Home and Away, or Talking to Americans: Hockey, Poetry and Canadians in the classroom
(Presented at Canada’s Game: Critical Perspectives on Ice Hockey and Identity. Bridgewater State University, Plymouth, MA. April 14-16, 2005.)
The first time and last time I gave a paper on hockey literature at the now legendary conference organized by the Gorsebrook Institute in 2001, the objective, academic take on hockey in Canadian literature I first planned to present never fully materialized. Instead, and to my own surprise as someone who was never a player and only a fan of wavering dedication, I found my paper veering into the world of autobiography. Before I knew it, I was talking about my grandfather who had recently passed away and whose practice of watching televised hockey with the sound turned down had revealed to me the ways in which play-by-play, the narrative of hockey crafted by announcers locked in a booth far removed from the true action of the game, works to reduce rather than enhance the complex quality of the game. It was more than that, though, that brought my grandfather to mind; talking hockey left me with a sense of loss, the loss of a friend, a mentor, and the person with whom I had sat one December day in the early 1980s at the Northlands Coliseum to watch Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, and Fuhr lose to the Leafs. This sense of personal loss comes to mind today, as I talk about hockey once again, this time in the United States, and in something I never would have foreseen back in 2001, as an assistant professor at an American university. For today, when I talk hockey to the vast majority of people I know back in Vermont, I again feel without a true partner in that conversation; the silence that ensues is not one predicated on a shared understanding or experience of the game, as it was with my grandfather, but rather on a deep cultural disconnect between the Canadian and, for the most part, American experience.
As a teacher of Canadian literature to, I am happy to report, American students almost universally enthusiastic about the topic, I am constantly grappling with this difference in experience and cultural background. While this lack of awareness about Canada and its people can be of great relief to a Canadian sharing the name of the Prime Minister, someone who few people have ever heard of here, one of the moments where the profundity of this gap between our national identities and cultures has been most apparent to me, than it was on the day in spring 2004 that I brought Richard Harrison to campus to read from his book Hero of the Play. When he came to my class, most of my students had already read a dozen or so of Harrison’s poems and they were eager to hear him read them in person, as many of them had never heard a poet read his or her work before. Harrison’s reading, and the students’ reaction to it, revealed a great deal to me. For me, already half-way through my first year, or academic season, at UVM, Harrison’s poetry was a lifeline reaffirming and even perhaps reconstituting my own sense of my Canadianness but it was also a moment where I truly saw in my students’ faces just how much my sense of my own nation’s literature, its culture, its identity, will never fully translate, despite my best efforts to help them understand their northern neighbour.
One of the moments in the reading that morning when this all became unsettlingly clear to me was when Harrison read his poem “Coach’s Corner” (50), a poem whose subject would be recognized by any Canadian, hockey fan or not.
The almost clerical collar, he is the priest of rock ’em
sock ’em. He silences his more knowledgeable friends
with his faith in the bodies of men and without him
and his kind the NHL would be as vapid as the All-Star
Game forever. He is loud and whiny and complaining,
and he chokes up on air if he’s hurt by someone’s words –
everything a man should not be, yet every sports bar
wills itself to quiet, turns up the volume on its dozen
sets only for his words. He is their man in a way no
hero of the play could be his big league career was a
single game, but remember, he used to tell Bobby Orr
what to do. and Bobby listened as we listen though
we let the game go on in silence. He slams foreigners,
praises women in all the ways wrong for our time,
rejects any wavering in the masculinity of his troops
like, a colonel in the US Marines. And yet he is here
because he is unafraid to love, love the game, the
journeyman players, love the code that makes a man
a man – and if you don’t know it I ain’t gonna tell ya.
He loves the fans, for all the pain we cause him, and
we are here with our own uncomfortable backs for that
dogged love, the voice that rises like a tenor sax, the
pointed finger, eyes narrowed to see clear and deep
the world that has him trapped on two sides already.
