The Vehicule Poets and Second Generation Postmodernism

by Ken Norris

The Véhicule Poets of Montréal were part of a second generation of postmodernists to emerge in Canada by the mid-1970s. In other parts of the country there were other poets of a similar situation and orientation: Paul Dutton, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, Steve McCaffery, Bruce Whiteman, Chris Dewdney and Judith Fitzgerald in Ontario; Monty Reid, Erin Moure, and Dennis Cooley on the Prairies; Sharon Thesen, Barry McKinnon and John Pass in British Columbia. Unlike the poets of the ’60s—the first generation of Canadian postmodernists—these poets were very slow in becoming aware of one another’s existence. This was a result of several different situational factors.


During the 1960s, Canadian nationalism was running very high, and the desire for a national literature to celebrate in time for Canada’s centennial was palpable. By the 1970s, that high spirit of nationalism had given way to a burgeoning regionalism; in many ways, all of the second-generation postmodernist poets became regional writers to some varying degree. Although there were some strong regional elements in the work of first generation postmodernist poets like Cohen, Atwood, Newlove and Bowering, there was also a very strong nationalist tendency in their work. One thinks of poems like Cohen’s “The Only Canadian Tourist In Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward,” Atwood’s “The Animals In That Country” and “At The Tourist Centre In Boston,” Newlove’s “Samuel Hearne In Wintertime,” and Bowering’s ubiquitous “Grandfather.”


All of these poems, in their own ways, are statements of nationalism. For the second generation postmodernists, “locale” proved to be more interesting, and less problematic, than “nation.”
These poets’ status as second-generation postmodernists also created certain terms of isolation. At a time when any number of Canadian poets were primarily interested in “putting the subject back into poetry” (a phrase taken from Stephen Spender’s The Thirties And After), these poets were primarily interested in extending an avant-garde tradition that had begun with the early Modernists. All of these poets were the spiritual grandchildren of Pound and H. D. and Tzara, and the younger brothers and sisters of Atwood, Nichol and bissett.


Being in the second generation of anything always creates certain complications. If the first generation were the pioneers or the innovators, then what defines the second generation? Viewed unkindly, they are imitators; viewed with generosity and a sense of history, they can be seen as inheritors and extenders, the ones who further advance the possibilities of a new aesthetic. In popular music we have the example of The Beatles, who were second-generation rock and rollers. Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Carl Perkins were the breakthrough artists who invented a new kind of music. The Beatles advanced, amplified, extended, and improved that style of music. But early detractors could always view them as foreign guys with bad haircuts who were wildly derivative of their predecessors.


Now that we have seen at least three generations of postmodern Canadian poetry, I think it becomes much easier to understand what constitutes a particularly radical literary tradition. What all of these postmodern poets have shared is an appreciation of cutting edge Modernist art, and an understanding of their status and responsibility as postmodernist writers. They understand their place in literary history; that is, that they come “after Modernism.” At the same time, coming “after Modernism” also creates the circumstances whereby their writing is different from Modernist writing. Although postmodern writing extends the advances of Modernist writing, it derives from a different set of social and aesthetic conditions. It is post-Modern, post-war, post-holocaust, post-atomic and, for more than a decade now, post-cold war. While embracing the Modern, these writers understand the necessity of being expressive of a post-Modern reality.


This was certainly true of the Véhicule Poets of Montréal, who were all interested in the radical advances of Modernist art and who were all committed to furthering those advances. In contrast to the earlier Tish poets (who, at least initially, all shared a common teacher, Robert Duncan, and a common textbook, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry), the Véhicule Poets were by no means monolithic in their early influences. This has led some to debate whether these poets actually had anything in common (with this debate sometimes taking placing among the Véhicule Poets themselves). It has certainly been argued more than once that they shared a moment more than they shared an aesthetic.


