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Monday, 15 October 2012

Milton Acorn Interview: 1977 - Jon Pearce

The Idea of a Poem:  an Interview with Milton Acorn

by Jon Pearce

In 1977, while conducting a series of interviews with Canadian poets, I invited Milton Acorn to participate in the project.  He readily agreed and suggested a meeting in July.  We met twice prior to the taping session to discuss the lines of inquiry we would pursue in the interview.  These preliminary meetings account for references in the interview such as “I’ve said before” and “You’ve mentioned.”  The interview was taped in Toronto on July 23, 1977.

     While taping, we kept at hand copies of Acorn’s books so that we could conveniently quote from poems during the conversation.  Our intention was to support the dialogue with references to specific texts.  The sources of these quotations are identified in the notes following the interview.

     In preparing the interview for publication, I have scrupulously preserved the voice of Milton Acorn; his part of the dialogue has been edited very lightly.  I hope that Acorn’s conversation, both in tone and content, is in agreement with his published work.  On the other hand, the voice of the interviewer has been heavily edited; only what was needed for coherence in the interview was retained.  I hope I have thereby presented myself as unobtrusively as is consistent with pleasure and truth.

* * *

Interviewer: Some of your audiences regard your poetry as chiefly ideological, proletarian, and patriotic.   Poetry as polemic. Can you comment on that?

Respondent: Well, my poems are more than just that.  But, yes, it’s no accident, since I have continually insisted on using ideological subjects throughout my career, and as I grow older they don’t seem to decrease; they seem to increase.  All I can say is that I am an open-minded person, believe it or not, and to the extent that there is a continual bombardment against one side of an issue, I begin to wonder what the other side is.  Mark Twain said this was the time to stop and think.  Thus, it’s no accident that, in our society, where we have a chronic bombardment of anti-communist and anti-working class propaganda, I am just made all the more curious about the other side of the story.  I have taken up the deliberate stance of a defender of communism, an exponent of communism, and a spokesman for the working class.

But I do not say that poetry should be only a social or political statement.  I do say that every poet should take his or her stand on political things.

Interviewer: In Jackpine Sonnets, one of the poems is titled “The Craft of Poetry’s the Art of War,” and it’s strongly polemical, full “of proletarian scorn”.  But the word “craft” in the title suggests that poetry is more than just polemic: it implies that there are matters of technique, style, and form in the making of poems.

Respondent: Well, I’ve always said that poetry was a craft and that any poet should learn all the techniques about it.  It’s like fine carpentry.

Interviewer: How do you begin making a poem? What materials and tools do you use? How do you craft it?

Respondent: Well, you’ve asked me too much there.  But I will say that the first thing poetry is about is the world, the universe; and you’ve got to represent it in concrete terms.  Many poets start out approaching their subjects abstractly—which doesn’t get them good results.  A poet should write about what he or she knows.  The first poem I can remember having written, when I was about the age of thirteen, was a poem about the Chinese Red Army.  I mentioned deer in the poem.  After I finished it, I looked at it and said to myself: “What do I know about China?  What do I know about deer?” So I scrapped it.  Right down the nearest crapper, which no one could possibly put their hands into.

     So, as a rule, I begin with something concrete, something sensory.  It could be a sound, a person, an animal, a bird.  At the moment, my favourite bird is the raven: “A most unghostly whistle, like a toy / Factory’s”1.  That poem begins with a sound, but you find out later that it was the wake-up sound of a raven.

Interviewer: That is one of the opening lines in your poems which immediately engages the attention of the reader.  The one that I like best is “Sometimes I nibble my heel like an icecream cone / Since it stepped on you”2. How do you go on from there?

Respondent: Well, I have several ways of approaching the writing of a poem.  One of them is to write the last line first, and then to write up from—or down to—the last line.  But later I developed a technique of writing the first line and then attempting to cap it with the next line or a line two or three lines later on.  Then I try to cap it again and continue the capping until the last line.

Interviewer: Does that not make for problems sometimes? What happens if your first line or your second and third “cap” are so good that you find it difficult to continue the capping procedure?

Respondent: Well, you know that no matter how good you are, there is bound to be someone better than you.  So I keep trying to excel myself: I keep trying to be that better man.

Interviewer: Is there any other way that you structure the poem?

Respondent: Oh, there are many.  In fact there are almost as many ways as there are poets.  I once made a desultory survey of the ways poets constructed their poems.  No two ever gave the same answer.  The closest to my method was Joe Wallace, a much underestimated Canadian poet.  He published many admirable poems but they never got him a lot of recognition.  Anyway, that’s an aside.

