canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

After Acorn. Meditations on the Message of Canada's People's Poet
by Terry Barker
Mekler & Deahl Publishers, 1999

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Milton Acorn. People's Poet. Icon. Iconoclast. Alcoholic. Mentally ill. Biographical subject (twice). Critical study.

Terry Barker has collected in one volume his writings on Milton Acorn, attempting to provide a critical articulation of Acorn's "message". He mostly avoids biography, so casual readers should beware: academics are the source of blurbs on the book's back cover. Barker does not soft-pedal the lengthy bibliography he provides at the end of the book. In order to understand what he's getting at (and I am very familiar with Acorn's poetry), one must be versed in texts unavailable at the local library. In some cases, his references are international. This makes for good research legwork, but as corollary a heavy tax on the reader.

What is unforgivable about this volume is turgid prose made even more awful by poor punctuation. Barker is difficult enough to comprehend without upping the vague ante by flawed grammar. In his preface, traditionally a lyrical place preceding the toil of learned discussion, he writes (sics intact, italics mine, deep breath):

"I returned to Dublin in 1971, at the suggestion of the scholar of the literary background of the Easter Rising of 1916, William Irwin Thompson, to research the apocalyptic tradition in Ireland in the nineteenth century, which I learned had origins in the northeastern part of the country extending back into Celtic times."

Such grammar is omnipresent throughout the book, preventing an Acorn enthusiast - the other potential audience for After Acorn besides academe - from understanding what Barker has to say. Try this on for size: Barker accuses Ed Jewinski, author of ECW Press' short volume Milton Acorn and His Works, of writing "an obscuring study." He then writes, immediately following this statement (typographical/ grammatical errors left in place):

This is so, for, in attempting to see Acorn's poetical/ political enterprise as something that 'shifted Canadian poetry into the contemporary world- hurly burly, immediate, direct, personal, private' (page 48), rather than as the failure that the evidence in the book suggests, Jewinski robs the reader of the political vision that Acorn actually expressed.

Hmmn. I will never be able to understand prose so garbled as the above. These essays are well-intentioned and even convey their intent to varying degrees; yet one can only yearn for a more digestible prose, one that dances lightly among theory and history. Barker simply cannot do it.

I do feel robbed: Barker bleats that Acorn was a Red Tory/ Left Nationalist - he uses the terms interchangeably - yet provides no evidence in Acorn's poetry to support this claim. Where is the supporting poetic argument? Acorn was affiliated with the Canadian Liberation Movement, but if the result isn't manifested in his poetry, should anyone care? No poems are provided as justification. He takes Jewinski to task for being oblivious to Acorn's politics; Jewinski may have been. Alternatively, Jewinski may have been on to something: in the end, political leanings don't matter, the work does. Al Purdy, editor of Acorn's best collections, once said that he had never met a poet more wildly uneven. No doubt he had in mind Acorn's anthemic and overtly political writings, most of which is doggerel verse. Barker conceals these works as a dirty secret, since none of them are found in After Acorn.

Barker's first essay is most lively when providing biographical details of Acorn's life (and no wonder - Acorn had a fantastic one). He makes a tenuous linkage in attempting to "prove that there is an abiding interest in the People's Poetry tradition" by citing as evidence a recent poetry reading in the back of a bar, presumably one with Acorn in some capacity as a spiritual grandfather. Is Barker unaware that poetry readings occur all the time? A single reading isn't enough to prove anyone's importance. He does, however, quote some bona-fide examples of Acorn's legacy: Toronto's People's Poetry Newsletter and Charlottetown's Acorn-Livesay poetry festival. Yet the viability of Acorn's legacy is questioned by the very existence of this book: most of the essays included were published or presented in some format by these same entities.