Looking at their influences, one can certainly see them as various. For example, Norris’s great Modernist poetic influence was William Carlos Williams, whereas Konyves’ was Tristan Tzara. Similarly, they were all astute readers of postmodern American poetry, from which they chose to be influenced by different poets (Snyder and Corso for Farkas; Spicer and O’Hara for Gold; Ginsberg for Konyves; Waldman for Lapp; Whalen for McAuley; Eshleman for Morrissey; and Creeley for Norris). When turning to their immediate predecessors in Canada, we can again see them choosing to be influenced by different poets (Farkas by McFadden; Gold by Bowering and Lee; Konyves by Cohen; Lapp by Kiyooka; McAuley by Nichol; Morrissey by Dudek; and Norris by Cohen). Nevertheless, despite this diversity of specific influences, what the Véhicule Poets shared was a similar orientation: towards experimentalism and radical aesthetic innovation. This at a time when there was something of a conservative cultural swingback starting to take place in Canada (and mostly certainly in Montréal).


What it is perhaps difficult to understand in the early years of the 21st century is that, by the mid-1970s, the social revolutions of the 1960s and the advances of postmodernism in art were in the process of being rejected. By many, both were proclaimed as failed revolutions, and a return to former social and artistic orders was being advocated. In the social sphere, various fundamentalisms began to emerge by the late ‘70s. In art and poetry too, for a time, a new conservatism began to emerge.


Twenty-something years later this may be difficult to perceive, exactly because the social and artistic revolutions were ultimately won. The fact that we have now seen a third generation of postmodernist Canadian poets means that the postmodern tendency in art in Canada was not successfully nullified. Similarly, in society, we have moved on to a greater social and ethnic diversity, rather than back to traditional sexist, racist and homophobic formulations of society that were certainly being called for by various odd camps and their spokespersons in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in both Canada and the United States.


What also needs to be understood is that by the mid-‘70s, Canadian nationalism, in the form that it had taken, had become something of an unacceptable straitjacket. What had started out as a national pride in the ‘60s was, in some quarters, rapidly degenerating into cultural xenophobia. Poets like the Véhicule group found themselves being derided for having literary influences that were not “Canadian” (this had been true, as well, of the earlier Tish poets). Seen from our current globalized perspective, that form of criticism seems ludicrous. Nevertheless, at the time, it was offered in all seriousness. Similarly, within a regional context, the Véhicule Poets were criticized for being interested in poets who were not from Montréal, thus, somehow, betraying “the Montréal tradition.”


At the time, these criticisms made no more sense to any of the Véhicule Poets than they do to a contemporary reader of this essay. Simply put, the people offering these criticisms were on the wrong side of history. They didn’t understand art, and they didn’t understand society. Wherever they were trying to drag art and society back to, art and society had no interest in going.


Here again we encounter a specific characteristic of a second generation of an artistic movement: to stick to the principles of the movement or aesthetic, knowing them to be right. The initial dismissal that any innovation in the arts faces manifests again later as a call for “a return to sanity,” which then needs to be resisted and opposed by the second generation. By the time of the third generation the revolution has usually been won, and the victory is apparent. It is now an incontrovertible fact in Canada, as well as in most of the Western world, that an artistic period of modernism was followed by an artistic period of postmodernism. In the mid-1970s there were many arguing that this simply would not prove to be the case (interestingly, I just recently saw conservative columnist George Will declare on an American Sunday morning political show that September 11th had, rightfully and finally, brought an end “to what you could call postmodernism”).


With hindsight, one can now look back and see that there was an entire generation of second-generation postmodernist poets spread out across Canada who constituted a formidable front. At the time, these writers had a very limited awareness of one another (it needs to be remembered that this was all taking place in a time before the proliferation of contemporary micro-technology). Perhaps the Véhicule Poets and The Four Horsemen were most fortunate in having organized themselves into some forms of a collective. Otherwise, the maintaining of postmodernist principles in what was proving to be a rather anti-postmodernist time could get to be a lonely business. Certainly the Véhicule Poets initially banded together out of a sense of shared orientation, but also out of a need for mutual support. They all felt that there was an aesthetic war still to be won, and intuitively knew that there was strength in collective action.