Some Dudek Texts and Essays


Louis Dudek: Texts & Essays, eds. Frank Davey and bp Nichol. Open Letter 4:8/9 (Spring and Summer 1981).

Dudek the poet, Dudek the literary critic, Dudek the teacher, Dudek the polemicist, Dudek the quiet revolutionary, Dudek the cultural critic and historian, Dudek the advocate, Dudek the theoretician, Dudek the rational mystic: these are some of the faces of Dudek, and they can all be seen, along with Dudek the centrally important Canadian modernist, in a variety of contexts throughout the 320 thick pages of the latest Open Letter. Louis Dudek: Texts & Essays is a massive volume, intellectually intense and invigorating; it provides a stimulating overview of one poet's thinking and writing during the past four decades, but especially from the late sixties to the present.

     In their Introduction, the editors argue "Dudek's centrality to Canadian poetry," as the raison d'Ítre for this collection:

His work binds Smith, Scott, and Klein to the writing of the present generation. It links Canadian writing to the great modernist descent from Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Williams. It holds McLuhan's examination of mid-twentieth century technology tightly to the context of the modernist struggle to achieve value and meaning despite the over-whelming dedication to commodity of the culture at large. Dudek is a successor to Pound, standing unshadowed in the company of Bunting, Olson, and Spicer. His long poems, the first major modernist poems in Canadian literature, open up formal possibilities which are later to dominate important work by Marlatt, Bowering, Nichol, Lee and Kroetsch. As Wynne Francis has noted, Dudek is also the first 'man of letters' in Canada, the first to follow Arnold and Pound in combining poetry, criticism, polemic editing, and cultural criticism into one multi-faceted cultural vision. (7)

If, at first, this seems a little extreme, the "collection" — an interview by letter in which Dudek responds to questions from Frank Davey, bp Nichol, Steve McCaffery, and George Bowering, "A Europe Manuscript," "The Atlantis Notebooks," "Continuations 1 Manuscript," drafts of a previously unpublished lyric, a couple of letters from the Poetry Mailbag of 1951-55, and a range of essays and speeches — goes a long way to making good the editors' claims. To truly comprehend and appreciate Dudek the poet, of course, one should read the Collected Poems, Cross-Section: Poems 1940-1980, and Continuation 1, at least (ideally, one would read the complete texts of the long poems Europe and Atlantis). As well, there are other collections of essays which would fill out the picture of the man's various accomplishments. Nevertheless, Louis Dudek: Texts & Essays admirably fulfills the editors' design "to capture here the size, mood, and energy of Dudek's achievement," and is, for that reason, a marvelously entertaining, educational, and important volume.

     Although Louis Dudek opens with the interview, and although both the questions and the responses are lively, intelligent, knowledgeable, and highly provocative, I think it might be better to read the essays before reading the interview, since many of the questions assume a knowledge of what Dudek has previously written. At the beginning of the interview —  the title of which, "Questions (Some Answers)," perfectly reflects his hermeneutic — Dudek says:

Now, in answering the questions, briefly, I must beware of trying to make myself too consistent and logical. In poetry each insight is a separate stab at some truth, and somehow one trusts that these insights as a whole will hang together. What I'm saying, in toto, is as mysterious to me as it is to you — we are only trying to understand it. (9)

This statement applies to all his essays at literature and culture, and the contradictions which sometimes appear signal the continual openness of the enterprise as he sees it.

     The central opposition in his criticism is a kind of inner argument between the intellectual, who finds the ideas of modernism sadly lacking, and the poet, who finds "the radical liberation of poetry from traditional subject matter and form" both necessary and wonderful (292). His doubled vision leads him to announce that the well-known works of modernism "are only the beginning. None of them have ever gone far enough. . . . That is why it is always possible to look at some phase of modernism and still find it lacking in the fullness of possibility" (294). He makes this statement in one of the most recent essays, "The Poetry of the Forties," but it is representative. Dudek has always been in favour of poetic liberation, of seeking new ways to write authentic poetry; in this, he has taken to heart Pound's "Make it new!" But he is an intellectual poet; the human power of ratiocination is of central importance to him, leading him to create structures of thought in his poems as much if not more than structures of perception or of emotion. This is surely one reason his poetry has never achieved the popularity of that of his early confreres, Layton and Souster. Writing highly modernist long poems (a form neither Layton nor Souster attempted) in which philosophical reflection is the major focus, he has struggled to create an oeuvre in which cultural awareness, an almost Arnoldian recognition of the "touchstones" of the past, unites with the open spirit of exploration which is one of the formal hallmarks of modernism. And throughout that oeuvre, as in his essays, he has been provocatively argumentative, insisting that his readers engage his ideas in process.

