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Committed to Excellence
by Elaine Kalman

LOUIS DUDEK is a prolific poet whose titles include Europe (Contact, 1954; reprinted by Porcupine's Quill, 1991), En Mexico (Contact, 1958), Atlantis (Delta, 1967), and Zembla's Rocks (Vehicule, 1987). He has also written on Literature and the Press (Ryerson, 1960), and he has published several collections of essays, most recently Paradise: Essays on Myth, Art and Reality (Whicule). He spoke with Elaine Kalman Naves in Montreal.

Books in Canada: I know you have some strong ideas about prize giving in literary life and that you don't believe in it.

Louis Dudek: Very disruptive! You cannot award a gift to the best for something that is not testable or objectively knowable and leave out all the others. How do you know that that one was the best? How can you prove it? Giving awards like that is very invidious and will divide and destroy the literary community. The awards given by QSPELL [Quebec Society for the Preservation of English Language Literature] have done that to the Quebec community of writers. There isn't one of them who doesn't hate the others as a result of the awards. It may be good for book sales and for the booksellers who are really running QSPELL, but it isn't good for the poets and the novelists.

BiC; Do you think that they didn't have each other before?

Dudek: Sure they did ... but if they had some controversy in the 1940s when Frank Scott, A. J. M. Smith, and First Statement had a controversy, it was about ideas and it was interesting and it meant something! There was no competition for recognition, nobody wanted to be known more than anyone else. And I think that was a very good period, when there was no ambition of that kind among poets because no recognition was possible. This was from 1940 to 1955, let's say, when I was on the scene. There was no audience for poetry and there were no prizes and no success. Success came only with a kind of youth that created hero-celebrities who were idolized. They were screaming for Frankie - Frank Sinatra - and for Elvis and for Leonard Cohen, which is really an offshoot of the same idea, isn't it? It's a minor whirlpool of the main sociological wave in which people are going nuts about some particular individual entertainer. It's a very harmful business that has nothing to do with poetry in the long run.

BiC: The cult of personality and the culture of entertainment all sort of lumped together?

Dudek: It's the culture of entertainment that came with television. Not "the medium is the message"; you've got to realize the impact of television on culture and on the record business and what this does to knowledge. The spread of records first and then of CDs, what they do to our knowledge and how they blow up personality....

BiC: You deal with some of this in your essay collection Paradise.

Dudek: In Paradise, the first essay is about the meaning of art and the ideal of art, how art has been in trouble from the time of Gutenberg to the present. In the 20th century the status of art has been completely undermined by artists and by critics and by the public. All three of them. That's very baldly put, but it's fact. Art has vanished from our society and in a way the artists themselves are partly responsible. Because they've made garbage out of it, some of them. In their avant-gardist efforts they've put every kind of nonsense before the public and, because it's sensational, it has an effect. Whenever a heap of sand is presented in an art gallery, the newspapers give it a big play - "wow, that's interesting, it's a new kind of art." A couple of worn-out coats and hats, hanging on a rack, that's a new kind of art - but why do we pay attention to it at all? Why not just ignore it? It's not a successful work of art.

BiC: You must get called elitist all the time.

Dudek: It's is a very good word! An elitist is simply one who believes in excellence, in the better thing. For God's sake! In my generation, better art was virtue. The word elitist is now used as a completely destructive word. It now has a prejudice against what is good, in other words. It has become a barbarous word - it really belongs to barbarians.

BiC: Well, a lot of things that are going on today are barbarous.

Dudek: Labelling things as elitism gives people a respite from the pressure that they feel that they might be inferior in some way to the demands made on them. That's what it's really all about. And that I understand.

BiC: An insecurity in people?

Dudek: Yeah, they're insecure, they feel oppressed by all these things. Because culture's a bloody bastard, it does make you feel that you're a nonentity. High culture does. Especially if you haven't had the opportunities and you haven't had the gifts it takes - Christ! If you go through museums, why is it that they took the hammer to all these statues from the past? Because these things oppress people. I understand why the barbarians wanted to destroy. But the kind of things that are oppressive should become liberating, actually. We've got to create them out of the freedom we are trying to give to people, to make those people capable of those things, too. It's democracy that must produce the great art now. We don't have to depend on aristocracy for it or elitism it's got to be the ordinary man. He's got to be the touchstone of it.

