"I suppose all my life I have fought against obscurantism!
For me the true intellectual is a simple person who knows how to be close to
nature and to ordinary people. I tend to therefore shy away from academic poets
and academic critics. They miss the essence.”
“Dorothy Livesay began in this book (Poems for People) in the tradition of Canadian poets who dedicated
their poems and their lives to the working class.”
Dorothy Livesay (1909-1996) and Milton Acorn (1923-1986) are probably two of the most important public and political poets that emerged, read and wrote in Canada in the 20th century. Livesay and Acorn shared many of the same concerns, although, by trail’s end, they did go in different directions and hike down different paths. Livesay was a social democrat with some democratic socialist leanings. Acorn was a Red Tory with socialist leanings. Acorn returned to his Anglican roots near the end of his life, and Livesay moved away from her Anglican beginnings. Both poets were, though, concerned with writing to, for and about the people (and the struggle of the common person) in Canada and on the larger international stage. Both wrote in a direct, accessible and easily understood way and manner.
Livesay’s Poems for People (1947) was written and published just after Livesay was married and the ravages and brutality of WW II. Acorn’s More Poems for People (1972) was written and published in the midst and thick of the Vietnam War and a few years after Acorn had won the People’s Poet Award in 1970. This short essay will briefly touch on how both Livesay and Acorn wrote books of poetry from and to the people, and how their approach was different.
Poems for People is a small book, and it is divided into three distinct yet overlapping sections: 1) Poems of Childhood, 2) Poems for People, and 3) Poems as Pictures. The missive begins with a poem, ‘V-J Day’. This poem, in many ways, is a fine opening to the collection. Livesay reflects on how, as WW II was in its worst and most dreadful years, her future husband asked for her hand in marriage. This ‘seemed a poor thing to do’, and yet they did it. Life was affirmed in the midst of death and carnage. Poems for People begins in this rather simple yet insightful way.
Part I, ‘Poems in Childhood’, takes the reader into both Livesay’s childhood (and how she interpreted some of the hurts and harm that came her way in this period of life), and poetic reflections on children. Spring and day has a way of breaking through the coldest winter and the darkest night. This is not a book of sentimental poetry. There is ‘winter wisdom’ in it, and such wisdom only emerges from living through the bleakest moments inside the soul and society. The early years must, inevitably, be left behind, and Livesay has a most inviting and meditative piece on the suffering Christ, ‘Inheritance’, to move the collection forward. ‘Inheritance’ stands in stark and striking contrast to ‘Preludium’ in which there is this optimistic and upward growth and development of humanity. The liberal notion of progress faces the Christ of the Cross. Who has the deeper truth and winter wisdom? ‘Point Counterpoint’ touches on the longing to meet and real friends, soul friends on the journey, and how we tend to create such imaginary friends if we do not have the real thing. ‘The Mother’, in a poignant manner, reviews and ponders the meaning of what it is like to be a mother and the many demands of each day on such mothers. ‘Small Fry’ is a fine companion to ‘The Mother’. The life of a small child, a small fry, brings together mother and child in a most compelling and attractive way.
‘The Inheritors’ walks the reader into the tensions and struggles of the First Nations people and the deep beat in the soul of such people that cannot be stilled, silenced nor erased. ‘Abracadabra’ is put together as a nursery rhyme, but it is a nursery tale thick with much meaning and import. ‘Carnival’ is much the same. Life is like a carnival with all sorts of amusements, distractions and diversions. The question for the little boy is this:
How do we prevent ourselves from being so mesmerized by the carnival that we forget where the open door is to real life? Part I, therefore, is about beginnings, struggles aplenty, family life and the many diversions that can distract us from the important and substantive things on our human journey. What, then, are those important things that we must face if we are ever going to live a meaningful human life?
