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Topic: poetry criticism

Coy and austere: Margaret Avison’s Books of Revelation

You can measure the success of Margaret Avison’s career by the major awards accorded to nearly half of her books: two Governor General’s Awards and a Griffin Poetry Prize. If you put little stock in awards (fair enough), then the better measure may be the list of anthologies (an appendix to this volume of Always Now) in which her work has appeared, particularly before the release of Winter Sun in 1960. She was first anthologized by A.J.M. Smith in The Book of Canadian Poetry: A Critical and Historical Anthology (1943). Her poems appeared in anthologies published by both First Statement and Contact, edited by John Sutherland, Louis Dudek, and Irving Layton. Earle Birney, Bliss Carman, Ralph Gustafson, and Eli Mandel all selected her work for Canadian poetry anthologies, and Denise Levertov pursued Avison’s second book, The Dumbfounding (1966), for Norton (a point Avison records when giving “Thanks” here). In other words, before Avison had published her first monograph, she was recognized as a representative Canadian poet by some of the enduring names in Canadian poetry, and after Winter Sun that reputation spread.

Staggered state: George Murray’s A Set of Deadly Negotiations

The last book of poems that frightened me was George Murray’s The Hunter (2003). I’m not accustomed to thinking of poetry as a frightening genre. Unlike life and many fictions, poems end neatly; they insist on order; they elude the march of time. Not Murray’s. His Hunter tracks Yeats’s rough beast–or is tracked by it; or is that beast–through fire and desert towards no certain Bethlehem. The poems’ lines go two by two or three by three–but to call these stanzas couplets or triplets belies their staggered state. And because the poems eschew regular rhyme and metre, like fire they resist one’s efforts at remembrance. The poems are burnt out from around their titular bones: what sticks in one’s mind is the index, an alphabetical sequence that reads like a skeletal poem (Albatross, Anchor, Arrow, Bear, Bed, Bomb, Book …)

Quasi-sonnets: Harold Rhenisch’s Free Will

It’s a truism that books come from other books. Shakespeare, for instance, borrowed storylines from classical antecedents. In the hands of a good writer, such appropriations become original works in their own right. I’m thinking here not only of Shakespeare’s plays, but of such brilliant latter-day adaptations of them as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Aimé Césaire’s post-colonial version of The Tempest. Sometimes, however, adaptation takes on a parasitic tinge, either trivializing or leaning too heavily on the source material. Harold Rhenisch’s Free Will belongs, unfortunately, to this latter class…