Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke

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Winner of the 1991 Archibald Lampman Award

Selected for Canada Reads 2002

I’ve written on this site before about my love of George Elliott Clarke. He is a master writer, a brilliant public reader and speaker, a top notch literary scholar, a genuine nice guy, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate. His writing is a mix of down-home Nova Scotia charm and rich African-Canadian historicism – which he dubbed “Africadian”. Whylah Falls is Clarke’s second book and one of signature works. This volume is the narrative of the residents of the fictional Nova Scotia black village of Whylah Falls, focusing primarily a young lady named Shelley and her immediate family. This book has the notable distinction of being selected for the first edition of Canada Reads held back in 2002 (defended by sci-fi author Nalo Hopkinson, finishing second only to the winning title In the Skin of a Lion) and still remains one of only two books of poetry to be featured on the competition.

Whylah Falls is a book of poetry but it is a mixed-genre book; it uses traditional narrative poems, prose poems, sermons, dramatic monologues, theatrical scenes, newspaper-style articles, letters, and photography. This collection is often referred to as a novel told through poetry, but I think a better description is a cycle of stories told through poetic forms as each section focuses on different groups of characters in the village.

This has become an important and landmark book in Canadian literature and is now solidly in the canon of Black Canadian writing. I read a selection of these poems in a Canadian Lit course at Saint Mary’s University in 2003 but I had never read the whole volume from start to finish despite the fact I’ve had a first edition sitting on my shelf for years (oddly enough the first edition cover is really terrible and both the 10th and 20th anniversary editions are much nicer). I really really wanted to love this book. I recently re-listened to Canada Reads 2002 and Hopkinson’s impassioned defense ignited a desire to immerse myself into Clarke’s best known world. But. But, in the end, I wasn’t blown away like I was hoping I would be. To this reader, Whylah Falls was just ok. And here’s why.

Firstly, I absolutely adored the love poetry in the two sections titled “The Adoration of Shelley” and I loved the whole section “The Martyrdom of Othello Clemence.” The imagery in the love poems was beautiful, sensual, and tastefully erotic and the narrative in “The Martyrdom” was powerful and vivid. Overall though, I was a little underwhelmed by a lot of the book. I think the primary problem was the huge cast of characters; I was continually lost and had to keep referring back to the Dramatis Personae. Unlike a novel or a play where there is ample narrative introduction and development of primary characters, this format didn’t really allow for that, so you are simply thrown into the middle of this dynamic little town (almost the identical problem I had with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town).

I want to be clear that my rating of “just ok” doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the book. The quality of writing was very high and the innovative nature of the volume was superb. Ultimately though, Whylah Falls didn’t grab me the way Execution Poems did. Maybe I was just the wrong audience or I read the book at the wrong time. All that being said though, this is still one of the most important books in contemporary Canadian literature and maintains an important place in African Canadian culture.

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