This anthology is an unofficial sequel to – or one-upping of – Irving Layton’s 1962 poetry anthology Love Where the Nights Are Long, a McClelland & Stewart collection that is still in print. At 430 pages to Layton’s 78, the new one is not just twice but five times as long. Length, of course, doesn’t necessarily correlate with endurance – in books, ‘love,’ or even in the game of bridge, as that legendary bridge player who lamented “I’ve got length but no strength” evidently had discovered. The new collection consists of both love letters and "epistolary poems," by poets both well-known and obscure, with some of the love letters addressed to named recipients, some not, and the addressees of most of the poems unidentified. Readers are thus frequently given the erotic pleasure of guessing.
Dave Eso’s preface suggests that the editors did considerable research in university manuscript collections and Canada's National Archives for possible inclusions. He reports however – not surprisingly – that “[p]ermission to reprint many personally revealing letters discovered in the course of our research was not granted; in response to our request for romantic epistles from our nation’s living poets, we received at least as many refusals as submissions” (12). Perhaps that is why there is only a recent poem from George Bowering, and no letters or poems from Margaret Atwood, David McFadden, Michael Ondaatje, D.G. Jones, bpNichol, Diana Hartog, Christopher Dewdney, Jay Macpherson or Fred Wah – to name only a few whom of those known – out upon it – to have ‘loved’. Or perhaps the editors didn’t look all that deeply into the archives of living and loving poets. Whatever, though I have a poem here, I am happy enough that no private letter of mine was lured out for extra readers and new affection. More thoughts about that transforming process later.
Eso also indicates that he and Lynes issued some sort of general call for submissions: “The editors took care to reach out to various poetic camps, from spoken word to conceptual literature” (13). I didn’t see any of those reach-outs but I assume that they may be responsible for the presence of a number of contributors whose poetry work I haven’t seen before, or heard of. Whether these contribute letters or epistolary poems, they are disadvantaged here by the fact that most readers will have to read these without much insight into how their writers have become known as poets, or much sense of time-inhabiting person who accompanies the text.
For I suspect that it is the context of a publicly-led poetry life that can give the strongest interest and meaning to missives like these . If we don’t know much about the poet's work overall, a
It’s the letters here between the public couples of Canlit – P.K. Page and F.R. Scott, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn, Sharon Thesen and Brian Fawcett, Susan Musgrave and Stephen Reid, Earle Birney and Esther Bull, Betsy Warland and Daphne Marlatt, or the letters of legendary bedroom adventurers such as Irving Layton that I imagine most readers will find to be the most engaging. I found myself especially enjoying the Fawcett letter in which he confirmed to Thesen that he had been “such an asshole” (not that this would have been something she didn’t know). I can think of many more whose relationship correspondence – which is what most of these letters are – the voyeur in me would have liked to read, starting with the correspondence of Charles G.D. Roberts and various ladies, moving on through letters exchanged by E.J. Pratt, Birney, Eli Mandel, Robert Kroetsch and other amorous professor-poets with certain of their graduate students (with nods to the letter-writing Abelard and Heloise). But much of that is likely locked away, or worse. Some letters between George Barker and the teenage Elizabeth Smart would also have been an educational addition.
Noteworthy about the contributions of those writers unknown to me, and who likely responded to the editors’ general solicitation, is that they are mostly expressive or emphatic texts, adorned with dreamy or violent adjectives, exclamations, and ejaculations, as if their authors were writing to convince the editors as well as their beloveds that they were in the throes of passion, and thus worthy, if not for reciprocation, at least for publication. That is, there seems to have been two main ways to get letters into this anthology: one, to be famous enough that your old letters could be illuminated by other texts and a public history, or two, to write new letters that were intrinsically and engagingly ‘loving’. Predictably, the somewhat famous, with little to gain through inclusion here, include the refuseniks; the contributors of very recently written texts include those most eager to display their passions – or ability to write passions.
The letters that the editors have pulled from archives are usually not expressively romantic; most often they seem written not in passion but within the long aftermath of one, and in the presence of at least minimal affection. That sense of affection is created by tone more than by argument or declaration. Most of these are not specifically ‘about’ love – they address shared projects and concerns, such as the political and social concerns of Dorothy Livesay and Duncan McNair (85-90), or the fear of being enveloped by the Second World War in the letters of Malcolm Lowry and Margery Bonner (117-120). In contrast, most of the very recently written letters that appear have come to the editors over the transom seem able to offer only textualizations of professed passions. Many of the famous have probably written similar letters but either failed to keep a copy or have preferred to leave any surviving copy in its vault. Moreover, before the coming of e-mail how many poet-lovers eager to be seen by their beloveds as passionate or loving regularly preserved copies of her/his letters for the potential convenience of anthology editors? Or would have wanted their beloved to know that they were? Those sad questions give a few of the over-the-transom letters overly visible signs of artifice, opportunism and exhibitionism, those tried and true parts of courtship. Elements of the "oh-so-human."
All texts of course are forms of artifice, whether love poems or love letters. All are contrived to move, persuade, impress or inspire trust in many readers or – in the case of the personal letter – one. The more successful texts have usually been those which have contrived to make the artifice invisible. Here a large part of the conception of the book is that a letter contrived for one reader becomes one read by many, with the many reading unbeknown to the two time-bound individuals who were once writer and reader. A large part of the Barthesian pleasure of these texts comes from that transformation, from private to public, from one reader to many. This is not so of the book's love poems, which were from the beginning created for reading by the many. And it may not be true either of the love letters here that were written after the call for contributions – neither the one reader nor the many can be sure – which I suppose could offer for some a frisson of its own.
There are as well a number of slightly older letters by poets unknown to me that seem to have been written much too visibly to seduce the recipient with the lover’s poetic skills – as when Tanya Evanson writes from Paris in 2002, “In the name of Paris in the springtime. In the name of tears shed by the prophets of God. What do I do now that I am a solitary traveller, and a poor one at that ...?” (115). Perhaps such cliched and overly visible contrivance was one of the reasons the “beloved” had left. One way for a reader to enjoy such letters – in the absence of possible biographical curiosity – is to speculate, or to imagine one’s own responses had one received them. No matter what the source, qualities, or context of these letters, there’s lots here for a kibbitzing reader to do.
I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Love Letter
Poets Trying Twice As Hard to Be Loving Poets
The Art of Loving Poetically
Vicariously Receive a Love Letter from a Poet
Busy Old Fool Unruly Night