Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Poetics of Everyday Life

The Collected Poems, Patrick Lane. Harbour, 2011.

Patrick Lane is, of course, one of the most well known names in Canadian poetry, and his Collected Poems affords the opportunity to assess not just his achievement, but his role in the history of our literature. It seems oddly premature to review the career of a poet who is still very much alive and writing poetry, yet he was part of a dominant mode that was particularly Canadian, that emerged in the fifties, and became extremely popular in the sixties and seventies. It was a poetry that was plain spoken, emotionally vulnerable, anecdotal, both sincere and robust in its accounting of human suffering and personal pain, yet able at its best to contain excess in the poise of the ironic turn. This mode of poetry, as it became popular, was practiced in every corner of Canada by a plethora of poets, many of them very good, but the figures of this tradition who will be identified as major poets must include Milton Acorn, Alden Nowlan, Robert Gibbs, Al Purdy, Gary Geddes, Lorna Crozier, and Patrick Lane.
A reader of Lane’s Collected Poems will immediately notice that I am focusing on a signature achievement that features the first half of his oeuvre, and, as new types of poetics developed in the eighties, nineties, and the twenty-first century, so also has Lane’s poetry evolved. He is a remarkably flexible poet. Perhaps it is appropriate that I speak of this earlier Patrick Lane, so familiar to us, in this west coast issue of The Fiddlehead, because the story of this quotidian and conversational form of poetry began in the pages of The Fiddlehead near the beginning of its history in 1945.
At the end of the war the metaphysical nature of Canadian modernism began to seem grandiose, and one can sense the exhaustion of the war in the poetry that appears in The Fiddlehead in 1945-46. No one seemed to know where Canadian poetry would go, but by the end of the forties and into the early fifties Robert Gibbs, Elizabeth Brewster, Fred Cogswell, and Alden Nowlan were finding footing in a new poetic that placed the everyday life of working people into a relaxed and flexible free verse. By the time Nowlan had won the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry for his sixth collection, Bread, Wine and Salt, in 1967, this poetic was firmly established.

It is into this context that Lane emerges, and it is clear in the first pages of Collected Poems that Lane would be a significant poet, that his harsh and unflinching realism could capture that pain and futility of violence in figures of the underclass. In “Calgary City Jail” Lane’s speaker notes that his cellmate
from the day before is gone and he recalls,
Yesterday he spent the hours
capturing roaches
in his cramped rachitic hand
and after supper
took a dented can
and smashed them all.
In the casual, short, colloquial lines it is easy to miss the crafted sound pattern of the “c” sounds and the satisfying “cramped,” “hand,” and “can,” not to mention the surprising “rachitic.” The poem is about the erasure of identity amongst the marginal: when the speaker carves his name, his cellmate laughs and points out “they’ll only paint you over.”

In “Elephants” the speaker working on a highway crew is, in his off time, carving a soap elephant “for the Indian boy / who lives in the village a mile back / in the bush.” The poem is structured around a bitter cultural irony. The boy asks what an elephant is and the speaker talks of the elephant graveyard. The boy speaks of his people’s ancient burial ground, and how it is now lost under the new highway.

Lane’s poems contain a subtlety of moods, from the aloof detachment framed by the distance of the speaker as observer to a profound tenderness given to the worn-out men and women who are the typical focus of his poems. Some of Lane’s most deeply felt tenderness is for animals that are the victims of human brutality or indifferent violence. It is as if Lane sees in animals a creatureliness that reminds us that humans are also animals. One can see this in “Wild Horses,” “Because I Never Learned,” “Last Night in Darkness,” and “A Murder of Crows.” The violence, however, is matched by affiliation and need, as it appears in the opening of “Winterkill”: “I know in the coldest corner of the land / my death is written with the same hand / that holds the skinning knife.”
The world of Lane’s poetry is very much a male world. One recognizes it in the names of the poets of this tradition to whom I have alluded: Acorn, Gibbs, Nowlan, Purdy, and Geddes. Russell Brown and Donna Bennett in their introduction to Collected Poems seem to wish to deflect this view that his poetry is “tough, and masculine,” but it strikes me that the interesting question is what Lane makes of masculinity. It is very true that the pairing of “tough” and “masculine” cannot sum up Lane’s work. There is a poem that Margaret Atwood selected for The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English called “If,” which I have not found in the Collected. In this poem the speaker compares a dying woman in Tijuana fucking a burro for money to the cold dismissal of a woman the speaker no longer wants. The poem concludes, “I am obscene. / I am one of those who laughed / when the burro dropped her on the floor.” An extraordinary brutality is equated with masculinity in this poem, but so is a desperate collapse of ego in a desire to escape pain: “If I could choose a last vision / it would be the dream of the knife, / the dream of the death of pain.”

The poem Lane dedicates to Atwood, “As It Is with Birds and Bulls,” has as its scene a cockfight, and it opens with a classic depiction of phallic ego and bloodlust: “Having left their women in the dust / outside the sanctuary of the pit / the men, gambling on the bloodline / of bird, hunch with their cocks.” It might almost read “with their cocks in their hands.” The third stanza, however, portrays a much more complex conception of masculinity.
I gamble on the smaller bird
because it is afraid.
Survival lies in the death you make
believe. As it is with birds and bulls
so with men. They do not hate what they are
they hate what they cannot be.
The men gamble and the birds fight not from arrogance, but from fear and the desperation to survive. What men are, presumably, is afraid of death and the inability to provide for their families, but what they cannot be is less clear — tough? courageous? gentle? loving?

The masculinity in Lane’s poems, the masculinity of working class and marginal men, is one where men take terrible risks to survive, and the consequences of the violence in the work can be terrifying. In “Just Living” a man loses his hand to a saw. By the time he has healed and returned he has lost his wife and children, as well as his job, there being no work for a man with a stump. The poem ends with a painful, distancing detachment on the part of the speaker: “And Claude, the boss, didn’t want him there. You can see why.”
Pain is the pivot point for tone in Lane’s poems. It can be delivered with lyric ferocity, with celebratory beauty, or remote irony, and these tones balance each other throughout his best poems. All three of these tones are adjacent to each other in the conclusion of “For Ten Years,” which makes it an excellent example of how Lane juxtaposes tone for structural rigour.
His beak was a crust of ice
that melted as you breathed.
When I threw him away, he didn’t fly.
That country of snow we lived in
was a cushion for owls to walk on.
Birds don’t understand windows.
They never did.
Lane can depict violence in graphic detail like no other poet I can think of, but to end this poem with the crust of ice would be melodramatic. To end with the snow as a cushion for owls would be bizarrely gnomic and sentimental. In his afterword Lane mentions speaking the last two lines after seeing a bird dead from flying into a window. It was Seymour Mayne who exclaimed them to be a poem. But the almost flippant irony of these two lines does not make a poem without the counterpoised lines before them.

The way Lane approached poetry in the sixties, seventies, and into the eighties became his own supple and unique contribution to the realist tradition that captured the Canadian imagination from the late forties onwards. Where Lane went from there and where he is now, I confess, I haven’t fully thought through. Brown and Bennett offer a suggestion on this question in their introduction: Lane moves to greater simplicity and a tone of reverence for nature and the gentle beauty to be found in human life. “And having confronted so much darkness and emptiness in his early years, Lane increasingly turned his gaze elsewhere to focus on overlooked loveliness.” I think everyone reading Lane’s Collected Poems will sense a shift from the early to the later poems, but one continuity Lane adheres to is his passion and clarity in observing everyday life in a language that is forceful and plain. His poetry is, as a good friend of mine would say, “about something.”


Ross Leckie is the editor of The Fiddlehead

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