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A Crystal City
by Don Nichol

THERE WERE at least two things that E. J. Pratt and James VI of Scotland had in common: both wrote on demonology (James a superstition?ridden book and Pratt an M.A. thesis) and both had to go to neighbouring countries to fulfil their callings. Neither returned to the land of his birth for any great length of time.

Like David Pitt's recent biography of Pratt, this new edition of his poetry ? E. J. Pratt Complete Poems comes in two hefty parts. It is especially welcome, as Pratt's works have been too long out of print; *and until now they have never been "complete." Pratt's Clay, for example, has been unearthed and included in an appendix for "Unpublished Drama."

At first glance EJPCP is an intermarine production: this easternmost poet from Western Bay, Newfoundland, published in Toronto, edited by two academics residing in Al?' berta and B.C. (although Gordon Moyles spent his earlier years on the Rock). The editorial committee and advisory board are made up of those who have kept Pratt's memory and poetry alive over the years: eminent editors (Frye, Pitt, Buitenhuis), bibliographers (Laakso, Lochhead), biographers, poets, all?round scholars and family (including Jay Macpherson, Claire Pratt, and Malcolm Ross). They must have decided at an early stage that a definitive edition of Pratt's poetical works could not be contained in a single volume. Part one opens with a sombre portrait of E.J.P. done by Barker Fairley, as it to counter the blast of blue and hovering of gulls on the dust jacket: The balance of intro ductory material, main text, and scholarly apparatus seems about right. 'Mere is a mixture of autonomy and overlap: both parts carry an index of titles to the whole; each part has its own list of textual variants, I emendations, and annotations; part. one has a pared?down biography while part two has a comprehensive primary bibliography.,

The introduction opens on a note of self?justification and need: E. J. Pratt is widely acknowledged as Canada's most influential modern poet, yet until now' we have lacked a complete text of his poems and much of the biographical and literary background helpful for a full understanding of his work.

That now now needs to be clarified: over a year has passed since the second and final volume of Pitt's biography, E.J. Pratt: the Master Years 1927?1964, was published by the same press. While Pitt's 1984 Truant Years is cited in the notes, the editors of Complete Poems were evidently unable to avail themselves of the complete biography.

The introduction strives to be scholarly without appearing stuffy; the first offset quotation from "Newfoundland" is soon followed by a verse from "Killigrew's Soiree." As a poet who liked to keep his feet fairly close to the ground, Pratt would no doubt have approved of such a juxtaposition',., But he might have. blinked at being described as "unfit for normal outport life." His family, as the story goes, arrived in St. John's on the day of the Great Fire, 8 July 1892, not in 1893.

A few pages later, in a list of poems indicating Pratt's rising reputation from the 1930s to the 1950s, the date of his 1935 epic, "Me Titanic," has been transposed to 1953. Some notes to the introduction are incomplete: a quotation from William Rose Benet's 1945 edition of the Collected Poems published by Knopf lacks full documentation. What is the page reference for Douglas Bush's 1922 letter to The Canadian Forum? While such small points are not likely to bother the lover of Pratt's poetry, who will find in Complete Poems a handsomely presented, uncluttered text, they nonetheless suggest a problem of all joint editorial efforts in that one editor might mistakenly assume that certain cracks have been filled in by another editor.

Line numbers are given throughout, which is generally a sound practice for future documenting; yet in prose passages such as the beginning of "The Midnight Revels as observed by the Shades" in The Witches' Brew the text threatens to run into the right?hand numerals. One more minor point (and this will be my last nitpick of this otherwise eminently gratifying edition): in such a commodious edition, is it too much to ask that major works like "Rachel," "The Cachalot," and "Me Titanic" begin on a fresh page?

But to quibble is not to condemn. Overall, Complete Poems is an admirable undertaking, rich in Pratt scholarship, the solid centrepiece of an in?progress monument to one of Canada's greatest poets. Biography and poetry will soon be joined by prose and correspondence. Not long ago in these pages, John Metcalf (in full demolition gear) argued that "We cannot build a literature on a foundation of lies. We must stop presenting E, J. Pratt, that composer of forced and trivial epics, as a great Canadian poet." (Excerpt, What is a Canadian Literature?, November 1988) Metcalf makes epics sound, well, fictitious. While Pratt's couplets are seldom as polished as those in Pope's forced and trivial mock?epics, he at least tries to paint in a poem like "The Titanic" the timeless nature of man and the sea in an aptly relentless metre.

Admittedly, "A Poem on the May Examination" has its clangers: "Indeed, the world in generations never brought about/Such, eras as came within those weeks, and then passed out." But then, in "Me Mirage" you get a gem like "A crystal city fashioned out of space." At his best, Pratt could rival imbibers of honeydew.


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