Part II, ‘Poems for People’, takes us from the world of childhood, domesticity and the struggles of the inheritance of suffering offered to us by the Cross of Christ and the First Nations into the inheritance left from the wasteland of WW II. ‘Of Mourners’ points to reasons to mourn for all the children that will never live out their lives. ‘Letter from Canada’ cuts deep into the meaning and suffering of the war. Just as in Part I the Canadian wild geese were metaphors of freedom and hope, so, in Part II, the wild geese under the blue canopy offer hope when all seems dreary and dead. ‘Contact’ is a touching poem in which the longing for real contact with another is often denied, but the longing and hunger will not quit. ‘Sonnets for a Soldier’ and ‘Railway Station’ work on the same themes. There is leaving, there is loneliness, there is absence, there is death. How, in the midst of all this, can some sanity and inner quietness be found? Is it possible to find a still, inner peace and quiet when all is so frantic and chaotic both in the outer and inner worlds? There are two poems, ‘F D R’, and they are eulogies to Roosevelt. Livesay suggests that Whitman and Roosevelt might be true kith and kin. Many were convinced that it was the entrance of FDR and the USA into WW II that ended the war, and Livesay reflected such a perspective. The end of WW II ushered much of the world into the Cold War and the threat of atomic destruction and death. ‘Improvisations on an Old Theme’ ponders the potential end and fate of those who live in the Cold War ethos. Will they die a natural death or will the atomic bomb wipe them out? ‘London Revisited’ explores the London of the War years and the London that had come to life again. There had been violence and much had been destroyed, but there was life again. The city was rebuilding, and just as spring followed winter, so fresh and new life was emerging, Phoenix like, from the ashes of the War. ‘Matins’ is another poem, drawing from the Anglican cycle of prayer, that celebrates the beginning of a new day. Matins is the first of the Divine Offices, and just as London is being revived and rebuilt, the ancient cycle of prayer reminds one and all that each day is a new beginning. We are not meant to deny suffering, death and pain, but we can overcome such realities if we can see beyond them. ‘Lullaby’ is a warning poem. Let us not, as we enter this new world, be lulled into sleep by the carnivals and lullaby songs of those who would drug one and all.
Part III, ‘Poems as Pictures’, brings the reader to Canada and Wales. There are only four poems in this the final section. ‘Okanagan Pictures’ and ‘Pheasant’ are set in the Okanagan area of British Columbia. The scents, sights and sounds of the area in the day and night speak to and draw the poet. A silly pheasant almost loses its life in the Okanagan Lake, and Livesay ponders the significance of the meaning in such a near death. ‘Evensong’ brings us back to the Anglican meditative cycle of prayer. Rather than the Prayer Book being Livesay’s guide, the natural liturgical cycle of the day and the seasons become her guide and teacher. There is a song to be heard when evening comes and dusk arrives. Matins begins the day and Evensong winds it down. These ancient and time tried ways are brought into the rebuilding of London and life in the Okanagan. ‘Autumn in Wales’ concludes the poetic missive. Autumn will come, but in the coming, there is much that can be learned from religion, family, nature and history. Poems for People tells us as much.
Milton Acorn won the ‘People’s Poet Award’ in 1970 for I’ve Tasted My Blood. Al Purdy wrote an introduction to the book, and this missive is a combination of poems (as expected) and short stories. Acorn’s two short stories in I’ve Tasted My Blood, ‘The Legend of the Winged Dingus’ and ‘The Red and Green Pony’ walk the curious reader into the compelling and attractive world of poetry, prose and short stories that were at the core and centre of Acorn’s literary vision. The publication of More Poems For People (1972) follows a similar format to I’ve Tasted My Blood. Most of More Poems For People is laden with poems, but there are three essays that speak forth Acorn’s vision in a not to be forgotten way and manner. ‘The Garbageman is Drunk’, ‘On Not Being Banned by the Nazis’ and ‘What are the Odds?’ tell their own convincing tales, in a realistic vein, about Canadian society and the fight for the Canadian way and identity in opposition to American imperialism.
More Poems For People (1972) was, consciously so, living out of the tradition of poetry from and for the people that Dorothy Livesay was so committed to and grounded in. More Poems For People is much less organized and structured than Livesay’s Poems for People, but both books of poetry are very much about the lives of the people rather than the high mucky mucks of society. There is more about Canada and Canadian political life in More Poems For People. Acorn, I think, was much more of a political poet than Livesay even though Livesay had many political themes in her poetry. There is also much more about Canadian people in More Poems For People than in Livesay’s Poems for People.
It is significant, perhaps, that More Poems For People begins with a long poem to Norman Bethune. ‘Bethuniverse’ raises all the big and challenging questions about medicine, being Canadian and justice. Norman Bethune, in many ways, was a model for Acorn of what the ideal Canadian could and might be, and ‘Bethuniverse’ says as much.
Many are the tantalizing love poems in More Poems For People. Acorn was never shy in word or action about approaching the complex and often complicated nature of love and relationships. Nature is often used as a convincing landscape from which many of the love poems are shaped, formed and articulated. ‘Live with me on Earth’, ‘Already It Seems You Haunt this Cottage’, ‘To Rose’, ‘Come Live with Me and Be my Love’, ‘She Defines Herself Early’ and ‘She’, in a delicate and haunting manner, raise the questions about love, its possibilities and many deviations and distortions. But, the love poetry in More Poems For People is rather slight and meager when compared to the political poetry.
