(Ap)praising Milton Acorn
- Chris Gudgeon (Author)
Out of This World: The Natural History of Milton Acorn. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Cedric Smith (Author) and Milton Acorn (Author)
The Road to Charlottetown. Unfinished Monument Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Milton Acorn (Author) and Gilda Mekler (Illustrator)
To Hear the Faint Bells. Hamilton Haiku (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Thomas O'Grady
Given the two references to "that other Milton" that Milton Acorn makes just in his volume Jackpine Sonnets, one might suppose that this self-comparison with the great English poet was one of his favorite not-quite-joking conceits—personal as well as poetic. In reflecting, however, on how Acorn’s reputation (measured by the appropriate scale of Canadian literary and academic circles) truly compares with the stature of John Milton—"a name to resound for all ages," as Tennyson decreed him—one might recall, with or without irony, those lines from Book I of Paradise Lost,"the work some praise / And some the architect." Although, as Chris Gudgeon laments in his account of Milton Acorn’s
works and days, his poems have generally been neglected in recent years by both book publishers and poetry professors, Acorn the man—or, more accurately, the larger-than-life poet-as-public-figure—seems still to be demanding a measure of the recognition that he enjoyed during his quarter-century of notice and notoriety in his self-styled role as Canada’s "first professional poet." As Samuel Johnson once observed, even "cen- sure . . . is oblique praise."
In fact, even while bemoaning the current devalued level of Acorn’s stock, Gudgeon’s book itself reflects the inchoate state of "Acorn studies." Prompted in the first place by the author’s attraction to the poet’s "unlikely, perfect name," the book proceeds with every good intention of tracing the trajectory of Acorn’s career from his inauspicious boyhood on Prince Edward Island through his emergence in the 1950s as a poet of promise on the Montreal literary scene to his rise to prominence on both the Toronto and the Vancouver literary scenes during the 1960s and his virtual apotheosis with his receiving first the People’s Poet Award in 1970 and then the Governor General’s Award in 1975. Unfortunately, Gudgeon’s narrative is as erratic as the very trajectory that he attempts to describe. "The Taste of Victory," the chapter recording the controversy culminating in Acorn’s being presented the People’s Poet Award, is the highlight of the book, reconstructing with a keen sense of drama not only the poet’s hurt at being overlooked for the Governor General’s Award (a hurt multiplied exponentially by its being presented jointly to his ex-wife Gwendolyn MacEwen and his poetic "archrival" George Bowering) but also his profound appreciation for the respect afforded him by the self-empaneled jury of his peers that created a new title in his honor. While presumably reliable about the basic facts of Acorn’s life—his cross-country travels and travails—much of the rest of the book yet suffers from a variety of substantive and stylistic shortcomings that qualify its achievement.
Substantively, the book fails first to recognize and thus to analyze the process by which this saw-crossed (as it were) carpenter, a modestly educated product of Charlottetown public schools, evolved from apprentice to journeyman to master poet commanding (sometimes just demanding) national attention. Gudgeon does not uncover or discover what directed Acorn to poetry in the first place—what Muse inspired him or what daemon provoked him to take up the tools of such an unlikely professional trade. An appreciative rather than evaluative reader of Acorn’s poetry, he likewise seems insensitive to (or uninterested in) Acorn as artist at any point in his development: notwithstanding Acorn’s own assertions about how "The Craft of Poetry’s the Art of War," his poems surely deserve some informed scrutiny in terms of their essential "poetic" nature. As his consideration of Acorn as an exiled Prince Edward Islander typifies, Gudgeon prefers the reductive fallacy over any sort of rigorous estimation of his subject—prefers to view him more as a phenomenon than even as a person who wrote poems: "The longer he stayed away, the more of an Islander he became, until... he was an Island unto himself, not a hermit, but a distinct society within confederation, Canada’s unofficial eleventh province." In short, the book disappoints not just because of its transparent bias resulting from the author’s unabashed admiration for Milton Acorn but because of its fundamental transparency as a critical study.
