Stan Dragland: James Reaney Off the Grid

The 2022 James Reaney Memorial Lecture presents the late Stan Dragland’s further thoughts on his 2019 lecture, James Reaney On the Grid, which is soon to be published.

Stan Dragland (1942-2022)

Author Terry Griggs, who was a graduate student of Stan’s and also a student of James Reaney’s, was on hand to read Stan’s essay on November 6, 2022 at Wordsfest in London, Ontario.

Author and speaker Terry Griggs

Below is the text for Stan Dragland’s lecture, with footnotes included at the end.

James Reaney Off the Grid
(Copyright Stan Dragland, 2022. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Stan Dragland.)

It’s usual these days, and proper, to begin by acknowledging that we reside on or speak from Indigenous territory. It’s difficult to make the land acknowledgment heartfelt rather than formulaic so let me try something different in the words of James Reaney: “[H]ow can Wallace Stevens say, completely overlooking those who gave his state a name, that ‘we never had a mythology in Connecticut’? . . . .Surely you have to know who were the gods of your country before your arrival.”


I want to thank James Stewart Reaney, Susan Wallace and Susan Reaney for suggesting me as lecturer this year, and Josh Lambier for inviting me. This lecture series is an important way to keep an important writer present to us, and it fits beautifully into Wordsfest. I’m here again because I found that my Reaney lecture of 2019 only scratched the surface of what I had to say about the man and the work. I went home from London and began writing the book about Reaney that is now being launched here. I’d like to begin by reading you a couple of paragraphs from that book. I’ll read some more from the book towards the end of my remarks. Otherwise, while some of what I say parallels what is in the book, it all falls differently here. And so it should. Every occasion like this is an opportunity to rethink. That’s another reason why I’m grateful to be here. 

I’m not the only friend and colleague of Reaney to have written about him and his work, but with the partial exception of James Stewart Reaney, who could hardly avoid saying he was writing about his father, none of these very fine writers makes anything of their personal relationship with their subject. I do. It’s my way of departing from the impersonal academic approach. So here is a bit from the introduction of James Reaney on the Grid. It touches on the fact that I had my disagreements with the man who was, early on, a literary father to me. The influence was so strong that, to be, or become, myself, I eventually had to pull back.

I mean to be up front about my relationship with Reaney. I suppose this is a version of the “full disclosure” that is the thing these days, especially in journalism. Perhaps the approach draws my work in that direction, or else toward memoir. Well, any writing, no matter how cool and remote, is a kind of self-portrait of the author. It is so, at least, to any reader who attends not only to what is being said but also to the how of it — the style, the structure and all the rest — to everything that is literary in any prose argument, which is often most effective when it calls little attention to itself. Whether behind the technique, or in it, though, we are all particular people as we write. We have our own predilections and limitations. If a little of that is allowed to show, perhaps something of the subject’s complex humanity will also show. Perhaps his or her work will feel like something intimately connected to a maker, rather than some remote, basically inert mass of material to be poked at.

James Reaney has said that David Milne wrote as well as he painted, and he was right. “Feeling is the power that drives art,” says Milne in a 1948 essay called “Feeling in Painting.” “There doesn’t seem to be a more understandable word for it, though there are others that give something of the idea: aesthetic emotion, quickening, bringing to life. Or call it love; not love of man or woman or home or country or any material thing, but love without an object — intransitive love.”1 From the verbal field, from grammar in this case — an intransitive verb doesn’t take a direct object — a visual artist draws a metaphor that helps him point to something ineffable that he knows by feeling. Perhaps, when the dust of a critic’s reservations and grumbles has settled, it may be understood that he and his subject are linked by intransitive love.

You may have noticed that I’ve called my book James Reaney on the Grid and you may also have noticed that this lecture is called “James Reaney: Off the Grid,” and you may have wondered: has he come here to take it all back, his own book included? Well no, but I am shaking it all down in a different way. Otherwise, why bother going at the same material another time. For those who weren’t here in 2019, and to refresh the memories of those who were, I’ll sketch in where that word “grid” came from and why it began to work for me as an entry into Reaney’s thinking and writing.

