Famous Canadian Poets of All Time

Canada is known for its cold weather, predictable snowfall amounts, winter sports, and its profound love for the game of hockey. But did you know Canada is also home to some of the most influential poets worldwide? 

It’s true. Here is a list of some of the most famous Canadian poets throughout history and a look at some of their most prestigious poems.

1. Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood a famous Canadian poet

One of the most influential Canadian poets of all time, Margaret Atwood became famous in the 20th century. With over 18 poetry books under her belt since the 1960s, she is still going strong in the world of literature today.

Most of Atwood’s poetry reflects strong themes of gender identity, political opinions, culture, and religion. Several of her poetry pieces are also whimsical and have inspired mythical creatures or fairy tales.

This poem written by Atwood is one of her most influential poems to date.

In the Secular Night

In the secular night, you wander around

alone in your house. It’s two-thirty.

Everyone has deserted you,

or this is your story;

you remember it from being sixteen,

when the others were out somewhere, having a good time,

or so you suspected,

and you had to babysit.

You took a large scoop of vanilla ice-cream

and filled up the glass with grape juice

and ginger ale, and put on Glenn Miller

with his big-band sound,

lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up the chimney,

and cried for a while because you were not dancing,

then danced, by yourself, your mouth circled with purple.

 

Now, forty years later, things have changed,

and it’s baby lima beans.

It’s necessary to reserve a secret vice.

This is what comes from forgetting to eat

at the stated mealtimes. You simmer them carefully,

drain, add cream and pepper,

and amble up and down the stairs,

scooping them up with your fingers right out of the bowl,

talking to yourself out loud.

You’d be surprised if you got an answer,

but that part will come later.

 

There is so much silence between the words,

you say. You say, The sensed absence

of God and the sensed presence

amount to much the same thing,

only in reverse.

You say I have too much white clothing.

You start to hum.

Several hundred years ago

this could have been mysticism

or heresy. It isn’t now.

Outside there are sirens.

Someone’s been run over.

The century grinds on.”

 

Margaret Atwood

2. John McCrea

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Canadian Poet, John McCrea

From Guelph, Ontario, John McCrea was a soldier and a doctor in World War 1. He finished his degree at the University of Toronto before going on to serve in South Africa in the Boer War in 1899. 

In 1904, McCrea was appointed a surgeon in the British Army. He later went on to serve as a physician in the battle of Ypres where he tended to injured soldiers. His poem “In Flanders Fields” pays tribute to the death of McCrea’s close friend in the battle. 

This poem has gone on to be a significant poem recited by several Canadians yearly in Remembrance Day ceremonies nationwide.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

    That mark our place; and in the sky

    The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

        In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high.

    If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

        In Flanders fields.”

 

John McCrea

3. Al Purdy

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Al Purdy, A Canadian Poet

Born on December 30, 1918, Al Purdy was one of Canada’s best poets of all time. Purdy moved around Canada throughout his lifetime. When he settled in British Columbia, Purdy published his first book of poetry in 1990.

He went on to publish over 30 Canadian poetry books, filled with humor, wit, and intellect. His poetry continues to grow in popularity even after his death in 2000. Here is one of Purdy’s poems that offers his intake on life and death. 

The Last Picture In the World

“A hunched grey shape

framed by leaves

with lake water behind

standing on our

little point of land

like a small monk

in a green monastery

meditating

 

                almost sculpture

except that it’s alive

brooding immobile permanent

for half an hour

a blue heron

and it occurs to me

that if I were to die at this moment

that picture would accompany me

wherever I am going

for part of the way”

 

Al Purdy

4. Emile Nelligan

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Emile Nelligan, a Canadian poet

Perhaps one of the most fascinating stories behind a famous Canadian poet. Born on December 24, 1879, Emile Nelligan was a French Canadian poet known for his interesting work of literature arts between the age of 16 to 19.