BiC: How do you educate the ordinary man - the ordinary person -sufficiently to do good work?

Dudek: That's what we have schools and colleges for, we're doing it all the time, it's a hard process, sure. It's not hopeless! The resources are there in human beings, in human nature.

BiC: So you're still an optimist?

Dudek: Oh, I am. There was a piece in the Montreal Gazette, it was too much about me holding up my ideals. You could just as well have said I am a terrible pessimist: just what we have said so far. You could have interpreted it either way.

BiC: There's a poem in Zembla's Rocks called "Prologue #3 " where you want your poems to be where people are doing something "not only among other poems in poetry magazines / but among stock quotations, ball scores, and the political squabble"

Dudek: Yes, that's one of the positive ones

BiC: I loved that one, actually, but the ending brings the reader up short - this is not a Pollyanna poem. Can you tell me the circumstances under which you wrote that

Dudek: When I retired about a dozen years ago now, I had a whole lot of unfinished poems, files of them. And I said, well, the first thing to do is to go through all of this and destroy all that isn't worth saving there and work on all that is and polish it, finish it .... Well, I worked four or so years on this stuff, I enjoyed it very much and I said, "I did a lot of damn good stuff here."

BiC: So it's really rather wonderful, you took the kernels of something

Dudek: And reworked them. Although in writing you don't pad out something with a lot of new words, as I said to [Ralph] Gustafson in a letter yesterday. He has a silver stream of poetry that flows along, he's constantly got another book coming. For me it's gurgling spurts that come, spurts of this stuff, it's never a long stream. So even my long poems are made of these spurts. But they're genuine. It's a verbal thing, a couple of phrases -tatadum. I don't go far beyond what these spurts are. I keep the core of the words and I might change the participle into an active verb, stretch it a tittle further towards the end. But I don't add a lot of words, I don't expand. Mainly because I believe that the actual spurt of language is created by the impulse - I don't want to use "holy" or something, you know. But it has a supernatural quality. It's not willed. And it comes uncalled for. And you know that it belongs to the realm of poetry. It's not just realistic, here and now and practical. It's almost like a trance. It's from somewhere else and it's been given to you. Since it's given, you don't touch it too much. If possible, you don't touch it at all. But you have to, to make good poems.

BiC: When you talk about "gurgling spurts" you're talking about these kinds of poems [pointing to Zembla's Rocks]. A long poem like "Europe" and "En Mexico" - was that the same kind of thing for you?

Dudek: Those are two different types of poems. In "Europe" I wrote longer passages - I would drive along and keep writing while I was driving and then stop the car and write a few more lines until a whole passage on the Parthenon or Athens got written. It's written that way in longer sections. Whereas "En Mexico" was part of a beginning of a process of "gurgling spurts" in which there were little bits and tittle bits and little bits and they all added up like a necklace of real things. Which becomes puzzling for many readers. They think they're disconnected or tacking in this or that - but it's the genuine process of the mind, it's like a mimesis or imitation of an internal disjunct process in our minds. Our minds, you know, are not logical or coherent. They're not writing expository essays somewhere in there. The poetic process is jumpy and strange. I mean it's intuitive. It comes up in these spurts. When Keats said "Fill every rift with ore" - that's the problem. I want only the ore. There should be no rifts there! Just the bits of ore that came originally. Only gold. So to speak. The genuine stuff. Linked together.

BiC: And you know, right? You know when the true thing comes.

Dudek: Now you've touched that real thing that I mention somewhere. "How does the poet know this?" He knows simply, at once: this is not a piece of prose, not the beginning of a prose paragraph. This thought belongs in that poem, and the special notebook.... There's no question, should that go in the book of poems or not? No. They're already marked, there's a kind of colour about them.

BiC: I'd like to ask you a biographical question. You had a very sad childhood.

Dudek: [Dismissively] I was a miserable type.

BiC: It must be very hard to hear someone [his grandmother] say that you weren't expected to live.

Dudek: [Chuckling] I haven't gotten much better, you know.

