Meyer, Bruce 1957-
MEYER, Bruce 1957-
Born April 23, 1957, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; son of George Homer and Margaret Ann (Miller) Meyer; married Kerry Johnston (a journalist), May 21, 1994; children: Kathleen Charlotte. Education: Victoria College at the University of Toronto, B.A., 1980, M.A., 1982; McMaster University, Ph.D., 1988; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of America, Certificate of Postdoctoral Research, 1990.
Home—40 Hopedale Ave., Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4K 3M7. Office—Laurentian University Program, IUPAS, Georgian College, One Georgian Dr., Barrie, Ontario, Canada L4M 3X9; University of Toronto, St. Michael's College Continuing Education Program, 81 St. Mary's Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1J4. E-mail—[email protected]
Educator, broadcaster, critic, and poet. University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, teaching assistant, 1982-83, instructor, 1991-2003, director of writing and literature program, 1997-2003, special instructor, 2003—; McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, teaching assistant, 1985-87, instructor, 1987-88; University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, assistant professor, 1990-91, professor, 1993-96; Humber College, Toronto, instructor 1992; Seneca College, Ontario, instructor, 1992-97; Laurentian University, Georgian College, Barrie, Ontario, professor, 2003—. Writer-in-residence at University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, 1998; and University of Texas, Austin, 1999. Special instructor and visiting lecturer at numerous colleges and educational institutions in Canada and the United States. Commentator, with Michael Enright, for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program "Great Books," on program This Morning.
E. J. Pratt Gold Medal and Prize for Poetry, University of Toronto, 1980, 1981; Alta Lind Cook Award for Writing, University of Toronto, 1981, 1982; Ontario Arts Council literary grant, 1987; Ontario Arts Council grant for poetry, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995; Excellence in Teaching Award, University of Toronto, 1996; Ruth Cable Memorial Prize for Poetry, 1997; Ontario Arts Council writers' reserve grant, 2003; Word Press Prize for Poetry, 2004, for Oceans.
The Tongues between Us (chapbook), SWOP Press (London, England), 1982.
The Aging of America (chapbook), Aloysius Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1983.
(With James Deahl and Gilda Mekler) Steel Valley (chapbook), Aureole Point Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984.
The Open Room, Black Moss Press (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), 1989.
Radio Silence, Black Moss Press (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
The Presence, Black Moss Press (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
Anywhere, Exile Editions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
The Spirit Bride, Exile Editions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Oceans, Exile Editions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2004, Word Press (Cincinnati, OH), 2005.
(Editor with James Deahl) Poetry Markets for Canadians, League of Canadian Poets (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1983, revised edition, 1987.
(With Brian O'Riordan) In Their Words: Interviews with Fourteen Canadian Writers, House of Anansi Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984.
Arrivals: Canadian Poetry in the Eighties, Greenfield Review Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Profiles in Canadian Literature: Leonard Cohen, Dundurn Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1986.
(Editor with Barry Callaghan) The Selected Poems of Frank Prewett, Exile Editions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1987.
(Editor with Carolyn Meyer) Separate Islands: Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1988.
Profiles in Canadian Literature: Robert Service, Dundurn Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1991.
Profiles in Canadian Literature: Frank Prewett, Dundurn Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1991.
(With Brian O'Riordan) Lives and Works: Interviews with Canadian Writers, Black Moss Press (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), 1991.
(Editor and author of introduction) Swimming in the Afternoon: The Selected Poems of Peter Stevens, 1992.
Goodbye Mr. Spalding (short stories), Black Moss Press (Windsor, Ontario, Canada), 1996.
(Editor) The Stories: Contemporary Short Fiction of the English Language, Prentice Hall Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
The Golden Thread: A Reader's Journey through the Great Books, HarperCollins (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
(Editor with Barry Callaghan) We Wasn't Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War, Exile Editions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
(With sister, Carolyn Meyer) The Reader: Contemporary Essays and Writing Strategies, Prentice Hall Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
(Editor with Jonathan N. Barron) Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 282: New Formalist Poets, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Flights: Five Stories, KCLF-21 Press (Willowdale, Ontario, Canada), 2004.
Also contributor of articles and poems to numerous journals and magazines. Contributing editor, Edge City Review and Variety Crossings.
Poet and educator Bruce Meyer is considered "the chief Canadian champion of New Formalism," according to T. L. Ponick and F. S. Ponick, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "having aligned himself with the movement since the late 1980s. Meyer is also one of the few New Formalists with a firm grounding in the tradition of the English lyric and he has relied upon this background to break the mold of what Canadian poetry had been in the latter half of the twentieth century." A professor and published poet as well as the author of a collection of short stories and numerous critical analyses, Meyer is known for his verses that exude the "Canadian identity and experience, history, storytelling, family, love, the play of form, and playfulness with form," as the Ponicks noted.
Born in Toronto, Meyer taught himself to read at a young age and was influenced by the poetry of Robert Service and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom his maternal grandparents greatly revered. He carried this early love of literature with him and, enrolling in college, majored in English and Renaissance studies. Meyer studied under Northrop Frye, one of the leading literary scholars and critics of Canada, and earned his doctorate in 1988. By this time he had already published several short volumes of poetry, including The Aging of America, The Tongues between Us, and The Open Room, his first full-length collection of poems. During this same time he was also creating critical studies and collections of interviews of writers. His Lives and Works, with Brian O'Riordan, gathers the comments of numerous Canadian writers, while works such as Profiles in Canadian Literature examine the writings of Leonard Cohen, Service, and Frank Prewett. In Arrivals Meyer focuses on the poetry of Canada during the 1980s, whereas in Separate Islands he contrasts British and Irish poetry.
Meyer's 1992 poetry collection, Radio Silence, includes the poems "Road Hockey" and "The Death of Grass." As the Ponicks noted, the title of the collection, "with its strong allusion to protective measures undertaken during both world wars, is also meant by the poet as an ironic reference to his countrymen who live in a twilight zone, lacking a national identity and fearing to discover one." According to the same writers, Meyer is making a statement with this work, "declaring in each poem his clean break with the tired literary Modernism of Canada." Reviewing the collection in Books in Canada, George E. Clarke felt that Meyer was, with his interest in form and with his deep knowledge of English poetry, "well-positioned to achieve greatness." However, Clarke felt that in Radio Silence Meyer's "discipline too often results in bondage." Still, Clarke found sufficient "sustained lyrical episodes … to represent promise blossoming into near perfection."
Meyer diverted from his usual genre with his 1995 title, Goodbye Mr. Spalding, a book of short stories focusing on baseball themes. Here he still indulges in versification, with an opening prose poem, "Horse Driving." In the story "Sunlight Park" Meyer engages in historical speculation about a long-forgotten Toronto ballpark and a Canadian baseball hero of the nineteenth century, Ned "Cannonball" Crane. For Russell Field, writing in Books in Canada, "the strength of this collection lies in the stories' essential foundation—the creativity that spawned their combination of fact and fiction—rather than in their execution." Field went on to conclude that the story collection "is a welcome sanctuary for winter-weary baseball fans."
