Critical Episodes in Montreal Poetry of the 1940s
by Brian Trehearne
Lacking the full attention to context and development that leads to a focus on contemporary poetics, critics of the Canadian ’forties have largely emphasized the setting of scene. Criticism of the period began very much in the biographical mood. Scholars had easy personal contact with the authors of whom they wrote and reproduced distinctly interested versions of the past. It is not entirely fair that Wynne Francis’s 1962 article "Montreal Poets of the Forties" should continue to bear the brunt of this charge in what follows, since the faults of her piece are largely those of enthusiasm: caricature, exaggeration of conflict. Clearly Francis sought to report on an exciting period in Canadian letters and initiate scholarly discussion of it. Sadly, though, the readiness of subsequent readers to replicate her misleading antinomies made her the fountainhead of a misguided critical tradition when she might have been the inspiration of a vibrant and accurate scholarship.
Her work would give the cue to Neil Fisher, whose First Statement: an Assessment and an Index of 1974 exaggerated, if anything, the claims of Francis’s article, relying as had she on a personalized, biographical reading of the decade involving minimal reference to the poetry actually written and published in it. The method persisted to 1981, when Don Precosky in his "Preview: an Introduction and Index" quoted Francis’s article of two decades earlier for his distinctions between the two magazines of the period (78); in 1985, Elspeth Cameron’s biography of Irving Layton summarized the Preview-First Statement conflict in a paragraph that largely re-created the colourful errors of the Francis tradition (175). In the dozen years since, the Canadian ’forties have all but slipped below our scholarly horizon; like much of Canadian modernism, the decade now inspires scant critical activity. Occasional demurs in recent scholarship focussed elsewhere would seem to indicate some supersession of the prevailing ’forties narrative, but there has certainly been as yet no documented revision of the decade’s character.
In fact, the minimal counter-trend in ’forties criticism has usually opposed not the crudity of such biographical analyses but only the accuracy of their results; Patrick Anderson’s two statements on the period1 attempted a factual corrective but came off poignantly, a mixture of defence and self-blame dominating his useful reminiscences. A guess at the reasons for this emphasis on scene and colour in the ’forties narratives can be hazarded. Partly it results from the genuine intensity and historical interest of the decade, in which substantial personalities of later literary culture came together in dramatic configurations to re-conceive the development of Canadian poetry. Their youth, iconoclasm and survivable poverty give the ’forties in Montreal some of the cast of the Paris ’twenties, and a lingering literary nationalism perhaps made us vaunt that status and play up the parallel—which exists, of course, only on the level of scene. Journalism too feeds on conflict; and in the exuberance of the ’sixties, when critical tasks included the selling of Canadian literature to a national public, it is not surprising that the methods of journalism should have infused a critical tradition then immature. It is equally true that the emphasis on period "mood" obviated the need for critical research, and thereby helped to obscure the fact that the First Statement poetry of the ’forties was largely fledgling, only the Preview poets having emerged with their best and characteristic work before the decade was over. Critical citation of poems actually written in the ’forties is breathtakingly rare.
As these thoughts may already suggest, the tendency to read backwards from later achievement has had a vitiating effect on ’forties criticism. In the broadest terms (for now), the poets of First Statement evolved throughout the 1950s, two of them, Layton and Louis Dudek, having a major influence on later poetry; whereas the poets of Preview—and this striking coincidence has not been much remarked—fell suddenly silent between 1953 and 1955, the years in which both P.K. Page and her "muse" withdrew (despite her Governor-General’s award), Anderson published his last book of new Canadian poems, and A.M. Klein’s mental distress moved to its crisis. On the surface there would seem to be few more telling dramatizations of the weakness of the Preview aesthetics and the promise of First Statement—that is, if we do read backwards, and assume distinct poetic programs based on the ’fifties for the two ’forties magazines.
Under such a dispensation the particulars of each later career can also distort perceptions of the ’forties. Layton’s later exuberant egoism is a product of the 1950s, not the 1940s, but its bellicose gestures have been used to construct a more grandiose First Statement than ever existed from 1942-1945. The later experiments of Dudek with "proprioception" (in Frank Davey’s sense of Warren Tallman’s borrowing of Charles Olson’s term)2 can be joined up with a stray editorial from Sutherland regarding his poets’ desire "to come to grips with their environment and to express the basic factors in experience"3 to argue for an advanced "little-mag" already working out the poetics of the 1960s (Davey 4-5). At the same time, Page’s later frustration with the intensities of her style signalled to many the inherent limitation of Preview aesthetics and aligned it with the passé formalism of the "failed" ’thirties—even though her work in Preview from 1942-1945 showed few signs of such ossification.
Reading backwards from later poetics may be equally powerful in ’forties treatments. As the lyric and subjective modes took over Canadian poetry during the late fifties and largely dominated until Margaret Atwood began her interrogation of subjectivity, the ’forties came to be seen as the decade in which the possibilities of such lyricism were first explored. Later writers owing their debts to Layton, Dudek and some to Raymond Souster—poets like Leonard Cohen, Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan—seemed to confirm First Statement as the source of that experiment (although anyone reading Patrick Anderson’s often subjective lyrics in Preview and Layton’s largely impersonal exercises in First Statement will reject the interpretation). Moreover, since the modernist long poem in Canada was first achieved by Dudek with Europe in 1954,4 it became common to assume that the sources of his phenomenological manner there could be traced—if traced they ever were—back to First Statement and its claimed attraction to le monde visible. To all this revisionism the Preview poets made little reply, their various departures from literary life keeping them in a seeming complacency—perhaps, indeed, an internalization and extension of the complacency with which First Statement charged them in its early broadsides.
A final powerful source of post-facto misinterpretation in the area is the myth of the "little-mag," the subliminal rhyme with "little rag" no doubt delighting the partisans of bohemian publishing.5 This has been of course an informing modernist myth, important in the historical consolidation and retrospection of modernist activity, and vital as such. In Canada, however, "little-mag" consciousness has been used too often to invoke distinctions among journals that serve to privilege—most often—First Statement. I believe the myth got under way in articles by Dudek and Michael Gnarowski published in 1958 and 1963 and subsequently made canonical in their own The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada: Essential Articles on Canadian Literature in English (1967). Among Dudek’s purposes is the exclusion from "little-mag" status of the McGill Fortnightly Review, "whose very name identifies it with the staid journalism of the nineteenth century" ("Role" 207), and the grudging acceptance of Preview, which, "although it was a real ‘little magazine’ and a magazine of protest, was still derivative…in its excessive adulation of the Oxford-English Ideal in Patrick Anderson…" (208). Gnarowski largely re-creates the gestures; he grants "little-mag" qualities to both Preview and First Statement in order more powerfully to distinguish "the two distinct kinds of poetry being written in Montreal" at the time: Preview’s "cultivated," "distinguished" and "cosmopolitan" (that is, "irritant") style and First Statement’s "young, gauche and raw" (that is, "significant") emphasis (220-1). He had earlier remarked that "In no sense…can we call The McGill Fortnightly Review a truly self-willed little magazine" (216). Curious in both articles is the apparent need to categorize and hierarchize the various magazines important to Canadian modernism according to unacknowledged, certainly unarticulated, prescriptions for "real" little magazines. Wynne Francis—another former student of Dudek—then codified this categorical habit in her "Literary Underground: Little Magazines in Canada" (1967); here she was so concerned with the precise definition of little-magazines as to suggest that a "little-mag" that seeks subscriptions loses an essential iconoclasm and is on its way up to "small magazine" status.
