menu Language Is A Virus

Poetry Guide: Canadian Poetry

Canadian poetry is poetry written in Canada, by Canadians. There are two distinct branches of Canadian poetry: French-Canadian poetry (mostly written by Québécois authors) and English-Canadian poetry.

English-Canadian Poetry


The earliest works of poetry, mainly written by visitors, described the new territories in optimistic terms, mainly targeted at a European audience. One of the first works was Robert Hayman's Quodlibets, composed in Newfoundland and published in 1628.

With the growth of English language communities near the end of the 18th century, poetry aimed at local readers began to appear in local newspapers. These writings were mainly intended to reflect the prevailing cultural values of the time and were modeled after English poetry of the same period.

In the first half of the 19th century, poetic works began to reflect local subjects. Acadia by Joseph Howe and The Saint Lawrence and the Saguenay by Charles Sangster are examples of this trend. Early nationalistic verses were composed by writers including Thomas D'Arcy McGee.


A group of poets now known as the "Confederation poets" began writing following the formation of the new Dominion of Canada in 1867, including Charles G. D. Roberts, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman and Duncan Campbell Scott. Choosing the world of nature as their inspiration, their work was drawn from their own experiences and, at its best, written in their own voices.

Early 20th Century

During this period, E. Pauline Johnson and Robert W. Service were writing popular poetry - Johnson's based on her English and Mohawk heritage and Service writing tales of the Yukon gold rush.

In 1915, John McCrae, serving as a surgeon in the Canadian Army, wrote the famous war poem "In Flanders Fields".

In Newfoundland, E.J. Pratt described the struggle to make a living on the land in poems about maritime life and the history of Canada. Meanwhile, in central Canada, poets such as Ralph Gustafson and Raymond Knister were moving away from traditional verse forms.

In the 1930s, A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott helped inspire the development of new poetic voices in Montreal through the McGill Fortnightly Review and the anthology New Provinces. The "new poetry" valued intellect over sentimentality. Under the editorship (literary) of Earle Birney, the Canadian Forum helped promote similar developments in Toronto. Dorothy Livesay, born in Manitoba, was an important contributor to the Toronto movement. These two urban centres of literary activity provided fertile ground for the development of later poets such as Irving Layton and Raymond Souster.

Post War

Following World War II, a new breed of poets appeared, writing for a well-educated audience. These included James Reaney, Jay Macpherson and Leonard Cohen. Meanwhile, some maturing authors such as Layton, Souster and Louis Dudek, moved in a different direction, adopting colloquial speech in their work.

In the 1960s, a renewed sense of nation helped foster new voices: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Eli Mandel and Margaret Avison. Others such as Al Purdy and Earle Birney, already published, produced some of their best work during this period.

A notable anthology of Canadian poetry is The New Oxford book of Canadian Verse, edited by Margaret Atwood (ISBN 0195404505).

Literary Prizes

Notable literary prizes for English Canadian poetry include the Governor General's Awards, the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Gerald Lampert Award and the Pat Lowther Award.

Uniquely Canadian Forms

The Viator poem form was invented by Canadian author and poet, Robin Skelton. It consists of any stanzaic form in which the first line of the first stanza is the second line of the second stanza and so on until the poem ends with the with which it began. The term, Viator comes from the Latin for traveller. A copyrighted example of Skelton's form may be found in his excellent reference book, The Shapes of our Singing, and is entitled Dover Beach Revisited.

An unpublished example of the Viator is included below to illustrate how the line travels through the poem, its repetition adding weight to the process described. The repeating line is highlighted in boldface type.

Shallot Confiture

It's care in cooking slow and carefully
that turns a shallot glistening golden brown;
in salted water first you must weigh down
the scalded bulbs to meet this recipe.

Boil vinegar and sugary spices;
it's care in cooking slow and carefully
the syruped shallots, gradually,
then overnight, you'll rest the shallot slices.

Then two days more, you'll slow repeat
your patient simmering, calmly, gently;
it's care in cooking slow and carefully
that yields your shallots clear and sweet.

By fourth day, time to lift them free,
to pack them in that savoury sauce,
preserve that silky, golden gloss;
it's care in cooking slow and carefully!

Copyright by contributor, Russell Collier

External link

French-Canadian Poetry

Early verse

The first book written in verse by a Canadian was Épîtres, Satires, Chansons, Épigrammes et Autres Pièces de vers by Michel Bibaud, published in 1830. However, like most poetry written before the second half of the 19th century, it is mostly interesting for its historical value.

End of 19th century

Octave Crémazie is considered the father of French Canadian poetry. His poetry and that of his follower Louis Fréchette are romantic of form and patriotic in inspiration. At the same time, Pamphile Le May was writing intimist poetry about the simple farm life and Alfred Garneau wrote his feelings.

The Montreal School

L'École littéraire de Montréal is not a literary school per se but more of a group of poets that met regularly. In reaction to the earlier following of the romantic Victor Hugo, they took later schools (such as the Parnassian or symbolism) as their masters. The most talented among them was certainly Émile Nelligan, a young poet who stopped writing at only 20 years of age due to mental illness.

The terroir

Outside Montreal, other poets, such as Nérée Beauchemin continued Pamphile Le May's depiction of the life of the habitants. Then came the powerful Alfred Desrochers, a precursor to the "pays" school of poetry of Gaston Miron.

External link