The canonization of Milton Acorn is long overdue. Undeniably, he is among the most original, impassioned and politically engaged poets in Canadian literary history. Best known today as "The People's Poet" (a term coined in protest by his fellow poets after his 1969 volume I've Tasted My Blood failed to win the Governor General's Award), Acorn built his reputation in the 1960s and '70s as a poet representative of the impoverished, marginal and disenfranchised in Canada. His exceptional body of work, which is politically rooted but transcends traditional leftist or reactionary verse, remains as powerful and vital today as it was during his lifetime.
Along with such luminaries as Irving Layton and Al Purdy, Acorn was a pioneer in introducing a new masculine voice and posture in Canadian writing. Whereas Layton focused this effort on his libido and Purdy on his relationship with the rugged terrain of unforgiving farmland, Acorn's persona was that of the downtrodden worker, rebelling against the tyranny of the privileged class. One only need re-experience Acorn's signature poem, "I've Tasted My Blood", to feel the visceral force and physicality of his labours with language and injustice. Where Layton, in his poem "Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959" evokes the pride and beauty of his mother in such utterances as "But I think now of the toss of her gold earings, / Their proud carnal assertion," Acorn, in "I've Tasted My Blood", chooses to recall his mother's suffering and agony: "I loved her too much to like / how she dragged her days like a sled over gravel." Where Purdy's working man in "Wilderness Gothic" "wrestles with Jacob, / replacing rotten timber with pine thews," Acorn's "Playmates" "died hungry, gnawing grey porch-planks" or "fell, and landed so hard he splashed." Clearly, the experience shared by Acorn in his greatest work is not a struggle against defeat; it is only defeat.
If Canada were home to a stronger independent film culture, which provided young filmmakers with the opportunity to explore the lives of interesting writers and artists (in the way that, say, Barbet Schroeder depicted Charles Bukowski's life and art in Barfly), then surely someone would seize the chance to portray Acorn's life in a bio pic. Born in 1923 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Acorn was Canada's quintessential journeyman poet, touching down in Canada's three major cities during periods of significant cultural upheaval. In the 1950s, Acorn arrived in Montreal and participated in the city's poetic renaissance with Layton, F.R. Scott and Louis Dudek, among others. He appeared in Toronto in the '60s, and was at the heart of that city's literary rebirth with Margaret Atwood, Purdy, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. The '70s saw Acorn's arrival in Vancouver, and once again, he was central to a vital cultural movement as founder of the alternative newspaper The Georgia Strait, and as a central figure in an emerging group of west coast poets that included Patrick Lane and Bill Bissett. Finally, Ulysses-like, he returned in the '80s to conclude his life on his island home. Forgive me for dreaming, but my Acorn film would hinge on his tormented, near-mythical, yearlong marriage to MacEwan, a marriage of two legendary Canadian poets simultaneously destroying and inspiring one another. My film would star Willem Dafoe (a dreadful choice to play T.S. Eliot in the 1994 film Tom and Viv, but a dead ringer for Acorn).
Throughout his life, Acorn drifted across the margins of Canadian society while refining and cultivating his craft, which he regarded at once as "a very public thingÓ and always a very personal thing." He felt that poets should "analyze themselves and all their inner and outer relationships in the light of their choice to write poetry." True to his word, the interplay between inner and outer relationships is a guiding force in his writings. His nature poems, such as "Offshore Breeze", rarely pause to reflect on the independent beauty of his surroundings, but rather seek to articulate the impulsiveness and violence of Nature as symbolic of the upheaval inherent in human affairs:
The sea's grey and crocheted with ripples;
but shadows, the backs of waves,
lengthen and lapse in the dim haze,
hinting of farther, rougher doings.
Likewise, his poem "The Figure in the Landscape Made the Landscape" addresses the human tendency to try to control the outer world, while the land itself (in this case, the PEI surroundings) resists: "Seldom even today is an entire farm cleared / As woodlots made the land difficult / To spy out, for anyone not familiar with the place, / And besides that make good ambuscades." Ironically, the poem concludes with tourists, "pawns who don't know they're / Pawns," thinking "'A lovely landÓ and peaceful' / When every part of it was laid out for war."
Similarly, Acorn is capable of writing love poems that exhibit considerable tenderness and finesse, but the lens through which he captures personal connections is the interplay between the independent existence of "the public thing" (the other) and the "personal thing" (his perception of the other). This is the case in perhaps his greatest love poem, "Live with Me on Earth Under the Invisible Daylight Moon", in which he acknowledges the uncontrollable nature of his beloved: "Be any of the colours of an Earth lover," but makes the request that he be allowed to impose his imaginative will on her: "Walk with me and sometimes cover your shadow with mine." In his most affectionate poem to his mother, "Poem", he recognizes that even while he favours is inner perception and "remember her young / with hair red as a blossom," the outer reality threatens to destroy his personal illusion: "Now she lives on cigarettes and wine."
