Archives: Canadian poetry

Literary Titans Revisited: James Reaney interviewed by Earle Toppings December 14, 1970

Literary Titans Revisited: James Reaney interviewed by Earle Toppings December 14, 1970

From 1969 to 1970, Earle Toppings, broadcaster and editor at the Ontario Institute for Education (OISE), organized a series of interviews and recordings with 16 Canadian authors for use as a resource in high schools and colleges.

Literary Titans Revisited: The Earle Toppings Interviews with CanLit Poets and Writers of the Sixties, edited by Professor Anne Urbancic, presents exact transcripts of Earle Toppings’s interviews with Canadian authors Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, Sinclair Ross, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Al Purdy, Earle Birney, F.R. Scott, Irving Layton, Miriam Waddington, Raymond Souster, Eli Mandel, and James Reaney.

James Reaney (Photo courtesy Talonbooks)

On December 14, 1970, James Reaney met interviewer Earle Toppings and asked that his recording session for the Canadian Poets on Tape series be recorded at a piano, and fortunately the basement studio of the OISE building in Toronto had one. Reaney then played musical excerpts (for example, “Beulah Land” and “The Maple Leaf Rag”) and also read poems from The Red Heart, A Suit of Nettles, Twelve Letters to a Small Town, Night Blooming Cereus, The Dance of Death at London, Ontario, One Man Masque, and Colours in the Dark. He begins this way:

[Reaney performs “Beulah Land,” a fragment of an old hymn, on the piano.]

That’s the first poem I ever heard, at an early denominational Sunday school. I’m sitting at a piano on Bloor Street near a subway that you’ll hear thundering by occasionally, and I’ve got… sort of… my collected works around me. I’m going to read from The Red Heart first of all, and I’m going to occasionally call forth from the piano pieces of music that really make a comment on the poems in a sort of way. […] [See pages 286-287.]

A special evening to launch the book will be held on October 5 from 6-8 pm at the EJ Pratt Library, 71 Queen’s Park Crescent East, Toronto, Ontario.

 Digital copies of Earle Toppings’s original recordings are available at the Victoria University Special Collections at the University of Toronto.

 Literary Titans Revisited: The Earle Toppings Interviews with CanLit Poets and Writers of the Sixties is available from Dundurn Press.

James Reaney’s poem “Klaxon”

James Reaney’s poem “Klaxon”

Klaxon

All day cars mooed and shrieked,
Hollered and bellowed and wept
Upon the road.
They slid by with bits of fur attached,
Fox-tails and rabbit-legs,
The skulls and horns of deer,
Cars with yellow spectacles
Or motorcycle monocle,
Cars whose gold eyes burnt
With a too-rich battery,
Murderous cars and manslaughter cars,
Chariots from whose foreheads leapt
Silver women of ardent bosom.
Ownerless, passengerless, driverless,
They came to anyone
And with headlights full of tears
Begged for a master,
For someone to drive them
For the familiar chauffeur.
Limousines covered with pink slime
Of children’s blood
Turned into the open fields
And fell over into ditches,
The wheels kicking helplessly.
Taxis begged trees to step inside
Automobiles begged of posts
The whereabouts of their mother.
But no one wished to own them anymore,
Everyone wished to walk.

James Reaney, 1949

 

“Klaxon” is included in The Red Heart (1949), the first collection of James Reaney’s poems, and you can also find the poem in The Essential James Reaney, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

((( • ))) Listen to James Reaney read “Klaxon” in Poets on Film No. 1 from the NFB’s animated film collection.

From “Klaxon”: “No one wished to own them anymore, // Everyone wished to walk.” (July 2017, Vancouver, BC)

La Cosecha Community Garden (Vancouver, BC)

Stratford Literary Walking Tour 2016

Stratford Literary Walking Tour 2016

Come celebrate Stratford Ontario’s literary heritage and take the Stratford Literary Walking Tour — James Reaney’s old high school Stratford Central Secondary School is one of ten stops on the way.

James Reaney was born and raised on a farm three miles east of Stratford in South Easthope Township, and he bicycled to and from high school every day for five years (1939-1944).

