Five poet-thinkers redefine our relationship to nature
There’s an ecological renaissance under way in Canada right now, but chances are you haven’t heard of it, because it is flowering in one of the most ignored and feared regions of the high arts: poetry. Its chief proponents — Robert Bringhurst, Dennis Lee, Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, and Jan Zwicky, all major Canadian poets — have together earned around a dozen nominations for Governor General’s Literary Awards, in addition to numerous other accolades, such as the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. As rewarding as their work is, it has yet to be discovered by a wider audience.
These poets ask foundational questions about how we perceive and think and relate to non-human nature, questions that encourage us to look beyond the language of sustainability and reconsider the basic facts of our very existence. Instead of Northrop Frye’s iconic “Where is here?” they ask, “What is here?” and “How to be here?” To them, a livable future depends on more than simply taking the blue box to the curb; it means tackling the difficult work of crawling out from under a constricting account of reality.
As poets, they remain hard to categorize or classify. They aren’t a school of poetry, or a movement conforming to a particular aesthetic stance. There is no manifesto or program, no chief ideologue, no overarching theory. Their poetry isn’t “ecological” because they refer to sharp-shinned hawks or bird’s nest lichen. Complicating matters, they continually refer to a number of disparate philosophical traditions that are largely forgotten in the West — presocratic Greek thought, the wisdom of Taoist and Buddhist Asia, native North American oral literature, medieval Christian mysticism — along with classical musicians, continental philosophers, and even Bob Dylan. Reading them is, in short, akin to learning Chinese: deeper understanding requires knowledge of a web of cultural references and intellectual ancestors.
What brings them together? Consider the titles of Lilburn’s two anthologies, which introduce them as a group, Poetry and Knowing (1995) and Thinking and Singing (2002), or Zwicky’s 2003 book Wisdom and Metaphor, titles that suggest that these poets are really “poet-thinkers.” While they are all university educated and philosophically engaged, this doesn’t mean that they simply cut and paste complex ideas from discursive prose into verse. Each of them has stumbled onto a way of writing that can be said to think poetically through a dance of ideas, images, sounds, and feelings that enact connectedness; each, according to critic Stan Dragland, “would say that their thinking is purest when it takes the form of poetry.”
This is a major undertaking. They have broken through a rigid division in Western thought that has effectively kept thinking and singing separate from each other for hundreds of years. We’ve come to associate thinking, for example, with such legitimate, muscular vocations as mathematics and scientific investigation. Singing, on the other hand, has been shackled to all that is considered secondary to the ascent of the rational mind: values, emotions, ethics, beliefs. The thinking and singing poets, as we might call them, have orchestrated something of a family reunion between literature siblings separated for centuries.
What they do with this speculative mode of thought distinguishes them from other philosophical poets, and qualifies their efforts as uniquely Canadian. They use poetry to think, along with the textures and rhythms, complicated histories, and subterranean energies of particular places: the family farm Zwicky grew up on in northwestern Alberta; Lee and Toronto; McKay and the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Avalon Peninsula. Working with the multiple resonances of words, the binding properties of metaphor, and other resources available to poets but off limits to prose writers, they emulate the nature of interconnectedness on the page. If the earth is undergoing constant change and transformation, moving like a river through time, then the poet-thinker needs to build what Robert Bringhurst calls “kayaks” of thought to keep up with it; some “lithe, open, agile, portable structures,” not bulky “steamships and apartment blocks of belief.” Following this hunch has led the thinking and singing poets to a number of radical innovations in poetry.
Early one July morning, Don McKay and I make our way through the heavy fog rolling in off the Pacific to the turnoff of the West 100, an old logging road about an hour and a half outside Victoria. This is the setting of the poems of Strike/Slip, winner of the 2007 Griffin Poetry Prize, as well as of essays from Deactivated West 100 (2005).
Now sixty-six years old, McKay is the craggy face of Canadian poetry. He headlines innumerable poetry workshops, readings, and literary festivals from coast to coast, living the dilemma between promoting the craft and supporting younger talent through editorial work while securing for himself enough solitude to read and write.
The West 100 is in bad shape, its surface covered in craters and choked with salmonberry bushes that scrape the sides of the vehicle as we ease our way along. When a particularly treacherous pothole opens up in front of us, we continue on foot, pushing through the underbrush to Loss Creek Valley. We hop our way from rock to rock onto exposed riverbed. A massive clear-cut looms overhead, the valley slope scraped bare as if by a mudslide.
McKay feels compelled to face such landscapes head on, unusual for a self-defined “nature poet.” He is looking for a kind of nature that cannot be reduced to provincial parks or conservation areas, one that may persist even in this clear-cut.