Wordsfest 2019: Stan Dragland on “James Reaney on the grid”

Saturday November 2, 2019 — Thank you all for joining us at Wordsfest at Museum London for the Tenth Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture, and thank you, Stan Dragland, for coming all the way from St. John’s, Newfoundland to share your thoughts on James Reaney’s use of structure or “grids of meaning.”

Stan Dragland’s lecture “James Reeaney on the grid” November 2, 2019 at Wordsfest in London, Ontario.

In his lecture James Reaney on the grid, Stan Dragland explains how Reaney drew material from the local and particular and used archetypal patterns to link and clarify it:

What about the grids? “Grid” is not Reaney’s own word, of course. He picked it up from others at the long-liner’s conference [a 1984 conference on the Canadian long poem], and the literal meaning, with all those right angles, is not the best image for what he does. He’d be more likely to say pattern, or formula, or catalogue, or paradigm, or list. Also backbone. I’ll keep on with grid here, but really list is the better word.

“There is something about lists that hypnotizes me,” Reaney says, introducing the “Catalogue Poems” section of Performance Poems [1990]. Now watch how he slides disparate things together in metaphor as he goes on: “I think this fascination is connected with our joy in the rainbow’s week of colours, in the 92 element candle you see in a physics lab at school, but then see all around you like a segmented serpent we’re all tied together by. Our backbones, with their xylophone vertebrae, are such sentences; lists of symbolic objects in some sort of mysterious, overwhelming progression I have elsewhere called the backbones of whales, and indeed they are, for they are capable of becoming a paradigm . . . used as a secret structure.” His play, Canada Dash, Canada Dot [1965] is built on lists of various sorts. So is Colours in the Dark [1967]. In fact lists or catalogues are everywhere in his work…

A video of Stan Dragland’s lecture is available here, and the full text version will be available later.

About the speaker

Stan Dragland’s immersion in James Reaney’s work began in 1970 when he arrived in London to teach at the University of Western Ontario. One of the first courses he taught was English 138 Canadian Literature and Culture, a team-taught course designed by James Reaney. Stan Dragland is also a co-founder of Brick Books, a local poetry press now celebrating its 45th anniversary.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).

2010: Colleen Thibaudeau
2011: Marion Johnson and Peter Denny
2012: Jean McKay
2013: David Ferry
2014: Tim Inkster
2015: Thomas Gerry
2016: John Beckwith
2017: Tom Smart
2018: James Stewart Reaney
2019: Stan Dragland

James Reaney Memorial Lecture: November 2 at Wordsfest

James Reaney at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, Summer 1979. (Photo by Les Kohalmi)

Join us at Wordsfest on November 2, 2019 at 12:00 pm at Museum London’s Lecture Theatre for the 10th annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture.

Stan Dragland, poet, novelist, and literary critic, will speak on James Reaney’s love of lists and how he uses them to express his vision, particularly in plays like The Donnellys.

Styling his lecture as “James Reaney on the grid”, Dragland explores how Reaney’s immersion in his local environment brings forth the universal in his art.

James Reaney’s The Donnellys: Sticks and Stones Act I
Mr Donnelly: And this earth in my hand, the earth of my farm
That I fought for and was smashed and burnt for
(Jerry Franken as Mr Donnelly, Tarragon Theatre, 1973)

When: Saturday November 2 at 12:00 pm
Where: Wordsfest at Museum London, 421 Ridout Street, London, Ontario
Admission is free.

Earlier Wordsfest lectures on James Reaney:

2016: John Beckwith on James Reaney and Music
2017: Tom Smart on James Reaney: The Iconography of His Imagination
2018: James Stewart Reaney on James Reaney’s Plays for Children

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

James Reaney’s The Boy Who Lived in the Sun

(Reposted from July 2, 2013)

In the summer of 1961, James Reaney wrote and illustrated a story for children called The Boy Who Lived in the Sun. He made 36 watercolour illustrations to go with the text, stitched them together, and for many years it was only shared with family and friends.

