A Sense of the Medium: the
Poetry of A.G. Bailey

by M. Travis Lane

It is time we took another look at the poetry of Alfred G. Bailey, who has for many years excelled in the practice of a poetics that has increasingly interested contemporary critics:  an emphasis on the imprecision, textuality, and potential duplicity of the "word," whether as "writing" or as habit of thought, and on the uncertainty, fluidity, and verbality of "fact."  Bailey, in his poetry, has always emphasized the fluidity and mutability of the contextual situation and/or medium, and the relativity, dubiety, and metamorphic nature of "guiding words" or sought-for principles.  He has presented history as memory, legend, emotion, conflict and interaction, and as presence — not as a stable description, but as a living and mutable web.  Further, as Bailey's frequently Joyce-like word-play robustly reminds us, he has always been aware of the context, intertext, and textuality of the text — of the function of poetry as a liberating play in the medium (verbal, emotional, prejudicial, skeptical) of our intellect.  Above all, Bailey's poetry reaffirms for us his strong sense that life is lived most intensely in the emotional intellect rather than in unexamined sentiment.

      It seems to me that the contemporaneity of Bailey's poetry may be ultimately more ascribable to his training as ethnohistorian than to the "New Poetry" which belatedly caught his attention upon his return to graduate school in 1930.  Yet for Bailey himself, the introduction to the poetry of T.S. Eliot was a significant revelation.  Although interested in reading and writing poetry from earliest youth, Bailey has never been primarily a poet.  After the publication in 1930 of his second small chapbook, Tao, and upon his return to academia after a post undergraduate period as journalist, Bailey became aware that he was out of touch with contemporary writing.  "I had never even heard of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elinor Wylie — hardly any of the contemporary poets except Edgar Lee Masters!"  Then, while a graduate student at the University of Toronto (in history, anthropology, and economics) Bailey became a member of the "Nameless Society," a group interested in the study of Canadian literature, presided over by E.K. Brown, and, as well, made friends with Malcolm Ross, Roy Daniells, Robert Finch, and Earle Birney.  When Roy Daniells returned from a year abroad and introduced Bailey and some others to The Waste Land and "Prufrock":  "we had never heard of Eliot before."  Eliot seemed to offer new ways of writing about what most concerned Bailey's contemporaries:  "The subject of the urban wilderness was so concerning us then — and Eliot's rhythms caught in one's mind.  There was a lot of imitativeness for a while.   Smith, Scott, all the people who were writing at that time were very influenced by Eliot.  I had a few of my poems in my new manner published by The Canadian Forum in 1932, 1933, and 1934." ("Best Seller" is one of the earliest of these.)   Bailey felt that "Eliot had pronounced an epitaph on the past.  It was necessary to pass through that phase, incorporate its effects, and transcend it."

     While going through "that phase," Bailey and his friend Daniells, and later Finch, met weekly and "did exercises in poetry, on T.S. Eliot's advice that one should keep ready like a well-oiled fire engine."1  They wrote on subjects chosen at random — the result of one such exercise with Robert Finch is "Pieces of Silver."  A similarly Finch-assisted effort was a translation, "The Troubled Fawn," (from a French poem neither can now locate).  The effect of such exercises seems to have been far more lasting upon Finch, with his early developed and long retained facility for writing gracefully even occasional and light verse.  Bailey's own lighter poems are rarely graceful, and the poems in his "new manner" show the complexity of thought and the historical and sociological ponderings that typify his mature writing.  It is probable that Eliot's historical and anthropological casts of mind were more available, because more sympathetic, to Bailey than to Finch. Certainly "Hochelaga," a poem of that period which Bailey characterizes as being a little too much Eliot-like, not merely in its rhythms, but in its combination of the image of the modern citizen drinking tea superimposed upon a doubled image of the bloody and wicked present and the bloody and wicked past, is most un-Finchian.

