“Janitor” is a poem from Souwesto Home, James Reaney’s recent collection of new poems, published by Brick Books in 2005.
I love gateways into farms & yards: even more
Do I love door-
ways (latches, their hooks, hinges, keyholes).
From my collegiate days
I remember the janitor,
Who lingered, with his blizzard broom
At the highschool’s entrance, tending
His garden of galoshes, rubbers, boots,
Mudmats, sleet mops, rainwhisks.
Awesomely quiet, brooding, puttering man,
He had, in his pockets, keys for all locks
Of classroom, gymnasium,
Even the mysterious cubby holes under stairs,
And the exits & entrances of the assembly
You shuffler & sweeper, who opened, who shut,
Kept the rain, wind, mud, snow, out,
And us, inside, warm & dry.
Doorkeeper, in some strange way,
You caretaker, though you were
Neither principal nor teacher,
You secretly governed the school.
We often dreamt of you,
Our most remembered educator.
James Reaney, 2005.
James Reaney attended Stratford Central Collegiate, now Stratford Central Secondary School, from 1939-1944. On November 26, 2010, the school held a celebration to rename the school’s old auditorium the James C. Reaney Auditorium in honour of his achievements as a poet and playwright.
Thank you all for coming to the lecture on Sunday afternoon to hear Colleen Thibaudeau, James Reaney’s widow, talk about their early days together and read from some of his works.
For those of you who were unable to attend, Stratford Beacon Herald reporter Mike Beitz reports on Thibaudeau’s talk here.
Our thanks also to the organizers of the lecture at the Stratford Public Library, Charles Mountford, Anne Marie Heckman, and Sam Coghlan. Colleen Thibaudeau especially appreciated all the help she has had from her family and others; she couldn’t have done it without you.
One of James Reaney’s poems that Colleen Thibaudeau read was “White Grumphies, white snow” from Souwesto Home, published by Brick Books.
“White Grumphies, white snow…”
The students of Agricultural Diploma, their fathers
Grow square miles of blue flowering flax near
Pilot Mound and square miles of yellow mustard which
I saw as I drove out from Minnesota,
Well knowing that in the fall, in the autumn,
We would be teaching them Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,
Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Emily Dickinson.
As I climbed the stairs to their classroom
Over the Rupertsland Agricultural Auditorium,
Prepared to teach them “I heard a fly buzz when I died,”
I heard them splitting desk into kindling
For a bonfire in a waste paper basket where they
Burnt the texts on the course one by one,
Rainbow-coloured poems and prose they burnt,
Book by book, as I taught them.
As verbal virgins they were tougher
Than such pastoral nymphs as Diana or urban ones
Such as Athena.
However, a day or two later, taking a random stroll
Across the winter campus, I saw,
Around the corner of the Swine Barn, a herd
Of white, white pigs being driven into the barn
By my Aggie Dip students each with
A very proper and even beautiful pig-driving stick.
Was it their mid-term test in pig-herding?
It must have been.
The whiteness of the piggies against the whiteness of the snow
Presented them with optical problems.
They had trouble seeing me as well.
In fact not one of them did, for I
Was wearing this poem.
James Reaney, 2005.
My editor, Stan Dragland, wishes me to explain “White Grumphies, white snow.” They are white pigs herded by agricultural students on a snowy day.
James Reaney was born today on September 1, 1926 in South Easthope Township near Stratford, Ontario. He died on June 11, 2008, in London, Ontario. He would have been 84 years old today. Dear Jamie, we remember you always!
Here is a poem by James Reaney from The Essential James Reaney, a collection of poems available from The Porcupine’s Quill.
Upon a lake
A beastly bird
Sits on the bank
And dips its beak
Of sharpened bone
Into a haunted
That ripples with an eternal stone.
When the ladies descend the stairs,
Some eat their fans
And others comb their hair.
But Miss Mumblecrust
Picks up that beastly bird
And dips its beak
Into that round lake
That ripples with eternal stone
And dips its beak of sharpened bone
Into a pool of a young man singing
‘I’m all alone
By the telephone!’