The versatile Meyer is also a prominent commentator on literature. Taking part in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series "Great Books," televised on This Morning, he has helped explicate the works of writers from Homer to Dante, Shakespeare, and James Joyce. Reviewing the audiocassette of the programs in Library Journal, Harriet Edwards found them to be "entertaining and thought-provoking and accessible."
Meyer has written further critical works including The Golden Thread: A Reader's Journey through the Great Books and We Wasn't Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War. Much of The Golden Thread grew out of Meyer's work on This Morning, though in the book, he is able to expand more thoroughly on his ideas about Great Books. Going chronologically through canonical works from Homer through Hemingway, Meyer examines each work individually, focusing on how these works have shaped Western thought. Daniel Brandes, writing for National Post complimented Meyer for treating "classics in a humanizing and interesting way.… Meyer's commentaries are uniformly articulate, interesting, and entertaining." Reviewing We Wasn't Pals in Canadian Literature, Susan Fisher found that "there is good material here—good either in the sense of literary merit or in the sense of primary evidence of that mythic war." However, Fisher also thought that the work "could have been much more useful" with inclusion of the favorite poems of Canadians at the time. Still, the same reviewer praised the editors for "rescuing" certain poems and poets of the time from oblivion.
The winner of numerous prizes, Meyer is also the author of the poetry collections The Presence, Anywhere, The Spirit Bride, and Oceans, and is as prominent in the United States as he is in Canada for his formalist work.
Meyer once told CA: "I grew up in a household where books, particularly poetry books, were on all the shelves. They were like tools and wood in a carpenter's house. My mother read me Wordsworth every afternoon, which I loved. My grandmother was a Longfellow fan, and my grandfather adored Robert Service. My childhood books were all in poetry. I grew up loving the movement within what we said, the spirit of music and the inexplicability of cadence. I taught myself to read and write when I was four and wrote my first poem at the age of six. I was published by the age of twelve. It took me longer to get my first book, but that was a failure of publishers and not a shortcoming of the author.
"I write about things I love. I write very quickly, which is probably not a good idea, but then sometimes the things one loves are fleeting, like the moment a butterfly lights on your nose or a beautiful snowflake falls on your sleeve. I write about home and I try to find the passion in the present and the presence. Poetry I write by hand, prose I write on my computer. I usually start with an image or a good statement in poetry, and then I find the form for the feeling such an experience has evoked. Chaos has to be given shape if it is to be worthy of the expenditure of breath we give it. Prose is different. Prose starts with an idea and I have to reason it through, see where it will logically conclude or where it will take me. I work in both mediums because doing both requires that I use both parts of my brain—the logical and the metaphorical. Every line I write I rewrite to see if it can be something more, to see what possibilities lie within the statement or the idea. Writing is not merely saying something but finding possibilities in what you say and playing with those until they reveal their secrets. Every idea is really a puzzle waiting to be solved.
"I'm always looking for stories. I'm a sponge for them. I'm always on the verge of experiencing something new, even in the daily life of my family or in familiar knowledge. I love form in poetry. I love imagery in prose, and I love the ability to make language stand on its head to show me something I haven't seen before. I'd say the big driver behind my work is love: love of my family, of ideas, of what I don't know or haven't seen before. I'm in love with possibilities and with the process of making possibilities happen for others. I have learned the escape from linearity. Also, the ability to see the obvious especially when it is hiding in plain sight.
"Having books is like having a large family. You don't want the ones who aren't in your will to know you've left them out. I loved writing The Golden Thread: A Reader's Journey through the Great Books, but it made me no money and I ended up paying the permissions for the artwork. I love writing poetry, but it makes me not a single cent. Stories are fun, but there's more fun in writing them than in living with them as if they are failed lovers who still hang around. Writing books is like having a good marriage. It is rewarding as long as you keep working at it and lose yourself in the words. I've had entire printings of books lost by distributors. I've had entire editions burned by shippers. I've learned to accept that the art of making the book is the best thing about writing. My favorite book is usually the one I'm working on at the moment, and I always have five books in progress. That way I learn to spread the love around. Once they're published, they're somebody else's business and I don't want to know what's become of them. It is too painful to find out.
"I hope people will learn what it is to be human. We don't write enough about the beauty of our own frail humanity, the brilliant little segue of light and spirit between the self and the soul, the depth and awe of something greater that lies within us. Knowledge is only a means to an end, but if I can teach someone something new then I've shown them the way to the only bridge across the chasm."
Bruce Meyer contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
Writers are people who have been given an extra pair of eyes. Life gives the writer a second vision. What one sees with that vision is often hard to communicate—that's where the craft enters the picture. I have spent my working life as a writer learning as much as I can about my art, whether that learning has come in my exploration of the Great Books, in my pursuit of the poetics of the New Formalism, or in my quest to retrieve the history that continually vanishes from my reach like a shade receding into the depths. It is pure hard work to give voice to a world one is seeing for the first time. As a writer, I am dedicated to persevering until I have articulated what my second pair of eyes has seen.
The World War I Canadian poet, Frank Prewett, whose Selected Poems I co-edited with Barry Callaghan, believed that he had been reborn in the trenches of the Western Front. He declared that the twice-born never really die. He did, of course, pass away, but he left a unique body of poetry that spoke to me when I discovered it in attic trunks and library manuscript boxes, and that continues to have a life. I would like to believe that words not only live on after one has gone the way of the flesh, but that words sustain one in this life with a kind of nourishment and hunger that represents not only a second vision but a second life. To keep writing is to keep living in more than the actual sense. I once knew a famous, elderly Canadian writer who had achieved international renown as a master of the short story. When I asked him one evening what he was working on at the moment, he raged at me. "Can't you leave an old man alone? Do I always have to be writing something?" At that point, I knew he was done for. He died a few months later. To write is to live.
For me, writing, and writing poetry in particular, is a kind of homage to life, a way of honoring what one has seen, loved, experienced, feared, challenged, struggled with, learned, avoided, and above all praised. I can see myself in my work because, as a writer and a critic, I have had the experience of writing not just from the privilege of knowledge, but from the privilege of curiosity. Like looking through a glass darkly, what I see in examination of my work and my life is not myself but the image I have created of myself, and that leaves me with more questions than I can possibly answer here. The answer will likely come in the form of things I want to write or that I have yet to discover that I want to create. That process may take years, but I welcome them because they will be productive years.
As a sort of credo, I love the lines by American poet Jack Gilbert who has written that courage is not the absurd act or even the sudden flash of success that often passes through an author's experience. Courage, rather, is what Gilbert calls a continuing excellence of sustained effort. At this point in my life, I have written twenty-three books, and have about five more on the way, and about twenty more in my head. I feel as if I am standing in the middle of a river and the words are rushing about my ankles, preparing to sweep me away if I do not keep a tight enough grip with my feet planted firmly on the bedrock. I have had a life as a writer that has been successful in that I have been given the opportunities, sometimes without alternative, to look at things from a different perspective. Necessity has been the mother of creativity. There have always been those who were willing to listen to what I had to say and support the possibility of enabling my words to enter the world. There have been good angels who have come to my assistance whenever things started to grow bleak and whenever I needed someone to teach me how to have a better pair of second eyes.
