A Back-to-School Reprint

This time last year, while working for Open Book Toronto as their blogger in residence, I posted the following article about the poetry (and specifically, Canadian poetry) offerings at our city’s two largest halls of learning, U of T and York. Because I recently felt the radiating dread of a newly-backpacked eleven year old while standing in line to buy office supplies, I’m thinking it’s time to rerun it. I don’t know for sure that nothing has changed in the two English departments investigated. The only news item I’m aware of on the subject is the recent shuttering of U of T’s internationally regarded Comparative Literature program. Using this as a barometer for how the year went, I’ll assume not much has improved. So, submitted with confidence, here’s a reprint of my two-part post “What the Kids are Learning”, from OpenBookToronto. Now with 2/3rds fewer spelling errors, and some abusing videos of college frivolity.

It’s the first week of September. The air is tightening up, assholes in CNE-sponsored fighter planes are buzzing my apartment in Parkdale at 8:30 in the morning, the city is as it wishes to be. And that great fall ritual of going back to school kicks into its frantic final movement. I took some time out from quietly hoping for a two-plane collision this morning to take a look at what a poetry-minded young adult could get him or herself into at Toronto’s two largest institutions of higher learning. Let’s review what the reading lists have to offer:

University of Toronto:

Ah, tradition. Ah, walking paths and mahogany and Peggy Atwood taking long strolls through the middle of soccer matches. The University of Toronto quite desperately wants to be Ontario’s, if not Canada’s, canonical hall of higher learning. So it should be incumbent upon them to provide their student body with opportunities to see the great works of our nation’s repertoire. However, the pickings this year promise to be as skinny as the jeans on this year’s crop of new freshmen.

Introductory Level: The auspiciously titled “Literature for our Time” offers a little Eliot (Prufrock and Waste Land) but nothing Canuckian, which is fair enough. First year classes are about establishing contexts, and our literature has always been something of a reaction (to England, to America, to ourselves). Freshman year is for the colonial powers, most schools give that much up at least.

Middle Levels: The second-year course “Reading Poetry” is a little more involved than the name suggests. You apparently also have to complete assignments and sit some exams. That poetry mostly comes from version four of the Norton Anthology, which has stopped many a dorm room door through the generations. The Canadian Lit Survey plays it safe with the inarguable (Lives of Girls and Women) as well as the common but inexcusable (Two Solitudes? Really? Does anyone care about this?). One section does some individual poems, but I don’t see any collections on their list. The poets studied trend old, banal, and initialled (Charles G.D. Roberts, as a representative example). Shout-outs to the cool kids are offered in the form of Coupland, Thom King, and Al Purdy.

One of the two sections of U of T’s “Contemporary Poetry” has been cancelled. I can only imagine this was because the stampede of registrants caused their computers to freeze up and destroy all the bookkeeping. The “Canadian Poetry” course has exactly who you’d expect, and seems to have escaped the riots unscathed.

Advanced Levels: Nothing specific to the Canadian Poetry scene, unfortunately. Sinclair Ross gets a class. As do Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. Imagine being the U of T English major who powers through The Waste Land in their first week of year one, then throws it away thinking: Never Again!, only to arrive for their final seminar as a serious-minded senior and be presented with the exact same text. Mmm…canonical wisdom.

Overall Grade: I don’t know what I expected, but I expected more. I went to an underfunded university at the far edge of the country, took exactly three English courses, and still got exposure to the likes of Solie and Babstock. What’s stopping the University of Toronto from doing the same?

And why is The Waste Land an introductory text, exactly? I’ve read The Waste Land ten times, and there’s still stuff in there I can’t quite wrap my head around. What is it about the instruction of poetry that makes us begin with poems that are as distant and foreign to their students as possible, and slowly move toward things like Al Purdy’s Rooms for Rent on Other Planets (English 354Y)? I’m not talking about degrees of difficulty, you understand. Al Purdy can occasionally be a very difficult poet, but he writes about a life far more coherent to a crowd of 1991 births than a Spenser or Keats or even Eliot or Pound.

That’s not to take away from the importance of establishing literature as a symptom of history, I understand that an appreciation of The Faerie Queen deepens one’s appreciation of Power Politics, but my experience says that the reverse is also true. I wouldn’t suggest we abandon a historical view of the study of poetry, but does that historical view demand a complete linear narrative? Can we not say, for example, that The Waste Land comes from a time of great ideological confusion in its author’s country, and so too does Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and Dionne Brand’s Inventory? In a curriculum that begins with contemporary Can-Con and moves to the transnational stalwarts, my fellow children of the 21st century are allowed a greater initial foothold. Compare a long poem built around the line “One year she sat at the television weeping” (Inventory) with one built around the line “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,” which, though part of something vital and engaging and incendiary, feels more like a destination than a point of departure.

