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Female and Modernist Poems and Stories of Louise M. Bowman
by Michelle Ariss

I t is thanks to writers like Rosemary Sullivan and Anne Cimon and no thanks at all to the modernist poet E.J. Pratt that the work of Louise Morey Bowman has not been entirely lost to Canadian literature. In her introduction to Poetry by Canadian Women, (1989) Sullivan writes that Bowman's work "deserves to be resurrected" and in "Louise Morey Bowman: A Forgotten Muse" published in Matrix (1990), Cimon writes that Bowman's three books of poetry prove her to be "one of the earliest and finest practitioners of free verse in Canada, but her importance has been ignored."

Undoubtably Bowman's poetry is important to Canadian modernist literature. David Arnason, writing in CVII (Spring 1975), calls her "the first modern poet in Canada." He praises the poems in Moonlight and Common Day (1922) for their "technical virtuosity, and a feeling for sound and rhythm that is extraordinary" and adds that her use of the Haiku form¨she was the first significant poet in Canada to practice it¨shows "a fine eye for quintessential Canadian images." E. Ritchie of The Dalhousie Review (April 1924) wrote of her second book Dream Tapestries that its author is "endowed with the gift of a keen, true and far-reaching vision¨a vision which can penetrate the external world of form and colour to the spiritual world of ideals and emotions." Not all reviews of the two books are positive. A reviewer in The Canadian Forum (Fall, 1925) found Dream Tapestries to be "somewhat lacking in vigour and restraint" and in Donald Precosky's opinion, expressed in Canadian Literature (Winter, 1978), the second volume was "plagued with the same unevenness of style and attitude which characterized Moonlight and Common Day." Characters in Cadence (1938), was barely noticed by critics, despite the author's contention in a letter to Hugh Eayrs, her editor at The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, that it was "far more important and deeper than the previous two." Asked by Eayrs to comment on the Characters manuscript, E.J. Pratt wrote: "There are no poems that sweep you off your feet with emotional power..."¨a comment that may well have sealed the public fate of Bowman's third and final volume.

Despite or even because of such conflicting reviews, Bowman's contribution to modernism in poetry, though not yet sufficiently recognized, is substantial. Her poems were published in numerous Canadian and American magazines including Poetry (Chicago) throughout the 1920s and 30s. Dream Tapestries earned her the Quebec government's Prix David in 1924. She was President of the Montreal Branch of the Canadian Authors Association in 1936 and 1937, and she associated with other early modernists including Frank Oliver Call and Amy Lowell. Lowell and Harriet Monroe, publisher and editor of Poetry, were so taken with Bowman's work that they allowed their glowing endorsements of it to be quoted on the dustjacket of her second volume. Bowman's confident use of cadence to convey content, her experiments with voice and perspective, especially successful in poems such as "John Knox and Queen Mary", "The Poet" and "Swan Walk", her play with imagery and ellipses in "Oranges" and "Moonlight and Common Day", and her adaptations of traditional forms, in "The North Room" for example, as well as in her Haiku and Cinquains¨comprised an acknowledged and oft-lauded embrace of the contemporary modernist movement.

But there is more to Bowman's contribution to modernism in poetry. What is only now being discovered is the innovative way in which she mobilizes her storytelling skills to promote the new forms of poetry that were rapidly gaining acceptance in the United States and Europe.

In each of two short stories, "Whimsey" (1924) and "Gray Man and Red Bird" (1932) there are two narrative strands: the story itself, and a story about modernism in poetry. In both short stories, the latter is more than a subplot, more than a Šburden'. It is an obvious and parallel narrative that engages the reader's sympathy for innovation in poetry and for women writers who were incorporating those innovations into their work. Both stories appeared in The Canadian Magazine, a publication which billed itself as "The Family Magazine of Canada."

The manifest story-line of "Whimsey", titled after its central character and treating of a young, misunderstood woman who dies on the day her innovative verses are discovered, primes the reader's sympathies for the protagonist. At the same time, the characterization, plot and setting heighten the reader's awareness of and interest in contemporary issues in Canadian poetry. Whimsey is "a strange little person" who writes "new verses of her own and sets them to old tunes." In her, Bowman captures the tension, or as a reviewer of Frank Call's work says, the "schizophrenia," that is characteristic of much of the poetry being written by Bowman and her early modernist colleagues¨poetry that demonstrates the desire to experiment but a reluctance to toss out the old in favour of the new.