     But another method I have used is to write a first line and not try to cap it, but to regard the line as a bar of music.  Keeping the intention of the poem in mind, I continue to write the second line—almost by automatic writing—and go on from there.  Treating the first line as a musical phrase—a jazz phrase, so to speak—means that the following lines echo the initial “music” in some way, although usually with some variation.  Probably by the fifth line I’m already revising, according to the original intention of the poem.  Or that intention might have to be changed or modified.  Ideally, the whole poem should stand as a musical passage—like a riff performed by a jazz musician.  And when I reach the end, of course I revise again until I get what I intended to say, which often changes in the process of the revisions.

Interviewer: This brings up another question: the matter of revision. Do you do a lot of revising?

Respondent: Revise, revise, revise, revise, revise—until the poem takes a form that resists further change.  Until you reach the point when the poem stands by itself as an independent entity and you can revise no more.  Much as you might wish to.

Interviewer: Can we go back to the poetic process? The way you go about making a poem?  You’ve mentioned another method to me: the repetition of a particular image or cluster of images which weaves its way throughout the poem and provides a key to the meaning of the poem.  Viewed in this way, the image exercises control over the theme or idea of the poem.

Respondent: I well remember; my first published poem was like that.  It was called “Gray Girl’s Gallop”, which I found impossible to read and dropped for that reason from my library.  It was a poem of 170 lines revolving around a horse race, which so impressed me that I built my first poem around it.  Along the way I included some social comments—some things that had gone out of fashion but which were still true.

Interviewer: Another example of the way an image controls the movement of the poem is “The King Rains”.

Respondent: Yes, that’s one of them.  The title, of course, is a pun.  It always worries me that it’s untranslatable. I like reading this poem:

The King rains like a bloody waterspout
that gathers in the elements and spews them out
onto the noses pointing him, the upturned
pack of eyes, the brocade of the courtly city.3

          I maintain this water image throughout the poem, varying images which are essentially the same: that of ingoing and outgoing.  And the secret of this poem lies in the exchange between the king and the councillor.  The king “points down his beard and listens” and asks the councillor what they have in common.  The answer is this: “ ‘Inwardness, / outwardness . . .  And the going to and fro between them,’ / the councillor, if he were wise and brave, might answer . . . .”  Of course, I sneaked in another concept in that last line.  To be “wise” and “brave”—these are essential characteristics of the poet.  And who is granted wisdom?  Well, of course, you learn it—some faster than others.

Interviewer: Another poem that interests me is “I Will Arise and Go Now”, which is a parody of Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree”.  Your poem brings up the matters of sources, analogues, and allusions.  T.S. Eliot once made a shrewd comment about this: he said that a mediocre poet borrows, but a good poet steals.

Respondent: That’s pretty good.  I like that.  I hope I’m considered to be a thief.

Interviewer: Well, this is the kind of thing you call “swipes” in the introduction to Jackpine Sonnets.

Respondent: Oh yes, yes.  And I’m really astonished at the inferior level of literary criticism today; I’m surprised that critics didn’t detect my swipes long ago.  You see: here is this human beast speaking.  The human beast, considered to include all humans, speaks and speaks from age to age, and particularly in this contemporary age.  I think this is the only age we can call contemporary—that we can first call contemporary—because it means that all voices on earth reach us—sometimes in minutes, hours, weeks, at least in the span of a lifetime . . .  Anyway, poets have been echoing each other from the beginning of time.  Why should you worry about echoes?   I deliberately put in echoes; I steal all the time.  For example, in “The Schooner Blue Goose”, I use a deliberate echo which I don’t think anyone has ever noticed: “It was the schooner Blue Goose, sailing in a race; / The captain had sold his country’s honour (in Canada small disgrace). . .”4  When I wrote these lines, I had in mind Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus”: “It was the schooner Hesperus, / That sailed the wintry sea . . . .”  These are deliberate echoes.  I was imitating a form of sailor’s ballad, which is international.  No matter how much this post-modern age, as they call it, means to cut itself off from all the wind before it, you can’t avoid echoes.  Longfellow’s poem itself contains echoes of an earlier ballad form; it has the look of something which has been turned and turned and turned many times.

Interviewer: When you were talking about the structure of a poem, you mentioned that it was a good idea to begin with a concrete image, not an abstract statement.  Why?

Respondent: Well, yes, I’ve gone so far as to tell some young poets: don’t state opinions; show what you think.  Archibald MacLeish said “A poem should not mean / But be”.

