Commencement exercises, toward beginnings in English-Canadian literature
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My dissertation examines the question of "beginnings" as it is formulated in Canadian prose, poetry, and criticism. I interro ate the frequently articulated view that the Canadian writer faces a "new" land, put forward by critics such as Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, and Robert Kroetsch, while also arguing against Frank Davey's position that the "thematic" criticism inspired by Frye's notion of "garrison mentality" simply paraphrases Canadian literature and sociology. My own approach defines a beginning as an image or passage that fails to function within the main thematic patterns of the work, but rather draws attention to itself as a momentary instance of language. While remaining as aporia in the text, disturbing what might otherwise be read as coherent system of meaning, these "beginnings" preserve, condition and shape the work much the way an accent shapes the voice. Tracing a variety of different approaches to the question of beginning--metaphorical, chronological, philosophical--I consider Robert Kroetsch's 'Seed Catalogue' as an example of a poem self-consciously concerned with the problem of singular beginnings to the extent that the narrator's questioning of the act of composition seems to preclude any critical intervention. I suggest that certain moments, a single word or passage not easily incorporated into the main themes of the text, might represent a different beginning, an instant of writing signifying its own ephemerality. I then examine two nineteenth-century long poems, Isabella Valancy Crawford's 'Malcolm's Katie': ' A Love Story', and Oliver Goldsmith's 'The Rising Village'. In Crawford's text, I question the function of the descriptive 'Indian passages' that punctuate the love story, and suggest that, rather than adhering to an overriding poetic vision, these passages represent a narrative shunt. Goldsmith's poem wrestles with the persona of the poet, the Canadian-born Goldsmith who is also a descendent of the Anglo-Irish author of 'The Deserted Village'. In 'The Rising Village', I examine how the poet constructs a poetic debt that continues to shape critical responses to the Canadian poem. I go on to compare the use of food imagery in E. J. Pratt's two Canadian epics, B'rebeuf and his Brethren' and 'Towards the Last Spike', in order to understand how Pratt perceives of a Canadian community united by its common tastes. I then examine contemporary versions of settlement poetry in Margaret Atwood, Kristjana Gunnars, and Marie Annharte Baker. Reading the genre of the linked short story sequence as one that both requires and resists the concept of multiple beginnings, I look specifically to Margaret Laurence's 'A Bird in the House' and Rosemary Nixon's ' Mostly Country' and 'The Cock's Egg' in order to discern an originary moment of composition verging on the variegated structure of these texts. I then discuss how the hyphenated identities of Japanese Canadian writers articulate an alternative narrative of national identity in Joy Kogawa's ' Obasan' and Hiromi Goto's 'Chorus of Mushrooms'. Nichol's 'Selected Organs': 'Parts of an Autobiography' offers a final example of a problematic beginning in a text that does not declare its Canadian-ness overtly. The paradoxical opening line of Nichol's poem allow a restatement of the idea that moments of discontinuity, aporia, and narrative seepage represent a resonant but fleeting beginning in many Canadian texts.