdini and those used by the poet? In what sense are the poet and Houdini motivated by the same compulsion? Can you suggest a double meaning for “like that mannered style, his formal suit”?
  4. The words “escape, escape . . . there’s no way out” spoken by the “manacles, cells, handcuffs” and other chains that bind him, challenged Houdini to struggle to free his body. What is it that the poet struggles to free? In what sense are trunks metaphors?
  5. In what sense are the crowds of spectators “bound”? Why do they sigh? Can you equate the crowds before whom Houdini performs with the public for which the poet writes?

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