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Milton Acorn

From:   James Deahl. "Introduction," The Northern Red Oak, ed. with intro. by James Deahl. Toronto: Unfinished Monument Press, 1987.

Milton James Rhode Acorn : 1923-1986
He was born in Charlottetown on March 30, 1923. He died of heart disease and diabetes on August 20, 1986 in his home town. He was, and remains, Canada's national poet.

The Northern Red Oak, poems for and about Milton Acorn, is published on the first anniversary of his death. The spirit of Milton touched every person that he met. As Gwendolyn MacEwen has written—"You could go for years without seeing him, and yet he'll always be there somehow, a great craggy presence at the back of your mind, a gnarled tree in silhouette on the horizon." Or, in the words of Al Purdy, "the Acorn-tree always walked on its roots, and always into sunlight. It lifts the heart."

And Milton met a lot of people, especially poets, in his journeys across Canada. Wherever he was he collected people like some sort of modern Pied Piper. Not only did he live from coast to coast, he was a tireless reader, and was always about to hop a train to some new part of the country. He forged strong literary and personal links in each area of Canada he visited.

The Montreal Years

Milton began to focus his attention on the writing of poetry in 1950. His first slim collection, In Love and Anger, was published in Montreal in 1956. It was about this time that Milton's only child was born, a son who was later given up for adoption. Having published sixteen poems, he decided to meet some other poets and he tracked down Al Purdy and Irving Layton in 1957. He was soon deeply involved in the whole Montreal literary scene that included, among others, Louis Dudek and Frank Scott.

Montreal was always an important centre for Milton. Many of the poets he most admired—Dorothy Livesay and the so-called Montreal Group of Scott, A.J.M. Smith, A.M. Klein, and Leo Kennedy—were associated with that city. To Milton, the heart of modern Canadian poety was New Provinces and the long list of poets who had clustered around McGill University since the 1920s. Nonetheless, no sooner had Milton established himself in the Montreal poetry scene than he decided to move to Toronto.

The Bohemian Embassy

The chief poetry reading place in Toronto was the Bohemian Embassy, run by Don Cullen and John Robert Colombo. The most important poetry publisher was Contact Press, founded in 1952 by Raymond Souster, Dudek, and Layton to publish the new Canadian poetry. Milton quickly fell in with Cullen, Colombo, and Souster.

Milton's broadsheet Against a League of Liars was issued by Colombo's Hawkshead Press in 1960, the same year that The Ryerson Press published The Brain's the Target, edited by Al Purdy. Milton set himself up at the Bohemian Embassy and soon found himself at the centre of a sort of informal workshop with a group of younger poets: Margaret Atwood, David Donnell, Dennis Lee, Gwendolyn MacEwen, George Miller, and Joe Rosenblatt. During 1962 Milton was married to MacEwen. After their marriage broke up, he moved to Vancouver.

Souster published Milton's first full-size book, Jawbreakers, through Contact Press in 1963. It remains an outstanding collection and a credit to Souster's judgement.

The West Coast

By the time Milton got established in Vancouver, the BC poetry scene was just getting underway. Milton was a founder of The Georgia Strait, an alternative newspaper still publishing today. Again, he was at the centre of a whole group of poets—Dorothy Livesay, bill bissett, Red and Pat Lane, Maxine Gadd, and Seymour Mayne.

In Vancouver he organized poetry readings at the Advanced Mattress, and was active in the movement against the war in Viet Nam. Lane, bissett, and Mayne set up Very Stone House and began to publish the new West Coast poetry. blewointment press was founded by bissett in 1967, the same year that Talonbooks started operation.

J. Michael Yates founded Sono Nis Press and Bc was in the midst of a blaze of poetry. Writers from all over North America were going to Vancouver; and, in 1969, Milton left town.

Toronto Again

I've Tasted My Blood, Milton's masterwork, was published by The Ryerson Press in 1969. It too was edited by Purdy, who would later edit his huge collection, Dig Up My Heart (McClelland and Stewart, 1983). Milton, fresh from the West Coast and a sort of local hero, soon became the centre of the Toronto poetry scene. In 1970 he was named "The Peoples' Poet" by a host of writers including Layton (who was now in Toronto), Eli Mandel, Atwood, and Rosenblatt.

He lived in the city for a dozen years, blustering around the downtown core and giving workshops, readings, and talks at every poetry venue he came across. The first press he became involved with was NC Press, which brought out More Poems For People (1972) and The Island Means Minago (1975). In 1976 Milton co-founded Steel Rail Publishing, which published Jackpine Sonnets a year later.

Once again, Milton gathered a collection of young poets. I met Milton in 1972. A few years later he joined the LINK Poetry Workshop, which Mike Zizis and I had founded in 1973. He had an immediate impact on our group and was a source of encouragement and controversy. In September, 1980, Milton, Terry Barker, and I founded the Susan Chakraverty Institute at New College, University of Toronto. Milton also taught poetry at the legendary Three Schools.

