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Ralph Gustafson 1909-1995
by Douglas Fetherling

THE POET AND ANTHOLOGIST Ralph Gustafson remained a presence in Canadian literature well into old age. But when he died late this spring at the age of 85, his career received much less press attention than would have been the case if his passing had come only a couple of years earlier. Gustafson died within days of the diarist and diplomat Charles Ritchie, 88, whose demise was given far more play. Of course, these things are always relative. Both men died within days of the poet-painter Robert Finch (age 90), whose end warranted scarcely a stick of type anywhere in the Canadian media. The point, I suppose, is not simply that the last of Gustafson's generation -- those born in the first decade of the century now ending -- are dying off, but also that they have outlived many of the people who would have been best qualified to compose their obituaries and assign them rank.

And there is much to be said in remembrance of Ralph Gustafson. It was he who, beginning in the 1940s, edited the first anthologies of English Canadian poetry to gain international circulation (and credence). These included a collection for Canada's armed forces in the Second World War and, later, the long- influential Penguin Book of Canadian Verse. For Gustafson -- born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, a region he wrote about often in later years -- was a true cosmopolite of his day, as much at home in British or American writing as in Canadian.

He was an old Oxonian who was already a recognized figure on the English literary scene when he returned to North America just before the outbreak of the war, to work for the British government in New York. There his poetry underwent a profound change of style and diction, and he became an even better-known poet in the United States than he had been in Britain. For most readers, the 1944 collection Flight into Darkness is the first to speak in the truly transatlantic voice that would carry him through the next 50 years -- a voice distinctly sophisticated and serious, humanistic and ironic, and, above all, civilized. In 1963 he returned to Canada, to begin a different career at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec, his alma mater. For years, new collections of his verse were almost annual staples of McClelland & Stewart's catalogues.

Gustafson's career grew more various as it progressed, and in time he published two collections of his short fiction and a two-volume gathering of essays. He was also a capital letter-writer, as can be seen from A Literary Friendship: The Correspondence of Ralph Gustafson and W. W.E. Ross (ECW, 1984), edited by Bruce Whiteman. Next to poetry, his love was classical music, a subject often alluded to in his poems and one on which he broadcast commentaries on CBC Radio.

When Gustafson was away, he never stopped being a Canadian; when he was here, he never ceased projecting a sense of well-traveled urbanity. In 1994, Gary Geddes contributed a thoughtful entry surveying Gustafson's career to Ian Hamilton's prestigious Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Gustafson was a kind and humane person who more than deserved whatever such attention came his way.


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