|An Interview with F.R. Scott
by Michael Heenan
The following interview with F.R. Scott was taped a short time after the Klein Symposium that took place at Ottawa in the Spring of 1974. A preliminary transcript of the interview was sent to Scott for correction in March, 1975. On April 2, Scott returned this transcript with many corrections and a request to see another draft with the changes incorporated. Such a draft was duly sent in May, 1975 and, in January, 1976, Scott returned a final version of the interview to Michael Heenan with further corrections and permission to publish it only if these corrections were made. In accordance with Scott's wishes, it is the final version of the manuscript that is here printed in full.
Although the bulk of the interview is readily accessible to readers familiar with the major developments in twentieth-century Canadian literary and social history, non-specialist readers will probably benefit from knowing that Wynne Francis' article on "Montreal Poets of the Forties" was published in the Autumn, 1962 issue of Canadian Literature (No. 14) and that Michael Gnarowski's edition of New Provinces was published by the University of Toronto Press in 1976. Specialist and non-specialist readers alike may be interested in placing the F.R. Scott interview in the context of "Four of the Former Preview Editors: A Discussion in Canadian Poetry, No.4 (Spring/Summer, 1979, a Special Issue dedicated to Scott) and "An Interview with A.J.M. Smith" in Canadian Poetry, No. 11 (Fall/Winter, 1982, a Special Issue devoted to Smith). "A Conversation with Patrick Anderson" can be found in Inscape, 11 (Fall, 1974). (D.M.R. Bentley)
Interviewer: Well, perhaps we could start with the McGill years. I understand that you had come back from a Rhodes scholarship from Oxford and that it was then that you met Arthur Smith at McGill.Respondent: Yes. I taught school at Lower Canada College for one year after leaving Oxford and then went to McGill as a law student in 1924. There I received, of course, my compulsory copy of the McGill Daily, and I noticed that every Wednesday there was a Literary Supplement in it, edited by a man I'd never met, named A.J.M. Smith. I contributed to it two pieces, one a prose satire and the other a translation of an old French poem, which were accepted and published. The satire was based on a news item I had seen that a great Cathedral of Learning was being built in Pittsburg, fifty-five stories high. To a young innocent just back from Oxford this was not my concept of a university. Imagine fifty-five stories high! So I wrote my piece. It was through my having contributed to the Literary Supplement that when the McGill Daily refused to continue it the following year (because it carried no advertising!), Smith decided to found an independent student magazine. Though he had never met me, he wrote to me out of the blue and invited me to become one of the editors. He had selected two others so we got together and founded The McGill Fortnightly Review. Smith had some very early poems in it that he later published. His characteristic qualities can be seen in these early verses. And there was also Otto Klineburg, now a very distinguished American sociologist, who contributed and was a co-editor.
It was the very beginning of the various groups around McGill that were getting interested in poetry and new writing. The Fortnightly, ran for two years. And that was when I had a breakthrough in my own writing of verse. Up to that time I had been completely Victorian in my interests and outlook, and at Oxford, had read the English classics more than my contemporaries. Smith was already not only reading, but writing about Yeats and Eliot, and knew all the contemporary American movements.
I suppose the book that influenced me most at that time was that anthology of Henderson and Munroe which Smith recommended, which was published in 1923 in New York and called The New Poetry. The sense that poetry was now something new and had to be different, just the way "modern" painting had come so far, was in our minds from the very start. If you go through the people who contributed to The New Poetry, you find a sort of mixed bag. You find a lot of people who have passed away and whom we don't read anymore. But on the other hand, you'll find Wallace Stevens, you'll find Ezra Pound and you'll find D.H. Lawrence and you'll find William Carlos Williams, and you've got the important names that were going to become the top leading names in the future evolution of English verse; Wilfrid Owen, who had quite an influence upon me; you find also the Imagists. In other words, there were a lot of, to me, new kinds of writing going on, practically all in the United States, which enlarged my feeling for poetry. And our first influence came mostly, though certainly not entirely, through the United States. Because at that time, in England, the Georgians had scarcely passed away. And while Hopkins had only been brought out by Bridges, in 1918 I think, he was just beginning to filter in to us. There was very little that stimulated me in any contemporary English poetry outside of Owen and Lawrence, and, indirectly, Edith Sitwell. So the 'twenties to me were primarily a time of new poetry in the United States, or by Americans living in England.
