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Inward of Poetry

George Johnston and William Blissett in Letters

by (author) George Johnston & William Blissett

edited by Sean Kane

Publisher
Porcupine's Quill
Initial publish date
Oct 2011
Category
Letters, Literary
  • Paperback / softback

    ISBN
    9780889843455
    Publish Date
    Oct 2011
    List Price
    $29.95

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Description

Inward of Poetry presents fifty years of thoughtful and, by turns, chatty letters between poet George Johnston and his good friend and frequent editor, the scholar William Blissett. Edited by former student Sean Kane, this lively collection includes several hitherto unpublished Johnston poems and reveals the development and creative necessities of one of Canada's revered poets and translators.

About the authors

George Johnston was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 7, 1913. Johnston knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, and published early poems (often comic-satiric), as well as newspaper columns, film reviews and plays, during his years at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, where he studied philosophy and English.

When war was declared, he joined the RCAF and served four and a half years, including thirteen months as a reconnaissance pilot in West Africa. He returned to Canada in 1944, married Jeanne McRae, and completed his MA and doctoral studies at the University of Toronto. In between, he taught two years (1947-49) at Mount Allison University, and in 1950, having found teaching to his liking, accepted a post at Ottawa's Carleton University where, for twenty-nine years, he was a charismatic and much-loved professor of Old and Middle English and Old Norse. His first book of poems, The Cruising Auk, written during the war, was not published until 1959, when he was forty-six.

Sabbatical years were decisive in Johnston's life. During his first, 1957-58 at Dorking in Surrey, he met Peter Foote of the University of London, who taught him Old Norse, and began translating The Saga of Gisli in collaboration with him. A second sabbatical, in 1967-68, was spent in Denmark and included the discovery of modern Faroese poetry and the first of four visits the Johnstons made to the Faroe Islands. A last sabbatical, 1974-75, spent mostly in Gloucester, England, included a three-week visit to Iceland.

After The Cruising Auk, Johnston published four more poetry collections before the appearance of Endeared by Dark, his Collected Poems, in 1990. A man whose diverse interests included calligraphy, bell-ringing, wine-making and beekeeping, who kept up a wide correspondence and enjoyed reading the classics aloud with his wife, Johnston retired from Carleton in 1979. He died in August of 2004.

George Johnston's profile page

William Blissett was born in Saskatchewan on October 11, 1921. Reading the modernist poets at age sixteen, he wrote his first published scholarly essay, on T.S. Eliot, while still an undergraduate at UBC. He met George Johnston in graduate school at U of T where Northrop Frye supervised both their theses. Following ten years at the University of Saskatchewan and five at Western, Blissett returned to the University of Toronto in 1965, becoming a long-serving editor of the University of Toronto Quarterly and co-editor of The Spenser Encyclopedia. He retired from teaching, but not from scholarship, in 1987. Now in his ninetieth year, he still gives papers internationally.

Blissett is a writer in the Guy Davenport manner, extensive, encyclopedic and stylish, given to life-long projects at present being resolved into books: essays on his friend, the modernist poet and painter David Jones; on Shakespeare and Jonson; on the influence of Wagner on the literary modernists and of Edmund Spenser on poets alive at the mid-twentieth century (complete with letters from each poet); and essays for the William Morris Society and the Chesterton Society. Traveller, opera-goer, storyteller and wit, Blissett lives in Toronto.

William Blissett's profile page

George Johnston was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 7, 1913. Johnston knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, and published early poems (often comic-satiric), as well as newspaper columns, film reviews and plays, during his years at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, where he studied philosophy and English.

When war was declared, he joined the RCAF and served four and a half years, including thirteen months as a reconnaissance pilot in West Africa. He returned to Canada in 1944, married Jeanne McRae, and completed his MA at the University of Toronto. In between, he taught two years (1947-49) at Mount Allison University, and in 1950, having found teaching to his liking, accepted a post at Ottawa's Carleton University where, for twenty-nine years, he was a charismatic and much-loved professor of Old and Middle English and Old Norse. His first book of poems, The Cruising Auk, written during the war, was not published until 1959, when he was forty-six.

Sabbatical years were decisive in Johnston's life. During his first, 1956-57 at Dorking in Surrey, he met Peter Foote of the University of London, who taught him Old Norse, and began translating The Saga of Gisli in collaboration with him. A second sabbatical, in 1967-68, was spent in Denmark and included the discovery of modern Faroese poetry and the first of four visits the Johnstons made to the Faroe Islands. A last sabbatical, 1974-75, spent mostly in Gloucester, England, included a three-week visit to Iceland.

After The Cruising Auk, Johnston published four more poetry collections before the appearance of Endeared by Dark, his Collected Poems, in 1990. A man whose diverse interests included calligraphy, bell-ringing, wine-making and beekeeping, who kept up a wide correspondence and enjoyed reading the classics aloud with his wife, Johnston retired from Carleton in 1979. He died in August of 2004.