     Bailey did not work closely with Birney, the strongest poet of the group, and while there are affinities, especially in intellectual and historical interests, between Bailey and Birney, Birney has been much less interested in self-conscious intellectualizing than Bailey, and much more interested in nature.   Bailey's interest in the speech rhythms of maritime and professorial Canada show an affinity to Frost (to whose poetry Bailey's "His Age was On" may be read as an indirect reference), although Eliot, too, made colloquial speech rhythms poetically available to his readers.  Of the group, Daniells' work now seems the least influenced by the "New Poetry."

     Thus, although the effect of the "New Poetry" upon Bailey's generation was shocking, in Bailey's words, "putting into the discard"2 the reputations of earlier Canadian poets, what each poet learned from the "New Poetry" differed according to each poet's interests and needs.

     Bailey did not go on to become a major Canadian poet of the 'thirties.  He was too busy as historian, archivist, librarian, administrator — working to rescue and reawaken New Brunswick's cultural heritage.  His first collection of mature work, Border River, did not appear until 1952 — by then he had not only read and assimilated Eliot, he had also read and assimilated Frost, Auden, C. Day Lewis, and Dylan Thomas.   Bailey's poetic style has not significantly altered since Border River, although the majority of his latest poems, as collected in Thanks for a Drowned Island (1973) and Miramichi Lightning: the Collected Poems of Alfred G. Bailey (1981), are more often specifically "historical" — either as speculation or as re-creation.  But it was, indeed Eliot, who first showed Bailey how to use his historical and sociological training, his cultural insights, and his native wit in the poetry which replaced the Carmanesque poetry of Bailey's youthful writing.

     Eliot had shown the way to writing about something other than nature or love.  He brought back vividly to the imagination the possibility of writing about the things that, to Bailey, seemed most intriguing, that demanded new thought.  Bailey's own interest in the "urban wilderness" is strengthened by his historian's belief that there "is a dynamism in the life of people stimulated by different varieties of cultural strains. . . . Contemplating the beauty of nature is all very well, but it doesn't accelerate mental interaction.  I prefer the city."3  The place where ideas interact, where cultures conflict and mutually stimulate each other, the city of the mind, is where the poet should be, and the historian.  So believes Alfred G. Bailey.

     Poems such as Eliot's The Waste Land and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" were using the ideas of the modern world — and the experience of the mundane, urban, and unlovely — as both the matter and the medium of poetry, as much the medium of poetry as myth and natural images.  Eliot had broken the constrictive, thematic definition of the "poetic subject" and had returned wit, intellectualization, and even the grotesque to the uses of poetry.  Without rejecting the beauties of nature,or of poetic melody (as so very present in Bailey's beloved predecessor Bliss Carman), Eliot introduced the effective use of the unbeautiful, and, in particular, the construction of an image for an emotion or an idea rather than simply as a way of describing one thing in terms of another thing.   Eliot showed us how to use the antipoetic and the irreverent — he showed us, above all, the wordiness of words.

     With the "New Poetry" came a much greater freedom to regard words as artificial constructs, a much greater feeling for words as things, as objects, subject to context and mortality — there came along even a degree of Humpty-Dumptyism ("When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less").  Pleasure taken in the buried words within words, the semantic possibilities of the pun, the decorative and sometimes almost irrelevant surface detail of the text, and the literary suggestiveness of context — all added up to a kind of verbal dandyism which remains one of the characteristic traits of Bailey's writing (and also continues to exist, but to a lesser extent, in the writing of Gustafson and Finch).

