canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Toronto-in-True-North: An Approach to the Work of Ted Plantos

by Terry Barker

Nine months have gone by since the death of Ted Plantos (1943 - 2001), so it is perhaps appropriate to attempt some preliminary reflections on Ted's place in the canon of People's Poetry. Some may, indeed, think it is none too soon, as in his lifetime the Poet of Parliament Street certainly qualified as the almost completely unacknowledged legislator of Toronto-in-True-North, an entity which, by the late 1980s, had almost completely morphed into Tim Hortonia.

Ted survived its doughy demise, however, and retained its image, probably because his 'Ragtown' (South Cabbagetown) roots grew in the detritus of John Graves Simcoe's original vision of an alternative America, destroyed or stolen by U.S. forces in 1813, and almost obliterated by Canadian Whigs and Yuppies in the twentieth century.

Born in 1943 in the later slum-cleared and renamed real Cabbagetown, a scion of St. Paul's Roman Catholic parish, Ted grew up an East-Ender in the era of the rumbles involving the Beanery Boys and the West-End Junction Gang. I was born the same year in a city where the Luftwaffe was also engaged in slum clearance, but I grew up on the periphery of the Junction, and I can recall, aged about twelve, advancing past Maple Leaf Gardens along Carlton Street with great trepidation, as if in an alien city, half expecting to be jumped as an obvious West-Ender, or propositioned by one of the 'hooers' I had been assured covered the streets in the East as thick as flies.

My mother was asked once in those days by an East-Ender, 'How can you live in the West End with all those foreigners?' For the West End was understood as immigrant, and the East as English or Anglo-Canadian, with a sprinkling of French Canadians and long-resident Greeks and Macedonians. Thus, when I eventually met Ted, I viewed him as perhaps an archetype of the Easterner: Cabbagetown with Newfoundland and Quebec ancestry and an apparently Greek surname (or, as he told me, Romanian).

As a Roman Catholic, Ted brought to the rather Whitmanesque sex-and-nature mysticism of his early self-published poetry a sacramentalism that fitted in well with the culture of 'Zen, drugs and mysticism' (as R.C. Zaehner has called it) of the sixties. His early Catholic Left Liberal Party sympathies also chimed well with the radical politics of the period: the libertarian interpretation of Marx of the Trotskyists and New Left, and of the civil rights, free speech, and anti-war movements they helped inspire, represented in Toronto by the people around the Bohemian Embassy and the Allan Gardens Free Speech Movement, of which Ted was on the fringe.

Ted actually met the poet who was to become his main mentor somewhat later. This was Milton Acorn, whom Ted encountered in the mid-1970s when he took some of his poems to show Tom Arnett at a warehouse/office in the Bathurst and Queen area. Ted was a bit nervous, and he assumed that the red-check-shirted, craggy-featured man he found when he arrived was the shipper. This initiated a weird, convoluted conversation with Milton leading him on, before the People's Poet finally decided to set Ted straight (to Ted's not inconsiderable embarrassment).

Milton and Ted got on well personally, politically, and poetically because both understood themselves as modern Canadian post-Romantics: patriotic, proletarian, and protagonists of the life of the spirit. The High Anglican Acorn and the Low Roman Catholic Plantos had both taken the proper pilgrimage to the secular shrine before the age of thirty: the former to Montreal to imbibe the spirit of the Canadian Georgians, and the latter to the English Lake District, where he engaged in dialogue with the shades of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Ted started to produce his mature work, as represented by the collections The Universe Ends at Sherbourne & Queen and This Tavern Has No Symmetry, under the direct tutelage of Milton. Ted also, in the late 1970s, became a partner with Acorn, Robin Mathews, and several of Acorn's and Mathews' Left Nationalist colleagues in Steel Rail Educational Publishing, which grew out of the Maoist Canadian Liberation Movement. The disintegration of this organization after 1980 led Ted to strike out on his own, and his interest in history came to the fore, culminating in probably his best work (in a conventional literary sense), Passchendaele, a family and national remembrance of the real sacrificial role of Canada in the First World War.

