Milton Acorn looked like a derelict who had let himself go. He was said to bathe only once a year (though this was probably hyperbole based on how he smelled). Certainly he seemed to wear the exact same clothes day after day, year after year, including a red flannel shirt that co-ordinated nicely with his red flannel nose and neck. He was a ranter and raver of almost primal intensity. I myself frequently heard him threaten to kill people. At one point, his imagined weapon of choice was a bazooka (because, I believe, he liked the sound of the word).
He was, after all, a poet of great lyric power and passion. This is why he is remembered ten years after his death-for this and for the fact that he was far less successful a human being than he was a writer.
I dare say Milton had survived more suicide attempts than Fidel Castro has assassination plots. In both cases, the chronology seems to extend back to the later Eisenhower administration. In any event, I fancy that if Acorn and Dr. Castro had ever met they would have experienced an immediate unspoken bond that no third party would have twigged to or understood. This feeling would have been based on living with death, not on shared political philosophy. Milton always made much of being a Marxist, and was made much of by people who were Marxists. But as far as I could tell from years of attempted conversations, he knew next to nothing about ideology of any sort-or indeed about much of anything connected to the so-called real world of facts and affairs that exists outside the realm of poetry.
Certain people have always liked to believe that the possession of talent with intent to create is in itself sufficient excuse for decades of outrageous behaviour. The life of Milton Acorn (compared to whom, Byron and Dylan Thomas were moderate livers) provides some support for this thesis. That's one reason why I want to break with accepted practice and write a piece about a book for which I've already provided a jacket blurb: Chris Gudgeon's Out of This World: The Natural History of Milton Acorn (Arsenal Pulp Press, $27.95 cloth). While not ignoring (how could it?) Milton's dementia and other hard-to-handle characteristics, it is both a gentle biographical essay and thoughtfully chosen anthology of Acorn's most successful poems. It is intelligently written for people outside the Canadian literary world who require a lot of contextualizing and historical nudging about what Gudgeon calls the Great Canadian Poetry Wars: in other words, for the ordinary reader rather than the literary audience. Acorn would have approved of the approach, for he liked to position himself as the outsider's outsider.
As a biographical entry might begin, "Milton James Rhode Acorn was born in Charlottetown, P.E.I., in 1923." Acorn more than once told me, and presumably lots of other people, that his paternal bloodline was First Nations, specifically, Micmac. In fact, the Acorns were originally Loyalists named Eichorn. Mind you, he also claimed that he was fluent in French and that he could compose music. More importantly, he insisted that he was working-class through and through. Actually, Gudgeon shows, young "Mickey" Acorn was the son of a customs inspector and had a "moderate middle-class upbringing" (and indeed would himself be a minor civil service clerk for a while, hard as this may be to picture).
He hated the British Empire and the American one that was poised to supplant it, but he was a great admirer of Josef Stalin, whose non-aggression pact with Hitler thus gave him pause. But when Hitler invaded Poland, Acorn took the King's shilling. Now comes the first of two great turning-points in his life. While en route to England on a troop-ship, Acorn had the misfortune to be too near an exploding depth-charge. The concussion interrupted his hearing for a while, but the psychological damage was permanent and put him on the road to what Gudgeon tactfully calls his "emotional decline". He was declared unfit for service, and for years he would be in and out of Veterans' Affairs hospitals (where one doctor wanted him lobotomized-Acorn refused).
For the rest of his life, Acorn received a small disability pension, but for some time after his discharge he was also supported by his mother back in P.E.I., where he discovered his theatrical streak and began performing in amateur productions. (Of his first role, in a groaner entitled Who Stole the Bishop's Candlesticks?, a local reviewer wrote, "Milton Acorn gives a splendid performance as the rascally old Sgnarelle [sic]." This might have served as a blurb for the remainder of his life's activities.)
