Souvenirs of Some:  P. K. Page Responding to a Questionnaire

by Michael Heenan

In the Spring and Summer of 1974, at the time of the Klein Symposium at the University of Ottawa, P.K. Page recorded and edited the substance of the following responses to a questionnaire by Michael Heenan.  When correcting the manuscript in June, 1982, prior to publication in Canadian Poetry, she emended some of her responses, commenting in her covering letter:  "Are you planning to date the interview?  I would be glad if you did.  If I were doing it today, some of the comments would be modified.  The editing however, is true to the opinions of the time." (D.M.R. Bentley)

     The first question is, "To what extent, if any, has the work of Ezra Pound and the Imagists influenced your aesthetics and poetry?"  I don't think that Pound and the Imagists have had any direct influence on my work.  To say that they have had no influence would be absurd.  A figure like Pound who, in his Cantos, spilled so much gold into the air we breathe, could hardly have not had an affect in one way or another.  He must have changed the whole poetic body and as a minor part of that body, I must have been affected by him.  I am a great admirer, though not a scholar, of The Cantos, which I only came to late in life.  The same is true of H.D. whose work I now find absolutely remarkable.  I doubt that I had the understanding for it when I was younger.

     Question Two: "What in your opinion were the major sources of contention between the Preview and the First Statement poets during the forties?"  To answer this I would like to go back prior to the Montreal period.

     I first knew John Sutherland when we both lived in New Brunswick.  I, in a small village called Rothesay, and John, in a small village called Hampton.  At that point he was recovering from TB.  He was lying on a white bed, on a green verandah surrounded by a green garden when I first met him.  He and I both went to Montreal the same year.  John, recovered, decided to go to McGill, and I had to get out of a small town environment.  Fairly soon after my arrival in Montreal, I met the Preview people and for some reason or another I was accepted by them.  When John arrived, I was eager that he, too, would be accepted by Preview and I presented poems of his to this end which were rejected.  They certainly weren't rejected by me, although I wasn't a great admirer of John's poetry — I found it heavy. . . it had a sort of ponderousness to it, almost a Germanic quality.  But I was an admirer of John's and a friend and I was really anxious that he be part of the Preview group for I felt that he could contribute to it.  Even if his poetry itself wasn't all that good, I felt that he as a person could add something to the group.

     Memory is a very funny thing; it affects us all in different ways and nobody I've spoken to in the Preview group has any memory of being the person who rejected him.  This rejection may have been behind the rivalry between the two groups, for John, as a result set up First Statement, — in effect a rival operation.  There must have been some rancour in John at having been turned down.  I don't see how there could not have been.  There were ideological differences between us too.  John came out on his masthead as being a nationalistic magazine.  He wouldn't even accept contributors from anywhere outside Canada.  We were not nationalist, we would accept contributors from anywhere, although, in fact, I don't think we actually did.  I don't remember any very great sources of contention between the two groups, although we used to irritate each other at times.  When he published it, I found John's lengthy criticism of me irritating because I thought it was untrue.  Looking at it from this distance I think there was more truth in it than I was able to recognize at the time.  When you are close to a thing it's hard to see it.  Of course I was very influenced by Patrick Anderson and the Preview position and because he had known me before John could see this.  I couldn't.  "Who was it who first discovered water?  It certainly wasn't a fish."  Well, this fish couldn't see the element in which she was swimming and how it was affecting her and I think John could. . . . He came on quite strong in his criticism and we all got whacked by him from time to time which sometimes produced irritation or temporary annoyance.  Other than that I think there was a fairly good-natured sort of badinage between us more than actual bitterness.

     It's possible that there may have been more controversy between the hangers on. . . . Both Preview and First Statement had their followers, and followers are apt to get more passionate about issues than the protagonists.  This may have been the case.  Also there were people who were peripheral to both groups and they may have felt more fiercely about the opposition of the two groups than the groups themselves.

     I see from reading your letter that Question 1:  "To what extent, if any, has the work of Ezra Pound and the Imagists influenced your aesthetics and poetry?"  is sent with the purpose of determining the major sources of influence in my earlier poetry.  Well, it doesn't.  It shows a non-influence but it doesn't show an influence.  The question would have to be phrased in a quite different way to get at the sources of influence in my early poetry and if that is what you want I'd be quite happy to talk about it.

     My earliest sources of influence were Auden, Spender, Day Lewis etc.  I would suspect the voice of Auden can be detected in my early work.  Auden perhaps of them all influenced me most.  But, in terms of something else altogether, I suppose Rilke influenced me as much as anybody and, curiously, Lorca.  But more locally, Patrick Anderson influenced me a great deal and that's the very thing that John was aware of.

