Review: The Essential Anne Wilkinson edited by Ingrid Ruthig

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Selecteds are the Best Of albums of poetry. You can see why they exist, but from another, perhaps purist point-of-view, they’re a limited exercise. The real problem with Canadian selected poetry volumes is that their intended audience is vanishingly small. Perhaps I don’t care enough about Post-Punk to listen to The Cure–The Head on the Door, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Pornography, The Cure, and Disintegration–so I choose, yes, freely choose The Greatest Hits. This is an aesthetically suspect consumer move. Albeit, not worth apologizing for. If by the same token however, I have decided that I want to read Anne Wilkinson, and more than just an anthology selection’s worth of her work, enough to learn her themes and way of treating things–if I freely choose to read about fifty pages’ worth of poems & call it a day, I certainly deserve to be put out in the beaver-lodge for the night. What self-respecting poetry reader seeking Wilkinson in the first place is also satisfied with a junior chapbook’s worth of material? It is not enough to satisfy the rabid, over-sensitive, bleary-eyed, dull Canadian Content fanatic.

The edition is pretty and the editing is handy, though not groundbreaking. Porcupine’s Quill, more than other Canadian small presses–here’s looking at you, Invisible–has nice production values. In this case almost too nice, as the custom paper has horizontal variations in thickness that irk brittle myopics like myself. The endpapers are a tasteful gray and the font is maybe a crisp, possibly Bembo? Drizzled with a rosemary reduction and served on a bed of underdeveloped Anglo midcentury modernism. It’s a nice book. Like everything else that’s primarily nice, you do end up wanting contrast. Less cloying correctness, less fearful inner searching.

Wilkinson has an archetypal reputation as a chronically underappreciated, classic Canadian poet. See also P.K. Page, W.W.E. Ross, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. I don’t think the record is really straight, there. Wilkinson is read.

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The original Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson and a Prose Memoir was edited and very capably introduced by AJM Smith in 1968. Though Wilkinson died at age fifty of cancer, she was anthologized and well-received in her time. Wilkinson also founded and helped fund The Tamarack Review. No fewer than three collected editions of her work have appeared. First, the Smith book with Macmillan, then Joan Coldwell’s 1990 The Poetry of Anne Wilkinson and a Prose Memoir with Toronto’s Exile Editions, and finally Dean Irvine’s 2003 The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson with Signal Editions out of Montreal. There’s also an essay by Dr. Robert “Delicious” Lecker in Studies in Canadian Literature Volume 3, Number 1, 1978. Coldwell in particular is a thoughtful scholar of Wilkinson, whose temperament seems to fit. Her The Tightrope Walker, Wilkinson’s journals, provides context for Wilkinson’s poems that, for indulgers in biographical or zeitgeist-based readings, is indispensable. Irvine, crucial as he may be to Canlit’s transition to the internet, writes badly and did something doubly redundant.

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Ruthig’s The Essential Anne Wilkinson, then, is only essential if you are committed to experiencing Wilkinson in fifty pages or not at all. There may be those for whom this is appealing. Wilkinson’s work has been compared to Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. She felt a deep affinity with Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, Wilkinson is not as original as they are. Her preoccupations are idiosyncratic, related to close and thorough readings of Greek philosophy, English modernism, Russian novels, Proust, Jane Austen, and Rebecca West, to name a few. Wilkinson was a dedicated reader whose poetry was nourished by her reading, and by an almost tactile familiarity with inherited language whether in the form of nursery rhymes or English balladry as Ruthig explains more eloquently than I have. For example, “After the Ballad ‘Lord Randall, my son’” is a welcome take on Lord Randall, a poisoning ballad taxonomised by Francis Child in 1882, which may be the story of Ranulf, sixth Earl of Chester, who kicked it in 1232 AD. One gets the feeling from Wilkinson’s poems and her  agitating at her life, however, that she was nearing a moral transformation that didn’t occur, at least not on the page.

Wilkinson is preoccupied with the sounds of the natural world and with sensations, emotional and bodily, as she moved seasonally between family estates. In that sense she falls into a broad North American transcendentalism that has sometimes waxed old or ill-advised, but that in the main is a testament to the earnestness and intellectual probity of writers of the new world, establishing a badly-informed subschool of post-Kantian Romanticism, in which piety is expressed in an aesthetic relationship with nature. Her sense of the primacy of the living world is also grafted onto Greek natural philosophy, where one can find both the root of the search for a supreme god in nature, and the preoccupation with questions of nutrition, change, and metaphysical essence as matter cycles through living and organic states.

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Anne Wilkinson, from Coldwell’s The Tightrope Walker.

Ruthig’s new volume begins with a well-researched, beautifully written introduction to Wilkinson’s work. “For her, it was always imperative to capture by way of the senses ‘the quick and the dead’; that is, the actual living moment, as well as tradition, memory and death.” AJM Smith’s introduction to Wilkinson’s work, however, includes deeper readings of individual poems, from the privileged perspective of an admiring contemporary. “My blood sings green: this is one aspect of her poetry–it’s intimate sensuous identification with life as a growth out of the earth; and it implies a Pan-ish or Lawrencian forgetfulness of the non-living, dry, essentially irrelevant intellection of much of our routine living” Smith writes. The reference to Lawrence is especially remarkable, as her freedom of expression about gendered sexuality is indebted to Lawrence & his cultural currency at the time. Smith’s remark about intellection, on the other hand, is blind to a weakness of Montreal Modernists in general–their predilection for stacking abstract metaphors, repeatedly banging on the door of the sublime with no idea what the purpose of their visit is. Village explaining that’s good if one is a village, if not, not, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

My casual annotation of Smith’s edition for poems that seemed, I suppose, essential matches Ruthig’s almost exactly. Which is to say, The Essential Anne Wilkinson, like Best Of albums, really does represent Wilkinson’s best work. And you may not miss anything really exceptional if the only Wilkinson you read is Ruthig’s new volume. I would like to pause, however, on the third stanza of “Falconry”, which didn’t make the cut:  It’s a response to T.H. White’s The Goshawk, since reprinted by The New York Review of Books. 

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White is best known as the author of The Once and Future King, an interpretation of Mallory’s Arthur cycle, and as the subject of a fairly sad biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner. By way of introduction, here’s Wilkinson’s epigraph.

The Boke of St. Albans had laid down precisely the classes of people to whom any proper-minded member of the Falconidae might belong… the list had defined itself meticulously downward to the kestrel, and he, as a crowning insult, was allowed to belong to a mere knave–because he was useless to be trained.’

“Rather bating kestrel, I,

Than mind the fist beneath the glove.

I, a kestrel, God, the Knave–

And I will bate until I die,

And bite the leather of my jesses,

And starve before I eat His messes.

Can I do more? Sweet Knave, I’ll try.”

Wilkinson on bating: “To beat the wings impatiently and flutter away from the fist or pouch”. Bating is when a hawk on the fist tries to take off, falls, and hangs by its jesses. It’s how hawks resist domestication.

Elisabeth Gill is the editor of Encore.