Strong Shapes

First published in Canadian Literature 119 (Winter 1988): 136-38.


Review of Milton Acorn, I Shout Love and other poems, ed. James Deahl (Aya Press); James Deahl, ed., The Northern Red Oak: Poems for and about Milton Acorn (Unfinished Monument Press); Henry Beissel, Poems New and Selected (Mosaic Press); and “A Special Issue on George Johnston,” The Malahat Review 78 (March 1987).


Words that Milton Acorn addressed to Al Purdy in one of the early poems reprinted in I Shout Love and other poems seem to apply with particular force to himself: “Like a green lignum vitae tree, / a nuisance on the lawn, / dead you'd carve into strong shapes, / living you're a problem.” There can be no doubt that the living Milton Acorn was a problem—both to academic critics, who found him equally difficult either to assimilate or to ignore, and to his friends and fellow poets, in whom he inspired varying degrees of exasperated affection, bemused respect, pity, and discipleship. The process of carving can be witnessed in The Northern Red Oak—beginning with its frontispiece, a splendidly sculptural full-face photograph of the poet, harshly illuminated from the left side. The poems which follow include familiar pieces by MacEwen, Purdy, bissett, and Wayman evoking their connections with Acorn, two by Lee and Atwood of which Acorn was particularly fond, and tributes written since Acorn's death, for the most part forgettable—though a few, notably those by Margaret Avison, Richard Lemm, and Francis Sparshott, resonate in the mind. From these tributes a collective portrait emerges: of Acorn's raw physical presence, the “bellowing frenzy” of his political passion, his incoherence, his gentleness, and his determination to be a voice for the silenced and the oppressed.

In I Shout Love and other poems James Deahl has reprinted the three chapbooks that Acorn published between 1956 and 1960, bracketed by the first and final versions, edited from the manuscripts, of “I Shout Love.” In these poems a remarkable development can be traced, from the unsteady power and bathetic lapses of In Love and Anger, to the emergence in Against a League of Liars of colloquial rhythms and a voice that moves with assurance, and on occasion with intricate delicacy, from satire to lyric. And then come the fourteen poems of The Brain's the Target, exuberant games with sound which proclaim both the poet's lyrical mastery and his commitment to a vision of human liberation. Between the two versions of “I Shout Love” printed here, the first from 1958 and the second from 1970, a further development is evident: Acorn has swallowed Whitman, Ginsberg, and Christopher Smart. The final result is a stimulating poem which it is good to have (at last) in print. Yet the editor's note on the later text of this poem is disturbing: he confesses to deleting one line and re-writing four others “to improve the clarity of Acorn's thought.” One would prefer to have Acorn himself, muddled or otherwise—not least because Deahl's introduction, veering between absurdity, unhelpfulness, and a calamitous banality, scarcely testifies to the clarity of his own thought.

Many of Henry Beissel's Poems New and Selected are as strongly political as Acorn's “I Shout Love,” yet in a quite different manner. In these poems, some of which date back to the early 1960s, Beissel has protested powerfully against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, against American war crimes in Vietnam and Central America, and, here at home, against “a wilderness / of voices bent on burying / us all in shame.” Though there are several fine lyrics here, Beissel is insistently drawn to longer forms. And his own voice is typically not bound to the rhythms of the body in the manner prescribed by that 'projective' poetic which remains dominant on this continent; it tends rather to be impersonal, emanating like the choral discourse of Greek tragedy from a place beyond the gestures of its own utterance. The result, on occasion, is a lack of situatedness: the voice, to misappropriate Beissel's own words, is “a drum / muffled in the distance,” giving the reader no direct sense of what impels it into speech. Yet when he moves beyond the merely documentary stance of a poem such as “Midwinter Moon Over Montreal” into explorations of the place from which this voice speaks and of what empowers it, Beissel produces poetry that combines mythic depths and historical understanding in a texture of admirable richness. Among his earlier poems there are clumsy things, lines and whole passages that might tempt one to apply to him Ben Jonson's famous assessment of Samuel Daniel. However, Beissel is also the poet of “The Ides of March,” from Season of Blood, and of the excerpts from Cantos North reprinted in this volume: this is public poetry of the first order, lucid, complex, unflinching, and humane. One might add that it is a pleasure, after reading the tributes to Milton Acorn, to encounter once again Beissel's elegy for Walter Bauer, that strong poet and splendid human being.

The Malahat Review's special issue on George Johnston celebrates the continuing vitality of a poet who has been active since the mid-1930's, and who is utterly unlike either Acorn or Beissel. Johnston's poetry is, above all, remarkable for its formal perfection, the deflating ironies of his impeccable diction. The world it evokes is a contracted one—and contraction is one of Johnston's insistent subjects, from the Blakean reductions of The Cruising Auk (with its odd overtones of home-grown Ontario surrealism) to his recent taut exercises in the metres of the scaldic poets. Earle Birney in this issue calls him “a bard more Beowulf than Betjeman”: an apt characterization, given Johnston's movement from an early melancholic frivolity to the laconic reticence of his later style, and the enduring coexistence in his poetry of the outlandish with a deceptive homeliness; equally apt is Constance Rooke's description of his vision, in her brief preface, as “sturdy, wry and generous.” Johnston is present here in his own voice, in seven new poems and the meditative prose of “Bee Seasons,” as well as in the fine calligraphy of his manuscripts of six poems which appeared in The Cruising Auk and Happy Enough. This issue also provides a generous sampling of his translations of Ny-norsk, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish poetry, and of Icelandic saga literature. Add to this the warm assessments of Johnston's poetry by P. K. Page, Harvey de Roo, and Elizabeth Brewster, scholarly evaluations of his brilliant translation of Gisli's Saga by John Tucker and Peter Foote, Jay Macpherson's memories of the beginnings of Johnston's writing career as an undergraduate at Victoria College in the 1930's, Johnston's own leisurely reminiscences in three long conversations reported by William Blissett, and an open letter from Robert L. McDougall which pays homage both to the man and the poet, and one has a remarkably complete impression of the reasons for which this writer commands our respect and affection.