Interviewer: You found yourself quite enthusiastic about the poetry of the Imagists and the early Eliot then?
Respondent: I was very much taken by the Imagists. Several of my poems are clearly Imagist poems, and the influence can be seen in others. The early Eliot I liked because he had this satirical bent and also, I suppose, the greatest influence on me of any single poem was The Waste Land. At the time it was undoubtedly the most influential poem that had been written in English. And that all tied in with the revulsion in the 1920s against the whole of World War I and its stupidity and the way it had been carried on: it really was the ending of the Victorian period in all sorts of ways. Who was it said that the nineteenth century ended with World War I?
The Imagists were devoid of any kind of social involvement or attitude; it was a purer kind of poetry no less important for that but I suppose I was beginning to evolve an interest in Canadian politics and in the world around generally, and Eliot, therefore, particularly in his earlier poems, was a natural sort of bridge to that point of view. At any rate, I feel that I entered the contemporary world through poetry rather than through having studied history at Oxford, because nothing that happened at Oxford really upset any of my profound beliefs or attitudes those that I had been brought up with in an Anglican home in Quebec and at a very Anglican university in Oxford. So that when I came back to Canada I found this new poetry, and the change of ideas and so forth, really gave me the necessary, much needed I think, sort of kick in the pants, kick in the aesthetic pants.
Interviewer: So it was you and Smith who were the founders of the McGill Fortnightly Review?
Respondent: Well, Smith was the prime mover. He brought me in. There were two other members. But in so far as the poetry side was concerned, Smith was first, and I was then learning from him about the new people and avidly reading them. But I think he and I pretty well dominated the poetry side of the paper. Don't forget we had other writers: we were not entirely poetry. We had an article by J.S. Woodsworth in 1926. It was quite rare for him to be writing in Montreal, as he was considered to be very far left. After all, he had supported the Winnipeg General Strike! We, as you know, put so many of our own poems in that we didn't like to spread our names over every page, so we had each three or four or five noms de plumes. And you might have thought a great burst of new poets had suddenly sprung out of McGill! Most of them are only two people.
We were experimenting in different styles. I wrote some very old-style sonnets, and then some quite Imagist stuff and tried my hand at various writing techniques, quite convinced that poetry had to have a new dress, a new look, a new interest, and that it had to shed the Victorian trappings not the good substance in the Victorians but the sort of rigid forms and attitudes they stayed with, and the notion that only certain subjects were fit to be written about in poetry.
Interviewer: Well, along those lines, did you find yourself at all impressed by the work thatD.H. Lawrence had been doing?
Respondent: Yes. D.H. Lawrence had a considerable influence. I have still got a very good collection of first editions of his novels because I read them as they came out, and his poetry too. It has an easy, open way. I can remember particularly his "Look, we have come through," that he wrote after he had gone off with his Frieda. The literary attitudes came from his fiction as well as from his poetry, and then of course, more of that to me came from England, from Aldous Huxley and Lawrence, and who else?
Interviewer: Ford Madox Ford?
Respondent: Yes, that's right. So that, at any rate, there was this sense of new things happening and that you were going towards, in a progressive way, what would be a new outlet for poetry and literature, of a quite different type from that in which one had been brought up. I was suggesting this new approach in the Preface to New Provinces. We knew the thing was changing, had to change. We were trying different ways, but we still hadn't perhaps changed as much in our style of writing as in our belief that writing had to change.