This powerful and so far definitive myth has stifled little-magazine scholarship in Canada, effecting the exclusion of vital magazines and journals from extensive study and romanticizing the periodical genre. At this distance it seems to have involved an enormous waste of critical energy and a typical co-opting of the critical spirit by the polemical antagonisms born in and surviving the ’forties. (After only three issues of Preview had appeared, Patrick Anderson felt compelled to answer unnamed commentators, for whom "Some misunderstanding seems to have arisen as to the exact nature ofPREVIEW." The publication was to be taken, he insisted, as "a private ‘Literary letter’…it is in no sense a ‘magazine’ on sale to the general public" ["Note"]. The correct denomination was already of some urgency, apparently.) But who cares—to put it bluntly—whether First Statement, Preview and the McGill Fortnightly Review were newsletters, "small magazines" or genuine "little-mags"? The implicit urge to hierarchy of this critical effort beats any exclusiveness shown by the notoriously elitist editors of Preview. Again, the genre anxiety in no way concerns the work actually published in the magazines: it is a definition by atmosphere, by pose, appropriate enough to the editorialists of the period but shabby criticism. A function of 1960s expansion in the "little-mag" industry, it reaches back to the ’forties to find its own likeness, and to assign value conducive to self-celebration.
There has been little effort at disinterestedness, then, in the ’forties story so far. A tangle of motives and misreadings generated a powerful and surprisingly coherent narrative whose veracity has yet to be substantially challenged. I take as its canon law the "Montreal Poets of the Forties" by Wynne Francis, whose informing influence is widely acknowledged by those who followed, but another hierarchy in the narrativization might remark that Francis studied the period under Dudek’s supervision, as did Ken Norris, whose The Little Magazine in Canada (1984) renders as neutrally as possible and without obvious interestedness the common narrative largely intact. That Gnarowski, who joined Dudek in The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada several years after studying with him at McGill, should then have been the supervisor and publisher of Neil Fisher, early surveyor of First Statement, completes the family similarity. Whatever such a lineage implies, these various workers have told the story in a spirit of mutual agreement.
Common to all is an exaggeration of the rivalry and demographic differences between Preview and First Statement. No subsequent critic’s minor nuancing of their supposed opposition can hide the fact that the same fundamental story has been told about these two magazines again and again. To begin at the source: Wynne Francis, the first to discuss the Montreal of the ’forties in such terms, treats the rivalry as follows:
a year older than First Statement. From its beginning it had had
a confident, competent air about it, lacking the rawness and naiveté of
the typical "little mag".…It cultivated what A.J.M. Smith
was to call (and what John Sutherland was to denounce [sic]) the
Cosmopolitan Tradition. It had, too, an impressive roster of
contributors. Names like Frank Scott, Neufville Shaw, Bruce Ruddick, P.K.
Page, and later, A.J.M. Smith and A.M. Klein give some notion of the
power and prestige that Preview commanded….Apart from their
achievements in poetry, the Preview poets were older, some by
half a generation, than most of the First Statement writers. Most
of them were well educated, widely read, well travelled; and by the
early forties several of them were comfortably established….
Despite her complicated inaccuracies (of which more later), many of Francis’s assumptions were picked up by Neil Fisher in his "assessment" of First Statement in 1974:
The celebrated rivalry between Preview
and First Statement proved very beneficial to Canadian
literature, but it was probably not as turbulent as has been suggested….But
basic differences—social, literary and philosophical—separated the
two groups: one was upper-class, the other plebeian; one looked towards
England, the other towards America; one was academic, the other
anti-intellectual; both were socialistic: one moderate, the other more
Ken Norris more recently had much the same tale to tell:
The imagined conflict between Preview
and First Statement had done much for the young First
Statement poets, defining a direction for them. Much of the work
that appeared in Preview had had a totally English influence; the
young First Statement poets, on the other hand, saw the American
branch of Modernism as the more positive. It was a working-class
tradition, unrefined and unpolished, filled with a sense of the land, as
opposed to the British tradition still clinging to aristocracy and the
principle of art as artifice.
Note the embarrassment in both Fisher and Norris, the one downplaying the "turbulence" of the rivalry and the other calling it "imagined," before both launch summary salvos designed primarily to enforce hard, fast and crucial distinctions between the two magazines. Such introductory disclaimers do nothing to slow the forward progress of a genuine critical myth.
Despite their loaded terms and gestural summaries, these quotations are not at all eccentric or unrepresentative. On the contrary they remain the basis of reference to the period. Francis’s assertion, for instance, that the Preview poets were generally older than those of First Statement is supported literally by Gnarowski (220), Dudek ("Poetry" 294), and Norris (36, 40-1) and figuratively by Davey (4, 160). Norris (28) and Fisher (4) agree with her as to the "cosmopolitan" quality of the former journal; so do Gnarowski (217) and Dudek ("Role" 209); so does Munroe Beattie in the Literary History of Canada (278). The rivalrous "nativism" of First Statement is affirmed by Dudek (Nause 31) and Norris (39) and clearly implied by Davey (4-5) and Gnarowski (220-21). Francis’s claim that the Preview writers were comfortably established is echoed in Fisher’s view that they represented an "upper class" (8) and Norris’s that they were part of the British tradition "clinging to aristocracy" (41). All agree that Preview poetry exhibited what Norris calls "a rather elevated British diction" (28); what Francis calls "the cold, intricate brilliance of their intellectual gymnastics and verbal legerdemain" (43); what Beattie calls in one of them (Patrick Anderson) "the effect of a tape transmitted by a metaphor-machine into which the poet has fed his raw material" (283). The work of the First Statement poets on the other hand "was more visceral, their convictions hotter and more truly expressive" (Dudek, "Role" 209), and they brought "brashness, vulgarity and directness" (Dudek, "Poetry" 294) to Canadian poetic diction. Fisher’s claim that the Preview poets were "academic" is supported by Dudek ("Academic" 17) and Francis (40); his counter-assertion that First Statement was "anti-intellectual" seems to be based on a belief that one cannot be anti-academic and intellectual at the same time.