Gudgeon’s actual manner of telling Acorn’s story further undermines his enterprise. Apparently a freelance writer by profession, Gudgeon yet presents his material with a distracting lack of polish. Early in the book, for example, he embarks on a lengthy digression about "Cape Breton’s Dawn Fraser[,] . . . a popular regional poet of the 1920s and 30s whose work I came to know through my wife’s uncle"—and whose work he ultimately concedes Milton Acorn was probably unfamiliar with. No less annoyingly, his more pointed discussions of Canadian poetic history, of socialist tenets, of dialectical materialism, all proffered to contextualize Acorn’s poetry, while no doubt intended to sound off the cuff, read more like cribnotes written on a cuff than as fully integrated aspects of this particular narrative. Moreover, building on such self-evidently shaky premises, Gudgeon frequently grants himself the license to speculate, without any visible means of support, on the workings not just of Acorn’s creative imagination but of his very psyche: "The glory of proletariat socialism burned inside him, and at times he suspected that fate was calling him to be a great revolutionary leader; just as he used to lie awake at night imagining himself Joe Louis or Max Schmeling, he now imagined himself another Lenin leading his people out of the capitalist wilderness and into communism’s promised land."
Undeniably, much homework—and leg-work—went into the making of Out of This World; but as the recent publication of two other pieces of "Acorniana" advertise, a lot more work of a less pedestrian character remains to be done if Milton Acorn is ever to receive his just acclaim (whatever that may amount to) as a poet. On the one hand, a chapbook like To Hear the Faint Bells, a gathering of about two dozen haiku and another half-dozen "haiku-influenced" poems, could have a trivializing effect on Acorn’s considerable poetic output. Obviously, even much of Acorn’s most polemical verse contains imagistic elements; but according to an open letter (cited by Gudgeon) addressing George Bowering’s proposal that he publish a book of short lyrics, Acorn himself would have disdained the very notion of To Hear the Faint Bells: "As for the suggestion that I should bring out a book consisting entirely of castrated verse,... no Mr. Bowering, I’ll not join you or your claque of Establishment fairies."
On the other hand, The Road to Charlottetown, Acorn’s only work intended for formal staging (co-authored with musician and performance artist Cedric Smith), adds an enlightening subtlety to the vigorous sort of poem—the "passionate polemical lyric" described by his current publisher James Deahl—most commonly associated with Acorn. A series of vignettes employing literally a cast of dozens, this seemingly unwieldy play eschews unapologetically any commitment to the classical unities; in fact, the play’s "unity" may ultimately be not even in the eye of the beholder but in the various characters’ holding forth in typical Acorn fashion on matters of social, economic and political import. Yet, in incorporating into the loose drama (based on several disparate incidents in PEI history) a number of Acorn’s best-known poems, The Road to Charlottetown ultimately testifies to the difference between literature as judge, jury and hangman—frequently the effect of Acorn’s most earnest lyrics—and literature as witness: that is, set in pre-Confederation PEI, the play provides the reader of Acorn with a scaffolding (as distinct from a scaffold) for understanding the relationship between his poems-as-communist-manifestos and his intimate identification with the plight of the underclass—represented here by the rackrented Island tenantry. As one of these disenfranchised characters, Old John Acorn (tellingly enough), remarks to a misguided politician: "trouble is you’re trying to outsmart history and ye should be seizing it by the throat!" The Road to Charlottetown may well reveal Milton Acorn attempting (for better or for worse) to do both, and in the final appraisal that may be the story of his art—and of his life.
- Painful Transitions by Ryan J. Cox
Books reviewed: Meniscus by Shane Neilson, Path of Descent and Devotion by Ilya Tourtidis, The Fly in Autumn by David Zieroth, and The Last House by Michael Kenyon
- Four Ways to Make Poems by Nicholas Bradley
Books reviewed: Bardy Google by Frank Davey, That Other Beauty by Karen Enns, The Essential Margaret Avison by Margaret Avison, and The Glassblowers by George Sipos
- Voir le visible by Cyril Schreiber
Books reviewed: Le silence est une voie navigable by Catherine Fortin, Les Rives claires by Michel Létourneau, and Lointain écho de la petite histoire by Olivier Labonté
- Mine Not Mine by Robert Stanton
Books reviewed: Mine by Stephen Collis, Sledgehammer by John MacKenzie, and The Asthmatic Glassblower and other poems by Billeh Nickerson
- the void looks back by Anne F. Walker
Books reviewed: Beautiful Sadness by Lesley Choyce, Necessary Crimes by Catherine Hunter, Asphodel by Michael Redhill, Swimming Among the Ruins by Susan Gillis, and Burning Bush by Elizabeth Brewster
MLA: O'Grady, Thomas. (Ap)praising Milton Acorn. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #158 (Autumn 1998), New Directions. (pg. 143 - 145)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.