Reaney, James (Crerar)

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REANEY, James (Crerar)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: South Easthope, Ontario, 1 September 1926. Education: Elmhurst Public School, Easthope Township, Perth County; Central Collegiate Vocational Institute, Stratford, Ontario, 1939–44; University College, Toronto (Epstein award, 1948),B.A. 1948, M.A. 1949, graduate study, 1956–58, Ph.D. in English 1958. Family: Married Colleen Thibaudeau in 1951; two sons (one deceased) and one daughter. Career: Member of the English Department, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1949–56; professor of English, Middlesex College, University of Western Ontario, London, 1960–92. Founding editor, Alphabet magazine, London, 1960–71. Active in theater groups in Winnipeg and London; founder, Listeners Workshop, London, 1966. Awards: Governor-General's award for poetry, 1950, 1959, for drama, 1963; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1955, 1958; Massey award, 1960; Chalmers award, 1975, 1976. D.Litt.: Carleton University, Ottawa, 1975. Officer, Order of Canada, 1975. Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1978. Agent: Dean Cooke, 457A Danforth Avenue, Suite 201, Toronto, Ontario M4K 1P1, Canada. Address: Department of English, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario N6A 3K7, Canada.



The Red Heart. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1949.

A Suit of Nettles. Toronto, Macmillan, 1958.

Twelve Letters to a Small Town. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1962.

The Dance of Death at London, Ontario. London, Ontario, Alphabet, 1963.

Poems, edited by Germaine Warkentin. Toronto, New Press, 1972.

Selected Shorter [and Longer] Poems, edited by Germaine Warkentin. Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 2 vols., 1975–76.

Imprecations: The Art of Swearing. Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1984.

Performance Poems. Goderich, Ontario, Moonstone Press, 1990.


Night-Blooming Cereus music by John Beckwith (broadcast 1959; produced Toronto, 1960). Included in The Killdeer and Other Plays, 1962.

The Killdeer (produced Toronto, 1960; Glasgow, 1965). Included in The Killdeer and Other Plays, 1962; revised version (produced Vancouver, 1970), in Masks of Childhood, 1972.

One-Man Masque (also director: produced Toronto, 1960). Included in The Killdeer and Other Plays, 1962.

The Easter Egg (produced Hamilton, Ontario, 1962). Included in Masks of Childhood, 1972.

The Killdeer and Other Plays. Toronto, Macmillan, 1962.

The Sun and the Moon (produced London, Ontario, 1965). Included in The Killdeer and Other Plays, 1962.

Names and Nicknames (for children; produced Winnipeg, 1963).Rowayton, Connecticut, New Plays for Children, 1969.

Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Apple Butter, Little Red Riding Hood (puppet plays; also director: produced London, Ontario, 1965). Apple Butter included in Apple Butter and Other Plays, 1973.

Let's Make a Carol (for children), music by Alfred Kunz. Waterloo, Ontario, Waterloo Music, 1965.

Ignoramus (for children), produced London, Ontario, 1966). Included in Apple Butter and Other Plays, 1973.

Listen to the Wind (also director: produced London, Ontario, 1966).Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1972.

The Canada Tree (produced Morrison Island, Ontario, 1967).

Colours in the Dark (for children; produced Stratford, Ontario, 1967).Vancouver and Toronto, Talonbooks-Macmillan, 1970.

Geography Match (for children; produced London, 1967). Included in Apple Butter and Other Plays, 1973.

Three Desks (produced London, Ontario, 1967). Included in Masks of Childhood, 1972.

Don't Sell Mr. Aesop (produced London, Ontario, 1968).

Genesis (also director: produced London, Ontario, 1968).

Masque, with Ron Cameron (produced Toronto, 1972). Toronto, Simon and Pierre, 1974.

Masks of Childhood, edited by Brian Parker. Toronto, New Press, 1972.

All the Bees and All the Keys, music by John Beckwith (for children; produced Toronto, 1972). Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1976.

Apple Butter and Other Plays for Children. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1973.

The Donnellys: A Trilogy. Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1983. 1. Sticks and Stones (produced Toronto, 1973). Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1975. 2. The St. Nicholas Hotel (produced Toronto, 1974). Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1976. 3. Handcuffs (produced Toronto, 1975). Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1977. All included in The Donnellys, Vancouver, Beach Holme, 2000.

Baldoon, with C.H. Gervais (produced Toronto, 1976). Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1976.

The Dismissal; or, Twisted Beards and Tangled Whiskers (produced Toronto, 1977). Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1979.

The Death and Execution of Frank Halloway; or, The First Act of John Richardson's Wacousta (produced Timmins, Ontario, 1977). Published in Jubilee 4 (Wingham, Ontario), 1978; complete version, as Wacousta! (produced Toronto, 1978), Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1979.

At the Big Carwash (puppet play; produced Armstrong, British Columbia, 1979).

