Nicholas Bradley
"The Whole Storm of Mortal Conflict: Robin Skelton and West Coast Literature"

In his introduction to Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest (Washington, 1964), Robin Skelton suggests that poetic representations of “rivers, mountains, and islands” demonstrate the sublime “authority of the natural world.” The strangeness and grandeur of nature, he proposes, compel writers and readers to recognize the struggle for survival in which all living things are engaged: “The whole storm of mortal conflict,” he writes, “is made immediately vivid to us by the contemplation of the dead whale’s jelly eye.” Skelton also claims that the natural world exerts a particularly powerful effect on the literature of the region to which the book’s title refers. In Five Poets, he gathers works by American poets Kenneth O. Hanson, Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, William Stafford, and David Wagoner. He does not propose that landscape alone determines regional identity—“Those aspects of his environment which most affect a poet…may be linguistic and sociological as well as geographical and botanical”—but he characterizes Pacific Northwest poetry as generally and significantly influenced by the environmental conditions of the region: “Some poets have gone directly to the sea, the rivers, the forests, and the mountains for their imagery; others have avoided direct description; all, however, appear to have had the sense of place imprinted firmly upon their sensibilities.”

The existence of a link between geography and writing is vitally important to Skelton’s conception of regional literature. The “sense of place” that he detects guides his several efforts to define and describe the literature of the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada, among them an issue of The Malahat Review (July 1969) devoted to “Twelve Poets of the Pacific Northwest,” including Hugo, Susan Musgrave, and Charles Lillard. That issue extends the boundaries of the Pacific Northwest into Canada; Skelton uses the terms “Pacific Northwest” and “West Coast” casually, at times referring to Canada and the U.S. together and at others to either one of the countries. But his various projects, when considered together, suggest that he perceived the West Coast, from southern Alaska to Oregon, as a unified literary region. His remarks about B.C. writing are nearly identical to those he made about American Northwest literature. Skelton later edited Six Poets of British Columbia (Sono Nis, 1980) which contains works by Lillard, Ken Cathers, Leona Gom, Theresa Kishkan, Rona Murray, and Harold Rhenisch. In this book, too, Skelton asserts the tremendous importance of the province’s landscapes to its literature, claiming that “the great majority” of British Columbian poets “cannot help exploring the theme of man’s relationship…to the land and the sea.” He maintains that B.C. literature is necessarily different from writing from Toronto and Montreal, the Canadian cities in contrast to which he defines a western regional sensibility.

Skelton’s anthologies were not the first to identify the Pacific coast as a literary region. Yvor Winters edited two collections of poetry, Twelve Poets of the Pacific (New Directions, 1937) and Poets of the Pacific (Stanford, 1949), whose titles imply a regional sensibility. They are not, however, representative regional collections. They collect “the best poets to appear at Stanford,” where Winters taught. Unlike these anthologies, Skelton’s books insist that West Coast literature is inextricably linked to the local environment. His vision of a Pacific regional literature is thus more closely aligned with that of William Everson, whose Archetype West (Oyez, 1976) characterized the West Coast as a site of extremity and conflict, a locus whose genius was singularly expressed by Robinson Jeffers, in whose poems the coast is a tragic, beautiful place where the force of “the wild God of the world” is deeply felt (Cawdor and Other Poems, Liveright, 1928).

Skelton’s insistence on the importance of environment is again apparent in a special issue of The Malahat Review devoted to the “West Coast Renaissance” (January 1978) that he edited with Lillard. The issue, the first of three on this theme published over four years, is a canonizing project that, like Five Poets of the Pacific Northwest and Six Poets of British Columbia, asserts the existence of a notable, accomplished regional literature and seeks to identify its characteristic themes and forms. The inaugural West Coast Renaissance issue assembles a sizeable group of writers (some Canadian, some not; all resident, for a time, in B.C.) and claims their significance to the literary culture of the province. It also charts a development in B.C. literature, suggesting that the writing of the period marked a resurgence of literary achievement that was bound to the scarcely noticed accomplishments of an earlier era. And it attempts to define the character of the “West Coast Imagination,” Skelton’s term to describe the sensibility that distinguishes the gathered texts and marks them as part of a regional phenomenon. The poetry collected in the issue, Skelton’s introductory “Comment” suggests, is not regional simply because of the biographies of the poets. Instead, the poems respond in various ways to “the power of this region”—the constant, potent presence of nature.

