Inward of Poetry: George Johnston & Wm. Blissett in Letters

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The Porcupine's Quill, 2011 - Biography & Autobiography - 431 pages
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An essential part of the folklore of Canadian academia in the 1950s and 60s, George Johnston's poems were recited with glee by readers largely unaware of their publication abroad in the New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry (Chicago) and The Spectator. This book shows the making of those poems, and several hitherto unpublished ones, forged in the hard craft of Icelandic saga, American Imagism, and in the voices of family and community Johnston took as his material.

William Blissett enjoys a unique presence in academic folklore today, having seeded it with his perceptions and sayings for over sixty years as an authority on Wagner and the shape of literary modernism, Renaissance epic and drama; the work of his friend, the modernist poet David Jones, and his friend, George Johnston, whose poems he frequently critiqued in draft.

Sean Kane, once a student of both Johnston and Blissett, engagingly presents a friendship told in fifty years of letters between the two men, set in the affectionate, gossipy, aspiring world of English Studies in Canada when it was ruled by A.S.P. Woodhouse and Northrop Frye.

 

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Contents

I
11
II
17
III
39
IV
77
V
135
VI
177
VII
225
VIII
237
IX
257
X
281
XI
305
XII
339
XIII
383
Copyright

Common terms and phrases

About the author (2011)

Chapter Three: The Cruising Auk

. . . .

There are more letters for 1954 (fourteen) than for any other year of the fifty years in which Johnston and Blissett wrote to each other. The themes continue much as we see them in 1953: the volume, Imitation and Design; the continued publishing fate of Blissett''s Macbeth piece and of Johnston''s ``The Phoenix and the Turtle'''' article; Johnston''s study of the painter Carl Schaefer; plans to meet at the Stratford Festival (a new institution in the 1950s); gossip about Gordon Wood and other academic colleagues (``MacLean ... discloses that Hornyansky is coming dwadwa & that Hoeniger is en route to London for Ph.D.''''), as well as Malcolm Ross, James Reaney and, always, Millar and Evelyn MacLure. There is first mention of Blissett''s writing to modern poets about the reputation of Edmund Spenser; continued praise of Jay Macpherson; discussion of some modern poets, especially Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves; and persistent attempts by Blissett to force Catcher in the Rye on Johnston. Some of these subjects will be found in other sections of this volume on the correspondence. For the correspondents themselves, of course the most important subject is the mutual editing by Blissett and Johnston of each other''s writing during the period when they both attempted to honour the muses of creativity and scholarship.

For this, we start with the poem ``Roses'''' sent on 2 February 1954, in which Miss Knit, a sort of Blakean Female Will, ensnares the unsuspecting solar deity, Mr. Byers:

Among the roses around behind the house
Snip snap snip go the little cutting pliers;
Sweet Miss Knit, who is a kind of mouse,
Is gathering buds & blooms for Mr. Byers.
Mr. Byers is a kind of a hungry cat,
But he doesn''t pay much attention to sweet Miss Knit;
She loves his magnificent person, which is fat,
And wishes she had to herself his every bit.

Ah roses, roses on Mr. Byers'' table
That lean your thorns above the polished wood,
Miss Knit would borrow your death, if she were able,
To darken her small heart, which is sweet and good;
For certainly Mr. Byers'' great concerns
Overpower his taste for the good & sweet,
And when he flies across the sea & returns
It''s the unremembering and bitter he wants to meet.

Blissett responds (14 February 1954):

`Roses'' is nice (& so is you. This is St. Valentine''s Day). But whether you can persuade an editor to take all those extra syllables is a moot question (in `attention'' & `magnificent'' e.g. why not `heed'' & `massive'' they will say. Your answer is that the reader has to get used to scurrying -- as in the last line of the first stanza, and lopsidedness -- as in the last line of all; otherwise no poem.

The published version shows relaxations throughout, but where Blissett''s argument has prevailed wholly is in the last few lines: the Blakean mythopoeia gives way to ironic sensory particulars:

And yet the room''s mahogany-deep light
And all the little rainbows in the glass
Seem to surround her movements with delight
And watch her mouse''s footsteps as they pass.

Johnston''s letter to Blissett of 20 March does not refer to this editing, but soon after, on 24 April, he encloses ``Kind Offices''''; except for an allusion to his family in ``War on the Periphery,'''' this is the first of the poems about his children to enter the correspondence. It entered Auk unchanged, having passed Blissett''s scrutiny (``nice, should be worth dough'''' -- 8 May 1954):

Kind Offices

Andrew, an understanding boy,
Helps Cathleen: he gets her toy
Or puts her dolly in her hand;
He sits her up, he makes her stand;
He picks her dolly up again
And gives it back to her and then
Re-erects her on her feet.
In all he does his air is sweet,
Olympian, perhaps. His smile
Is Heaven''s blandest. She meanwhile
Is rage itself. I cannot tell
Her rage; she''s brimestone pits and Hell.

Johnston''s April letter also included ``Cat,'''' I and II. These are the first of Johnston''s famous cat poems. While Blissett has said, ``I don''t know of another poet who celebrates his children so fully,'''' I don''t know of another with such an affinity for felines:

Cat

I.

Pussy''s caught a baby bird
And she''s so pleased with it
She''s purring as she''s never purred.
She

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