The Invention of Piggy*

by Eric McCorker


What follows is a narrative of my efforts, during the first week of June in the year 1992, to write one stanza of the early Canadian poem, Piggy.
     Let me say exactly what I mean. Upon coming into possession of a copy of the definitive edition of the poem, I read and read again the “Introduction” and “Editorial Notes.” But I did not read the poem itself. I had already decided I would reconstruct one stanza of Piggy—without ever having read the poem—with no other guidance than the information supplied by editors, Susan Bailey and D.M.R. Bentley. It is said that an archaelogist can recreate a lost civilization from a few shards of pottery; the zoologist boasts, “ex ungue leonem”—“give me only its claw, and I shall reconstruct the lion.” “Ex trottere porcum” was to be my motto in this literary undertaking.
     I should say a little about my qualifications for the job in hand—I know of few more adequately suited to the task than I. I’ve always been an avid reader; but, more importantly, from an early age I have intuitively avoided primary texts. Instead, I have schooled myself on books about books—on Coles Notes, in particular; though I’ve occasionally turned to Classic Comic Books, or movie versions of certain works, or sometimes the pithy afterwords in New Canadian Library paperbacks (I should also mention Margaret Atwood’s Survival, which made instant expertise in Canadian literature available to me).
     For almost half a century, in other words, I’ve kept my distance from primary texts, preferring opinion and conjecture—imagining what must be in the actual texts rather than reading them. I’ve trained generations of students (many of whom now occupy positions in universities across Canada) in my method. “The only poem that counts,” I’ve told them, “is the poem in your mind.” For the syllabuses of my courses at St. Jerome’s College, I’ve prescribed only editions of Coles Notes—never the primary texts. I believe that the imaginative processes of young minds are much more profoundly stimulated thus, than by the mere absorption of pre-existing, already created works.
     Let me present a typical example of my method from earlier this year.


In January of 1992, I performed the following experiment in my Renaissance Seminar. I gave the ten students an unannotated reproduction of the First Folio edition of Macbeth which I told them to read carefully for our next meeting.
     When we met again the following week, I tried, using the Socratic method, to instigate discussion of the play. My questions were greeted with embarrassed silence, or worse. These students, the cream of our Honours programme, could only answer my probings with such comments as: “I didn’t quite grasp it, Professor;” or “The language, Professor McCorker—that old language was too hard;” or, “What, Professor, is it all supposed to mean;” or “We are not smart. Help us, Professor.”etc.
     As the second element of my experiment, I moved from Macbeth to King Lear. I told the group to acquire, and study, before our next meeting, the Coles Notes version of the play. Under no circumstances were they to read the text of the play itself.
     At that next meeting, the atmosphere was electric. For the full hour, I barely had to ask a question. The air was full of spontaneous, lively, incisive discussion of the complexities of the play, and of all the other (unread) tragedies.

The point is clear.
     Now, to return to the matter of Piggy. It has always been my belief that someone trained in my method must surely be quite capable of actually inferring a primary text from secondary material. But in spite of years of relying upon such inferences, I have never before attempted to put on the record a specific, literal re-creation of a poem. Only now do I take this challenge upon myself: I feel that, in some way, it will be the ultimate justification of my life’s work. (I wish, by the way, clearly to dissociate my method from the misguided efforts of the Frenchman, Pierre Menard who tried, with marginal success, to recreate parts of the Don Quixote. Menard admits, in his deliberately obtuse way, that he had actually read the novel itself—more than once—as his biographer, J.L. Borges, reports in Ficciones 50-51, or so my research assistant, who does my primary reading, tells me.)
     As to the question of the journal-style I intend to use here: some readers will prefer a more academic format. I can only say I have rejected that format because I am certain such an artificial structure would falsify my vision. As I have often asked my students: Does the mind hinge upon footnotes? Does the soul require a bibliography?
     So my journal begins.