Interviewer: So you were more or less feeling your way. It was at about this time too that you brought Leo Kennedy into your group. I understand he wasn't at McGill? Respondent: No. He was a discovery of Lou Schwartz, the business manager of the Fortnightly, who saw a poem, a couple of poems in the Montreal Star, of all places, and rather liked them, and wrote off to find who wrote them, and turned up Kennedy. I think Kennedy was only about sixteen or so at that time. When the Fortnightly ended in 1927, Smith went away to Edinburgh. After that there was a gap and we who were left in Montreal were desperately feeling that we needed another magazine. That was when Kennedy became active as promoter of the Canadian Mercury. We had a good backer in Lou Schwartz, who had some money. He paid the bills for the Canadian Mercury, and we started off again. And this time Klein began to work in with us; he hadn't been published in the Fortntghtly. So we had a group, and Smith of course was sending in material. The group that started around the Fortnightly kept together, more or less, until the Great Crash came. Then Lou Schwartz lost his money, and the Mercury its backer. The Mercury had to fold and there was an empty space.
Interviewer: It was largely the Depression, I gather, that caused the death of publications during the 193Os?
Respondent: Oh, yes! Mostly it was a money question. And then you see, Kennedy was the first one of that group to produce his own volume. He published The Shrouding with Macmillan's in 1933. Neither Smith nor I had produced a volume. We had of course the Canadian Forum, which was a great aid. It was always coming out, somehow. And it had a lot of the contemporary Canadian writing. In attitude it was perhaps more nationalistic than any Canadian magazine had been up to that time, in the general sense of wanting Canada to get free of its colonial attitudes and so forth. The Group of Seven paintings were beginning to be known: it was quite a formative period.
Interviewer: I noticed that Canadian Forum published a fair number of the early Klein poems. As a matter of fact, some of them hadn't been reprinted until the anthology came out.
Respondent: Yes, that's true.
Interviewer: And quite a bit of your poetry at that time.
Respondent: Some of that hasn't been reprinted either. I hope it will be someday.
Interviewer: It should soon be time for a collected Scott.
Respondent: Well, the first step Selected Poems is out; the keel has been laid, shall we say. So it's on the way.
Interviewer: So now we're moving on into the 'forties.
Respondent: The only poetic event in Montreal, as far as I was concerned, in the 1930s, was the bringing out of New Provinces which Smith and I started to think about in 1930. It didn't come out until 1936, because Smith was an essential element in it, but he wasn't here. I had an office and was more or less stable. Kennedy left in 1933, I think, or '34. Klein was around. At any rate, Smith would always come back in the summer holidays here: we used to see each other also during Christmas holidays. And those are about the only times we did any work on New Provinces. But by that time I had moved on further in my socialist thinking. There was a great discussion about socialist realism during the 1930s and the whole influence of the Marxist thinkers was that the poet must be wholly committed politically: an attitude which, as you know, A.J.M. Smith generally repudiates and which I, despite having indulged in it a wee bit, do in the last resort repudiate as regards the ultimate test of poetry. But that was the main event. And I then got greatly involved in politics. And this made me write mostly satirical pieces, because you couldn't live in the 1930s and look at the world around you and not have some form of contrary statement to make. That took us through until, lo and behold, Patrick Anderson burst upon the world about 1940.
Interviewer: When did you first meet Anderson?And under what circumstances did you first meet him?
Respondent: Well, that's all told in this article on Preview here. My memory for these details is not very good. Neufville Shaw was partly instrumental in bringing us together, and Margaret Surrey. Neufville Shaw had already discussed founding a magazine with Patrick Anderson before I had met Patrick. Neufville said I should be brought in; so we gradually began to get a group together. You see, this business of groups getting together and making little mags, I have known both in the Fortnightly and the Mercury, in Preview and in Northern Review, and then I was part editor of the Forum at one time and then right down to the beginning of Tamarack. I was always a great believer in a little magazine, with a keen small group of people, who stay together a few years, not too many, and make their particular mark. They educate each other; they do things, I think it's like exhibitions for painters you have to have it. But I don't think any group of editors of a little magazine should stay together too long.
