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Canadian Poetry 1954

Contact (An International Magazine of Poetry), nos. 4–8 (1953), edited by Raymond Souster.

Cerberus , by Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, Raymond Souster (1952); Twenty-four Poems , by Louis Dudek (1952); The Black Huntsmen , by Irving Layton (1951); Love the Conqueror Worm , by Irving Layton (1953); Canadian Poems 1850–1952 (1953). Toronto: Contact Press.

A roundup of Canadian poetry, A.D. 1954, would probably bring in little else but these. The American reader is, or may well be, familiar enough with the work of A. M. Klein, P. K. Page, and perhaps one or two others—but I think that Irving Layton, for one example, may well have escaped attention, despite the fact that he is a better poet than either of the two noted. Why this is so, like they say, is of course simple enough to guess. Local conditions, and a prevailing provincialism, have kept the Canadians wedged between England on the one hand, and the United States on the other, and it takes a somewhat trusting soul to stick his nose out.

Contact Press, however, has broken out of this usual dilemma by way of both books and a magazine, and if a reader wants to see where actual conditions for a healthy literature can be found, he might well look here. For example, Contact (the magazine) is nothing very much to look at, nor does it have many of those great names well calculated to keep the reader buying. But it is, in spite of itself, international —insofar as its tone is open, its critical sense

Black Mountain Review , Spring 1954.


almost sufficient, and because it prints in each issue four or five good poems, demonstrably good poems, by poets writing all the way from Freiburg to Mexico City. Not to mention Montreal.

That, in itself, is something—and with the canons of good taste, and good business, so well set in the States, one can do worse than subscribe to such a magazine—if only for the fine sense of air, and openness, it does have.

To maintain such a thing is not of course simple, either for those writing, or the editors thereof. It is a considerable scramble to get together enough material and enough money for a decent issue of any magazine, of any length, coming out four times a year. And the Canadians, in spite of ingenuousness and an almost sticky goodwill toward Literature, are by no means apt to run out and buy something by people who are not quite acceptable. Raymond Souster, in Cerberus , is eloquent enough.

Turning the crank of a mimeograph
In a basement cellar to produce the typical
"Little magazine" perhaps fifty will read,
Twenty remember (and with luck) five will learn from.

The delights of the literary salon, etc., are by no means what these men know:

Engaged through the week at Usura,
Loaning the rich the poor man's money,
And kidding yourself it does not leave
The marks of its uselessness upon you.

So that to say something, anything , in protest, has been of necessity their payment.

Back of that is the problem of how to say it, if one is writing poetry, and this is much the same headache, for Canadians, that it is for anyone else. And they have no all-pervading tone, to sneak by with, no Great Men for a shield. Dudek, in both Cerberus and Twenty-four Poems , founders, I think, on this lack of patent authority. Or else he has not yet got to his own idiom—and too much resembles, at present, a very desperate man in a very crowded store, trying on thousands of hats, coats, and gloves, in hopes to find something to fit, before the clock strikes five-thirty. On the other hand, more relaxed, he can be very graceful:

An Air by Sammartini

It was something you did not know
                                  had existed—by a dead Italian.


Neither words nor a shape of flesh
                                 but of air;
                                              whose love it celebrated
                                                      and "cold passion"

Amoroso Canto , a crystal
                                    that fell from musical fingers—
As a cloud comes into the eye's arena,
                                 a certain new tree
                                                    where the road turns,
                                  or love, or a child, is born,
                                                       or death comes:

Whatever is found or is done
                                  that cannot be lost or changed.

Which, in defiance, really, of the 'love,' 'death,' etc., ends with as hard and simple a statement as any man might ask for. Because 'general statement' is Dudek's bête noire , on other occasions, and no matter all the goodwill in the world, his preface in Cerberus (with its "The way to freedom and order in the future will lie through art and poetry . . .") is incredibly naive.

Layton seems to have sprung from somewhat more hardened stock. One can imagine him biting nickels, etc., at a much earlier date. His poetry is tougher, and at the same time more gentle. His idiom, to call it that, is much of the old and even 'traditional' way of it, except that he has a very sharp ear, and a hard, clear head for rhythms:

Mrs. Fornheim, Refugee

Very merciful was the cancer
Which first blinding you altogether
Afterwards stopped up your hearing;
At the end when Death was nearing,
Black-gloved, to gather you in
You did not demur, or fear
One you could not see or hear.

I taught you Shakespeare's tongue, not knowing
The time and manner of your going;
Certainly if with ghosts to dwell,
German would have served as well;
Voyaging lady, I wish for you
An Englishwoman to talk to,
An unruffled listener,
And green words to say to her

Layton may well be, for the historian of literature at any rate, the first Great Canadian Poet—he has his bid in at least, not that it is


not, in some of these poems, too brief and too random. But Canadian, English, American, or whatever, his poetry can be very good.

And how good can well be judged, thanks again to Layton, together with Dudek this time, by means of an anthology of Canadian verse which they have edited—as Pound would say, "an anthology based on terrible knowledge," if one remembers how many poems both must have read in order to produce what they come up with here. It may well be that any anthology is terrifying, not just this one. I should hate to see the same job done on American verse, all put together like this, 1850–1952. And yet one can see the use—if only to settle, once and for all, that there was and is a Canadian poetry, however dark some of its 'periods' may now seem.

Some of it is by no means as bad as all that; we have written much worse. Robert W. Service is much the same pleasure:

I dreamed I saw three demi-gods who in a cafe sat,
And one was small and crapulous, and one was large and fat;
And one was eaten up with vice and verminous at that.

The editors do not rate him strictly as a poet, i.e., "a roughhouse rhymester whom everybody welcomes but no one rates strictly as a poet." I would, I think. At least he is much more of a poet than, say, F. R. Scott?

This is our gardening
And this our hardening,
There is no pardoning:
We cannot be forgiven
For what we have not striven.

Some of it may come from an idea of 'poetry' (not the act, but the noun) which is, after all, a matter almost apart from what Dr. Williams, for one, calls, the poem. Canadians, if any of these people are evidence, or if Souster has not been beating his head on stone, are writing more and more poems.


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