Kenneth Leslie and Jackpine Sonnets
Kenneth Leslie, poet, wrote it long and strong-lunged.
For his duty, critics ripped out his tongue.
“Poem of One of the Poems for Which Kenneth Leslie was Damned”
Kenneth Leslie was one of the finest poets of the people in Canada in the 20th century. Leslie was from the Maritimes, like Acorn, and the publication in 1972 of O’Malley to the Reds & other Poems was Leslie at his political and poetic best. Leslie had been nurtured, when young, by the Song Fisherman Poets, Robert Norwood, Bliss Carmen and C.D. Roberts. Leslie achieved poetic stardom of sorts with his being awarded the GG Award in 1938 for By Stubborn Stars, and from about 1939-1949 he was at the forefront (more than most) in opposing American fascism and the anti-semitic mood (he lived in both Boston and New York in those years) that often accompanied such an ethos. Leslie was editor of Protestant Digest (later The Protestant) in the 1940s, and the magazine, at its apex, had about 50,000 subscribers. The film, God’s Red Poet: The Life of Kenneth Leslie (2008), tells the tale of Leslie’s engaged life and tells it well. Leslie returned to Nova Scotia in 1949 as the FBI, Herbert Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy turned up the heat on communist sympathizers. In fact, Life magazine in May 1949 listed Leslie as the only Canadian of fifty leading “fellow travellers” and “innocent dupes” who furthered the communist cause: other worthies were Arthur Miller, Albert Einstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann and Langston Hughes.
Milton Acorn dipped his political and poetic bucket deep in the life giving well of Leslie’s life and writings. Jackpine Sonnets (1977) was published a few years after Leslie’s classic O’Malley to the Reds & other Poems and Acorn, again and again, doffs his cap to Leslie. Jackpine Sonnets begins with these words, “As Shakespeare would say—To the Onlie Begetter of these Poems”—Kenneth Leslie. The poetic missive begins, therefore, with a conscious indebtedness to Leslie, then hard on the heels of such a nod to Leslie is a quote from Leslie’s GG winning book, By Stubborn Stars: “I sail by stubborn stars. Let rocks take heed: and if I sink; then sinking be my creed”. There is a definite sense in which just as Acorn wrote More Poems for People (1972) as a building on the poetic-political life of Dorothy Livesay, Jackpine Sonnets stands of the shoulders of Kenneth Leslie. It is significant that More Poems for People was published the same year as O’Malley to the Reds & other Poems.
The first poem in Jackpine Sonnets is “By Still More Stubborn Stars” and it is, of course, dedicated to Kenneth Leslie. The sonnet is a hard driving and compact visionary poem that sums up what it means to be a poet of character and integrity, skill and wisdom, justice and insight. Acorn saw himself as standing in the line and lineage of Leslie (who had died in 1974). There is a distinct sense in which “By Still More Stubborn Stars” is a eulogy to Leslie that sums up his poetic and political.
The main essay in Jackpine Sonnets is ‘Tirade by Way of Introduction’, and in this article Acorn tracks and traces the history of some of the main themes of Canadian poetry, the essential Anglo-Canadian romantic connection and the origins of the jackpine sonnet---again Acorn turns to Leslie as his mentor and guide in his discussion of the sonnet. Acorn had this to say about the role of Leslie:
When we come to the loveliest of our orthodox sonneteers, Kenneth Leslie, the battle
for the Canadian voice is being fought, and he is winning it…….In Leslie the jackpine
sonnet is already there; but he uses it inconspicuously and rarely, always wanting to
give his readers the impression that what they see is an orthodox sonnet, however
unorthodox the content.
There is many a fine historic insight in ‘Tirade by Way of Introduction’ but there can be no doubt that yet again Leslie factors large in Acorn’s rethinking of both the form and content of the sonnet. Both Leslie and Acorn are redefining the sonnet, being careful to remain with the historic sonnet roots, but making the jackpine more flexible as it bends and grows throughout the seasons and winds of time---the poetic form is more willow like, the content more radical. It is in this sense, using the sonnet as a metaphor into the poetic vision of Leslie and Acorn, we can see are profoundly conservative both are and yet equally radical.
Jackpine Sonnets opens with a poem dedicated to Leslie and building on By Stubborn Stars, and the poetic missive comes, almost, to a close with another poem dedicated to Leslie: “Poem of One of the Poems for Which Kenneth Leslie was Damned”. The poem that Acorn is alluding to is Leslie’s longer poem (O’Malley to the Reds) in O’Malley to the Reds & other Poems. “O’Malley to the Reds” is a well told poetic-political drama that deals with the miners of Princess Shaft, Moses Coady and the tensions between the hard line ideological left and the religious humanitarian left. There can be no doubt where both Leslie and Acorn plant their flag. Both Acorn’s shorter sonnet and Leslie’s much longer graphic and not to be forgotten poem highlight the obvious affinities between them as both align themselves with the religious humanitarian left---both are, in a sense, Red Tories of the highest calibre and quality.
It is virtually impossible to read Jackpine Sonnets (1977) without a feel for the life and writings of Kenneth Leslie. Leslie died in 1974, and O’Malley to the Reds & other Poems was published in 1972.
Jackpine Sonnets is both a eulogy to Leslie and is similar to Acorn’s More Poems For People (dedicated to Dorothy Livesay). There is a significant sense in which Livesay’s Poems for People, Leslie’s O’Malley to the Reds & other Poems and Acorn’s More Poems for People and Jackpine Sonnets embody the pure gold of Canadian Peoples’ political poetry.
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I met him, 1975, once in a Halifax hospital. He was paralyzed and unable to walk or speak. Not the man that one thinks of. There I met Nora, his wonderful wife, by his side.
I have taken the time to scan a number of poems from a poem book he published in 1972, called O’Malley to the Reds & other Poems.
I have also scanned some sheet music which includes Cape Breton Lullaby.
ARNOLD SCHOOL TO HARVARD
KENNETH LESLIE attended a one-room private school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, known as the Arnold School located near the famous Victoria Park with its magnificent statue of Robert Burns. He played Rugby and Cricket. He studied Latin at an early age.
The school was conducted by "Duck" Wad-dell, the Haligonian version of the Irish hedge-schoolmaster, a never-to-be-forgotten experience. He graduated from Dalhousie University, then studied a year at Colgate Theological Seminary where he helped form the Socialist Club.
Then he continued studies at Nebraska University (MA) and Harvard where he passed exams for Ph.D. but failed the lingual test.
1074 WELLINGTON STREET HALIFAX,
NOVA SCOTIA CANADA
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Available from Porcupine's Quill:
Typeset in Adobe Jenson. Printed on acid-free Zephyr Antique laid. Smyth sewn into sixteen page signatures with hand-tipped endleaves, front and back.
POETRY / Canadian
POETRY / General
Publication Date: 2010-03-01
Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in