Happy 50th, Alphabet!

Fifty years ago this month, James Reaney published the first issue of Alphabet, a literary magazine featuring poetry, stories, art, essays, and reviews. Reaney edited Alphabet: A Semi-Annual Devoted to the Iconography of the Imagination from 1960-1971. He published poetry by Margaret Atwood, Jay Macpherson, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn, bp Nichol, and Joy Kogawa, among many others, and kept in touch with writers across Canada.

Here is the cover of the first issue, which was designed by Allan Fleming.

Alphabet Number One, September 1960

Contributors to the first issue were John Robert Columbo, Daryl Hine, Edward Kleiman, Hope Arnott Lee, Jay Macpherson, M. Morris, Norman Newton, John Peter, Richard Stingle, and Colleen Thibaudeau.

Here is the first editorial James Reaney wrote for Alphabet:


Perhaps the drive behind this magazine might be found in the following cluster: (a) The most exciting thing about this century is the number of poems that cannot be understood unless the reader quite reorganizes his way of looking at things or ‘rouses his faculties’ as Blake would say. Finnegans Wake and Dylan Thomas’ ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ sonnet sequence are good examples here. These works cannot be enjoyed to anywhere near their fullest unless one rouses one’s heart, belly and mind to grasp their secret alphabet or iconography or language of symbols and myths. A grasping such as is involved here leads to a more powerful inner life, or Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’s wall.’ Besides which it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It seems quite natural, then, in this century and particularly in this country, which could stand some more Jerusalem’s wall, that there should be a journal of some sort devoted to iconography. After all Ernst Cassirer defines man as a symbol-making animal.

But (b) there had to be more than this general feeling of our time. There had to be the particular pressure of friends, teachers and even scoffers also interested in symbolism in one way or another. I can remember about twelve years ago at Toronto feeling the final clutch of the so-called scientific world. Metaphors seemed lies. Poetry seemed to have no use at all. The moon looked enchanting through the trees on Charles Street, but the enchantment was really nothing but an illusion of clouds and fantasy covering up a hideous pock-marked spherical desert. When I told this part of my problem to a friend, whose work appears in this issue, he showed me a passage from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell which had the effect of starting me back to the belief I had held as a child that metaphor is reality. Those were the months when young men and women sat up all night reading Fearful Symmetry which had just come out. I think I have been present at more conversations about the Fall than even Adam could have thrown a certain withered apple core at, and assuredly more speculations concerning Leviathan than Job scratched his boils to. Here in your hands lies one of the effects of those conversations — a small secret looking book devoted to the proposition that it is very interesting mankind should answer the terrors of the inner and the outer world with a symbolic fruit and an iconic sea-beast. Interest increases with exploration. This attitude is to me one of the most stimulating areas of intellectual life in Canada. A traveller from abroad would immediately pick it out. Ils ont parlé toute la nuit de baleines blanches! So base a mag on this fact, actually personally observed, this fact of our cultural life. It’s a sturdy fact too; why else so much opposition? The tactics of the anti-symbol, anti-anagogy gang could only be described by making up titles for their mags, such as: Anti-Rot, ExeJesus, Values, The Lampman Review and True Feelers. However.

And (c) there was the desire to do the same delightful thing I had watched here and now, also Northern Review, do: publish real poems and real stories in a format and an area of subtle zoning that created a memorable effect (as distinct as a taste) on readers and also ‘placed’ the poems and stories to their advantage. This must by one of the happiest of civilized activities, akin to the proper arrangement of flowers. It was Kleiman’s story I first felt I must see published; it was so imaginative and no one was doing a thing about it. No really live focus appeared to put the story in until a juxtaposition, mind and social, occurred: Jay Macpherson read a paper on myth at the English Club (part of it appears on pages within) and afterwards there was a party at an apartment on Yorkville. Here Hope Lee told the stories about being a twin that we’ve also printed. It suddenly came to me that here was proof that life reflected art. The myth of Narcissus reaches out and touches with a clarifying ray the street scene where the two human beings glide by also in the toils of reflection. That’s how poetry works: it weaves street scenes and twins around swans in legendary pools. Let us make a form out of this: documentary on one side and myth on the other: Life & Art. In this form we can put anything and the magnet we have set up will arrange it for us.

Two years later (printing lessons, typesetting, waiting for t’s to come from Toronto, balancing trays of type on buses rolling in blizzards) here it is.

Winnipeg, July 1960.

3 Replies to “Happy 50th, Alphabet!”

  1. In 1961 I was given by a good friend the first copy of ALPHABET. In my travels it was lost. I remember it well, miss it and would love it replaced for its contents and the memory of the presenter. I have searched often for a certain poem in it titled “NARCISSUS” – the first line of which reads “Narcissus as he leans above his pool”.
    It haunts me. Please let me know how I may obtain a copy of that first publication. thanx immensely. love — r

    1. Dear Ron: Sadly, Alphabet is now out of print, but there may be used copies of Alphabet Issue One (September 1960); try abebooks.com

      The poem you mention is “Two Lovers” by Daryl Hine (1936-2012); it is beautiful.


      Narcissus as he leans above his pool
      Looks into the world below and sees
      Narcissus as he leans above his pool
      Admiring what he fails to recognize.

      The secret look, the wide admiring eyes
      Seek beneath the pond’s enchanted surface
      The secret look, the wide admiring eyes,
      An amazed infatuated face.

      Dissatisfied, though perfect, being loved
      He bends toward the object of his wish,
      Dissatisfied, though perfect, being loved–
      At last they come together with a splash

      That breaks the mirror in a maze of pieces,
      And meet– a damp and disappointing kiss
      That breaks the mirror in a maze of pieces.
      Aiming so near, you cannot fail to miss.


      Echo that loves him, hid within the wood
      Would to herself rehearse her woe;
      ‘Oh,’ she cries and all the rest unsaid
      Identical comes back in sorry echo.

      Echo for the plight that she is in,
      Invisible, pursued by mocking passion,
      Passionate, ignored, as good as dumb
      Employs that ‘oh’ unchanged in repetition.

      Shun love if you suspect that love shuns you,
      Use him with no reproaches whatsoever,
      Ever you knew, supposing him to know,
      No malady from which you might recover.

      Cover your ears then, Echo, do not hear,
      Here is no supplication but your own.
      Only your sighs return upon the air
      Ere their music from the mouth have gone.

      Daryl Hine, 1960

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