Piggy: A Survey of Current Scholarship*

by W.J. Kouth


The importance of Susan Bailey and D.M.R. Bentley’s edition of Mrs. Walter Buchanan’s Piggy (1991) cannot be over-emphasized. Until now we have had no accurate text of this classic Canadian poem, and the obstacles to properly-based scholarship have in consequence been considerable. I need cite only two instances. Not long ago an incautious critic, relying on an undated and doubtless pirated edition (unaccountably ignored by Bailey and Bentley) that contained the reading “Peggy” for “Piggy,” interpreted the poem as an elaborate satire on Margaret Atwood.1 Another, attempting to explore intertextuality in Piggy, posited veiled allusions to leading characters in Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies as well as to the protagonist’s faithful if diminutive companion in Winnie the Pooh. All these insights are now disproved by Bailey and Bentley’s firm dating.
     In one respect, however, this new edition is incomplete, and my purpose in the present article is to fill the ensuing gap. Inexplicably, Bailey and Bentley make no comment on the literary-critical work that has already been devoted to Mrs. Buchanan’s masterpiece (if that gender-specific word may be allowed in this context). This is all the more surprising since D.M.R. Bentley himself is the author of a sod-breaking article on the topic. It was, I suppose, his well-known modesty that prevented him from drawing attention to his magisterial “Piggy in the Hinterland,” an analysis of the ecological implications of the poem. (This is a far more extensive piece of work than his introduction to the present edition which, occupying only some four times more space than the original poem, is uncharacteristically brief.)
     Nonetheless, it is unfortunately true that Piggy has not until recently received the attention that it so obviously deserves. Besides the articles already mentioned, I know of only one that has so far appeared in print, and this is a contribution I approach with some embarrassment. More than a decade ago, when I was less mellow in my attitudes and less catholic in my tastes than I am now, I was injudicious enough to publish “Piggy Scrutinized.”2 It was chivalrous of Bentley to pass it over in silence (this cannot have been caused by ignorance since he was editor of the journal in which it first appeared). Still, history cannot be denied; one’s wild oats will inevitably come home to roost (if you see what I mean). In this ill-considered article, I have to admit, I registered a hostile evaluation of Piggy. I found it intellectually immature, lacking in metaphoric subtlety, rhythmically inadequate. “This is not,” I maintained, “‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ on the subject of pigs.” Well, I have been forced to acknowledge the error of my ways. I now see that the hierarchy of values I invoked at that time was elitist, undemocratic, and even, I fear, politically incorrect—especially since, as a woman and (so it would seem) as a Scot, Mrs. Buchanan represents two notably oppressed minorities. Far be it from me to marginalize the author of Piggy! Here in public, then, I am prepared to eat my words as though they were truffles or acorns.
     Moreover, as a gesture of penance, I recently organized (at my own expense, since I was denied funding by SSHRCC) a Piggy conference at my own university in which young scholars of varied literary and theoretical persuasions were invited to subject the poem to a battery of the most sophisticated contemporary literary approaches. Unfortunately, we have not been able to publish the proceedings as a book (after much agonizing, the University of Toronto Press came to the surprising conclusion that it would lose even more money than The Wacousta Syndrome), and the participants are now submitting their papers to suitable learned journals throughout Canada. They have allowed me to summarize their conclusions here but, since they do not wish to compromise their anonymity in currently fashionable refereeing procedures, they have asked me not to disclose their names at this stage.