Interviewer: MacLeish also said that a poem should be “Dumb / As old medallions to the thumb”.  The image there appeals to the reader’s imagination, not his intellect.

Respondent: Yes, a poem shouldn’t tell; it should show.  Generally speaking it should; but, of course, no rules are absolute in poetry.  Rules in poetry are made to be broken.  What I am saying is this: no systems are symmetrical.

Interviewer: But, generally speaking, you go for the concrete and the specific—the image rather than the idea. Let me quote from one of those fine descriptive lyrics of yours, “Lee Side in a Gale”:

Black sea and shone-through sky
all mixed up along
a jumpity-jagged, beat-up
mercury saw of a skyline.5

         The diction here is “hard” rather than “soft”—there’s nothing fuzzy or imprecise about these words.  The phraising has a conspicuous muscularity.  This is a prominent characteristic of your poetry, isn’t it?

Respondent: Yes, I do try to be hard and precise when I use words; many others have said this of me.  But actually, believe it or not, I do “harden” and “soften” the passages of the poem as it progresses.   I’ve gone so far as to write what I used to call Mackenzie King lines.  Now they could be properly called Trudeau lines—lines that might mean anything or nothing.  I have deliberately written them into my lines to relax the tension of the poem and of course to bring it to a new point of tension.

     As for that “black sea”: well, I was thinking of “black” in the Gaelic sense, where no distinction is made between “black” and “dark”.  Now, in my childhood and even today, the people of Prince Edward Island would use the words “dark” and “black” interchangeably.  Thus when they say “a black man”, they don’t necessarily mean a black man; they mean a dark man, a man tending toward a dark complexion.  A grim man, a hard man.  A man who keeps his own counsel.  Even a ruthless man.  So there are all these suggestions in that image.  This is the Gaelic influence in my poetry, which is definitely there, just as the Germanic influence is definitely there.

     In the first part of that stanza, I was using a descriptive image to set up a contrast between the sea and the sky.  In the second part, I went almost into conceit—“beat up / mercury saw of a skyline”—but my intention was to get the exact impression.  I’ve said before that you should write your poems so that some extraterrestrial could understand them.  “Saw” being universal in the cosmic sense.  “Mercury” being universal in the cosmic sense.   “Beat-up” being universal in the cosmic sense.  Of course, if you want to be technical, it’s a conceit; it’s really a fantastic, improbable image.   Since a saw made of mercury would not work.

Interviewer: Let me quote again.  These lines are from “Charlottetown Harbour”, in which an old docker “dreams of times in the cider sunlight / when masts stood up like stubble”6.  What do you call “cider sunlight?”  It doesn’t have the fanciful ingenuity of a conceit.   Is it a kind of metaphor, a compressed or implied metaphor?

Respondent: No, I would regard it simply as a descriptive image.  I am taking advantage of the flexibility of English which makes it one of the great languages of poetry.  The word “cider” here is simply an adjective used to describe “sunlight”: this means sunlight the colour of cider.  And of course I used an appropriate image there in the sense that you can see through cider just as you can see through sunlight.  The phrase comes in the category of descriptive images.

     I’ve talked about this before because it’s something some modern or contemporary poets don’t seem to be getting at.  Again and again, you will find a descriptive passage in a poem, such as “yellow trees, a crumbling wall”.

Interviewer: Why are these words not appropriate, though?  “Yellow” and “crumbling”?

Respondent: Actually, “crumbling” is not bad in the context which George Bowering puts it; but it’s a rather flat, imprecise image.  It’s typical of Bowering.  “Yellow trees”—but what kind of yellow?  Yes, of course I quite often use generally accepted terms for colours; but when I mean to be precise, I use once again the “cider sunlight” image.  Isn’t sunlight always yellow?

Interviewer: Just as grass is always green.

Respondent: Yes.  Although sometimes it’s brown, of course.  But it’s the way you sigu your subject—by the use of the hard, precise description.  I have got to be hard and precise in my poems.

     And of course just as it is hard to tell when a metaphor passes into conceit, it is very hard to tell when a descriptive image is an adjective.  Or when an adjective is a metaphor.  Look at this poem called “Rooming House”, for example:

Somebody’s retching
down the hall, it
goes on for hours
every day.

Fine background music
for a poem! . . .7

          “Fine background music”—what is it?  An image or an adjective?  The secret of the descriptive image is to find the precise way of saying it and, if possible, the original way of saying it.  Not original in the sense that “background music” is in any way an original phrase by itself, but to use it in a context where it is original.