Other interests in the by-ways of history followed, with much material collected about the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the UFO phenomenon, and obscure U.S. political leaders. But Ted, like cockney poet Charles Williams of my birth city, London, was an urban post-Romantic whose fundamental metaphor was what Charles Williams called 'the image of the city'. In Western Europe and its fragments, this is always double - the Augustinian/Neoplatonist City of God and the City of Man, inextricably interwoven in the actual life of humans.

This reality of broken unity is most easily configured poetically in the ambiguous symbolism of the Hermetic and Gnostic currents that have accompanied Christianity since its birth. Williams expressed it in the magical machinery of Rosicrucian speculation, and in 1987, Ted found a similar vehicle for his vision through his friend and fellow Toronto poet Cliff Kennedy - the speculation on the nephilim, or fallen angels of the pre-Flood Old Testament world, developed by eccentric U.S. Hebrew scholar, Zecharia Sitchin.

Sitchin's Earth Chronicles series, along with its sequels, outlines a supposedly actual history of the coming of a race from beyond the solar system, and of the creation of human life and culture in the cities of ancient Babylonia and Egypt - Ur of the Chaldees, etc. This provided Ted with a cosmology for his self-described Christian mysticism, something needed in view of the evident failure of the ideologies put in place during the Enlightenment to provide order in the soul, and to preserve spirituality.

In Ted's last-published book, The Shanghai Noodle Killing, a collection of short stories, Ted revisioned his image of the city, although he did not quite coin the fully Tennyson-derived Toronto-in-True-North, as Williams did with his London-in Logres. But Ted did clearly articulate its principle through the mouth of the chief character of his story 'Ragtown', the retired boxer Scotty Dugan, who returns to his old mostly-obliterated neighbourhood:

Our spirituality is all we really have. There is a poverty in society worse than any slum; the poverty of the spirit. Well, I just want to say people have to fight for their spirituality because society won't do it for them.

Local Toronto archaeologists have recently chronicled the finding of the first parliament and church (they were combined) between the street named after the former and the street named after bishop and philosopher George Berkeley in the book Government on Fire. Under the layers of asphalt, rubbish, and industrial use and misuse the archaeologists found something like Toronto-in-True-North, perhaps prefigured in Berkeley's 1730 'Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America':

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four acts already past,
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time's noblest offspring is the last.

Books and chapbooks by Ted Plantos: 

  1. The Seasons Are My Sacraments (Old Nun Books, 1972) 
  2. She Wore a Streetcar to the Wedding (Missing Link, 1973) 
  3. All the Easy Oils of Energy (Missing Link, 1974) 
  4. Vigil (Pikadilly Press, 1976) 
  5. The Light Is On My Shoulder (Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1977) 
  6. The Universe Ends at Sherbourne & Queen (Steel Rail, 1977) 
  7. This Tavern Has No Symmetry (Steel Rail, 1979) 
  8. Passchendaele (Black Moss Press, 1983) 
  9. Heather Hits Her First Home Run (Black Moss Press, 1986) 
  10. At Home on Earth (Black Moss Press, 1992) 
  11. Mosquito Nirvana (Wolsak and Wynn, 1993) 
  12. Dogs Know About Parades (Black Moss Press, 1993) 
  13. Daybreak's Long Waking: Poems Selected and New (Black Moss Press, 1997) 
  14. The Shanghai Noodle Killing (Seraphim Editions, 2000)

Ted also edited three People's Poetry anthologies: 

  • The House Poets 
  • Poems for Sale in the Streets 
  • Not to Rest in Silence

Of Ted's books, Mosquito Nirvana, Dogs Know About Parades, Daybreak's Long Waking: Poems Selected and New, The Shanghai Noodle Killing, and Not to Rest in Silence remain in print.

Terry Barker teaches Canadian Studies at Humber College. His collection of essays After Acorn: Meditations on the Message of Canada's People's Poet is published by Mekler & Deahl.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.