We look at Canadian content in the classroom like it’s some sort of incursion by lesser works into a space set apart for the great names of the Western canon. This does a disservice both to our national literature and, not for nothing, our city’s students. Canadian literature is an essential part of a curriculum because the classes are filled with Canadians. We can talk about national literatures as mistakes of geography, but ignoring the shaping influences of borders, multiplied over centuries, is silly. The same goes for epochal recording of time, but “21st century poetry” is still a response to 21st century life. It’s a shame that books tailor-made for these introductory classes sit unconsidered in the library stacks, hoping for some bored underclassmen to happen by on a slow day and read them.

Part 2: Today we move uptown to the suburban environment of York University. I came in with some high hopes for York, it’s the kind of place where, in the first tentative weeks of September, you can hear things like, “My name’s Doug, not ‘Professor’”, where students of mixed levels can share a cheap beer or seven, and where a person might be treated to the odd requisite text they’ll enjoy. Same thing as last time, I trolled through the reading lists to find what I could find.

York University, Fall/Winter 09-10

Introductory Level: Not every section of the fall semester’s survey course had posted texts yet. One that did found time for Hunter S. Thompson, the ultimate “I assigned this so you’d know I’m the cool prof” essayist, and specific mention of the two W.C. Williams poems to be taught (The Red Wheelbarrow and This is Just to Say). I love both of those poems, but it’s a little suspect that the instructor felt the need to include them on the syllabus when they’re a combined few hundred words long and the kind of thing you memorize in grade six. Is this it for assigned poetry? Anyway, the 1000-level course for Creative Writing majors states “A small collection of exemplary poems will be assembled and distributed when classes begin.” One would assume these exemplary poems would not all be assembled from the freshmen writers’ portfolios, so there’s something.

Middle Levels: The standard second-year poetry lecture makes room for three single-author works (including Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid) before giving way to the Norton, version five. The CanLit seminar includes works from ten authors. Grab a pen and try to write down their names. Eight-five percent of you just got all ten right.

Meanwhile, a course on modern-age Canadian poetry does the Geddes (15 Canadian poets) and Thesen (long poem) anthologies. I looked for a reading list for the “Intro to Creative Writing” class, and couldn’t find one. I hope there is one, if any class should be weighed down with an overabundance of required reading, it’s an introductory creative writing course. I can say that York does a nice job of jumping into thematic and critical concerns fairly early, instead of front-loading their curriculum with surveys along the usual national and chronological boundaries. There’s interesting stuff on the coming-of-age narrative and apocalyptic fiction as early as year two. There’s also a junior-level course on Italian-Canadian literature that’s full of good stuff, including Pier Giorgio DiCiccio’s anthology, Roman Candles.

Senior Levels: The trend towards cross-genre study continues here, and a couple of the seminars they come up with look good enough to eat. A whole course on “the concept of play”? Really? Where do I sign up?

Also, there’s an impressive five (!) shout-outs to the slumping relics of our petty nationalisms. One’s an intense study of four specific contemporary Canadian writers that manages to pick the only four writers a typical English senior can pretty much guarantee a knowledge of anyway: Findley, Urquhart, Atwood, and York U favourite Michael Ondaatje. Another contemporary lit. course does two of these four and also the likes of Andre Alexis, Dionne Brand, and Daniel Jones. A Canadian-specific class on “Life Writing” mentions no set reading list, so I can at least hold out hope for the Bret Hart biography being included. The Canadian Short Story seminar has an impressive list of Quebec writers you won’t see anywhere else in the city. The most exciting of the five is a seminar on the History of Canadian Publishing, which fulfills honours prerequisites in the fields of tragedy, farce, and satire, all at once.

Final Grades: This is definitely a deeper list of Canadian talent than downtown at U of T, and while that talent mostly writes prose, it’s still an improvement. I can’t find fault with York’s commitment to CanLit that isn’t systemic to the entire country. Sure, most of these Canadian-focused courses are upper-year electives, and a person could likely snake through the required courses without getting their hands too dirty, but after the sobering experience of plumbing U of T’s website, I’ll take what I can get.

Still, it’s confusing to me that Canadian Literature, and specifically Canadian Poetry, is something many students are introduced to only after a long slog through other traditions and contextual markers. Maybe this idea I keep hearing (and spouting) of our national literature being a series of reactions to trans-national trends is a product of it being introduced only after those trends have been fully cemented in the minds of its audience. I don’t want to just chock this all up to 1970’s “cultural inferiority complex” stuff, because I feel like we’re beyond that and when it comes to our immediate neighbours to the south, our biggest obstacle to get over is our sense of cultural superiority, not inferiority.

Anyway, I don’t have any answers, and I’m not in charge. I would suggest this, though: a cultural education that begins with the arms-length world of contemporary, national (even local) authors, and expands out with an ear to historical order, but isn’t beholden to it, would create a qualitatively different kind of scholar than one that positions our nation’s literature at the end of a long list of titles defined by their growing newness. This would provide for something more approximating a national paradigm, and if there’s one thing this country doesn’t have enough of, it’s national paradigms.

Sipping maple syrup from an igloo shaped like beavers,

Explore posts in the same categories: Canadian Literature, Poems in the Wider World, Poetry Education

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