Skelton takes care not to exaggerate the uniformity of B.C. writing or to suggest that the writers of the West Coast Renaissance belong to an organized movement: “There is no manifesto to delimit the membership of a school; we have been spared a Breton or a Pound and we have not been blessed with a Yeats.” His reference to the Irish poet shows a reluctance to overstate the accomplishment of B.C. literature and betrays some anxiety about the comparison he draws between the West Coast Renaissance and the Irish literary renaissance of the 1880s and after. The special issue, Skelton indicates, was intended as a provisional document: “It is not yet possible to record the names of the true leaders of our Renaissance. Only time will provide the necessary hindsight.” The perspective afforded by thirty years suggests that Skelton was remarkably perceptive in certain regards. Some of the writers whose poems appear in the issue are now, as then, important figures in B.C. and Canadian literature. Skelton’s nearly obsessive interest in physical geography appears prescient given the continuing fascination with place evinced by many West Coast writers. And his belief, somewhat awkwardly expressed, that Native traditions are essential to an understanding of B.C.’s cultural history is an important recognition of the multicultural character of the Pacific Coast.

The Renaissance issue, over 350 pages long, includes Skelton’s “Comment”; works by forty poets; short essays on Musgrave, Patrick Lane, and P. K. Page; brief stories by Seán Virgo, and Rona Murray; drafts of Musgrave’s “Mourning Song”; twenty-four black-andwhite plates of works by B.C. artists (including P. K. Irwin, Page’s nom de pinceau); and Lillard’s essay and checklist, “Daylight in the Swamp: A Guide to the West Coast Renaissance.” Most of the poets were born between 1939 and 1955, making them, roughly, between twenty-three and forty at the time of publication. Among the betterknown poets are Page, Lane, Musgrave, Virgo, Fred Wah, Roo Borson, Robert Bringhurst, Phyllis Webb, George McWhirter, and Marilyn Bowering. Skelton and Lillard both have poems in the issue, as do Kishkan, Cathers, and Murray, three of Skelton’s Six Poets. It would be easy to work through the table of contents, tallying up the hits and misses and concluding that the issue has not aged well. But some of the poets—Page and Bringhurst are two—have truly distinctive voices. Page’s contribution consists of five short poems as well as the longer “Sestina for Pat Lane after Reading Albino Pheasants,” an intricate meditation on the relation of art to the physical world; in one passage Page employs the vocabulary of painting to illustrate the ability of words to fire the imagination:

If with my thickest brush I were to lay a wash
of thinnest water-color I could make a world
as unlike my own dense flesh
as the high-noon midsummer sky;
but it would not catch at my imagination
or change the waves or particles of light

yet pale can tip the scales, make light
this heavy planet.

Page’s poems (which have nothing obvious to do with the West Coast) are among the most striking in the issue. Bringhurst’s four poems include the masterful “The Stonecutter’s Horses,” a dramatic monologue in the voice of Francesco Petrarca. In a note that accompanies the poem as it appears in the later The Beauty of the Weapons (McClelland & Stewart, 1982), Bringhurst explains that Petrarch “summoned his secretary, to whom he dictated in simple Italian the first draft of his last will and testament.” The Latin version of the will survives, but the poem attempts to capture “the
rough glint” of the lost Italian version. “The Stonecutter’s Horses” adopts the words of a poet far removed from Bringhurst’s own time and renders them in a contemporary idiom. “Petrarca is made to sound,” Bringhurst later writes in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music (McClelland & Stewart, 1986), “as though he had just been hiking in the Siskiyous, which straddle the Oregon/California line”; perhaps Bringhurst also had in mind Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336. His remarks indicate that although the poem apparently has nothing to do with the Pacific Coast, its genesis renders it a regional text. Skelton particularly admired Bringhurst, praising him in an issue of Poetry (August 1984) as an uncommonly accomplished poet: “He is without doubt a major poet, not only in the context of Canadian letters, but in that of all writing of our time.”

A reader might devise a list of notable omissions from the issue. George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Tom Wayman, Frank Davey, Robin Blaser, bill bissett, and Peter Trower are among the poets named in Lillard’s generous, wide-ranging list of noteworthy books, but works of theirs are not included in the issue. However, Skelton and Lillard did not intend to provide a comprehensive or an historically representative survey of B.C. writing. Instead, they selected works that represented what the editors perceived as a significant development in B.C. literature. Lillard’s list offers a mild corrective to Skelton’s vision. Skelton saw in poetry written in B.C. from the 1960s on evidence of what he terms the “West Coast Imagination,” which, he observes, “dominate[s] the work of almost all the poets who have begun writing during this period, and which is quite different from that which ruled the immediately preceding poets who were affected more by the imported theories of the so-called ‘Black Mountain’ school of poetry.” Skelton notes that the new poetry, that is, post-Tish poetry, is “symbolist, which is to say that the images attempt rather to express the numinous than to delineate the physical universe…this approach towards the numinous is frequently expressed in terms of psychic, as distinct from psychological, adventures.” The new poetry, as Skelton saw it, was at the forefront of B.C.’s cultural renaissance. But before a rebirth there must be a birth. “The first awakening,” in Skelton’s view, was “a hidden birth, and one whose significance has only recently begun to be appreciated”:

