Introduction

Hidden Rooms:
Early Canadian Women Poets


 

To edit an anthology is to set forth a constellation of related (and relative) literary judgments in historical terms.
–Jerome McGann, "Literary Pragmatics and the Editorial Horizon"

Defining the perimeters of an anthology is one of the most challenging tasks facing an editor; every decision that one makes has far-reaching theoretical and practical implications. In order to illuminate some of the choices that shaped this anthology, I will tell the tale of the title, working backwards from the end.

Poets

Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when
caught and tangled in a woman's body?

                                                                            –Virginia Woolf

Restricting an anthology to a single conventional genre appears to undermine the principle of inclusiveness which is "now a characteristic orientation of revisionist 'literary' history and feminist scholarship" (Martin 3), and yet it is one area of early Canadian women's writing in need of rescue. In recent years, much effort has been dedicated to "re(dis)covering" the [Page xvii] work of Canadian literary foremothers who have all but disappeared from Canadian literary history, a process traced by Carole Gerson in her seminal article, "Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers." Because of the dedicated work of "feminist literary archaeologists" (to use Gerson's phrase), many of the silenced have again been given a voice; however, much of the recovery work that has been undertaken so far, has been directed to fiction, perhaps because we have entered what Donna Bennett identifies as "the period when poetry and fiction have exchanged canonical importance" (142), a point which Gerson also makes (64). Poetry was "the dominant form of 'literary' writing in Canada until the 1920s and remained the most valued form long after" (Bennett 141), but this is no longer the case, a fact that works against early Canadian women poets in two ways. At a time when poetry was most valued, they were forced by patriarchal and practical pressures into marginalized or less prestigious types of writing such as fiction, children's literature, and journalism. And now, any effort to recover their poetry is exacerbated by the shift in canonical priorities.
    With a few exceptions, the twelve women represented in this anthology enjoyed considerable popular and critical success during their lifetimes, being variously championed by some of leading poets of their day including Archibald Lampman, Charles G. D. Roberts, D. C. Scott, E.J. Pratt, Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell. Of the nearly 50 books of poetry published by these women, not one remains in print, and many are only available in non-circulating rare book archives or on microfilm. In addition, some of their best work appeared in the even less accessible form of one-time publication in journals and newspapers. This anthology, then, is one attempt to open the door to a hitherto hidden room of early Canadian literature.
    One could argue that some of these women are not poets at all; indeed Moodie, Leprohon, and Machar are better recognized for their prose, and many of the others took an interdisciplinary approach which included visual art and music, as well as a variety of literary forms. Their poetry nonetheless provides a significant glimpse into their talents and concerns, and marks them as forerunners in the strong Canadian tradition of writers who operate successfully in more than one genre. [Page xviii]

Women

I looked it over, and something more than surprise seized me,--a deep conviction that these were not common effusions, nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear, they had also a peculiar music--wild, melancholy, and elevating.
                                            -Charlotte Bronte, on her sister Emily's verse
                                            "Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell"

Louise Bogan speaks of turning down the "pretty job" of editing "an anthology of female verse' because "the thought of corresponding with a lot of female songbirds made [her] acutely ill" (86). However, specialized anthologies of all sorts are a way to get forgotten or undiscovered material into the hands of readers so that a new sorting and shifting may begin. The women in this anthology did not want to be dismissed as mere "poetesses" because, as Germaine Greer writes in Slip-Shod Sibyls, "to pin a tail to the word 'poet' is to anchor it to earth, to condemn it to less than best" (37). In 1923, Katherine Hale wrote: "Isabella Valancy Crawford was never a "poetess," and perhaps her work refutes the theory that to have great artists there must be great audiences" (107). The fact that the poets in the anthology often came to one another's defence confirms the "importance of sorority and collegiality to female writers in Canada" (9) to which Sandra Campbell and Lorraine McMullen draw attention in their introduction to Aspiring Women: Short Stories by Canadian Women 1880-1900.
    These women do not restrict themselves to "feminine" or "domestic" topics but address, with innovative vigour, the themes and subjects then challenging their male counterparts including the hinterland experience of "going North." Women become active partners in the northern experience, eager to unite past and future through creation and procreation. Repeatedly, the pioneering women of these poems are presented as warriors wielding their songs like swords. It is true, as Francess Halpenny points out, that "their eyes were not ours" (46) and that what might be interpreted as sentimentality, derivativeness, or strong religious feeling makes some of the poetry less appealing to modern readers, but there is much that startles with its continuing relevance. The emancipatory strategies they attempt in their work are many and subversive, though often deeply encoded. Deciphering the codes and unmasking the disguises is part of the excitement of making old work new. [Page xix]

Canadian

this is a country
where a man can die
    
                        simply from being
caught outside.