     And of course if you can incorporate the reminiscences of a noun into an adjective, it’s all the better.  Again and again the poem must have words that bring images with them: “Cider sunlight”.  “Fine background music / for a poem”.  Consider “background music” as an adjective and there is a certain style, a sensuous quality to the poem.  “And then / there’s the singing / of the old man / scavenging the garbage”.  Well, there’s nothing particularly original in that; but singing and scavenging together—you know, that sort of makes a point.  The old man says while he is poking through the garbage that he “used to teach history”, so “I guess / he was something / besides what he is”.  Now here I was sort of fading into the Black Mountain terminology: “I guess / he was something”.  And I thought of those Black Mountain characters and I said, “You fellows think you can write horseshit, well, here’s some real horseshit”:

Funny, how time
strips us down
to what maybe
we really are.

         It’s total horseshit, but it’s real horseshit.  I was playing games through most of this whole Vancouver period.  I was playing games, and yet I managed to write a memorable poem; it used to be repeated by quite a few.  In fact, a number of people commented on that line “Funny, how time / strips us down / to what maybe / we really are”.  And, you know, I had to say, “Look, I just wrote that to show I can write better poetry than the horseshitters”.

Interviewer: Can we consider the voice in your poems?  In some poetry, the voice of the poet can be either pale and muted or disjointed and inconsistent.  But in most of your poems, the voice is very distinctive and strong.  Al Purdy has remarked that you “can shake the petals off a spring rose with [your] voice at a 20-mile distance”8.  How do you go about securing this effect?

Respondent: Well, I just keep reading my poems aloud as I write them and I guess that is the only way a voice is incorporated in a poem.  One wonders if some of these cerebral people, I won’t mention any names right now, I think in a thousand years’ time they will only be remembered as poets I’ve denounced . . . .  Yes, of course, one secret of the voice is reading your poems aloud as you write them.

     The other thing is to write in your own authentic language.  In the small words, the linking words, you should be using language as you would use words in ordinary conversation, in the locality where you were brought up.  If you don’t do this, you’re headed for trouble.

Interviewer: Is this what you had in mind when you wrote about Archibald Lampman? In some of his poems, you said, “it is difficult to find any voice.  The print lies flat on the page and won’t rise”9.

Respondent: Yes, something like that.  But there’s more: the problem of syntax comes in here, too.  Have you noticed how many poets from across the country were born in the Maritimes?  Maritimers are at a great advantage because they have a very flexible syntax which allows them to almost start a sentence at any point in a sentence and string the words of the sentence together a hundred different ways, and still they come out making sense.  That facility seems to be missing when you come from Ontario, although it reappears, but less strongly, in the Prairies and in British Columbia.  But of course another secret is that man as he stands now—humankind as she stands now—divides the countries and nations in which people relate to each other.  Now it doesn’t matter that only ten percent of Canadians relate to each other as Canadians—your vital ten percent.  And so a poet looks after his local dialect in a sort of symbiosis of all the dialects in the country, which you can do, of course, this being the age of communication—the dialects are pretty well intercomprehensible.  With a few compromises this way and that, Canadians can speak to each other without misunderstanding one another—unless, of course, one of them is from Southern Ontario, where people think their barking language is the only way to speak.

     So, Ontario speech is magnificent.  Totally.  I can imitate it myself—the marvelous tone and sound in it—but it really strikes me as not true speech.  And there mostly is the intolerable Southern Ontario conceit: that their limited pattern of speech is the only way to speak and that everybody else is speaking wrong.  This really irritates me.  You put that in.

Interviewer: All right.  I’ll do that.

Respondent: Of course, there are other influences.  “Acorn”, you know, is generally accepted on The Island as a German name, and I can notice definite Germanic influences in my poems.  That type of pure Teutonicness, that controlled but at the same time uninhibited, sarcastic rage—this is very visible.

Interviewer: As in “The Tolerant Philistine”.

Respondent: Yes, but of course I go into other tones, too, and many times you’ve seen me lapse into a language which you’d swear if you didn’t know me—you would swear it was Gaelic.  But there are those influences, too, and there is, of course, the definite French influence.  The way I speak and the way I use words has struck me as pure French—translated French.  Which is not surprising since a great many of my ancestors were Acadians.  In short, you know Canadian speech comes from many origins and has many influences in it.  Even to draw up a list of my own ancestors would be like writing, you know, a demographic atlas of the world.  There is everything in it except Mongolian—and even then I see a China bag in it. So what can you say but I’m a Canadian, sprung from many origins right back to the Ice Age?