As for the ostensible socialisms of the two magazines, many critics assert but few define them, so Fisher can claim that Preview was more "moderate" politically than First Statement (8) and Dudek that it was more "doctrinaire" ("Role" 209). At any rate, the judgment will only be useful to the literary critic (as opposed, say, to the political historian or the biographer) when some distinct poetics is attached to each parti-pris. Sandra Djwa exposed the instability of such political contextualization, though, when she claimed in 1987 both that "The First Statement Marxists were largely Stalinists and believed in a national communism. The Preview Marxists inclined towards Leninism; they advocated an international communism" and that this political antagonism was "the primary difference" between the two groups (213).6 But does the polarity translate usefully into a reading of the poetry? In fact, "The major nationalist poems of the ’forties…all emerged from the Preview context" (213-14, emphasis added). How helpful can it be, then, if I am interested in the poetry of these magazines (and we would not still read them otherwise), to claim different political orientations for their editors?
This prolonged drift into historical binarism has in truth marginalized Preview in the Canadian tradition. The recent flurry of attention to the work of P.K. Page is delightful to witness, but it should not blind us to the fact that she was hugely undervalued by the administers of the Canadian canon for thirty years after her return to Canada and the ten years before. Patrick Anderson, Preview’s significant editor, received insignificant critical attention prior to his death in 1979; since then, a single article has been added to the Anderson bibliography. (Small wonder that he lamented that "The story of the soi-disant literary war of the 1940s has often been told, almost always from the First Statement point of view…and…almost always inaccurately" ["Introduction" iv]).7 The answer is not, of course, a version of events from the Preview point of view. Nor is a theoretic hand-wringing about the inevitable interestedness of all literary-historical accounts particularly useful. A better response is a researched skepticism about the persistently scenic literary history of the ’forties in Canada.
Indeed, it requires very little of such skepticism to point out that, contrary to Francis’s claim, A.J.M. Smith never published anything in Preview; that A.M. Klein contributed, regularly, not only to Preview but also to First Statement, as did Patrick Anderson, P.K. Page, and Miriam Waddington, who is usually taken as a member of the latter cohort; and that of the ’twenties generation only F.R. Scott contributed his poems solely to Preview and so might distinguish its character from that of First Statement. Thus Dudek’s suggestion that the older poets were "grouped around" Preview ("Poetry" 294) seems to have little tangible basis; though Smith dropped in on two or three Preview meetings, the only evidence of any critical relation between Smith and Preview is that Scott sent Smith some of the early issues and Smith returned them with "his blessing" (Bentley 100). This may have been an important homage to Scott, but at least one of the younger editors, Neufville Shaw, retorted that it had meant little to him. To be sure, First Statement attacked Smith on and off, but then so did a Preview review of Smith’s Book of Canadian Poetry, referring to Smith’s own work as a series of "glittering inconsequentials" which record "relatively unimportant phenomena" (Shaw 3). When Smith was asked about the magazines’ dispute he replied, "Well, actually, I'm not really an authority here because I was out of the country during the time those two magazines were going and I had only come in in the summer and met the various groups" (Heenan 75).
The other claims of traditional Preview-First Statement criticism begin to topple similarly if pushed with the same skepticism. The idea that Preview’s writers were generally older than those of First Statement is nonsense; leaving aside the over-forty Scott, the poets of the two magazines are pretty much of an age, Layton of First Statement being a few years older than most of them (as noted by Ringrose 17). Of A.J.M. Smith’s "cosmopolitan/native" dichotomy which so many critics of the ’forties found suggestive in distinguishing the magazines, one need only pose again the question first asked by Sutherland in his review of Smith’s Book of Canadian Poetry in 1944: is it possible to conceive of any readable Canadian poetry that does not (to use Smith’s original phrases) "attempt to describe and interpret whatever is essentially and distinctively Canadian" as well as attempt "to transcend colonialism by entering into the universal, civilizing culture of ideas" (5)? An insistence on the "nativism" of the First Statement writers thus implies that they refused "the universal, civilizing culture of ideas," a compliment I expect they would scorn. At any rate, as Djwa has suggested, there is as much or more "native matter" in Preview as there is in First Statement.
Preview’s much-decried elitism and exclusivity, in contrast to the inclusiveness of First Statement, also need, to say the least, a better articulation. The idea may have had its start in the apparent rejection of Sutherland’s application for Preview membership in 1942 (Cameron 136). A more legendary source may well be a joint meeting of the two editorial boards at F.R. Scott’s Westmount home in 1942, in which (some apocrypha have it) the Preview editors enjoyed the comforts of the living room while the First Statement editors were invited to the kitchen (Bentley 97, 103). The story’s veracity is unlikely to be settled by objective verification at this point (however unlike Scott’s old-Tory instincts of hospitality it may appear). But its frequent repetition clearly endorses the later image of Preview as the product of an exclusivist coterie uninterested in expanding either their numbers or their creativities. Nevertheless, the opening "Statement" of the first issue of Preview asserts the group’s desire "to make contact…with new writing movements in England, the United States and other parts of Canada" and anticipates "a gradual…widening of our group to about twice its present size." They may have turned down the applications of Sutherland and Layton for membership, but Anderson and the others did pursue the English and American contacts actively: Preview #4 opens with a "Note" remarking positive appraisals received from the editors of Poetry (Chicago), New Directions in New York, and the British journal Horizon. Nor were they indifferent to their local readership: with the publication of the sixth issue—all they had apparently undertaken to complete—they enclosed a questionnaire seeking advice as to the magazine’s continuation, presentation and literary value. The results of the questionnaire (sadly) are unknown, but Preview produced seventeen more issues, probably with some sense of doing useful work. Those twenty-three Previews also housed a high number of contributors, less than, but not incomparable to, the range of writers included in First Statement;8 there is thus little exclusivity projected by the journal, and the comparison with First Statement—whose openness is accurately admired and need not be questioned—is not hurtful to Preview.