-Alden Nowlan,
"Canadian January Night"

"Canadian," as we have discovered in the thirteen decades since Confederation, is a complex, often vexed, adjective, particularly when applied to the early period of our history. In selecting the poets for this anthology I have tried for geographic representation: Hensley from the Maritimes; Bowman, Leprohon, and Harrison, from Quebec; Moodie, Crawford, Machar, Wetherald, and Hale from Ontario; Dalton and Pickthall from the West. Johnson's poetry, like the travels necessitated by her career, ranges from one end of the country to the other. However, what does one do with authors who were born in Canada, but lived much of their lives elsewhere, or were born elsewhere and lived their creative years here?
    To be entirely accurate, the title of the anthology should indicate "in English" as do many Canadian anthologies. I reluctantly decided against using translations because, as John Glassco, editor of The Poetry of French Canada in Translation, points out, translation where it exists has "always been capricious and sporadic" (xvii). Also, though the work of Pauline Frechette and Blanche Lamontagne is mentioned in "Suggestions for Further Reading," I have not yet discovered a poetic counterpart of the French Canadian novelist Laure Conan. Similar difficulties attend the work of Native poets working in aboriginal languages, though it is hoped that the work of Pauline Johnson will serve to represent the First Nations. The decision to include more work by fewer poets has meant that poetry by women such as Constance Lindsay Skinner, L.M. Montgomery, and Isabel Ecclestone Mackay had to be excluded. I see this project not as a destination, but only as one stop along the way that will encourage readers to look at these poets with new eyes, and to bring forward other names to join them. [Page xx]

Early

Re-vision--the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction--is for women more than a chapter in cultural history; it is an act of survival.
                    -Adrienne Rich, "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision."

The charts that appear with Gerson's article, "Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women Writers," confirm that the early days of Canadian poetry were dominated by the Confederation Group: Charles G.D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman, and D.C. Scott. These men deserve the acclaim they have garnered, but poetry was also being written by women-- determined professionals intent upon contributing to an emerging vision of Canada and illuminating the margin as a magical place. In her introduction to Re(Dis)covering Our Foremothers, Lorraine McMullen writes that "Canadian literary history will be read very differently when women are re-inscribed in its roles for the women express a different vision of Canada and Canadian experience than is conventionally held" (2). This anthology is one part of the effort to "re-inscribe" the visionary voices of women with an understanding of the self-replicating quality of anthologies and the hope that the most worthy of this material may eventually find its way into the mainstream. Jerome McGann describes the "broadening of the poetic franchise" as "an imperative scholarly task, particularly at this time when certain narrow and even imperial concepts of writing and culture are once again seeking to define the limits of what is best and culturally possible" (16).
    Having said this, how does one mark the division between "early" and "late" in Canadian women's writing? Several anthologists have used 1914 to mark a new era in Canadian consciousness, and undoubtedly World War One did forever change the way Canadian men and women saw themselves. If the publication in 1923 of E.J. Pratt's Newfoundland Verse can be seen as "a turning-point for Canadian literary history" (Brown 283), the publication five years later of Dorothy Livesay's first book Green Pitcher can be seen as the opening of a new chapter for women's poetry in Canada. Rosemary Sullivan, in her Introduction to Poetry by Canadian Women, acknowledges the importance of Livesay's role, but places the coming of age of women's poetry in Canada into the forties and fifties with the work of P.K. Page whose first book As Ten as Twenty was published in 1946. Both Livesay and Page are well represented in contemporary anthologies, so Hidden Rooms is accordingly devoted to women of previous [Page xxi] generations. Though the writing careers of some of the women extended well into the twentieth century, they all came of age in the nineteenth (the youngest, Marjorie Pickthall, was 17 at the turn of the century). Living as they did in tumultuous times of tremendous change for women, for Canadians, and for poetry itself, their work reveals shifts in form and theme. Transitional work can be prone to unevenness, and their material is no exception, and yet women's poetry in Canada would not be what it is today without their contribution. The exact lines of influence need to be more fully explored. As Woolf explains, with women as with men, it is by "drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners" (112) that the poet is born.


