"For My Own Damn
by James Doyle
The most important fact about Milton Acorn, declared Al Purdy in 1968, "is that he is a Marxist poet, a Communist."But, Purdy continued, he "has quarreled violently with every socialist organization he ever had anything to do with, and is a member in good standing of none" (x). Purdy acknowledged Acorn’s political radicalism as an important element in his life, but he ignored the poems in which this radicalism appeared in a dogmatic partisan form. In his two editions of selected Acorn poems, he included only a few of the works Acorn wrote while an actual dues-paying member of the Communist Party.
Most of Acorn’s biographers and critics have been similarly negligent of his communistic beliefs and activities.Francis Zichy, in an article on Acorn in Profiles in Canadian Literature 4 (1982), scarcely mentions them. Terry Goldie, in his Dictionary of Literary Biography entry on Acorn (1986), dismisses the communism briefly as part of the mythology the poet created for himself (3). Ed Jewinski’s Milton Acorn and His Works (1990) recognizes Acorn as a "Marxist" poet, but isolates the word in quotation marks, relating it to Acorn’s "self-declared" status as a "Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, Trotskyist, Maoist, and Canadian nationalist" (7). The first book-length biography of Acorn, Chris Gudgeon’s Out of This World (1996), includes an account of Acorn’s literary beginnings in the Communist Party, but the account is brief and obviously skeptical about Marxism and Acorn’s commitment to it.
Over the course of his turbulent literary career Acorn showed little tolerance for bureaucratic organization in the arts, politics, or any other field of activity. As Purdy implies in his allusion to "every socialist organization," Acorn was a persistent subscriber to causes, but his cranky individualism was forever coming into conflict with the formal structures in which these causes were embodied.Yet as Purdy also suggests, Acorn’s involvement with Marxism, erratic and idiosyncratic as it may have been, is one of the most important facts about him. It could be argued further that in spite of Acorn’s quarrels with partisan authority and dogma, his interlude of membership in the Communist Party was one of the most important episodes in his life. Long after he had resigned his membership he continued to speak amiably about the Party, and defensively about his connection with it. "I was a communist for my own damn satisfaction," he growled belligerently in the title of a 1962 prose contribution to the Toronto literary and graphic arts magazine Evidence. In a more mellow mood in 1977, he described the Party as "the nearest thing to my spiritual home I ever found" ("In Wry Memoriam" 4).
To be precise, Acorn’s "spiritual home" was the Labour-Progressive Party (LPP), the official name adopted in 1943 by the former Communist Party of Canada to placate right-wing politicians and police who objected to granting legal status to an allegedly subversive revolutionary movement.The LPP profited from the momentum of wartime pro-USSR sentiments, and from a postwar expansion of its membership, to encourage artistic activity among its members. In 1947 the Party formed a national cultural commission to oversee the establishment of groups of writers, graphic artists, and theatre workers in major cities. Writers of poetry and fiction were encouraged to seek outlets for their work in the left-wing press, especially the national weekly newspaper, the Canadian Tribune. The official LPP publisher, Progress Books, expanded its list beyond pamphlets and books on politics and economics to include novels and collections of poems and short stories. Local cultural groups established literary periodicals ranging from mimeographed broadsheets to slickly produced magazines.
Acorn began to look to the Party’s publications as possible outlets for his writing as early as 1943, after an injury on a troop ship en route to England invalided him out of the army and he returned home to Prince Edward Island. Although born into a middle-class Charlottetown family, Acorn thought of himself as a radical socialist worker. But Prince Edward Island in 1943 was not a propitious place for radical politics. That year marked the beginning of the ten-year administration of a provincial Liberal government under Premier J. Walter Jones, a wealthy farmer whose political platform included a determination to defend the Island’s "traditional way of life" by a program of power-sharing between government and large corporations, and by blaming labour disturbances on "communist agitators" from the Canadian mainland (Sharpe 188). In spite of this atmosphere, or perhaps because of it, there were many young disaffected Islanders like Acorn, growing in numbers after 1945, who were eager to discuss radical ideas in beer parlours and Legion halls. There may even have been small, localized efforts to form LPP clubs on the Island. And for reading matter, politically radical publications were always available by mail. Soon after returning from his abortive war, Acorn took out a subscription to the Canadian Tribune. Established in 1940, the Tribune was the main voice of Marxist Communism in Canada, although to protect itself from police harassment it was legally independent of the Party, and its independence enabled it to attract both as subscribers and contributors people of various political commitments, or of no decided commitment at all.