In 1984, Reaney was one of the presenters at a conference on the long poem. Other writers at the conference were pushing poststructuralist literary theory, like Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, which held, to simplify it, that there were no longer any grids of meaning to make a foundation for one’s thinking and writing. On his own presentation, Reaney had said that “there has to be something outside ourselves that inspires and orders. Even our past traditions might turn the trick?” and he stood out at the conference by emphatically rejecting the negativity he felt was embodied in deconstruction. “[T]he way Derrida works for me,” he said, “is that I merely react — not necessarily in a positive, optimistic way, but with images and metaphors; and to hell with it, I don’t care whether they’re ‘grids of meaning’ or not; I’m going to grid away. . . . It makes me feel happy.” 

The particulars of what he was gridding away with, all the literary and other patterns, forms, systems, are detailed in the book — he loved all kinds of lists and would build poems and plays around them — but the largest of these came from mythology and The Bible. In terms of literary theory it came from Northrop Frye, a so-called structuralist, whose Anatomy of Criticism advanced a hugely inclusive grid of literary genres and modes. His theory may be seen as describing a great big circle with every form and style of literature contained within it. It’s very complex and actually quite beautiful to contemplate. Frye had the whole literary field mapped out, in other words. Reaney loved the map as much as he hated deconstruction. I heard him say once that he had sold his soul to Northrop Frye. I took that as the overstatement it was, knowing the many ways in which Frye doesn’t touch his work, but it was the sort of remark that stuck in the craw of writers who identified as postmodernist, many of them advocates of poststructuralist theory. These were the folks who pigeonholed Reaney and a few other writers as Frygians, even small Frye. Reaney established his little magazine Alphabet to advance his own aesthetic and incidentally to go after those who went after him. He enjoyed a literary fight.

For Reaney, the alphabet, a to z in English, was both a source and a metaphor. In fact it’s everybody’s source. From the alphabet we make words and sentences and paragraphs and all the rest. In a way, the alphabet is everything. That is the metaphor. In Reaney’s historical children’s novel, The Boy with An R in His Hand, William Lyon Mackenzie finds his young apprentice looking at some lead type in his printing office. He 

            put one hand on Alec’s shoulder and one on the set-up type.

                        ‘There’s freedom and liberty, lad. There’s the mind of man. All his thoughts that   thousands of people will read and find helpful — all these in thousands of wee bits of lead stuck together.   

Those wee bits of lead type were anything but abstract to Reaney. He learned typesetting to create the early numbers of Alphabet, letter by letter. If you’re interested in this hands-on aspect of his career, there is some fascinating writing by Tim Inkster, one of Reaney’s publishers, on the subject. I draw on his work in James Reaney on the Grid.

But right now my concern is that grid. Why would I now want to get Reaney off it, at least to show the ways in which it doesn’t limit him? It has to do with why I won’t be selling my own soul to Northrop Frye. I have read through a great deal of Frye, with great admiration and, finally, a certain amount of resistance, but it was not until I read this that I understood the great difference between his mind and mine, and also why there are aspects of Reaney’s work that fail to speak to me: “The wise man has a pattern or image of reality in his mind into which everything he knows fits, and into which everything he does not know could fit, and therefore his approach to knowledge is something that the dung-beetles of unorganized learning cannot even grasp.”

You should know that you’re being addressed right now by one of those dung-beetles of unorganized learning. You may wish to leave, rather than get any deeper into the shit with me. Okay, I’m overstating this. I am of course interested in organized knowledge. I have been patient with all the attempts to organize my knowledge in a decade of primary, secondary and post-secondary education, but I have more and more begun to feel that it’s possible to organize the life out of things, to lean overmuch on the capacity of words to capture reality. So I like to approach any subject in the spirit of improvisation. My totem is the magpie, a bird that gathers shiny items from here and there to theek its nest. The Reaney who interests me most, then, is the Reaney aware that the field of knowledge is a wild kingdom. Yes, he grids away, but those grids are not limiting when he is really cooking. In my previous lecture I pointed out that he was only sometimes limited as an artist by the grids he so loved. Today I want to stress the Reaney who knew how important it is to be able to pry or bounce one’s mind outside of inherited, imprisoning systems, who knew how to improvise, who could make plays out of the simplest things he found in his own environment. This is also the Reaney who was capable of creating a comprehensive literary system of great flexibility like his masterpiece, The Donnelly Trilogy.