Monday, 1 June, 1992

Having made my decision last night, after a long period of rumination and meditation in a quiet corner of The Duke of Wellington, I was tired when I awoke this morning. I felt a slight nausea owing, no doubt, to apprehension over the burden I had taken upon myself.
     After several large tomato juices, I went to my study and sat down at my desk to begin the work. Today, I would undertake the arduous, quantitative part of my task. Let me explain. In their Introduction and Explanatory Notes to Piggy, Banley and Baitley had actually quoted large segments of the poem (a devious and widely used means of forcing readers into contact with primary texts). I wanted to establish which stanzas they had quoted least of, so that I would know where to concentrate my efforts. The results:

STANZA ONE (quoted entire):

Oh, I’ll sing of the pig, be he little or big,
     For we can’t very well do without him,
Tho’ he cares not a fig to be neat or be trig
     And hasn’t much beauty about him.

STANZA TWO (quoted entire):

But there’s meat—juicy meat—and spare ribs so sweet
     That many times graces our table,
There’s the head, and the feet, and the carcase complete,
     And we oft eat as much as we’re able.

STANZA THREE (quoted entire):

And there’s lard—snowy lard—sometimes soft, sometimes hard
     And we use it when doing our baking.
Oh, the pig is a pard that we cannot discard,
     Tho’ sometimes new friends we be making.


. . . the pig is a friend that will last to the end
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . recommend
. . . he always keeps doing his duty.


. . . . . . . . . . . our gardens oft loot,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . natur’;
. . . . . . . scoot, . . . . . . . . “Brute”
. . . . . . . bad cess to. . . cratur’.

STANZA SIX—only two words, location unclear!
. . . . . . will (?). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . swill (?). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . money affairs,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then the pig nobly shares . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . he’s great at reducing a mortgage.

STANZA EIGHT (quoted entire):

Oh the pig is a gent, on mischief oft bent,
     To take him all though he’s a corker,
But we will repent and lose many a cent
     If we ever go back on the porker.

Only Stanzas Four, Five, Six, and Seven were not fully quoted; and of these, Stanza Six beckoned me with irresistible appeal. No mention was made of it in the “Introduction;” and in the “Explanatory Notes,” only those two evocative words, “will” and “swill” were supplied, with no hint of their location within the lines—though they obviously played an important part in the rhyme-scheme.
     As for the “Notes” themselves: the definition of “swill” (“kitchen refuse given to swine”) was indeed illuminating. But the note attached to “will” was less so: “Mrs. Buchanan evidently recognized, as did William Wordsworth (see Prelude, VII, 708: ‘the learned pig’), the great intelligence of the pig. She seems, consequently, to have assumed that the pig’s near-human faculties conferred upon it the privilege and responsibility of free will, tempering the behavioural limits set by Nature. Again, cf. Pope, An Essay on Man, IV, 112: ‘There deviates Nature, and here wanders Will. . . .’”
     This latter note struck me as misleading, to say the least. The reference to the papacy (the unspecified Pope) is puzzling. Were the editors trying to suggest that Buchanan’s obvious Calvinist bent is counterbalanced by an unwitting Roman Catholic leaning? They also allude to a certain “William Wordsworth.” The name—a clumsy fabrication, perhaps lifted from the name of a Kitchener-Waterloo bookstore—is nowhere listed in my CNC (Coles Notes Catalogue).
     At any rate, my quantitative analysis was complete and I decided to re-create Stanza Six. “I decided”—how ironic that phrase seems to me now. As I look back, I have reason to believe my decision was thrust upon me; my grounds for asserting that will become clear later.
     This was enough for one day. I put on my coat (it was cool for the time of year) and strolled down to The Duke of Wellington; there, I relaxed for a few hours to build up my emotional and intellectual strength for the task ahead.
     When I came home, much later, I wrote out this journal and went to bed.

