The Story of the Penguin

by Ralph Gustafson

Learned historians of Canadian poetry omit reference to the Penguin Book of Canadian Verse; like elephants trunk-to-tail they proceed from arbitrary commencement to inadequate conclusion. The establishing of the canon of Canadian poetry is assigned to other sources; the making of Canadian poetry is given exclusive boundaries.

     Despite biology, the pelican is ancestor of the penguin. The title of the Penguin Book of Canadian Verse evolved from the title Pelican Anthology of Canadian Poetry. The editor of the latter, in his youth, exalted by the fastidious reaches of his hopeful mind, insisted that the publisher make clear the distinction within Canadian writing between "poetry" and "verse"; as the root of the word "anthology" indicated, the appelation denoted a more distinctive "gathering" than the word "book." With "pelican" there was no quarrel. "Pelican" was the insignia used by Penguin Books to denote original works in their library. With the maturing years, ease and accommodation took over; "verse" in its inherent "turn" could be poetry, in any state it opposed prose; a book is a book; the propositions in both titles were at one. The parenthesis was over-sensitive.

     The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse has thus been in existence for forty-one years; if "existence" can be extended to the completion of the manuscript with its Contents, then the presentation is to be dated at 1940   — a life, so far, of 43 years.

     The blank in the learned historians' minds concerning this phenomenon is unhappy by not much more than a little misfortune in light of the readership accorded this anthology. Given the criteria necessary for solvent publishing, the readership has kept this presentation, original and revised, alive for approaching half a century. A Penguin title is given, and is only feasible in, an edition in the thousands. The original Pelican edition reproduced 60,000 times every poem it presented; the subsequent editions were of like quantity and even more ubiquitous — found by its editor in the civilized centres of the world. What a book of Canadian poetry accomplished in Cairo, Athens, in Rio de Janeiro, must be left to the diviners. What it accomplished in London, Sydney, Auckland and Paris is less conjectural. What seminal, profound and shattering effect it had in Canada and the United States is calculable, continuing and undoubted. Citizens of no connection to official Canadian established criticism continually, verbally, acknowledge their initiation and exploration in the area of Canadian poetry to the Penguin anthology. Those of sufficient age recall with grateful memory the holding, and often the possession still, of the bluish war-paper production, the first "Pelican." Never has the book been published in Canada; not yet has it been historically acknowledged.

     Its initiation is dramatic and untold.

     Its editor, Ralph Gustafson, grew up and was educated in Sherbrooke, Quebec, a city then of about fifty thousand souls, twenty thousand of them perhaps English-reading. The library was primitive; the newspapers, as the vehicles of communication elsewhere, were uninterested if not obstructive of contemporary poetry. A literary centre, even of local reach, was non-existent. The English education in the city's grammar school and in its high school was excellent. Poetry in its curricula was confined to selected work of the immediately recognized names within the extent of Shakespeare and Browning. The Romantic Revival was emphasized. The confinement was not harmful. Schools can spread their survey only so far; there is much to learn. The recognition was wise and personal. Still on the Penguin anthologist's bookshelf, leading off the nineteenth century, is the school's assigned textbook, Poems of the Romantic Revival edited by Cunliffe and Cameron of McGill (bless them), with its heavily annotated margin pencillings, doodles, and its underlinings; each of the three stanzas of Keats' ode "To Autumn" on pages 112 and 113, is braced by pencil with the vertical directive, "Mem." written beside  — and still are they in memory; on the flyleaf last in the book is a drawing of someone in plus-fours holding his stomach and gazing with tongue out at a bottle with two Xs on its label, while overpage is the title BYRON in shadowed letters with, underneath, the words "Tastes & Preferences" and below them a list:

Fond of sis(ter)

That about does it; how to select an anthology. . . .

     May all conglomerate schools disintegrate into the size of that grammar school, that high school, where personality found free rein! Dr. Hatcher, the principal at the Mitchell Grammar School, wanted to know who had written that composition about the Romantic Revival? Miss Catherine Seiveright who taught Latin and English at the High School recognized her pupil was an author.

     Bishop's University at nearby Lennoxville (which was subsequent for two degrees) was also intimate enough. Dr. Frank Oliver Call was a poet combining the conventional world of poetry with the coming world of modern poetry. The transition is in the title of his second book of poems, "Acanthus and Wild Grape." He knew of Vachel Lindsay and of Sara Teasdale (fateful pair; "Time is a kind friend, he will make us old"); he was a friend of Louise Morey Bowman, early a resident of Sherbrooke, who was publishing imagist poems in Chicago Poetry and the Atlantic Monthly; he was a member of the Montreal branch of the Canadian Authors Association in whose chapbook his student won for a sonnet honourable mention. Other sonnets came to be published in the currently prestigious periodical of Canada, Willison's Monthly. The rules to be broken were learned; the existence of poetry was extended into the national and the international. Graduate work came under the guidance of Dr. W.O. Raymond. He had edited an anthology of Swinburne's poems; he was an authority on Browning the forerunner of Ezra Pound. He sent the young graduate's sonnets to the poet laureate in England, Robert Bridges, with a personal note. Bridges after reading the sonnets shortly died.