     Much of the verbal dandyism in Bailey's work occurs in the playful poetry (the majority of his work), but it occurs also in some of his serious poems, where it can assist the effects of intellectual and emotional tension.  Like anchovy paste, it can be spread too thick, as in "time down end."4  More commonly, however, Bailey's verbal dandyism is mild.  Rarely obscuring his meanings, it exists primarily for the effects of metrical compression and textural liveliness.  Typical examples can be examined in the dedicatory poem to the collection Miramichi Lightning, "The Winter Mill."  The line "And there's no stoic tethers soul to eye" is an example of Bailey's frequent omitting of metrically dull parts of speech.  He also allows himself to use the shorter forms of words, even where not grammatically correct, as in "like tooth once bitten and forever ache."  And Bailey likes to use phrases that can be read in more than one way.  We are in the just-quoted phrase reminded of "once bitten twice shy;" we are reminded that a tooth bites; but the sub-text reminds us of a tooth-ache.  Winter's bite is like having a tooth-ache.  And Bailey likes to use puns and secondary meanings.  "The winter mill will not return" includes come back, bring back, and revolve.  The last line of the poem, "with batting of this scene" adds the meaning fending off to the cotton-batting appearance of snow.  And the term "winter ambit" means boundaries, but suggestions ambition, bite (and bit, auger, ache? Agenbite?)  The oddness of Bailey's diction provokes such semantic ponderings.  "The Winter Mill" is stuffed with literary allusions.  Falstaff, discovered dead, lurks in its complexly textured, half-grotesque, half-romantic lines; so, too, does Carman's yearned-for April.  "The Winter Mill" spoofs itself yet is, at heart, still serious:  "with book and pen record these / cries" the poet urges himself, introducing the gritty tonalities — playfulness and seriousness together — that inform his collection.

     Frequently Bailey's verbal dandyism consists of a witty use of and reference to formal academic language; he enjoys deflating pomposities and the grandiose by relishing their manner, as in, for example, the poem "The Habitat of Unexorcised Notoriety," which remarks:

If indeed it can be said that "try" is the right word for the sightless and clearly undocumented instigations that resemble the antics of a trybal global village of the purposeless and unrequited.

(The "trybal" is a whole commentary in itself on the familiar McLuhan term "global village.")

     Bailey also likes to play with images for academic or philosophic ideas — "Waasis," a surprising illustration for Lamarck's theories, or "Gluskap's Daughter," which plays with a Kantian / Berkleyan theme.  "Jones" presents the "hopeful" human creature from "australopithecan root" to "cherubim bar-dextrous."  In "The Sun the Wind the Summer Field," an image of pathos from Spengler's Decline of the West, Volume One,5 becomes celebratory.

     Many of Bailey's poems celebrate the fertility and vitality of nature, usually in terms of its oceanic or fluvial condition.  Poems such as "Water, Air, Fire, Earth" celebrate sexuality and creation.  Poems such as "Plague Burial" and "Noroua" celebrate destruction.  "Noroua" is "full of the heartless grotesqueries of natural incident, where what is destroyed is destroyed with indiscriminate gusto, and where the signatures of danger are as marvellous as fairy tales."  The poem concludes with "all, except Lieutenant Herbert Arlington-Jones" drowned.  Indeed, "the fish of the sea are lifted out of the water by the wind and drowned in air."  That the fish are beluga and drown like balloons is, like the Lieutenant's name, a further example of Bailey's dandyism.  "The poem is a bracing hymn to the destructive vigor of reality:  the noroua, the wind of the Saguenay . . . is a manic, comic demon."6

     Obviously Bailey finds Eliot's comic streak sympathetic.  It is instructive to read Bailey's tribute to Eliot's Prufrock, "Variations on a Theme."  Rather than present an image of immortal, mythic sexuality, Bailey gives us a Marvellesque Charon as Father Time (the historian's Fisher King) and, instead of mermaids, Queen Dido — mortal, individual sex.  (Note, too, the lawyers with their "sandy briefs" who suggest the sands of time and out, out brief candle and add just the dry, legallese note that so often distinguishes Bailey's dandyisms.)