TUESDAY, June 2, 1992

I woke around eleven in the morning, my usual time, feeling rather queasy. Perhaps I’d caught a slight chill last night walking home. Even two large tomato juices and four aspirin didn’t get rid of my biliousness, nor did an unexpected evacuation of bodily wastes. The enormousness and enormity of my project had so debilitated me, I went back to bed for some hours.
     It was two in the afternoon when I finally felt well enough to sit at my desk again. With that kind of nervousness an athlete must feel at the start of some gruelling ordeal, I opened my copy of Piggy. Again I read the “Introduction,” this time scribbling comments in the margins beside some of the editors’ insights: “mimetic reflection of the plenitude of the pig” (margin: “is the pig’s given name Piggy?!?); “macaronic, paranomesia, bathos” (margin: check dictionary); “James Hogg, Aritha Van Herk, Robert Kroetsch, Stephen Scobie” (margin: who are these people??? check CNC).
     Though Binley and Buntley’s observations were at times a little obscure, and though the pair skimped a little on character analysis and plot outline, I was impressed; I judged their Introduction to be, in the main, as useful as any set of Coles Notes I’d ever read over a lifetime.
     My final prepping was over. I took a deep breath. The creative juices were churning inside of me. I began to compose.
     After many hours and numerous drafts (which the St. Jerome’s archivist will surely one day accept—though he has steadfastly refused several boxloads of my other unpublished papers), the following emerged:

Ach! it gies me a thrill tae note yon pig’s will—
     He’s as smart as a thoosan’ wee rats;
And it gies me the pill when I hear a’ the swill
     About the brain-power o’doggies and cats.

     I admit to a certain excitement at this first effort—it confirmed my belief that my method was indeed effective. At the same time, I felt oddly like an actor who’d identified with a role. In a certain way, I was Mary Buchanan as I wrote. I understood how her mind worked; I understood how she saw the relationship between form, diction, and ideas. I couldn’t help admiring, for example, the subtle interplay of “will” and “swill”, and the necessary soupcon of the Lalland dialect. I experienced a frisson of delight at that proto-feminist irony—“it gies me the pill.” How astounding, in an age long before the advent of the Pill.
     And yet, and yet. There was something not quite right about the stanza as a whole, something not quite Buchananesque. Perhaps my lines were a little too moralistic, too judgemental, too harsh. They seemed to lack that tolerant, bucolic vision which the original Mary Buchanan must surely have had.
     I, an urban being, a man of books about books, was suddenly smitten with self-doubt. Could it be that all my training was in fact inadequate to the challenge? It took me more than a few minutes to make up my mind: No, I would not give up this early in the quest. Yes, I would go back to the drawing board.
     But not today. No, no, not today. I was quite worn out by my efforts. For now I needed rest, refreshment.

WEDNESDAY, 3 June, 1992

When I came home from The Duke it was around 2 a.m. I wrote out Tuesday’s journal entry, then went straight to bed and dreamt an entire Sixth Stanza of Piggy! I forced myself awake and wrote the stanza down. I pass it on to the reader if for no other reason than to show how the unconscious mind continues working on something the conscious mind has put aside. Here it is:

Och! ye slochchessan fecchle, ye’re muckle twae tecchle
     And yer bairnies are reft o’ their shanky;
Tho’ yer boggies are becht and yer skunkins are skecht
     Yer a jukester and suckit wi’ manky.

     When I woke properly in the morning, around eleven, I looked over the Dream-Stanza. Of course, in the clear unbefuddled light of day, I saw that it lacked even the requisite “will” and “swill.” In fact, it didn’t have much in its favour except for a vigorous accumulation of vowels and consonants that gave it a certain authentic Scoto-Canadian ring.
     I sighed, and put it aside. Two or three tomato juices afterwards, I was ready to turn to my task again. Then, “Wait a minute,” I said to myself. “You must make one final, vital consideration. Yesterday you composed a stanza based on the assumption that Mary Buchanan was one of those careful, crafty old-fashioned poets. But perhaps you were quite wrong. Perhaps she was really a forerunner of our contemporary, spontaneous types.” I pondered that for a while. Then, “Today, you shall assume that she was one of the latter.”
     That interior monologue completed, I allowed myself to write fluidly, with complete ease, almost carelessness. I let my hand drift across the page as though it were a ouija board. Here, quite unaltered, is the stanza it scrawled there:

You can say what you will, it gives me a chill
     When he watches me fry chitterlings and jambonneau.
His pink eyes are still, he hopes I’ll fall in his swill,
     And be his human back-bacon, or prosciutto.