Richard Stingle, a long-time friend and colleague of James Reaney, has kindly given us permission to share his talk about A Suit of Nettles, which he presented at the book launch on May 25, 2010 in London, Ontario. (A new edition of A Suit of Nettles is available from The Porcupine’s Quill.)
A learned poet writes A Suit of Nettles
By Richard M. Stingle, May 25, 2010
In 1948, Jamie, Colleen and I were graduated from the Honours English programme at the University of Toronto, a programme that was centred on learning in several different areas of the Humanities. Ironically, in that same year of 1948, a history of English literature, edited by A. C. Baugh, included a study of eighteenth-century literature in which George Sherburn states that
“At the beginning of Alexander Pope’s career a hostile critic could assure him: ‘You have not that sufficient learning necessary to make a poet.’ The idea of learning as essential to a poet perished in the eighteenth century. Stephen Duck, the thresher poet, Anne Yearsley, the milkmaid and Thomas Chatterton all aspired to the role of natural genius — and to the grief of possible sponsors seemed deficient in quality.”
Even Robert Burns sang:
“Gie me a spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire;
Then, though I drudge thro dub and mire
At pleugh or cart,
My Muse, tho hamely in attire,
May touch the heart.
But surely Sherburn overstated the case in saying that learning was no longer essential. As Jay Macpherson has rightly said, Jamie was “of the learned kind of poet.” The tension between those in the learned tradition and those who confine poetry to the theme and language of the inspired “common man” has continued for two centuries and sometimes within the same poet. Wordsworth may champion the language such as men do use but proceeds to pull out all the stops of the epic in The Prelude and The Excursion. Tennyson’s preface The Epic has one character destroying his own attempt at epic, “Why take the style of those heroic times” (34), “And why should any man/Remodel models” (35-36). But Tennyson immediately proceeds to remodel Morte d’Arthur and later the whole Arthurian epic in Idylls of the King. William Morris also remodeled Nordic epic in his Sigurd the Volsung and Yeats, Joyce, Pound and Eliot continued this process as well. And Jamie was, as Germaine Warkentin has also affirmed, a learned poet.
A Canadian poet said once of Jamie that he was a poet (especially in the lyrical first volume of The Red Heart), but Northrop Frye killed him. This was nonsense. Frye and Jamie were both products of the old Honours programme at the University of Toronto. In Honours English, the student took nine courses in each year and reinforced his central study (English) with courses in three other Honours areas: in Frye’s case, Latin, Greek and Philosophy; in Jamie’s case, Latin, Greek and History. Both men were also very competent in playing the piano. I remember Jamie’s playing Bach, Debussy and his own “Penny Arcade.” And Jamie was painting while Frye was writing on painting in Canadian Forum. It is true that at first Jamie thought that the Modern era was slighted in the Honours programme (as it was) and that concepts were emphasized over the metaphors of mythos (as they were), but when Jamie went to teach at the University of Manitoba in 1949, he filled out what he had found lacking. He eagerly read Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, studied Blake and was writing furiously and telescoping his development in forms from lyric to epic to drama. When, a couple of years later, I joined him teaching in Winnipeg, Jamie was developing as a learned poet, and beginning to work with John Hirsch and Tom Hendry. Like Virgil, Spenser and Pope, who all began by writing pastoral eclogues, he was beginning to write dialogues combining romance and satire in his remodeling of Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar and, like Virgil, Spenser and Pope, he proceeded to writing epic works. In A Suit of Nettles, he was already becoming more complex, in entwining the eclogue with that very Canadian genre, the beast-fable, used by Ernest Thompson Seton, Sir Charles D. Roberts and others, the most recent being Yann Martel. As in the Canadian version of the form, Jamie’s geese remain geese as well as acting out human ideas, as Jim Westergard’s engravings in the new issue show. Jamie was, of course, adapting the folk-tale of The Seven Swans of the Brothers Grimm for the central metaphor of Branwell’s suit of nettles and the unchanged swan’s wing.