Here, from the editorial to Alphabet 4, is his vision of an alternative theatre: “There should be a club that does nothing but seasons of plays by Canadians. It should do them in a bare, long room above a store, probably infested by Odd Fellows or Orangemen on easily avoidable nights. Nobody should have any truck with that grand Bugaboo — Lighting. Five two hundred Mazda watters always turned on will do for any play that lights its own way, as a play should. . . . What is most of all needed is not money, but a simple, austere idea.” The point might be illustrated by his play for children called Names and Nicknames. “This play,” he says, takes place in the southwestern hamlet of Brocksden around 1900. The play was written with a bare stage in mind; all the stage setting can be accomplished with words, pantomime, the human body, music from rhythm band instruments, the audience themselves. . . . Dress the stage with a stepladder; when Thorntree climbs up on the roof to listen down the chimney this stepladder is all that is needed.”

I don’t know if rhythm bands are still formed to introduce pre-school students to music. I had some rhythm band experience myself when I was five years old. I didn’t find it interesting, but I am interested in Reaney’s do-it-yourself drama, including the possibility of using the instruments to create sound effects for sophisticated plays, so I looked up rhythm bands online and found out that it’s still possible to purchase rhythm band kits from prices ranging from $64.00 to $349.99. The cheapest kit contains the following: “1 tambourine, 1 rattle-drum, 1 leather hand bell, 1 stick hand bell, 1 pair of maracas, 1 shaker egg, 1 castanet, 1 double-barrelled wood sounder with hammer, and 1 4-inch music steel triangle with striker.” The significant things about all the potential sounds made by those instruments is that they become metaphors in the context of the words and actions they accompany. Just one example. What were 80 elastic bands contributing to the soundscape of Reaney’s play, Wacousta!? “Their thrumming can be a most ominous sound suggestive of bowstrings, minds snapping, terror. . . . Our corner grocery gave me a whole bag of elastic bands for nothing, by the way, and hours can be spent just modulating this sound according to the varying lengths and thicknesses.” I doubt that Northrop Frye advocated spending hours with elastic bands. Reaney will not have learned about domestic sources for sound from him, though he may have learned a thing or two from London’s Nihilist Spasm Band which made strange noises on improvised instruments.

Those 200 watt lights notwithstanding, anyway, this drama is off the grid in the sense that it doesn’t depend on technology. That’s one sense in which it lights its own way. How does it work? Here is how Jay Macpherson describes Reaney’s dramaturgical austerity in a production of Listen to the Wind that she took in: “The music, composed or put together by the excellent teenage musicians we see on stage [“In homage to the Peking Opera whose visit to Canada changed my life,” Reaney has said, “I always have music in my plays with the musicians in plain sight.”2], and the sound effects contributed by the chorus, provide half the life and atmosphere of the play. The chorus mime, recite, sing, thump, clap and play instruments from recorder to pop-bottle; waving antlers they are a forest, surging and whooshing they are the sea, holding flowers and twittering sweetly they are a dewy English garden. When needed, they mingle on stage as party guests or a pack of starving dogs. A letter sent to London in the inner play is passed from hand to hand through the chorus to its recipient standing far right: in such ways they are not there just to comment, like most choruses, but actively push the action on.”3 Half the life and atmosphere of the play, that is, is created out of next to nothing. Macpherson goes on about the “child’s-play simplicity of the means by which [the] effects are created. . . . [W]hat is astonishing in Reaney’s production is the sense of play, of freedom, of creation before one’s eyes. Far from being instant or impromptu theatre, every action has been carefully planned; but the whole company has contributed to its planning, particularly in the highly inventive work of the chorus.”4 The aural and visual complexity of The Donnelly Trilogy is so much greater that I can’t take the time today to go into it, though I do so in the book.