This stanza really excited me: the apt reference to back bacon (did not the Introduction call Buchanan an “incisive chronicler of Canadian reality”?); the implied acknowledgment of our francophonic heritage in the use of “jambonneau”; the vatic foreshadowing, in “prosciutto”, of the Italian immigration—still years off when Buchanan wrote (of course! the “macaronic” to which the Introduction alludes). Nor did I fail to notice the ominous role-reversal implied in the stanza—human being as food-for-pig. That uneasy rhythm of the dactyl in line four surely evokes, with terrifying effectiveness, the implacable trot-trot-trot of the predatory pig.
     As I say, the stanza excited me. “And yet, and yet,” I heard the still, small voice within me carp. “Is not the diction somewhat academic? Does it not smell a little of the lamp, the library, the Coles Notes?” And I, downhearted, could only answer, “Yes.”
     That still, small voice spoke to me around three in the afternoon when I was already quite worn out by my spiritual brush with Mary Buchanan. Like a medium exhausted by the effort of the trance, I stumbled out of my apartment and shuffled through the sun-stricken afternoon along Albert Street to The Duke. Even inside that dark, friendly, smoky place, I felt an infinite loneliness—such a loneliness, I am sure, as accompanies all those who attempt the great process of re-creation.

THURSDAY, 4 June, 1992

I arrived home around two in the morning, rather the worse for wear, wrote out Wednesday’s journal entry, then climbed into bed. Almost immediately, I dreamt a strange dream which was so pertinent to my undertaking I shall describe it in some detail.


A shape hovered near my bed.
     I switched on the light and saw a beautiful woman. She was tall and willowy, her hair dark and long, her eyes brown, a silk night gown carelessly exposing one soft breast, her mouth wide, sensual.
     “Who are you?” I gasped.
     “I am Mary Buchanan,” she answered in a melodious voice.
     I was astonished. This was not at all the dumpy figure Balley and Buntley claimed to have seen in an old photograph. My visitor must have read my mind, for she said: “Ah, how I am misrepresented even by those who would be my allies. That photo was of my brother, Marvin—he liked to wear a dress from time to time. The photo was signed ‘Yours truly Marv Buchanan.’”
      I was suddenly smitten with anxiety. What if this wondrous creature had come to chide me for my work? What if she had contempt for me too? I would have spoken my fears, but there was no need. Her actions told all. She slowly let slip her wispy nightdress and stood all naked before me. She came into the bed and caressed me and began to move her lips along my body, murmuring all the while. I couldn’t hear what she was saying at first, but then realized she was reciting the stanzas of Piggy to me! The poem’s diction in her mouth oozed such sensuality that, accompanied by her kisses, it drove me to the edge of ecstasy. By the time she reached the Fourth Stanza, I was in a state of almost uncontainable excitement. By the Fifth, I was ready to swoon. She looked up at me then with those wonderful brown eyes, her lips wet with kissing. She took a long breath and began to recite the Sixth Stanza.
     I don’t know where the strength that was given to me at that moment came from. But I cried out to this divine apparition:
“Stop! Stop! For heaven’s sake, stop!”
And she did stop, looking into my eyes with what I can only describe as melancholy—and love. And then she melted away.

     I slept a dreamless sleep after that, and when I awoke around noon, I felt utterly exhausted. Even the tomato juice tasted bitter and I spent an hour, as I sometimes do in the mornings, cooling my forehead on the tiles of the bathroom floor. After last night’s visitation, I must admit I was beginning to wonder if I hadn’t perhaps bitten off more than I could chew—perhaps there was something unnatural about my undertaking. Certainly I was in no mood for continuing my work on Stanza Six for a while.
     That diffident frame of mind was, of course, exactly the right one for the accomplishment of the task. Poetry (certainly the poetry of Mary Buchanan) cannot be forged at the crucible, no matter how hot. There is an element in it that is truly inexplicable. That is why, as I sat in my armchair early that afternoon, feeling quite miserable, Stanza Six came to me unbidden! I say “came” advisedly, for, without any effort on my part, the lines of the stanza appeared on the tabula rasa of my psyche and I did nothing but pick up pencil and paper and write as though I were receiving dictation.
     It only took a minute or two, and it was done. Afterwards, I felt no amazement, no wonder. Rather, I felt empty—like a woman delivered of a love-child. I looked blankly several times at what I had written:

But then with a will he will come to us still
     And thrive if we give him attention
If his trough we but fill with plenty of swill
     And other good food I might mention.