It occurred when Marius Barbeau, Franz Boas, and John Swanton brought to light the extraordinary richness of the mythology of the Haida, Kwakiutl, Salish, Tsimshian, and other tribes of our coast, and presented them to us in legends and stories, and in reproductions of totem poles, argillite carvings, and other artifacts that disturbed and excited the imagination of the world.

Skelton’s language is dated. “Kwakwak’awakw” has replaced “Kwakiutl” as the most accurate designation; the opposition of “them” and the implied “us” is jarring. But his understanding of the importance of Native mythology and art to the cultural history of the region is nonetheless important. The literary significance of the ethnographic work of Boas and others has been noted more recently by Bringhurst, whose three volumes of Haida translations rely heavily on the work of Swanton, one of Boas’s students. Bringhurst’s A Story As Sharp as a Knife (Douglas & McIntyre, 1999), Nine Visits to the Mythworld (Douglas & McIntyre, 2000), and Being in Being (Douglas & McIntyre, 2001) celebrate what Skelton identifies here as “something central … to the spirit of this place”—although the publication of all three books has certainly not been without controversy. Skelton suggests that the “awakening period” ended in 1945 with the death of Emily Carr, who “was perhaps the first” local white artist to “[perceive] that the native Indian culture was an expression of something central to the spirit of man, and central also to the spirit of this place.” (Fittingly, Rita Hammett’s “Eight Found Poems from the Journals of Emily Carr” are the first poems in the issue.) Skelton had hoped to publish English translations of Native myths in the West Coast Renaissance issue; a later special issue of the Malahat, “The West Coast Renaissance III” (October 1981), does include selections from Dietrich Bertz’s translation (B.C. Indian Language Project, 1977) of Boas’s Indian Legends of the North Pacific Coast of America (Asher, 1895). Skelton’s claim that “These stories and legends … are … the cultural inheritance of all of us on the West Coast,” however, remains a contentious statement in the context of ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the repatriation of anthropological collections.

Skelton’s assessment of the particular qualities of B.C. writing are supplemented in the special issue by Lillard’s equally opinionated history of B.C. literature, “Daylight in the Swamp: A Guide to the West Coast Renaissance,” which contains a long list of notable B.C. books, magazines, and publishing houses. Lillard echoes Skelton most clearly in his emphasis on the importance of “coastal mythologies” to “the renaissance.” He identifies the indigenous oral traditions as the beginning of British Columbia’s literary history, singling out Haida and Tsimshian myths as “by far the most interesting.” However, his claim that “For too long a time now we have considered the coastal mythologies the private property of the Indians” seems ill-considered, given the questions of cultural appropriation that attend works such as Musgrave and Virgo’s earlier The Kiskatinaw Songs (published by Skelton’s Pharos Press in 1977), a book Lillard cites approvingly as having demonstrated that Native mythologies are part of “the white man’s world too,” and, over twenty years later, Bringhurst’s translations. Lillard, like Skelton, sounds, by contemporary standards, insensitive to alternative cultural understandings of the ownership of texts. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm can be recognized as just that. His appreciation of Haida mythology anticipates Bringhurst’s suggestion that the Queen Charlotte Islands are “the region’s spiritual capital” (in Native Writers and Canadian Writing, ed. W. H. New. UBC, 1990).

