Articles & Reviews

Continuing Continuation, on Louis Dudek

Published in Urban Grafitti, 2013

By Stephen Morrissey

“...remember/ the paltriness of worldly claims,/ and the immensity/ that is always now.” —Louis Dudek, Continuation III

1 A curious literary synchronicity: on January 4, 1963, Margaret Avison experienced a mystical experience in which she discovered her faith in God; this had a profound influence on her future poetry. On January 4, 1967, exactly four years later, Louis Dudek began writing the first of three volumes of one of the most important modern poems in Canadian literature, Continuation. In Notebooks 1960 – 1994 (1994), Dudek writes, “The great poems tend to be great expository statement. And each such poem is a central poem for the poet in question, containing the core of his vision and thought.” That’s what is in Continuation, Dudek’s “vision and thought.” Several years before Dudek published Continuation I, Susan Stromberg-Stein referred to it as “a poem that will possibly be his [Dudek’s] final ongoing poem, for he has subtitled it ‘An Infinite Poem in Progress.’ In this work one observes the poet combining lyrical fragments and setting them into a continuous form that has the permanence of finished poetry...” (Stromberg-Stein, M.A. thesis, McGill University, 1977) Dudek was not interested in writing an autobiography, he had an abhorrence of sensationalism, and he rejected what he considered any egotistical drawing attention to oneself. However, Ron Everson, an old friend of Dudek’s, states in a 1983 interview that Dudek’s theme in his poetry “is his whole life.” Dudek writes, “The whole story means my whole life... But you know we say poetry, or any art, is the expression of the life of the artist, of his whole psyche, of himself on the page . . . Each poet, in fact, out of the scattered thoughts going on in his mind, makes the construct that he calls the finished poem.” (Louise Schrier interview, 1990) How a poet handles writing about “his whole life” depends on the poet’s intention; is the poet’s voice an authentic expression of his psyche or is it ego-centric and self-promoting? As well, Dudek does not condemn strong emotion in poetry or even highly emotional confessional poetry; what he condemns is self-inflation. Dudek’s dismissal of John Cage, and other avant-garde artists, who might have embraced and supported what he was doing in poetry, is unfortunate. Dudek writes, “John Cage: A soft-brained idiot. The purpose of his inane talk is a subtle kind of self-promotion, disguised as humility, but full of name-dropping and self-pampering.” (Notebooks, 1994) One of Dudek’s great underlying concerns in Continuation is the passion of a life lived for poetry, a life dedicated to poetry. He describes writing poetry as an “addiction.” Dudek lived in New York City for a number of years in the late 1940s and early 1950s and it was during this time that he came under the influence of Ezra Pound; while there he knew other poets, including Paul Blackburn. I remember Dudek telling me of knowing Blackburn, that as they walked along a city street together Blackburn climbed a telephone pole and sat on the top of it. Dudek’s years in New York City, studying at Columbia University, meeting Ezra Pound and other artists—being in a milieu of art and creativity—are the seminal years in Dudek’s creative life. Dudek contributed to the image of himself as conservative in his criticism of hippies, experiments in alternative lifestyles, and student rebellion in the mid-to-late 1960s; however, his earlier long poems and Continuation, a poem that is more sophisticated and avant-garde than most poetry being written in Canada today, refute this perception. Robin Blaser writes, “They understand him to be a reactionary, which is to say that they misunderstand him.” (Infinite Worlds, 1988) Most people who have studied Dudek’s poetry feel that he was overly influenced by Ezra Pound; however, eventually this changed and as much as Dudek had once supported Pound he later found fault with him. This is an example of the puer overthrowing the senex, it is when the children or followers of people who are significant to them finally divest themselves of the other person’s influence; the alternative is to never fully realize one’s own potential. I suspect that it is only with Dudek’s growing discontent with the importance he had given to Pound that he was able to begin writing Continuation. As an aside, I remember Dudek telling me that in all of his years of teaching he never convinced anyone of the greatness of Pound’s poetry. (See, as well, Dk/ Some Letters of Ezra Pound, ed. Louis Dudek, 1974)