The related distinction of the two as upper-class (Preview) versus working-class (First Statement) was more seeming than real—most of the writers in both magazines were hard up at the time. This distinction has little value for the critic anyway until (again) one associates some pre-determined poetics with each "class," so that the "upper class" formality of Preview poetry can actually be analysed as such.9 The class issue is obviously akin to the supposedly distinct socialisms of the two magazines, and I have already suggested the insufficient bridging of such contexts to our actual critical reading. I certainly do not mean, however, that such matters of class and political affiliation are inherently irrelevant to the poetry. Better uses of these contexts are imaginable. In the present forum I can only offer a hypothesis for others to test if they wish: that the socialism of Preview is most often visible in the doctrinaire expressions of poetic personae and fictional narrators, the reliability of whose pronouncements is usually undermined by the ironically-revealed limitations of their understanding of the proletariat; whereas the socialism of First Statement is rarely expressed in theory but rather in a sentiment of "fellow-feeling" that pervades much of the poetry and fiction of the journal. This hypothesis, nuanced from a simple contrast of "moderate" and "doctrinaire," is necessary if we are to take full account, for example, of Patrick Anderson’s remark (in speaking of Federico Garcia Lorca) that "The ‘tragic’ poet will be aware that much of the stuff of poetry lies beyond the social struggle altogether" ("Spender" 1) as well as of First Statement’s repeated and overt antagonism to "social preaching in poetry" ("Geography" 3)—an antagonism that in John Sutherland was so extreme as to ground a persistent subtle Aestheticism.
A final obstacle to progress in our understanding of the ’forties is perhaps the most often-echoed of the polarities discussed above: the supposition of Preview’s largely "English" poetic sources and of First Statement’s healthful turn to the indigenous American tradition and idiom. Setting aside for now the implications of a critical tradition that tends to distinguish poetics in the language of sexual politics (the "effete" British versus the "virile" American),10 the dichotomy requires our agreement that a "British" style is one of artifice, obscurity and polysyllabism, while an "American" style is monosyllabic, simple and disingenuously legible. (Clearly the issue here is not national poetics but particular poets: in effect we are playing on an opposition of Eliot-Auden-Thomas to Whitman-Sandburg-Frost and extrapolating a "natural" national idiom from each cluster, notwithstanding the fact of Eliot’s American birth and education.) But the real matter of the fact lies in the poetry and editorial positions of the two journals, obviously, and a return to them more than sufficiently clouds the issue. R.G. Simpson, one of the original editors of First Statement, was as devoted a disciple of T.S. Eliot as was A.J.M. Smith: his short story "Gerontion" not only borrows its title and a good deal of its imagery from Eliot’s poem but steals the "pok" sound of popping corks from Joyce’s "Ivy Day in the Committee Room" in The Dubliners for good measure; and his essay "Tradition in Art" clearly extrapolates the terms of its analysis from Eliot’s criticism, basing its call for a reconciliation of traditionalism and modernism largely on Eliot’s argument of tradition’s alteration by the "individual talent" of a given era. His fondness for the work of Joyce is strongly endorsed by John B. Squire, whose "Joyce and Mann" (First Statement 2.10) is a vigorous interpretive defence of the Irishman in positive contrast with Thomas Mann. These prose affiliations in First Statement are regularly enough backed up by the poetry, although rarely so obviously as in Miriam Waddington’s "Now We Steer":
Her trinity suggests the need for a new model of First Statement and Preview’s derivation, attending to both British and American sources for each little magazine. Still, it is easily demonstrable that John Sutherland’s own verse is largely derivative of Eliot, Auden and Thomas—Waddington has him reading "Auden, Spender and Thomas," as well as Whitman and Nietzsche ("Introduction" 8)—as is much of the early poetry of Irving Layton; indeed, even with the arrival of Louis Dudek in December 1942 and of Raymond Souster in January 1943, with their truly distinctive and arguably North American idioms, First Statement was to persist in its evident appreciation of "British" poetics, editorial bravado to the contrary. (That Souster first appeared in Preview, not in First Statement, is a minor irony of these details.)11 Indeed, it was not until First Statement went from mimeograph to type in the fall of 1943 that a distinct turn against various "British" poets emerges: in Layton’s "Politics and Poetry," with its pushing of the Auden generation back in time and thus into 1940s irrelevance; and in Sutherland’s "The Role of Prufrock," a constituent essay in the reaction against Eliot that was consolidating itself in the early 1940s. The subsequent emergence of Dudek and Souster and the development of Layton after the ’forties only then make it possible to generalize about distinct idioms— though hardly national idioms—for the two magazines.
The Preview side of this debate is similarly complex. It is telling that one of Sutherland’s earliest disparagements of the poetic language of Anderson on remarks the latter’s "habit of using words with a slang twist which he acquired in America" ("P.K. Page" 8). (In this quality too, says Sutherland, Anderson influenced P.K. Page’s style.) Anderson himself confirmed with some asperity that "…it was an American critic, Cleanth Brooks, who first taught me the functional nature of metaphor and it was an American poet, Hart Crane, who showed me the varied use of symbol….The fact that I acquired my ‘modernism’ during two years in New York is often forgotten…" ("Poet" 14-15). In late 1942 Anderson was reading Karl Shapiro and Delmore Schwartz, the newest of American voices, and he deploys them in favourable contrast to Stephen Spender ("Reply" 4). Preview is not of course without its imitators of the "American" style favoured later on in the rival magazine: particularly noticeable is a long poem by one Mark Edward Gordon, "Sounds and Wraiths of an Iron Fence," which is a clear attempt to employ Walt Whitman’s line, idiom and bardism, well before the eventual First Statement reverence for that "barbaric yawp." But there is no question that the group-editors of Preview tended to favour poetry in an elliptical, complex and often obscure style; indeed, awareness of this preference probably determined the submission-choices of poets like Miriam Waddington and A.M. Klein, both of whom published their more elaborate and opaque work in Preview and their more directly expressed poems in First Statement. It remains to be seen whether those qualities of poetry that the Preview editors approved pertain in fact to idiom and diction, or to other idiosyncrasies of syntax, connotation, versification and so on. And we will also have to factor in the difficult but needed concept of "artifice" here: for it seems likely that the "British" style assumed to vitiate Preview poetics is merely a tendency to believe that good poems are elaborate, obscure and difficult—a position no doubt learned, to be sure, from Eliot, Pound, Auden, and the then-emergent New Critics in America, but hardly therefore inherent to British poetics.