Now I want to go at this grid business in another way, by stressing what Reaney has said about the need for flexibility in thinking, in society, in politics, often by way of criticising the rigidity of the various systems we live within. He wanted us to be aware of those systems, to resist the conformity they encourage.

One sort of grid that Reaney has trouble with was that imposed on the natural world by the geological survey. It certainly caused trouble along the Roman Line in Biddulph Township, Concession Six, lot eighteen in particular. This is the lot on which the Donnelly family settled when they came to Upper Canada from Ireland. Early in Sticks & Stones, the first play of the trilogy, we are with the man who is bringing the international survey to the locale and is vouchsafed a view of what his work will mean to the future of that particular plot. He sees why it will be a bone of contention. “[T]o begin with the way this plot is laid out,” he tells the son who is with him, “there’s a small creek enters it from the next farm, crosses it and then flows into the next farm. Farm that is to be. It’ll be the subject of a lawsuit, quarrels about water rights, flooding—they’ll love that little creek.” Why not do something to prevent the conflict, the son wonders, “Make the farms a different shape?” “I’m not allowed to do that, Davie,” the surveyor replies. “The laws of geometry are the laws of geometry. . . . No, people must make do with what right angles and Euclid and we surveyors and measurers provide for them.” The scene in which this exchange takes place is bucolic. I seem to remember bright light, certainly bird song. There is harmony between surveyor and son. And why not. The two of them are having a pleasant day north of London, Ontario, in unspoiled, that is unsettled, nature. They are in process of imposing a foreign geometrical grid on the landscape so that newcomers, settlers, may buy and then own the land. The grid thus serves another system: capitalism. The surveyor is mildly ironic about the conflict he anticipates. Not his problem. The irony deepens and goes vary dark when the ground under the Donnellys’ feet becomes the ground of tragedy. This single scene is like the whole play in that it has a continuing resonance outside itself. We are living today under the changes to the biosphere wrought by the application of so-called technological advances. Critique of technology is at the heart of Reaney’s vision. These days, it looks prophetic.

Reaney valorized the gridless. He had a curious and fascinating theory — here comes Reaney off the wall — that living in the vicinity of anomalies in the grid produces nonconforming individuals, especially artists. ‘[Y]ou don’t get a very interesting landscape when everything is chopped up into 90 degree angles. You have to fight that. . . . Our lane, at home [this is at the farm in Easthope Township, near Stratford, where he grew up] our lane is not at right angles with anything. My theory about culture is that you have to have a crooked road which is the road in front of our farm, because there were three families that were very interested in art there.” This theory has some backing from William Blake, one of Reaney’s favourite poets: “Improvement makes strait roads,” he writes, “but the crooked roads without/ Improvement are roads of genius.” 

You may have your doubts, as I do, as to the validity of the theory, at least as expressed in the interview quoted above, but it was not a one-off. Here it is again, somewhat more developed, in a section of “Little Lake District (Where I Was Born) Poems” published in Souwesto Home, Reaney’s last book of poems. 

In all its straight surveyed push
From Wilmot to Goderich
The Old Huron Road curved only once,
Defeated by the Little Lakes
With their hemlock swamps
Where they bent him south & then north
And caught, therefore, in their crooked snare
Painters & poets, storytellers, eccentricsWho were born & lived & died there5

In light of the theory, it occurs to me to look at centered poems like this as released from the left-hand margin — a little less grid-like, lines ragged at both ends, form mirroring content — though of course the lines are arranged around a central armature. The theory does lie more naturally in the poem than in the statement. Still, we don’t just swallow poems. We think about what they do and what they say. The word “therefore” in the poem offers a pleasant but doubtful cause-effect relationship between a crooked road and non-conforming individuals.