In the mid-fifties Jamie went back to Toronto, to strengthen his professional position with a Ph.D., but even more to bring all that he had learned and experienced earlier into Frye’s liberating idea that all literature is made out of literature, all art out of art. As Frye wrote in Myth and Freedom (1985): “But we can never understand the poet’s authority without Vico’s principles of verum factum, that reality is in the world we make and not in the world we stare at” (122). Frye’s modal criticism (Romance, Irony, Tragedy and Comedy) allowed Jamie to shape and contain what he knew into circles that become so important in Jamie’s work. He studied Blake with Frye, and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation, “Spenser’s Influence on Yeats,” under Frye’s direction.
Within the whirling circle of the year in A Suit of Nettles are circles within which speakers with opposed visions of language and poetry contend, as in the “July” eclogue in which Anser, the “progressive” teacher, derides Valancy (Isabella Valancy Crawford of Paisley) for praising Strictus, the teacher in her youth who taught his goslings knowledge of science, myth, history, biblical patterns and metaphors and the novels of Bronte and the poetry of Milton. Anser scornfully replies “how useless so far as the actual living of life is concerned.” In the “August” eclogue, this approach is reinforced in Jamie’s attack on Scrutumnus (representing F. R. Leavis) as the literary critic who is behind Anser’s point of view — a confining of literary experience to the “felt experience” of essentially rudimentary feeling and language. Reaney, of course, could also depict what A Suit of Nettles presents as Scrutumnus’ ideal of “Pigs in the sties of Venus,” but Jamie refused to confine his poetry or limit his language to one level. Jamie could present a flower in a corner fence on the farm more precisely than Tennyson could his “flower in the crannied wall” and as precisely as any Imagist poet. But he moves out to include all levels of experience and, instead of limiting language to the simplest level, brings all levels of language into multiple relations through complex counterpoint.
Many of his central metaphors are circles revolving within the cycle of the year on an Ontario farm (Jamie’s farm near Stratford). At the fall fair (Stratford Fall Fair) the circle of Western philosophy revolves in the merry-go-round and on the ferris wheel the creation myths of mankind rise and fall. It is not surprising that Jamie rejoiced in the visions of wheels within wheels a-turning in the Book of Ezekiel, Chapter I.
The dominant stanza of A Suit of Nettles is the Spenserian Sestina, but Jamie is encyclopaedic in his use of other stanzas as well. So is he in his use of metrical variation from the alliterative pounding of Beowulf, as in the “Drunken Preacher’s” sermon in “September” —
Lo, it was the last supper, I leader from gutter
Tell you tall and short tinkery folk gathered.
What did those white souls eat while their Lord talked:
I don’t know indeed I don’t, maybe sandwiches.
— to the light graceful elegiac song of dimeters and trimeters of the first poem in “October” —
Sing to us for the frost
Is closing the pond,
The elms their leaves have lost
And the singing birds are gone.
— and through other variants such as hexameter and pentameter, as in the “May” Eclogue. I think that Jamie, like Wagner, was striving to achieve a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a union of all the arts, the expression of all creativity, and he certainly wrote through form after form and finally reached drama and opera to find such appropriate encyclopaedic media. In A Children’s Story, the latest novel by A. S. Byatt, two characters are also striving to realize Wagner’s desire:
Anselm Stern said what was needed was music like Richard Strauss. No, no, said Steyning, something fairy-like, something between “Greensleeves” and The Ring of the Nibelungs (515).
And sometimes we hear in Jamie’s work this intricate, encyclopaedic sound, and hear it first in A Suit of Nettles. Certainly we hear it clearly in The Donnellys, in Gyroscope and in Crazy to Kill.