It was probably from reading the Tribune that Acorn got much of his early education in Marxism.It was also in the Tribune that he discovered modern Canadian poetry. In the 1940s and ’50s poetic contributors to the paper included Dorothy Livesay, Irving Layton and Miriam Waddington. But according to Acorn himself, he was inspired less by the young modernists who occasionally published in the Tribune than by an older poet whose work appeared much more frequently, Joe Wallace. "One day I opened the Canadian Tribune," Acorn wrote many years later, "and there was a picture of Joe the poet, with a group of things he dared to call poems. They were not. . . . My reaction was . . . ‘Well, if that fellow can be called a poet . . . so can I’" ("In Wry Memoriam" 40). But Acorn also referred to Wallace’s poems as "sometimes totally inspired," and over the years, under the influence of personal friendship with Wallace his admiration increased.
Joe Wallace (1890-1975), a member of the Communist Party from 1922 until his death, was a self-styled working-class poet whose conception of poetry was formed by the school-book verse of his childhood and by the folk songs, slogans, epigrams, and anthems of labour activism and revolutionary politics.For Wallace, poetry was the voice of the people, and the poet was merely a recorder. "The People are talking poetry all the time--I listen to them," he insisted in a 1953 interview in the Tribune (Fairley 9). Acorn shared Wallace’s populist conception of poetry probably throughout his career, and certainly during the years he was a member of the LPP. "All art is collective," Acorn wrote in 1955. Poetry, he insisted, could be made of workers’ doggerel, or even from the fortuitous verbalisms of people in ordinary day-to-day situations ("The People Wrote It" 19). In addition to his belief in Marxist Communism, Joe Wallace retained all his life a commitment to Roman Catholicism. Acorn did not share Wallace’s religious beliefs, but in his early poetry he sometimes imitated Wallace’s penchant for combining Marxist and Christian imagery and themes.
In the late 1940s Acorn began to submit short poems to the Tribune.These early poems must have been very weak indeed, for they failed to satisfy even the Tribune’s none-too-exacting standards. But Acorn kept writing and submitting, thereby gradually discovering what and how he wanted to write. In 1952, the Party in Toronto established a glossy arts magazine entitled New Frontiers, under the editorship of the erudite Margaret Fairley. Here Acorn saw his first poem in print, in the Winter 1953 issue. Credited to "A.," "a Prince Edward Island Poet," "Grey Girl’s Gallop" is a long satirical work written mostly in anapestic tetrameter rhyming couplets, about a trotting horse that defies the rules imposed upon her by her "masters," and forfeits the race by breaking stride, then abandoning the race altogether. A fable of innocent individualism rebelling against exploitative economic power, the poem was exuberant and witty, and although Acorn never included it in any edition of his collected poems he remained fond of it and repeatedly alluded to it as his first venture into print.