(Richard Harrison, Hero of the Play: 10th Anniversary Edition. Toronto: Wolsak & Wynn, 2004. 50. Reproduced with permission of the author)
Of all the poems that Harrison read that day, this was the poem that connected least with its audience and when it came time to read for a second class that day, he chose to leave the poem out. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t get the poem, Richard and reflected later that night over dinner with one of my Canadian colleagues, it was that they had never heard of Don Cherry. Harrison and I saw this response coming, though, before he had even dropped the puck. In his introduction to the poem, Harrison tried unsuccessfully to explain to them who Don Cherry was, and then I joined in. As Richard and I tried to explain that there was no American equivalent we could even think of, The more we tried to explain, the more bewilderment I could see on the faces of my students, as they clearly began to recognize that these two Canadians at the front of the room were pretty different after all. While the poem “Coach’s Corner” didn’t have the effect that either Richard or I had imagined it would, the other poems he chose that day connected with the students in a strong way. They really seemed to understand, though maybe not in the same way Canadians and American hockey fans would, poems like “African Hockey Poem #1,” “Using the Body,” “Hockey Mom,” and one of Harrison’s best, “Stanley Cup.”
From time to time over the years, I’ve thought back fondly on the day of Harrison’s visit to campus and occasionally smiled at how impossible it truly is to translate Don Cherry. It was not until quite recently though, that I began to think seriously about what our experience that day had to say about the necessity of context in understanding poetry, hockey, and yes even my own identity as Canadian who spends most of his time these days talking to Americans about Canada. Does the poem, the game, the Canadian, become something impossible to understand fully outside of its cultural context? Or, does it in fact become something altogether different while at the same time managing to retain its rich complexity (I’m speaking of the game and poetry there more than myself) that is more readily recognizable at home than away.
This is, in fact, also a question that Richard Harrison seems to have been grappling with, though perhaps more in regard to the context of time passing in the life of the game, the poems, and the poet, as he revised and expanded his book Hero of the Play for its 10th anniversary edition which came out in 2004. One of the remarkable aspects of that new edition is Harrison’s introduction to the book, entitled “10 Years with the Hero: On Hockey and Poetry” in which he once again beautifully combines hockey and poetry. In “10 Years with the Hero,” which proves Harrison to be as fine an essayist as he is a poet, Harrison first examines what he feels to be the Canadianness of the game before moving on to investigate how metaphor works, not only in his own poetry but in language itself.
In Harrison’s essay he works through the concept of metaphor, beginning with Robert Frost’s clear-cut description of a metaphor as “a way of speaking about one thing in terms of another.” What’s missing in that definition, Harrison argues, is the role of the reader, whose role adds a third point in that connection between two ideas, turning the straight line into a triangle. The reader either gets the metaphor or doesn’t, but in any case it is she who puts the two ideas together in her head and makes the connections anticipated or perhaps even unseen by the poet. It is in this way, that meaning gets created. It gets created in the act of reading and not the writing. The text, as theorists like Roland Barthes told us years ago, is created by the reader and not the author.
What made the “Coach’s Corner” poem come up short that day was not, in fact, because my students couldn’t understand who Don Cherry was, but rather it was that Richard and I believed somehow that the poem had to be about him. The poem, in fact, doesn’t mention Cherry by name, in part because its so obvious, so particular, that in some ways it could only be about him. But when you look at it again more carefully you also see that it could be about anyone; while we see it as describing one particular man, another reader can actually see it painting the picture of a remarkable character, who could easily be one of the great all-time characters of literature. By first trying to explain to my students who Don Cherry was, we had actually been attempting to anchor the poem in our own Canadian context, wanting them to hear those words, and see those pictures in our mind, as only someone who has lived Hockey Night in Canada could do.
If anything, the person reading Coach’s Corner who knows nothing about Cherry may in fact have the ability to read the poem in the purest form possible, in a way that makes the poem, to quote Harrison, “gravity free,” a term he uses to describe what happens when “a metaphor opens up a new way of thinking [. . . and] you are loosed from the ordinary categories of thought.” The mistake he and I made that day, then, was not in having him read the poem, but in giving in to the temptation of trying to position the students in the same point of the metaphorical triangle in which we, as Canadians and watchers of HNIC, find ourselves. Had we truly understood the impossibility of seeing the game, reading the poem, and understanding Canada, in the same way that we do, Richard and I would have allowed them to create their own meanings in the way that his poems, because of their remarkable complexity, do everyday, especially when they’re away rather than at home.