Between the highschool & the farmhouse
In the country and the town
It was a world of love and of feeling
Continually floating down
— From James Reaney’s poem “The Bicycle” (1962)

"The Bicycle" illustration by James Reaney from Twelve Letters to A Small Town (1962)

“The Bicycle” illustration by James Reaney from Twelve Letters to A Small Town (1962)

 

For more of James Reaney’s Stratford and Perth County inspired writing, see the links below:

Plays:

 Colours in the Dark (1967)

Short stories:

The Box Social and Other Stories (1996)

Poems:

“The Royal Visit” (1949)

“The Windyard” (1956)

 From Twelve Letters To A Small Town, “The Bicycle” (1962) and “Shakespearean Gardens” (1962)

 “Going for the Mail” (1964)

 “Gifts” (1965)

 “Maps” (2005)

 “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” (2005)

 “The Fan” (2005)

 “Elderberry Cottage” (2005)

Perth County history:

 The Story of North Easthope (1982)

August 2010 -- James Reaney's birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario.

August 2010 — James Reaney’s birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario. The farmhouse was built in 1875 and demolished in 2015.

 

“Elderberry Cottage” by James Reaney

“Elderberry Cottage” by James Reaney

Elderberry Cottage

’s windows, last night, rain wrote upon,
And Bobdog, while we slept, was miles away,
Beating the bounds, our frontier nose-spy
Reporting back at dawn.
We reward him for knowing about
Quarrels in lover’s lane,
Thieves on the prowl and other such
Nightwalkers.
Canny protector, I pray you:
Bark always when strangers come nigh.
Yes, we cannot smell trespass
Nor hear it, as you can.
Piss a ring of fire round our house,
Our curtilage, my land,, my concessional lot.
Lead me safely at last
Under this township to my last cot,
And when Elderberry is a ruin,
Guard my grave from the academic wolf,
The curious professor
With his fine wire-brush
Who would dig me up again
From my happiness, your kingdom.

James Reaney, 2005

“Elderberry Cottage” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books.

Listen to Jeff Culbert perform “Elderberry Cottage” here.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005

 

Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles: April

James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles: April

To celebrate National Poetry Month, here is the “April” eclogue from James Reaney’s long poem A Suit of Nettles.

April

ARGUMENT: With Duncan as judge the geese hold a bardic contest in honour of Spring.

[DUNCAN  RAYMOND  VALANCY]

Here is a kernel of the hardest winter wheat
Found in the yard delicious for to eat.
It I will give to that most poetic gander
Who this season sings as well as swam Leander.
The white geese with their orange feet on the green
Grass that grew around the pond’s glassy sheen
Chose then Valancy and Raymond to sing
And to hear them gathered about in a ring.

RAYMOND

I speak I speak of the arable earth,
Black sow goddess huge with birth;
Cry cry killdeers in her fields.

Black ogress ate her glacier lover
When the sun killed him for her;
The white owl to the dark crow yields.

Caw caw whir whir bark bark
We’re fresh out of Noah’s Ark;
Wild geese come in arrowheads

Shot from birds dead long ago
Buried in your negro snow;
Long water down the river sleds.

Black begum of a thousand dugs,
A nation at each fountain tugs;
The forests plug their gaps with leaves.

Whet whet scrape and sharpen
Hoes and rakes and plows of iron;
The farmer sows his sheaves.

Mr Sword or Mr Plow
Can settle in your haymow,
All is the same to Mother Ground.

Great goddess I from you have come,
Killdeer crow geese ditch leaf plowman
From you have come, to you return
In endless laughing weeping round.

VALANCY

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 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 in to 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
To spawn
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 its pretty birth
The faithful finds:
Fanatic doves, believing wrens and orioles
Devoted redwinged blackbirds with their calls,
Archilochus 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
Humming
With cherubim
And her mind is a cloud of all young things, all children.

The prize to this one goes cried eagerly some
And others cried that to Raymond it must come,
So that Duncan Goose turned to the plantain leaf
And chopped the prize in half with beak-thrust brief.