*     *     *

The conference began traditionally with a biographical investigation that produced staggering results. The speaker was able to draw upon private papers unknown to Bailey and Bentley which strongly suggest that Mrs. Walter Buchanan was in fact an illegitimate daughter of Robert Buchanan, author of that well-known anti-Pre-Raphaelite squib, “The Fleshly School of Poetry.” This immediately explains much of the physical immediacy of the poem (“carcase complete,” for example). At the question period that followed, a skeptic pointed out that “Mrs. Walter Buchanan” could surely have been connected with the family by marriage only, but the speaker hinted darkly that “there was a lot of incest in the glens.” Clearly, there is room here for fascinating further research.
     Two feminist-oriented papers followed (I arranged for two since one might have been construed as mere tokenism). The first, “Piggy or Sowwy: A Feminist Perspective,” made much of the gender distinction between writer and subject. Piggy is identified as male in the first line of the poem, and the “we” of the second line must surely be interpreted as the collective sisterhood of women (cf. “we use it when doing our baking”). Though a hasty reading might suggest that Piggy was being praised, a subtext of covert criticism is discernible throughout, ranging from “we can’t very well do without him” (implying: though we wish we could) to “bad cess to the cratur.” This subversive reading was well received by the delegates. The succeeding paper, “Piggy, Patriarchy, and the Phallocentric,” proved more controversial. Indeed, so frank and relentless was it in the revelation of the sexual politics lurking just beneath the surface of the text that it succeeded in bringing blushes to various masculine cheeks.
     The apparently inexhaustible hermeneutic richness of the poem was beautifully illustrated by the three papers that made up the next session of the conference. The first, an archetypal contribution, emphasized the poem’s disguised pastoral aspects. Here, the speaker argued, tradition blends with individual talent, since shepherds and goatherds were common in the pastoral tradition but swineherds were not. Hence the force of the title of this presentation, “Et Piggy in Arcadia.” Since in Book X of Homer’s Odyssey Circe turns Odysseus’s sailors into swine, the speaker argued that a subtle blending of genres was involved. In this early twentieth-century “Circe/Mud poem,” a timeless Circe is demonstrating her art (and craft) to an equally timeless Odysseus. The next speaker, however, would have none of this. Applying a strictly Marxist approach, she stressed, in “Fascist and Other Pigs,” the numerous class-indicators within the text: “our money affairs,” “a shortage,” “nobly,” “the pig is a gent.” Far from being an escapist pastoral, she claimed, Piggy is an allegory of the workers’ tireless struggle against the evils of capitalism. The third speaker of this session, by contrast, favoured a psychological-cum-anthropological reading. In “Trotter-Envy and Flitch-Fetishes,” we were treated to a fascinating if startling exegesis that confidently identified the “mischief” on which Piggy is “bent” as decidedly Oedipal in character. If the speaker had then known Bailey and Bentley’s convincing dating of the poem as “c. 1915,” he might very well have raised the possibility of Mrs. Buchanan’s having spent some time undergoing psychoanalytic therapy in Vienna prior to the First World War.
     An especially lively session followed. The paper was wittily entitled “Where is Here? A Neohistorical Deconstruction,” and the speaker, who had made a meticulous study of pig-keeping in different ages and localities, offered her opinion that the details of porciculture given in the poem suggest an Old World rather than a North American provenance. Here was a Eurocentric bombshell indeed (though her conclusions, it must be admitted, seem to be borne out by Bailey and Bentley’s explanatory notes that for the most part record British analogues). The strong implication, never directly stated but implied throughout, was that, wherever Mrs. Buchanan may have lived, the details of Piggy are derived from travels in Europe. The challenge thus posed to Piggy’s Canadian status provoked much heated discussion during the question period. One unrestructured cosmopolitan observed that the paper proved fatal to Piggy’s claims as a work of permanent literary importance (a “stuck pig” was the phrase used). If it portrayed an English or Scottish scene, the argument ran, only a diehard colonialist could possibly accept it as Canadian. On the other hand, if it wasn’t Canadian, it wouldn’t win canonical acceptance in any other literature. This view was howled down by the nationalists present but cheered by a vociferous group of anti-canonists. A straw vote was taken, which I am happy to report resulted in an acceptance of Piggy’s Canadianness by a small majority. Rumor has it, however, that the decision is to be appealed if not to the Supreme Court, then to the Department of English at Simon Fraser University.
     In order to accommodate the maximum number of specialist papers, subsequent sessions were divided into smaller groups. Thus it was possible to squeeze three papers into each session. Space restrictions unfortunately prevent me from recording more than their titles here. A “technical and prosodic” section presented “Anapestic Irregularities in Piggy,” “Pigs Do Have Wings! Muse Poetry and the Concept of Pigasus,” and “The Variable Hoof: Open-Sty Theory and Contemporary Poetics.” The “linguistic and historical” group heard “Bawdy Innuendo in Piggy” (“he cares not a fig”), “The Erotic Sty: An Exchange Between Robert Krouch and Prudy Glebe,” and the somewhat outspoken “Porking Piggy: Rape Fantasies and the Tradition of the Street Ballad.” The “religious and spiritual” section proved to be hearteningly ecumenical with “Piggy and the Last Supper: The Aesthetics of Communion” (“...that many times graces our tables”), “Piggy Among the Quakers” (“the pig is a friend”), and “Not Kosher: Piggy and Anti-Semitism.” A special educational session (co-sponsored by O.I.S.E.) presented “Piggy in the Opportunity Class,” “Piggy in Pokey: An Experiment in Prison Education,” and “'Too Difficult for Freshmen?’ The Position of Piggy in the Undergraduate Curriculum.” The “critical theory” sub-group listened to “Polyphonic Piggy: A Bakhtinian Approach,” “Piggy: The Raw and the Cooked” (which disappointed O.I.S.E. devotees of home economics who were expecting the Galloping Gourmet), and “Grunt-grunt or Oinck-oinck? Piggy and Reader Response.” Finally, a motley group categorized as “political/nutritional” was privileged to consider “Justice Threatened: Piggy and the RSPCP,” “A Scots Reading of Piggy: An Alternative to Haggis,” and even a holistic-cum-homeopathic contribution entitled “Piggy: A Macrobiotic Warning,” which offered a lurid account of the dangers to the nation’s diet if the poem became even more popular than it is.
     The last speaker would have been shocked indeed by the culminating grand banquet, since the menu offered sucking pig garnished with bacon and served with truffle sauce. (However, those requesting special diets were given the alternative of pink-tinted tofu formed in specially-contrived pig-shaped moulds.) At the closing formalities (which agreed to postpone the threat to national unity posed by the neohistorical revelation) the following resolutions were enthusiastically endorsed: that feasibility studies should be initiated regarding a Piggy Newsletter and a fully computerized concordance; that the NFB should be urged to produce a Piggy video (in full colour) for distribution to schools; that Canada Post should be encouraged to issue a commemorative Piggy stamp (though experienced persons warned us not to expect a reply before the turn of the century); that the provincial government should spend whatever uncommitted assets it may have on the erection of a plaque at the Clarksburg piggery (though whether this should celebrate Piggy or Mrs. Walter Buchanan was not made clear); that a regular session on Piggy studies should be held at the Modern Language Association meetings whenever that body assembles in Chicago.
     It is clear, then, that Piggy is at last coming into its own. Now that Bailey and Bentley’s authoritative edition is taking its place on the shelves of all properly educated Canadians, those of us who have striven so gallantly for the recognition of “CanLit” as a solidly based academic discipline are beginning to see our labours bear fruit. A generation of young scholars is coming to maturity determined to see this major poem recognized the world over in all its porcine glory. As we all know, it was once hoped that our own era would become known as “Canada’s century.” That didn’t quite work out, but there is no reason why the next hundred years should not be celebrated as “Piggy’s century.” So, in the words of the bard duly employed for the Formal Toast, “here’s to you, Piggy-wiggy, may you go the whole hog—and sow say all of us!”

