On Milton Acorn
Poetry Is Dead is working with Geist magazine on the Jackpine Sonnet Contest. Milton Acorn, who coined the Jackpine Sonnet, has left behind him a legacy in form. Poetry Is Dead met up with Acorn’s longtime friend and fellow poet James Deahl to talk more about his work and what he left behind.
Poetry Is Dead: Where did you and Milton Acorn become acquainted, and how did each of you affect each other's poetry?
James Deahl: I met Milton in Toronto on November 25, 1972 at the “Revive the Spirit of ‘37” festival. A photograph of Milton Acorn and Cedric Smith performing at this festival is on the cover of The Island Means Minago. We were friends until Milton’s death in Charlottetown on August 20, 1986. From Milton I learned what it means to be a poet dedicated to the Muse or, as he would say, the Goddess. He illustrated in his life and work what is means to live a life in poetry.
I think he learned from me that a poet can have a life outside poetry.
PID: Can you recall how the jackpine sonnet came about?
JD: While Milton and I were friends for almost fourteen years, there was a period when we saw little of each other. This was because he was having psychological problems and I was coming to terms with the breakdown of my first marriage. At this time he developed his jackpine sonnet. I do know, however, that Milton was inspired by the irregular sonnets of Robert Lowell. Lowell had first published Notebook (later republished in two volumes as History and For Lizzie and Harriet) in 1970, which was followed by The Dolphin. These publications introduced the Lowellian sonnet to the world. Milton was quite impressed by this approach. Lowell described his new sonnet development as: “unrhymed, loose blank verse sonnets, a roomier stanza . . . It can say almost anything conversation or correspondence can.” Milton would agree. The difference is that Lowell varied the stresses in his line. Milton also varied the stresses in his line as well as the number of lines in his sonnet.
PID: From yours and Milton Acorn's past, there shows a lot of success in starting awards, organizations and print-based mediums. What was it like for Canadian (or in your case, American/Canadian) poets in the 70's to 80's?
JD: It was a richer, more exciting time during the 1970s and 1980s. When I moved to Canada in 1970, the giants of Canadian poetry — Kenneth Leslie (a great sonnet writer), Frank Scott, A.J.M. Smith, Ron Everson, Earle Birney, A.M. Klein, Dorothy Livesay, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Al Purdy, etc. — were still alive. I heard readings by most of them, and got to know poets like Birney, Livesay, Layton, and Purdy. And major trade publishers were issuing books by emerging poets. Doubleday, Macmillan, McClelland & Stewart, Oxford University Press, and Stoddart/General Publishing were all actively publishing Canadian poets. Now all are out of the poetry business entirely or only publishing authors they have already published. Today, there is no opportunity for a poet under the age of fifty to have a book with a major trade publisher.
Sales of poetry books both to libraries and to the public have fallen to very low levels. This is because the literary publishers cannot market nationally. As a direct result of this, poetry is much more regional these days. Aside from Ray Souster, Margaret Atwood, Pat Lane, and Joe Rosenblatt, there are no national poets.
Of course, I do not wish to disparage the literary press. Milton co-founded Steel Rail Educational Publishing while I co-founded Mekler & Deahl, Publishers. But these did not replace Stoddart/General, Doubleday, or Macmillan.
PID: The jackpine sonnet, turns form on it's head. Was this a playful action, or was this a comment on form poetry?
JD: Milton had always written sonnets, but they were formal, rhymed poems. And he continued to write formal sonnets until his death. Starting in the mid-1970s he also wrote Jackpine Sonnets. In this development, Milton wanted the sort of freedom Lowell spoke of.
In Milton’s view, as well as in mine, the Lowellian sonnet allowed Robert Lowell to address topics in a direct and, to a degree, non-poetic manner. Both Lowell’s sonnet and Acorn’s sonnet speak to the public in a way not common in their other poetry. If you consider Robert Lowell’s Poems (Faber and Faber, 1974) you will see a great change in the poetics when Notebook is published. The same is true of Milton’s work. After Jackpine Sonnets (Steel Rail, 1977), there is a very noticeable change.
This begs the question: Is this a change for the better or not? But that must be left to each individual reader. I would like to note that several Canadian poets, Jeff Seffinga, Mark Gordon, and myself among them, do write Jackpine Sonnets.
PID: From what I can gather (and from what poems I have read of yours and Milton Acorn's), there is a lot of playfulness in subject and theme. Was this a common occurrence in yours and Milton Acorn's poetry?
JD: While Milton is better known for his nature poetry, his political poetry, and his love poetry, he wrote many wonderful humorous poems. These are, in my opinion, undervalued. Milton and I shared an apartment for a couple of years prior to his return to Prince Edward Island. I can tell you he had a great sense of humour. It shows in his poetry.
PID: What are your thoughts on the Canadian landscape of poetry today? Has it changed? For the better or for the worse?
JD: As I have indicated, Canadian poetry is in poor shape these days. During the last half of the 20th century there were more major poets writing and reading all across Canada. There was more trade publishing. And, I would argue, there were more first rate magazines open to poetry, and not just literary magazines. The CBC had a program called “Anthology” — a lot was happening in the mass media. Not so long ago there was a lively national literature here. This was, of course, in addition to lively regional literatures. Very soon Canada will have no national literature because our national writers are seventy years old or older.
While Canada does have some very good poets, today we have no Milton Acorn, Dorothy Livesay, Al Purdy, or Irving Layton. I believe that we enjoyed a Golden Age of poetry from about 1960 to the turn of the century. The death of Purdy brought the curtain down on this era.
The fact is that regional poets and regional literary presses — as interesting and vital as they may be — cannot replace national poets and national publishers.
Like most Canadian writers, I hope for the best and await developments.
This story appears in Poetry Is Dead issue 1. If you like it online, you'll love it in print. Subscribe Now »