Sean Kane's profile page

Excerpt: Inward of Poetry: George Johnston and William Blissett in Letters (by (author) George Johnston & William Blissett; edited by Sean Kane)

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 lets it go a bit
As though she held it by a thread
Or love, perhaps. Above her head

The air's extravagant with grief;
The season, after all,
Overproduces blood & leaf
And even flight, the Fall
Scatters what's left of them at last
Eat it, pussy, life flies past!

II.

Every yard has a cat these days
Watching, footing, blinking;
Every tree has a cheeky squirrel
Seemingly all unthinking,
Going his squirrel ways
As though no cat in the world were waiting, slinking.

Life is exquisite when it's just
Out of reach by a bound
Of filagree jaws & delicate paws
That feel their points in the ground,
That drop their drips in the dust.
Pounce! Up the tree again! the tails whip round.

Blissett writes: ''The first poem is very strong down to 'grief' but then slackens down to 'And even flight', which I don't understand. Blood & leaf can't be parallel to flight can they, or can they? The fall scatters leaves & birds ('flight'?) but not blood any more than any other season. Last line excellent. The second poem good too. I suppose cats do slobber when hunting?'' (Blissett to Johnston 8 May 1954). When published in The Cruising Auk, the Darwinian melodrama came into focus as:

The air's extravagant with grief,
The season over all
Is prodigal of bone and leaf
And feathers too; the fall
Scatters the birds and leaves at last.
Eat it, pussy, life flies past!

. . . .

Editorial Reviews

'Inward of Poetry is a journey, through correspondence, into the friendship of Canadian poet George Johnston and Canadian scholar William Blissett. Both men of letters, Johnston and Blissett met in graduate school in the late 1940s, beginning their fifty-year correspondence upon their departure to distant academic posts. Serving as a memoir of the men's lives and their scholarly vocations, Inward of Poetry provides readers with an intimate account into the minds and times of Johnston and Blissett.

'Johnston is known to have written 180 letters to Blissett in his lifetime, and Blissett wrote more than 142 (correspondence from the 1990s has been mislaid). Sean Kane, the editor of the collection and a past student of George Johnston, expertly presents the men's friendship through his chapter-by-chapter narration, providing background information to set the stage for the letters. Kane's careful excerpting of the letters and notes of clarification delve deep into the significant aspects of each man's life.

'In the early chapters of the book, Blissett and Johnston focus on the vocation to which each has felt called. Their ideas on teaching, scholarship, and their own reactions to what they had been reading and writing fascinate. In a discussion of a meeting they had both attended, Blissett disagrees with Johnston's outburst (accompanied, notes Blissett, by ''breathing down my neck'') that English is a dead language, like Irish, that shouldn't be taught in university. Johnston's charming response, indicative of their ease with one another, reads: ''I am an owl, everything I say sounds owlish to me – but I do believe that I might sound like a comfortable owl if I were writing to you.''

'In middle chapters of the book, centered upon Johnston's poetry collections (Cruising Auk, Home Free, and Happy Enough), Johnston settles into his role as a ''comfortable owl'', full of long-range vision for what he hoped for in his poems and for Canadian literature as a whole. Trusting the insight and honesty of his friend, Johnston sends Blissett poems that he is working on, and Blissett, in turn, sends his encouragement and criticism: ''The Bargain Sale is...one of the truly great: don't change a syllable. Daisy hasn't gotten across to me yet.'' Poem after poem, Blissett weighs in, both before and during his long-term tenure as editor of the University of Toronto Quarterly. While all of the letters are peppered with personal details, the last chapters of the book center on fellow poets, family, travels, and seasons and occasions. Johnston's wife and many children shine in these chapters, as do Johnston's feelings about the changing world. (''We have not yet brought a television into the house. I find that the self-important and self-destroying world already penetrates too deeply.'') In Blissett's letters, we learn more of his care for his mother and her death, his obsession with opera, and his extended family of colleagues.

'Rich with historic, personal, and scholarly detail, the letters between William Blissett and George Johnston are a necessary addition to the academic and personal libraries of Canadians and those interested in Canadian literature. Through Kane's fine editing, the lives and work of two outstanding countrymen are preserved and made accessible for generations to come.'

ForeWord Reviews

'Oh, Johnston was an academic of some sort, a scholar, too; purveyor of Icelandic sagas ... sometimes, even deep in the fustier nooks and crannies of said academe, one might chance across an authentic beating heart for whom poetry, and not just some fantasia of the thing, truly does matter. A tip of the hat then to Porcupine Quill's publication of the George Johnston-William Blisset correspondence: Inward of Poetry.'

Norm Sibum

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