My first book of poems, The Open Room (1989), was enabled into being by the work of several good angels. My manuscript had been rejected over a hundred times. There had been two phantom books: Yesterday Was Summer that was to have been published in Chicago, and Duchess Street that was set to come out from a press in Montreal. In the case of the Chicago press, I withdrew the manuscript when they wanted me to assign copyright to the press rather than register it in my name. A writer must own his own work. In the case of the Montreal press, the publisher went bankrupt.
I wrote to a writer I had met through a mutual acquaintance, the Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard. I was feeling quite despairing that my work would never make it into a book form—and I was quite young and impatient at the time. I had been told by various writers-in-residence at various universities that I should write like this writer or that writer. The fact is that a writer, especially a poet, must write like himself. If he is rejected it is because what he is saying is either totally bad or totally fresh. I believed that what I had to say and the way I said it had not been heard. Howard agreed when he wrote back to me. "There is no right way or wrong way, there is only your way," he said with a note of tremendous truth that lifted a great weight off my shoulders. He then suggested that I try taking my poems apart and putting them back together again using meter, rhyme and form. This was in 1985. I took him at his word. Coincidentally, he said almost the same thing to several other poets who were also struggling at that time, among them two of my compatriots whose work I most admire: Dana Gioia and Molly Peacock.
Several years passed. Unbeknownst to me, another friend, the poet James Deahl, sent my manuscript to Gwendolyn MacEwen. To my surprise, MacEwen telephoned me on what would turn out to be her last Boxing Day. "I spent all Christmas reading your manuscript," she said confidently, "and I love it so much I'm going to send it to one of my publishers, Marty Gervais at Black Moss Press." Months went by and I heard nothing. A week to the day after MacEwen passed away, I received the acceptance letter for The Open Room and my work appeared in its first book form. I dedicated The Open Room to MacEwen, and have a poem in there for her, "The White Flower," which opens with a line about the loneliness of an island that the ships pass by day after day.
What MacEwen taught me was to have empathy for what I might see in the world. Only through that empathy would I learn to see the world in a different way. She often said, during our conversations over tea in her little row house in Toronto's South Annex, that the ability to see the exotic in the present was the poet's greatest gift. She taught me to look beneath the snow, the city, the bare trees in a desperate winter, to see something truly remarkable—the possibility of life that was ready to leap forth whenever the chance presented itself.
My first book of poems had a peculiar impact on the path my life would take over the next decade. When the book was published, the distributor, Firefly Books, mentioned in a press release that I was the first Canadian New Formalist poet. This was news to me. I had taken Richard Howard's advice, but had no idea that he had given the same counsel to other poets, chiefly a group in New York City that included Gioia, Frederick Turner, Timothy Steele and Charles Martin. Gioia's serial publication of Can Poetry Matter? in the Atlantic Monthly had sparked a furious debate about the nature of contemporary poetry in the English language. Unbeknownst to me, I was drawn into the debate. My friend, James Deahl, sent a copy of The Open Room and my second book, Radio Silence to Gioia early in 1993. To my surprise, I received a very enthusiastic letter from Gioia, and wrote back to him, but did not take up his invitation to attend a new workshop/conference at West Chester University that he said he was starting.
At the time, I was teaching part-time and the University of Toronto and simply didn't have the money to attend such events. I learned later that had I gone to the first West Chester Conference I would likely have been included in Jarman and McDowell's landmark anthology, Rebel Angels: Twenty-five Poets of the New Formalism. When Rebel Angels did appear in 1997 to a thunderous reception in the United States, I was invited by CBC Radio's Sunday Morning to appear as the Canadian content for a broadcast on the subject of the anthology. On the broadcast I was joined by Molly Peacock and Sam (R. S.) Gwynn. Peacock phoned me the evening prior to the recording of the segment and we talked for several hours about our passions: poetry, books and gardening. It was the start of a long friendship with Molly Peacock, a generous poet who eventually served as the editor for my fourth book of poems, Anywhere. Peacock also gave me Gioia's phone number and persuaded me to attend the next West Chester Conference.
My involvement with West Chester and the New Formalists had an immediate impact on my poetry and my critical work. At the conference I studied with Alfred Corn who taught me a new kind of precision in poetry. My previous experience to intensive prosodic instruction had come in England in the 1980s when I had struck up a friendship with British poet, translator, and editor Peter Dale, then of Agenda. At West Chester, Peacock also worked with me, and I became friends with David Mason, Sam Gwynn, Charles Martin and many others. But it was my friendship with Dana Gioia that was one of the long-lasting results of my contact with West Chester and the New Formalists. Over the years, as we both suffered from insomnia, we would spend many hours, cross-continent, on the telephone, discussing everything from the finances of publishing to Dante.
The other result of my attendance at the conference was that I was asked to co-edit the Dictionary of Literary Biography volume on the New Formalists with Professor Jonathan Barron of the University of Southern Mississippi. The most recent impact of my contact with the New Formalists came in March 2005 when the first Canadian anthology of formal poetry, In Fine Form, was published by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve. I often tell my students that the words they write now may have an impact on their own ideas and the ideas of others, although it may take several decades before the full extent of what one does is recognized. I am pleased that In Fine Form has made a recognized niche for formal poetry in Canada.
The Open Room, a book that was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award in Canada, also contained a poem for my longtime friend and mentor, David Wevill. Wevill was someone I had sought out as an undergrad. A group of us that included Richard Harrison, Jeffery Donaldson, James Deahl, and Pier Giorgio Di Cicco would gather at a pub just off the campus and over beers read each other our latest poems and poetic discoveries. It was a process of mutual education where we tried to stuff our need for language and poetry that even one of the greatest universities in North America could not satisfy. One night, Deahl came in with a copy of A. Alvarez' New Poetry anthology from 1965 and said "There's a Canadian in there." The poem that I read was "Birth of a Shark," written by Wevill when he was a young poet and a member of the Group in England during the early sixties.
I decided I had to find this Canadian poet. Years passed as I traipsed all over England while working on my thesis. Many of the English poets I met suspected that Wevill was either dead or had stopped writing poetry entirely. As luck would have it, Donaldson was passing through the English Department's offices at the University of Texas and just happened to spot Wevill's name on a door. He knocked and informed the startled professor that there was a Canadian who had been searching England and Spain for him. I eventually edited Wevill's selected poems, Other Names for the Heart in 1986—a project that led to my long association with Barry Callaghan and Exile Editions. I visited Wevill in Texas in the heat of a stifling August in 1987. What he shared with me and what he gave me was not only his profound love of jazz, but also his sense of the poem as a statement of emotional empathy. Wevill taught me that the poem could be a moment in which one could peer into the recesses of one's own soul and find in its dark corners the hidden truth that fears to enter the daylight.