     However the main effect of Eliot's art and criticism upon Bailey's thinking, his sense of the medium, must have been to reinforce attitudes, motives, and images that had been coming to Bailey already through his studies in history, anthropology, ethnology, economics, and Oriental and Western philosophies.  The Tao, The Golden Bough, The Decline of the West, and Toynbee's A Study of History — were part of Bailey's world independently of Eliot.  And, again independently of Eliot, Bailey had from his earliest childhood a strong sense of history as multi-cultured, multi-layered.  The geological strata and the natural violence of the Saguenay; the historical strata, conflict, and tumult of Quebec and of Maritime history; letters and visits from travellers abroad, from China, from Europe — all reinforced Bailey's sense of human history as a fluid and altering web of interactions rather than of stable patterns.

     The combination of patriotism, loyalism, and romantic love of nature — which was Bailey's inheritance — with his ethnographer's sense of change and relativism has produced two sorts of history poems.  The first is a representation of the past, most often from the wider perspective of present memory and attitude, but occasionally as a "period piece" (like "Edwardian Outing") or as a kind of dream of the past in which the past speaks to the present (as in "Lament of the Montagnais").  In poems such as "Hochelaga," present and past are seen together, like geological strata intermingled by recent diggings and upheavals.  The past is a very vivid ghost in such poems — "Grandfather's Gray Top Hat" is still redolent and quickened with anecdote; "The Shadow of Mr. McGee" is still eloquent in Parliament Square.

     A second variety of "history" poem is the Bailey quest poem, in which the directing impulses of a society are imaged by an individual or a group (often shown as travelling in a fluid medium) consciously seeking a vaguely sensed destiny, definition, or enlightenment.  These quest poems can arise from historical incident, as does "The Angel Gabriel," but more often they are abstractions, modifications of the Toynbean myth qualified by Bailey's sense of the ambivalences and uncertainties of the social, human situation.  These poems repeatedly emphasize that the quest is not defined by a clear notion of what is being sought.  It is the impulse Bailey describes, not a destination.  Thinking is necessary and profitable, but it is a process, a motion in flux, not a seizing of precise patterns, as "Searched for, finding" reminds us.  In "The Unreturning," Bailey turns Peter the founding rock into the insubstantial medium of the sky, and the travellers are guided by the "lost bearings of an unfound star" towards no "haven," and "no certain bound."  The travellers of "Night Country" can only guess their destination, ask if "time's hand upon them" was "their own contrivance" (a Kantian question), and conclude with a decision, not uncommon in Bailey's quest poems, that

unless they could make utterance
of the holy names
there would be no way out,
and no end of the night country.

There is no end of "night country," Bailey would affirm, but so people feel about "utterance, holy names,'' the guiding word. "North West Passage" and "Go, the Word, Go" reiterate the theme.

     "The Isosceles Lighthouse" is a particularly interesting example of Bailey's quest poems — for the lighthouse is not gone out to.  Instead it is very much like the unclimbed mountain in Robert Frost's "The Mountain," as well as reminding us of Virginia Woolf's lighthouse in To the Lighthouse, the eventual visit to which is so much less than the anticipation.  In all three examples, the lighthouse / mountain exists more importantly as an idea than as a thing.  In Woolf the actual thing is less than the feelings about it.  In Frost, the actual thing is less than the pleasures to be got talking about it.  In Bailey the actual thing need not, may not, exist except as a "concrete unit of mind" — something to measure or think by, "the middle point of the visible world" and a "focus of force," but possibly not real in itself, only a "copy of what they had in their minds," "whatever it was."  The major facts about it are that it is believed "empty," that it is never reached, that it has a "name to leave alone," and that it "drew the eye, the questioning thought."  For Bailey, the mind is the seeker, the name, the "unit of mind," that is sought.

     Bailey's recurrent and characteristic questioning about the certitudes of ideas recurs even in such charmingly patriotic poems as "The Shadow of Mr. McGee":

One thing is sure they could not thereafter claim
to identify a phenomenon with other than a classified name
drawn newly minted and whole
from the vocabulary of the putative national soul.

A word to be drawn, newly minted, from the putative?  Supposed is not proved; the lighthouse is not reached.

