Tuesday, 18 March 2014

What is Can. Lit.?

Just as there's always much talk, talk, talk about what a Canadian is (my favourite definition, which is, I think, attributable to Pierre Berton: "A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe"), there is also always considerable ink spilled regarding what Can. Lit. is, regarding what the lit. of here is - what it is and what it ought to be.

For what it's worth, here's my own go-to definition: Canadian Literature is anything that Margaret Atwood can read aloud in that dry voice of hers without straining her vocal chords.

Put the definition to the test. Open up any Canadian anthology and imagine M.A. reading the pieces aloud. If it's easily imagined, then you've got yourself some prime Canadian Literature there.  And you can easily imagine Atwood reading, say, Irving Layton's "The Swimmer," albeit with some irony in her voice.  Or Leonard Cohen's "I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries." Or all of Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came over the Mountain."  You can easily imagine her reading Ondaatje's poem "The White Dwarfs" (though perhaps less so "The Cinnamon Peeler," which might be a reason for not including it in further anthologies). And on and on it goes.

This isn't meant to diss Atwood.  I'm having a bit of gentle fun with her, yes. But she is a treasure - and I mean that. She has written a body of work that has helped to define Canadian Literature and Canadian culture, a task she took on almost single-handedly.  Her work can be uneven, but the best of it is worth going back to and paying close attention to.  And there is something in the tone of her work - like her voice - which seems quintessentially Canadian.  A certain dryness of tone, a certain flatness - a certain suspicion regarding excess and exuberance - that typifies so much Canadian literature, at least the lit. that gets taught in universities.

After all, can you imagine Atwood reading Hopkin's "God's Grandeur" or Pound's "Usura" canto aloud? E.E.Cummings aloud? Dylan Thomas? And you can't imagine any of these writers or their poetry coming from Canada, can you?  In short, why is that? How did our national tone become so flat, dry, clipped?    

No comments:

Post a Comment