In the story, a boy who lives in the sun dreams of going to earth to meet other children. He discovers that it’s not easy for a luminary being to have contact with humans, and that the process of becoming human will require lengthy and celestial labour on his part.

Once there was a little boy who lived in the Sun.     (Illustration and text by James Reaney, 1961)

Every morning he watched the earth get up

(page 3 illustration)

and all the other planets — even tiny, gray Pluto

He loved watching earthsets best though

He dreamed of walking on earth. Beneath trees!

No trees, no shadows on the sun! In the dream, there were

were children picking berries in a lane. They looked at him as if they knew who he was

So the boy wanted very much to live on the earth, to pick berries, to meet the children in his dream. He wanted to be a little boy who lived on the earth.
“Do you,” said the Archangel of the sun when he went to see him. “[I] wonder. It’s a very slow process. You can go to earth but first you must go to Pluto and then to….”

“No,” stamped the boy. “I wish to go right now.” “Then go,” laughed the Archangel. “[I] think it may do you some good.” And

and down to earth went the boy — right through a big rainstorm.

It was night & a large moth pursued him all over. Since he was a child of the sun he glowed in the dark

He hid in a hollow tree at last but did not sleep. He did not need to. He did not know how to.

A bough of green apples ripened at one glance from him!

A farmgirl threw a pitcher of milk at him.

He melted the ice beneath skaters!

He caused a thistle and a butterfly to come out although it was snowing

In a minute a little baby he paused to talk to grew up into a woman & then down into a very old lady.

He could make no contact with earth-people. To them he was often just a sunbeam in the corner of the room.

There were no children picking berries and the leaves had fallen off the trees

Next he saw a crowd of people. He must have been in a city. The boy was discovering that he often had very little control over where he was. He was not human yet and so bounced about like a flash of light.

One day he went back to the sun. It was harder to go to earth than he had thought.

“As I was saying,” said the Archangel of the Sun. “In order to go to Earth first you must go to Pluto and be…

an old beggar man for 100 years

on Uranus harvest the enchanted hay

(Neptune with his sceptre)

sail the stormy seas of Neptune

On Mars you must lead the toy soldiers against the mad mice

You must be a madcap on the Moon for a full Leap Year

you must on Saturn think 1000 thoughts

On Mercury steal the ogress’ magic horn

on planet Venus find the tree whose leaves are flowers

And now that you have done these things go, for you are ready, Go to earth!

There he met the children of his dream who said that he was their brother. While berry picking they had lost sight of him in the forest. They were just going home to tell their parents that he was lost,

but now instead they would take him home.

Note from Susan Reaney: The Boy Who Lived in the Sun existed from my early childhood and was never published. I always thought of it as unfinished because I could not accept the ending. The boy returns to earth and is reunited with his family, but does he remember being a boy who lived in the sun? Now I think perhaps he does.

James Reaney at home, age 4. Summer 1930

Marvellous Playhouses — Thomas Gerry on James Reaney’s emblem poems

In the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, Thomas Gerry’s article “Marvellous Playhouses” celebrates James Reaney’s emblem poems. For Gerry, the poems “put into play” Reaney’s artistic process, a “magnetic method” he developed for generating meaning through the use of wit.

The emblem poems are theatre-like devices that draw readers into the activity of making meaning. As with audiences for dramatic performances, emblem-readers’ participation is vital. [Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 196]

James Reaney’s emblem poem “The Castle” first appeared in Poetry (Chicago) (1969). See Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2019, page 197.
Summer 1979: James Reaney working in the garden near Stratford, Ontario
(Photo by Les Kohalmi)

For a full discussion of all ten emblem poems and James Reaney’s artistic process, see The Emblems of James Reaney, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

See also Thomas Gerry‘s 2015 lecture on “Theatrical Features of James Reaney’s Emblem Poems”.

