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Zach Wells and others take on Survival

Two years ago in Vancouver, five Canadian poets got together for a panel discussion on the state of the art, and tried to hash out whether Margaret Atwood’s seminal CanLit study Survival has energized or inhibited Canadian writing. Over the past several months, the website Northern Poetry Review has been posting the papers presented at the discussion by the individual panelists – Barbara Nickel, Chris Patton, Ross Leckie, Stephanie Bolster, and Eric Miller.

And now, poet, critic, and regular Q&Q contributor Zach Wells has capped the discussion with his own thoughts on Survival, contemporary poetry, and the panelists’ papers.

There are probably too many highlights to pull out of Wells’ piece – we really recommend reading the entire thing – but we’ll grab a couple of thought-provokers anyway.

Hermeneutic (as opposed to evaluative or aesthetic) criticism has certainly long been a stock-in-trade of the academic study of literature. It is not in and of itself a wrongheaded way to plumb a poem — unless we make the mistake of placing it ahead of artistic merit as grounds for close reading. In order for a book’s themes to gain a purchase on our imaginations — without benefit of scholarly intervention — it must first give us a thrill of emotional and aesthetic pain or pleasure.


Whatever the case, we cannot let Atwood off the hook for her role in disseminating and legitimizing the study of a nation’s literature through the lens of a single overarching theme, particularly now that her dated piece of nationalist propaganda, at best a historical curiosity, has been re-issued. It’s heartening to read these panel contributions and realize that poets with such different backgrounds and sensibilities can more or less agree that the victim morality of Survival has done more harm than good to the cause of Canadian poetry, both at home and abroad.


The most comforting – and consequently most harmful – idea in Survival is that literature can be the product of a nation, when in fact a country’s poetry should be one of the things that shapes it. America did not produce Whitman as much as Whitman has created America – as, for that matter, has Emily Dickinson in a completely different way.