James Reaney, 1958

The third edition of A Suit of Nettles features charming illustrations by engraver Jim Westergard, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

A Suit of Nettles (3rd edition) is available from the Porcupine's Quill.

A Suit of Nettles (3rd ed. 2010)

 

For more about A Suit of Nettles, see Germaine Warkentin‘s essay “Out of Spenser and the Common Tongue”: James Reaney’s A Suit of Nettles, and Richard Stingle‘s lecture “A learned poet writes A Suit of Nettles”.

"Geese" Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother), 1950 near Stratford, Ontario.

“Geese” Photo by Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother), 1950 near Stratford, Ontario.

Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

Butterfly decoration by James Reaney, September 1947 (ink on yellow paper)

Composer John Beckwith’s music at the Canadian Music Centre

Composer John Beckwith’s music at the Canadian Music Centre

JBCMC

James Reaney was fortunate to have composer John Beckwith set many of his poems to music: The Great Lakes Suite, A Message to Winnipeg, and Twelve Letters to a Small Town. Beckwith and Reaney also collaborated on longer operas Night-blooming Cereus, The Shivaree, and Crazy to Kill.

To listen to original recordings of Beckwith-Reaney works, visit the Canadian Music Centre‘s Composer Showcase and  set up an account – it’s free!

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

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

 

Note from Susan Reaney: In his new memoir, Unheard Of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer,  John Beckwith recalls his career as a composer, including his collaborations with James Reaney. The book is available from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

James Reaney’s “The Fan”

James Reaney’s “The Fan”

Colleen Reaney, Katelynd Chamberlin Franken, and James Reaney at the farm near Stratford, Ontario, July 1985. Photo by Wilma McCaig.

The Fan

A girl spent all day pleating a fan.
Either we have Verdun & Kursk
Or we have herbivorous people
As the she above
Who spend all day in their garden
Watching butterflies or playing with a kite
Or cutting out coloured paper
For a fan
Or a kite
Or balancing the reds of zinnias with those of amaranths,
For example that plant called Love Lies Bleeding.

 I saw a field of men playing football
With a criminal’s head.
I saw a field of sunflowers wiped out
By ten thousand tanks.
I saw Aunt Marjorie’s paint brush
Destroy a knight in armour
And even a villainous peasant!
I saw our hockey player break a Russian player’s ankle!

 And I saw the Fan! giant in the sky
Huge, winnowing!
I saw an armoured car drive up
To arrest an artist
Who was accounted hopelessly a- and un-political
Because he painted nothing but flowers & mice,
But of course was suddenly seen
As the most dangerous rebel in the republic.
And I saw the Fan — big, winnowing,
Make a rhapsody of a windy day,
Separate wheat from straw just like that,
And blow giants & battlefields like dead leaves away!

 James Reaney, 2005

James Reaney, age 1, with his father, James Nexbitt Reaney. Photo by Elizabeth Crerar Reaney, 1927..

James Reaney (age 8 months) with his father, James Nesbitt Reaney, Spring 1927.

 

“The Fan” is from James Reaney’s book of poems Souwesto Home,

available from Brick Books.

SouwestoHome

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.

Crow near Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC.

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

James Reaney’s “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”

In celebration of Brick Books 40th anniversary, here is one of the 26 stanzas from James Reaney’s poem “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan”.

(u)
A Useful List:
Hermes
Hera
Apollo
Zeus
Venus
Vulcan
Mars
Athena
Vesta
Hades
Poseidon
Ceres.
Useful for what?

Well, I don’t quite know yet,
But I swear that as an infant,
Born near the Little Lakes,
I met them.
Every morning in our house,
Vesta used to light the stove

 James Reaney, 2005

 

James Reaney, age 1 1/2 years, on his front porch, January 1928.

James Reaney at home, age 1 1/2 years, January 1928.

“Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” is from James Reaney’s book of poems Souwesto Home (2005), available from Brick Books. For more about the poem, see Celebration of Poetry: Week 1 James Reaney.

Ten of the stanzas from “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” (including “(u) A Useful List”) were set to music by Oliver Whitehead and Stephen Holowitz and performed by the Antler River Project in 2008.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005, Brick Books.

© 2017 James Reaney