Although Acorn writes effectively about nature and love, he will always be, first and foremost, Canada's poet of the people, and he is most often drawn to the worker who must rely solely on his skills and savvy for survival. Acorn writes about physical labour more convincingly than any other Canadian poet, from the tools of "The Retired Carpenter," which are "sweat-polished, / in a dinted box, loose / at all angles,/ half of them vanished," to the working man's hands, "dyed / earth and tobacco brown, tough / as an old alligator suitcase, fissured / a dozen extra ways." Acorn acquired his unique brand of working man's pride and poverty during his underprivileged PEI upbringing, so he knows that the carpenter "wears his watch inside his wrist," to sneak a look at the time under the careful gaze of the "gargoyle-pussed / boss." No milk-fed Canadian poet, sitting in a quiet, plush office, suckling at the teat of a university's coffers, could pull off a line like "What's a man if not put to good use?" as Acorn does, convincingly, in his poem "I, Milton Acorn".
All of which brings us to a recently published messy little volume with the unfortunate title, The Edge of Home: Milton Acorn from the Island, a selection of Acorn's poems published by the Institute for Island Studies with the sole purpose of taking ownership of him as a PEI poet. Despite the volume's good intentions, Acorn's voice is eclipsed by the presence of an overly enthusiastic and ultimately misguided editor, Anne Compton, who either intentionally or inadvertently hijacks the volume, to the point where her name is more visible both on the book's cover and on every two-page spread throughout the volume.
More heretical is the fact that her critical writings occupy the first 42 pages of the 121-page volume. Compton's writings in no way warrant this privileged positioning. Her five-page "brief biographical note" opens with the nugget, "no one says of this or that emerging poet, 'he is like Milton Acorn.'" I couldn't disagree more. Go to any poetry reading in any rundown pub in any town across Canada and you will see at least one emerging poet waiting for his chance to read. His shirt is untucked and he's had a few. His poetry expresses rage at the plight of the downtrodden and an appreciation for the beauty of the world. He is not afraid of living a life of abject poverty in the interest of serving the muse. He is one of Milton Acorn's many poetic children. Let's give this a try: Paul Vermeersch, 'he is like Milton Acorn;' Patrick Woodcock, 'he is like Milton Acorn.' I could go on all day. Try it at home; it's fun.
Compton's 7-page "Preface" and her 21-page essay "The Ecological Poetics of Milton Acorn's Island Poems" say one thing: Acorn was from PEI and his writing was influenced by his PEI experience. Fine. We are all influenced in some way by our hometown or home island¨this is not an Olympian insight. It could have been said in a paragraph.
When all is said and done, Compton fails to make her most important editorial choice: either the volume is going to be an anthology of Acorn's best work (since everything is ultimately influenced by "home") or it will contain only works that are identifiably about PEI. Rather than making this choice, Compton writes that an island, "is not only its landscape; it is also the sea that surrounds it." This pithy image gives her license to mash all of Acorn into a kind of procrustean PEI bed, even when the poems themselves resist this broad characterization. This leaves the reader wondering how poems like "The Natural History of Elephants", which imagines "colonies of ants" being "nourished for generations on dried elephant semen", relate to more obvious PEI poems like "The Corrugated Look to Water:"
"Wind's so raw you don't know if / you're freezing or boiling."
Compton made numerous dubious choices in cobbling this book together. Why arrange the poems chronologically? Why not divide them thematically: landscape, seascape, history, politics, and, finally, damned good poems that are not overtly about PEI at all? Why not include any of Acorn's prose writings on PEI, even as appendices, particularly the text of his play The Road to Charlottetown, which deals with the issue of absentee landlords in PEI in the 19th century? Why not include explanatory notes at the end of the volume orienting the reader to the PEI influences in the poems?
This volume represents a lost opportunity for a true scholarly contribution. There has been renewed interest in the work of other Canadian poets, E.J. Pratt and A.M. Klein among them, as a direct result of newly published, rigorously researched collections. Acorn is worthy of the same treatment, and hopefully the Institute for Island Studies will step up and demand higher academic standards in future volumes dedicated to the Island's finest writer. ˛
Harold Heft's book of poems, The Shape of This Dying: Remembering Alexander Bercovitch, was published in 2001.