Our lost poets: Bring them back

An introduction to “Canada’s Forgotten and Neglected”, Arc 58, by the editors*
All the poets you will read about in this copy of Arc are dead. With each, a potential legacy has also died, or is in full-blown demise. Though ordinary mortality is beyond our powers to correct, we take issue, as our theme “Forgotten and Neglected” implies, with these secondary, literary deaths. We contend that each of the 13 poets whose work appears in these pages has received less credit than was his or her due for either literary accomplishments, the enrichment of our poetic history, or both. The contributions made by these poets have faded too quickly from our collective memory and seem doomed to archival obscurity, if that.
!))<https://arcpoetry.ca/images/arc58_thumb.jpg 136w 155h (arc 58 Forgotten and Neglected Canadian poets)!
This issue, known among our crew as F&N, was born out of a knot of frustration, a knot that thickened even as our excitement also grew over the lost and near-lost poets re-emerging–in what for most of them would have seemed a bizarre and foreign incarnation–through our inboxes and on our computer screens.
In the spring of 2005, three members of Arc–the two of us from Ottawa and Sackville, New Brunswick respectively, and our webmistress Stacey Munro from Vancouver Island–converged at the Associated Writers and Publishers conference and book fair in downtown Vancouver. Amid an intoxicating few days of seeing such poets as W.S. Merwin and Anne Carson give readings to jam-packed ballrooms at the Fairmont Vancouver Hotel, we also attended a session called Forgotten and Neglected Poets, and were curious to see which Canadians would appear on the roster (the panel giving the presentation was American). To our amusement and dismay, Gwendolyn MacEwen was the sole Canadian deemed in need of resurrection. As MacEwen’s been neither F’d nor N’d in _this_ country, we began to wonder who might truly fit the category. By the time we’d returned to our table at the book fair, this special issue of [_Arc_] was already unofficially underway….

We knew instinctively, by the very nature of our strangely fast-paced poetry “industry,” that many of our finer poets had long since fallen by the wayside–and we knew that there were very likely “greats” we would never come across, even in anthologies. We each personally knew of worthwhile poets in Canlit’s past (brief as it is!) that no one else seemed to pay any mind. On the spot, as writing students from all over the United States paused to browse at our table–perhaps some of them destined to also become great writers, unjustly overlooked–our table-mate John Barton, editor of _The Malahat Review_ and former editor of this publication, pledged a contribution. His subject: Douglas LePan, a name only vaguely familiar to the rest of us.
When our call for proposals for this issue went out, a string of swift responses further confirmed our suspicions. Before F&N, I admit, I (Anita) had never encountered the names Kenneth Leslie, Paul Potts, Philip Child or Cheng Sait Chia. I had only heard of the Layton protégé Avi Boxer because I knew his son, Asa, and I’d read little or no work by Audrey Alexandra Brown, Louise Morey Bowman, George Faludy, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Joseph Howe, nor even that of the poet who would become my own subject for this issue, Dorothy Roberts. Similarly, I (Matthew) had studied the Brown fonds briefly in Victoria, had picked up a copy of Boxer’s _No Address_ years earlier and had been doing my own research into Canadian politician-poets, but I had no knowledge, even by name, of most of the subjects who were quickly being brought to our attention. (Neither of us had heard tell of James Denoon, but you will see why that was inevitable when you read Carmine Starnino’s defence of his humble endeavour.)
What happened to these poets, some of whom were writing and publishing as recently as the 1990s, some of whom won Governor General’s Awards and other accolades? Behind all of this, of course, is the question of whether their work has been lost because it wasn’t worth keeping in the first place. But what we keep and what we celebrate as often as not has little to do with value. As the fascinating essays in this issue reveal, politics, cultural context, fashion, gender, ethnicity, geography, personality and luck all come into play. The poets here, some truly great, some not-so (though no more flawed, we would contend, than many of those we _have_ chosen to canonize) fell on the wrong side of one or more of these factors. By rediscovering the poets in this issue, we have the chance to revisit the periods of Canadian literature we think we already understand. At no point, it becomes apparent, are we working with a full picture. But by returning to these poets, some of the gaps begin to fill in. New faces are added to places and periods where the limelight has, often arbitrarily, only offered room for others.
In Asa Boxer’s uncompromising analysis of his father’s poetry, we are offered a new layer on legendary 1950s Montreal, the land of Layton and Klein. George Elliott Clarke takes Canlit (i.e. us) to task for championing some Chinese-Canadian poets while completely missing the work of others, such as that of Chia–and for overhyphenating and over-classifying our poets in general, ad nauseum. Christopher Doda shames us for ignoring the internationally acclaimed George Faludy, all the years this politically courageous bard was in our midst. Aislinn Hunter, in her joyful rediscovery of Bowman’s gutsy modernist mixing, presents a call to arms: what of the history of Canadian literature? Why are we so passive about it? How, she asks, can we come so close to “losing” writers worth keeping “so soon after they’ve set down a portrait of their time and place on the page”? Where’s the respect? The due owed those who came before?
Hunter’s question, her frustration, ought to be all of ours. We have this maddening habit of cycling through, always turning our faces to what is new. This was a quandary we had to acknowledge early in the process of developing this project: there was some consternation and reservation about devoting an entire issue of [_Arc_] to dead poets. It is our job, as we understand it, to be a place for new poets and new work to enter the fray. We function as a window and a door, and by giving over, in effect, half a year of [_Arc_] to the past, are we betraying the poets working now, today?
As you read through this issue, as you encounter–for many of you, no doubt, for the first time–Bowman’s exuberance, Boxer’s wit, Faludy’s uncompromising politics, Roberts’ strange clarity, Chia’s spare imagism, Leslie’s vigorous craft, Child’s cultural eulogizing, LePan’s infectious hero-worship, Denoon’s unpretentious vulnerability, Brown’s brightness, McGee’s ambition, Howe’s heavy romanticism and Potts’ unapologetic plainness–you must decide yourself whether the trade-off has been worth it.
“Launch for [_Arc_] 58, Canada’s Forgotten and Neglected”:https://arcpoetry.ca/logentries/news/000918_launch_of_canadas_forgotten_and_neglected_poets_issue_june_23rd.php: Saturday, June 23rd, 5pm at the Manx Pub, 370 Elgin Street in Ottawa.
“Preview”:https://arcpoetry.ca/mag/issue-preview/arc_58_summer_2007.php | “Web [_Arc_]hive”:https://arcpoetry.ca/logentries/issuearc58summer2007/

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