Canadians across the country have poems in their pockets, from a pretty little haiku to historical epics to the latest pop earworm. Every year new poets give us wonderful and engaging works. But we can’t forget the strong Canadian poetic tradition captured by, among others, Bliss Carman’s romantic odes to landscape, Stephen Leacock’s biting satire, PK Page’s minimalism, Dionne Brand’s aesthetic activism, and Michael Ondaatje’s ethereal imaginings.
In honour of Poem in your Pocket Day, celebrated across the United States on April 18, here are a few of our favourite Canadian poems that we at The Historica-Dominion Institute keep with us, to be drawn out as necessary, and recited either with a flourish or silently to ourselves. As you can see, we have no problem including the works of Canada’s great songwriters among our favourites.
The Song My Paddle Sings by E. Pauline Johnson (1861-1913)
“This poem has paddled its way into my Canadian heart. I love it because it celebrates the uniquely Canadian love affair with the timeless canoe.”
Elegy for Gump Worsley by John K. Samson, from The Weakerthans album, Reunion Tour, 2007.
“This poem perfectly captures the allure of an athlete we can see reflected in ourselves. Human, with flaws, fears, and disappointments. in doing so, it subverts the traditional hero-worship of Canadian hockey fandom.”
Fifty-Mission Cap by Gord Downie, from The Tragically Hip album, Fully Completely, 1992.
“It has a great, true story, and Gord Downie really did learn this from the back of a hockey card, as the song says. Neat bit of trivia: “Fifty-Mission Cap” refers to a special cap that was awarded to Allied Second World War pilots who had flown 50 missions or more over enemy territory.”
There are Some Men by the inimitable Leonard Cohen, from The Spice-Box of Earth, 1960.
“This poem speaks beautifully of loss, and of paying tribute in quiet celebratory ways to those that have marked your life too deeply to be mourned in conventional ways. Everyone should be so fortunate as to have at least a few people for whom they would name mountains, I know I have.”
The River Pilgrim: A Letter by George Elliott Clarke from Whylah Falls, 1990.
“I discovered George Elliott Clarke’s poetry when I was living in Halifax, and it showed me a part of East Coast Canada I knew very little about: the Black Canadian community of Nova Scotia. He’s also written some of the most beautiful lines on love and lust I’ve ever read.”
The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service, from Songs of a Sourdough, 1907.
“This is a classic Canadian poem from “The Bard of the Yukon.” It’s fun to read on your own, but how can you beat listening to the great Johnny Cash give his rendition?”
Farewell to Annabel by Gordon Lightfoot, from Old Dan’s Records, 1972.
“The greatest living Canadian poet is Gordon Lightfoot. This song is obscure but it’s one of my faves.”
Newfoundland by E.J.Pratt, from Newfoundland Verse, 1923.
“I know it’s so boring and obvious to choose a poem about geography. How typically Canadian. But in Newfoundland landscape and weather are undeniably in your face. The wind really does blow consistently and significantly, to the point that it deserves attention in an epic poem. It’s a poem about how a place can shape a people and who can deny that Canadians are shaped by shield and prairie and shoreline?”
The School Globe by James Reaney, from Selected Shorter Poems, 1975
“I had to memorize this poem for a Grade 8 poetry assignment and, to this day, over a decade later, I can still recite it by rote. I always loved the unexpected, dark and dramatic turn it takes at the end.”
Les rendez-vous manqués by Gilles Vigneault, from the album, L’hiver, sung by Claude Léveillée, 1960.
“My mother introduced me to Gilles Vigneault at a very young age. I love poems and songs that can paint a picture in my mind. This poem always spoke to me – we are so busy with our jobs and trying to make more money that we sometime forget about all the little things in our life and how wonderful they can be.”
“Un de mes poèmes préféré est La nuit de la poétesse québécoise, Anne Hébert. Avec des mots simples, elle a su recréer, je pense, cet abandon dans la nuit…pour moi, qui n’aime que la clarté du jour !”
Who’s in your pocket?