King Whistle! (produced Stratford, Ontario, 1979). Published in Brick 8 (Ilderton, Ontario), Winter 1980.

Antler River (produced London, Ontario, 1980).

Gyroscope (produced Toronto, 1981). Toronto, Playwrights, 1983.

The Shivaree (opera), music by John Beckwith (produced Toronto, 1982).

I the Parade (produced Waterloo, Ontario, 1982).

The Canadian Brothers, from a novel by John Richardson (produced Calgary, 1983). Published in Major Plays of the Canadian Theatre 1934–1984, edited by Richard Perkyns, Toronto, Irwin, 1984.

Crazy to Kill (detective opera), music by John Beckwith (produced Guelph, Ontario, 1989).

Serinette (opera), music by Harry Somers (produced Sharon, Ontario, 1990).

Sleigh without Bells (puppet play, produced London, Ontario, 1991).

Lewis Carroll's Alice through the Looking-Glass (produced Erin, Ontario, 1994).

The Donnellys. Vancouver, Beach Holme, 2000. Includes Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs. Originally published in 3 vols.

Radio Plays: Blooming Cereus, 1959; Wednesday's Child, 1962;Canada Dash, Canada Dot (3 parts), music by John Beckwith, 1965–67; The Story of the Gentle Rain Food Co-Op, 1998.


The Boy with an "R" in His Hand. Toronto, Macmillan, 1965.

14 Barrels from Sea to Sea. Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1977.

Take the Big Picture. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1986.

The Box Social and Other Stories. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1996.

Father Bought a Tollgate Company (for children). Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1998.


Manuscript Collections: University of Toronto; Toronto Public Library; University of Western Ontario.

Critical Studies: James Reaney by Alvin A. Lee, New York, Twayne, 1968; James Reaney by Ross G. Woodman, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1971; James Reaney by J. Stewart Reaney, Agincourt, Ontario, Gage, 1977; Approaches to the Work of James Reaney edited by Stan Dragland, Downsview, Ontario, ECW Press, 1983; "James Reaney and His work" by Richard Stingle, in Canadian Writers and Their Works, edited by Robert Lecker, Jack David, and Ellen Quigley, Toronto, ECW, 1990; in Biography & Autobiography: Essays on Irish and Canadian History and Literature by James Noonan, Ottawa, Carleton University Press, 1993; "Alchemy in Ontario: Reaney's "Twelve Letters to a Small Town'" by Wanda Campbell, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver), 151, winter 1996.

Theatrical Activities: Director: Plays —One-Man Masque, Toronto, 1960; Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Apple Butter, and Little Red Riding Hood, London, Ontario, 1965; Listen to the Wind, London, Ontario, 1966; Genesis, London, Ontario, 1968. Actor: Plays —in One-Man Masque, Toronto, 1960.

James Reaney comments:

Stratford Festival asked me to adapt Alice through the Looking Glass because other attempts had failed. Adaptors were not poets; I was. My starting out as a poet seems to have something to do with the theatrical and prose activities, as if, under the tutelage of my teacher Northrop Frye, I early realized that I could graduate from lyric poems to epos, poetry for public performance. My pursuit of metaphor with a communal effect has led me to teaching young people and children how to counter the materialism of our society with metaphor; whole schools learned to play chess because of my workshops with them about Alice last spring. Since most of my plays are strong on metaphors and choral work backed up by workshops with young people, I have watched my poetry change bodies and minds and characters. In effect, I am after the revival of what used to be called "faith"—the ability to hold an "impossible" thing in your soul and make it transport you to a higher level of consciousness. I admire the White Queen's telling Alice that you have to practice at believing impossible things—"I've believed as many as five before breakfast." I keep trying.

*  *  *

At the heart of James Reaney's writing is some good oldfashioned message making. This rural Ontario poet who found himself wowed by the critical ideas of Northrop Frye and the poetry of William Blake has always been intent on hammering home his own ideas, many of which revolve around gothic themes, victimization, death, ghosts, and human folly. But in some instances he simply invites the reader to accompany him as he delves into the power and even the curiosities and eccentricities of language and myth.

Such didacticism should not surprise anyone, considering this poet's own recognition that, above all else, he is a teacher. Indeed, after 1949 he made a career as a university teacher, first at the University of Manitoba and later at the University of Western Ontario. A colleague and writer, Stan Dragland, has written that "Reaney is always a teacher, whatever he's doing, whether lecturing, writing essays, poetry or plays, or conducting drama workshops … Education is one of his most important themes …" Reaney has underlined this in interviews. In one instance he remarked that "teaching is really first."

Hence, one need not look far, for the message is right there, often just in front of the reader and surprisingly obvious. So much so that it is often overlooked, causing one to feel a little foolish in not recognizing it right away. It is not that Reaney's work is complicated or convoluted; rather, it is deceptively simple. The tendency is for critics to reach beyond to grasp something remote. In truth, Reaney's writing is entirely straightforward, accessible, easy. He sees it that way, too, arguing that much of its strength is in its narrative quality. Where readers may stray into confusion is when they come up against the predominance of symbolism and allusion, something that Reaney is the first to acknowledge.