Interviewer: Can we return for a moment to the matter of craft in your poems? Your comments about technique in poetry—about structure, diction, tone, and so on—suggest that poems do not come     about only as a result of inspired moments of creativity.  To secure the most satisfying aesthetic effects in poetry, you say that the poet must consciously and deliberately attend to the business of form, style, and technique. Can you comment on this?

Respondent: Well, there are certain levels of conscious and unconscious thinking.  I have a theory, you know, that the more you probe into the unconscious, the more you become conscious of it.  After unconscious is raised to conscious, you return again and continue to probe more deeply into the unconscious and you take from it again, and again it becomes conscious.  Or other people help you, as Earle Birney helped me with that swimming, swirling, spouting image, which I incorporated in “The King Rains”.  Earle Birney noticed that first.  At some point, I unconsciously wrote a poem which used that type of metaphor which Birney had detected in the poem.  But it is a continuing thing.  There is no bottom to the spring; it keeps coming and coming and coming.  You raise more from the spring all the time.  There is no limit.

Interviewer: The final question that I wanted to ask you has to do with the matter of the poem’s being organic.  When we talked about revision, you said that the time to stop was when the poem had reached a condition of absolute integrity—a state of being rather than a state of becoming.  I’m reminded of the final stanza of Yeats’s poem “Among Schoolchildren”:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

         Yeats’s images of the tree and the dancer, like poetry itself, have an organic unity—a one-ness which resists analysis.  In your poems, should all the things we’ve talked about—structure, diction, figurative language, voice, and so on—work interdependently and organically?

Respondent: A favourite quotation of mine—I don’t know where it’s from—is “There are no boundaries in nature; nevertheless, you must make boundaries”.

Interviewer: How does this apply to the poem?

Respondent: Well, how could you distinguish between the dancer and the dance?  In a very wide sense, all of life is a dance; a person’s life is a dance.  So where is the dancer and where is the dance?  How can you distinguish between the two?  Well, anyway, I have always found myself in that dilemma: in the end you can’t distinguish, but you must.  That is, you say all is one: this is true.  All is but one universe.  However, it is not a very good approach to analyze the universe.  But in analyzing the universe, you must consider the universe as one.  There must be, along with all your analysis of stars and quasars, galaxies and metagalaxies, black holes and the void, a recognition that the universe is one.  But of course “all is one” is no answer.  My favourite illustration is to go back to the statement “There are no boundaries in nature; nevertheless, we must make boundiares”.  Where is the boundary between the sea and the land?  It changes twice in more or less twenty-four hours.  Does the tide ever stop at the same place?  No.  What’s the high tide mark?  I used to mark it by the wreckage, but that doesn’t always work.  Where is the low tide mark?  The lowest mark amidst the wreckage?  No.  The tide has risen farther in the past and will rise farther again in the future.  So will it fall lower.

Interviewer: How do you apply this to a poem?  If the poem is like nature, it has no boundaries, yet we have to make some boundaries.  Do you have that in mind when you are writing poems?

Respondent: I have in mind one thing, one idea.  What am I to you?  In the context of a poem, I am my voice.   Here there is a centre—one of the centres.  It’s me.  My voice reaches out and inspires my brain.  My voice reaches out and strikes common or close to the centres of your brain.  What you are hearing is literally me.  At the same time, in another sense, it’s literally you.  My poems are one long varitoned shout to reach you and get an echo.  All this has got to be incorporated in the idea of a poem, the end of a fantasy.  I have spoken.  Amen.


“The Wake-Up Raven,” Jackpine Sonnets (Toronto: Steel Rail Educational Publishing, 1977), p. 48. [back]

“Sometimes I Nibble My Heel,” The Island Means Minago (Toronto: NC Press, 1975), p. 93. [back]

“The King Rains,” I’ve Tasted My Blood (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited, 1969), p. 113. [back]

“The Schooner Blue Goose,” More Poems for People (Toronto: NC Press, 1972), p. 60. [back]

“Lee Side in a Gale,” The Island Means Minago, p. 15. [back]

“Charlottetown Harbour The Island Means Minago, p. 50. [back]

“Rooming House,” I’ve Tasted My Blood, p. 18. [back]

Al Purdy, The Globe and Mail (December 30, 1972), p. 29. [back]

Milton Acorn, Jackpine Sonnets, p. 21. [back]

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