The Canadian Poet's Tradition

In his title essay from A Lover’s Quarrel, Carmine Starnino impugns “the central narrative of Canadian criticism,” the one about England having an original poetic tradition while after 146 years Canada’s tradition is still a pale copy of the one owned by the former British empire. Our poems are penned in their tongue and so our colonial oppressors keep an “irrefutable Canadian self” from rising to write poems that “live in the language as pure presences.” Starnino reminds our critics that England no longer has sole ownership of English because today Canadian English “exists as a smaller, filial inflection of this larger tradition,” in which Canadian poets (and Irish, Australian and so on) “are all stowaways inside a vast, travelling, many-roomed sensibility.”

To me not even great poems of the British canon live as ‘pure presences’. In Origins of the English Language, Joseph Williams hails “one of the great intellectual achievements in the history of language” made by nineteenth-century philologists, who determined through analysis of

parallel sound patterns the fact that the Germanic languages (English, German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages), the Romance languages (Latin, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian), Greek, the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, and so on), Persian, ancient Sanskrit, and some modern languages spoken in Northern India were all descended from a hypothetical common ancestor, Indo-European.

In other words, intrinsic though largely inaudible continuities exist among dead languages and the living ones they helped create. And in which they survive. Through colonisation Canada inherited from the British a language that had formed over centuries through a confluence of others, traces of which remain in the words and grammar Canadian poets use to make poems that may be new but never pure.

Our critics who dream of pure Canadian poems ignore the nature of linguistic transmission. Canadian poets own as their tradition every memorable poem written in English and all other languages originated from a common ancestor.

Marko Sijan