It appears after this brief survey that the dominant credo of ’forties criticism tells us nothing reliable about poetry or poetics; and as for what it shows of the "lives of the poets," the commonplaces rely too much on our credulity. I will not spend more time in the following discussions working to undermine these dichotomies (though many of my arguments could have that subordinate effect). Most of these critical clichés have a basis in partial truth, and I will need their bones intact, for it will not much help to respond to these problems of critical interest by eliding all differences between the two journals. Dudek, when asked in an interview about the disputes, responded first "There wasn’t any real quarrel" (Nause 30), and Fisher and Norris, as we saw, attempt such disclaimers as well. Like them, however, Dudek goes on to suggest some fairly important differences between the two, eventually relying on the familiar distinction between the "colonial attachment" of Preview and the "native" richness of First Statement (Nause 31). Miriam Waddington has suggested that "Sutherland was never part of a defined group" and downplayed the cohesiveness of the First Statement editors ("Introduction" 11): a useful rejoinder to their hagiographers, but it blurs, rather than sharpens, the critical questions. David O’Rourke in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature says that "The legendary rivalry between Preview and First Statement has been exaggerated" (683), but it is his closing point, and no better version is apparent. Djwa, in her impressive biography of Scott, notes that
members dismissed Preview as elitist, internationalist, and not
realistically political, while describing their own practices as
proletarian, nationalist, and politically engaged. Although this account
has been accepted by literary history, many of the distinctions were
And Bruce Whiteman, introducing Sutherland’s letters, recognizes that "the magazines have been characterized as opposites" but feels that "the points of coincidence among the poetics on both sides are arguably more evident than the points of divergence" (xvii). A recent discomfort with the dominant narratives of ’forties poetry is palpable in these various disclaimers. Djwa is alone, however, in offering an alternative discrimination of the two groups; as noted, she would shift our attention to their Leninist-Stalinist political alignments. Still, her more telling observation to my mind is that the differences between Preview and First Statement "were mythic," that is, not "false" but an interested blend of "false" and "true" fashioned to the end of self-definition.
The danger, after all, of too quick a surrender of the old desire to distinguish Preview and First Statement is that we might do further harm to the complexity of the ’forties by turning them as falsely bland as they are now falsely conflicted. Such vague peace-making urges find their excellent rebuttal in an anonymous letter published in First Statement in February 1944. Its author indeed perceived a "modern movement divided up into warring or mutually exclusive cliques."12 Despite a probable overstatement of the decade’s factionalism, the letter’s author appears to be referring to the "two" Montreal groups and their antipathies: there was apparently, to reverse Dudek’s point, a "real quarrel" or two. Suspicious as we must be, then, of the prevailing language of ’forties criticism, as of a risky erasure of the decade’s vital debates, the basis for a reconstitution of ’forties studies would seem to be a return to documents. The original poetry of the period and its publications, the criticism of the poets by the poets, the manifestoes and editorials, correspondence, journals, letters of business—only a fresh look at these archives is going to restore to us a sense of genuine distinction as of generational similarity among the Preview and First Statement poets. What follows initiates such a search by exposing the lineage of the still-dominant period narrative in the polemics of a First Statement anxiously seeking self-distinction in Preview’s Montreal.
Indeed, criticism of Canadian ’forties poetry derives almost entirely from the editorial polemics of First Statement, whereby the magazine attempted by any striking means to differentiate itself from prior and concurrent Canadian modernist practice. Chief among the emergent tactics of Sutherland and his co-editors was the attempt to make Preview appear the enervated organ of an earlier generation by aligning its poetics and its poets with the generation of the 1920s, of New Provinces, in a move that would automatically inflate First Statement’s currency as the new journal of truly contemporary Canadian poetry. The emergence of this caricature can be observed in detail in the pages of First Statement, and fascinating reading is possible if we keep in mind that (as I remarked above) the poets of the two rival magazines were very much of a single generation, at least in the temporal sense.
To speak of the "generation" of the Canadian ’forties is immediately misleading, though, not only because the poets were of various age and sensibility but also because their degrees of generational consciousness were different. Although the editors of Preview clearly desired to distinguish their inaugural issue from earlier (and indeed from contemporary) literary activity, they did so with clear self-definition rather than retrospective attack:
All anti-fascists, we feel that the existence of a war between democratic culture and the paralysing forces of dictatorship only intensifies the writer’s obligation to work. Now, more than ever, creative and experimental writing must be kept alive and there must be no retreat from the intellectual frontier….Secondly, the poets amongst us look forward, perhaps optimistically, to a possible fusion between the lyric and didactic elements in modern verse, a combination of vivid, arresting imagery and the capacity to "sing" with social content and criticism.
There is no anxiety here over the poets of New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors (1936), for instance; no disparagement of their meagre achievement to date, or of their old-hattery. The Preview poets’ refusal to forge a generation gap between themselves and the poets of the ’twenties and ’thirties might have been caused by the presence of F.R. Scott among them, but it might just as well have resulted from a characteristic Preview uneasiness with generational labelling. A P.K. Page poem of the period, "Generation," speaks to this avoidance of essential character:
We were an ignored
Page defines her generation as having been shaped by an absence of meaning, as a generation with little confidence that new answers could be found, or should even be searched for. Her climactic allusion to the European war partially explains such skepticism. The prevailing irony of Page’s poem suggests that even to address the problem of a "Generation" betrays a naiveté she finds unacceptable. The most she will do is assert the hollowness, like a "crash helmet," of all the "permanent beliefs" with which she and her contemporaries were raised; she envisions no new belief that could replace them. She also draws back from any explicit assertion that her experience is representative of her generation’s,13 relying on the pronoun "we" to make this assertion for her, quietly.
Such self-conscious reticence about one’s own generation might strike the ear today as curiously off-key, but it probably speaks to the Preview awareness of the complexity and multiplicity of its own times. It is not, at any rate, blithe indifference to questions of self-definition; between the editorial (presumably drafted or at least approved communally) and Page’s poem, the desire to establish a zeitgeist is obvious. But First Statement’s growth was to require an entirely new tone, in which the drive for distinctiveness is paramount and the basis of distinction of little concern. Preview was only briefly the inspiration of Sutherland’s editorial acerbity, as we shall see, largely because in their generational indifference the Preview editors offered limited areas of attack to a group of poets eager to separate themselves from something prior and clearly defined. A subsequent and far more significant manoeuvre was to align Preview with first-generation Canadian modernism in an argument that First Statement represented the "real" Canadian modernism that had been stifled by Victorian residue in the early decades of the century.
