Irving Layton, F.R. Scott and Louis Dudek circa 1983


Small magazines, big influence

"Seriously to consider the poets of McGill is to consider the history of Canadian poetry in the past fifty years or so."

Louis Dudek, poet and McGill professor of English 1951-1984, writing in Old McGill, 1979

BRONWYN CHESTER | Despite being a predominantly francophone city and not having any major English-language publishers, Montreal has played a very important role in the development of Canadian English-language prose and, especially, poetry. Why? Well, that's a question to which Dudek postulates in the same article cited above that it "is the peculiar mixture of cultural mobility against a background of cautious conservatism that has characterized the University and the city."

The university, of course, is McGill, and, thanks to curator David McKnight of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, it is possible to see the 18 magazines which served as the spawning grounds for such poets and prose-writers as A.J.M. Smith, Frank Scott, A.M. Klein, Joyce Marshall, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, D.G. Jones, David Solway, Robyn Sarah and David Manicom, among others.

The exhibition is laid out in four museum-style cases, each containing the magazines of a particular literary era at McGill. Each case offers examples of who was writing what in each magazine. You can also see samples of what some of those students went on to publish after they left McGill.

True to the exhibit's title, "We all began in a little magazine," we see, for instance, Norman Levine, a novelist and short-story writer who was editor of The Forge and whose novel, The Angled Road, written when he was a student and for which he won the 1948 Chester McNaughten prize (a creative writing prize initiated by the English Department in 1943), was published in 1952 by McClelland & Stewart.

The exhibition is also valuable for the history it documents. In the McGilliad, for instance, which lasted from 1930 to 1931, there's a photograph of associate editor David Lewis, who went on to become the leader of the national NDP. In the same issue is Irving Layton's first published poem.

In a separate display case on the wall lies Leonard Cohen's "Ste. Catherine Street," describing the famous street as it appeared to the poet in the '50s: Towering black nuns frighten us/as they come lumbering down the tramway aisle/amulets and talismans caught in careful fingers/promising plagues for an impudent glance.

McKnight considers the most important of the literary publications to be one of the University's earliest. "Traditionally, the history of modern literature in Canada begins with The McGill Fortnightly Review," he says. While not long-lived, the magazine, which ran from 192527, was responsible for the meeting of some of the country's most important poets and writers, such as Scott, Smith, Leon Edel (who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer), Leo Kennedy, John Glassco and, later Klein.

McKnight considers Rubicon (19831989), edited by Peter O'Brien, now a writer and editor in Toronto, to be "the most ambitious and most national in scope." It was in Rubicon that QSPELL prize-winning short-story writer and poet Manicom got his beginnings.

Michele Syba, one of the editors of the Scrivener (1980 ), appreciates how the exhibit puts her annual journal in some historical perspective. "This retrospective is so helpful because it situates Scrivener then with the Scrivener of today and gives me some sense of the magazine's genealogy. Usually we just make reference to the Scriveners of the past two years."

McKnight decided to create this exhibit because he had the necessary "critical mass of material" and decided it was time to do something on student literary magazines. Having created a bibliography of Canadian literary magazines for his MA thesis in English, McKnight is well acquainted with the terrain; many of the magazines in the collection are his own.

In fact, due to the nature of a student magazine -- usually transient, frequently underground and anti-establishment -- procuring complete sets of the journals is no small task. McKnight drew some of the materials from the F.R. Scott Poetry Collection and the Ralph Gustafson Collection, both housed in Rare Books, from Scrivener and from the collection of Adrian King-Edwards, owner of The Word Bookstore.

McKnight maintains that there were three periods of "volcanic eruption" of literary activity in this century: the '20s, the '50s with the likes of poet and singer-songwriter Cohen and the return of Louis Dudek from Columbia University to teach at McGill, and the late '70s when American poet Ken Norris was doing his PhD here.

One of the reasons for the success or importance of certain of the magazines, McKnight maintains, is the participation of a particular teacher. In the '20s, that was Howard Files, who taught at McGill from 1925 to 1965. McKnight points out a book by John Glassco and Leon Edel -- both of whom published in the Fortnightly -- entitled Memoirs of Mount Parnass, which includes a sonnet dedicated to Files. Montreal poet, teacher and critic of education David Solway has also dedicated work to Files.

In the '50s it was Dudek, English professor and poet, who encouraged students to start their own magazines and himself began DC Press. In a letter that Dudek, now 81, wrote to The Pillar (1987 ), a current McGill literary magazine, when asked about the absence of a creative writing program at the University, Dudek replied that ever since 1951 some writing course "has persisted in one form or another."

Now, says McKnight, it's English professor Brian Trehearne who offers a non-credit poetry workshop which serves as the source material for the student literary magazine Montage (1993 ).

Hugh MacLennan, while he didn't align himself with a particular magazine during the years he taught at McGill, did write the preface to The Forge during his first year at the University in 1953. In the magazine, where the poems of Leonard Cohen were starting to be published, he innocently makes the point, "With all this talent, who knows who will be famous." Little did he know. Little do any of us know who next will emerge from the pages of McGill's literary journals.

The exhibition will continue until April 30.