“Cross-Border Kinship”: A Tradition of Literary Internationalism in New Brunswick

by Thomas Hodd

Thomas Hodd teaches Atlantic and Canadian literature at Université de Moncton. His essays and cultural commentaries have appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Literary Review of Canada, Canadian Poetry, and Studies in Canadian Literature.

In late 1880, Charles G.D. Roberts, future “Father of Canadian Literature,” sent a copy of his first poetry collection to one of the leading U.S. writers of the time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Not yet 21, Roberts was an avid reader of U.S. magazines and poets, and had already published a handful of poems in the New York periodical The Century. In his accompanying letter to Longfellow, he suggests there is a kind of kinship that exists between them, noting “I have ventured to send you a copy of my verses, knowing that you do not disdain to look kindly on us who are struggling to sing.” 1

In some ways it’s not surprising Roberts would feel compelled and comfortable looking for poetic validation in the Unites States. His own extended family had long historical ties with New England, an ancestry that included the poet and Transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a distant cousin on his mother’s side. 2

In fact, Roberts, along with his cousin Bliss Carman, were so enamoured with the U.S. literary scene that they moved to the States early in their careers and spent many years working in New England as editors and writers. Roberts even managed to convince two of his brothers, Theodore and Will, to participate in the southern literary migration, both of whom went on to careers in writing: Theodore became a successful novelist and poet, while Will spent many years serving as an editor for The Literary Digest in New York.

But the literary interest shown by Roberts and his kin to their southern neighbour is by no means an isolated incident. On the contrary, New Brunswick’s geo-cultural relationship with the United States has a long standing tradition among the province’s poets.

Many factors have played into the fostering of this phenomenon, chief among them the physical and linguistic boundary of Québec that psychologically separates much of New Brunswick from the rest of Canada. A second factor is the long-standing trade partnership between the United States and New Brunswick, which flourished most notably during the nineteenth century when Saint John served as one of the major ports of call for ships from Boston and New York.

“New Brunswick’s reputation for producing literary work that exemplifies a stereotyped form of Maritime regionalism is misguided.”

There is also the basic geographical proximity between New Brunswick and Maine, the province’s relative closeness to major New England cities, and the fact that many families in New Brunswick are ancestors of the United Empire Loyalists who crossed the border during the late 1700s. Combined, these factors have served to create a sense of cultural closeness one does not find in most other parts of Canada.

Indeed, a generation after Roberts and Carman journeyed south, that sense of internationalism would be rekindled in a different way through University of New Brunswick professor Fred Cogswell, whose poetic career was shaped in part by the discovery of a book of short poems by Edgar Lee Masters. Masters was a U.S. poet, dramatist, and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman, among others. Equally significant was Cogswell’s editorial decision in the mid-1950s to open up The Fiddlehead to international submissions, much to the criticism of Ontario literary elites Earle Birney and Northrop Frye. As Andrew Moore tells it, “Birney criticized the magazine for giving space to what he considered insignificant American poets. Frye likewise characterized The Fiddlehead as “a dumping ground for otherwise unpublishable American stuff” (447). According to these critics, The Fiddlehead was both un-Canadian and “too provincial [because] its international content called the magazine’s Canadian identity into question.” 3

In the end, what Birney and Frye did not understand was that Cogswell’s decision was not so much anti-Canadian as it was in keeping with the region’s long-standing cultural kinship with the United States. Cogswell was merely passing on a cultural legacy he had inherited from Carman, Roberts, and others.

“Equally significant was Cogswell’s editorial decision in the mid-1950s to open up The Fiddlehead to international submissions, much to the criticism of Ontario literary elites Earle Birney and Northrop Frye.”

A third figure in this ongoing cross-border narrative is Alden Nowlan. Like Cogswell, Nowlan was no stranger to the U.S. poetry scene: he read widely in modern American poetry and published many of his early pieces in small U.S. magazines; in fact, his second book, A Darkness in the Earth (1959), was published by Hearse Press, a small house out of California. But it is Nowlan’s link to Robert Bly that best illustrates the kind of poetic kinship that exists between New Brunswick and the United States.

Although the two weren’t friends, and by all accounts never met, Bly played a significant role in Nowlan’s career. While searching for someone to write the introduction to his U.S. edition of selected poems, Playing the Jesus Game (1970), it occurred to Nowlan that Bly might be a good choice. He mentions to his U.S. publisher that he had heard “indirectly that Robert Bly liked my stuff”; consequently, after receiving the news that Bly had agreed to write the introduction, Nowlan responded to his publisher: “Good news about Bly. I like his work and respect his judgement.” 4

As an appendix to this story, ten years after Nowlan’s death, Thomas R. Smith published a second U.S. edition of Nowlan’s selected poems, What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread (1993), and once again Bly agreed to write the introduction. Then in 2003, Gregory Cook’s biography of Nowlan appeared with a Preface by—you guessed it—Robert Bly, a preface that begins with the following phrase: “Alden Nowlan is the greatest Canadian poet of the twentieth century.” 5

If Nowlan’s link to Bly is significant, then Bly’s impact on Moncton poet Allan Cooper has been profound. As Cooper recounted in an interview in 2013, he discovered Bly’s poetry while studying for his undergraduate degree at Mount Allison University in the early 1970s. For a classroom assignment, each student had to go to the stacks in the library and pick out a poet he or she liked. There Cooper found Bly’s work, and after devouring the books, he returned to his professor and declared, “I think Bly’s the best modern poet I’ve ever read.” But the story doesn’t end there. Encouraged by his teacher, Cooper wrote to the U.S. poet and sent him one of his own poems, a bold move that has resulted in a decades-old correspondence between the two writers. But Bly’s relationship with Cooper runs much deeper than correspondence by letter: in addition to publishing numerous prose poems in a vein markedly influenced by Bly’s work in the genre, Cooper has published a collection of Bly’s poems through his publishing house, Owl’s Head Press, as well as a special issue of Germination in 2012 that was dedicated to Bly. 6