In Imprecations in 1984, Jamie pronounces a resounding series of curses through three female voices, those of “Edith Sitwell, Judith Donnelly, and a whore on Queen St. in Toronto.” From their energy, the speaker-poet derives the power to lay waste to those who abuse the planet and their fellow creatures, those who destroyed the Honours programme at Toronto, those traitorous teachers who tell their students not to memorize anything and rely on their own opinion, and those who use the political power of the Ministry of Education to expel poetry from the schools. Note the emphasis upon the Honours programme — I think that I shall read that section —
Oh ye hippies and merry draft dodgers who in the sixties
Came to University College stampeding my dear old professors,
Mobbing them till they scrapped the old Honours English Course,
And gave you anything at any time:
No down payment on Emily Bronte; Virginia Woolf now,
Beowulf later on. Communitas delenda est!
May you in Heaven be presented with harps tuned in this order:
A 2 octaves below Middle C, next F natural 5 octaves above High C …
— and note, as well, the emphasis on the duty of the genuine student to connect with the learned tradition. Twenty-six years after A Suit of Nettles, in Imprecations, Jamie is remaining true to the original power of A Suit of Nettles, and for another 24 years after that, he continued to proclaim its truths. And I have continued to be through all these years overwhelmed by the honour Jamie did me 52 years ago by dedicating A Suit of Nettles — “To RMS” — to me.
“Ice Cream” is a poem from Souwesto Home, James Reaney’s recent collection of new poems, published by Brick Books in 2005.
The local poet is riding his bike uptown
On a fairly hot summer day
Bent on Jumbo’s Ice Cream booth
Before mailing a poem to Chimaera at the Post Office
At Jumbo’s Ice Cream booth there are
Thirty flavours available including—
Licorice, fudge, lemon, orange, apple, grape,
Banana, chocolate, cherry, Maple Walnut (my favourite)
Vanilla, of course, peppermint, strawberry, raspberry—
Weren’t there some vegetable ones? Do I remember—
Onion ice cream?
And this pair of double dip skim milk flavours
Cost only a nickel each!
And the ceiling was of pressed tin!
So, I plunk down a nickel for a Maple Walnut!
And so out the door bent on making the cone
Last till I reach the Post Office door—
The Post Office is French Provincial with 4 clocks.
The poet holds his bicycle up with his left hand.
Walks slowly licking as he proceeds.
Two little girls say scornfully: “He’s acting
Just like a little kid!”
But he thinks— “Isn’t this what life is all about?”
James Reaney, 2005
It was two years ago today that James Reaney passed away. His nephew, Scott Thibaudeau, read “Ice Cream” at a celebration of James Reaney’s life held in early July at Aeolian Hall in London, Ontario. There was Maple Walnut ice cream for everyone at intermission.
A new edition of A Suit of Nettles, James Reaney’s set of pastoral eclogues inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Shephearde’s Calendar, is available from The Porcupine’s Quill. A book launch and reading to celebrate the new edition will be held in May.
From the April eclogue, here are Valancy’s lines from the bardic contest celebrating Spring.
Your limbs are the rivers of Eden.
From the dead we see you return and arise,
Fair girl, lost daughter:
The swallows stream through the skies,
Down dipping water,
Skimming ground, and from the chimney’s foul dusk
Their cousins the swifts tumble up as the tusk
Of roar day
In bright May
Scatters them gliding from darkness to sun-cusp.
Your face unlocks the bear from his den.
The world has come into the arms of the sun.
What now sulky earth?
All winter you lay with your face like a nun,
But now bring forth
From river up boxdrain underground
Fish crawling up that dark street without sound
In our pond
Young suckers and sunfish within its deep round.
Your body is a bethlehem.
Come near the sun that ripened you from earth
Pushing south winds
Through lands without belief till this pretty birth
The faithful finds:
Fanatic doves, believing wrens and orioles
Devoted redwinged blackbirds with their calls, Archilocus alexandri, Melospiza georgiana,
All surround you with arched cries of Love’s triumphals.