Despite its statement of the importance of these traditions (unfortunately, neither Skelton nor Lillard show much awareness that these traditions are ongoing), Lillard’s “Guide” proposes that the West Coast Renaissance is primarily the product of the very recent modernization of B.C. literature. “There is little prior to 1961 which is modern in B.C. literature,” he writes, noting as well that “Until 1961, this province produced no poets of national importance.” That year, 1961, saw the first issue of Tish, edited by Davey; “modern literature in British Columbia,” Lillard notes, “must be dated from the appearance of this magazine.” Tish, “radical, mildly obscene for its day,” was, in his estimation, “the one important break-through in Canadian literature since the advent of Bliss Carman.” According to this account, it was through poetry that B.C. writing suddenly emerged from its belatedness and stagnation. The first Renaissance issue consequently focuses on poetry, the genre in which, Skelton writes in his “Comment,” “the new vitality of West Coast Writing appears most clearly and definitively.” Lillard’s enthusiasm for Tish stands in contrast to Skelton’s brief acknowledgement of those poets who had fallen under the sway of “the so-called ‘Black Mountain’ school.” Skelton suggests that the West Coast Renaissance began in earnest after Tish and draws a clear distinction between the “imported theories” of these writers and the “symbolist” approach of other poets. Lillard, on the other hand, perceives Tish and later poetry as part of a single phenomenon. When Skelton’s “Comment” and Lillard’s “Guide” are juxtaposed, it becomes apparent that the two editors understand the recent literary history of the province very differently; Lillard’s vision quietly contradicts Skelton’s introductory account.

Lillard remarks that “Poetry is the predominant feature of B.C.’s literary history.” Yet the poems collected in the issue generally depart from the conventions of the Tish poets. Instead they largely display the influence of what Lillard describes as a new, internationalist approach to poetry. He observes that “If a second intellectual surge had not begun at this point, Tish would be the high point of B.C. literature.” This “second surge” was, he suggests, “almost totally a one man effort” that began in 1966, when J. Michael Yates joined the Department of Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and “molded the featureless department into an active literary machine.” Sono Nis, the press he founded, had by 1978 published books by twelve of the poets in the West Coast Renaissance issue. (Yates himself is oddly not included in the issue.) Skelton occupied a similar role, according to Lillard, although Skelton’s “approach and frames of reference were British and Anglo-Irish” whereas Yates’s were European; both approaches departed from Tish’s focus on American poetry in general and Black Mountain poetics in particular. According to Lillard, these developments—especially the advent of Tish and then the Yates- and Skelton-led move away from Tish’s poetics— allowed B.C. literature not simply to become “part of the twentieth century” but to enjoy “a rebirth of creative energy and vision unclouded by the romanticism of the all too recent past.”

The West Coast Renaissance issues are part of Skelton’s project of literary regionalism; they also occupy a place among several anthologies of B.C. poetry and fiction published between 1970 and 1980. These include Yates’s Contemporary Poetry of British Columbia (Sono Nis, 1970), Gary Geddes’s Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest (Oxford, 1975), Jack Hodgins’s The West Coast Experience (Macmillan, 1976), Fred Candelaria’s New: West Coast (Intermedia, 1977), and Skelton’s Six Poets of British Columbia. Not surprisingly, many of the same writers appear in several of these books as well as in the Renaissance issue. A partial list of the reoccurring names includes Skelton, Murray, Lillard, Page, Musgrave, Wynand, McWhirter, Webb, Kearns, Candelaria, Yates, Carr, Davey, Trower, bissett, Marlatt, Cathers, Virgo, Wah, Lane, Hodgins, George Payerle, George Bowering, John Newlove, Earle Birney, Pat Lowther, Andreas Schroeder, and Dorothy Livesay. The second Renaissance issue of the Malahat (April 1979), concentrated on fiction and included works by Payerle, Yates, Kishkan, Wynand, Murray, O’Hagan, and Page. These books and the journal issues provide some indication of consensus about the notable local writers of the period.

The anthologists and editors strive to avoid any taint of parochialism. Although Geddes writes that Skookum Wawa “is an attempt to convey the artist-spirit of the Canadian Northwest,” a more skeptical Yates writes, in the introduction to Contemporary Poetry, that poetry in B.C. “is not unlike the poetry of other regions in Canada, nor unique in the rest of the world. What is truly significant in these pages would be significant in any other place, translated into any other language.” They are similarly ambivalent about the environmental influence that Skelton believed was so crucially important to the literatures of the Pacific Coast. In his introduction, Hodgins worries that B.C. writing is understood as naïvely preoccupied with the natural world: Hodgins claims, rightly, that there is “a great deal more” than landscape in B.C. writing and asserts that “Good writing anywhere … achieves some kind of universal appeal and importance.”