BiC: What do you mean? You're talking of a long lifetime of accomplishment! [Dudek was born in 1918.]

Dudek: Misery's always there.

BiC: Existential misery or -

Dudek: A kind of built-in thing. I think you don't recover from your childhood. You carry it with you. And also a kind of illness, I think. My body's very poor. The best that could be said of me -I've heard it said - "People like you always live long because you're always dying anyhow [laughing], so you learn how to handle it." There's something to that.

BiC: I wonder if you would talk a little bit about the literary history of Montreal. I know something about the poetic ferment here in the '40s and '50s. but perhaps you'd like to say something about the city in terms of its literary past, in the time that you have been active in it.

Dudek: It was a community of writers. It was never perfect of course, as it's not perfect now. But 1 think it was better at one time than it is now. I imagine the Vehicule poets would say it was pretty damn good when they were all together and met and drank and laughed together and were doing their books as the Vehicule poets. That must have been a high point in their lives. Although now they're reconsidering - as Ken Norris did the other day, he said "we didn't have anything in common." Actually, Artie Gold would tell you not one of them had anything to do with the others: "We were all entirely different, there was nothing that we shared." But others would say, "Oh, yes we did." It's impossible not to have a lot in common if you're of one generation, although when you're all together you don't see the resemblances. But you're entirely different from a generation that was 20, 30 years older. You live in a totally different kind of time. They would know that you were different. And then another group 30 years later would also know it. Layton, myself, Souster, Miriam Waddington, were all of a kind, being of a certain generation, and we certainly had a feeling of togetherness at the time. And what we enjoyed most was our youth - as much as you could enjoy it because we were still miserable.

BiC: Well, it was not an easy time.

Dudek: The war was on, a terrible thing. And we were recovering from the Depression, that terrible Depression. We now have a similar kind of thing but my impression is that the other one was even worse. But as for poetry, we sat around on Stanley Street in John Sutherland's little room and talked about poetry and read manuscripts or went around the comer and drank some beer together and laughed, and discussed D. H. Lawrence and Friedrich Nietzsche .... All this lasted a few years and then I went away to New York. I studied there and then taught at City College. I came back to Montreal in 195 1. 1 was away six years, coming back in the summertime to meet friends. I was also becoming friends with Frank Scott and met him often. He was never alien to the group. Although there was a debate between Preview and First Statement, there was never animosity between Scott and myself. We were always friends. Then when I came back in 195 1, Layton, Souster, and I did Cerberus - it came out in 1952. And Contact magazine was coming out with Souster and after a while we started producing CIV/n here, civilization, with Ezra Pound's slogan "civilization: not a one man job." He knew that you had to have a group to make civilization.

At Frank Scott's, we were having a big party and Leonard Cohen brought up Bob Dylan. "Bob Dylan is the most important poet now in America." And Frank Scott ran out and bought the record. And we played it and we all thought it was crap. Especially Al Purdy. But Leonard started out that proceeding by saying, "Are you people still writing that same old-fashioned poetry?" To the whole assembly: Scott, Purdy, me. Old-time poetry, he called it, as if he had some new light on it or something. That's kind of memorable because it means that he thought of himself as having turned away from this aesthetic poetry that's written on the page and published in books. He had found a new way that was going to lead to great new developments. And Bob Dylan was his model - he'd heard him at a concert at Place des Arts and I understand he said to someone he was sitting with, "That's the kind of thing I want to do." And he did. That's what I thought was amazing, actually.

BiC: You mean that he succeeded at it?

Dudek: Yes, that he succeeded.

BiC: You published his first book of poetry.

Dudek: Yes, that was at McGill. Damn good poetry, too. Very, very promising. Had he stayed with it, he would have been a good poet. Could have been.

BiC: You don't like his songs?

Dudek: I don't think that the words of songs can really rank as poetry. Not seriously. Any more than the words that W. H. Auden wrote for some operas can rank as important poetry by W. H. Auden. Auden wrote an article about how the words of music have to be almost empty of meaning for them to function as songs. You see, when the music takes over, it carries all the feeling. And tone is carried by the melody and the rhythm. So what the hell, you don't need to say much.