New Frontiersaccepted two more of his poems for its Fall 1953 issue. These successes plus a restless urge to get into a more cosmopolitan cultural milieu prompted Acorn to move to Montreal, in the summer of 1953 (not 1956, as is often asserted in biographical notes on the poet). In the city he was unsuccessful in finding more than occasional work in his trade of carpenter, but here his literary career expanded, especially when he encountered the person who was his second important literary and ideological contact after Joe Wallace. Louise Harvey (1916?-1983) was in socio-economic background at the opposite pole from the working-class status that Acorn claimed for himself. The daughter of J.C. Smith, late president of the Shawinigan Water and Power Corporation, Harvey had been educated at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and had returned to Montreal to marry into a family as socially distinguished as her own. But when Acorn met her, Harvey was divorced, and pursuing a career as a poet, editor, writer of short stories and feature articles, and militant Communist. In the late 1930s Harvey had contributed socially critical articles and poems to the Canadian Forum and Saturday Night, while serving as a member of the Montreal Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, which sponsored the blood transfusion unit organized by Norman Bethune for the benefit of the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. About this same time she joined the Communist Party, and after the Second World War she was a founding member of an LPP writers’ workshop in Montreal. In 1953 she ran unsuccessfully as LPP candidate for the riding of St. Antoine-Westmount in the federal election.1
It was during or soon after the summer election campaignthat Acorn and Harvey met, probably at a local LPP club meeting. Although several years older than Acorn, Harvey seems to have fallen in love with the young Islander. Acorn was both flattered and intimidated by Harvey’s ardour. The letters exchanged between them in 1954, while Acorn was back in PEI, are intimately affectionate but reflect a certain guardedness on his part, and a preference for maintaining their friendship primarily on a literary basis.
As fellow members of their LPP club’s literary group, Acorn and Harvey submitted their poems to each other for criticism.There is little evidence that Acorn paid much attention to Harvey’s detailed critiques, several of which are in the Acorn papers at the National Archives. For Harvey, poetry was exclusively a medium of political propaganda, and her own verse was scarcely more than fragmented lines of discursive prose. But her complaints of Acorn’s obscurity may have encouraged him in his use of colloquial diction and simple poetic forms. More important, however, Harvey was the first of several intelligent and sympathetic literary friends who encouraged Acorn over the years, and who included Joe Wallace, Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. Acorn’s earliest Communist poetry, most of which appeared in New Frontiers, dealt primarily with political themes and working-class experience. "Jack and the River," published in the Fall 1953 New Frontiers, was a dialogue between two working men that idealizes their status by attributing to the title character a poetic sensitivity in his response to nature and his metaphorical vision of the river. It was "a folksy bit," Acorn said years later, "which had something to it," but was weakened by lines that misrepresented the natural phenomena for the sake of the ideological value of the image ("In Wry Memoriam" 41). Too concerned with a politically correct idealization of the proletariat, Acorn was not yet concerned enough about language.
Acorn liked the poem well enough to include it in his first little book, the self-published In Love and Anger (1956).But a more important early poem was his "Norman Bethune, Died Nov. 13, 1939," published in the Fall 1953 New Frontiers. Inspired by the 1952 biography of Bethune, The Scalpel, The Sword by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon, the poem is a tribute to the Party’s larger-than-life hero. "Norman Bethune" was excluded from In Love and Anger, but several years later Acorn rewrote the poem, probably in the light of his reading of Roderick Stewart’s new biography, Bethune (1973), and included it in The Island Means Minago (1975).
The revision takes as its title "We carried him . . ." (sic, including ellipsis), words adapted from the opening paragraph of the Allan and Gordon biography, and among the few words of the original poem included in the revision. Both poems are sonnets, with a rigorously traditional structure of rhythm and rhyme, and both are dramatic monologues, ostensibly spoken by Bethune’s real-life Chinese interpreter, Tung Yueh-ch’ien, but beyond these points the two versions are widely distinct. The first takes a naively idealistic approach to Bethune’s life and death. Bethune is portrayed in Christ-like terms in relation to his followers, who express only awe and grief as their leader dies. The speaker sees himself as "a bruised and helpless child" against Bethune’s "angelic fire and pity." Bethune’s final comment in the poem, in reply to the appeal of his grief-stricken interpreter, "No Tung—you live—and make improvements," with its lack of specific challenges or directives, increases the impression of the remoteness of the divine Bethune in contrast to the weakly human Tung, who can absorb little from his master beyond the general lesson to carry on the struggle.