Interviewer: This is one of the reasons that I wanted to ask questions concerning the sort of notions you had at the time. Because I've always been under the impression too that a little magazine is made up, is started by, and is run by, a group of individuals who are congenial to each other and doesn't necessarily have a sociological or a political base.
Respondent: That's quite true. And that was certainly true of Preview. We just happened to be together, we liked writing poetry very different styles of poetry we were writing. There was no aesthetic unity.
Interviewer:No. Respondent: But we liked doing what we were doing and the title was deliberately chosen, Preview; and the first editorial says "this is not a magazine." We really wanted to try our poems out on each other and put them into some form of type-script so we could look at them and see what reactions they elicited. Then if we liked them, we would use or revise them and send them on to another magazine. It was like a preparation for publication rather than actual publication. But we had a very congenial group, and great fun as well as a lot of stimulus and discussion out of the publication of Preview.
Interviewer: I don't know that this is true to that extent of the First Statement group. Did they have more of a literary base or did they consider themselves to have more of a political base?
Respondent: I don't think they had a political base at the beginning. This evolved. John Sutherland's arrival in Montreal was another event. He was such a dedicated person to the cause of literature, and he was content to live in such a poverty-stricken way. And then he was the first person to get himself a printing press, you know. It was a very good example that he set. I can't even remember my first meeting with him but I know of course that he had been meeting Patrick Anderson before First Statement came out. I have always been under the impression, I've never actually checked it, that he offered some poems to be published in Preview and Patrick refused them. And after that he went off to start his own magazine. But I think you only have to read the early numbers of First Statement to see that there wasn't any very strong political commitment at the time. That developed. Of course John Sutherland went through quite a number of different phases. He went from Marxism to Catholicism that was about as wide a span as you could bridge. Or is it?
Interviewer: Yes. His conversion to Catholicism I've heard so many varying accounts of that. I've been told on the one hand that it was his wife who had become a Roman Catholic first and that Sutherland more or less followed her into Catholicism.
Respondent: Well, that was my impression, although I wouldn't like to affirm it too strongly. But I did come across a letter I had written to John Sutherland just after his conversion. He had asked me to contribute something to First Statement. You know what it was? He wanted me to review a book of Conrad. Which was perfectly valid from a literary point of view. I didn't do it. But I remember that in this letter, I found a statement of mine saying I hoped that his new ideologies would not change the general character of his magazine. I wanted him to still have a wide appeal and a broad spectrum of articles and so forth.
Interviewer: But the general assessment I think today of Sutherland and his connection with Northern Review is that his conversion to Catholicism did in fact change his critical stance and changed the character of the magazine.
Respondent: Very much so. From my point of view, I felt the magazine was almost lost to the particular causes I was then interested in. Now, I think there has been a good deal of misunderstanding about the relationship between First Statement and Preview, partly caused, with all respect, by Dr. Wynne Francis in her "Montreal Poets of the Forties."
Interviewer: This is the article that appeared in Canadian Literature magazine, I believe.
Respondent: Yes. And it gave the impression that the Preview editors were living in stately Westmount homes, whereas the First Statement group were all proletarians living in the slums. My home was the only "home" of the Preview group in Westmount; it is a nice, middle-class home for an academic. P.K. Page lived in a boarding-house in Montreal. Klein came from the same background as Layton; he was of more proletarian origins than Sutherland. And Patrick's "home" you should have seen the place Patrick lived in! Interviewer: Well he told me . . . . The first time I ever met him incidentally, I met him in an Ottawa tavern, and he was reminiscing about his Montreal years and he told me that he was living in an apartment above a garage. . .
Respondent: That's right. Off a lane; in a blind alley! It was an extraordinary place. That's where we held most of our editorial meetings. You went down Saint Matthew Street, which was not far east of here. You crossed over Dorchester. And then you came to a dead-end. You turned off to the west, a little tiny bit of lane. And there was a garage. And then you went around the corner of the garage to the back and here was a narrow wooden staircase that led up to a door that opened into this tiny little apartment, heated by a Quebec heater and a gas stove. And Patrick never shoveled the snow off his steps, so in winter they were sheer ice: you had to pull yourself up by the handrail. Then he kept forgetting his key, and he'd smash the glass of his front door and put his hand in and undo the lock and not put the glass back . . . . But he was dedicated. He was the most wholly literary person. He knew a great deal more, I think, about English and American literature than the others around him.