Hidden Rooms

a room
disguised as a non-room
a secret space

I am showing it to you
fearful you may not
guess its importance

        -P.K. Page,
         "The Hidden Room"

The title for the anthology was originally "Herself at War," a line from Hale's poem "Poetesses." Though not one of the strongest in the anthology, the poem and the phrase articulate the changes then occurring in the lives and writing of women. Addressing both her foremothers and her own early writings, Hale writes, "You were a thing so feminine / That even of war you sang in tender notes. / But now another one has come, / Who is herself at war." I was struck by this attempt to express the transition from songstress to warrior, Penelope to Odysseus, but also by the syntactical ambiguity of the phrase "herself at war" which describes both a figure who is learning to fight, and one who is experiencing internal conflict. Hale completes the stanza with the image of women's songs as swords with which they "mean to cut tradition." Hale's choice of verb is significant; the many meanings of "cut" demand several pages of the dictionary: to wound, to excise, to pass through, to reduce, to rebuke, to re-tailor, to castrate, to dilute, to surpass, and so on. Nonetheless, some of the early readers of the [Page xxii] anthology objected to the title "Herself at War" as misleading, indicating that it implied an anthology of war poetry. There are certainly war poems, Crawford's "War," Hensley's "Courage," Hale's "The New Joan," Pickthall's "Marching Men," but most are poems of peace and passion and place.
    To prevent confusion, it seemed worthwhile to change the title. I first considered "Fire-flowers" from the title of Johnson's poem about the wild flower that hides the fire-scarred landscape "with almost human hands." The oxymoron of the title signals the healing potential of poetry, an area where Native poets especially, according to Daniel David Moses, can teach us much (xxiv), and also echoes the thread of floral imagery that extends from one end of the anthology to the other. But the language of flowers also implies a stereotype from which many of these women were attempting to escape.
    I also considered "Unheard Niagaras," the title of a Wetherald poem which anticipates Dylan Thomas's "force that through the green fuse drives the flower...." As a peculiarly Canadian and New World icon for the sublime, Niagara seemed a fitting symbol for the thunder of poems that somehow remained unheard and unseen. And yet in a sonnet such as Harrison's "Niagara in Winter," we see a woman struck dumb by the cataract's power to "entice,/ Enchain, and enchant..." Rather than be silenced by "such awful majesty" she seeks instead to redeem a gentler idiom, to justify poems of the homefront as well as of the frontier.
    I came at last to the title of a poem by Crawford, "The Hidden Room." It seemed fitting that Crawford should be honoured in the title since her unique voice has belatedly earned recognition for the second sex in early Canadian poetry. Functioning as "our Emily Dickinson" (Gerson 62), her continued appearance in anthologies kept the door ajar to the hidden rooms of Early Canadian women's poetry, allowing readers and scholars to enter in and remember the forgotten. In this poem she speaks, as many women writers before and after have spoken, of the way in which women's lives, their very selves, are compartmentalized. So much of them is owned by others, but she hopes for a hidden room in which she believes but is uncertain how to access. "Is it God, or man, or I who hold the key?" In the very last poem in the anthology which ends, like poems by Dickinson, with a dash, Pickthall's persona enters a room that has been shut up for the winter to find a dead bird and a stifled thought. Clearly the struggle was just beginning. [Page xxiii]
    Seven years after Pickthall's death, Virginia Woolf was to insist that having rooms of their own and the financial means to enter them was essential for women writers. And in 1997, over one hundred years after Crawford's poem was written, another Canadian woman poet, P.K. Page, was to title her Collected Poems after a poem of her own with the identical title. She enters the "secret space" when "it permits" and has even found the courage to show it to others, but is still fearful those who visit will underestimate its worth, miss its magic. The image of hidden rooms endures in the writing of Canadian women poets and in the writing of women in general. It goes backward and forward, and through and through.
    The poems that appear in the anthology are based on the latest authoritative text. Details of the first known publication in a newspaper or periodical, and the first publication in a collection follow each poem. All poems have been presented to include the complete text including authorial notes, and to approximate as far as possible, the layout of the original. Original spelling and punctuation have been retained.
    The twelve poets have been placed in chronological order according to date of birth. The selection of poetry by each poet is preceded by a headnote that presents biographical material, a brief overview of the critical reception of the poet’s work, and an indication of central concerns. Also included for each poet is a Selected Bibliography listing collections of poetry, and a selection of biographical and critical sources listed in chronological order according to date of publication. Each Bibliography is intended to serve as a Works Cited for the headnote that precedes it. As indicated above, some of these women are better known for their work in prose, but the selected bibliographies focus primarily on their poetry. 
    The anthology concludes with Explanatory Notes that explain or identify words or references that might be unfamiliar to modern readers, Some Suggestions for Further Reading which lists some additional early Canadian women poets and their collections, and Afterwords comprised of a sequence of poems that creatively reflect the editor’s engagement with the twelve poets in Hidden Rooms.   
    This anthology, like most, is heavily indebted to the many scholars who have worked in the field, and I am grateful for the visionary process they began, and hope this anthology is seen as one more step along that journey away from silence. My decisions about which poets and even which poems to include will certainly be open to question, but I can only say that I included those that spoke to me and to my students, those that reached [Page xxiv] across the years with urgency and eloquence. Greer writes that we should be aware that while attempting to reclaim women's work "we are more likely to find heroines than poets" (xxiv). I believe we find both.