     One of the chief delights of Louis Dudek: Texts & Essays, then, is encountering a mind continually engaged in argument with history, art, and the self. At the same time, especially in the lectures and speeches, he emerges as a dedicated apologist for high modernism and a committed cultural elitist, attempting to hold the fort against the new barbarians (whom he sees taking over and destroying popular entertainment, on TV, in Rock music, and everywhere in the mendacious world of advertising.) But he seeks intelligent argument, and when he gets it, in the questions of the interview, he welcomes it, altering his analysis if another reasonable and intelligent point of view can sway him.

     All the essays are interesting, but a few deserve particular attention. The 1953 "Introduction to a Course in Modern Poetry" shows the teacher at his best. Knowledgeable, providing a clearly defined perspective, carefully opening doors to work which for many of the students is shapeless and obscure, it is a good example of the kind of thing Pound did in An ABC of Reading. "Art, Entertainment and Religion" is unabashedly elitist, but it is also a carefully organized dissertation on the ways Western religion has opposed and often crippled art. Dudek does not call for the abolishment of "shoddy entertainment," but he insists that there must be something more than that and calls for "new nobilities" to support higher culture.

     Both "Poetry as a Way of Life" (1968) and "The Poetry of Reason" (1970) emerge as poetic apologias, notes towards a definition of his own poetic. In the former, he offers a description of "the poem of the future" which perfectly defines the modus operandi of Continuation, which he began to work on around that time: it

will cease to be an autonomous made object, an artificial enclosed structure, but will become the authentic record of a poet's total intellectual and spiritual life, a kind of journal, the experience of one man's real life contained in the glass of eternity. This would require an entirely new method of composition, a day-to-day process instead of bursts of sporadic inspiration; and a new way of conceiving the poem, as reality meditated and transposed, not as exotic fiction; and not the work of genius necessarily, but mainly of humane individual insight (which is what the genius, like Tolstoi or T.S. Eliot, knows it to be). Such poetry would really be a feedback, from life into poetry; while we are now considering how poetry influences life. (192-3)

Reading a statement like this, one can see why the editors see Dudek as a precursor to the younger poets working in long forms. Dudek's insistence that literature is a part of life, his refusal to withdraw to an academic contemplative role, is also important. But he wants to see the power of reason better represented in poetry, and thus finds many recent experiments — sound poetry, concrete poetry, deliberately "primitive" poetry — examples of Romantic ideas gone wrong. Thus, in "Whatever Happened to Poetry?" he points to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" as an example of the "barbarization which has swept over western society." And it is his references to various forms of new poetry as signs of "barbarization" which his interviewers home in on in "Questions (Some Answers)."

     "Interface: Reality and Literature," "The Theory of the Image in Modern Poetry," "The Poetry of the Forties," "Notes on Regional Literature," and "Autobiographical Sketch" reveal Dudek the critic at his intellectually persuasive best. The last of these is more personal than critical but in adding to our knowledge of what occurred, it stands beside "The Poetry of the Forties," which mixes memoir, literary history, and analysis into a cohesive statement on an important period in the development of Canadian modernism.

     "Questions (Some Answers)" is the newest piece in this collection, a most valuable document. The questions are, as Dudek says, "very intelligent." But so are the answers. And though he apologizes for using the term "barbarians," he continues to defend his attitudes concerning what he calls "barbarization" even as he clarifies the complexity of his response to it. Despite deploring the results of the new freedom Modernism made possible (and Romanticism before it), he insists on the need for such freedom, and on the necessity for every form of experimentation, even those which fail.

     The interview covers so much ground so intelligently, it demands to be read whole. Dudek's intelligence shines throughout, but there are places where one simply has to accept that a generational difference exists here, and one which is more emotional than intellectual. Dudek finds all Rock music a deafening cacophany; he simply cannot discriminate within it. Most of the younger poets he is speaking to, people born around the time he graduated from McGill and began to find his life in literature, listen to this music with precisely the kind of discrimination he brings to the music of the nineteenth century. What I find interesting is that he also cannot 'hear' modern jazz (see the 21st section of Europe, circa 1953, as well as his reference in the interview to Chuck Mangione as "a superb artist"!), perhaps the one truly indigenous art form of modern North America. This is perhaps a minor point, but it is I think a revealing one, for jazz and Rock are essentially emotional, though some jazz is highly intellectual as well; they are rhythmic first and foremost, and they speak to the body before they speak to the mind. What finally defines Dudek the writer in all his modes is his commitment to the life of reason first and foremost.

     If Dudek stands somewhat aloof from the general poetic scene because of his austere intellectualism, he also has much to offer because of his continuing commitment to experimentation. Louis Dudek: Texts & Essays is a valuable addition to his oeuvre and to the narrow shelf of Canadian literary reference texts because it provides a wide-ranging overview of Dudek's thought and continually provokes intelligent argument in its readers. An obvious labour of love on the parts of its editors, it stands as a superb homage to one of Canada's major modernists.

Douglas Barbour