Interviewer: He seemed to have been very widely read in Dylan Thomas and Auden, and I guess also in Eliot.
Respondent: Oh, yes. Don't forget, Dylan Thomas was only beginning to burst upon us in 1942. Anderson didn't come over here full of Dylan Thomas and begin to spread it. We were all reading Dylan Thomas at the same time. Another person who influenced me a good deal was Arthur Waley with his translations from the Chinese and Japanese, particularly the Chinese. In the early 1930s I began to write occasional verses dealing with particular political events and institutions, and I put two collections of these in the Forum. One I called An Anthology of Up-to-date Canadian Poetry, in 1932 and my little things like "Summer Camp" and so forth were in there. Then in 1935 I followed this with Social Notes. I had about twenty-five small observations, all with a certain amount of bite to them. And that was a perfectly free and open style of writing, quite, in that sense, contemporary really. But the translations of Arthur Waley gave me a form to copy. Perhaps I can give you an example, because I can remember this poem of his, although I haven't seen it in print I suppose for forty years; it is a translation of a Chinese poem written about 800 A.D. and goes like this:
I, through intelligence, having
ruined my entire life
only hope it will prove
ignorant and stupid.
Then it will crown a successful career
by becoming a cabinet minister.
Now you see that style of writing and the irony and the satire: that suited me perfectly when I was writing about the big corporations, and how the churches were all investing in their common stock and so forth. Waley had quite an influence.
Interviewer: Yes. One of your poems that always comes to my mind is the "W.L.M.K." poem.
Respondent: Yes. Of course I lived right through the King era, and simply put my feelings about him into words. But that style of writing could only have happened after what you might call "modern verse" got going. When I started in the Fortnightly I was still trailing clouds of Victorianism with me; I won't call them clouds of glory. I've had a long span to cover, you know.
Interviewer: Yes, and you're still producing a fair amount of poetry.
Respondent: I'm mostly editing now, but still producing a little. But I want to say something more about the relations of First Statement and Preview . . . as far as I was concerned. Of course I was the oldest person in either of the groups by a long way. I had a house here, and I was the only person who really could easily invite them all to meet together. And we did meet together in my home. And so there was a liaison going on and I never felt that the existence of Preview in any way affected my relations with John Sutherland, or a little later when I met him, Irving Layton. And I think there is a lot of ex-post-facto build-up of competition that wasn't acutely felt at the time. But you can ask other people about that.
Interviewer: Yes, well there certainly must have been a sufficient degree of congeniality for eventually many of you were together in Northern Review. I remember when we were speaking back last May at the Klein Symposium, you mentioned to me that Northern Review was more or less formed here in your house.
Respondent: I think many of the editorial meetings of these magazines took place right here on Clarke Avenue. When you have a group producing a magazine, and it stops, then the tendency is you feel you want another magazine. And it so happened that First Statement was coming to an end as Preview was, and it seemed natural to put them together. That association didn't last very long, but my interpretation of it is that in Preview, though Patrick Anderson was the dominant figure, he didn't have a veto over anything. We had no editor-in-chief. We were just a group that sat around and worked by general agreement. And when we got into meeting these other people, John Sutherland and others, I think Sutherland felt that we were an editorial board and he was chairman of the board and editor-in-chief, and if he wanted something in, it would go in, and if he didn't want it in, it wouldn't go in. And that issue came to head over the review of Robert Finch's book, the book that got the Governor General's prize, which John thought shouldn't get the prize. But it was perfectly clear that we would never be able to work together. Another thing, John felt he had a right to add members to the editorial board, whom we had never even met or heard of: we suddenly found some new members sitting and voting with us. And it became an incompatibility of methods and temperaments, rather than a difference of view over what's good and what's bad literature.