In fact the writers of Preview and First Statement were mutual in their revulsion from the post-Victorian poetry still being written in Canada, poetry of the early century to which we have learned to refer (perhaps too easily) as the "Maple-Leaf School," extolling such virtues as family, nature and empire. In their disdain for such hold-over versifying Preview and First Statement were in agreement, not only with one another but of course with Smith and the ’twenties generation. But First Statement, especially its editor Sutherland, clearly wanted a more precise and distinctive self-image, and sought it by reacting to the various modern Canadian poets as well, especially to those of Preview:
The writers and producers of PREVIEW,
a recent magazine originating in Montreal, have two general aims. They
wish first to deal with subjects of importance: secondly they want to
preserve a lyrical beauty….Their belief is that people are unhappy,
that society is diseased, and that the one way to cure both is by some
form of socialism. When they talk of lyrical beauty they generally mean
a beauty that has an element of strangeness about it. Their metaphors
may be drawn from everyday things, but they are grouped together in an
intense word pattern to produce a novel effect.
Immediately obvious is Sutherland’s tendency to caricature. He reduces Preview to generalizations about socialism and Aestheticism and dismisses in cavalier fashion the social doctrine of his rivals. Such commentary, sometimes more snide, fills the early pages of First Statement. Its editors resented the "social preaching" of much modern poetry, because it "is likely to be falsified preaching," to "show the influence of ‘upper class,’ higher-cultured, intellectual spirit. Its writers may not be aristocrats, but they have learned the separateness, subtilety and love-of-culture of the aristocracy….We have in Montreal a magazine, Preview, in which much of the work illustrates exactly this point." The "corrective" Louis Dudek offers in this piece is obviously directed at Preview as well: he would have poetry with "no polyglot displays. No poetry about poets and poetry. No high party politics" ("Geography" 3). In another piece Dudek suggests that the great weakness of modern Canadian poetry is that "our leading modern poets do not accept the universe: the universe of the contemporary social scene" and that this quality is "rampant in Preview magazine" ("Poets" 4). Even worse, when faced with these charges, according to Sutherland, Preview "pretends to have put its face to the wall and turned its back on us" ("Role" 1). One can see the process of self-definition between these lines: by aligning Preview with the upper-class, the Aesthetic, the obscure, the indifferent and the politically abstract, the writers of First Statement clear room for themselves (in Harold Bloom’s phrase) as poets "of the people," poets in touch with physical reality, poets of conviction and direct speech.
First Statement’s spirit of rivalry with Preview had been immediate and without visible provocation. The very first issue carried Sutherland’s sharply-worded, scornful treatment of the style of "Vi," a Preview short story by Bruce Ruddick; the second issue carried his attack "On Certain Obscure Poets," to my mind clearly targeted at Preview (for which see below). Legend has it that the Preview editors greeted these sallies with the reticent indifference of the older and wiser cosmopolite, but they did in fact respond, through P.K. Page, who soon criticized the rival magazine’s "rather wide-eyed uncertain policy of inclusion"; she also archly noted the verbose manner in which Sutherland had ridiculed Ruddick’s own rather cluttered style ("Canadian" 9). This superior but polite response was printed only two months after First Statement’s inception and suggests that the Preview group was quickly aware of its competitor—if unruffled by their eagerness to do battle. They were probably puzzled as the First Statement editors produced one after another the more inflammatory remarks above, especially as so many of these were directed personally, to the Preview "attitude"— culminating in Sutherland’s homophobic attack on Patrick Anderson—rather than to questions of poetics and modernity that all could debate usefully.
Indeed, the only important aesthetic assumption in these polemics is First Statement’s claim that Preview poetry was all "word-patterns rather than poetry," as Dudek puts it of Scott, James Wreford and Anderson’s work, among others ("Academic Literature" 17-18); that an elaborate verbal/visual surface in their language obscured any effective meaning. The argument got under way quickly, when Sutherland commented in the second issue "On Certain Obscure Poets":
They show you, ready for the minting, words in their metal heaps; the lump phrases boiling in a molten mass; the syllables beaten by hammers of the tongue, and stamped with pistons of a highly-developed stutter; or a strip of the heavy gold pattern, half issued from the steel lips of the machine.
Sutherland’s coy refusal to name his target in the title certainly suggests a local object of scorn. That his target is moreover modernist is signalled by his distaste for the stylistic Adamism that "admire[s] the state of the [t]ongue at the time God struck it with the rod" but cannot admire fallen "words themselves" in their present usage.14 His implicit judgment of Preview soon became a First Statement commonplace, emerging in Dudek’s warning against "polyglot displays," in an attack on Ralph Gustafson’s poetry as employing "rows of dead verbs like stone pigeons" ("Two Schools"), perhaps culminating in an assault on Dylan Thomas (already associated for Sutherland with Anderson of Preview) for "using the metaphor to obscure realities that he finds unpleasant" ("Note" 10). In Thomas’s poetic, says Sutherland, "a few good metaphors can become the equivalent of a poem"; he and "surrealist" poets like him tend to "replace the object by the metaphor related to it," with a resulting "conflict between the reality from which it derives and the poet’s transformation of that reality into a pattern of words." When Sutherland concludes that "the unity of the poem begins to suffer" as a consequence ("Note" 9-10), the link to the attacks on Preview— especially on Page and Anderson—becomes clear. As early as the sixth issue, in his "P.K. Page andPREVIEW," Sutherland had chided Page: "one feels that the emotion [of her poems] is overwrought and…so one feels that the phrasing is too overwhelming to be entirely true" (8).
But it is in the famous libel of Anderson that Sutherland particularly concatenated the problems of "surrealist" poetics like those of Thomas, the complexities of Preview style, and the private conflicts of gender-identity Anderson was experiencing, apparently, throughout the 1940s.15 Here he refers Anderson’s manner to "the modern romantic style. In it, a group of vivid metaphors are bracketed together in an unexacting form, and by a familiar process, a pattern of words is reached that falsifies the meanings and beclouds their source" ("Writing" 5). The resulting "excessively metaphorical style…destroys the unity of his poems" (6). In Anderson as in Thomas, Sutherland finds "the confusion of self with outer reality" (3), but in this case he specifically aligns the poetic issues with Anderson’s sexuality: "some sexual experience of a kind not normal has been twisted and forced into its present shape in the poem ["Montreal"], where it wears the false aspect of some universal fact" (4). Two significant points emerge from Sutherland’s critical language: first, that matters of gender and sexuality play a demonstrable role in the conflicts First Statement created with its rival magazine;16 and second, that it is in Sutherland’s interest to align Anderson with Dylan Thomas and thirties "surrealist" poetics. It is remarkable (and yet little remarked) that Sutherland’s critical and polemical energy was entirely negative in nature. At no point does he or any other editor of First Statement offer so much as the beginning of a poetics; the group was defining itself in reverse and only thus contributing to the new poetics in which, as Frank Davey has it, "the early modernist concern with detachment and creating abstract patterns rather than portraits of the phenomenal universe had been largely discarded…" (160).