Village Opera presents The Great Lakes Suite May 4-5

May 4-5 in London, Ontario — In celebration of Canadian composers, the Village Opera directed by Adam Corrigan-Holowitz will present The Great Lakes Suite, which features six poems by James Reaney set to music by John Beckwith.

Reaney and Beckwith became friends when they were students at the University of Toronto in the late 1940s. The Great Lakes Suite is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney’s first poetry collection. Inspired by the poems, John Beckwith created a chamber cycle for two voices accompanied by a trio.

Along with John Beckwith, this presentation by the Village Opera also includes works by John Greer, London’s Matthew Emery, and two songs by Ontario composer Jeff Enns. The performers are Katy Clark, soprano, and Paul Grambo, baritone.

When: Saturday May 4 at 7:30 and Sunday May 5 at 3:00
Where: Elmwood Avenue Presbyterian Church, London, Ontario
Tickets: $25/$15 for students: https://villageopera.com/buy-tickets

James Reaney’s poem“Lake Superior” begins the suite:

Lake Superior

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
Cold and gray.
I am so cold
That because I chill them
The girls of Fort William
Can’t swim in me.
I am so deep
That when people drown in me
Their relatives weep
For they’ll never find them.
In me swims the fearsome
Great big sturgeon.
My shores are made of iron
Lined with tough, wizened trees.
No knife of a surgeon
Is sharper than these
Waves of mine
That glitter and shine
In the light of the Moon, my mother
In the light of the Sun, my grandmother.

James Reaney, 1949

For more about John Beckwith and James Reaney’s musical collaborations, see John Beckwith’s lecture on James Reaney and Music from November 2016: https://jamesreaney.com/gallery/john-beckwith-on-james-reaney-and-music-november-5-2016-at-museum-london/

For more about composer John Beckwith, see his 2012 autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press, and also the Canadian Music Centre’s Composer Showcase: http://www.musiccentre.ca/node/37279/showcase

James Reaney and John Beckwith, Summer 2003, in London, Ontario. Photo by Colleen Reaney

James Reaney’s “The Crow”

The Crow

A fool once caught a crow
That flew too near even for his stone’s throw.
Alone beneath a tree
He examined the black flier
And found upon its sides
Two little black doors.
He opened both of them.
He expected to see into
Perhaps a little kitchen
With a stove, a chair,
A table and a dish
Upon that table.
But he only learned that crows
Know a better use for doors than to close
And open, and close and open
Into dreary, dull rooms.

 James Reaney, 1949

Crow near Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC.

“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first collection of poems.

The Champlain Society’s The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta back in print

As part of its mission to increase public awareness of, and accessibility to, Canada’s rich store of historical records, The Champlain Society has reprinted The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, in a special paperback edition.

The monograph, edited and introduced by James Reaney, recounts the story of The Biddulph Tragedy of February 4, 1880, where “a body of men, blackened and masked, entered the dwelling of the somewhat notorious Donnelly family and murdered the inmates, the father, the mother, one son, and a girl, a niece”* in Biddulph Township near Lucan, Ontario.

James Reaney heard about the tragedy as a child: “The effect of my first hearing this story was paralyzing… It was my first glimpse of evil close to home.”**

***

*London Free Press Weekly, 12 February 1880 (See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xv and page 118)

**From the Introduction to The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, page xxiv.

See also James Reaney’s entry for James Donnelly (1816-1880) in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/donnelly_james_10E.html

James Donnelly in 1863 courtesy the McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec: https://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/

James Reaney’s “Entire Horse”

Entire Horse

Poems Written About The Donnellys To Assist
The Renewal of The Town Hall at Exeter, Highway #4 *

I
Around Borrisokane, in Eire, the roads twist
After cowherds with willow gads, after wise woman’s spells,
After chariots and the widest go-around found in a mare’s skin.
But in Biddulph, Canada, in Mount Carmel’s brooder stove, St Peter’s fields,
The roads cross at right angles, a careful Euclidean net, roods, rods
Spun by surveyors out of Spider stars – Mirzak, Spicula, Thuban, Antares.
Like serpents, twitchgrass roots, dragons – the Irish roads twist,
The old crooked roads twist in the cage of the straight new.