     But the necessary propulsion had been given; the graduate was committed, fatally. The killing was mortal.

     He read the anthologies current and widely commended in Canada. He was appalled. Repelled pencillings with exclamation marks circle line after line in Wilfred Campbell's The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse: Mrs. R.A. Faulkner's "In tracery romantic"; John E. Logan's "The early morn, ah me! ah me!"; William E. Marshall's "Yonder lovely vale, sweet trysting-place for fairies." John W. Garvin's heavy 1916 Canadian Poets was extant. Poems in it were hardly less awful. He studied the pictures of the poets which accompanied the verses. Big hats were worn by the poetesses and celluloid collars by the poets. But he remembered that Tennyson wore a big hat; Carman's was wide-brimmed too but he wore a widely-flourishing cravat. Charles G.D. Robert's pince-nez (which he met through the Authors Association) suspended a wide black ribbon. Roberts told him to persist even if rejected. He sent poems for inclusion in Nathaniel Benson's 1930 Modern Canadian Poetry and to Ethel Hume Bennett for her New Haruesting. They were rejected.

     Something was wrong, internally and externally. The United States knew nothing. A book which influenced him, the 1916 Riverside College Classic's Sonnets: Selected from English and American Authors had two sonnets in it by Archibald Lampman; two of his weak sonnets. Louis Untermeyer's standard Modern American Poetry had Bliss Carman in it. It was noted that Carman had "a buoyancy new to American Literature" and that he died "at New Cannan, Connecticut." Elsewhere was silence.

     Something would have to be done. The best thing was to write vital poems. The next best was to make a book of modern Canadian poetry that would shake the literary ignorance of the English-speaking world. Canadian establishments would crumble without extra effort.

     The war came. Leo Cox, a poet out of Montreal, recommended the name Ralph Gustafson (at that point in New York City) to the personnel people in the British Information Services in Washington, D.C. They wanted a British subject who was legally resident in the United States for their branch service in New York City, one who could be officially designated a British agent acceptable to American authority. The United States was not in war against Hitler; Goering's luftwaffe was pounding England. It was needful to know the leanings of the American press, radio and periodicals. Vandenberg and isolationism were powerful; Father Coughlin and the Chicago Tribune were inimical. Gustafson joined the survey room in New York; at 1 o'clock each morning a survey in cablese went off to London for that morning's cabinet meeting.

     Canada needed a lightweight and weighty anthology of Canadian poetry for distribution to the Canadian armed services; something for the knapsacks. This is fact; not fable.

     The ur-anthology Gustafson had been hoarding together in reaction to the wrongheadedness at home and abroad was opportune. The strands came together. Catherine Seiveright had early alerted Theodore Bullock, a literary friend, to her pupil's potential. Bullock had played on his 78 rpm Victrola records the youth's first hearing of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Roxton Pond; Ted Bullock's father was the member for the Legislative Assembly in Quebec City for the county of Shefford. Ted Bullock was a columnist for the Sherbrooke Daily Record; he had written: "It takes time for even as mighty a nation as ours to discard the last strands of the bonds of colonialism . . . Even here in these Eastern Townships, where life is deliberate and conformity a fetish, there are stirrings. . . I have seen fragments of Ralph Gustafson's work. There is fire, there is vision, there is a dauntless upreaching in his poems, he has courage, the musical ear of a Chopin, the eye for beauty of a Corot." The hyperbole of 1932 attracted no attention but the singling-out worked. Colonel Wilfred Bovey, the registrar at McGill University had reviewed in the Toronto Saturday Night Gustafson's verse drama Alfred the Great which set King Alfred's battering by the Danes under Guthrum in parallel with the rise of fascism. Alfred the Great had been published by Michael Joseph of London in 1937. Bullock new Colonel Bovey; Bovey knew of the armed service's wish for an anthology of poems and knew the founder and publisher of Penguin books, Allen Lane. Lane's Penguin publications were right for the Canadian Army's need. Bovey got in touch with Gustafson and Gustafson saw Allen Lane at the Elysee Hotel in New York City. He showed him what he had in 1940 of an anthology. The Pelican Anthology of Canadian Poetry was launched.

     Between nightly surveys for the B.I.S. were forays to the Library on Fifth Avenue to comb periodicals, Canadian and international, for Canadian poems: A.J.M. Smith in the Literary Digest; Raymond Knister in The Midland and Chicago Poetry, in the quarterlies — all American magazines, no Canadian editor would touch such poems as Knister's; W.W.E. Ross in the Dial. The Canadian Forum was on file at the library. A.M. Klein's first book of 1940 Hath Not a Jew. . . was obtained from Behrman's Jewish Book House in New York. Letters with Duncan Campbell Scott brought a group of five poems including "Watkwenies" and "The Half-Breed Girl" — a choice which "startled" him; Frederick George Scott ("Canon Scott") had been known since Bishop's days and in London; his son's "Old Song" was got. Ralph Gustafson had had poems published in the Saturday Review of Literature through its poetry editor William Rose Benet; Benet knew E.J. Pratt; Gustafson met Pratt at Benet's apartment in New York City and got "From Stone to Steel" and "The Prize Cat" for the anthology. From Burton's bookstore in Montreal all the new and old single volumes of poetry that the bookstore had were obtained, others ordered. Lane and the Canadian people wanted a survey of Canadian verse from the beginnings to the present. It was a disappointment that only twentieth century work could not be presented; there, by far, lay the most impressive achievements. The space of a hundred pages — paper and other considerations prevented more pages — these had to include the impact which was to overthrow the established anthologies in Canada and the extra-mural ignorance.