Milton and I shared an apartment for two years. His love of poetry and his constant, obsessive work astound me to this day. Among the poets associated with Milton during his second period in Toronto were Zizis, Joe Blades, Michael Dudley, Chris Faiers, Mark Gordon, Bruce Meyer, Ted Plantos, Robert Priest, Margaret Saunders, and Gerry Shikatani. By this time Toronto had become the centre of English-language poetry in Canada. Milton, in declining health, returned to Charlottetown.

The Island

Milton's final years (1981-1986) were largely spent in PEI. There were, of course, numerous trips to Toronto, where he met poets like Bev Daurio, Carol Malyon, and Wayne Ray.

In Charlottetown Milton got to know Libby Oughton and Richard Lemm of Ragweed Press, who published Captain Neal MacDougal & the Naked Goddess (1982), edited by Fred Cogswell. Here, too, he met Valerie LaPointe, who was his steadfast comnpanion during his last years.

At the time of Milton's death, Wayne Ray was about to publish Whiskey Jack (HMS Press); Chris Faiers was about to publish A Stand of Jackpine (Unfinished Monument Press); and I had agreed to edit The Uncollected Acorn for Deneau Publishers. Ted Plantos had a special Milton Acorn issue of Cross-Canada Writers' Quarterly almost at the printers— it would become the Milton Acorn memorial issue.

Acorn and Canadian Poetry

Milton always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He made it to Montreal while that city was still the centre of English-language literature. He moved to Toronto just when the generation of poets who would make Toronto the new centre were starting out. He met them all. He was in Vancouver when the West Coast scene got going. Then it was Toronto again and another circle of poets.

Milton saw himself as following the tradition in Canadian poetry established in the nineteenth century by Isabella Valancy Crawford and Archibald Lampman. He learned much from Crawford and Lampman and from two poets whom he met later: Dorothy Livesay and A1 Purdy. Milton, along with Livesay and Purdy, forms a sort of bridge between Canada's past and the new poets of the 1960s, 7os, and 8os. For the record, Milton saw this tradition being carried on today by Margaret Atwood, bill bissett, James Deahl, Mary di Michele, Chris Faiers, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Robin Mathews, Robert Priest, and Tom Wayman (a list that might amaze many critics as well as some of the poets listed!).

Acorn's opinion aside, his real influence lay in his ready encouragement of younger poets. In Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, or Charlottetown, Milton was always exceptionally generous with his time. He would tirelessly read manuscripts, encourage authors, and give sound advice. He was the most accessible literary figure in Canada.

He would attend poetry readings and almost always stay for the open set. Through the Bohemian Embassy workshop and the LINK Poetry Workshop he met scores of young, mostly unpublished poets. These people learned from Milton his concern for language and sound, his doctrine of hard work, and his love of people. He also gave countless readings. His passionate delivery and personal rapport with his audience helped put the voice back into Canadian poetry. Milton was at all times pro-human or, as Lesley McAllister has written in The Toronto Star, "pro-life". He believed in the human spirit and in the celebration of life in all its forms.

Milton's taste was exceptionally catholic, as long as the poetry reflected a love for humanity and the natural world. He was supportive of Michael Dudley's haiku, Atwood's Canadianism (or, as he put it, "From the Valleyism"), Wayman's work poetry, and bissett's pure energy.

He was a nationalist, constantly recommending the poetry of Livesay, Layton, Purdy, and MacEwen. And he was an internationalist, insisting that young poets read W.B. Yeats, Robert Lowell, Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca, and Andrei Voznesensky. Indeed, one could not visit him at the Waverley Hotel without having a book thrust into one's hands that must be read.

Almost all the contributors to The Northern Red Oak knew Milton personally. Some are old friends like Purdy, MacEwen, and Atwood; some only met him during his final years. Some (Cogswell, Purdy, and I) edited Milton's books, and some were his publishers (Daurio, Faiers, Letore, and Ray). All have been touched in a profound way by Milton and his work.

When Milton died I decided to produce a memorial anthology—so many people seemed to need to express their love and respect for the man who ate, slept, and lived poetry. The call for submissions met with great success. Unfortunately, much publishable work had to be returned because of space limitations. This memorial anthology could have been twice as long had poetry from all of Milton's friends been included.

Many of the pieces presented here came with the words "For Milton Acorn" attached to them. These have been deleted for cleaner presentation and because, in an important sense, every poem in The Northern Red Oak is for Milton.

A few are o1d poems. Purdy's "House Guest" relates to the time he and Milton lived together at Roblin Lake. bissett's are from his Vancouver years with Milton. "The House", by Gwen MacEwen, recalls the time and mood of their year together in Toronto. Some are elegies to the finest poet ever to write in Canada. And others, like Ray's anti-abortion haiku and Shikatani's anti-war poem, touch on issues that were of great concern to Milton. Still others, such as "1838" (Lee) and "At the Tourist Centre in Boston" (Atwood), are poems that Milton particularly liked.

This collection is but a small gesture from the contributors to one whose gift to poetry and to the Canadian people can never be repaid.


To you, Milton, from your friends, with abiding love.


James Deahl
Toronto, 1987

Milton Acorn's works copyright © to the Estate of Milton Acorn.


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