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Vehement Radical Obfuscation: The Political Poems of Milton Acorn
by Shane Neilson

Despite occupying the highest echelons of Canadian poetry during his lifetime, Milton Acorn's name dimmed after his death in 1986. A disconcerting stretch of time elapsed during which no selected volume of his poems existed in print. The Shout-Out Love voice of Acorn was to be quiet for almost a decade until the reprinting of McClelland & Stewart's Dig Up My Heart in 1994. Chris Gudgeon's Out of this World: The Natural History of Milton Acorn, appearing in 1996, inaugurated a flurry of works about the great poet. Out of this World was soon followed by Richard Lemm's In Love and Anger (1999) and Terry Barker's Acorn Revisited (2000). Each of these books was a biographical-critical hybrid, and each contained various amounts of Acorn's own work. Yet there was an unmistakable survey-like feel to these volumes. Gudgeon's was the most superficial, his treatment of Acorn's history vignettish, more the product of anecdote than synthesis, and his selection of Acorn's poetry idiosyncratic and unrepresentative of the Acorn oeuvre. Lemm wrote wonderfully about parts of Acorn's life but inexplicably left out the story of his career in the West, preferring to focus on Acorn's Toronto, Montreal, and Charlottetown dealings. Lemm's use of Acorn's poetry was scarce¨for a critical biography, the book was short on criticism. Barker's venture did the opposite, forsaking coherence for criticism and supplying a bevy of sonorisms in place of the story of the man.
Acorn was always difficult and troublesome¨a blustery, conversationally aggressive, politically charged man. He suffered from alcoholism and mental illness at points in his life, and his outer visage reflected his inner personality (Purdy once memorably described Acorn's face as a "red fire hydrant", and his general features as "those of a Neanderthal Man, the way you imagine that extinct humanoid.") A 1984 documentary by the National Film Board, also titled In Love and Anger, portrays an unstable man huffing and puffing, ruddy and uncompromising. Acorn had a very big presence¨and people were wary of him when he was in the room. But that's one version of Acorn. The other version¨espoused by a legion of poets who benefited from his direct tutelage¨has it that Acorn was a powerful man with a big heart, uncommonly generous with his time to apprentice poets, and acutely concerned with social causes. Acorn was, as the best poets often are, a force of personality. This personality regularly forced people to regard him in one of two ways, a circumstance that must have appealed to his dialectical philosophy.
Acorn's other self wrote, in my opinion, the best stanza ever composed in the abbreviated annals of Canadian poetry. It's taken from "I've Tasted My Blood":
If this brain's over-tempered
consider that the fire was want
and the hammers were fists.
I've tasted my blood too much
to love what I was born to.

Every time I return to these lines, I'm galvanized by their pure poetic steel; this is a stanza of controlled violence ("the hammers were fists", "I've tasted my blood too much"), of unequivocal defiance ("consider that the fire was want"). It is also uncompromisingly beautiful. As his best known and most-anthologized poem, it's also the most surprising: "I've Tasted My Blood" is among the small number of meritorious political poems Acorn ever wrote. The remainder¨and there are reams¨were awful polemics.
I return to Acorn's personality, from which his political sensibility (I hesitate to write the word 'sense') sprang. As an emotionally labile, voluble, and sometimes unstable person, Acorn's politics were necessarily unintelligible. In general, Acorn was a benign muddle of ideas about nationalism and socialism with an interest in dialectical materialism. This is to grossly oversimplify and to exclude a million nuances about his thinking and character. Nonetheless, by adding the refracting prism of drunkenness to the mix, one could legitimately describe Acorn's political stance as radical obfuscation.
Or, vehement radical obfuscation. For anyone willing¨or unwilling, for that matter¨to listen to his tirades and shouting matches, Acorn expounded at length his philosophical views. Those who agreed with him described these sessions as "wonderful conversations." Those who didn't felt Acorn was a scary bully willing to win by means of escalating decibel.
It's this aspect of Acorn that injects some tragedy into both his regular and artistic life, for as Acorn began to develop politically, he began to mythologize his origins, refashioning them to suit his newfound identity as a socialist champion. In so doing, he sequestered his poet self from much of the raw material fuelling his best poems. This self-deception began to affect his artistic functioning. As Acorn's political self began to revise his earlier life¨Acorn once falsely described his initial emigration from PEI as a reaction to anti-union sentiment on the Island in the 1940's¨it also unhappily began to seize his career as a poet. Acorn is best as a romantic poet. "The Island" and "The Trout Pond" are perfect examples of Acorn's dual strengths: elegy and pastoral poetry. Here's Acorn in his pastoral prime with an excerpt from his classic "The Island":
Nowhere that plough-cut worms
heal themselves in red loam;
spruces squat, skirts in sand;
or the stones of a river rattle its dark
tunnel under the elms,
is there a spot not measured by hands;
no direction I couldn't walk
to the wave-lined edge of home.

