McGee-Leninism Reborn? The poetry of Pat Connors' Scarborough Songs*
by Terry Barker
The field of People's Poetry in Canada in the last eighty years or so has been affected by reactions to what might be called the ideology of Mackenzie/Papineau-Leninism, the distinctively Canadian Communist cultural vision (on the analogy of the "market-Leninism" of China, or the "Marti-Leninism" of Cuba). Events in North America and around the world in the new millennium, however, have called into question the viability of the Canada which came into being on the basis (partly, at least) of the liberal populist elements of the British North America colonies of the 1840s, and thus, of the Marxian version of their thinking. A revision of this intellectual enterprise thus seems to be in order.
As I have argued elsewhere, a rejected radical tradition at the time of Confederation was that represented by Thomas D'Arcy McGee, the Irish-born Roman Catholic reformer and cultural critic. While verse by McGee became a well-known building block of Canada's emerging historical identity, his distinctive political perspective found no direct successors, its influence being confined to such Christian Communists as the Roman Catholic poet Joe Wallace (d. 1975), and the High Anglican People's Poet, Milton Acorn (1923 - 1986), a student of Wallace's work. That point of view combined social reform with cultural preservation and recovery within the framework of a genuinely Catholic Christianity.
Recently, an echo of this what might be called "McGee-Leninism" has emerged in the circles of the "Catholic Left" and others in Canada influenced by Latin American "liberation theology". Notable in the poetic field in this regard is the Torontonian Patrick Connors, whose first collection of verse, Scarborough Songs, appeared from Lyricalmyrical in June, 2013.
Although a traditionally slim volume, this eighteen-poem chapbook contains many nuggets of spiritual reflection combining personal and social dimensions of the author's experience in a highly compact Romantic manner. For example, Connors writes in "Renaissance":
Allowing the bounty of limitless grace
Growing in love we grow within each other
Bonding together, made ever stronger
Instruments of the divine by way of the sublime
The personal and the social are interwoven here in a way reminiscent of the "Romantic theology" of Britain and Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and indeed, the only direct literary debt mentioned in the collection is to Coleridge's "Something Childish, but Very Natural", a stanza from which is the epigraph for Connors' "Something Mature and Very Unnatural: Written on the border of Scarborough". In this poem, Connors (in a way similar to that of Coleridge's inspirer, the mystic philosopher and critic of Hegel, F.W.J. von Schelling), extends the vision of the Romantic tradition from the intramundane to the transmundane truths, noting in its last stanza:
Sleep stays not though a monarch bids:
Me to wait and let Him redeem
What's won before;
Vision revealed - opened the eyelids
See all that I sought and more
Growing up the son of working-class immigrants from Newfoundland in and around the somewhat bleak eastern Toronto suburb of Scarborough, the poet seems to have become acquainted with the muse who inspired Wallace and Acorn, both of whom had roots and associations with Eastern Canada as well as Toronto. Active with both his church and the Communist movement as they were, Connors has been prominent in the work of the International Festival of the Poetry of Resistance (IFPOR) group in Toronto for several years. This organization, set up in 2009 by Lisa Makarchuk and Maria Elena Mesa, later assisted by Carlos Angulo, the late Charles Roach and others, was established to promote poetry "on social justice themes" with what used to be called a "New Left" perspective. Currently, Connors' writing seems to be reflecting the tensions that are present in New Left ideology (and organizations based upon it) between the strong subjectivism of its Existentialist content, and the strong objectivism of its Materialist form. This philosophical problem is brilliantly described by Connors in his poem "Window", published in Northern Voices Journal:
Laying down on
Of the ocean
Through the clean clear ice
At the bottom
Of the world
On the bitter
The bibliography is available on request from Terry Barker:
Terry Barker is a retired college teacher and independent scholar living in Toronto. He is the author of After Acorn (1999), Beyond Bethune (2006) and Continuing Chesterton (forthcoming, 2014).
*Scarborough Songs was published in Toronto in 2013 by Lyricalmyrical Press
Republication of this piece is encouraged, with first publication credited to this blog, Riffs and Ripples from ZenRiver Gardens.