 

 








 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited in the Introduction

Bennett, Donna. “Conflicted Vision: a Consideration of Canon and Genre in     English-Canadian Literature.” Canadian Canons: Essays in Literary Value.     Ed. Robert Lecker. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 131-149.

Bogan, Louise. What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan,     1920-1970. Ed. Ruth Limmer. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1973.

Bronte, Charlotte. “Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.” Wuthering     Heights. 1850. rpt. Boston: Bedford, 1992.

Brown, Russell and Donna Bennett, eds. An Anthology of Canadian Literature     in English: Volume I. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1982.

Campbell, Sandra and Lorraine McMullen, eds. Aspiring Women: Short Stories     by Canadian Women 1880-1900. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1993.

Gerson, Carole. “Anthologies and the Canon of Early Canadian Women     Writers.” Re(Dis)covering Our Foremothers. Ed. Lorraine McMullen. Ottawa:     U of Ottawa P, 1990. 55-76.

Glassco, John. The Poetry of French Canada in Translation. Toronto: Oxford     UP, 1970.

Greer, Germaine. Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman     Poet. London: Viking, 1995.

Hale, Katherine. Isabella Valancy Crawford. Toronto: Ryerson, 1923.

Halpenny, Francess. “Problems and Solutions in the Dictionary of Canadian     Biography, 1800-1900.” Re(Dis)covering Our Foremothers. Ed. Lorraine     McMullen. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1990. 37-48.

Martin, Randall, ed. Women Writers in Renaissance England. London:     Longman, 1997.

McGann, Jerome. “Literary Pragmatics and the Editorial Horizon.” Devils and     Angels: Textual Editing and Literary Theory. Ed. Philip Cohen.     Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1991. 1-21.

McMullen, Lorraine. “Introduction.” Re(Dis)covering Our Foremothers. Ed.     Lorraine McMullen. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1990. 1-4.

Moses, Daniel David and Terry Goldie. “Preface.” Anthology of Canadian     Native Literature in English. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1998.

Nowlan, Alan. “Canadian January Night.” Between Tears and Laughter. Toronto:     Clarke Irwin, 1971. 35. [Page xxv]

Page, P.K. The Hidden Room: Collected Poems. Vol.1. Erin, ON: Porcupine’s     Quill, 1997.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” On Lies,     Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979.     33-49.

Sullivan, Rosemary, ed. Poetry by Canadian Women. Toronto: Oxford UP,     1989.

Thomas, Dylan. The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. New York: New     Directions, 1957.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929 rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin,     1972. [Page xxvi]