Equally beautiful is "The Trout Pond", a short poem dedicated to his dead father. Note the supple shift in images and the quiet grace of the poet's remembrance in the poem's last two verses:
My father's whiteheaded now,
but oars whose tug
used to start my tendons
pull easily these years.

His line curls, his troutfly drops
as if on its own wings,
marks a vee on the mirrored
ragged spruceheads, and
a crane flapping past clouds.

By contrast, Acorn's overtly political poems are almost exclusively third-rate, the politicking of a brute sloganeer prone to pummelling opponents with his placards. No sweet-tongued pamphleteer was Acorn. Consider his subtly composed and nursery-schoolish "To a Goddam Boss":
You proffered me soft compliments when my hand was out for cash...
After all, the workers' due ... We can't live on air.
Then you looked at me with a musing stare
Saying, "Milt, why be so rash?
This world's not going to crash.
Why not stick to your lovely love poems
Which would be welcome in the proudest homes?

Ah, Milt. Why indeed be so rash, so prone to write poems that crash, that infuse a verse-averse stridency to your half-baked craft? Al Purdy served as Acorn's editor for his two best poetry collections, and he expressed the unfortunate tendency of his friend best in Moment, the little mimeographed magazine he ran along with Acorn:

In the pieces expressing social rage and political views there is a school-masterish talking down, inflexible opinion, ponderous vehicular movement of ideas seemingly concerned to roll over and crush the unwary reader with slow page-turning reflexes. Any allusiveness on Acorn's part has such strongly implied meaning and intention that delicacy is an accidental byproduct; his metaphors are weapons that crush; his images, birds that are likely to shit copiously on the reader¨the one with the slow page-turning reflexes.
Purdy has also acknowledged that Acorn was important to his own development as a poet. "I learned from him both how to write and how not to write. (Very few people can teach you opposite things at the same time.)" Acorn's negative example originated from the outright odiousness of his polemics. As Acorn became more of a political animal, joining the roster of the Canadian Liberation Movement, he became more inclined to write preachy doggerel and less disposed to rely on his lyrical strengths. In the first phase of his career, Acorn could write pastoral or "landscape" poems without concretely invoking the political realm. But in the second phase, politics infected even his nature-based poems, and he began to write strange chimeras: poems that had the diction of lyric but the taint of tract. In small way, I'd like to give his messy and vitriolic spirit the final word by concluding with an excerpt from "The Canada Goose Review." I've taken this poem from an old Tamarack Review I discovered in a Halifax antiquarian bookshop. Published in the second quarter of 1971, it's a good bet that Acorn had faced a good many rejections from the editor, Robert Fulford, in the past¨ there's little doubt as to the identity of the poem's stated object of hatred. (To Fulford's credit, he published the poem anyway.) The poem begins:
I pronounce a serventes against The Canada Goose Review
Who's turned down by (sic) loveliest poems
But why should I condemn those people?
Since they know and I know
That my beauty's a gun aimed at their ugly hearts?
The bread of hate: the cheese of disgust
Are what I eat for breakfast; and in my morning walk
My footsteps beat out time to a litany of curses.
Are humans all really of one species?
Genetically perhaps ű But the definer of the human soul is in the mind.
Most of us are good or try to be
But there are men viler than the fiends of Hell.

An editor of The Canada Goose Review
Rises through life by spiral motion
Up the tunnel to Lucifer's bowels.
His nose ploughs lovingly through the bleeding piles;
His tongue drools out and every crumb of the
million and fifty-seven varieties
Of Satanic merde he encounters he licks up as a duty.

The word etcetera was meant for the polemical Acorn; once he got going, you couldn't stop him, and the poem continues the nonsensical attack in its many succeeding verses. Take that, editor.

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