Interviewer: So a number of you left the editorial board at pretty much the same time after the Finch editorial, that Sutherland had written?
Respondent: Well, by that time it was clear that there wouldn't be any congenial, common work on the magazine. As a matter of fact, a few days ago, I came across a document I have a file on Northern Review which had been drawn up by R.G. Simpson who was one of Sutherland's nominees on the board. And I must say I was astonished when I read it, because he talks as though the former Preview people had met privately and issued an ultimatum and that Klein and I carried it to the other editors saying it could not be discussed or debated! I looked at this with astonishment; we issued no ultimatums. But the break was bound to occur sooner or later. So then Northern Review went off on its own.
I can remember sitting around at the start, trying to find a name for Northern Review. We didn't know what to call it. And I think Patrick Anderson suggested "Portage". But John Sutherland was aiming at a sort of higher, more weighty type of magazine. There was Southern Review and Southern Quarterly in the United States, so Northern Review seemed to complete the continental picture.
Interviewer: Well, I've been going through your Selected Poems and I see in your poetry the very sharp, concise, Imagist poems and the very tender, but at the same time very crisp, love poems and then this tremendous range of well, political and social and sometimes quasi-religious satire. Which would you say, in the long run, is the most important part of your body of work? Or do you not think of it in those terms?
Respondent: Those different types of verse were connected very largely with different activities in which somehow I found myself wholly involved. I wasn't much interested in politics in the 1920s. I was projected into politics by the great economic crash. You couldn't watch what looked like the disappearance of the normal economic order, and see the terrible suffering around you, and not be, somehow, brought into the question of trying to find out what was happening, and what should be done about it. And at that time I didn't only learn a lot by working with groups with little literary magazines, I also met my friends who formed the League for Social Reconstruction the L.S.R. and the C.C.F. Party, and thus widened my social awareness. From about 1925 to 1945 there were around Montreal and McGill, a larger group of young writers who were moving in the direction of modern verse more than in any other part of Canada. I don't know how it happened: it just so happened. Smith was undoubtedly the pioneer. Then Klein emerged, and John Sutherland, and Dudek, and Layton, and so forth. Gradually new movements began to pick up elsewhere. At some public meeting, I forget when, Irving Layton said to the audience, "We have all the poets in Montreal, and you have all the critics in Toronto." But poets like Souster and others were coming in Toronto too. And then the new poetry seemed to leap out to the West Coast in the most astonishing fashion. When did "Tish" start?
Interviewer: "Tish," I believe, was '62, possibly late '61. This was the Bowering and Davey group. Late 1961, I believe.
Respondent: Well. . . poets began to multiply in Toronto and points west. So now, you see, there is a very wide-spread interest in poetry right across the country. Naturally the more populated centres tend to have the greatest number of writers, and the greater the number, the more it makes people gather around them. To some extent the production of literature is an aspect of the economic and general cultural level of a given community. I really think that now we've got a firm literary base in Canada, a number of people writing well in both prose and verse, and an awakened interest in the public such as I never anticipated. Because, you know, in two years of selling New Provinces, published by Macmillan's, and with the six names in it, four of whom later got Governor General's medals, in the first year we sold eighty-two copies of which I bought ten! And we had to put up two hundred dollars to Macmillan's or they wouldn't have published it. I bought the remainder of them back now they have all disappeared. We are hoping it is going to be reissued, by the way.
Interviewer: Would this be the University of Toronto Press?
Respondent: Yes. They were also going to reissue Preview, but they did some costing of it, and found it was too much. You see, they can't photograph it as off-set . . . Interviewer: . . . because of the physical size of it. I wonder. . . I've been thinking, ever since talking to Patrick last year, so many times, that it would be a wonderful thing to be able to get Preview reissued somehow.
Respondent: Yes, and I think we could find the cash for it, to get it published. Just because U. of T., doesn't do it, I don't see why it should not be contemplated.