Letters of Gustafson and Ross

A Literary Friendship: The Correpondence of Ralph Gustafson and W.W.E. Ross.  Ed., and with an Introduction, by Bruce Whiteman. Toronto: ECW Press, 1984.  Unpaginated.

These letters of Ralph Guatatson and W.W.E. Ross, sixty-four in all, comprise a welcome and well-edited addition to the letters of W.W.E. Ross to A.J.M. Smith, which were edited by Michael Darling in Essays on Canadian Writing, No.  16 (Fall-Winter, 1979-80).  A Literary Friendship was compiled, its editor tells us, at the "invitation" of Ralph Gustatson, who assisted and encouraged him in a project "based largely on files in the Ralph Gustafson papers the University of Saskatchewan Library." Readers of recent numbers of Canadian Literature, the Twayne series, and even Canadian Poetry might wonder whether A Literary Friendship is not part of an attempt by Gustafson to secure his place in the history of Canadian poetry by seeing into the scholarly record the stuff of which literary history and criticism are made: theories of poetry, genealogies of anthologies, significant letters, and so on.

     Whatever the case, Bruce Whiteman has done a fine job of editing and presenting the Gustafson-Ross letters.  In addition to the correspondence itself, there are concise and lucid annotations (placed at the side of the text, as befits the remarks of a later commentator on the tale of some ancient mariners), a useful Index and Bibliography, and an informative, but, sadly, unpaginated Introduction.  "For Guatafaon's part," Whiteman observes in his Introduction, "the letters permit us access to the background of the important Penguin anthologies; a rationale of inclusion emerges, as well as some sense of the problems which Guatafaon encountered." In fact, Gustafson's side of the correspondence reveals him to be as obsessed with anthologies as Ross was with typographical errors (both significant traits, no doubt), and as self-centred as Ross was self-effacing.  Sample (from Letter 39; the body of the test is also, annoyingly, unpaginated):

What I like about these pieces of yours [this is Gustafson to Ross] is the clean translucence.  Simpleness is often mistaken for emptiness and I am still angry about a review somewhere by Livesay who thought my Lyrics Unromantic juvenile or some word like that.  One must be "smart" I suppose.  The quality I like is in "From Sweden" [a Gustafson poem] — to pursue the ones you remembered.  A new one is "Quebec Night" [another Gustafson poem, now quoted in full] .  .  .

Enough about me . . . what do you think of me? Fortunately, as Whiteman also obeserves, "Overall, and not the least interesting part of the correspondence, are the glimpses we are afforded of the literary history of the 40s and 50s, from the inside out as it were.  It is a period which deserves more detailed investigation, and it is hoped that the publication of these letters is a small step in that direction." Whiteman's edition is indeed what he hopes, and more, for in making available the Ross letters contained in A Literary Friendship he and Gustafson have taken a large step towards permitting a closer understanding of the milieu in which Modern Canadian poetry developed.

     The centrepiece of Ross's correspondence with Gustafson probably consists of two paragraphs in Letter 36: his comments on the "northern" and "Canadian" quality of his Laconics (1930):

     Any "north" poems are I think based on two summers' surveying in New Ontario when I was a student . . . .   This was 1912 and I have noticed with some interest that it was the year before, in l911, that Tom Thomson made what was apparently his first canoe trip . . . leaving the railway at the same point, Kapuskasing. . . .

     My own "Canadian" feeling was most intense in the twenties, before the declaration of Westminister.   Practically all the first section of that book Laconics was written one night in April, 1928, after an evening's discussion of Canadian nationalism with friends of ours.  The laconics form was developed in 1925 in an attempt to find one that would be "native" and yet not "free verse," one that would be unrhymed and yet definitely a "form." It never "clicked" so well before or since as that night in 1928.

This comment on form (underpinned as it is by an enormous aesthetic and political awareness) has already provided grist for the mills of Canadian criticism (see for example the essay on Ross by Peter Stevens), and is likely to continue to do so.  Ross's sensitive observations — of his own poetry and of that of others (including Pratt, Heavysege, Tennyson, Macpherson, Hine, Avison, and Crawford) — flash like witty fireflies across the pages of A Literary Friendship.   Here is a small sampling (from Letters 7, 24, 38 and 51):

For my part, I am afraid I can't properly 'see" Pratt's writing, probably because I have never felt any influence from it.  It seems to me mostly pretty expert word-juggling and rhyming.

It is an interesting point that while Tennyson's most frequent word — in 29 pages from his collected works — is "death" the second most frequent is not 'love' but 'gold' (Peak period of British commercial prosperity?).

In Crawford I find the blank verse curiously dynamic, more interesting than that of  Mair (or Pratt).

. . . Sangster's Spenserians are simply an echo of bad Shelley.

. . . for me, reading large gobs of Roberts and others is like trying to swallow a mass of feathers from a slit pillow.

We have here the encounter of a thorough-going Modernist with his predecessors and contemporaries in English and Canadian poetry.  Ross was a seeker after excellence, and he applied the same standards to poetry written in Canada as to poetry written in Europe, England and the United States.   This makes his perceptions, coloured as they are by Modernist assumptions (particularly concerning the Romantics), enduringly significant — as, indeed, are the perceptions of Gustafson on Heavysege and others.  Ross's perceptions are particularly fresh, however, perhaps partly because they are uncontaminated by the imperatives either of the anthologist or the academic.

     A Literary Friendship is also interesting for the flashes of light that it casts on such matters as Ross's engagement with surrealism (see for instance Letters 7 and 17) and his interest in the occult (see for example Letters 17 and 28).  His comments and hints, though few, about these and other matters which clearly lie behind his own poetry must lead to a reinforcement of Whiteman's hope that the Gustafson-Ross correspondence, so attractively and carefully made available here, will lead to more "detailed investigation" into the poetry of its period.

Allan Mortifee