In the revised version, Tung has a much greater understanding of his own role in relation to Bethune, who is brought down from divinity to flesh and blood. There is more emphasis on Bethune’s exposure to human weaknesses and perils, in contrast to his transcendent spiritual qualities in the first version. The dying Bethune of the 1953 poem is a poignant spectacle of "worn-out gentleness," whose last, obscure, Christ-like pronouncement is spoken mildly. Bethune as conceived twenty years later is also "a milder man . . . than he once was," but Tung now finds himself wishing "perversely for a burst of [the] foreign curses" of the vigorous human being of the past. In the first version, Tung prays, "Not knowing whether to a god or him," for Bethune to "curse and drag himself up by life’s rim." But in the revision Tung pleads aloud to the dying man:
addressing the human being as opposed to the embodiment of divine qualities.In the "cranky" reply of the revision, Bethune urges his followers to keep striving, as he does in the first version, but his words are enigmatic rather than vague, closer to his "foreign curses" of old:
What whining’s this? Can it
His words trail off, implying not merely that his followers should build on his work, but that they must work out their own destinies, even if their efforts take them beyond the levelling processes of Communism toward the competitive spirit associated with capitalism.
The differences between the two versions of the poem reflect the varying conceptions of Bethune developed by the early biographers Allan and Gordon and the later biographer Roderick Stewart.But the revision also reflects Acorn’s disillusionment with the Communist tendency to mythologize political heroes. As he declares more explicitly in his later "Drunk Thoughts of Bethune" (in Jackpine Sonnets, 1971):
Take for instance our Norm. He
Even in poems written while he was still a member of the LPP, the idealization of Party heroes is sometimes qualified.In "To Coté’s Statue of Louis Riel" in the Spring 1954 New Frontiers, Acorn apostrophizes the Métis rebel through the representation of him by the working-class wood carver Jean-Baptiste Coté (1834-1907). An artist best known for the wooden saints, apostles, and Virgins that he carved for churches throughout Quebec province, Coté conceived a calm and pensive Riel, dressed in his prairie leggings and fur coat, gazing with meditative dignity rather than striking a militant revolutionary pose. "A quoi pense-tu, Bonhomme Riel?," Acorn asks. In answer to his own question he conceives a saviour who agonizes over the sufferings of his people, and whose "early thought" ("early" because predating the time for inevitable revolution in the Marxist sense), led him "To the British gallows-tree." Riel is implicitly Christ-like, but the poem combines Christian and Marxist ideology to focus on the suffering and death that is the prelude to revolution, rather than on the supernatural qualities of a messiah.
In "Of Martyrs" (New Frontiers, Winter 1955), a tribute to the anonymous victims of capitalist exploitation, Christian imagery and ideas are likewise put to the service of Marxist revolution--at least in the first version. Like the Bethune poem, "Of Martyrs" was revised by Acorn after he left the Party; the revised version was first included in his book Jawbreakers (1963) and subsequently in I’ve Tasted My Blood (1969), a selection of his poems written between 1956 and 1968, edited by Al Purdy. Acorn’s continuing interest in the poem perhaps stemmed not from its subject matter, but from the fact that it was his first published venture into free verse. The New Frontiers version consists of six five-line unrhymed stanzas of uneven line lengths, with a rhythmic pattern that arises naturally from the stress of key words:
In the revision, Acorn substituted words and phrases here and there, but mainly he cut out three stanzas that use politically correct rhetoric about revolutionary heroes marching, singing, and finally passing through "the door of their deaths," leaving "the song of their lives" to be continued by the dedicated partisans who follow them.The song metaphor remains in the revision, but the main idea of the poem is now restricted to the self-sufficient action of the martyrs, without reference to the meaning of this action for posterity. The idea conveyed by the words "It was life they chose/not death," opening the second stanzas of both versions, is highlighted as the main theme in the truncated closing stanza of the revision:
Til the last stride with a living
Acorn retained interest in his Bethune poem and in "Of Martyrs" over several years, but when he listed for Al Purdy his "three or four best" poems (in an undated letter, probably written in the 1960s), he did not mention these poems, but included two others written while he was a member of the LPP. "A Pretty-Near-March-Song" (in New Frontiers, Spring 1956) offers deliberately naive, doggerel-like rhyming quatrains about robins, oak trees, and melting snow.The birds, trees and snow, furthermore, are all personified, represented as reluctant to accept the coming of spring. The robin sings, but wishes that the weather were warmer; after thinking the matter over, the trees "decide they ought/to wait a bit" before budding, even though they will later "grieve" for the additional spring weather they might have enjoyed. The snow longs for "a prophet" to tell it whether to go or stay.