The only person who takes Whimsey seriously is her father who has a "scholarly stoop" and "dreamy, near-sighted eyes." He thinks of his daughter as "the rebirth of his own soul" and introduces her to all of the "old French and Italian forms of verse" by giving her pet-names such as Roundel, Villanelle, Triolet and Sestina. His favourite name for her is ŠLyric' but that is only used when they are in moments of their "most enchanting and complete isolation from Šthe others'." In other words, the Šnew' poetry, free verse that privileges rhythm over rhyme, still can only be enjoyed in secrecy. The character of the father, whose posture and ocular difficulties suggest a well-read intellectual, recalls Šold masters' who pass their high standards on to their disciples, knowing they will mold their own style from them. He tells his daughter:

You will never be an epic or an ode or a poetic drama, Whimsey, ... but some day you will write a lyric about white moth or brown bee or wind or moon ű and it will grow alive and sing in men's ears; ...

Whimsey was named by her mother, whom the author describes as "easily the reigning queen of the fine old town." She tells her friends that "Whimsey is a great disappointment to me. She is entirely her father's child..." Through the character of Mrs. Horton, the name she gives her daughter, and her attitude towards her, Bowman suggests that older women of her era are set in their traditional ways, unsupportive and dismissive of the modernist move to free verse and especially of the female poets who are part of that movement.

Leslie Edwards, a young professor and the catalyst in the story, represents modern, outward-looking poets. With his "scholar's stoop" and glasses, he is a younger version of her supportive father. He has just returned to Canada from China where he has been writing a book. This worldly, broad-minded imaginative character embodies the early modernists' awareness of and openness to contemporary trends in poetry elsewhere in the world. For Whimsey, Edwards is a soulmate, "the only person I have ever met who would understand."

The character of Edwards is also for Bowman the exemplary powerful male modernist who would promote the work of his female colleagues. After reading "two or three of the strange, elusive, haunting things" out loud, he is astonished and excited by their innovative form and content: "Let me find a publisher for these, as your father would have done," he tells her. "Listen ű I know modern poetry." Through Edwards, Bowman calls for successful male modernist poets to acknowledge and promote the poetry of their female counterparts as well as their own.

In addition to characterization in the story, Bowman conveys her message through plot. Whimsey's Šrescue' by and marriage to the "stout, middle-aged" Dickenson¨a nominal irony?¨keeps her locked in the traditional world and tied to a man whose house is empty of books. Edwards exhorts Dickenson to "give her a chance" and to "Let her live and find her own queer lonely kind for a bit." At the precise moment when Edwards realizes Dickenson's inability to understand or comply, Whimsey dies of a sudden heart-attack, an unfulfilled victim of life. The events suggest that there is no future for modernist writers, particularly female writers if, for whatever reason, they remain locked into the staid traditions of the past. Bowman is also suggesting that many traditionalists are, like Dickenson, helpless when confronted with the current innovations in poetry.

And finally, the setting in this story conveys the early modernist tension between tradition and innovation. Whimsey and her father live close enough to a major city to be aware of contemporary trends, but are not yet at the center of them. Dickenson takes his unusual wife to a traditional community of church-goers in Nova Scotia where he lives in his huge bookless house. Whimsey finds solace and stimulation in "the peaceful solitude and deep green gloom" of a "neglected, overgrown summer-house" where she writes and "croons her new verses."

Bowman's modernist cause is also apparent in "Gray Man and Red Bird", told from the view point of a lawyer listening to his client's confession of murder. An educated farmer for whom life has lost all of its colour has murdered the passionate modern girl he had fallen in love with simply because she wanted to return to the city. Here again, plot, setting and characterization¨the colour and modern material of the clothes the woman wears, her modern manner of speaking, the red maple tree she is compared to¨suggest the vulnerability of Canadian modernist female poets if they remain in the colourless, male-dominated world of traditional poetry. Perhaps we are justified in finding in this story a weird intimation of the tragedy of Pat Lowther.

In both of these short stories, Bowman complements a well-written narrative with robust authorial intention. At a time when any mention of an author's intention is met with a condescending smile, "Whimsey" and "Gray Man and Red Bird" are straightforward examples with which to argue the author's interpretive guidance in the text. More significantly, the stories demonstrate the degree of risk that Bowman was willing to take in her fiction on behalf of modernist trends in poetry. Her unique genre cross-over might today be considered a post-modernist technique. Looking back on Bowman's era, however, the content of these stories appears in stark contrast to that of others published in North America. D.C. Scott had his strange villages, Pickthall had her adventures, and Skinner had her American history. These are early twentieth century Canadian poets who, like Bowman, also published fiction. But only Bowman used her fiction as an advocate for modernism in Canadian poetry. ˛

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