When I looked at my work in book form for the first time, there was the sense that I had become someone else, that a new life of my own had emerged in my words. The Irish poet John Montague, with whom I spent a lively morning at Barry Callaghan's home following the publication of The Open Room, said, "In six months you'll hate that first book." I looked at him strangely. "Ah, you will, you will," he said, "and then you'll write the next one." There was the voice, uncertain and undeveloped as it was at the time that suggested I had grown into a new life that I had sought simply through the joy of wanting to celebrate the things I loved. As I look back over my six collections of poetry and the seventh that is currently in manuscript form, I witness changes, evolutions, a deepening of both voice and idea. But no benchmark in any of my books leaves me with the satisfaction that I have reached the top of the mountain. In fact, the moment I have that feeling will likely be the moment I can no longer write. A writer must pursue constant reinvention and move forward, either driven like Dante by an internal terza rima of the soul or onward like a shark that must continue to move forward if he is to breathe.
As for my long friendship and work with Barry Callaghan, I can only say that few writers and friends have had as great an impact on me. After meeting Barry through my work on Wevill's poetry, we struck up a friendship—a meeting of minds unique in Canadian literature because we seem to have arrived at the same place many times from very different directions. In December 1996, I received a telephone call from Barry to tell me of the success of Wevill's book. As an afterthought, when I mentioned that I would be returning to England, Callaghan asked me if I would be willing to do some research for him while I was overseas. I agreed, and when we met one snowy winter morning over glasses of slivovitz, he passed me a Xerox of a book Robert Graves had produced in 1964. The book was the Collected Poems of Frank Prewett. During Callaghan's honeymoon in Deya in 1968, Graves had mentioned his "Canadian friend, a very fine poet." Callaghan wanted to find out more about this mysterious, missing voice from the Canadian canon. His research had hit a dead end.
I followed the trail of clues Graves provided in his introduction to Prewett's book, and soon discovered that Graves had almost every fact wrong, except the one I started with. In the basement of Christchurch College, Oxford, with the famed bibliographer John Wing at my elbow, I opened a trunk containing some relics from an Oxford tutor who had died in the late twenties. In his college manifest for the Michaelmas term of 1918, the tutor had written beside Prewett's name the words "Canada: nerves: spine: piano." Starting from this faint clue, I unraveled one of the great mysteries and missing links in Canadian literature.
Prewett was a World War I Canadian soldier who transferred to the Royal Artillery and was wounded and shell-shocked in early 1918. During his convalescence under the care of the famous anthropologist/doctor W. H. R. Rivers, Prewett met Siegfried Sassoon, who introduced the Canadian to the pantheon of early modernists that formed both the Bloomsbury and the Garsington groups. Virginia Woolf wrote to Lytton Stratchey that she thought Prewett would become one the great poets of the twentieth century. Prewett was present when Yeats and Eliot met at Garsington with Pound and the woman who would become Prewett's lover, the indomitable Lady Ottoline Morrell. Harold Munro included Prewett's work in the Georgian poetry anthology of 1922, an honor that had been denied Robert Frost. Wilfred Owen mentioned him in his last letter to Sassoon.
After searching for Prewett's works in England, I returned to Canada where, between intense periods of thesis writing, I pursued my search. I found Prewett's son in Swaziland, via Thailand, and he pointed me to various friends of his father's. After doing a manuscript search in North America and learning that there were several unopened boxes at the University of Texas, I called David Wevill and asked him to see if the actual holdings were worth a trip to Austin. Wevill called back the next evening and said, "You'd better get down here, you've hit the mother lode." Among the pieces I discovered was a poem, "The Card Game," that Oxford professor of poetry James Fenton later called "one of the great poems of the First World War." Prewett had scribbled it on the back of a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, and in response to the severity and overwhelming clarity of the piece she implored him not to write any more morbid poems of that nature. It reminded her too much of the war.
When Callaghan and I published The Selected Poems of Frank Prewett in 1987, the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. I went on to work with Claude Lemoine of the National Library in Ottawa to assemble a collection of Prewett's manuscripts and works that formed the basis of an ever-growing collection of World War I Canadian literature. Callaghan and I had found what amounted to the missing link in Canadian literature, the proof that something of artistic value stood alongside the poetry of John McCrae as a testament to Canada's experience in the trenches of the Western front.
But Prewett, rather than being a terminus, became a starting point for me. I asked the question, "If I found Prewett, could there be other authors out there from the same period who had also been overlooked and forgotten?" I began my quest for Canada's "trench literature" in the belief that my nation had also produced its share of Owens and Sassoons and Graves and Blundens. As I searched through book bins, barn sales, antique shows, even shelves at the Salvation Army store, I started to accumulate works that were overpowering in their depiction of the war. This was a literature that needed to be resurrected.
For fifteen years, I kept approaching publishers and for fifteen years I was turned down in my attempts to have an anthology of Canada's World War I literature published. One publisher did not even read the prospectus, but simply responded, "We don't do critical books." I approached my friends at the CBC, Greg Kelly, Lynda Shorten and journalist and broadcaster Michael Enright. They pitched the idea at a story meeting for the national morning radio program, This Morning. They said to the staff, "These works have been forgotten." The reply was, "Things are forgotten for a reason and should stay forgotten—they can't be any good." Lynda, Greg, and Michael won out in the end, and for Remembrance Day, 1998, the eightieth anniversary of the end of the war, we broadcast the works on national radio. Still, no publishers picked up the cause, until one day in the spring of 2000, I put the idea to Barry Callaghan between horse races in our favorite off-track bar. He seemed skeptical at first but on reading several pages of Peregrine Acland's All Else Is Folly, a book that Ford Maddox Ford had written the introduction to and called one of the greatest war novels ever, Callaghan decided to do the anthology.
Barry and I worked on the anthology over the summer, at times feeling almost shell-shocked ourselves from living so close to our material. In the fall, we published the book, and the Bravo network filmed a documentary in Soldier's Tower at the University of Toronto in which Barry and I, along with poet Antonio D'Alfonso and novelist Austin Clarke, read selections from the book. The documentary has played annually on the network ever since, and the anthology became one of the best-selling collections in Canada. We Wasn't Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War was hailed by Rex Murphy of the CBC as "having done yeoman service to Canadian literature." What it did was to add a missing chapter to the nation's literature.
In my first collection of poetry, The Open Room, I include the poem "Private Thomas Kelly," about my maiden aunt who had lost her fiancé in the muds of Passchendaele. It was one of the poems Seamus Heaney most admired when he wrote me a letter of congratulations on my first book of poems. I sensed as I was working on We Wasn't Pals that I was reinventing not only the way my countrymen would read their literary history, but the past that I have so often attempted to retrieve from the silence of the experience around me. One way or another, either through writing or scholarship or even the discovery of a missing era of one's national literature, a writer must constantly renew himself; he must constantly check the vision in his second pair of eyes.
When I was working on a second collection of interviews with Canadian authors, co-authored with Brian O'Riordan, titled Lives and Works (1991), it struck me that the interviewees were politely reinventing themselves. They were offering up the persona of their writing of the moment rather than the personality of their lives. The necessity of constant reinvention is a good thing for a writer but puzzling if one is a literary journalist. It means that understanding a writer is a matter of making a map and charting a course of progress. When the tape recorder went off, the interviewees suddenly became different people. One poet wrote to me after the publication of the book and told me how much he had learned about himself through the interview.