But the symbolism and allusions all serve Reaney's greater intentions. They are part of the whole vehicle, which is to teach, to disseminate a view of the world. In some instances the objective is to turn the imagination upside down, to transform people's ideas of life and language and history. Often it is simply to advance a new consciousness of one's own roots, and Reaney has consistently been an enthusiastic promoter of regional literature. For a brief time after he had shut down his literary magazine Alphabet, he put out the occasional literary newsletter called Halloween, in which he concentrated on "souwesto" literature, or writing from southwestern Ontario, the region in which he resides. Reaney's thinking has always been that, while the writing may seem limited and provincial, it in fact takes on grander universal proportions. At the same time, however, Reaney is not interested in bogging down the reader in elaborate patterns that make little sense, which is why he turns to storytelling, although not always in the conventional sense. For example, his early book A Suit of Nettles is a metrical masterpiece, taking as its model Spenser's The Shepheardes Calendar, but it is a poem with voices, allegorical in approach and drawing upon animals for its characters.

Reaney's "Great Lakes Suite" from The Red Heart, his first volume, which won top literary honors in Canada, is a marvelous work that also uses voices. Here, however, the voices are the chain of North American lakes themselves, as they boast to one another,

I am Lake Superior,
Cold and gray.
I have no superior;
All other lakes
Haven't got what it takes:
All are inferior.
I am Lake Superior.

Reaney's style in this volume and throughout his work is to search for an easy-to-grasp style that tells a story and shows rather than shouts. He himself has written about this, saying, "The simpler art is—the richer it is."

To this end Reaney draws upon the familiar, turning to childhood memories, emotions, and experiences and examining them in more than a sentimental manner. He searches for the universal. Occasionally, too, he polarizes events, sometimes for shock value. In "The School Globe" the poet returns to the memory of an old and faded globe used in his boyhood classroom. Holding the artifact from his youth, he muses,

Sometimes when I hold this
Wrecked blue cardboard pumpkin
I think: here in my hands
Rest the fair fields and lands
Of my childhood
Where still lie or still wander
Old games, tops and pets;
A house where I was little
And afraid to swear
Because God might hear...

But such memories turn sour at the end, as Reaney realizes that the "husk" of the world he clasps is better than the real world. The truth is that childhood was not kind. As he stands in the classroom, he writes,

if someone in authority
Were here, I'd say
Give me this old world back...
And I'll give you in exchange
The great sad real one
That's filled
Not with a child's remembered and pleasant skies
But with blood, pus, horror, death,
stepmothers, and lies.

Reaney's concern that poetry take the reader somewhere is evident in the various shifts he has made in his own style. For example, he moved from the highly structured A Suit of Nettles, a complex allegorical satire on Canadian life, to the much later emblematic poems, or what some might call "concrete poetry." In these latter works Reaney uses text and pictures to lead his reader closer to the themes he cares about.

But it is wrong to assume that it is only in these experimental pieces that Reaney demonstrates a more ebullient approach. For him the figurative representation takes over for the words, so that what dominates the works is simple iconography. What Reaney offers are

"emblems," or unsophisticated hand-drawn pictures, of rings of a felled tree or the image of the "windlady" in a funnel cloud or the plan of a Canadian farm.

The Canadian poet B.P. Nichol described this new consciousness in Reaney's writing as presenting "real objects in the real world." The concern for style and language is approached differently in a small book called Imprecations: The Art of Swearing. Here Reaney studies "cursing," describing it as "a lost skill." In it the poet begins with his childhood memories of what constituted swearing. He then turns to the act of trying his own hand at cursing, not so much in stringing together obscenities but rather in finding appropriate targets to lambaste. To the giant grocery chain that plans to build a major shopping plaza across the road from the Temple of the Children of Peace, he writes, "May you swallow a penny and pass a pound." To the minister of education who remarked that "poetry was optional" in schools, Reaney incants,

	...when the rebirth vats
Are wheeled out and you ask for a new body,
May the Great Par tmaker in the Garden of Adonis
Say as you ask, "What about an eye, got any eyes?"
"Eyes, Betty, Ears, Betty? Big toes, Betty?
We don't stock them anymore,
There's not the demand there once was.
  We've run out.
    They're optional."

In her introduction to Reaney's Poems, Germaine Warkentin says that the intention of so much of what the poet does is "to induce in his audience that act of the imagination which will make them reach from one to the other." This is evident as one sees how energetic he has been in moving people to action, both in his workshops and in his classes. It is all part of that authentic desire to teach the world, to make them appreciate its fundamentals, that poetry is or can be alive in everyone.

—Marty Gervais