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The “People’s Poet” in three dimensions


Though I had heard of Milton Acorn for many years before his death in 1986, I never knew his poetry very well. Acorn was the political enfant terrible of the Canadian poetry scene, infamously passed over for a Governor-General’s Award in 1969, the year his book I’ve Tasted My Blood was in contention for the prize. In a gesture of defiant celebration of their belief that he deserved the award, Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, Mordecai Richler and other literary heavyweights threw him a party at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto, where they presented Acorn with the first People’s Poetry Award. In 1975, Milton Acorn finally won the GG for his poetry collection, The Island Means Minago, and, in the year after his death, the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award was established in his memory.

Since then, Milton Acorn has faded somewhat from the national poetic consciousness, something this book aims to remedy, with excellent results. Filmmaker Kent Martin and publisher Errol Sharpe have re-printed the 1978 edition of I’ve Tasted My Blood along with an attached CD. In a new preface, “Remembering Milton,” Sharpe tells us what it was like to work with Milton, to argue with him, to recognize his enormous talent, and to become a lifelong, though often physically distant, friend. The entire package gives us Milton Acorn in as close to three dimensions as is possible: there he is on the CD, in the wistful, charming, black and white documentary Milton Acorn: The People’s Poet, made in 1971 and originally aired on CBC’s “Thirty Minutes.” On the same CD we also grow familiar with the contours of Acorn’s voice as we listen to studio recordings of him reading 19 of his most anthologized poems. Some of these he performs without affectation in front of live audiences, some of them he almost sings, and others, like “Callum,” a poem dedicated to the death of a young miner on the job, have been re-mastered for dramatic effect.

The pages of the book offer us more personal traces of Acorn in addition to his fine poetry. Milton had sent a marked-up copy of Blood to Errol Sharpe in 1971 as a present, and this gift copy, with all of Acorn’s marginal comments and corrections visible, is re-produced here. What we read as we turn the pages of the book are Acorn’s responses to, and thoughts about, his own work: what words he thinks should be changed, and what poetic movements he was arguing with at the time (he thinks the Black Mountain poets are full of “horseshit”). It’s like listening to him mutter under his breath.

The entire artifact — book and CD together — becomes a multimedia portrait of a fascinating man whose family and class allegiances, fierce intelligence and demanding friendship were obviously a challenge and a joy for those around him. Acorn’s reputation as a Marxist curmudgeon was the one I was most familiar with when I picked up this book.

By the time I finished reading, watching and listening, though, it was Acorn’s lyric power that had captured me. Yes, the politics are here, as is some selfconscious masculinity (in the images of the title poem, for example). But what is most striking in the poetry is its imagery. He was a superb imagist, regardless of the topic. It is Acorn’s righteous descriptions of working life with which he is associated, but it is the gentleness of a piece like “Poem” that infuses this book with persistent warmth:

Hair flowing yellow and still to her shoulders, I saw my sister once stand before a new flower and in a hushed voice give it a name

On the flyleaf of this book, in 1971, Milton Acorn sent Errol Sharpe his love. In this 2015 re-issue, Sharpe and Martin send theirs back.

This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Canadian Dimension (Basic Income).


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