Christopher Wren's son placed a memorial stone in St. Paul's to his father that reads, "If you want to know my works, look around you." When I was living in London in the early 1980s, an exile in search of my own identity, this stone always fascinated me. It struck me as both a pointer and as a red herring. An author's works, even personal writing, function in much of the same way as Wren's marker. One cannot really get to know another person, whether one stares up at gold-adorned domes or at pages of writing that person has done. One always hopes that the reader will appreciate the work of art that lies at the core of a writer's vision, and will see something of the artist in that, though not the person. The desired goal is the blurring of the distinction between the dancer and the dance as Yeats put it, or the singer and song as Stevens suggested, but that may be too much to hope for. What a writer can present are the facts, the memories, the intuitions and the speculations that can serve as a structure in which either to find rain or to discover a spirit. When I have written, especially in my poetry, I have spoken of those things I love most: my family, my city, the things I have learned and want to share with others, the joys that I have celebrated and the griefs that I have had to acknowledge.
I am a fifth generation Torontonian. My family, on my mother's side, arrived in the city in 1837 on the eve of the Rebellion that laid the foundations for Canadian democracy. My great-grandmother on my mother's father's side was born on Bond Street in Toronto, and as a child, lived next door to the father of that Rebellion, the grandfather of the Prime Minister on our fifty-dollar bill, William Lyon Mackenzie. I was raised on stories of Mackenzie. My grandmother lived only several blocks from the site of Montgomery's Tavern, the place where the Battle of the 1837 Rebellion had taken place. My grandparents used to describe what the old tavern looked like, remarking on the bullet holes in the framework. We buried my grandparents in York Cemetery, just off Yonge Street, the longest street in the world. We laid them to rest in land that had once belonged to members of the Sheppard family, on whose farm Mackenzie had hid, wrapped in an apple tree, so the legend says, on the night following his failed uprising.
The spirit of Mackenzie and the tradition of reform pose me as something of a White Guelf in the political history and picture of Toronto. My undergraduate education was at an institution that was created as a result of the 1837 Rebellion—the University of Toronto. In particular, I attended Victoria College where I studied English with such august figures as my mentor, Northrop Frye; the poet Jay Macpherson; and the archconservative political philosopher, Allan Bloom.
Frye was someone I knew and greatly admired. He came from the tradition of liberal thinkers that Victoria College encouraged. I recall one of my first days as an undergraduate. I was passing through the front hall of the college and had stood admiring a portrait of Egerton Ryerson, the father of the modern Canadian educational system, and an individual who played a key role evolving university education in Canada in the aftermath of the Rebellion. At that moment, Frye appeared and said hello to me. He asked me if I was a freshman and when I told him yes and that I was concerned about measuring up, he pointed me to a large wooden case and suggested I take a look through it. The case contained the composites of all the graduating classes going back to the 1830s. When I got to 1933, there was a gawky, young Frye, looking not unlike myself, smiling confidently in his bachelor's hood.
The 1960 class featured Margaret Atwood, earnest, sincere, and on her way to Boston for post-grad studies. The class of 1911 featured a prematurely bald E. J. Pratt, a figure who I had met several times as a small child. It suddenly struck me that if they could do it, so could I. The faces in that case of graduating class photos told an incredible story of the continuum of Canadian culture and literature, and I wanted to be part of it.
I was fortunate to be born into a wonderful family where storytelling and story sharing were an essential part of my life. I was raised on stories of early Toronto, of the two world wars my family had lived through, of the Great Depression and its financial impact on those near to me. I was constantly aware that the past was not something lost or remote, but something that was living in the present, as real as my own life and a benchmark for my own experiences. I was raised with a sense that my family was close to the history of my city; if not the bones of the matter, at least the thews or the reflexes of those who had shaped my physical and psychological landscape. Many of my relatives, on both sides of the family, are buried in the Necropolis Cemetery within yards of Mackenzie. I often walk through the graveyard, haunted by the image of their buried limbs, like the roots of trees, reaching out and intertwining in the soil that supports the visible world of Canada's largest urban center.
My father, an electrical engineer, had always wished that he had more capabilities with language. At our dinner table each night he would read to my sister and me from various books, from grammar texts to the works of Blake, Shaw, and Northrop Frye. It was my father's enthusiasm for history that caught my imagination when at the age of three I learned about the War of 1812, Canadian history and the lives—from children's biographies—of great personages from the past.
My sister, Carolyn, and I both earned our doctorates in English and both studied together at the University of Toronto and then McMaster. There is a sense of the co-conspirator that I share with my sister—we have edited several textbooks and an anthology together, and we each seem to always understand where the other is coming from. She has been a tremendous critic of my work, a touchstone for ideas and a continual conversant. One of our professors at the university—confounded that we had both taken the same course yet written such different essays on the same topic, both of which earned excellent grades—wrote to us that we reminded her of cherubim and seraphim. My sister was the contemplative angel and I the active one.
As undergraduates at Victoria College, the literary college of the University of Toronto, I had won gold medals for poetry and Carolyn had won gold medals for essays. We both worked as editors on the oldest literary magazine in Canada, Acta Victoriana, which had been edited by Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood, and E. J. Pratt during their heydays. In 1978, I was editor-in-chief of the special centennial issue of the journal, and saved the magazine from extinction when the student government threatened to pull its funding. What I have always found unique about my relationship with my sister is that we have followed the same path and yet moved forward in different ways. My doctoral thesis was on post-World War II British poetry, hers on modern Irish poetry. In the early nineties, we put our talents together and assembled Separate Islands: Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, the first Canadian anthology of British and Irish work from the eighties. What energizes our relationship is the respect we have for each other and an understanding of the incredible similarities in our differences, something that is the foundation of good working partnerships.
The best working partnership I have had has been with my wife, Kerry, a CBC journalist, whom I met in 1991 and should have known almost ten years before our face-to-face, but for a typographical error in a literary magazine she was editing. After talking with her on the telephone for almost an hour when she invited me to a launch party, I snubbed the invitation because of the error. Providence, however, has a way of bringing people together who are destined to be together. We were married in 1995 by a priest and English professor, Father Robert Madden, who has been my spiritual advisor and guide during my conversion to Catholicism.
Kerry and I spent our honeymoon in Cooperstown, New York, where she indulged my passion for baseball and assisted me with the research for my first book of short stories, Goodbye Mr. Spalding. Goodbye Mr. Spalding is a collection of baseball fiction, and contains the story of Toronto's first stadium, Sunlight Park. In 1997, the city of Toronto unveiled a historic marker near the intersection of Queen and Broadview to commemorate the first Canadian professional sports championship in 1887. I am one of three living Torontonians to be quoted on such a plaque. My wife's assistance in matching archival files to old photographs was invaluable. Kerry has been a constant source of inspiration for me, both poetically and personally, and she has taught me the necessity of seeing the world through love rather than anger or despair. One of the shortest poems I have written, "Kerry," is about her, and her power to lead me to that important recognition that the infinite is present in the finite if one is willing to open oneself to love.
