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Douglas Fetherling - Silver Dollar Bard
by Douglas Fetherling

Richard Lemm's Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger (Carleton University Press, 279 pages $34.95 cloth) is surely one of the most thoughtful, probing, and professional Canadian literary biographies of recent times-and we supposedly are living in the golden age of Canadian literary biography. The book comes thirteen years after Acorn's death and three years after Chris Gudgeon's biography, Out of This World: The Natural History of Milton Acorn.

Gudgeon's book demolished, albeit gently, many of the biographical myths that Acorn built up about himself: that he had a blue-collar background; that he gave up a long career as a skilled carpenter to become a poet; that he was a serious Marxist; and that he was talented in all sorts of other areas in which he was not-that is, areas other than poetry, where Acorn was an absolute original and inimitable voice, if also a conservative sort of groundbreaker, much given, in Lemm's typically precise phrase, to "mawkish grandeur". Gudgeon did all this as well as documenting the decline of Acorn's personality through alcoholism, violence, psychosis, abhorrence of hygiene, and a total lack of social skills. But Gudgeon did so while neither debunking nor analyzing. His tone was more celebratory. Gudgeon is interested in folk singers and other folk stuff, and he wrote of Acorn, not inaccurately, as a kind of Canadian folk anti-hero.

By contrast, Lemm is interested in taking us into the psychology of Acorn the person and the language of Acorn the poet. In both cases, he does so from the point of view of Acorn's native place, Prince Edward Island (which the poet left as a young man), during the Second World War that maimed his psyche in some now impossible-to-reconstruct way, and to which he returned to spend his last years, ranting and raving. But it would be a dreadful mistake to suppose that Lemm, himself a poet in P.E.I., is proscribed in any way by seeking answers only or mainly in Acorn's regional identity. On the contrary, he convinces readers that this is the only means of finding answers to the Acorn puzzle.

Photographs of Acorn as an adolescent show a bully. He was a bully as a grown-up as well. He had no Native blood, as he boasted, and wasn't working-class. His father was a career civil servant, and Acorn himself took a certificate in bookkeeping (of all things). Like Gudgeon, Lemm is aided by the fact that many members of Acorn's family survive to be interviewed. Their testimonies, combined with the documentary record, give a picture of someone who was, indeed, a carpenter for a time ("a fussy carpenter", one survivor remembers, but apparently a non-union one) and also a temporary postal clerk. Acorn conveniently forgot about the latter. Jesus had not been a postal clerk. Acorn's longest paid employment of any kind was nearly three years as a civil servant in the Unemployment Insurance Commission during the 1940s.

In 1956 or thereabouts (the subject's chronology is chronically hazy), Acorn is said to have sold his tool box and been transmogrified as a poet. For this purpose, he moved to Montreal, where he could be found, in Lemm's words, "demonstrably flapping his wings". In fact, he had already been writing both poetry and prose for years, but he did gravitate to the literary centre of English Canadian writing, just as he moved later to Toronto, then Vancouver, then back to Toronto again, as the literary ground kept shifting under him. He will always be associated with Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, and especially his long-suffering friend, Al Purdy. Lemm, however, shrewdly shows Acorn's greater poetic debt to the far-left poets, Joe Wallace and Dorothy Livesay (who had little or nothing in common poetically). Lemm also solidly compares Acorn and other blue-collar Canadian writers like Alden Nowlan.

The difference between working class and working-class radical is essential in any such discussion of Acorn. I always got the feeling that Acorn wanted to have been born a generation earlier than he was, so that he might have been a communist in the late teens or early twenties of the century. As it was, bad timing led him to embrace the party of Stalin but only the ghost of Lenin. His communism was contemporaneous with the show trials and purges, and we find no reference in Lemm's diligent research to Acorn having an opinion on the Hitler-Stalin pact. In any case, he died in the Anglican Church.

The reader might think that I didn't care for Acorn as a person, but that's not true. I avoided him as a person as much as possible while admiring his writing through the filter of the page, as it is meant to be admired. Rather, Acorn didn't care for me (or for Lemm, apparently, to judge from one scene in the book). There are far too many writers like Acorn-non-writers have no idea just how many-who have radiant gifts but twisted souls. Me, I'd be happier with even less talent than I have and a few more friends.

Finishing Lemm's book left me with the idea that the writer of the past whom Acorn most resembles is probably Walt Whitman. If he were alive to read this, Acorn would likely threaten to kill me, as he enjoyed doing from time to time just after his return to the Island in late 1980, when his mental health was at its lowest ebb. But, except for the fact that Whitman was sane and kindly (and Acorn was homophobic), I still see genuine similarities. There is the way that Whitman romanticised his brief training as a compositor and printer into a living link with the work of craft, just as Acorn did with his carpentry. There are the mythomania, the tireless self-promotion, the well-disguised need for material security, the troubled relations with family members-but also the defiant determination to take their talent as far as it could go for as long as they could.

In one of the most celebrated mismatches in Canadian sexual history, Acorn was briefly married to the poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen, whose leaving him, many posit, propelled Acorn on his downward spiral. Gwen was without question the single most important woman in Acorn's adult life, and her name naturally recurs in Lemm's book dozens or scores of times. In each instance, it is misspelled "MacEwan". This is obviously a hideous computer accident, one of those last-minute search-and-replace errors (we've all experienced them) that can happen so easily now during the final moments of the editorial process, and it must be devastating for Lemm, who is so meticulous a biographer and so careful a writer. My heart goes out to him. I hope this fault in the book won't prevent it from receiving all the serious attention it deserves.


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