This list of anthologies is not comprehensive. But comparing these books demonstrates that the matter of determining which writers shape a regional literature, and why, is a complicated affair. The grounds for including or excluding writers from regional canons vary from work to work. Regional literatures are connected to other regional literatures and to national literatures. And many, perhaps most, writers’ works evade easy categorization, a fact that David Biespiel emphasizes in Long Journey: Contemporary Northwest Poets (Oregon, 2006). This recent anthology assumes that the Northwest is a transborder region, and Biespiel includes several Canadian poets who were collected in earlier B.C. anthologies: Crozier, Lane, McWhirter, Musgrave, Page, and Wynand. Others, including Don McKay, are newly classified as Northwest writers. Biespiel does not comment on his inclusion of both Canadian and American writers in the anthology; the border is simply erased. Region, in this case, trumps nation. Biespiel’s volume gathers writers from what Skelton saw as a single literary region (although he tended to focus on either the Canadian or American sides of the border at any one time). However, at the beginning of his foreword, Biespiel declares that “There is no such thing as regional poetry.” This claim is a surprising introduction to a regional anthology of over three hundred pages: Biespiel writes that “A poet’s interests in the sublime, in the ambiguity and contours of language, in all the themes available for a poet to explore, naturally lie far beyond place alone.” He suggests, too, that the tendency of writers to move from place to place, their wide-ranging influences, and their often ambivalent relations to place make regional literature an untenable notion.

But to acknowledge the fluidity of region and place as critical categories is not to undermine their importance. There are many authors who write perceptively about various places and who appear to have been deeply affected by them. Al Purdy, a poet with deep roots in Ontario, has contributed to B.C. literature poems such as “Victoria, B.C.,” “Voyeur,” and “Home,” which describes the West Coast as a site of imaginative renewal. McKay, like Purdy, can be considered a regional poet of several regions, although he has persistent ties to Ontario. Several of the poems in Another Gravity (McClelland & Stewart, 2000) make reference to the West Coast and “The Bushtit’s Nest,” an essay in Vis à vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness (Gaspereau, 2000) alludes to McKay’s having moved to B.C. His Deactivated West 100 (Gaspereau, 2005) describes the landscape of southern Vancouver Island. There are younger Canadian poets, too, who are sensitive observers of various places, including Karen Solie and Ken Babstock, who writes in an unpublished letter that he has “been forced to make temporary adoptions of ‘at home-ness.’” Are Purdy, McKay, Babstock, and Solie “relevant,” to use Lillard’s term, to B.C.? Yes. But are they conventionally regional writers? No.

One of the most notable writers to have lived in B.C., Malcolm Lowry, was only a temporary resident. Lillard insists that Lowry is not properly part of B.C. literature. “Until I see Hemingway listed as a French author and Pound as an Italian,” he writes in his “Guide,” “I will continue to doubt Lowry’s relevance” to B.C. His point is that Lowry was not “by any stretch of the imagination” Canadian. But whereas Hemingway and Pound were separated by their native languages from the national literatures of their adopted countries, Lowry wrote in English. Moreover, a writer’s birthplace does not determine his or her powers of observation or the precision and artistry with which he or she represents a particular place. Lowry’s ability to write powerful, absorbing narratives based on his experience of life in B.C. demonstrates that he is, in fact, profoundly relevant to this place. Similar claims can be made for the relevance of works by other non-Canadian writers, such as Gary Snyder and Theodore Roethke, whose “North American Sequence” is set primarily in a landscape generally recognizable as Puget Sound but contains a section, “Meditation at Oyster River,” concerning a river on Vancouver Island.

Skelton and Lillard believed, with Roethke, that “this place is important.” Lillard writes in the preface to Voice, My Shaman (Sono Nis, 1976), a book of his own poems, that “Either a poet is born with a landscape, or he spends his life searching for one.” But the two editors knew, too, that regional literatures do not exist in isolation. And they suggested that regional literatures must be considered in a broad context. In the second Renaissance issue, Skelton notes that “It seems, indeed, as if regionalism and internationalism are two sides of the one coin.” And in his “Comment” in the third issue on the West Coast Renaissance, Lillard writes that “The editorial position of this Malahat is: a ‘west coast’ begins at the head of Puget Sound and runs north to the general area of Skagway, Alaska.” Two years earlier in the Malahat (April 1976), Lillard had lamented the lack of transcendent literary achievement along the Pacific Coast, protesting that the West Coast “hasn’t produced one major writer who has used this coast for anything more than a home.” But the three West Coast Renaissance issues, like Skelton’s collections of West Coast poets and other regional anthologies, demonstrate that the Pacific Coast has a long, varied, and noteworthy literary history. Although Skelton and Lillard were partisan critics, sometimes in conflict with each other, their enthusiasm for West Coast writing led to a significant attempt to map the literary region. Their vision of the West Coast Imagination was idiosyncratic, certainly, but their confidence in the importance of place to literature remains compelling and the charts they drew of the local waters stand as impressive achievements.