It was through my wife that I discovered northern Ontario, and especially the island of Manitoulin that separates Georgian Bay from Lake Huron. During one of our first summers together, we rented a small car and made our way up the Bruce Peninsula. The ferry ride from Tobermory to South Baymouth did not impress me the first time we took it; I seem to recall the day was overcast. The summer our daughter was a year old, 1998, we made the crossing on the 8 p.m. ferry to attend the wedding of my sister-in-law in Mindemoya. During that crossing, I wrote my first villanelle, a form that I had been trying to master for many years. The result was "The Ferry to South Baymouth," that examines the way my daughter was assimilating the world around her.
As one crosses to Manitoulin on a summer night, the ferry literally sails into the setting sun. The experience is awe-inspiring and borders on one of the most remarkably spiritual moments one can have. The ancient First Nations people of Manitoulin believed that God lived on the island. When I am there, I have the sense that I am close to something very powerful that cannot be named. Standing at Ten-Mile Point lookout, or sitting beneath the waters of Bridal Veil Falls have put me in touch with a sense of oneness that I could never experience in the city. That oneness comes from the ability to hear oneself. The poems in The Spirit Bride (2002) are largely the result of my time on the island. My short story collection, Flights (2004) was mostly written on the island. As much as my heart is closely connected to my native city of Toronto, my soul seems to feel at peace on Manitoulin.
Toronto has been an integral part of my life. I have left the city many times during my life to live in London, Dublin, Austin, Windsor, and Hamilton, but I have always returned to the city of my birth.
The poet, Earle Birney, once showed me a snapshot that was taken the day Leonard Cohen's first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, came off the press in Toronto. The first copy of Cohen's book can be seen in the photograph as it protrudes from his pocket. Birney, along with Irving Layton (who I came to know well during his Toronto years), the Canadian poet laureate of the time, E. J. Pratt (who had been my mother's professor at Victoria College at the University of Toronto) and Birney, had gathered for lunch at a Bloor Street restaurant to celebrate Cohen's launch. Following the lunch, the four poets gathered on the sidewalk of the fashionable shopping street to record the moment with a photograph. Realizing that all four of them could not be in the photo at the same time and take the picture, Pratt hit upon the idea of having a beauty pageant, and the best-looking woman on the street would snap the picture. Eventually, the four chose the woman and she stood them against the window of restaurant and clicked the shutter. On the back of the photograph, Birney recorded the date and time of the picture: Tuesday, April 23, 1957, 3:45 p.m. When I pointed out to Earle that the picture was taken exactly the moment I was born, about half a mile away in Toronto General Hospital, he remarked facetiously that "the magi had gathered for my coming." The day, I have been told, was the first warm day of that year. The temperature had soared to over eighty degrees Fahrenheit. In the photograph, the poets have their shirtsleeves rolled up.
Every year Toronto has spring days such as that one in 1957 when the temperature suddenly soars, the trees break out in spontaneous blossom, and everything seems to come back to life. Toronto, for me, is a place of constant life, constant rebirth, and constant renewal. I revel in the multicultural atmosphere of the city. I love to walk the streets of the city, and much of my inspiration comes from the city.
One night, the novelist M. T. Kelly and I found ourselves driving around the east end of the city, just talking and exchanging stories. I showed him the oldest inhabited home in Toronto, the second Scadding House on Broadview, and he traced the outlines of the original Iroquois city that once stood on the heights overlooking the Broadview flats. I wrote about the experience in a poem dedicated to Kelly, "The City on the Hill" in Anywhere (2000). A poem such as "Chinatown" in The Presence (1999) speaks volumes for the frenzied activity that I witness daily in my city. And cities as living places have always fascinated me. I have lived in Toronto, Hamilton, and Windsor in Canada, and London and Dublin overseas. My fascination with the civic life is something that developed during my childhood when I traveled around the city on my own and experienced the history, the people and the places from a very fundamental level.
When I was three my mother read me Wordsworth from some small leather-bound volumes that resided on a special shelf in our living room. The phrase from "Lines Upon Westminster Bridge," one of my early favorites—"Dear God, the very houses seem asleep" fascinated me and has always stayed in my mind. I could picture the window blinds or drapes drawn like drowsy eyes. My maternal grandmother read me Longfellow in copious quantities. I recall the rapture she felt when, in my eighth year, we visited Boston and stood in Longfellow's study. I recall how she turned to me and said, as if pronouncing a kind of benediction over my future, "You shall someday write poetry."
My maternal grandfather (I never laid eyes upon my father's parents) was a dedicated Robert W. Service fan. I grew up listening to him read "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and the "Shooting of Dan McGrew." My grandfather was a simple, honest man who had worked hard all his life as a manufacturer's agent of dry goods, had ridden over some serious setbacks that might have destroyed a lesser man, and who practiced a kind of directness of both faith and language. His father, he used to remind me, had lost a language, Scots Gaelic. My great-grandfather, a famous Toronto policeman who had worked on the Ambrose Small case and who had founded the Police Athletic Association back in the nineteenth century, towered over my childhood as a kind of kingly ghost. His photograph, in uniform, sat on my grandfather's bureau. He was a figure who rewarded honesty and who sought to express justice in everything he did. He, too, had red hair, and I was told that I should pattern myself after him. As a remarkable shade, he leaned over my shoulder during my growing years and his legend seemed to expand in my mind almost to the point of becoming an impossible paragon.
As a parent, I have constantly reminded my own daughter that she is responsible for setting her own course in life. I work hard at letting her find her own heroes. I grew up in a world that was still living under the shadow of a dying Protestant puritanism, a milieu where one was not supposed to talk about oneself, where stories had to be accessible to all, insulting to none, and never hinting at complaint. As I grew up, I watched as a society that Robertson Davies playfully dubbed "Foofery," for the term "Fine Old Ontario Family," gradually disintegrated into mediocrity and silence. As it disappeared, it took with it the culture that I thought I had been born into. And when I searched for a record of it in Canadian literature, the very sense of self-effacing silence was the path along which it vanished without a trace. The problem facing me as a writer has been to record what I have known and loved, and to learn not to be afraid of speaking about it.
In more recent years, my sense of personal culture has expanded considerably. I have embraced Catholicism because it connects me to the broader traditions of Western literature and culture that have always been part of my society, though unacknowledged and suppressed. I am fascinated by the sense of conversation between the past and the present that I encounter when I worship. When I am in church or when I practice my faith, I feel as if I am conversant with Dante, St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Thomas Aquinas, and so many others who have tried to link our existence to higher principles.