I'm following your question about the Montreal community of writers. In the 1940s, early '50s, the place we often met was on Kildare Road, out at the end of Sherbrooke Street, up in Cote St. Luc. Layton owned a small house there, it was empty fields, highly undeveloped then. We had good parties there every Saturday night, big gangs gathered together then. No drink. Hardly any at all, except for coffee. Not even any food to speak of. We just got together and had friendship and talk. Recitations. Even to the extent of people reading their own stuff, in succession, then everyone would take votes on it and say who was the best tonight. Which was the best poem? But this would not be invidious, no one felt defeated! Funny, that was a competition and an award, sort of, but it was just a helluva good game, like playing Parcheesi or something. Because we knew this was just a single poem. Anyone might happen to hit it off this time and might have a successful poem and win this week. It didn't mean anything, except he or she had made a good poem. There would be about 10 poems read.

There were all kinds of poetry games. In one, somebody sat in a corner with several anthologies. And the others played poker. It was called Poetry Poker. You'd read a line, and everybody would put forward their first bet. Five cents in the pot it used to be. The first two lines were read and you had to guess whose they were. So you could say, "I pay five and I raise you 10." The other guys had to say, Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, whoever. Sometimes you hit somebody who really knew the anthologies. Fred Cogswell was dangerous to play this with because he knew all the poets. It spoiled the game. It was best when no one knew them too well.

BiC: Did you have any contact with francophone writers?

Dudek: Always wanted some. Emotionally I was always on the side of the French people of Quebec. Anyhow, way back in 1942, 1943, 1 was translating Emile Nelligan's poems. I reached the conclusion - which I still hold - that he was the best poet Canada has yet produced, and that's simply because he was more gifted than any, and paid a terrible price for it. I wrote quite a number of articles about Quebec writers and tried to do something to make bridges. And Frank Scott used to have writers from Liberie magazine meeting at his house in the early 1950s. When separatism got stronger, that became more difficult to do. I have a great, great distrust of nationalism. A nation is just a good team. We support our team - we try to do the good things together, that's all it really is. It's not a family and it's not something that has an ethnic or super soul of any kind. There should be no nationalistic passions involved. It seems to me that nationalism has also pretty much reached its end, and yet it's at its peak of doing violence to the world. At the same time that all the scholars agree it's really played out....

BiC: So it was at the upsurge of Quebec nationalism that the bridgemaking process somehow broke down?

Dudek: Sure. It was interfering with literary co-operation. The whole question was, is there one Canadian literature with two great branches in two great languages? In other words, separatism is de facto visible in the literature. The critics have not been able to solve it. A. J. M. Smith put together an anthology, the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, of which half was in English, the other in French. But Margaret Atwood's Oxford Book of Canadian Verse excludes the French entirely - solving the problem by not doing it this time round. This time round, or ever. I don't think Oxford should have done that. If you're going to do a Canadian anthology, you do the two or you don't do anything. You don't do anything Canadian that doesn't include the whole country.

The thing is that nationalism has done so much damage to Quebec writing. Take Gilles Vigneault - a wonderfully talented singer and poet. In his case, even the words of songs have come out to be rather fine things. But he's done several books of poetry as well. I used to be really fond of him as a poet. But nationalism is a very strong passion, it turns you away from your real interests, the mother interest. It unbalances the poetic personality.

The Montreal community has shrunk. However, the poets are scattered around the city and still very active. They're still developing. People like George Woodcock have written that Montreal used to be an important centre for poetry and it isn't any more. But he's mistaken. It's still important, it's still got the poets -they're just not acknowledged by others. If someone put a light on them, you'd see them. In poetry, it always takes a little time before they're acknowledged for what they are. Plus, there are so many poets now all over the country because of the granting system, so many books published that it's hard to discriminate, to know what you really prefer. So Montreal poets, Quebec poets, are hard to distinguish from all the rest. I would in fact look at all of Canada -if I see a good poet, that's fine. There are good poets out there in Vancouver, in Edmonton, in Winnipeg, in Toronto. Canada is still the team, it's still the group we're interested in. It's not nationalistic passion, but it's still our team. Les Canadiens. laughter].


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