II
We were horsemen, dressed well and from my brother’s entire horse,
From his entire horse came the colt fast fleet hoofhand with which
We seized and held onto the path through Exeter down to London.
We lifted the hills, creeks, rivers, slaughterhouses, taverns,
We lifted their travellers and those who were asleep when we passed
And those who saw us rattle by as they plowed mud or whittled.
We lifted them like a graveldust pennant, we swung them up and out
Till they yelled about wheels falling off, unfair competition, yah!
And we lie here now – headless, still, dead, waggonless, horseless,
Sleighless, hitched, stalled.

III
As the dressmaker hems my muslin handkerchiefs,
The night the Vigilantes burnt down one of their own barns,
As I sit waiting for a cake to bake and my gentle niece with me
I realize I am not doing what you want me to do.
You – bored with your Calvinist shoes chewed to pieces
By streets of insurance, streets of cakemix, packages, soap, sermonettes.
You want me to – you project a more exciting me on me.
She should be burning! Clip! Ax! Giantess! Coarse, I should curse!
Why should I accept these handcuffs from you?

 James Reaney, 2005

* Respectively, the three speakers of these poems are William Porte, the Lucan postmaster, Tom Donnelly and Mrs. Donnelly.

“Entire Horse” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books. Listen to Jeff Culbert read “Entire Horse” here.

Stagecoach scene from James Reaney’s play The St. Nicholas Hotel; the performers are Miriam Greene, Suzanne Turnbull, and Rick Gorrie (back row); Jerry Franken, Jay Bowen, and David Ferry (front row) at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ontario, 1974.

Scene from the play: In Act I before the Donnelly stagecoach leaves the City Hotel in London, Mike Donnelly (driver) says:

“Are there any more ladies and gentlemen for Calamity Corners as ’tis sometimes called, St. John’s, Birr — my old friend Ned here calls it Bobtown, the more elegant name is Birr. Elginfield known to some as Ryan’s Corner’s, Lucan that classic spot if it’s not all burnt down, Clandeboye, Mooretown, Exeter and Crediton. If Ned here hasn’t sawn it to pieces, the coach is waiting for you at the front door and it pleases you.”

James Reaney’s Sticks and Stones — Will Donnelly’s fiddle

In Act I of James Reaney’s play Sticks and Stones, local boys taunt young Will Donnelly for his crippled foot. In this scene, Mrs Donnelly asks Will for his birthday wish.

MRS DONNELLY: What day is it today of all days, William Donnelly?
WILL: It’s my birthday.
MRS DONNELLY: Tell me one wish.


WILL: Well, mother, ’tis something other than a prayerbook. I’d like a horse – a black stallion. And a sword. Then I’d ride up and down the line and I’d cut the heads off all those who call me – us – names.


MRS DONNELLY: Go over to the old tree the storm fell down, Will.
Will, what would you call this big black horse?
WILL: Lord Byron. But he wouldn’t be lame, you see.


MRS DONNELLY: Now see what you find there hidden among the roots. (He searches, crawling into the barrel; searching around it.)


OTHERS:  (softly and rolling over)
 Then they took me out of that and
 Threw me into a well.
 They left me there for a space of time,
 And me belly began to swell. [1]


WILL: It’s a parcel. (Actually it is just two sticks.)
MRS DONNELLY: But it’s not likely your father and I would give you a brown paper parcel for your twelfth birthday. What’s it a parcel of, Will?


WILL: A fiddle. Is it just for today, mother? Just mine for my birthday? But tomorrow will my brothers get at it?


MRS DONNELLY: No, Will, it is for you – and only you. To be your music for your entire lifetime. Remember what I’ve told you today.


(Will mimes the fiddle with two sticks; at edge of stage, a real fiddler follows.)
WILL: (as he tunes)
What did happen to father when he wouldn’t kneel and he wouldn’t swear?