Acorn drifted to Montreal, where he did some work as a carpenter, until, in an incident he never tired of making famous, he sold his tools in order to become a poet. He was inspired by Joe Wallace, a rather dreadful Communist versifier. At thirty, Acorn was published for the first time in New Frontiers, the journal edited by his fellow Communist Margaret Fairley. He discovered the forum for his highly declamatory and angry poetry on the stage of a local coffee-house, El Cortijo, and basked in the low-wattage limelight. In 1960, two years after quitting the Communist Party, he moved to Toronto, where he found a similar forum at the famous Bohemian Embassy. The Toronto Telegram, not unreasonably, described him as "a gifted nut".
As everybody now knows, thanks to Rosemary Sullivan's book Shadow Maker, Acorn entered into a most unlikely matrimonial alliance with the far younger, far brighter, and far more talented Gwendolyn MacEwen, who left him after realizing what she had done (and also discovering that he had had an affair with another woman). The break-up was bitter and seems to have accelerated the disintegration of his personality. Deriding Toronto as "Homewreckertown", he left for a five-year exile in Vancouver, where he started his own reading venue this time, the Advanced Mattress, and also helped to found the Georgia Straight (later breaking with the paper acrimoniously). In 1970, when Gwendolyn MacEwen's book, rather than his, received the Governor General's Award for poetry, he really flew apart. At this point friends in Toronto banded together to declare him the People's Poet. It's curious how, for someone who railed against establishments at every turn, he also kept seeking acceptance from officialdom, whether the military, the Marriage Act, or the viceroy. In 1982, he returned home to the Island, where, in Gudgeon's words, he "drifted into self-parody," seasoned now with tirades against abortion and homosexuality and other enemies-enemies everywhere. He died in 1986. On his deathbed he embraced the Anglican Church and asked the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, whose response has not been recorded.
"Milt was an odd figure," writes Gudgeon with splendid understatement. One of his two best friends in the writing life, the poet Joe Rosenblatt, called Acorn "the most self-tormented man I ever met." Inevitably, they had a falling-out. Acorn's other close friend and ally, Al Purdy, told Gudgeon, "Just about everything about [Acorn] rubbed people the wrong way." One marvels at the patience of younger figures such as James Deahl who have done so much to keep interest in Acorn's poetry alive and growing.
I can't end without throwing on the pile two little anecdotes of my own not found in Out of This World. In 1969, I convinced a very small and notoriously impecunious publisher to bring out an anthology of Canadian poems about hitch-hiking, a popular competitive sport of the day, about which John Newlove and others had written so well. All the individuals I polled, from Margaret Atwood to bp Nicol, from George Bowering to David McFadden, happily agreed to let me reprint poems of theirs for an insultingly low standard fee. The sole exception was Acorn, who demanded more money than anyone else, claiming he was a better writer than they were. Feeling strongly that the permissions budgets of the anthologies should be divided equally among all the contributions, I reluctantly had to drop his poem from the book. When the anthology appeared, Eli Mandel, writing in the Globe and Mail, denounced it as worthless because it spitefully passed over Canada's one and only true proletarian poet, Milton Acorn. As if this weren't frustrating enough (as all attempts at dealing with Acorn were), Milton then commenced a letter-writing campaign (he was a big proponent of these) accusing me of having my hand in the publisher's till.
What a poor wretch. What a fine poet at times (though a weak critic of his own work, I believe). The last time I saw him, I was walking up Yonge Street in Toronto, preparing to turn into the Longhouse Bookshop. The proprietors, Beth Appledoorn and Susan Sandler, weren't visible as I crossed the threshold; they must have been in the office downstairs. The only person on the ground floor was the unmistakable figure of Acorn, whom I recognized instantly even from the back. He didn't see me before I withdrew, didn't know there was anyone else in the store. He was yelling insults about some (no doubt imaginary) enemy of the moment. As I tiptoed out backwards, the last words I heard him scream were "I'll have his resignation for this!" The outburst struck me as a bizarrely middle-class statement to be making, as though he was composing a stiff letter to the Globe, not plotting revenge on another invisible demon. Milton was a Distinct Society all by himself. l
Douglas Fetherling's second volume of memoirs, Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast was published by Lester in September.