Institutionalized at the age of 19, Nelligan never wrote another poem after being hospitalized. Nelligan was initially committed to a psychiatric hospital by his parents who believed he was insane. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent the rest of his life confined.

However, it was later discovered through the examination of his work, that Nelligan may have been gay. It is speculated that his parents had him committed to avoid the stigmatization of his sexuality which was not accepted at the time.

Nelligan died in 1941. His works of literature have since been translated into English and are well-received by many around the world. Here is one of Nelligan’s most famous poems.

Ship of Gold

“There was a mighty ship, of solid gold ‘twas wrought:

Its masts reached to the sky, over oceans unknown;

The goddess Love herself, flesh bare and hair wind-blown,

Stood sculpted at its bow, in sunshine desert hot.

A treach’rous shoal it struck one dark and stormy eve,

Where sailors sirens’ songs unwitting sweetly lull,

And then a shipwreck dread did sink its golden hull

Into the murky depths, grave granting no reprieve!

There was a ship of gold, and through its ghostly side

Such riches it revealed, for which fell pirates vied,

Neurosis, Hate, Disgust, among themselves, those three.

Ah, what remains, now that the storm no longer teems?

What has my heart become, thus set adrift at sea?

Alas, that ship has sunk in an abyss of dreams!”

 

Emile Nelligan

5. F.R. Scott

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F. R. Scott, a Canadian poet

Born on August 1, 1899, F.R. Scott was a famous Canadian poet. In 1977, Scott received the Governor General Award in recognition of his incredible works of poetry. 

Besides being a talented non-fiction writer and poet, Scott was also a jack of all trades, including a politician, a musician, and a lawyer. Here is one of Scott’s most influential poems.

The Canadian Authors Meet

Expansive puppets percolate self-unction

Beneath a portrait of the Prince of Wales.

Miss Crotchet’s muse has somehow failed to function,

Yet she’s a poetess. Beaming, she sails

 

From group to chattering group, with such a dear

Victorian saintliness, as is her fashion,

Greeting the other unknowns with a cheer—

Virgins of sixty who still write of passion.

 

The air is heavy with Canadian topics,

And Carman, Lampman, Roberts, Campbell, Scott,

Are measured for their faith and philanthropists,

Their zeal for God and King, their earnest thought.

 

The cakes are sweet, but sweeter is the feeling

That one is mixing with the literati;

It warms the old and melts the most congealing.

Really, it is a most delightful party.

 

Shall we go round the mulberry bush, or shall

We gather at the river, or shall we

Appoint a Poet Laureate this fall,

Or shall we have another cup of tea?

 

O Canada, O Canada, O can

A day goes by without new authors springing

To paint the native maple, and to plan

More ways to set the selfsame welkin ringing?”

 

F.R. Scott

6. Dorothy Livesay

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Dorothy Livesay, a Canadian Poet

Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on December 29, 1996, Dorothy Livesay was a Canadian poet. She had her first poem published at the age of thirteen. She was furious at the time because her mother had sent her private poetry to various newspapers for publication without her permission. However, once her work was accepted and she received payment, she was a little less angry.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Dorothy pursued a career as a poet. Her writing remained with her throughout her entire life. Right up until her last years, Livesay wrote incredible literacy works for all to enjoy. Here is one of her best-loved poems.

Such Silence

“Some silence that is with beauty swept

With beauty swept all clean:

Some silence that is by summer kept,

By summer kept all green…

 

Give me such silence in a little wood

Where grass and quiet sun

Shall make no sound where I have run

Nor where my feet have stood.”

 

Dorothy Livesay

7. Charles G. D. Roberts

Image Source: Wikipedia. Charles Roberts, Canaian poet
Charles Roberts, Canadian poet

Born January 10, 1860, Charles Roberts was a Canadian poet. Much of his literature included history and Canadian exploration. 

Roberts was known as “the father of poetry.” He published several poetry books during his lifetime of achievements as a Canadian poet. Here is one of his most prestigious poems.