Anderson responded to Sutherland’s remarks, as we know, with a threat of libel action. First Statement’s next fortnightly did not appear, and the eventual issue contained a prominently placed "Retraction" of Sutherland’s remarks concerning "the motivation of Mr. Anderson’s poetry and prose." Not surprisingly, Anderson never addressed the matter in public print, nor did Preview ever respond in kind to First Statement’s efforts at mutual self-distinction. Nevertheless, Sutherland’s and Dudek’s persistent attacks on their poems as "polyglot displays" seem to have been more telling. Anderson was, after all, ripe for such attack: in his Preview prose fiction "Dramatic Monologue" his ironic protagonist suggests that during Creation "God went from one thing to another by the use of simile and metaphor. Man is just a mass of images, he is the poem which draws together all the elements of the universe. Yes Sir!…" (6). But Anderson was unwilling to be defined, or to have his little magazine defined, solely by such enthusiasms. Perhaps because the hyper-imagist charge was the only aesthetic rather than merely polemical point scored against Preview, Anderson offered a brief rebuttal in a special issue entitled "Some Aspects of the War: A Civilian Report." He regretted the uncritical reactions of "the intellectuals amongst whom [Preview] falls":
Their little world of gossip with its
underlying insensitivity and cruelty and its pervading atmosphere of
defeatism is not the real atmosphere for a magazine. They have no
faith in a Canadian literary movement. Reflecting them, we are
less valid. Each poem is viewed as an independent nexus of more or less
striking images, not as a profound and daring act of communication and
faith in life.
As he would in later memoirs, Anderson attempts to shift the focus of the Preview readership away from a poem’s mannerism and back to its dominant idea, but it must have been easy to ignore a defence so steeped in abstractions. Later Anderson would attempt a fuller pragmatic justification:
While it is inevitable that [the
reader] should, especially in this political age, be still anxious about
meaning, it is desirable that he keep this hunger of his relatively in
the background, especially on the important first reading. By attempting
to enjoy the poem, as he would attempt to enjoy music or painting, he
will be more likely to lay himself open to a greater totality of meaning
than if he angrily suspects the poem of being obscure.
The "Explanatory Issue" from which these remarks come includes poems and brief essays upon them by the poets in question. (F.R. Scott’s poems are "explained" on his behalf by Anderson; Page’s have no essay appended). The gesture is poignant. While it is true that Preview rarely disputed with First Statement in print, it is equally true that Anderson and Page had a tendency to internalize criticisms received and to allow themselves to be partially defined by them. This "Explanatory Issue" and the Anderson remarks above highlight the defensiveness that has come, perhaps because it was coincidentally characteristic of two of its poets, to seem typical of Preview as a whole.
Meanwhile First Statement had dramatized itself as holding the more accurate, honest, open and expressive poems, and it did so, as we have seen, largely by negative assertions against the poetics supposedly apparent in Preview. In the first issues that is about the extent of the squabble. Had it rested there it is unlikely that later criticism would have relied so heavily for its terms on the editorial gestures of either magazine, or allowed Preview to go unread in favour of First Statement’s limited accomplishment. But Sutherland’s brilliance at editorial polemic was not so easily satisfied. Even if it is now apparent that Preview had not "put its face to the wall" and entirely disdained the offered skirmish, a more vital target was waiting, the destruction of which would complete the assault on Preview and cast much of what had gone before into history with it. In 1943 the publication of Smith’s Book of Canadian Poetry and News of the Phoenix turned First Statement’s squabble with Preview into a broadly generational debate, and the terms of challenge between the ’forties and the ’twenties became confused in a manner which has prevailed to our own time. Davey has noted this shift: he says that Sutherland founded First Statement "as an alternative to the ‘elitism’ of Patrick Anderson’s magazine Preview, founded earlier that year. After meeting Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster, however, he began to react…against the first wave of modernism in Canadian poetry" (4). Davey implies that Dudek and Souster encouraged Sutherland to his new target, but since their first appearances in First Statement coincided with the publication of Smith’s Book of Canadian Poetry, Sutherland may have turned his attention to Smith at that time partly because Smith was suddenly a very prominent Canadian poet.
Dorothy Livesay’s review of Smith’s News of the Phoenix is interesting but (after the above) predictable; Smith’s poetry suffers from a "lack of range"; it is "cosmopolitan…it speaks to a coterie"; it is "the poetry of an exile…in a retreat" (18-19). First Statement was to find more profitable matter in Smith’s anthology; Sutherland’s first treatment of the Book appears in February 1944, and is revealingly entitled "Literary Colonialism." In it he notes the native-cosmopolitan dichotomy, admits it "a valuable one," but argues that Smith has failed to perceive its full implications:
Can Mr. Smith ignore the colonialism
that stamps the work of Canadian poets, particularly the writers of the
cosmopolitan group?…Those poets who continued the cosmopolitan
tradition were approximately a decade late in acclaiming the work of
Spender and Auden, Barker and Thomas. Mr. Smith, who apparently sees a
special virtue in importing other people’s ideas and literary forms,
believes that the future belongs to the cosmopolitan group, because they
respond to every change of fashion. Yet he argues that this group, the
latest leaders of which did not leave England until they were in their
twenties, is making ‘a heroic effort to transcend colonialism.’
Sutherland correctly reveals Smith’s distinct preference for the "cosmopolitan" and "metaphysical" school; in the Book of Canadian Poetry he had found room for members of the Preview group (and for James Wreford, a Scot, and later member) and none at all for any of the writers of First Statement. The Preview caricatures continue apace: here begins the later commonplace that Preview was edited by English expatriates. Anderson is the only "latest leader" of whom Sutherland’s statement is true; James Wreford had not as yet appeared in Preview; Page’s departure from England at the age of three is inflated ludicrously. At the same time, we see in germ the association of the Preview group with the ostensibly outmoded poetics of the thirties: they are clearly the readers of Auden and Thomas scorned for reading such poets "a decade late." (Just so Sutherland’s damaging logic is clear: Michael Ondaatje would have to be scorned for reading Leonard Cohen, Cohen for reading Allen Ginsberg, the Tish group for reading Charles Olson, all of them a "decade late.") Most importantly, however, he implies that Anderson, Page, and Wreford represent limited because colonial poetic possibilities, and that his own magazine speaks for the more promising "native tradition." Sutherland appears never to have asked himself whether his own poets, adopting American idioms and rhythms, might not also be "colonial." Smith’s binary terms, in other words, are largely without meaning until the hated idea of "colonialism" is adduced to either, but they permit Sutherland to begin the alignment of Smith and the ’twenties poets with Preview’s poets under the "cosmopolitan" insignia.17 By insisting that cosmopolitanism is merely colonialism disguised, he nails down the major plank in his dismissal of Preview, and effectively suggests that First Statement speaks for an active new generation which had been excluded from Canadian letters by what Norris subsequently called the "Preview—A.J.M. Smith axis" (36).