     As far as the third question is concerned, "What are your thoughts and opinions on the contemporary poetry scene in Canada?"   I haven't a great many thoughts and opinions — certainly not in terms of the regions.  I read specific poets in Canada, many of whom I admire, and I am aware that there is a great deal of work being produced, more than at any other time in my lifetime in Canada.  This is both good and bad.  The good is that you need some kind of a plateau for a peak to emerge. So there is a better chance of a great writer emerging now that a quantity of poetry is being written.  The bad is that there are so many imitators, so many people who understand so little of the craft of poetry.  Copyists — people who pick up the obvious aspects of another poet's work — are incapable of hearing the higher octaves in the poetry, and for this reason we are flooded, in my opinion, with a great deal of mediocre and bad work — banal work, in other words.   I think that writing out of daily experience which is so fashionable today could be great — provided the word "experience" were understood in the sense in which Huxley used it:  of hearing and seeing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moment — in other words, of being intuitive and sensitive.   Much of this mass of what I would call banal work is not intuitive writing.   To use Ornstein's terminology, it's not 'right lobe' writing.  I don't know whether or not you know Robert E. Ornstein's Psychology of Consciousness. It's a fascinating book in which he brings together all the research that has been done on the two lobes of the brain.  According to him, the right lobe is the intuitive, creative lobe.  It is the lobe that dreams, that is capable of ESP.  Also it's non-verbal — the image maker — and it's non-lineal.  Whereas the left lobe — and I'm talking generally because this applies only to normally right handed people — the left lobe is rational, verbal, lineal.  To get to my point, I think much of the poetry being written today is left lobe poetry — made from words and logic, rather than dreams and images.  It lacks the leaps and jumps I like to see in poetry — feats only the right lobe can perform.  At the same time, much of it isn't even good left lobe poetry, (what Robert Graves would call Olympian poetry as opposed to Muse poetry) ignoring as it does, technique and craft which, in my view are still vital.  You can, you know, throw out the baby with the bath water.  There's a fashion today that the ordinary is good and the extraordinary is bad, that the natural is good and the artificial is bad, and yet the word art and artificial for God's sake, come from the same root.  Artifice, is the very nature of the thing one is doing.  One is making something, one isn't just spilling something.  Too much of what is written today, from my point of view, is a spill.  However, I don't want to end on that note because much of what is being written is extraordinarily good — the good is so extraordinarily good, better than ever.

     Now "What is the state of Canadian literary criticism today?"  I don't think it is any better than it was in the 'forties but there's more of it. It may help the reader but I'm not sure that it really helps the writer.  Nor do I think one should listen to one's critics too much.   One has to follow one's own peculiar course even if it's a crooked course, although a really perceptive critic could perhaps point a way.  But I don't think, for instance, that there is any critic writing today who is better than A.J.M. Smith was thirty years ago.  There are just more people as good.

     Am I the person to know what new directions my own work has taken over the past thirty years?  Surely, that is the role of the critic.  I could mention, however, some influences and experiences which may have affected my work.  While living in Brazil I was unable to write and began drawing.  This alternate creative activity must have altered me.  In some curious way, it may have siphoned off the visual images so prevalent in my early poetry.  I have also been exposed to 11th and 12th Century Persian writers — Suhrawardi, Saadi, Jami, Rumi . . . . I doubt very much that they have had any effect on the patterning of my poetry because, after all, I'm reading them in translation.  Nevertheless, their thought has directly affected me and I would be surprised if in some way this isn't evident in my work.

     To go back just a moment to Question 1 as laid down in the letter, I quite overlooked mentioning Abe Klein as one of my influences.  The elaborate use of language, of image, the embroidery of his work, to say nothing of the metaphysical content, all had a very great affect upon me.  The mark that Patrick left was temporary, but the mark that Klein left is as real today as it was then. I miss Klein today.  I wish I had known him now.  I would never have been his match but I'd have been more his match today than I was then. . . there are things I would like to talk to him about now — "the angelic hordes. . ."