     Bailey does not, however, debunk the quest.  He shows nothing but reverence to the seekers, the founders, the ancestors, who have preceded us, and he insists on the value of thinking.  The closing poem to Miramichi Lightning, "Reflections on a Hill Behind a Town," sums up his credo:

knowledge was in itself a good
and would bear issue
in season.

That knowledge, like all things, should be seasonal, does not devalue its pursuit.  Again and again Bailey's poetry reminds us of the search for knowledge as an inner necessity of our biological beings.  Thinking, seeking for "nomenclature —  "cogitations":

it would not be well to abandon, (let us say)
for a trip to the woods in Spring
to admire the skill of the trailing arbutus
in decanting its fragrance

("The Question, Is It?")

For, as "Trump" asserts:

and so I will write down
what I must
or go to wordless fields of stuff
beyond the nones
cradled in the great stare
unrocked       uncomforted
so I will if I can
I will write away the       emptiness
make a firmament of words
the Word
name pain,       invoke an ark
if to utter is to live. . . .

"Trump" may be taken as the voice of the word user, word maker; it may also be taken as the voice of God.  God is certainly the speaker in "The Curve of the Ethereal," God in process, creating the "cellular," "coding my creations into multitudinous dictionaries, / and who will there ever be to gainsay my nomenclatures?"  Like all makers, this God is within history, within flux; in "The Curve of the Ethereal," God has not yet created other word makers.  But, as Bailey makes sometimes frighteningly clear, the Word contains its own destruction, as life contains its death:  "the wolf that sleeps in every prayer / will slay the man-child as of old" says "The Blood of the Lamb."  Both original sin and the holy ghost reside in the word, sleep in it, kill it — for the word lives within nature like a seed, or an ever re-forming idea.  History, the story with ever changing words, is our medium.

     And the other sense of the word "medium" also serves to describe Bailey's work —  the moderate, the un-overdone.  Bailey avoids the swoony passivities of Carman, Swinburne, Tennyson, or even Eliot.  And, although Bailey's depicted nature quivers with vitality, his dandaical method of speaking about it reminds one more of Marianne Moore's witty proprieties than of the sturm und drang passions of Whitman, Jeffers, Crane, or Thomas.  Bailey takes mythology and religion more relativistically, more lightly (though not irreverently) than does Eliot.  And Bailey is far too Canadian to attempt the Grand Legendary Manner of Williams, Olson, and the American Dream Company.  He differs from Marianne Moore in preferring imaginary gardens to the "real toad" — in preferring ideas to things.  Even his decanting arbutus is nearer to being an idea than a flower.  And although Bailey has a somewhat Frostian manner, in his relish for the ways we can talk about things and in the ambivalence of some of his reassurances about relativism (as in "The Human Form is Practically Resilient"), his darks are never desert places.  Cheerfulness keeps breaking in.

     I have an acquaintance who prefers the music of Charles Ives to the music of Beethoven on the grounds that Beethoven's work is "pompous."  I find this remark Baileyesque, even if Bailey does not share her opinion.  (I doubt he is immoderate enough to do so.)  But the "wordiness" of Ives's music — its intertextuality, its echoes, its self-conscious references and artificialities, and its blatant, sentimental patriotism — its wit, its vigor, and its moments of sadness, tenderness — and its announced preference for interaction and conflict — make it a very good simile for what Bailey is doing in verse.  Like Ives, Bailey likes unresolved and mutually interacting, mutually grating situations gaiety and seriousness together; and the grotesque in preference to the over-sweet, to the over-grand, to the "pompous" certitudes and the great pronouncements.  There is a kind of friskiness, like that of a small, lithe animal unobliged to make Great Pronouncements, that typifies a particular kind of Canadian verse I have grown very much to admire:  I find it in Bailey, in Gustafson, Gotlieb, Macpherson — and in several others.  I think of Bailey's muskrat, in his "The Muskrat and the Whale," as a figure for this moderate, medial, medium-conscious, poetic gaiety.