There is much more overt and succinct political poetry in Acorn’s More Poems For People than is Livesay’s Poems for People. Acorn is much more hard-hitting, blunt and to the point than Livesay. The poetry is still to and for the people, and to and against the high mucky mucks, but Acorn does not flinch or go soft where Livesay has a tendency to be more delicate and elusive. The heroes are held high in this slim volume, and the enemies are placed in the crosshairs. Bethune, Bobby Burns, Joe Hensby, Red Lane, Che Guevera and Ho Chi Minh are given the seats of honour and privilege, whereas the RCMP, the ruling class, insurance corporations, militarism, Ottawa and Canadian literary critics are taken to task. The political and love poems are scattered throughout this collection of poems, and Acorn takes his arrow from the quiver in ‘Ode to the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church’ and fires straight into the heart of an affluent and indifferent form of Christianity that seems to have forgotten its deeper core and centre.
The three essays in More Poems For People are hard hitting reflections on the Canadian fight for a nationalist vision, the liberal tendency to compromise such a vision, the colonial and comprador class in Canada and, most worrisome for Acorn as a poet, the way many Canadian poets ignore the hard economic and political questions. Acorn takes Rainer Maria Rilke to task for reducing poetry to an aesthetic mode that is quite harmless to those in power. Rilke, in some sense, becomes a metaphor for many Canadian poets. ‘On not being Banned by the Nazis’ ends with the gauntlet thrown down before the feet of many a Canadian literary critic and poet. I quote at length the final few paragraphs in ‘On not being Banned by the Nazis’:
"I now realize that what I meant was ‘Imperialist Academics’--such as Northrop Frye, who in the past did more than any other one man to abolish everything native and non-European in our literature. With the passage of Canada from a colony of England to a colony of Lower America (the U.S.A..) things have reached such a state that even imitation of imperialist models is frowned upon. American poets are sometimes permitted to think, sometimes say something of significance. Canadian poets must not, on the pain of immediate critical displeasure, even suggest they have a brain. B. P. Nicoll actually hides his good poems (for posterity one must presume), and published masses of garbage about some figure of his private mythos called Captain Canada. Nichol’s Captain Canada makes no sense, thus passing on the very esoteric message that Canada makes no sense. For this he has been awarded the Governor General’s Prize’.
"On an even higher place of dullness, as fertile as the mountains of the Moon—not those in Africa but on the Moon itself—stands George Bowering, personal puppet of Warren Tollman (whose name I might be mispelling but I don’t care) a ‘landed immigrant’ professor in B.C. who after fourteen years’ residence has never bothered to make himself a Canadian. Bowering’s poems have to be read to be believed…so incredibly bad, so filled with faulty observation, so marked by such an absolute lack of any sense of proportion or humour; that they, too, have gotten the ‘Governor General’.
"Bowering and Nichol are good colonial boys—without a thought in their heads which they will reveal. At least publicly they leave all thinking to their Imperialist bosses. People like these, and there are many like them, are what I mean by ‘academics’ although Nicol in fact has no university connection. Neither did Ezra Pound or Rainer Maria Rilke."
It is quite impossible to miss Acorn’s message in this essay. More Poems For People is about love, about politics and about those who demean and distort the message from the Muses. Frye, Nicol, Tallman, Bowering, Pound and Rilke come under heavy fire. Acorn’s longer essay, ‘What are the Odds?’ traces, in a historic manner, how Canadians, against many odds in the past, have emerged the victors. We are a people who have risen to many a challenge and stayed the course. Our present challenge is the American empire, and, for Acorn, the question is this: how can we overcome such an imperial opposition? We have overcome many odds in the past. Is it possible to do so again? Such is the challenge in ‘What are the Odds?’
There is no doubt that More Poems For People is not as organized or as tightly written as Livesay’s Poems for People, but what it lacks in organization and compactness, it makes up in political passion and probing love poems. Both Livesay and Acorn longed to speak to the people of Canada. Acorn did this in a more focused and political manner. Livesay did this in a more elusive, inviting and evocative manner. Both Livesay and Acorn are poets of the people, and both poets speak in a way that is accessible and vivid with the perennial themes of the human journey.
Acorn was very much indebted to the vision of Livesay, and those who follow in the tracks of Acorn and Livesay stand in a noble Canadian line and lineage. There were those like Ken Leslie, Archibald Lampman and Alexander McLachlan before them. There are those like Robin Mathews, Ted Plantos, Marya Fiamengo and James Deahl who follow them. May the tradition of Canadian political poetry ever thrive and flourish. May it also be given much more time, place, and public attention.