     Despite any other measurement, the book had to have its paragraphs of acknowledgement. The searching-out and satisfaction of copyright were intricate and disillusioning. Choice for any anthology is always under harassment. The status of the Penguin was found to be peculiar. Books in paperback were at their inception. Penguins, the first villains in the piece, were wholeheartedly disliked by the hardback commercial firms; especially were Pelicans disliked, paperbacks of original, first-printed work. Ryerson's, the publishing firm in Toronto, held by far the most copyrights of Canadian poetry; Lorne Pierce, the head of Ryerson's, had long been a good friend of poetry in Canada. He wrote Gustafson that he would make it so difficult to obtain copyrights that he, Gustafson, might easily withdraw from his contract. Gustafson did not have a contract to begin with, he was editing the Penguin without an editorial fee, he was paying for copyrights out of his own pocket. Ryerson's suggestion was not good news. Further confusions turned up; Bliss Carman's estate was claimed by no less than three sources; without a poem by Carman, a Canadian anthology would be eccentric. The strategy was to let Ryerson's, McClelland & Stewart, the University of New Brunswick, each of whom claimed copyright through publication of Carman poems or transference of the Carman Estate, settle for ownership amongst themselves; the firms of L.C. Page in Boston, Dodd, Mead & Company in New York and Chatto & Windus Ltd., in London, were also involved. It devolved that payment for one poem had to be made three times. George Frederic Cameron's poem was in the public domain; no one enlightened the editor of any such liberation and he was paid for. The file containing such restrictive stuff bulged. The escape into fresh poetic air was made by dint of writing to the living poet for poems not yet in the clutches of book publishers. The only condition laid down by the generous living came from Wilson MacDonald who stipulated that no derogatory footnote be attached to his poems. In an easier world his fee should have been doubled.

     The bombs fell on London; the manuscript evaded the Atlantic U-boats; the Anthology was put into production by the beginning of 1941; by April of 1942 it was being sold in England for six pence; the editor got 24% of the six pence. By July it was on sale at Eaton's in Canada and had been reviewed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader, in the Winston Salem, North Carolina Twin City Sentinel, in the Daily Worker in New York, in the United Nations' Free World. All over. Canadian poetry was getting around. The lag was being caught up and the modern century started.

     Only the exhaustion of paper in Britain prevented the extension of Canadian writing into the world via the Penguins. The editor had the idea to launch each year an anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry and prose. The widecast reading done for the Pelican supported the conviction that enough good exportable writing was being done in Canada to justify an annual presentation to the reading world at home and abroad. Allen Lane agreed to the idea, said go ahead. Two years after the publication of the Pelican anthology, in 1944, Canadian Accent was launched. In it were essays by E.K. Brown on Pratt, Leon Edel on "The Question of Canadian Identity"; an excerpt, the actual Halifax explosion, from the first novel by Hugh MacLennan, Barometer Rising; short stories, "One's a Heifer" by Sinclair Ross and "Mist-Green Oats" by Raymond Knister; and, amongst other writings, that poem, "A Psalm of Abraham, Concerning that which he beheld upon the Heavenly Scarp", by A.M. Klein. A publisher to handle the book in Canada was not found. Payment to the contributors had been cleared. Payments on the second Canadian Accent were made. The completed, introduced, indexed manuscript is on the editor's shelves; Hitler put it there; disgruntlement with Canada kept it there.

     The making of Canadian writing, indeed.

     The days before the learned historians of Canadian poetry began writing were exciting. B.K. Sandwell on June 6, 1942 gave the Pelican anthology an editorial on the front page of the Saturday Night (it was then full-spread size):

The appearance this week of a cheap pocket-size paper-bound volume of 123 pages — a Pelican Book to be exact — may seem to some a strange thing to be ranked among the major events of the week and to receive comment in a leading item in this column. Nevertheless we propose to maintain that the publication of the Anthology of Canadian Poetry (English) edited by Ralph Gustafson is by the strictest standard that kind of event, and that great consequences will flow from it. . . This anthology because of its sustained high level of accomplishment together with its extreme accessibility, will go a long way to check the occasionally insufferable condescension of the British intellectual towards the Canadian; and we particularly urge our friends in the Canadian forces overseas to keep a copy handy as a weapon of self-defense.

On July 12, 1942, William Lyon Phelps, professor emeritus of English literature at Yale University came up to the Rotary Club of Montreal and waved the anthology in front of the club and its guests. "Did you know you had so many poets? A new invasion of the United States by Canada is made!" Previously he had written that "the surest road to oblivion is to be a Canadian poet."

     Not quite.