     As I say, at first I stared at the stanza quite listlessly, impervious to its simplicity, its curious perfection. Till, all at once, my listlessness evaporated. I noticed the verbal felicities: the startling counterpointing of “will he will”; the final, seductive, evocative, “I might mention.” I read that phrase again and again till its stunning impact shattered my composure. I realized the mind-boggling truth: Stanza Six was written expressly about me and my method! I myself was the “he” (the unnamed pig), coming to Mary Buchanan (“I”); I was the one who would “thrive [on her] attention.” She had only to fill my “trough” (my imagination) with “plenty of swill” (ideas, images). As for that magical “I might mention”—did it not quite literally imply that she “might [have] mention[ed]”, but did not? That she invited me to do what she had deliberately not done? The lines I had laboured with such difficulty to produce, in other words, were about the need to be the producers of such lines! Mary Buchanan intended me to invent, re-invent her Stanza Six, symbolic of all stanzas of all poems (of all primary texts!). She had reached her ghostly hand out to me from the nineteenth century to validate my life’s work. I rhapsodized aloud:
     “Oh, woman, woman! Oh, the generosity of woman! How different from us men with our vain attempts to conceal, to shine and to compete.”
     Then I brought out my journal and recorded all these doings while they were still fresh in my mind.

SATURDAY, 5 June, 1992

What a blissful day. I sit here in my study feeling the warm sunlight through the window, watching the bustle down Caroline Street and the distant hulk of The Duke. I sip my third tomato juice (I humbly celebrated, at The Duke last night, the completion of my undertaking), as I write these concluding aphorisms:
     a) Refuse to be seduced into the docile recourse to primary texts;
     b) Work to give prominence to poets like Mary Buchanan—poets who try to be as little like poets as possible but who, rather, encourage us to write their poems ourselves!
     It’s all over. I’ve done my part. I’m human, of course. I’ve been tempted to look at the Bunting and Brunswick edition of Piggy to check my re-creation. But I refuse to give way: there could be no greater violation of the integrity of my method. If the editors’ stanza differs from mine, theirs is the defective one (the invented one!), not my reconstruction. I know what I know.
     But there may be a greater temptation to come. If she, my dream mistress (I have begun to think of Mary Buchanan in that way; I have begun to have a regard for at least this one producer of primary texts) visits me again in the middle of my unwaking hours, if she disrobes, if she lies beside me on the bed, if she caresses me and in the softest of soft voices, begins that seductive recitation, will I be able to still the pounding of my heart? And when she arrives at the Sixth, the Mystical Stanza, will I have the strength this time to silence her? Perhaps, and perhaps not. That moment will, I think, be the ultimate test of my method.

* Borgiana 12 (Spring 1992): 221-42. [back]

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Survival. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones. New York: Grove P, 1962.

Buckler, Ernst, and Jacqueline Susann. The Mountain and the Valley of the Dolls. Toronto: Reader’s Digested Condensed Books, 1969.

Buchanan, Mrs. Walter. Piggy. Ed. Wilfrid Brimley and Bentley Drummle. London: Canardian Poetry P, 1991.

Macbeth: Coles Notes. Downsview: ECW P, 1989.

MacLennan, Hugh, and George Romero. The Watch that Ends the Night of the Living Dead. Toronto: Reader’s Digested Condensed Books, 1987.

Ondaatje, Michael, and Kurt Vonnegut. Coming Through Slaughterhouse-Five. Toronto: Reader’s Digested Condensed Books, 1977.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. London: n.p., 1623.

Soultrain, Stephen. Squib Newton and the Aztec God. Toronto: Bantam, 1962.
The Coles Notes Catalogue. Downsview: ECW P, 1990.