Barker bites off a lot, writing "The path Acorn began to take during the last decade of his life needs to be pursued, so that the reasons for the twentieth century's derailment into ideological madness are understood, and real human advance can be resumed." In itself a ridiculous statement, Barker casts Acorn as a hyperbolic disciple promising ideological redemption. This is tantamount to canonization, calling into question the author's impartiality, which is admittedly absent: "...Milton Acorn served as 'poet laureate"' of this group (the CLM)...It is out of my experience as a participant in, and observer of, these manifestations of Canadian Left nationalism, and their passing, that the following meditations grew. I hope they fulfill, in appropriately modified form, the commission Acorn gave me of one day leading his 'Irish battalion'."

In his second essay, "Acorn Absorbed", Barker name-drops compulsively. One suspects he is naming people from a book of poetry dedicated to Milton Acorn, but Barker never says this outright, alluding to it only indirectly after several paragraphs. Most tellingly of all: he offhandedly categorizes Margaret Atwood's voice as "defiant patriotism." How reductionist and unsubstantiated in this book, and how foreboding when his intent is to fully present Acorn's message! Of course, Barker neglects to quote from this anthology, leaving the reader unable to verify his opinions unless they seek out the unnamed book for themselves. Neither does he attempt to describe what fraternity the mentioned poets have in common with Acorn, other than that they appear in the anonymous anthology.

Eventually Barker comes to his point. " may wonder...what precisely the coherent heart of Acorn's vision was, and by extension, what Canada's heart was, is, and is becoming." I sure am. Barker's answer? A poem taken from the unnamed anthology:

He too found out the uselessness
of backing away at the wind.
He settles
now into the rough currents of speech:
wave on wave going out,
as if he hopes the sound will touch
the inner ear. Of what? He's not too sure.

Get it: what does Milton mean? We are never told explicitly, merely given a poem as substitution, one where Acorn is cast as "not too sure." Now ask another question: what is the purpose of this book, then?

In the end, Barker does present Acorn's theological underpinnings in the best essay of the book, "Milton Acorn: Ruskin Revisited". For the first time, he supports his comments with examples taken from Acorn's poetry. This essay made me reevaluate what I once dismissed as Acorn's latent, ill-considered spiritualism when such topics occurred in his writings. Barker's helpful spiritual context illuminates what I once ascribed to the obscure. Unfortunately, Barker cannot refrain from trying to inject current affairs - in this instance, the Kosovo conflict- into a muddled description of what he thinks is wrong with current Western political thought and Canada's place within this western tradition. Relevance? Unknown, unless you put stock in the "twentieth century's derailment" quote.

Barker often alludes to his book's showstopper: how he will reconcile Acorn's "seemingly paradoxical espousal of Communism, Canadian nationalism, and Christianity." When Barker gets around to doing so, he fires out of his cannon a lot of "isms". On a single page (12), the following -isms and religions appear: Communism, Canadian nationalism (twice), Christianity (twice), Hermeticism (twice), Gnosticism, Sectarian Islam, Feminism, Egyptology, Marxism-Leninism, and Millennialism. He concludes with nihilism (how appropriate). Somewhere in there is Acorn's message and Barker's articulation of it. One eventually realizes that Barker is convincing when discussing a few aspects of Acorn's theological tenets. His discussion of Acorn's politics, however, is unintelligible.

It is ironic that this critical study stands in diametric opposition to the things that Acorn, the "People's Poet", advocated: bringing poetry's joys and meaning to "the people". I would direct those interested in Acorn to Richard Lemm's critical biography In Love and Anger by Carleton University Press. It lacks Barker's rigorous analysis, but it is readable. A suggestion for future editions of After Acorn: include a preface which truly is a preface, providing a brief discussion of the political theory used in After Acorn (or expand the essays to include the main theoretical tenets employed within). Without such a primer, these essays are the obscure writings of one man on another whose politics were, to his contemporaries and most everyone else, convoluted enough.

Shane Neilson is co-poetry editor of The Danforth Review. He is a Nova Scotian poet who has published recently in Queen's Quarterly, The Canadian Forum, and Pottersfield Portfolio.







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