The Departing of Gluskcap

“It is so long ago, and men well-nigh

Forget what gladness was, and how the earth

Gave corn in plenty, and the rivers fish,

And the woods meat, before he went away.

His going was on this wise.

All the works

And words and ways of men and beasts became

Evil, and all their thoughts continually

Were but of evil. Then he made a feast.

Upon the shore that is beside the sea

That takes the setting sun, he ordered it,

And called the beasts thereto. Only the men

He called not, seeing them evil utterly.

He fed the panther’s crafty brood and filled

The lean wolf’s hunger; from the hollow tree

His honey stayed the bear’s terrific jaws;

And the brown rabbit couched at peace, within

The circling shadow of the eagle’s wings.

And when the feast was done he told them all

That now, because their ways were evil grown,

On that same day, he must depart from them,

And they should look upon his face no more.

Then all the beasts were very sorrowful.

 

It was near sunset, and the wind was still,

And down the yellow shore, a thin wave washed

Slowly; and Gluskâp launched his birch canoe,

And spread his yellow sail, and moved from shore,

Though no wind followed, streaming in the sail,

Or roughening the clear waters after him.

And all the beasts stood by the shore and watched.

Then to the west appeared a long red trail

Over the wave; and Gluskâp sailed and sang

Till the canoe grew little, like a bird,

And black, and vanished in the shining trail.

And when the beasts could see his form no more,

They still could hear him, singing as he sailed,

And still, they listened, hanging down their heads

In long row, where the thin wave washed and fled.

But when the sound of singing died, and when

They lifted up their voices in their grief,

Lo! on the mouth of every beast a strange

New tongue! Then rose they all and fled apart,

Nor met again in council from that day.”

 

Charles G.D. Roberts

8. Archibald Lampman

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A Canadian poet, Archilbald Lampman

Archibald Lampman was born on November 17, 1861. He was a famous Canadian poet. Many of his literary works were about nature and the Canadian confederation. 

In 1888, Lampman published his first book of poetry entitled “Among the Millet and Other Poems.” Lampman paid for publishing his book. He later went on to publish the second book of poetry. His third book was in the works when Lampman passed away at the age of 37. Here is one of Lampman’sLampman’s most prestigious poems.

A Vision of Twilight

By a void and soundless river

On the outer edge of space,

Where the body comes not ever,

But the absent dream hath place,

Stands a city, tall and quiet,

And its air is sweet and dim;

Never sound of grief or riot

Makes it mad, or makes it grim.

 

And the tender skies thereover

Neither sun nor star, behold–

Only dusk it hath for cover,–

But a glamour soft with gold,

Through a mist of dreamier essence

Then the dew of twilight smiles

On strange shafts and domes and crescents,

Lifting into eerie piles.

 

In its courts and hallowed places

Dreams of distant worlds arise,

Shadows of transfigured faces,

Glimpses of immortal eyes,

Echoes of serenest pleasure,

Notes of perfect speech that fall,

Through an air of endless leisure,

Marvelously musical.

 

And I wonder there at even,

Sometimes when my heart is clear,

When a wider round of heaven

And a vaster world are near,

When from many a shadow steeple

Sounds of dreamy bells begin,

And I love the gentle people

That my spirit finds therein.

 

Men of a diviner making

Then the sons of pride and strife,

Quick with love and pity, breaking

From a knowledge old as life;

Women of a spiritual rareness,

Whom old passion and old woe

Molded to a slenderer fairness

Then the dearest shapes we know.

 

In its domed and towered center

Lies a garden wide and fair,

Open for the soul to enter,

And the watchful townsmen there

Greet the stranger gloomed and fretting

From this world of stormy hands,

With a look, that deals forgetting

And a touch that understands.

 

For they see with power, not borrowed

From a record taught or told,

But they loved and laughed and sorrowed

In a thousand worlds of old;

Now they rest and dream forever,

And with hearts serene and whole

See the struggle, the old fever,

Clear as on a painted scroll.