Sutherland went a step further in his actual review of the Book of Canadian Poetry; he there claims that the distinction between "native" and "cosmopolitan" is a "vague one" (despite his own valuing it in the earlier assessment), and that "it is hardly possible to imagine a Canadian Literature of the future that lacks either native qualities or cosmopolitanism of outlook." So far, so good: but Sutherland goes on, with another rhetorical victory for his own writers: "The editor’s thesis is not convincing because it does not notice that a blending of the two traditions is already taking place in Pratt and in Livesay, and in a group of younger writers who have recently appeared in Canada" (20). (Since Smith had included members of Preview, Sutherland must be referring, once again, to his own stable.) No longer, then, does Preview represent the cosmopolitan and First Statement the native traditions; now First Statement represents a radical fusion of the two, a transcending of antinomies in which the writers of the ’twenties and of Preview are trapped by their own arbitrary dualisms. Notice his reference to a "group of younger writers"; Sutherland is also beginning the process of caricature which culminates in more recent references to the "elder statesmen of Preview" (Gnarowski, "Role" 220). He has also neatly claimed a First Statement aesthetic distinct from those of all previous Canadian poets, and has established—we come to the point—his own premise, that a completely new generation of poets is on the move in Canada, a generation ignored by Smith’s exclusive "tradition."18
Other important elements of First Statement’s mutual distancing from Preview and the earlier modernists were contributed mainly by Dudek. We have seen some of these already, in his charges of "polyglot displays," "falsified preaching" and a refusal of the phenomenal universe. To these he added, in 1944, the ostensible academicism of Smith’s favoured writers, in his well-known essay "Academic Literature":
The list of Canadian poets who are in
the academic profession includes a solid majority of the best Canadian
writers, in proof of which a partial list can be given, gleaned from The
Book of Canadian Poetry of A.J.M. Smith: E.J. Pratt, Earle Birney,
F.R. Scott, Robert Finch, L.A. Mackay, A.J.M. Smith, Alfred G. Bailey,
James Wreford, Patrick Anderson, Margaret Avison….An amazing list,
Notice that Dudek has found yet another standard which permits him to fuse the generation of the ’twenties and the "generation" of Preview. This is not to say that he is incorrect in his facts (although the inclusion of the widely-experienced Birney is perhaps disingenuous), but rather in what he deduces from them: that the poetry coming from such teachers will necessarily lack "liveliness" because "they are out of real everyday contact with the main currents of contemporary life, with the result that their poetry suffers" (19). One result for teacher-poets—and we can hardly be surprised, after the above—is "the unnatural exploitation of the vivid image" (18). It was also Dudek who began the related association of Preview with the passé British and First Statement with the brawny American traditions, in his "Poets of Revolt: Or Reaction?" of 1943; the poetic and stylistic consequences of being American and of not being a teacher are roughly similar in the two polemics. "An element altogether foreign" (3) persists, he admits, in his own poetry, and is visible in the poetry of Layton (although only "occasional among First Statement contributors"); but the note "becomes rampant in Preview magazine, in any issue, any poem" (4). Dudek does little to name the false note, or its American corrective, suggesting only that "our leading modern poets do not accept the universe: the universe of the contemporary social scene" (4). Nevertheless the dualism would prove useful to Sutherland when he reviewed Ryerson’s Unit of Five in early 1945: of the five poets included he finds that "Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster bear a resemblance to modern American poetry: James Wreford, Ronald Hambleton and P.K. Page are most nearly related to contemporary English poets" (30). The positives and negatives of the review are minimal, but they are apportioned in direct correlation to the American-English opposition structuring Sutherland’s responses.
I need go no further to draw my point: that our persistent assertions about these two magazines are simply reiterations of First Statement’s polemics about Preview and the earlier Canadian modernists. The pages of First Statement display all of the distinctions critics of the period have relied on: the cosmopolitan/native, upper-class/working-class, academic/proletarian, obscurantist/phenomenological antinomies are to be found in the 1940s themselves.19 The gross error in all of this is that First Statement was not printing criticism but polemic—that is, it was bound (so to speak) to be arbitrary and categorical in its assessments of the rival journal. That such hearty tactics should have been accepted by literary scholars for historical truth betrays a slackness of textual analysis which has served to marginalize Preview. It would have been incautious enough to accept positive self-definition as a basis for later criticism; what most critics of the ’forties have done is accept negative self-distinction, and thereby petrified a distorted interpretation of the activity of the decade.
Indeed, the magazines’ critics have done little better with the few positive self-assertions to be found in their pages. The head-note of the first issue of Preview, quoted near the beginning of the second part of the present essay, asserts the editors’ "anti-fascist" convictions, condemns "the paralysing forces of dictatorship" and reaffirms "the writer’s obligation to work." They will accept "no retreat from the intellectual frontier," where they seek "a possible fusion between the lyric and didactic elements in modern verse"—a "capacity to ‘sing’ with social content and criticism." Compare the arresting definitiveness of their stance to First Statement’s first editorial:
In the present stage of Canadian
literature, a gesture would appear to be important. A display of
activity may symbolize a future, and plant a suggestion in someone’s
mind. The religious ceremonies which thrived many centuries ago must
have arisen from a belief in the newness of living and the youth of the
race. What had happened seemed rare, and it was not certain that it
would happen again. Bread was broken to express the hope that bread
would be granted again. We intend to go through the ceremonies, in our
Canadian literary youth.
Neil Fisher read these two editorials and concluded that "Preview was a literary newsletter, First Statement an aggressive magazine… Preview was a hobby, First Statement a vocation" (8). He based this conclusion on the fact that Preview deliberately asserted itself as the organ of a small group of writers, whereas First Statement claims to represent "Canadian literary youth." But there is such a thing as being led astray by rhetoric, and First Statement’s announcement is all rhetoric, invoking Christian communion for whatever passion it expresses, whereas Preview’s announcement claims, albeit sententiously, doctrine, belief, and restrained hope. Preview asserts the practical intentions of its contributors; First Statement asserts a "gesture." There’s no point in swinging the pendulum in the other direction from Fisher, but I do want to highlight the preconceptions. To the critical hegemony he represents—even twenty-five years later—there is as yet no strong alternative.
I am grateful for the Webster Fellowship at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario and for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Standard Research Grant that have sustained my research into the poetry of the 1940s.