How far would Reaney take his theory of environmental determinism, and how seriously should we take it? It did make a strange appearance during the graduate class in Ontario Literature and Culture that he taught. One of the books on the course was Harold Innis’s The Bias of Communication. “We went in the week after it was assigned,” says Jean McKay, one of the students, “and said ‘this guy’s prose style is impenetrable!’ And he said ‘Of course he’s got an impenetrable style! He was raised on a stony ridge in Oxford Country!’” I don’t suppose that remark would have made the prose any more palatable, but I suspect it gave the questioners pause. It must have made them wonder how on earth that second sentence could logically follow the first!

Let me digress for a moment to say that I’m reminded right here of something Reaney wrote in 14 Barrels From Sea to Sea, his prose account of the national tour of The Donnellys. In the Vancouver section of the book we have this: “Had an argument in the car with someone about rock music… I said that thunderstorms had been the first amplified rock music and he kept saying NO, THUNDERSTORMS WERE NOT THE FIRST ROCK BANDS, STOP SAYING THAT!” That’s all we have, in this rapid-fire, diaristic account, so there’s no way of knowing whether it was meant humorously and was taken wrong, or did he really believe what he was saying. Another fascinating head-scratcher. As one who loved listening to Reaney for the ways he could illuminate a subject by approaching it from an unconventional angle and thus showing it in a completely new light, often leaving me in a state of awe, I’m inclined to be skeptical but not entirely dismissive. It’s certainly true what Jean McKay, one of Reaney’s most devoted supporters, concludes about the impenetrable prose moment: “he “walked through the same world in a totally different way.”

For me, almost everything in Reaney points toward or returns to his masterpiece, The Donnellys, and this unorthodox anti-grid theory of environmental determinism does too, obliquely and with subtlety, in the first poem in a three-part series called “Entire Horse (Poems Written About  The Donnellys To Assist in the Renewal of the Town Hall at Exeter, Highway # 4).” In The Donnelly Documents, his scholarly companion piece to The Donnellys, Reaney refers to “the emotive power of one factor to all involved: land. . . . This embattled farm and the Donnellys’ relationship with land and property should be seen as one of the most important features in this dramatic story.” Donnellys do not even appear in the poem in question, but for anyone who knows the trilogy, the image of the cage that appears near the end of it is metaphorically the one that confined that tragic family.

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.6

The speaker of this poem (one of three, the other sections voiced by Tom Donnelly and Mrs. Donnelly) is identified in a note as William Porte, Lucan postmaster.

In James Reaney on the Grid, I simply quoted this poem as a further example of the environmental theory. When it came up again in this I started looking more closely at it. I’m tempted to say at this point that perhaps my twenty-odd years of experience in Newfoundland have shaped my vision anew: surveying and town planning were unknown when Europeans startled settling there. There is no grid in downtown St. John’s nor in any Newfoundland outport.

1. David P. Silcox, Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1996), xv. Some analogues of this sense of love may be found in Iain McGilchrist’s remarks about beauty: “Our relationship with what is beautiful . . . is more like longing, or love, a betweenness, a reverberative process between the beautiful and our selves, which has no ulterior purpose, no aim in view, and is non-acquisitive. Beauty is in this way distinguished from erotic pleasure or any other interest we may have in the object. This is surely what Leibniz meant by beauty being a ‘disinterested love’. In fact, so central is this idea that one finds it also in Kant, who spoke of beauty as a ‘disinterested pleasure’, and in Burke, who saw it as a form of ‘love [that is] different from desire’.” The Master and His Emissary:  The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 445.
2. James Reaney, “Wacousta Workshops: An Overview.” Wacousta!, 120.
3. “Preface,” Listen to the Wind, viii.
4. Ibid., viii.
5. James Reaney, Souwesto Home, 27.
6. James Reaney, Souwesto Home, 51.

Copyright Stan Dragland, 2022. Reproduced with permission of the Estate of Stan Dragland.