Milton Acorn lecture
for Toronto Public Library
July 12, 2012
In my “Introduction” to In a Springtime Instant: The Selected Poems of Milton Acorn, 1950 – 1986 I talk about the Great Generation of Canadian poets. I refer to the years of 1916 through 1926. During that period no less than twenty important poets were born, at least eight of them going on to win the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. Milton Acorn was born into this generation and served as its leading member until his death twenty-six years ago.
The Great Generation formed the bridge between our poets of the Confederation Period, such as Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman, and Isabella Valancy Crawford, and our major Modernist poets, such as Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Patrick Lane. And the Modernists, in their turn, led to the poets of what might be called the “post-Atwood” period, such as John B. Lee, Tom Wayman, and Mary di Michele.
Indeed, the Great Generation insured that the vision of our 19th Century poets was carried on into, and through, the 20th Century. The importance of our Confederation Period writers is that, as interesting and heartfelt as the work may be (and here I fully agree with Margaret Atwood that some pre-Confederation poetry is of high literary value), the poems of pre-Confederation poets like Heavysege, Sangster, and Mair were scarcely more than British-style poems written in Canada, even when they dealt with Canadian topics like the War of 1812 in Upper Canada. These poets possessed little, or no, Canadian vision; little, or no, Canadian understanding. And although both Sangster and Mair were born in Canada, they saw Canada through the English poetic tradition of Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, etc. Our first poet with a Canadian vision was Isabella Valancy Crawford (1850-1887). It was Crawford who inspired Dorothy Livesay, and Livesay inspired poets like Atwood.
Another important contribution of Acorn and his fellow poets was the establishment of People’s Poetry. While hints, and at times more than mere hints, of People’s Poetry can be found in the work of Lampman and Carman, and while People’s Poetry as we know it today came to the forefront when Dorothy Livesay won the Governor General’s Award in 1944 for her stunning collection Day and Night, it was the Acorn Generation that developed it and helped it become Canada’s chief poetic tradition. It would be difficult to imagine the People’s Poetry Movement without the work of three of our finest poets: Acorn, Raymond Souster, and Al Purdy. Ted Plantos has called Milton Acorn, “the lyric heart of a land.” I call Acorn the heart and soul of Canadian poetry.
In the “family tree” of People’s Poetry, with its roots in the Confederation Period, we can see a direct line from Isabella Valancy Crawford through Dorothy Livesay and Margaret Atwood and on to Roo Borson. Likewise, a line runs from Archibald Lampman through Raymond Souster, Milton Acorn, and Miriam Waddington and on to Norma West Linder and Chris Faiers. And once again,
from Bliss Carman through Al Purdy and Irving Layton and on to John B. Lee, the leading People’s Poet of his generation.
As a result, we can clearly discern a tradition stretching from Crawford’s Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Kate, and Other Poems (published in 1884) and Lampman’s Among the Millet and Other Poems (1888) to the poetry being published today, a century and a quarter later. Indeed, the majority of Canadian poets writing today claim to be People’s Poets or to be writing from that tradition. Most of our contemporary poets trace their literary roots back to the Great Generation.
The role of Acorn within the People’s Poetry tradition is central. Although poets like Livesay, Layton, Anne Marriott, Purdy, Souster, Atwood, and MacEwen were publishing books and winning major awards before Milton Acorn’s great decade, it was through his two NC Press titles, More Poems For People and The Island Means Minago, that People’s Poetry was placed in the minds of not just other poets, where it had been for decades, but in the minds of general readers as well. More Poems For People sold thousands of copies, a circulation no other Canadian poetry book could achieve.
Acorn tirelessly roamed from Atlantic Canada to Vancouver and as far north as Dawson Creek presenting readings and lectures. A true Bard of Canada, Acorn probably gave more poetry readings than any other poet of his time. In this way he was like Bliss Carman, also noted for his vigorous poetry readings. And while Acorn was named The Peoples’ Poet by his fellow writers in 1970, Carman, who greatly inspired the young Al Purdy, was the first People’s Poet in Canada, the first poet to captivate the general public’s imagination.
But Acorn’s influence on Canadian poetry went far beyond his well-attended readings and his popular books. He maintained friendships with and influenced a great many of our finest poets: Livesay, Layton, Marriott, Purdy, Souster, Eli Mandel, Joe Rosenblatt, J. Michael Yates, Patrick & Red Lane, Atwood, bill bissett, David Donnell, Dennis Lee, MacEwen, Michael Ondaatje, Seymour Mayne, Maxine Gadd, Peter Trower, Artie Gold, etc.
Acorn also led informal poetry workshops in two of English Canada’s most important cities: Vancouver (at the Advanced Mattress) and Toronto (at the Bohemian Embassy). He also taught creative writing at Toronto’s Three Schools. In this way he encouraged many younger poets, at least seven of whom would win the Governor General’s Award.