* Journal of Canardian Poetry 6 (1991): 182-95. [back]


  1. The confusion is perhaps understandable, given the resemblance between some of Margaret Atwood’s poems and certain pieces of Piggy Fatwood, including “This is Not a Photograph of Me” (which is preceded by an oval photograph of a woman [Mrs. Buchanan?] that has been turned on its side):

    This is Not a Photograph of Me
    (from The Journals of Margaret Buchanan)

    by Margaret Fatwood

    It was taken some time ago.
    At first it may seem
    like me: austere dress and simple jewelry
    dignifying a cover of Macleans or
    Saturday Night
    or Breeders’ Digest;

    then, as you scan
    it, you see what is missing:
    hair like a frizzled bush
    (spruce or juniper) flaming
    and, in the middle, halfway up
    what ought to be a slim
    face, clear playful eyes.

    In the background, there are no books,
    and behind these, no bookshelves.

    (The photograph was taken
    the day before I dieted.

    I am behind, in the centre
    of the picture, well under the surface.

    It is difficult to say where

    precisely, or to say,
    how svelte or stylish I am
    the effect of lard
    on bone is an expansion.

    But if you look long enough

    you will be able to see me.)

    [Editor's Note]

  2. Canardian Poetry: Studs, Documents, Reviews 6 (Spring / Summer 1980): 25-34. [back]

Works Cited

Fatwood, Piggy. Circle Grunts. Hogtown: Ox UP, 1982.

Kouth, W.J. “Piggy Scrutinized.” Canardian Poetry: Studs, Documents, Reviews 6 (Spring/Summer 1980): 25-34.