A Remarkable Pratt Farrago

E.J. Pratt on His Life and Poetry, ed. Susan Gingell, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983. pp. 1, 218.

The nature of the passages in Susan Gingell's E.J. Pratt on His Life and Poetry makes it an irregular sort of book, with its parts ranging from lectures to notes to interviews and after-dinner speeches.  It is for all that an essential book for students of the poet, outlining and explaining things that the reader would otherwise have to guess, and the author has brought the central themes together effectively in a superb introduction, which is particularly good on the relationship between Pratt's perhaps excessive research and his poetic energy, his admitted "hidden desire to mix phantasy with realism."

     Since it compiles things Pratt said about himself and his poetry, and since Dr. Gingell properly leaves him to speak for himself, the book is more personal than a biography but more private than a collection of letters.  The Pratt who emerges is relaxed and among friends but is still, like the ageing Yeats, a 'public man', careful enough of his standing and, I think, of how much he might be giving away, of the distance between himself and what he wrote about.  His occasional urge to rant and roar like a true Newfoundlander is a good example of the self-edited Pratt.  He was, after all, a minister's son and a minister himself: his experience of danger at sea was relatively remote and his knowledge of regional dialect was gained at an educated and amused distance.  Like most poets, then, he was not an active sharer in what he wrote about, but one who used his poetic imagination to articulate the myths half-spoken by people whose experience he could only approximate, who were in fact separated from him by many things.  Consoling fishermen's widows is one thing; being one is another; fighting the grey widow-maker each day is something yet again.

     His empathy for those who in real life would always have been on their very best behaviour when he came to call would seem to have been at the centre of his poetic achievement; like Yeats again, he probably knew them a great deal less well than he thought he did, or rather admitted he did.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, when the attempt to make that imaginative leap results in poetry of such vitality.  But the point seems to me to be that Pratt's experience of a world of vital forces exists in his imagination; his reality is in narration and language.

     Both narration and language are prominent in the Pratt selections of the book, and they too are well treated in Dr. Gingell's introduction and notes.  Pratt is himself clear, remarking of "The History of John Jones" simply "I knew a man like that, though there is a touch of exaggeration"; or, in further detail, of the writing of "The Shark":

This doesn't need an explanation, except perhaps this remark, that the conclusion of a poem is the most important part and hardest to write.  I have always had a fear of anti-climax.  It can ruin an otherwise fairly good poem.  Sometimes I have succeeded in avoiding it, I think, and sometimes I have not.  That is the reason why I generally keep a poem in cold storage for weeks or months before publishing.

In everything he spoke or wrote in this compilation he expressed an overwhelming interest in the facts behind the imaginative work, even in quite short lyrics, but especially in the narrative poems.  When he speaks of these, the reader's general impression that they were carefully researched is more than confirmed.  Not only has he given detailed discussions of the research behind the long poems, which even extended to going to sea with the Navy as well as reading all reports possible on events and consulting all the experts you can imagine — even a nutritionist on the effects of oatmeal on the Scottish body for Towards the Last Spike — but there is a treatment of "The Relation of Source Material to Poetry."

     As far as we know, Shakespeare died quite unrepentant about anachronistic clocks or sending Hamlet to a university that had not yet been founded.  Pratt concedes that point, but argues that knowing what you are talking about "should accompany the workmanship of the lines."

When a writer composes an ode to Polaris and through ignorance locates the star somewhere in the vicinity of the Southern Cross, the reader receives a jolt which affects the aesthetics.

This interesting view is obviously worth a fair amount of thought, and what Pratt says about it must be studied by anyone intending to read his long poems, or indeed his short ones.  He has things to say about Newtonian thought in its time and Romantic reaction against it, and sees a new revolution in our time, when

dynamos, lathes, drills, and turbines are just as much material for poetry as lilies and carnations and cuckoos, and they are humming their way into the measures of verse with the same ease and intimacy as the former reaping hook, the wheel, and the plough.  The reaction has set in against a clash of interest — between the scientific in the broad sense and the artistic in the same broad sense — for the very good reason that we cannot afford to let the two intellectual paths diverge, and go independently.  We are all making a common journey, a rough and dangerous one.

Well, up to a point, maybe.  This was all said long before F.R. Leavis made his attack on Lord Snow and before Snow reproached us all for not being able to recite the second law of themodynamics.  What seems to be behind this central pattern of Pratt's thought is the spirit of his own age, a faith in progress and evolution that seems quaintly innocent in the age of the computer and all that sort of thing.  Whether the reader accepts it or not is immaterial; the point is that Pratt did, that he expressed his views on a progressive and heroic world with calm confidence, and that these views have to be seen in his poems if they are to be read correctly.

     Such heroism, of course, evokes greatness at many levels, and Pratt took his heroics in the grand or the absurd style as he saw fit.  When he deals with heroism on the scale of human greatness found in The Roosevelt and the Antinoe he does it with Homeric intensity.   But in speaking of people to admire he can also digress into remembering an evening with John Masefield and Laurence Binyon, in which the matter came up.  The late Poet Laureate, who had a rougher youth than most, said "that the man he admired most was a bartender who could take two glasses each containing a liquid which shall be nameless and toss the contents over his shoulder and back again without losing a drop." Homer would have admired that too, and the gentle Binyon, most serious of critics, poets, and museologists, chimed in with a man he had always admired who could drown flies with spit in mid-air.  Pratt then realized how greatly he had admired a man who could out-whistle a ship's siren.  To whatever end in life, such men are larger than the rest of us; they seem fewer now, but they are what Pratt wrote about.

     More is implied that said about language.  Pratt was fascinated by the confusion of languages in convoys, and says much about it, by Brebeuf's struggles with the complex structure of the Huron language and its lack of labials, and by certain striking uses of direct and simple English: especially by the great last signal from the armed merchantman Jervis Bay, which attacked a German cruiser after the formal statement, "We are moving closer to the enemy."  There were no pre-conceptions; the most effective language was always the best.  His faith in progress, adapting scientific neologisms into poetry, seems to emerge from having been brought at a boy in school to meet Marconi, and then learning of that first signal between Newfoundland and Cornwall — words conquering nature, no less.  It is an experience he mentions more than once.

     He had also things to say about the Newfoundland language he heard about him as a boy and young man, though I think he probably did not speak it.  That language grew out of the need to yarn, at sea or through winter, and prospered on the fertile ground of the Bible translators, the Prayer Book compilers, and the brothers Wesley.  Pratt expresses the wish that he could renew his acquaintance with it, and one wishes he had when he wanted to, long before those godly sources of rich diction and cadences were routed by the language of Nashville, which seems to have taken over now.

     Dr. Gingell's editorial methods, introduction, and notes are all well done, imposing coherence on this remarkable farrago and bringing in much valuable supplementary information.  I have found one nit to pick, however, in a note stating, on the authority of a coin catalogue, that Newfoundland used British currency between 1934 and Confederation in 1949: she should have just asked someone instead; for what was used at that time, when there were only Canadian and no British banks on the island, was a simple combination of Newfoundland coinage, including the 20 coin known locally as a shilling, and Canadian paper money.  This doesn't diminish the stature of the book very much or have any effect on the study of Pratt, but it is a mistake, even if it is the only one.

E.J. Devereux