(It is true that Acorn would fall out with most of his fellow poets at one time or another. But he still respected them and they him.)
In the spreading of People’s Poetry I like to call Acorn, Souster, and Purdy the “three amigos “. It was Souster who published Acorn’s first full-length book, Jawbreakers, through Contact Press, a publishing house that also involved Louis Dudek and Layton, two of the finest People’s Poets to come out of the Montreal scene. And Purdy edited and introduced Acorn’s great book I’ve Tasted My Blood as well as two other Acorn collections. Souster also published Purdy’s breakthrough collection Poems for All the Annettes. Furthermore, Souster and Purdy won back-to-back Governor General’s Awards in 1964 and 1965. In fact, by 1970 People’s Poets had won the G.G. ten times. And Acorn and his friends would win it six more times during the 1970s.
And so it continues: the winner of the 2011 Governor General’s Award for Poetry is Phil Hall (for his collection Killdeer). Hall writes directly from the tradition of Acorn and Purdy.
Fortunately, Raymond Souster is still with us, and presently writing and publishing with great vigour, the last poet of our Great Generation.
That one strand of poetry has been so central to Canadian literature for 125 years is remarkable. People’s Poetry touches directly on the spirituality and on the philosophical history that has long distinguished Canada from the United States. As clearly shown by such major anthologies as The New American Poetry (1960), A Controversy of Poets (1965), The Contemporary American Poets (1969), and much more recently, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (2011), what we call People’s Poetry remains an important, but nevertheless minor, strand south of the border. This is to say that while a Phil Hall will win the Governor General’s Award up here, such a poet would not likely receive a Pulitzer Prize in the U.S.
Indeed, I believe the most recent People’s Poet to win a Pulitzer was Philip Levine in 1995. And before that it was perhaps Rita Dove in 1987. That is only twice in a quarter of a century. I suspect well over one-third of all poets to win a G.G. during that same twenty-five year span were People’s Poets.
Now, having said all this, I do not want you to think that the poetry written in the 21st Century is like Livesay’s Day and Night or Acorn’s I’ve Tasted My Blood or Purdy’s The Cariboo Horses. It is not. For example, very few poets writing today believe in the perfectibility of humankind. And fewer still are active socialists or communists like Livesay and Acorn had been. Nonetheless, they believe in The People and write for them.
In my view, poets such as Phil Hall, Norma West Linder, and John B. Lee were, and still are, inspired by our poets of the Great Generation. And I will argue further that Acorn played the central role in his generation. Without the poems he wrote between 1950 and 1986, our poetry would not be what we read today.
Does this mean that Canadian poetry is in some way better than American poetry or English poetry or Irish poetry? No. But it does mean that Canadian poetry is different, that it is, in fact, Canadian.
People’s Poetry defined
by James Deahl
Although its roots lie deep in Canada’s Confederation Period (1880-1899), people’s literature as we know it today, both in poetry and in fiction, has been the central literary tradition in Canada since the mid-1920s when Frederick Philip Grove published his first Canadian novel, Settlers of the Marsh (1925). Grove’s poetic counterpart was Dorothy Livesay, who published her first collection, Green Pitcher, in 1928 and whose Day and Night (Governor General’s Award for Poetry, 1944) would set a standard for People’s Poetry that would be followed by Milton Acorn, George Bowering, and Ted Plantos, among many others.
People’s Poetry is founded on two concepts: 1. That progress can be seen in the human universe — in terms of what might be called “social physics”, this means that society moves from disorder to order (thus, society improves, becomes ever more fair and less governed by social Darwinism); and 2. That humanity is perfectible within history. That is, humans play a (if not the) major role in their personal and collective salvation from the flaws of human nature.
From these two principles it follows that: People’s Poetry promotes peace, equality (rather than freedom), and human goodness; People’s Poetry opposes racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination; People’s Poetry opposes classism and class systems. It is, in short, art made for the people, not the elite. People’s Poetry works to preserve and enrich our natural and human environment.
In practice, People’s Poetry tends to: be committed to Modernist concepts while retaining key Romantic ideals; support Socialist / Social-Democratic political movements; oppose large-scale capitalism and its attendant “business culture”; encourage all people to participate in building their culture.
From the days when Grove and Livesay were writing and publishing their early books, realism joined with idealism has been the hallmark of people’s literature in Canada. This sets it apart from Post-modern, Imagist, and Confessional poetries, which also are present in our contemporary literature.
Once Livesay’s Day and Night was in circulation, other poets were quick to follow her lead: Miriam Waddington, Al Purdy, Raymond Souster, Milton Acorn, and Marya Fiamengo, among them. Canada’s leading People’s Poets today include John B. Lee, Robert Priest, Ronnie R. Brown, and Chris Faiers.
Note: People’s Poetry is a term generally used only in Canada. In the United States this type of writing is usually referred to as Populist Poetry, and in Britain as Public Poetry.