MRS DONNELLY: Nothing’s happened.
WILL: Nothing’s happened yet?
MRS DONNELLY: Nor ever will….

The vendetta against the Donnellys and their eventual murder

Mrs Donnelly’s hope that their troubles from the old country are behind them proves unfounded, and the vendetta against them continues unabated until their murder some twenty years later (4 February 1880). During that time, Will Donnelly grows up to play his fiddle at weddings and dances and have a black stallion called Lord Byron (see James Reaney’s The Donnellys Part II – The St. Nicholas Hotel). 

On 2 September 1879, five months before the murder of five members of his family, Will Donnelly frightens away a mob come to terrorize him by playing a tune on his fiddle. In writing the play, James Reaney was particularly impressed by this:

“When on 2 September 1879, the mob who had just terrorized his parents at their farm arrived at his house in Whalen’s Corners, William frightened them away with a fiddle tune! None of the commentators ever make enough of this. Nor of the mother risking her life to warn her son that a mob was about to confront him. From now on, I have nothing but  admiration and sympathy for the Donnelly family, and a feeling that their bravery also betrayed them. But, of course, what they couldn’t possibly have known was that the whole affair of the cow and resultant trial was a dry run for another visit to the Donnelly house at night.…”(See James Reaney’s The Donnellys: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page xcix, The Champlain Society, 2004.)

[1] These lines sung by the Others are from the Barley Corn Ballad, an old Irish folk tune that James Reaney uses to underscore the Donnellys’ fate. As James Noonan writes in the Afterword to the published version of the play, “The ballad is so fitting to illustrate the fate of the Donnellys that if you substitute ‘Donnelly’ for ‘barley grain’ you have the story of the Donnellys told in ballad form.” (Afterword, page 350)

James Reaney’s three plays about the Donnellys — Sticks and StonesThe St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs — are available in one volume from Dundurn Press.

Sticks and Stones Act I
Mr Donnelly: And this earth in my hand, the earth of my farm
That I fought for and was smashed and burnt for
(Jerry Franken as Mr Donnelly, Tarragon Theatre, 1973)

James Reaney’s Sticks and Stones — Mrs Donnelly’s journey to Goderich

Sticks and Stones, Act II (Mrs Donnelly gathers signatures in defense of her husband’s life.)
MRS DONNELLY: Faced with Donnelly’s wife, however, they signed their names or made their marks to the truth at last.
(Patricia Ludwick as Mrs Donnelly, Tarragon Thatre, 1973)

In this scene from Act II of Sticks and Stones, Mr Donnelly (James Donnelly Sr) has given himself up to the constables for the killing of Patrick Farrell. In July 1858, Mrs Donnelly gathers signatures from friends and neighbours to petition the court in Goderich to change her husband’s death sentence to imprisonment. George Stub, the local grocer and magistrate, buys the Donnelly’s mortgage in anticipation of acquiring the land once Mr Donnelly is hanged. As Mrs Donnelly makes her forty-mile journey from Biddulph Township to Goderich, Stub builds the scaffold for the pending execution.

MRS DONNELLY:  And now I’ll walk with these names to Goderich

WILL DONNELLY:  When my mother heard that the Governor General was to be there for the celebration opening the railroad from Goderich to Brantford to Buffalo, she determined that she would meet him with the petitions we had helped and friends had helped her gather up.

(The road from Biddulph to Goderich is represented by a series of short and long ladders held up firmly by the cast. Mrs Donnelly climbs over these ladders. We hear road sounds – barking of dogs, etc. – that accompany her journey.)

MRS DONNELLY:  At Marystown the dogs barked at me
CHORUS:  And people who had signed wished her good luck.

(Generally repeat this solo and choral response arrangement between Mrs Donnelly and the other actors.)

MRS DONNELLY:  At Irishtown the grain wagons were all going south
CHORUS:  North she was going, north through their dust.


