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Louis Dudek
Photo credit: Sonja A. Skarstedt

Louis Dudek, 1918-2001.
He was born in Montreal on February 6th, 1918 in a catholic family emigrated from Poland. Reading books was his favourite pastime in his childhood years: "Books however, were scarce in our home. My childhood, apart from snow and rock fights with French Canadians and memberships in the local gang of boys, was filled with reading novels of adventure, dozens of books stored in a back closet -translations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, also Sienkiewicz (with Fire and Sword and Quo Vadis among them). I later read Henty books and other boy´s fiction; historical novels had the greatest appeal for me". Poetry also appealed to him, especially Keats´ and Shelley´s verse.

In 1936 he entered McGill University in Montreal and soon became a reporter and one of the Associate Editors of the McGill Daily. Upon his graduation he worked as a freelance journalist for the Montrealer and other papers. During these years he was closely involved with First Statement, the literary magazine founded by John Sutherland. Together with Sutherland and Irving Layton, he fought hard to foster a native tradition in poetry and establish new ways of writing in Canada, pioneering a direct style that articulated experience in plain language. The enthusiasm and belligerence of those years are reflected in Dudek´s words:

In the 40´s, when my generation was just beginning and we felt that modernism was opening up in Canada the poets were filled with anger and indignation toward the limitations and philistine prejudices of this country, but they were also filled with confidence and hope for the coming future of the modernist renewal, "Give us five hundred readers", we used to say, "and we will give you a literature."
("Reflections on Failure". Louis Dudek Papers. NLC.)

Dudek found in the United States a new style that offered him an alternative both to the British influence and to a 'provintial' national writing. He read American poets such us Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings and Edgar Lee Masters. "Such intensive reading and the ensuing vigorous debates -claims Francis Wynne- helped Dudek to clarify and substantiate further his own views of poetry and his function. He became more adamant in his belief that to be vital poetry must be rooted in experience and must not become 'literary' or be allowed to rest in conventional patterns."

On September 16, 1941 he married Stephanie Zuperko and they both moved to New York. There he joined Columbia University as a postgraduate student in history and journalism, but he soon changed his major from history to literature. During these years, he kept in close contact with the Canadian literary scene and published articles and poems in First Statement. In 1944 some of his poems were published in Unit of Five, which also contained poems by P. K. Page, Ronald Hambleton, Raymond Souster and James Wreford. Two years later the Ryerson Press issued East of the City, his first separate collection of poems. In 1947 he met William Carlos Williams in a reading given by the poet-doctor on 25th October in New York. The account he gives in one his diaries displays passages as interesting as the following one:

I asked him whether he had any news of Ezra pound. Told me he had been to see him that weekend (?) at St. Elizabeth´s hospital. Pound happier than he had ever seen: his wife said she had never seen him so lucid. He has put on some weight. Wears his own clothing at the hospital. Gets all the papers and books from the curator. Is doing a translation of the Odes of Confucius. When W.C. Williams told him he could not make anything of his middle Cantos, Pound said "Well, Bill, you never could read more than 18 pages." (1947 Notebook, pp. May 10-11. Louis Dudek Papers. NLC.) ==

Dudek started to correspond with Pound in 1949 and he met him in person in 1950. These letters are now kept in the NLC and were published by Dudek in 1974. It was Pound who encouraged Dudek to forget about nationalism and adopt a cosmopolitan style of writing. Dudek -claims Susan Stromberg- saw in Pound "a fine tenderness and humanity and he recognized in Pound primarily a dedication to the art of poetry". Like him he saw himself as cultural critic who refuses to have his work reduced to an aesthetic commodity.

Dudek´s intellectual inquisitiveness led him to research in the relation of literature to technology and commerce in society; a study which culminated in a Doctoral Thesis entitled "The Relations between literature and the Press". On completion of his Doctoral Thesis he was offered an English appointment at City College in New York. Yet the idea of returning to Montreal appealed to him and in 1951 he joined McGill University where he lectured in modern poetry. He spent most of his life in this city and was a professor emeritus at McGill at the time of his death in 2001.