2 If having a large number of books by a specific poet, and books on that poet’s work, is an indication of a literary influence, then three significant influences on my writing have been Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, and Louis Dudek. They are poets I read and reread, poets whose work means much to me at both a personal and creative level. In Continuation, epigrams are juxtaposed before and after other dissimilar epigrams, it is similar to the way people think, jumping from one idea to another apparently unrelated idea; in this, the poem is an “internal monologue”, that’s what Dudek called it. Dudek’s Continuation is a post-modern poem attacking post-modernism and extolling the modernist movement. Continuation is similar to a painting by Jackson Pollock, there is no narrative or focal point to observe, every part of a painting by Pollock is equal to every other part of the same painting. Similarly, every part of Continuation is equal, although different, to every other part, there is no narrative leading up to a climax in the poem. There are two ways Dudek could have written (or “assembled”) Continuation, both presume that he already had the epigrams, short statements, and other fragments of writing that make up the poem. The first is by taking these fragments and putting them together in a random way. The second method would be to take all of the fragments and consciously piece them together giving the poem the appearance of a random organization. Among the poets who influenced Dudek is Stéphane Mallarmé whose poem, Un coup de dés, is important to the writing of Continuation. Three “epigrams” from John Cage: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” “The goal is not to have a goal.” “As far as consistency of thought goes, I prefer inconsistency.” Dudek was always concerned about irrationality and the artist; he seemed to posit a connection between irrationality and the very people that he felt threatened the old, established order. I think of Margaret Laurence’s novel, A Jest of God, with the blue faced barbarians waiting to invade the walled villa where children are playing with no idea of their possible destruction. What threatens to disintegrate society and destroy propriety—“barbarians” as Dudek described them—is always present. Always present in Dudek’s work is the belief in the transcendent power of poetry. Poetry and art were accorded an almost religious quality by Dudek; his desire was to reinvent poetry and, like Ezra Pound, to “make it new”. Dudek was always aware of the small readership for poetry and how inconsequential poetry is for the great majority of the population. (As many people die on the roads on a holiday weekend as read poetry Dudek once said.) It’s a mystery how poems come to be written. It could be that writing poetry mostly comes in short bursts of inspiration (to inspire, to breathe in spirit); Continuation, a long poem, has the intensity of many short poems, or epigrams, put together. Dudek is fairly relentless in his criticism of both Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, two highly distinguished Canadian scholars and critics. McLuhan, like Dudek, was very much involved with Ezra Pound in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Marshall McLuhan’s “probes”, his epigrams, are insightful and cause the reader to understand, in a new way, the digital and electric media that is so much a part of the world in which we live. Three epigrams from Marshall McLuhan: “Discovery comes from dialogue that starts with the sharing of ignorance.” “Any highway eatery with its TV set, newspaper and magazine is as cosmopolitan as New York or Paris.” “The story of modern America begins with the discovery of the white man by the Indians.” McLuhan, who was conservative and a religious person, was one of the first academics to explain the new technological environment in which we live. McLuhan writes: “I believe that our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitude.” Dudek and McLuhan were writing and thinking from two different perspectives. Dudek’s is the world of poetry; he writes from a perception of the eternal and the infinite. McLuhan’s is the world of temporality, he is writing of a contemporary and changing world of electric media. I never agreed with Dudek’s negative assessment of Northrop Frye; indeed, I wonder if there wasn’t some bitterness regarding Frye on Dudek’s part, especially after reading Frye’s mean-spirited 1955 review of Dudek’s Europe (1954); Frye writes: “... I find large stretches of the book unrewarding. In the first place, the influence of Pound is oppressive. Pound is everywhere: the rub-a-dub three- and four-accent, the trick of snapped-up quotations and allusion, the harangues against usura, the toboggan-slide theory of the decline of Europe after the Middle Ages, and so on. In the second place, the conversational style brings the ideas into sharp relief, and the ideas are commonplace, prejudice reinforced by superficial tourism...” In a 1965 article in The Tamarack Review, Dudek writes, “I consider both McLuhan and Northrop Frye as really poets manqués, best appreciated when we read their speculations as imaginative constructs made out of their real materials, not as ‘objective’ or ‘scientific’ theories at all.” A coincidence of dates: Valerie Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s widow, has just died, reported in the newspaper for 16 November 2012. The obituary states that T.S. Eliot died on January 4, 1965, two years to the day after Margaret Avison’s religious experience and two years before Dudek began writing Continuation I. Louis’ cousin and close friend, the artist Stanley Roznyski, passed away on December 9, 2012. Born on February 21, 1931, he grew up near where Louis lived in the east end of Montreal. Roznyski has a moving eulogy for Louis in Eternal Conversations, Remembering Louis Dudek (2003). Dudek writes: “ can’t write good poetry because you’ve read many books or because you think great thoughts. Poetry is a mysterious process that happens to very few individuals, and they are not fortunate in it. (Emily Dickinson and Thomas Trehearne, completely unknown in their time; Blake and Holderlin, cursed with mental ills and isolation.)” (Poetry Canada Review, early 1990s) This reminds me of the lack of recognition Dudek felt his own poetry had received and his sense of isolation as a poet and a person. Robin Blaser describes Dudek as a “walking loneliness” (Infinite Worlds, 1988).

