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Cathia Jenainati's session

Selected 20thc. Canadian Poetry in English

The reading for this session will be distributed in week 1 during the normal seminar time. The selection of Canadian Poetry in English included was chosen with the aim of foregrounding and illustrating two recurrent concerns in contemporary Canadian poems: the relationship of the poet to language and the relationship of the individual to the Canadian landscape.

Since the early 19thc., Canadian writers—poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists and academics—have attempted to define Can. Lit. and establish its “canon”. From a literary—political, economic and socio-cultural—perspective, Canadahas long suffered from a crisis of identity mainly due to its close geographic proximity to the US and its historical and cultural ties to Europe (Britain, France, Scotland, Germany, Italy). As a result, Canadian identity experienced and resisted the vertical pull towards its aggressive neighbour and the horizontal pull towards its motherland(s). The struggle to characterize Canadian Literature and establish its difference from the “Western Canon” translated into powerful works of criticism, fiction and poetry.

Canada’s mosaic of cultures model informed the choice of both form and themes of its poets. Ethnic voices which carried and expressed particular cultural, religious and political stances imbued Canadian poetry with distinctive features. Yet, these multiple subjectivities also contributed to creating a Canadian collective consciousness which celebrates and thrives on its myriad of selves.     

Nowadays, Can. Lit. is recognized as an academic discipline both in the Anglophone and Francophone literature departments around the world. Canadian poets write less about their identity as Canadian and more about what it means to be a poet in Canada. In addition, the peculiar relationship of the individual to the Canadian landscape—which was a recurrent motif in the early writings of 19thc. settlers—still informs many contemporary poems.   

During the seminar we will

  1. Discuss the essays by Henry Wells and Eli Mandel (posted on the right hand side of this page)
  2. Relate their ideas to the selection of poems and essays. We will attempt to understand the manner in which the (a) Relationship of the poet to language (b) Relationship of the individual to the Canadian landscape are delineated.

I hope you find these poems stimulating. Although they are by no means illustrative of the range and diversity of Canadian Poetry, I have chosen them because they constitute a useful starting point for our understanding of this body of writing.


List of poems in Handout:

A.M. Klein, "Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga" (1948)

Earl Birney, "Bushed" (1952) and "Can. Lit." (1962)

Irving Layton, "The Fertile Muck" (1956) and "From Colony to Nation" (1956)

Al Purdy, "Eskimo Graveyard" (1967), "Arctic Rhododendrons" (1967) and "Lament for the Dorsets" (1968)

Gwendolyn MacEwen, "The Discovery" (1969)

Margaret Atwood, "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer" (1968) and "Death of a Young Son by Drowning" (1970) 



Required Reading 


selection of poems (PDF Document)


critical essays 

Essay by Eli Mandel 

Essay by Henry Wells