Dudek was determined to create a school of modernism in Canadian poetry. Together with Raymond Souster and Irving Layton, he founded Contact Press, which published Cerberus (poems by Dudek, Layton and Souster), Twenty Four Poems (Dudek), Love the conqueror Worm (Layton), The Transparent Sea (Dudek), as well as early work by George Bowering, Al Purdy, Milton Acorn and Margaret Atwood, among other important Canadian writers. The Contact Press Poetry Readings (1957-62), held in Toronto, also brought American poets such us Louis Zukofsky and Robert Creeley. In 1956 he embarked in another publishing venture, the McGill Poetry Series, which edited Leonard Cohen´s Let us Compare Mythologies, and in 1956 he founded Delta, a personal literary magazine that favored experimental poetry. He was later involved with several other poetry presses, the last of which DC Books, which he and his second wife, Aileen Collins, cofounded and ran until 1986.

photo of Louis Dudek Dudek began as a realist lyric poet influenced by the Imagists. Unit of Five (1944) shows a style that employs few adverbs and adjectives, as well as direct descriptions. The social impulse is also strong in East of the City (1946), which uses the city as the setting for most of its poems. Social realism is absent form Dudek´s two next books of poetry, Twenty Four Poems (1952) and The Searching Image (1952). The first shows a strong influence of Imagism and its accumulative method; the second, however, shifts drastically towards stylism and artifice with dense and obscure metaphors and elaborate syntax. Europe, published in 1952, was Dudek´s first long poem and was followed by En Mexico (1958), Atlantis (1967), Continuation I (1976) and Continuation II (1990). In 1956 he published The Transparent Sea, dedicated to Irving Layton, which alternates short lyrics with meditative poems such us "The Dead", "Keewaydin Poems", "Province Town" and "Meditation on a wintry city". Laughing Stalks was issued in 1958, a book full of satire which also includes parodies of Layton, Reaney, Souster and A. J. M. Smith and other Canadian writers. His Collected Poetry appeared in 1971 and the volume Selected Poems in 1979. Other books that contain poems, either previously published or unpublished, from different times and may be helpful in the study of Dudek´s artistic evolution are Cross-Section: Poems 1940-1980 (1980), Zembla´s Rocks (1986), Infinite Worlds (1988) and The Poetry of Louis Dudek (1998). In Small Perfect Things (1991), Dudek makes use of satire, epigram and proverb to lament the debasement of art in our culture and to celebrate nature. The Caged Tiger (1997) is a book of maturity in which Dudek meditates on death, old age and the passing of time: "We are the playful of time, knowing too little,/and too much". There is rage and irony in these pages, although the elegiac tone predominates. He is also the author of The First Person in Literature (1967), a collection of six essays on the role of individual personality in the history of literature, In Defense of Art (1988) and Ideas for Poetry (1983), a series of short reflection on numerous topics. He also published Epigrams (1975) and Paradise: Essays on Myth, Art and Reality (1992), where he reflects on myth, the long poem and other issues. Most of Dudek´s essays on Canadian literature can be found in Selected Essays and Criticism (1978), Technology and Culture (1979) and Texts and Essays (1981), a special issue of Open Letter. He has also edited Poetry of Our Time (1965) and, in collaboration with Michael Gnarowski, The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (1967), an anthology whose main purpose is to present the reader original texts relating to the development of Canadian poetry since 1910.

Dudek combined his literary career and editorial work with an academic profession in McGill University, which made him Greenshield professor of English in 1969. He was also invested as member of the Order of Canada in 1984 and he is nowadays recognized as one of Canada´s prominent men of letters. His work, as has been pointed out by Frank Davey and bp Nichol, "binds Smith, Scott, and Klein to the writing of the present generation. It links Canadian writing to the great Modernist descent from Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Williams… His long poems, the first major modernist poems in Canadian literature, opened up formal possibilities which are later to dominate important work by Marlatt, Bowering, Nichol, Lee, and Kroetsch".


Louis Dudek died Thursday March 23rd, 2001.



Louis Dudek's works copyright © to the author.


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