Little but Resilient

Reviewed by Robert May

Between 1925 and 1962, the Ryerson Press published the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books, a collection of two hundred slim volumes featuring the work of scores of Canadian versifiers, from Confederation Poets such as Charles G. D. Roberts and Marjorie Pickthall, to modernists such as Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy, to later figures such as Milton Acorn and James Reaney. The Chap-Books were the brainchild of Lorne Pierce, whose long career at the Ryerson Press was shaped by his tireless efforts to keep the series going, often against the overwhelming odds of balancing poets’ strong personalities with the discouraging financial realities of book publishing in twentieth-century Canada.

Eli MacLaren’s Little Resilience is the first book-length study of the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books. Through archival research, literary analysis, historical overview, and a series of interconnected case studies, MacLaren traces the growth and development of the Chap-Books through its thirty-seven tumultuous years, a period of transition in Canadian literature from the post-First-World-War nationalism of the 1920s to the avant-garde experimentalism of the 1960s. MacLaren’s thesis is that the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books were little but resilient: “[T]he Chap-Books were insufficient as income and negligible as commodities but replete with the supreme value that poetry possessed for the scores of people who took part in their production.” The Chap-Books may have been slender, but in many ways they formed the backbone of Canadian poetry publishing throughout several early decades of the twentieth century.

MacLaren argues that “the Chap-Books are a major example of the difficult conditions that average Canadian writers faced in the middle of the twentieth century.” The opening chapter of Little Resilience traces the history of publishing in 1920s Canada, in particular the efforts of Pierce to transform the Ryerson Press from a printer of religious texts to a major player in Canadian publishing, holding its own among behemoths McClelland & Stewart and Macmillan. One of the strategies Pierce used to accomplish this goal was to shift the financial risk of publishing the Chap-Books onto their authors, a process MacLaren describes in the second chapter. Some authors balked at the idea of essentially paying to get themselves into print. F. G. Scott, for example, an established poet by the 1920s, was having none of it. Others embraced the model enthusiastically, fronting payment to guarantee the press against financial loss and often accepting free copies of their Chap-Books in lieu of royalties. Pierce’s strategy was successful, and the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books became “a model for the small press in Canada,” emulated by the presses and little magazines of the “modernist revolt” that was following hard on Pierce’s heels.

Pierce may have been a romantic at heart, but he was sufficiently insightful to ensure that the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books also included modernist voices. “[T]he collective literary character of the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books,” MacLaren writes, “is a mixture of romantic and modernist.” The five case studies that conclude Little Resilience—Nathaniel A. Benson, Anne Marriott, M. Eugenie Perry, Dorothy Livesay, and Al Purdy—illustrate Pierce’s engagement in a “complex turn to modernist poetry” as the series progressed, which often involved showcasing poets who straddled “The modernist/romantic binary”: the first case study, devoted to Benson, sees him as a “Modern Romantic,” while the last case study, devoted to Purdy, sees him as a “Romantic Modern.” The case studies also show how “the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books were politically responsible,” in that they assembled “many different poetic voices, subject positions, and aims.” The case study devoted to Perry analyzes her treatment of deafness in a “dignified” way that may have appealed to Pierce because he too lived with hearing loss. The case study devoted to Livesay analyzes her sensitive engagement with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War in the form of a “foundational” Canadian documentary poem.

The scholarly apparatus of Little Resilience includes a selection of visual images reproduced from the archives, a comprehensive bibliography and notes, and an appendix listing all two hundred Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books by year of publication. Most compelling is the ten-page table in the centre of the volume that provides the “Terms of publication for the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books,” including the print run, the cover price, and the amount of money the author had to pay up front to guarantee the press against loss.

This review “Little but Resilient” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

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