Then there’s the Acadian poet Gérald Leblanc, who began publishing verse in the early 1980s. Although Leblanc self-identified as an Acadian, he came under the spell of Beat poets like Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka early in his career. He recounts in a 1992 interview with Michel Giroux that some of his major influences were “Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg. I had a friend originally from Acadie living in the States who sent me their books. Reading these writers made me aware of the North American part of myself.” 7 As readers and scholars have remarked, the Beat presence in Leblanc’s poetry is undeniable and spans much of his oeuvre; even his novel, Moncton Mantra (1997), includes a Kerouacian trip to Boston and references to books by William S. Burroughs, among other nods to this group’s cultural influence. Incidentally, in 2006 Éditions Perce-Neige released a posthumous collection of Leblanc’s poems, tellingly entitled Poèmes new-yorkais. It is also worth noting Gerald’s legacy and writings live on in a new generation of Beat-minded Acadian poets, most notably Paul Bossé and Gabriel Robichaud.

Not surprisingly, the tradition of U.S.–New Brunswick cultural ties continues to this day. Among the driving forces behind UNB’s Creative Writing program in Fredericton are Ross Leckie and Mark Anthony Jarman. Although solidly Canadian in their own work, it is worth mentioning that Leckie, a poet and literature scholar, wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Wallace Stevens and counts Alicia Ostriker among his poetic influences, while Jarman, a short story writer, is a graduate of the famous Iowa Writers Workshop and credits the U.S. novelist and short-story writer Barry Hannah as having a significant impact on his own style of writing. 8 Also worth noting in the Fredericton scene are poet M. Travis Lane and novelist/short story writer Nancy Bauer, both of whom are long-standing members of the writing community as well as American ex-pats. Lane, who has lived in Fredericton for more than 50 years, was born in Texas; likewise, Bauer, a native of Massachusetts, moved to Fredericton in the mid-1960s. 9

“ ‘Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg … Reading these writers made me aware of the North American part of myself.’ ”

This is not to say that New Brunswick writers have ignored their westward counterparts. On the contrary, several of the province’s poets have been deeply influenced by fellow practitioners in western provinces, such as Alfred G. Bailey, Kay Smith, and Elizabeth Brewster. Bailey’s friendship with Earle Birney and Robert Finch, for instance, helped him discover Modernism, while Kay Smith found inspiration through her relationships with A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, and John Sutherland. Likewise, two of Brewster’s important literary mentors were P.K. Page and Dorothy Livesay, although Brewster’s graduate degrees are from Radcliffe College and the University of Indiana, and that T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost often gave lectures at her Radcliffe seminars. 10

What to make of all this? It seems to me that New Brunswick’s reputation for producing literary work that exemplifies a stereotyped form of Maritime regionalism is misguided. Although the province’s poets often write about subjects unique to the Maritime landscape, the fact that a long-standing tradition of north-south literary kinship exists between New Brunswick’s cultural creators and their U.S. counterparts ultimately brings such a convenient categorization into scholarly question. Furthermore, I don’t think that such a phenomenon is unique to the province’s poets: think of David Adams Richards’s early interest in William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, or Jerrod Edson’s admiration for Ernest Hemingway, or Beth Powning’s apprenticeship under E.L. Doctorow, just to name a few. 11 There’s something to be said for cultural cross-pollination, and it’s time that readers and critics in other parts of the country recognize that one of the long-standing strengths of New Brunswick writing lies with its internationalism rather than its provincialism.

 

  1. Letter to Longfellow, 4 November 1880. See Laurel Boone’s Collected Letters of Charles G.D. Roberts (1989).
  2. John Coldwell Adams, Sir Charles God Damn (1986).
  3. Andrew Moore, “The Fiddlehead,” New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia (2010; online)
  4. Gregory Cook, One Heart, One Way: Alden Nowlan, A Writer’s Life (2003).
  5. Robert Bly, “The Nourishing Voice of Alden Nowlan,” in One Heart, One Way.
  6. Thomas Hodd, “The Soul House: New Brunswick Poet, Allan Cooper.” Telegraph Journal. 2 March 2013.
  7. The translation is mine.
  8. See Leckie’s biography in the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia; Jarman mentions Hannah in a recent interview for the National Post.
  9. See Lane and Bauer’s biographies in the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia.
  10. Brewster’s exposure to Eliot and Frost is mentioned in her obituary that appeared in the Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/obituary-elizabeth-brewsters-journey-of-self-awareness-led-to-prolific-poetry-career/article8226920/.
  11. Richards’s interest in Faulkner and O’Connor is mentioned in Tony Tremblay’s David Adams Richards of the Miramichi (2010); see Edson’s biography in the New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia regarding his interest in Hemingway; some of Powning’s U.S. influences are detailed in an interview on BookClubs.ca: http://www.bookclubs.ca/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307374073.

Thomas Hodd teaches Atlantic and Canadian literature at Université de Moncton. His essays and cultural commentaries have appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Literary Review of Canada, Canadian Poetry, and Studies in Canadian Literature.

☝ BACK TO TOP