So I was reading along in this fine copy I recently picked up of Ralph Gustafson’s Sequences when I came across his poem “At Moriane Lake” and was struck by something that I just haven’t been able to let go. The poem opens with the line “Canada, a country without myths.” Right away, I was thrown into an argumentative stance with what followed. To me, this country has always had myths. It has them because myths don’t come from the proclamations of poets. Poets may and should channel them.
Before I go on let’s just clear up a few thing. This book is from 1979 and without doubt the country and our collective psyche has to have changed, at least a little. Well, enough to come to the idea that we have mythologies as country. And snag a constitution, close residential schools, and the like. What those myths are I’m not exactly willing to try and pigeon hole here. So, suffice it to say that since Gustafson opened his poem with this line, I really don’t buy that Canada (then or now or anytime between) doesn’t have it’s own mythologies. Secondly, I generally enjoy Gustafson’s work and don’t really want to use this post as means to bash the man or his work. It’s fine. A lot of it is quite good and I do encourage you to read it. But, this line and this poem and having some thoughts on it, bears importance to where I am at as poet and a writer. It does so because I think the issues at the heart of the poem speak to a major problem in literature that still would exist today.
That problem is a preoccupation with the sort of Western Cannon of humanities. Yeah, I would hope that anyone reading this post has had some experience with various contemporary writers and critics illustrating deep concern with fact that the vast majority of our scholarly tradition of literature comes out a male dominated voice from a handful of European regions. Spend time in a college English class and I’m sure you’ve heard it. And it is a problem and in so many ways this particular poem illustrates the depth to which this problem is nestled into our conscious history of writing in a place like Canada. That is because after Gustafson tells us we have no myths, he then goes on to illustrate that we do in fact simply recreate myths in our everyday lives.Which is a worthy enough meditation. But the problem is that the poem illustrates the argument using examples that specifically originate from the European tradition. This leads us back to that first line and perhaps nicely adds to his statement about our lack of myths. This happens because in using imported myths from a colonial heritage as the standard bearer for myths themselves, he refuses to permit any room for other myths. Simply put, other myths cannot exist because they are not these myths. Without European heritage, the country itself cannot lay claim to a mythology.
For me this is a clearly a major problem. After a quick read of Big Medicine Comes to Erie, you would see that myths and images and histories are not rooted extensively in that European tradition. This is because those myths and images and histories speak to me as a writer and as a person. Granted, my work comes out a place that is over three decades later. But I’ve witnessed this exclusivity of canonical mythologies on a regular basis while completing both my undergraduate work in English Literature and during some of my workshops at the graduate level. It was bad enough that it I was once asked point blank by a fellow workshop member “Who would care about a group of poems written about a mythological curling bonspiel in Manitoba.” And maybe you as a reader wouldn’t, just like this individual, care about the work of said collection. But there is room for it and I discourse that is contemporary literature. I (and a number of other workshop members) believed it was worthy of attention as there was a great amount of the work that leaned heavy on Ojibwe and Cree mythologies. Mythologies that I had found lacking at the classroom level in the English departments I found myself studying in. I saw great purpose in adding these underpinnings to writing. Others clearly saw it. But still and in turn, I had felt push back from certain portions of my writing communities. This person was just one of many.
All of this leads me to this point: that myths arise organically from the places that people live and these myths are important. Belief in some extended literary heritage that traces all sources of “critical” knowledge back to white men of European descent does not change that. I think about Gary Snyder here, applying Japanese form to America subjects. I consider the work of Simon Ortiz, Peter Blue Cloud, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welsh that all drew upon mythologies and images that don’t find their roots in Europe. These are all important, critically so because we are all nothing without our stories. I’m arguing for inclusion of these heritages in our writing tradition because it is part of what we are as a collective society. I don’t wish to be cast in the image of the ancient Greeks.
While Gustafson likely meant to empower Canadian literature and writers, he made his attempt at this with a clear comparison and selection of myths and heritages that left out ones that had risen organically from the land around him. That fellow workshop member was working in the same line. They had run a comparison of myths and found themselves wanting for the ones they had always found comfort in. Perhaps they felt them superior. Perhaps it was because it was the only manner in which they could conceive the world around them. The hope here is that you find a reason to explore our or your myths, the ones that have risen organically from the land and spaces and people are you. Don’t rely entirely upon a cannon we have had thrust upon us. We indeed are mythic everyday. We just not need Odysseus, Philomela, or Oedipus to see it.