The poem is about the political indecision of people who lose opportunities because they fear that the time is not right, and because they lack the self-confidence to take revolutionary action.As they waver, or long for a "prophet," they justify their indecision by approving the deceptive comfort of the status quo:
And they admire those
They defend their passivity further by claiming that any change for the sake of achieving mere "wordly aims" would be an "aesthetic sin."The creation of beauty, their inaction implies--whether the beauty of nature, art, or social reform--must wait for the proper moment. At the end of the poem, Acorn verbalizes the robin’s song ("All this shall pass, shall pass, shall pass, shall pass"), to suggest how would-be revolutionaries would rather chant repetitively about change than do anything to effect it.
Although Acorn praised this poem to Purdy, he never included it in a collection, perhaps because he thought it was too concerned with internecine party squabbles to be of lasting interest.The implied criticism of the indecision of his fellow LPP members, including the "singers" of the writers’ group, indicates Acorn’s restless dissatisfaction with the Party by 1956. Meanwhile, however, he had finally broken into the Tribune, with the poem "The Dead" (11 April 1955), a tribute to Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the Second World War. Between 1955 and 1957 the Tribune featured six of his poems, all fairly simple lyrics dealing with social problems such as unemployment, worker safety, the post-war housing crisis, etc. His final poetic contribution to the paper, published in the issue of 22 April 1957, was "Callum," the second of the two Communist works he described to Purdy as among his three or four best.
"Callum" consists of four stanzas of irregular rhythm, rhyme, and line length, written in the colloquial worker’s voice of "Jack and the River."But the new poem deals with the tragedy rather than the idyll of proletarian experience, for Callum is a "novice miner" who is forced to work in a dangerous location and falls "a hundred and forty feet" down a mineshaft. The catastrophe is presented very briefly, however; the poem concentrates on Callum as an image of male beauty and mystery:
eyes a lake you see rocks on its
The dead miner is, like the revolutionaries in "Of Martyrs" or the soldiers in "The Dead," another victim of industrial capitalism.But unlike "Of Martyrs," "Callum" stresses not the historical continuity of the sacrifice from one generation to another, but rather the obscurity of the miner’s life and death. Callum will remain forgotten, like all the anonymous victims of capitalism, unless the speaker expresses his individual love and admiration by preserving the name of the dead man in the only way available to him:
Callum’s anonymity is related especially to his obscure origins."Where the island is I’ll never know," the speaker admits, indicating that he can never fully understand and identify with the martyred man. The un-Marxist implication is that personal identity, defined especially in terms of regional origins, is an essential element in the meaning of a life. The probability that the mysterious Callum comes from the same "island" as the poet himself does underscores both Acorn’s socially conscious sympathies with the victims of industrial capitalism and his growing skepticism about universal salvation through class-structured solidarity.
Al Purdy liked this poem well enough to include it in I’ve Tasted My Blood. Acorn tinkered with the poem, and published a slightly revised version in The Island Means Minago (1975), a volume of poems written partly while he was under the influence of the breakaway "Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist)." But as the last poem he wrote for the Tribune, "Callum" reflects his gradual drifting away from partisan Marxism.
As "A Pretty-Near-March-Song" suggests, Acorn was becoming impatient with his fellow members of the LPP as early as 1956. In a letter to the editor of the Tribune published 3 June 1957 (a little more than a month after the appearance of "Callum"), Acorn objected to the Communist tendency to define art as that which is acceptable to the public, and insisted that the whole position of the LPP on culture needed to be reappraised. Acorn’s dissatisfaction with the Party particularly singled out the weekly paper, the medium which ironically had a great deal to do with his joining the Party in the first place. In a letter to the editor published in the issue of 28 October, 1957, he criticized the Tribune’s "witless adoration of all things Soviet." Besides criticizing the paper’s Russophilia, Acorn perhaps shared the complaints expressed by Louise Harvey in an undated letter to him, that the paper often positioned poems badly on the page, and that there were inexplicable delays between acceptance and publication.