     You ask finally, "What are your recollections of John Sutherland as editor, critic, poet and man?"  As I said earlier, I first met John when he was recovering from TB. We were both young and unpublished, and there was some absolutely bogus poetry competition run by somebody in New York by the name of Henry Harrison, I think.  John and I, unbeknownst to each other, not knowing each other even, entered one of these contests.  We both entered poems and we both won prizes.  The nature of the game was this:  everyone who entered won a prize because everyone was a potential purchaser of an anthology published by Harrison.  Press releases were sent to the local papers announcing the local prize winners.  John and I appeared in the local press as having won prizes in this great poetry competition in New York.  It was through this that we met each other.  Who reached out to whom, I don't know, but the fact was that I was mobile and John wasn't and one day in summer I drove out to see John when he was convalescing in his parents' house in Hampton.  I remember meeting Betty at the same time — a lovely Rubens, not Rubens (extraordinary how words elude you) Renoir, a lovely Renoir of a girl and John very white under his white counterpane, the green of the trees and grass reflecting in the white of the counterpane and the white of his own very white skin.  He asked me to read him "The Hound of Heaven", of all things.  I don't think that I had ever read anything aloud in all my life and to be confronted with a poem I had never read before, to sight-read "The Hound of Heaven" was quite an ordeal and I didn't handle it particularly well.  He was also reading Thus Spake Zarathustra and he introduced me to both.  I used to go out to see him more or less on a weekly basis and we corresponded and sent each other poems. I guess we were almost — no that isn't true — I was going to say we were the only people each of us knew who wrote, but that isn't true.  I also knew Kay Smith at that period. So that's how I first remember John.  A convalescent, but a very forceful convalescent.   He had ideas and theories and considerable strength.  I don't remember the actual dates, but it was shortly thereafter that I left for Montreal and it was shortly thereafter that John also followed.  We both lived in boarding houses on Sherbrooke Street and John was frequently very broke indeed, even broker than I was.  I used to worry that he wasn't getting enough to eat and that he would get TB again, especially as he changed vastly in appearance — from a well-fed convalescent, to a curiously gaunt figure walking about Montreal — surprisingly gaunt.  I never saw him in his later years.  It was during the 'forties that I saw him last.  I have said that I thought he was a better critic of me than I was prepared to believe at the time and I now think much of his criticism was interesting.  I don't think he was a good poet and I have never read his book on Pratt and I suppose I became unsympathetic with his point of view when he turned to Catholicism, which is very alien to me.

     I had tremendous respect for John's determination in relation to his literary career.  He dropped out of McGill.  I have forgotten now quite why, although I certainly knew at the time.  He just got fed-up with the whole thing I think.  And against all odds he was determined to keep First Statement going and to get a press.  For a delicate man to be night watchman or night desk clerk or whatever he was in those wretched little hotels he worked in and to put all his money into keeping First Statement going and later, Northern Review, is remarkable.  I had a tremendous respect for him even during the years when I never saw him, when I sometimes was critical of him.  As an editor I had very little experience of John.  I had some poems, I think, maybe even some prose published in First Statement but he didn't function as an editor in relation to whatever it was of mine he used.  When I came out to the West Coast in — I don't know — the late 'forties, middle 'forties, when Preview and First Statement amalgamated, I became West Coast editor.  Now I don't think that meant anything at all because I don't remember functioning as an editor in any way.  I sent the odd bit of writing to Northern Review but I don't remember trying to find writers to contribute to it although I may have, because certainly I knew Floris McLaren and various West Coast writers who contributed to it, so I may have had some hand in that, although curiously I don't remember anything about it.  John was editor-in-chief, of course, and very definitely so. I don't know whether that was his title but there was no consultation with his regional editors at all and this was what led to my resigning from Northern Review as a regional editor.  John's review of Robert Finch's poems which won the Governor General's Award — it was a very scathing review — and his criticism of the board that awarded the GG's medal to Finch, I found extraordinarily unfortunate in view of the fact that I had not only been in the running for the Governor General's Award that year but that John suggested that I might well have been a better recipient of it.  As I was on the masthead as a regional editor I felt that it put me in an intolerably embarrassing position and on the strength of this I resigned from Northern Review.   Looking back on it now it seems all a little silly but I can understand why I did it.

     I have already mentioned John as a critic in a small way in relation to myself. I haven't reread his criticism for many years — his general criticism — so anything I might say would be uninformed.  But there was as I remember, a kind of originality about him, a totally unacademic originality which is different from anything that's being written today and it almost persuades me that I should go back and reread him.  He was not the product of a university.  He was not the product of a school.  He was very definitely his own man and he was totally fearless in what he said, and I think that there was something broader in his sweep than one finds in most criticism today.  As to his poetry, as I have said, I didn't greatly admire it.  I don't think he was a good poet.  He wasn't dull however, for all his ponderousness, for all his sort of heavy gait; his ideas were always interesting but ideas don't make poems.  This is why he was better in prose.  As a man, I don't really feel that I knew him, I knew him only as a very young man, an immature young man, a boy.  I didn't know the mature Sutherland at all.  He had — even young — the courage of his convictions. And great tenacity, great singleness of aim.  He reminds me of the story of Junaid of Baghdad who, passing the scene of a public hanging where a thief was being hanged, bowed towards the criminal.  A companion who was walking with him asked him why he did it and Junaid said, "I was bowing before his singlemindedness.  For his aim, that man has given his life." And I feel, this was true of John.  For his aim he really gave his life.  There was no sacrifice he wouldn't make, no deprivation that he wasn't prepared to suffer in order to bring about the realization of his dream.  And for this one can't help but have the very greatest admiration for him.