 

Wandering by that grey and solemn

Water, with its ghostly quays–

Vistas of vast arch and column,

Shadowed by unearthly trees–

Biddings of sweet power compel me,

And I go with bated breath,

Listening to the tales they tell me,

Parables of Life and Death.

 

In a tongue that once was spoken,

Ere the world was cooled by Time,

When the spirit flowed unbroken

Through the flesh, and the Sublime

Made the eyes of men far-seeing,

And their souls as pure as rain,

They declare the ends of being,

And the sacred need of pain.

 

For they know the sweetest reasons

For the products most malign–

They can tell the paths and seasons

Of the farthest suns that shine.

How the moth wings iridescence

By an inward plan was wrought,

And they read me curious lessons

In the secret ways of thought.

 

When day turns, and over heaven

To the balmy western verge

Sail the victor fleets of even,

And the pilot stars emerge,

Then my city rounds and rises,

Like a vapour formed afar,

And its sudden girth surprises,

And its shadowy gates unbar.

 

Dreamy crowds are moving yonder

In a faint and phantom blue;

Through the dusk, I lean and wonder

If their winsome shapes are true;

But in veiling indecision

Come my questions back again–

Which is real? The fleeting vision?

Or the fleeting world of men?

 

Archibald Lampman

9. Anne Carson

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Anne Carson, Canadian poet

Born June 21, 1950, Anne Carson is a Canadian poet. She earned her degree at the University of Toronto. Carson has spent most of her adult career teaching literature throughout Canada and the United States of America.

Carson has written several books of poetry, mostly about love. Here is one of Carson’s best-loved poems.

O Small Ecstacy of Love

I like being with you all night with closed eyes.

What luck—here you are

coming

along the stars!

I did a road trip

all over my mind and heart

and

there you were

kneeling by the roadside

with your little toolkit

fixing something.

Give me a world, you have taken the world I was.

 

Anne Carson

10. Dionne Brand  

Image Source: University of Toronto, Dionne Brand a Canadian poet
Dionne Brand, a Canadian Poet

Although Dionne Brand wasn’t born in Canada, she immigrated here in 1970. She earned her BA in Philosophy and English at the University of Toronto. She published her first work of poetry in 1978 entitled “Fore Day Morning.”

Brand has since published several books of poetry, non-fiction books, anthologies, and film work. Here is one of her most famous poems.

From Thirsty

“This city is beauty

unbreakable and amorous as eyelids,

in the streets, pressed with fierce departures,

submerged landings,

I am innocent as thresholds

and smashed night birds, lovesick,

as empty elevators

let me declare doorways,

corners, pursuit, let me say

standing here in eyelashes, in

invisible breasts, in the shrinking lake

in the tiny shops of untrue recollections,

the brittle, gnawed life we live,

I am held and held

the touch of everything blushes me,

pigeons and wrecked boys,

half-dead hours, blind musicians,

inconclusive women in bruised dresses

even the habitual grey-suited men with terrible

briefcases, how come, how come

I anticipate nothing as intimate as history

would I have had a different life

failing this embrace with broken things,

iridescent veins, ecstatic bullets, small cracks

in the brain, would I know these particular facts,

how a phrase scars a cheek, how water

dries love out, this, a thought as casual

as any second eviscerates a breath

and this, we meet in careless intervals,

in coffee bars, gas stations, in prosthetic

conversations, lotteries, untranslatable

mouths, in versions of what we may be,

a tremor of the hand in the realization

of endings, a glancing blow of tears

on skin, the keen dismissal in speed”

 

by Dionne Brand

Final Thoughts

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A feather and paper

With so many famous Canadian poets, it was hard to narrow down my list to just 10. Who are your favorite Canadian poets? Please leave your reply in the comment section below. We would love to hear from you.

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