MRS DONNELLY:  There at St. Peter’s is he buried whom my husband killed
CHORUS:  His cold hands across reached the road and held back her feet.
MRS DONNELLY:  I dare not enter there to pray for his soul


CHORUS:  The chapel has no shadow. It is noon.
VOICE: Last spring a man and a woman came to a sudden death…. It is not known how, and were buried in their own field in Biddulph.


GEORGE STUB: Twelve hundred feet of pine lumber at ten dollars per M.


MRS DONNELLY:  Now I’ve reached the borders of Biddulph
VOICE: Sarah Stratton, an old woman who was found dead…  on the north boundary of Biddulph going to Exeter out of Biddulph.


MRS DONNELLY:  Well, she almost made it, but once past this tollgate and I am
CHORUS:  out of Biddulph! Past two tollgates, there are twelve still to


MRS DONNELLY:  Oak tree with your shadow Indian dark
CHORUS: Lie and rest beneath my speaking saying leaves


MRS DONNELLY:  The whip of that carter touched my cheek
I look like a beggarwoman tramping the roads
CHORUS: Clean white tower clouds walk in the sky


STUB: Nine hundred feet of hemlock scantlings, seven dollars per M, six dollars and thirty cents.


MRS DONNELLY:  Tollgate of the setting sun show me your latch
CHORUS: Twilight rain on this roof from those clouds


MRS DONNELLY:  Falling down down as I sleep till the earth wheels
CHORUS: Down to the dawn whose tollgate opens to all


MRS DONNELLY:  I’ll pray for the dawn with these winter stars
CHORUS: In the chill dark starting out before there were proper shadows


STUB: Detlor & Sons for nails, hinges and bolts, two dollars and ninety cents.

CHORUS: Francistown   Rogersville   Hensall   Kippen
Brucefield   Rattenbury’s   Clinton   and turn


MRS DONNELLY:  I’m on the Huron Road now and I turn west to
CHORUS: Holmesville where her member of parliament lived.


MRS DONNELLY:  Yes Mr Holmes. Hurrah for Holmes will be our cry from now on in. Our family’s vote is Grit forever and I’ve seven sons who’ll agree or else. Why sir, you’ve garnered almost as many names from this township as I have from Biddulph. My family’s blessing on you and your family forever.  And our eight votes, sir, someday. Except for the one I’m carrying, God bless her.


STUB: Nolan’s account for Staples & Ring &c.


MRS DONNELLY:  The road’s like a knife I cut through the bush with
CHORUS: She climbed up the hill, the last tavern hill before


STUB: Rope from W.E. Grace twenty-four cents. Four long poles at one dollar each.


MRS DONNELLY:  From this hill I see the river. I see the blue lake
CHORUS: The ship in the harbour flew a red and gold flag


STUB: Twenty cedar posts, one piece of five-by-six maple scantling.


MRS DONNELLY:  I’ll have time to see the mayor of the town. I’ll change my dress, comb my hair somewhere. Somewhere. I won’t see Mr Donnelly till I’ve delivered the petitions. What’s that hammering sound I hear? My own heart more than likely….

Sticks and Stones, Act II
MRS DONNELLY: Now I’ve reached the borders of Biddulph
(Patricia Ludwick as Mrs Donnelly, Tarragon Thatre, 1973)

James Reaney’s comments on the historical context for this scene:
“… Oral tradition has it that Judith Donnelly walked to Goderich from Biddulph [in July 1858] to make direct appeal to the Governor General, probably gathering signatures on her passage through Holmesville. Apart from gathering the petitions, on 11 June 1859, she took out a mortgage from a London money lender for $100 for three years at twice yearly payments of $24.70 [A1]. All of this, as well as caring for her two-year-old daughter, Jane? Nothing was impossible for this indomitable woman.” [See The Donnelly Documents: An Ontario Vendetta, Introduction, page lii, The Champlain Society, 2004.]

James Reaney’s three plays about the DonnellysSticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, and Handcuffs — are available in one volume from Dundurn Press.