But Acorn’s unhappiness with the Tribune was only one sign of his impending break with the LPP. In 1956, he had decided to give up his carpenter’s trade and pursue a career as a full-time poet, a decision he marked by selling his tools and underwriting the publication of his first book, In Love and Anger. Significantly, he chose to publish this book himself, rather than have it appear under the auspices of the Party. Both New Frontiers and the writers’ group of his LPP club in Montreal issued poetry chapbooks from time to time and, although he still would probably have had to pay the printing costs, he might have brought his book out under the imprint of one of these organizations, which had given him encouragement at the beginning of his public career as a poet. But in 1956 Acorn was obviously thinking of distancing his literary career from the Party.
His dissatisfaction with organized Communism is further indicated in "My Love a Fierce Altruist," the opening poem of In Love and Anger. In an undated letter, Louise Harvey expressed her bewilderment with the poem. Acorn explained in reply that it was about Harvey herself. The woman Acorn portrays is fierce in her single-minded dedication to humanitarian causes, pursuing these causes with "glum and introspective stare," stepping out like a tightrope walker into a "perilous black abyss" that she seems to appropriate solipsistically (Acorn, I Shout Love 27). The brief (eight-line, two-stanza) poem is a sketch that exposes with ruthless irony a fanatical idealism that ignores not simply physical obstacles, but also the very medium and atmosphere in which the idealism must be transformed into action. Either, as in "A Pretty-Near-March-Song," the Communists procrastinated, excused, and did not act at all, or they acted with a blind indifference to reality that could only lead to disaster.
In later accounts, Acorn related his departure from the Party to the changing political situation in Quebec. According to his 1977 article on Joe Wallace, the Supreme Court defeat of the so-called "Padlock Law" in Quebec in 1957 enabled the LPP to operate more openly, and a rapid increase in Party membership led to increasing friction between old and new members, then to mass resignations. "I just let my membership lapse," Acorn claimed ("In Wry Memoriam" 41). These circumstances may have been factors, but more prominent influences were his dissatisfaction with the Communist conception of poetry, the limited opportunities for publishing that were available to Party members, his changing relationship with Louise Harvey, and generally his restless personality that yearned for new literary experiences.
Besides publishing his own chapbook independently of the Party, Acorn in the late 1950s began sending his poems to non-Communist literary magazines. In April 1958, a few months before he first met Al Purdy, his poem "I’ve Tasted My Blood" appeared in Delta, a new periodical edited in Montreal by Louis Dudek. In 1960, Acorn’s first commercial book, The Brain’s the Target, was published as a chapbook by Ryerson Press. By this time, his poetic apprenticeship and his career as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party were long finished.
In "I was a communist for my own damn satisfaction," Acorn still described himself as an enemy of capitalism and a believer in "freedom," "equality," and "a rational mode of life directed toward human happiness." "I found certain sections of the Communist movement difficult to work with," he admitted, but in terms of political ideology his beliefs had not changed (38). He remained a "communist," although his communism was expressed over the rest of his life through a variety of affinities, and in evolving conceptions of both politics and poetry. But his apprenticeship with the writers’ groups and publications of the LPP was appropriate to his temperament in the 1950s, formed as it was by revulsion against hot and cold wars, and by an urgent desire to remake the world and to find a congenial context for the expression of this desire. The relatively conservative notions of poetic form maintained by his LPP colleagues, furthermore, encouraged him to train himself in a variety of established conventions and traditions. Paradoxically, in a dogmatically collective political community he made a successful beginning in the search for his own individual poetic voice.
I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Sarah Brophy in the research and writing of this article.