     If one reads Bailey's "Statement of Persons Once Classed in Category 'C' " as a clue to an alternative reading of "The Muskrat and the Whale," one begins to suspect certain cultural, sociological, conflict-laden historical motives for the muskrattiness of so much of our best poetry, and of Bailey's poetry in particular.  The persons "once classed in category 'C' "have left a nation of swelled-headed people (like Ahab and his whale? like the multitude-containing Whitman?)  whose "self esteem was egregious" and whose "vanity and underhandedness were nourished by an outlandish local quirk in semantics."  The un-swelled-headed people decide to abandon that vain, outlandish language; they cross "over the border" to a language which, they feel, does not easily lend "itself / to guile or evil intent."  Or, at any rate, the category 'C' types think, a language less vain, less big-headed.  They take a great deal of pride in not being quite so big-headed.  Although Bailey is here, in part, making fun of Canadian anti-Americanism, he, too, dislikes bigheadedness.

     In "The Muskrat in his Brook," I spoke of Bailey's muskrat as a "humorous apologia" for Bailey's own poetics.  The muskrat's gift is "seen as lying in his play," in "his natural medium" "liberated by reason."  A muskrat, I wrote:

is unportentous and not uncommon; he is confined to a smaller habitat.  Whales are huge, rare, frightening — and, the image implies, profounder of element — perhaps thus, indirectly, of subject.  They surely write larger — and longer poems, and less playful ones.  The Whale is the Great Poet and the muskrat isn't.  But, as the poem truthfully asserts, the muskrat has his own dignity, and, even, the poem hints, a plus of liberty.7

I have grown to see more motivational force in Bailey's favourite words:  "mete" and "feat," as I have learned to see how much his sense of the medium — as verbal, as textual, as temporal flux, has punningly intertwined with his sense of the moderate, his sense of proportion, his sense of relativity.  The "feat" insists on a sense of the medium.

     All of Bailey's seekers, whether ship-wrecked swimmers or land- racked thinkers, are maritime or fluvian, often "storm-bound" and "tidal" ("Guide") as well, but they are liberated and strive and live mostly, and perhaps only, in the exercise of their reason.  The muskrat does not yearn for grandeurs greater than it can cope with intellectually — after all, it can not step twice into its same brook!  Its featness depends on the meteness of its efforts, of its knowledge of and acceptance of — and its play within — its medium.  And, while the muskrat has "bliss" in its blood (and we need not forget, here, Carman), the whale has only "sedate" fluids.  The whale is self-consciously important. The muskrat is unconcerned with proof, portent, or self-image.  He has the dignity of being a thinking being:

even though his habitat is narrow
and confined because
of certain data of existence
best known to himself and
other frequenters of the shallow
bed of gurgling water that he works and plays in.

His reason
liberates his nights and days in
the medium this reason both foreshadows and reflects.

His medium is our context, our sense of proportion, our "putative national soul" — it is the language we found, or invented, "over the border."  It is Bailey's language, Bailey's medium. Genius, Bailey has written, is:

regarded as a function of the social and cultural
milieu, and as a supreme expression of the
processes and impulses latent within it.8

The muskrat, having chosen his stream, having crossed the border, is no longer deracinated, but native.  He has made his context his medium.


  1. Alfred G. Bailey, Interview with M. Travis Lane, September 1985, for Studies in Canadian Literature.[back]

  2. Bailey, Interview.[back]

  3. Bailey, Interview.[back]

  4. Alfred G. Bailey, Miramichi Lightning:  the Collected Poems of Alfred Bailey (Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1981).  All poems quoted in this paper are from this edition.[back]

  5. Bailey, Interview.[back]

  6. M. Travis Lane, "The Muskrat in his Brook," Fiddlehead, 100 (Winter 1974), 98-9.[back]

  7. Lane, "The Muskrat in his Brook," 100.[back]

  8. Alfred G. Bailey, "Literature and Nationalism in the Aftermath of Confederation," Culture and Nationality (Toronto:  McClelland and Stewart, 1972), 61.[back]