Your mind is a nest of all young things, all children
Come to this meadow forest edge;
Put her together
From this squirrel corn dogtooth young sedge
And all this weather
Of the white bloodroots to be her skin
The wake robin to be her shin
Her thighs pockets
Of white violets
Her breasts the gleaming soft pearly everlasting.
For her limbs are the rivers of Eden;
Her face unlocks
The brown merry bear from his den,
From his box
The butterfly and her body is a bethlehem
And her mind is a cloud of all young things, all children.
James Reaney, 1958
A Suit of Nettles won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1958.
James Reaney’s poem “Antichrist as a Child” is the poem of the day on Poetry Daily, an online anthology of contemporary poetry. “Antichrist as a Child” can also be found in The Essential James Reaney, published by The Porcupine’s Quill.
Antichrist as a Child
When Antichrist was a child
He caught himself tracing
The capital letter A
On a window sill
And wondered why
Because his name contained no A.
And as he crookedly stood
In his mother’s flower-garden
He wondered why she looked so sadly
Out of an upstairs window at him.
He wondered why his father stared so
Whenever he saw his little son
Walking in his soot-coloured suit.
He wondered why the flowers
And even the ugliest weeds
Avoided his fingers and his touch.
And when his shoes began to hurt
Because his feet were becoming hooves
He did not let on to anyone
For fear they would shoot him for a monster.
He wondered why he more and more
Dreamed of eclipses of the sun,
Of sunsets, ruined towns and zeppelins,
And especially inverted, upside down churches.
As planets love an ancient star
And move in far dances round its fire
So the farmer and his children sit
About their stove whose flamey wit
Giggles in red and yellow laughter
Like a small sun caught in iron armour.
When outside the winter winds are loud
Close by their summery stove they crowd.
Through the windows they may see
The cold wind herd a river of snow
Beneath the moon, across the land
All locked in Winter’s frog-cold hand.
And sometimes the wind does shove
Between the window sill and window
Beneath the door and across the floor
White whisks and brooms of snow.
Through every little crack
At the front door and the back
Came the soft white hands of snow
That, with its heat, the stove does smash
Into a harmless flat thin splash.
Then down the chimney the wind came
Till the fire seemed somewhat lame
Until someone poked at it
Or put on another stick
And it blazed up again.
The wind, the cold snow and the rain
Could not put that stove out
But in a furious dance
They kept a safe distance
Always beyond the window pane
So that the farmer and his children
By the stove sitting tight
Only heard the wind and never felt
Its sharp cold bite.
Then the farmer told them stories
That his father had told him
Of the massacre at Lucan
Where the neighbours killed all of the McKilligans dead
Except one little boy who crawled under a bed;
Of the little boy carried off by a bear
And, “a ball of fire leaped out of the earth
At him and vanished into thin air.
Your grandmother saw
Tecumseh’s head on a pole;
Had also dined with him once
And when she looked into her soup
At the bottom of the bowl
She saw a groundhog’s paw.
And Indian Sal who picked flax
And drank vinegar and had attacks
And Granny Crack
Who wandered the countryside
With seven petticoats to her back.
And Towser Smith who
When it rained for five days in a row
Went out and shook his fist at the sky,
His fist at God in the sky.
And how when I was a child
You stood at the table
And ate off a pie-tin
Not sit on chairs and eat off a plate
As you do now.
And how bricks and mortar
Couldn’t keep her from marrying him.”
Then the farmer and his children grow drowsy
With the heat of the fire so blowsy
And the stories their father tells them
Of the good and bad old days
Grow shorter and shorter
Till the fire alone seems to talk.
Its ripening red now seeming
A massive convulsive giant’s heart
A Robin’s red breast.
A sunset in summer,
The rising and large Harvest Moon
When she walks out of the east, –
All these things seems the fire
Which, with their father’s stories
Will long be remembered
And protect them from growing old.
Winter’s tales that like gold
In the purses of their hearts
Will ring and shine forever
Warming them in the long winter’s cold.
James Reaney, 1949
This poem first appeared in Contemporary Verse, 30, Winter 1949.