Poetry Review by Nicholas Bradley

Mike Doyle, Collected Poems 1951-2009 (Victoria: Ekstasis, 2010). Paperbound, 508 pp., $55.95.Mike Doyle Collected Poems

Mike Doyle’s Collected Poems is a substantial book, the result and record of a long literary career. The volume begins with selections from A Splinter of Glass (1956) and concludes with poems previously gathered in The Watchman’s Dance (2009). The works included in the Collected Poems represent, Doyle notes in his foreword, “perhaps onethird of [his] extant poems”: he has been a prolific writer, chronicling in verse his keen responses to the turns and textures of his life’s path. His poetry is faithful to experience, registering with precision—with “the photostat of an avid mind,” in a phrase from a youthful poem— events and impressions from a bookish, observant existence. Titles such as “Moving into an Old House,” “Caulking,” and “Flying to Ottawa in October” suggest Doyle’s attention to ordinary activities; especially in his later works, which tend to be less oblique and allusive than his early poems, he is alert to minor ironies and epiphanies. The Collected Poems charts as well the satisfactions and disappointments of the writing life. The author’s extensive commentary on the poems describes encounters and friendships with distinguished writers, but the notes and poems alike also reckon with the near-anonymity that has characterized Doyle’s career. “I claim obscurity. / It claims me,” he writes in “A Blue Face,” from The Watchman’s Dance. Although he can fairly maintain to have contributed to the national literatures of two countries, New Zealand and Canada, his poetry has not received widespread acclaim. It suggests, moreover, that obscurity awaits virtually every writer, no matter how dedicated to the craft and how highly regarded by small circles of readers. Time, the sternest critic, rewards few poets.

Born in Birmingham in 1928, Mike (Charles) Doyle left school early, “worked in a factory and then a bookstore, both dead-ends,” and joined the Royal Navy in search of a career. He was posted to New Zealand in 1951. He wrote in his memoir, Paper Trombones (2007), that although “the habit of poetry came to [him] in high school,” his “psychological birth came in New Zealand”—as did his first literary successes. (In the Collected Poems he credits a schoolteacher in England, a Miss Lily Thomas, as his “first unwitting Muse.”) Doyle moved to Canada in 1968 to assume a professorship at the University of Victoria. He has since been by residence and citizenship a Canadian writer, yet he has remained, in his own account, on the margin of the Canadian literary world. His Earth Meditations (1971) was published in Toronto by Coach House—after Anansi declined the manuscript, which, Doyle recounts, was “not Canadian enough” for Dennis Lee, one of the editors involved—but a second major collection did not appear in Canada until The Porcupine’s Quill issued A Steady Hand (1982). Stonedancer (1976) was published in New Zealand in the interim. Doyle also remarks, in the foreword to the Collected Poems, that he has gone ungarlanded: “In this age of literary prizes I have little to show.” His fortune as a Canadian writer appears to be told in an essay that he contributed to Poetry in 1972, in which he reviewed twenty-three books of Canadian verse (and another two that did not have “anything to do with Canada”). His range, from Atwood to Yates, was remarkable, but the review was tinged by his reluctance to view literature along nationalist lines: “As a newcomer (three years in Canada) I ask myself: What is Canadian about Canadian poetry? Hard to answer…. Prompted by centennials and such, there’s presently a strong, overt nationalistic mpulse in Canadian cultural life. Not surprising, since the culture is fighting for its life against absorption by the United States.” Even if Doyle understood the cause of the “impulse,” he was skeptical: “The 1970s,” he wrote, “seem late in the day for nationalism.” Of greater interest were Canada’s lively regional literary communities; “the West Coast,” his new home, was “perhaps the richest, most divided location,” and sufficiently distant from the rest of Canada to suit his temperament. His poems are stippled with references to western locations and remembrances of his former island homes.

