…or better yet, what is the prairie poetry school? Is it a school? Is it a form? Is it a style? What is it? Why am I wondering?

I’ve been reading an essay by Dennis Cooley, “Placing the Vernacular: The Eye and the Ear in Saskatchewan Poetry”, and trying to discern what Cooley defines, or who and what he includes, in his brief yet interesting definitions of “prairie” poetry. Slicing the prairie (the prairie here being defined as Saskatchewan) in half, Cooley states prairie poetry centres on two distinct forms, “the first is fairly traditional and centres on the eye. The second is more recent (in the history of poetry but less so in the history of prairie poetry) and centres on the ear”. Landscape is important to the eye and speech to the ear. Further, Cooley stresses the eye poetry as emotive, highly lyrical “expressive language” that depicts an inward/outward, often passive reflection, in short, a self reflexive view of the world, while ear poetry is expressed as more dramatic, often engaging with the reader/audience on a different, less passive level. Cooley believes the two defining halves of prairie poetry are gender specific in the writing; “eye” poems, in Cooley’s view tend to be written by women, while “ear” poems seem to be penned by men. While he admits to there being exceptions to the rule, he sticks to his argument.

While I find defining a style/school of poetry an interesting concept, and structurally, I like having boundaries to cross, I’m wondering about the feasibility of such concentrated writing that cuts us in two. Can we define writing of the prairies as masculine and feminine? Mostly I’m filled with questions surrounding the term “prairie poetry”. What is it? Who are we?

I find Cooley’s formula could work for most geographical situations; there are “eyes” and “ears” everywhere. In each community, writers tend to bounce off those writers that came before, or those writers we admired, or even those writers we loved to hate. This prairie community is something that I belong to, but at the same time, through the expansive world of the internet, I find I also belong to a country of writers. While my early influences are those writing near me, and those teaching me, there is a world out there that I am slowly learning from as well. Is prairie form any different from any other Canadian form? Certainly we all write as differently as we can, do we not? Do we need to define and label our geographical communities as distinct, and what is gained by separating ourselves as unique?

If we were all the same, shouldn’t we be cut in two?

18 thoughts on “WHAT IS A PRAIRIE POET?

  1. I think tomorrow should be the day we leave behind modernism. I realize that dichotomies probably aren’t modernisms fault. But I don’t care. I will blame modernism anyways. From now on we are only concerned with being postmodern.

    Everyone this is paradox. Paradox, everyone.

    I love being post. Post everything. Put me in the mail and I will love it.

  2. Rhett, you may be right. Modernism might very well be the cause, or the birth of the prairie poet. On the other hand, aren’t we post-post these days; we’re beyond being beyond.

  3. i don’t identify as a prairie poet, and i suppose i come closer to the “ear” side of things if i’m reading your reading of Cooley accurately. on the other hand, i like being my own genre. why not?

  4. Hmmm… yet another attempt to label and categorise. Does it — or could it — help you write better? If it has any value (not much, for me at least), it might be that it encourages you to look closely at your own writing; to experiment and explore.
    As you probably know, I’m suspicious of dualisms. This is a cracker.

  5. kimmy: I like you being your own genre too, although I think you’re a combination of the two, which maybe we could define as the meta-prairie poet (I steal this term from our class discussion today–not quite what we were talking about, but similar).

    Pete: I think labelling in some instances creates a sense of community, or at one time it probably did. I think you’re right in assuming it might help us write better, maybe even help us write different if we know what we’re attempting to write, or not to write.

  6. I don’t consider myself to be from any particular school of poetry – I write what I write.

    I do, however, identify with being a part of the community here but that’s as geographically-driven as much as it is content-driven.

  7. Yes, I’d love to see this at Colony. Contemplating going for three weeks this year since daughter will be in Québec.

    I’m cool with being called a Prairie poet. I have lived here all my life; I am a Prairie woman and a Prairie poet. If I have to work with dualisms (something I don’t necessarily like to do) I suppose I would place myself as an eye but with definite attention to the ear.

    And, I am curious as to whom is Cooley referring? The already established poets? Or those who are emerging? Or a mix of the two?

    Yes, I’d love to see this at Colony.

  8. Ariel: I’m probably with you on that one. I’m a product of my environment insofar as I live here and whatever happens here is a part of who I am at the time.

    Berlynn: A colony question it is. It certainly would be good to have a few others from elsewhere to chime in on the conversation. 3 weeks is heavenly.

  9. all I know is that I’m a writer… not a West coast writer/poet, B.C. writer/poet, just a writer… and yes, landscape is huge in my work, but in whose work doesn’t landscape (exterior/interior) feature? even if the landscape is ego

    yeeesh, I’m probably not making myself clear

    ditto about reading the essay at colony… I hope to be there for 2 weeks again (with snowshoes this time)

  10. Suzanne: I hope I can make colony next year for a few weeks. It’s always difficult when taking classes, but I’ve done it in the past.

  11. Yes B (sorry I forgot to post this reply sooner). I will bring it to colony. Along with a few others, of course you’ll have to weed through my frantic sidenotes and wobbly underlining. It is difficult to underline well while reclining in the tub!

  12. Hi Trace–

    Here, from Margaret Avison’s “Snow”–

    Nobody stuffs the world in at your eyes.
    The optic heart must venture: a jail-break
    and re-creation.

    So…. the eye and ear distinction is a bit too easy for my liking,
    especially the assumption that there is more passivity with the eye
    than with the ear. The feminine eye and the masculine ear? Nuh, uh.
    Not gendered. And the eyes do as much work — creating what they see, as Avison notes– as ears do creating what they hear.

    I might argue — were I to play that academic ‘agonistic’ game of arguing for the sake of arguing or showcasing my smarty-pants intellectualism (very common in the world, and very sad, actually– a form of my rhetoric/argument is bigger than your rhetoric/argument) — I might claim that the eye could be masculine and the ear feminine. Has he read John Berger, or anything remotely resembling feminist theory? The eye — the gaze, the appropriating, colonizing impulse. Yech —
    next I’m going to find myself uttering words like ‘interruption’ or ‘hegemonic’ or ‘interpellation.’ Never mind. I won’t go there.

    Anyway — prairie poet. I love the Canadian prairie. I am a poet.
    Therefore, I am comfortable calling myself a prairie poet. Me,
    my ears, and my eyes.


  13. Hi Lorri: I as well had a problem with genderizing the eye and the ear. I’m most pleased that everyone took the time to answer my query. And I don’t really think poetry functions in the divided world Cooley writes about; the essay “sees” (I’m not sure Cooley believes this; perhaps he’s being contentious, just because he can) and we “hear” only what the essay says it sees. 🙂

    I like to think that as prairie poets we are the driving force behind everything.

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