3 Three quotations from The Other Voice, Essays on Modern Poetry (1990), by Mexican poet Octavio Paz: “What is an ‘extensive poem’? The dictionary says that to extend is to increase something so that it occupies more space. To extend also means to expand, to develop, to enlarge, to unfold, to occupy greater terrain. In its original and primary sense, extension is a spatial concept. Hence an extensive poem is a long poem. Since in language words come one after the other in a row, an extensive poem is one that has many lines and the reading of which takes a considerable amount of time. Space is time.” “A great change: the first-person singular becomes the main character of the extensive poem.” “The best example of the new poetics was Un coup de dés, a strange poem that has as its subject the act of writing a poem. But a poem never before attempted: an absolute poem. Not a poem on the poem but the poem on the poem.” In light of Paz’s definition, Dudek’s Continuation is an “extensive” poem. Dudek suggests that his epigrams are a way for him to write poetry, they are the first line of a poem that proceeds to other epigrams and disparate lines and then a whole poem; or, he juxtaposes epigram after epigram in a kind of free floating mix of confused random associations that eventually, in a synergistic way, take on more meaning than if the epigrams were presented individually; this is how Continuation is similar to some of Cage’s writing in which dissimilar statements are juxtaposed together. “Meaning” in Continuation is achieved by the repetition of epigrams (and other fragments of writing) with similar ideas; otherwise, on first reading, the poem seems “meaningless”. In other words, as one might expect, this is not “traditional” poetry. The “problem” with 1940s/1950s Abstract Expressionism—the art of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Marc Rothko and others—is that despite its relative popularity, more people wanted art to be a representation of “reality” than total abstraction. Abstract Expressionism was superseded by Pop Art—the art of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, and others—an art extolling in an ironic way the very popular culture, or low art, that the previous generation of Abstract Expressionist artists condemned. This was suggested in John Logan’s play on Marc Rothko, Red. Pierre Trudeau’s epigrammatic statement, “Reason over Passion”, was later used in an ironic way, it was sewn onto a quilt by the artist Joyce Weiland and is on exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Dudek began Continuation when he was 49 years old, a month later he turned fifty; the concept for how to write the poem was discovered by Dudek in 1956, when he was only thirty-eight years old; however, Dudek tells us that he could only write Continuation after he discovered his authentic voice, one that was a memory of his thought processes when he was a child. With this in mind, Continuation is Dudek’s life-long work, his life opus. Dudek’s Continuation is one of the most radical poems in Canadian literature, “radical” meaning to go to the roots of poetry and language. A common idea among Jungians is that “the brighter the light the greater the darkness.” Dudek’s emphasis on rationality hides the irrational dark side of the poet. Dudek’s conservative persona is a mask worn by a poet whose life was lived quietly and conservatively but whose mind and imagination were open to a multiplicity of thoughts and creative ideas. Rationality is a veneer of conscious order over the depth and many layered complexity of the unconscious. See C.G. Jung’s Red Book (2009) for a description of the journey into the unconscious mind. All art is vision, or else it is the repetition of the past. Continuation is, in some ways, one of Dudek’s “travel” books, but this is not travel to a place as was Europe (1954) or En México (1958); this is a journey across time, it is the journey of a poet’s life during middle age to old age and preparation for death; the last poems in Continuation III, including his final reflections on life, must have been written only months before Dudek’s passing. In these final poems, Dudek returns repeatedly to the concept of time as infinity, he envisions an ultimate “shining” that illuminates the darkness of ignorance with a kind of mystical perception of life.

This essay is dedicated to two friends—Richard Sommer and Keitha K. MacIntosh—both of whom I met in the early 1970s and both of whom passed away in 2012. I am grateful for having known them, and for their kindness and generosity to me.

Note: This essay continues the work begun in my essay Reading Louis Dudek’s Continuation: An introduction to a major Canadian poem.

Stephen Morrissey
November 2012 – April 2013