The first act of Doyle’s career was likewise marked by the question of belonging. He was considered for some time to be a notable antipodean writer, but his southern reputation waned, in part for nationalist reasons. In an interview (1992) reprinted in the Collected Poems, Doyle notes that he was gradually abandoned by the country that had adopted him: “Ian Wedde’s edition of The Penguin Book of New Zealand [Verse] [1985] begins with a quotation from one of my poems and then explains why I am not in the anthology. That was my farewell to down there; they were saying goodbye to me as I’d said goodbye to them. Yet, the funny thing is, having left that behind, I’ve not really arrived here yet.” Some years before the interview, Doyle had hinted, in a scholarly essay (1985) on anthologies of poetry from New Zealand, at his omission from the Penguin Book: “Like some earlier editors … Wedde decided to exclude immigrants from his anthology.” Doyle, of course, was such an immigrant. He divulged that in editing Recent Poetry in New Zealand (1965)—his own contribution to the genre—he subcribed to the principle that “what matters about true poetry is not its provenance but its particular excellence.”

Even if he has been, by his own admission, banished to the periphery, Doyle has led a fascinating life. He was part of a vibrant literary scene in New Zealand in the 1950s and ’60s. In 1959 he dined in Boston with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, having been introduced to the poets by Robert Lowell; he met and stayed with Edmund Wilson and caroused with George Barker in New York. He founded a literary journal, Tuatara, exchanged letters with other writers (a collection of his correspondence with Cid Corman was published in 2000), and wrote several volumes of criticism, including William Carlos Williams and the American Poem (1982); that study, despite its “long history of rejections,” as Doyle wrote in Paper Trombones, is evidence of his deep interest in Williams’s poetry, which echoes strongly in his own. Doyle helped bring Basil Bunting to the University of Victoria as a visiting professor in the early 1970s. Bunting had a tremendous influence on August Kleinzahler, then a student at the University, later to become a prominent poet himself. (In an interview published in 2007, Kleinzahler remembered Bunting’s reception in Victoria: “He was very much disapproved of.”) In his books, Doyle mentions many writers as friends or acquaintances (Fleur Adcock, for instance, and Robert Creeley), including poets resident in Victoria, among them Robin Skelton, P. K. Page, and Stephen Scobie, his academic colleague. The Collected Poems is dedicated to C. K. Stead—the friendship between them began during Doyle’s years in New Zealand—and to Charles Lillard, a fellow expatriate poet in Victoria. Despite the sense of exile that attends much of his writing, Doyle’s poetry has been shaped by his involvement in literary communities, whether actual, in the form of personal relationships, or imaginative, in the form of allusion and imitation. Thus Cavafy, Rilke, and Machado appear in the Collected Poems, while Doyle’s memoir mentions Earle Birney, Irving Layton, and Margaret Avison, whose poems he admired as a newcomer to Canada.

Doyle’s poetic ruminations, however, are essentially introspective. They provide, as he notes of “Starlings and History” (Distances, 1963), “extended evocative description[s]” of moments in his life. He observes with approval that Don McKay, “during his few years living in Victoria, once said that poetry is ‘a private art.’” Yet Doyle admits as well his feeling that his “life’s work should be on record.” The possible futility of private art is a recurring theme in his poems. “Trombone Solo” (The Urge to Raise Hats, 1989) illustrates the melancholy state of pages in search of a reader: “Under the paperclip’s / looped rustmarks” are “unread sheaves” and “down / the lefthand margin” are two dried authorial tears, “not worth their salt.” In “The Dream Marathon,” from A Steady Hand, Doyle describes a runner’s arrival at the race’s midpoint: “Here at the bottom, at the mountain’s foot / the crowd has fallen silent & the moon / vanished.” The runner will reach the finish only by divesting himself of burdensome laurels and retracing his steps: “I can see the arrow clearly / gleaming & pointing / back / the way I have come.” Time and chance, Doyle knows, happen to all, but the genuine poet can only run his course, leaving readership and reputation to fate. The Collected Poems will interest critics concerned with the recent history of Canadian poetry and with what used to be known as Commonwealth literature. But this rich book is more than a historical document; Doyle’s poetic wanderings will reward readers willing to follow his lonely path.

—Nicholas Bradley

As in The Malahat Review, 181, Winter 2012, 91-95