My belief in a literary conversation was something that I raise in The Golden Thread: A Reader's Journeythrough the Great Books (2000). The book, itself, was the result of a late-night conversation with poet David Wevill and poet/novelist Zulfikar Ghose (two of my mentors) on a patio in Austin, Texas. I was in my post-doctoral year, and was in Texas to read through the manuscript collection at the Harry Ransom Center. Well into the evening and several bottles of wine, Zulf asked me what I was reading. I told him it was manuscripts. "No," he said, "while you are in airports or on trains." He pointed out that my two-year scholarship from the Canadian government was not only an opportunity to study, but a chance to fill the gaps in my education. I began reading backward from the modern era that had been my specialty. By the time I re-read Milton and medieval romance and reached Dante and Virgil, key ideas started to fall into place for me. Literature became an entirely different experience from that which I had encountered in my education.
In 1991, following a year of teaching at the University of Windsor where I co-taught a course with novelist Alistair MacLeod, I returned to Toronto. President Eva Kushner of Victoria College heard about my plight—I had been the odd man out in a departmental reorganization—and suggested that I offer a course through the extension program of the university. I was given a course in literature and told to make the content anything I wanted. I chose a Great Books course. No such courses were being taught in Toronto at that time. The Great Books—Homer, Virgil, Dante—were considered out of fashion, works by dusty dead men who were no longer relevant. I took on the challenge. After three years, my class had grown from fourteen students to forty. The course was written up in Toronto Life magazine because, as the journal noted, I had taken an odd approach to the texts by connecting them to events in contemporary life. Suddenly, the class burgeoned to ninety-eight students.
One of the students in this new, large group was a producer for CBC Radio's national morning show, This Morning, a show that on average has over four million listeners per day. I was invited to do a broadcast for Christmas on the Bible as literature. Following the taping, the host, Michael Enright, asked if I would choose five more books for a mini-series. We recorded the series and it was broadcast in December 1998. The series received over twenty thousand letters and e-mails. The audiocassettes from the broadcasts became the network's largest selling series. The second series of six broadcasts caused all manner of unusual incidents, from people being locked in coffee shops while the owners listened, to the shut-down of the Transcanada Highway in Blind River, Ontario, where a group of truckers held a book club to discuss Boethius. The success of the broadcasts led to an invitation from Harper Collins to turn the series into a book, and the result was the national bestseller, The Golden Thread.
The Golden Thread was intended to be not a scholarly book, but a guide to those who wanted to initiate themselves into the major works of Western literature. It was also intended as a map for readers whereby they could navigate the treacherous waters of reading while learning how literature works. The Great Books continue to function in our society in ways that we do not always notice. They have infiltrated our language, our manners, our lovemaking, our politics, our sense of leadership and values, our fears and our dreams. Although I remain disappointed that the book was never published outside Canada, it did garner international reaction from as far away as Australia, and sparked both debate and renewed interest in the conversation and continuum at the core of Western literature.
Among the works I deal with in The Golden Thread is St. Augustine's Confessions. Various reading clubs have told me of their troubles in accepting Augustine both as an author and as a literary character. Admittedly, he is a difficult study. But he is the key to understanding Western literature and thought, if simply for his observance of the nature of critical thought, his distinctions between reality and illusion, and his ability to see the infinite and the finite in a single glance. What he offered in his Confessions is considered the earliest extant Western autobiography. True autobiography must entail awareness on the part of the writer that someone else is listening to what one has to say, and that the work is not just a matter of someone talking to himself. In seeking a solution to my dilemma, because I believe as Auden did that writing is problem solving, I turned to one of my heroes, Augustine. I have often found him to be a wonderful guide, not only in my personal journey toward Catholicism, but as a figure who has taught me what it means to think critically and to share that critical thought with others through teaching. At the heart of Catholicism is the need to discover God and oneself through a critical process, something that I love and have built into my life and my work. When I look at what is, perhaps, the greatest autobiographical work, Augustine's Confessions, it strikes me that it is not an autobiography at all. It is half of a much larger conversation where the self-inventing persona is learning to look at itself in a different way.
Confessional literature, especially Augustine's autobiography, suggests that the reader is eavesdropping on a conversation between two knowledgeable people: the person who has lived the life, and the individual who has never ceased to observe that life in its progress. The process of speaking about oneself, either in an interview or in an autobiographical piece such as this, comes down to the discipline of finding one's own best critic. That is something I learned from St. Augustine, and something I have sought to do as a writer. It necessitates being a constant student. I teach English and writing at the university level because by explaining things to others I learn more about my own ideas. I also hope that in my enthusiasm to explain things, my energy is contagious and the students will want to explain ideas not only to themselves but also to others.
My great regret in life has been that I have never been able to secure a tenure-track position as a professor, though I have certainly tried. I set out to become an English professor. My mother has often reminded me that when I was eight years old I wrote a little essay on what I would like to do with my life. In the essay I said I wanted to become an English professor, and that I wanted to teach at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. I got my wish for three years from 1993 to 1996, when I spent a very blissful sojourn in my life teaching at Trinity College. Trinity was the sort of place one expects to find in Arthurian literature. Professors taught in gowns and ate at high table. The students were intelligent, polite but slightly standoffish. The English Department told us that as new instructors, we were supposed to present ourselves with inscrutability, remoteness bordering on coldness that enabled the mystique of knowledge to be maintained. I have since taught at other institutions, such as the Laurentian University BA program at Georgian College where the entire academic system is maintained by an open and collegial dialogue between students and instructors. This is to my liking. It is, even without the great resources of a major university, a wonderful place to learn and a dynamic place to teach.
I shall always feel like something of a Dantean exile for the way that the University of Toronto treated me as a scholar. There is an unfortunate rule at the University of Toronto that states, in order to avoid having anyone lay claim to tenure, that an individual cannot be rehired after three years on a sessional contract. The termination of my contract was particularly painful—I had done outstanding work, and the university had been a very important element in my life. Some of Canada's finest scholars have been victims of this rule. Their work is evident at other universities where they have made an incredible mark on their communities; but not at the University of Toronto.
Where I have had considerable pleasure, if not success, has been as a kind of "wandering scholar," as my former mentor from the University of Toronto, Jay Macpherson, has termed it. I have recently found considerable solace in accepting John of Cantius, a fifteenth-century Polish professor/saint, as my personal patron. His career, like mine, was legendary for its lucklessness; but like him, I have refused to abandon my vocation. At some point, I would like to settle down and find an academic home that will welcome and accept me, a place where I can contribute to the life of the community. I believe one needs a home, a focal point. Writing and scholarship thrives in a state of stability. In the meantime, the great benefit of being un-rooted is that I am forced to be constantly learning new things, and these challenges and what I learn from them are things that I can apply to my writing.
After my three years at Trinity College and the Department of English at the University of Toronto were concluded, I found myself in a precarious position. I was about to lose my house. In the space of three weeks, my wife became pregnant with our daughter, Katie, who has been a tremendous inspiration and joy to me. My wife won a contest that took us to St. Lucia where I regained my poetic energies and wrote much of The Presence. That same three-week period also opened a new phase in my life as a university administrator. Early in 1997, I took an administrative position at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. I was given the task of creating for the University of Toronto its first creative writing program.
