Reading a Long Poem: Towards the Last Spike

CP00647-002E.J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike has been on my to-read list for a long time. I read a portion of it in a 3rd year Canadian literature course way back in my undergraduate days, and have always had a desire to read it in the full. After doing so this week, I am not sure where I stand. I think one of the things that I am realizing with 10-10-12 is that poetry does not match well with time-constraint reading. If you have force your way through poems, they lose a lot of their value and potential enjoyment. This is not to say that I raced through Towards the Last Spike but rather that I am no longer sure where reading poetry stacks up in terms of my reading preferences. I think poetry plays a vital role in the literary world and can be a very productive force of change, but I also think that it is slowly falling away from our culture’s lens of focus (this is not necessarily poetry’s faulty so much as a change of preferences in form).

Towards the Last Spike is one of Pratt’s major long poems. At 1626 lines long, it is an epic and sets up to be such. Pratt’s other long poems, Brebeuf and his Brethren and The Titanic, similarly aim at a high voice with high action, modelled on classical models of epics. If you are not familiar with Towards, it takes up the construction of the Canadian National Railway across the continent, driven largely by Sir John A. MacDonald. The line represented a symbolic unifying of the continent and helped to solidify the country economically and physically as a nation. Pratt’s earlier Brebeuf takes up the work of Jesuit missionaries in early Canadian history and sets out to mythologize those events. Throughout Towards, you get a strong sense of Pratt attempting to lift a historical event into the mythological realm. Whether he succeeds in this is a different question. I get the sense that immediately following the poem’s publication, he did succeed. The long poem won a Governor General’s award and capped his long career as a poet and professor at Victoria College. However, in the 21st century, I think the results are somewhat mixed. Given that the CN rail has diminished in importance at the hands of the automobile and airplane, we tend to view this achievement as less than absolutely necessary for Canada’s history. Historically speaking, it may be an extremely important event but I think culturally speaking it does not pack an emotional punch for most Canadians of my generation (maybe if the NFB made a film version … just kidding).

Reading the long poem at a friend’s cottage by Algonquin was an interesting experience as the monstrous lizard of nature that Pratt sets up as the foe lay right around me. This was the aspect that I liked most about the poem. Pratt uses this trope of man against nature throughout to create tension, and even if I have critical reservations about it, I think it is quite effective in capturing the unique geography of Canada. I found that the poem worked best when it focused on the physical building of the railroad rather than on the political battles which surrounded it. Again, this might be a problem of my generation of readers rather than a lack of interest. Overall, the process of reading a long poem was enjoyable and I cannot say I was disappointed with Towards the Last Spike. I do think that F.R. Scott’s criticism of Pratt’s omission of the many Chinese workers who built some of the hardest sections still stands. For historical and literary reasons, I do think Pratt’s poem retains a high level of importance even if it does not necessarily hold the same appeal and weight in the 21st century.

I would recommend this poem to scholars and students of Canadian literature.

Pratt, E.J. Towards the Last Spike.” E.J. Pratt: Selected Poems. Eds. Sandra Djwa, W.J. Keith and Zailig Pollock. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000. 155-204. Print.

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