Whenever we publish a new volume in the Essential Poets Series, it begs the question, “Why include this poet in the series?” or “What makes him or her ‘essential’ in the context of Canadian poetry?” Today, our guest blogger James Pollock—author of You Are Here and editor of The Essential Daryl Hine—attempts to answer that question with a personal reflection on the work of Daryl Hine.
My first encounter with Daryl Hine’s poetry came in the pages of Margaret Atwood’s 1983 anthology, The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. I see by a faded sticker on the back that I must have bought my copy at a Lichtman’s Books in Toronto while I was a student at York University in the early 90s, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when I was a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Houston, that I felt the urgent need, not to browse, but to read it straight through.
In Texas, I was surrounded by aspiring American poets with a strong sense of an American tradition in poetry, beginning in earnest with Whitman and Dickinson. Much as I loved American poetry myself, I felt, as a Canadian, a terrible lack in myself of any comparable poetic tradition from my own country. The names of the few Canadian poets I both new and liked—P.K. Page, Jay Macpherson, Irving Layton—drew nothing but blank looks from my classmates and (extremely well-read) professors. I determined to make a systematic search, and plunged into Atwood’s anthology, only to find the first hundred pages a disheartening slog, relieved only briefly by E.J. Pratt’s best poem, “The Truant.”
Out of my growing desperation, I must have started skimming the table of contents, looking for something interesting ahead, and stumbled on the title of Hine’s poem, “A Bewilderment at the Entrance of the Fat Boy into Eden.” When I turned to the poem itself I realized I had read the first of its four sonnets before, in the same book, back in Toronto, and that I had liked it better than anything else I’d found in that anthology in my idle browsing; but that I had neglected to mark the page, and lost it, and couldn’t find it again, having forgotten the poet’s name and the title of the poem. So now I felt the excitement of rediscovery, and, as I read, the pleasure of reading a poet in a higher league, a poet with a much more sophisticated imagination and rhetorical and prosodic technique and range of diction than nearly all of the other poets I had encountered in that anthology:
Not knowing where he was or how he got there,
Led by the gentle sessions of his demons,
Now in the right and now in the left ear,
The fat boy trod ungarlanded in Eden.
Granted, the other three sonnets in what I later learned was a very early sequence weren’t as strong as the first, and the other Hine poems Atwood had selected weren’t as good either; nevertheless, I was ready to read this poet, if only I could get my hands—in that dark age before the internet—on his books.
Imagine my surprise and delight when I found two volumes of his poems in a used bookstore in Houston. Each had just been published a few years earlier, Postscripts in 1990 and In & Out: A Confessional Poem in 1987, and the publisher was Knopf, no less. The books came with warm recommendations from the likes of Northrop Frye and James Merrill and Anthony Hecht, writers I admired. How was it that there was a Canadian poet being published at the time by the foremost poetry publisher in the United States, and no one in Toronto where I was studying creative writing had so much as mentioned his name?
So, what had I found? Once I had tracked down all his books of poems, and read them all from cover to cover, I realized I had found the strongest Canadian poet of his generation, and one of the strongest Canadian poets of the twentieth century. Having just read, and been thoroughly persuaded by, Timothy Steele’s argument for the power of metrical verse in contemporary poetry— in his 1990 book Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter—I was excited to find a compatriot who was so much more sophisticated and skilled in his prosody than any other Canadian poet I knew, even Jay Macpherson. And his knowledge of and engagement with such a wide range of poetic traditions—ancient Greek and Latin, Spanish baroque, Elizabethan, French, American—revealed him as a true cosmopolitan, a perfect antidote to the literary provincialism I’d winced at in so much Canadian poetry. It was true that some of his poems were better than others; and on the evidence of his 1981 volume of Selected Poems, he wasn’t an ideal chooser of his own best work. But that just meant he needed a good editor. I made careful note, as I read, of which poems of his I thought were best, on the chance that some day I’d have a chance to edit a volume of his selected poems.
We are lucky to have benefited from James Pollock’s careful notes! The Essential Daryl Hine offers a judicious selection of the work of a poetic virtuoso, long celebrated for his learned wit, formal and rhetorical mastery, and cosmopolitan sensibility. Read more about the book, and get your copy here.
JAMES POLLOCK is the author of Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award in Poetry, runner-up for the Posner Poetry Book Award, and winner of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association; and You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012), a finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award for a collection of essays. He grew up in Woodstock, Ontario, studied English literature and creative writing at York University in Toronto, and earned a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. He is a professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he teaches poetry writing, Canadian culture, and modern and contemporary American poetry. He lives with his wife and son in Madison, Wisconsin.