As an undergraduate, I had been told by various officials at the university that a creative writing program would never happen at the institution. Within two years, I had created the largest creative writing program in Canada—albeit non-credit—out of a handful of courses that had been cancelled by the school's administration. Among the writers who taught for me were novelists Austin Clarke, M. T. Kelly and Ray Robertson, short-story writer Michael Winter, and poets George Fetherling and David Donnell. The program was self-sufficient, and eventually grew to have more than four hundred registrants per year. An award endowment was provided to us by Random House of Canada, and the Governing Council of the University gave the program certificate status. The program proved so successful that by the time I decided to leave administration and return to teaching, the university was offering a graduate degree in creative writing. The pressures of working in a self-sustaining environment (we received no funds from the university) and of managing a huge range of courses in creative writing, professional writing, literary studies, and philosophy were overwhelming. When I left, four people replaced me. Although the experience was physically taxing, the years of working closely with some of Canada's best authors shaped the way I looked at my own writing. I learned to approach experience from a problem-solving perspective.
I have sought a home, both in Canada and abroad, both in the teaching ranks and in administration, but have only seen glimpses of a possible Promised Land way off in the distance. That distance has often been a defining experience. What one loses is often what one understands best.
When I left Canada for England in the early 1980s, it was because I wanted to learn about British poetry. I wanted to understand what British poets knew, namely prosody, meter. My cover story for this endeavor—because it was hard to explain to my father and to my teachers that I simply wanted to explore poetry for the sake of exploring poetry—was my thesis on post-World War II British poetry and Howard Sergeant's magazine, Outposts. I wanted to soak up the ambience of places such as Keats' House in Hampstead, or Coleridge's front room at Nether Stowey. I had set out with the intention of becoming a British poet. My grandmother, who hung out the Union Jack every Victoria Day weekend on her front porch—and for good measure on Canada's national holiday of July 1 which was then known as Dominion Day—had always told me that I would grow up to be a poet. What would have been her fondest dream was for me to become a British poet.
When I arrived in London and started to hang out at the Poetry Society and at local readings around the time poets such as Andrew Motion were making a splash in the early eighties, I realized that I never was and never would be an English poet. They were different. Their knowledge was different. Their reading was different. Their sense of place and experience was different. I realized I never would be the poet I thought I could be. When I returned to Canada, penniless, I went to a reading at the famous Grossman's Tavern in downtown Toronto, a site where poets such as Margaret Atwood and Eli Mandel had crowned their own People's Poet, Milton Acorn, almost a decade before. When I arrived in the tavern, Elizabeth Smart and Gwendolyn MacEwen, two writers who I knew and loved beckoned me over to their table. Smart clutched my hand and said, "You're back!" and MacEwen added, "Good, we thought we had lost you forever." It was at that point that I knew that what would define me as a writer, what would focus my attention, my dreams and my words would be the experience of the people, the places and details that were already around me. At that point I knew I was, for better or for worse, a Canadian. I did not need to look for my heart's desire because it had always been right there in my own backyard.
The experience of exile, of living without an identity, however, was a profoundly defining period for me. As I thumbed through a small, English volume about the Battle of Dieppe in Hatchard's Bookshop on Piccadilly, I could find no reference to the Canadian troops who had died on that French beach. This angered me. I went back to my tiny little flat at the bottom of Belgrave Road. I recalled a man who lived down the street from my grandparents. He had lost his eyesight at Dieppe and had been led by the arm through the years of stalags and forced marches and deprivation all because Lord Louis Mountbatten wanted to test German defenses. I wrote a poem, "Blind at Dieppe," that ended with the admonishment that Canadians should not let others write their history for them. History, whether public experience or personal experience, is something that one must discover for oneself, just as one discovers literature through the process of reading the substance beneath the surface. I have endeavored to read my life in the way that one reads a book and to be constantly aware that reading is a process not only of interpretation, but of moving ahead, wide-eyed toward the next word, the next idea and the next experience.
As a contemporary writer, I have lived in literature, and literature—the teaching of it, the writing of it, and the enjoyment of it—has been one of the cornerstones of my life. I can say that literature is my life, though I have the distinct feeling that I have shown up well after the party has broken up and all the interesting people have gone home. The contemporary writer must, in some ways, suffer the anxiety of needing to say something and understand the needfulness of what he says; I live with the strange feeling that it may have been said before, and that is both challenging and reassuring.
Tradition, as both awareness and as a practice, is a matter that can take an individual an entire lifetime to come to terms with. In my most recent collection of poems, Oceans (2004), I have a poem, "Drowning in Books." In that poem, I grapple with the anxiety of having lived my life vicariously through literature, and the troubling awakening, as if by T. S. Eliot's human voices, that I heard on the point of suffocating on my own knowledge, that reminded me that I had to marry life to literature if I was to continue to write. The poem concludes with the persona closing his book and going to join his wife and daughter in the garden.
As I write this essay, I am constantly left with the feeling that I have not yet written myself completely into existence as either the persona I am or the persona I would like to see myself become. I am left with the feeling that I have not yet written what I feel I must write. A writer's life is always a work-in-progress. I have not won any major awards. My work has received little attention from critics or anthologists, and I am always left with the sense that I am writing as an island from an island. But perhaps that is to my advantage. I have never had to live up to expectations other than my own, and as long as I set the bar higher every day, I will live off that sustaining energy. I have never felt that I was on the inside of Canadian literature—in fact, I consider myself a fortunate outsider, an exile who has luckily been shunned by the mainstream as someone whose style and ideas are not of the trendy and immediate present. Being an exile, however, is a precarious position where one is set to the challenge of discovering either the identity that has been lost or the identity that is waiting to be created. And that, for me, is the best possible situation.
As I look at this essay with my second pair of eyes, I realize now what I have achieved in my career—and I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to put it down on paper and sort out the life from the ideas. I believe in the transcendent power of language, the beauty of the English tongue, and the possibilities of poetry to reach beyond the boundaries of my own life and times. I believe in the pursuit of knowledge, the continuum of Western culture, and the traditions that continue to inform the imaginative spirit. I believe in the conversation of ideas, the presence of the past in the moment, and the life of the moment in the future. I know that my career and my works have not been what I had hoped they would be, but that they can become what I dream they may be: a voice not only for myself but also for the people, ideas, and things I love. I hope that what I write may sustain them through the long sleep of time, so that someday they will be awakened by one who will cast his eyes upon them and give them life again.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 282: New Formalist Poets, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Books in Canada, April, 1993, George E. Clarke, review of Radio Silence, pp. 53-54; March, 1996, Russell Field, review of Goodbye Mr. Spalding, p. 26.
Canadian Literature, summer, 2002, Susan Fisher, review of We Wasn't Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War, pp. 198-204.
Library Journal, September 1, 2000, Harriet Edwards, review of The Great Books (audio review), p. 274.
National Post, January 20, 2001, Daniel Brandes, review of The Golden Thread: A Reader's Journey through the Great Books, p. B7.
University of Santiago Web site, http://rehue.csociales.cl/ (September 1, 2004), "Bruce Meyer."
University of Toronto Libraries Web site,http://www.library.utoronto.ca/ (August 1, 2004), "Bruce Meyer."