Germaine Warkentin, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, presented this paper on James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles on January 7, 2011 at the 126th Annual Conference of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles, California. It is reproduced here by permission of the author.
Modern Language Association, Los Angeles, January 7, 2011; “Spenser as the Poet’s Poet”
“Out of Spenser and the Common Tongue”:
James Reaney’s “A Suit of Nettles” (1958)
Germaine Warkentin, University of Toronto
James Reaney may be the best poet you never heard of. We all know enough about Milton, Stevens, and Merrill to engage in the conversation of this session, but apart from the Canadians here and a few Americans aware of my interest, I can guarantee that Reaney, who died in 2008, is a name unknown to you. In Canada I would not have to say this. Between 1950 and 1970 Reaney wrote prodigiously outside of the modernist framework then dominating Canadian poetry, and endured being unfashionable – too learned, too mythopoeic, too fixated on his home territory around London and Stratford Ontario. There was no cultural “Arcadianism” like that of the 1580s behind A Suit of Nettles. But Reaney was a playwright as well, busy developing a major career in the Canadian theatre, the masterpiece of which is his encyclopedic trilogy (1974-75) on the Black Donnellys, a legendary 19th century family who were at murderous odds with their Southern Ontario neighbours. It was the achievement of his plays that led more recent audiences back to the poems. I confess an interest – in 1972 I edited Reaney’s poems in a volume that helped turn the tide. Reaney was an amazing man: the most learned Canadian poet before Anne Carson, a civic icon in and around London and Stratford, a deeply responsible member of the professoriate at the University of Western Ontario, and a licensed mischief.
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James Reaney in 1979. Photo by Les Kohalmi.