Where would we be without Milton (Acorn), Canada’s People’s Poet?

One of the themes of this blog is poetry, so I want to say something important I’ve believed for years and never put on a page: Milton Acorn is not only Canada’s greatest poet, he is Canada’s only great poet!

The first time I heard of Milton Acorn was back in the distant Sixties, when some Chamber of Commerce worthy in Abbotsford, B.C., or thereabouts, went nuts because a poet who was a Commie and who now and then wrote a swear in his verse had been given some money by the federal government. Canada Council? Possible. But Unemployment Insurance, more likely, in Milton Acorn’s case.

As for swears, there were precious few in Acorn’s poems – as befits a rather prim old Red who’d had a little trouble with the Hard Life. Milton Acorn: He even ended up an uncomfortable alcohol-fuelled pro-lifer, believing as he did in the nobility of Mankind, un-besmirched by Original Sin. Yet I likely imagine the Abbotsford ranter unfairly, as a stout man sweating through a cheap suit and buying Social Credit nostrums. In reality, no doubt he too, just like Milton Acorn, was only trying to build a better world, according to his own lights. He likely imagined Milton, warts and all, unfairly as well: There never was a swear without a purpose in those poems!

Later, I lived on the same street in Toronto as did Milton Acorn, in the same stinky, exciting, historical, atmospheric, evocative working class neighbourhood. Like Milton Acorn, I have had a beer or two in the Waverly Hotel, heard the clarinetist play Lili Marlene in the beer parlour there, sadly watched the strippers at the Silver Dollar, listened to the jazz at Grossman’s, marveled at the strength and dignity of the working men and women of Chinatown nearby, devoured a falafel at that place next door to El Mocambo, name long forgotten, where poor Margaret Trudeau sat on the curb and gave us all way too much information.

I’m sure that I’ve heard the gunshots down there too. And I’m pretty sure I’ve also bought the bulldog edition of the Globe and Mail from that same newsie with his dirty pink chapped face, mention of whom never fails to move me. Here is Milton Acorn on that person, and much more:

Knowing I Live in a Dark Age

Knowing I live in a dark age before history,
I watch my wallet and
am less struck by gunfights in the avenues
than by the newsie with his dirty pink chapped face
calling a shabby poet back for his change.

The crows mobbing the blinking, sun-stupid owl;
wolves eating a hamstrung calf hindend first,
keeping their meat alive and fresh … these
are marks of foresight, beginnings of wit:
but Jesus wearing thorns and sunstroke
beating his life and death into words
to break the rods and blunt the axes of Rome:
this and like things followed.

Knowing that in this advertising rainbow
I live like a trapeze artist with a headache,
my poems are no aspirins … they show
pale bayonets of grass waving thin on dunes;
the paralytic and his lyric secrets;
my friend Al, union builder and cynic,
hesitating to believe his own delicate poems
lest he believe in something better than himself:
and history, which is yet to begin,
will exceed this, exalt this
as a poem erases and rewrites its poet.

— Milton Acorn, c. 1960

Later I journeyed to P.E.I., hoping to meet this most admired poet. This and like things followed: I bought my ticket in July of 1986. Milton was dead – on Aug. 20 – a week before I got to Charlottetown. I saw the red earth, and the green gables, ate the white lobster. I left a red rose on his unmarked grave. On a later visit there was a simple gravestone, a carving of an acorn – the tiny nut whence grew this great Canadian oak, sturdy and inevitable; so fondly remembered – and another red rose.

Denied the Governor General’s Medal, Milton Acorn was declared The People’s Poet, a more noble title, a title to aspire to.

Milton James Rhode Acorn. Born on this day in 1923. Died on August 20, 1986. Named The People’s Poet by his peers. Playwright. Worker. Writer. Socialist. Canadian. Canada’s Greatest Poet. Born in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Buried in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Red earth to red earth.

Poetry is important. A culture that does not value poetry is a culture no more. For, after all, as a poem erases and rewrites its poet, poetry erases and rewrites its society.

From time to time we need that.

One Comment on "Where would we be without Milton (Acorn), Canada’s People’s Poet?"

  1. Libarbarian says:

    Nice to see a passionate paean to a poet in this post-literate age! Maybe Acorn is having a moment, as Yann Martel sent PM Harper a copy of Acorn’s book “The Island means Minago” as one of his suggested readings for the Prime Minister. Check out November 26, 2007 at: http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca

    As to “Minago”, Acorn won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1976 for this book, so Acorn wasn’t entirely ignored by the Canadian establishment. And as to Acorn being “denied” the GG Award in 1970, I don’t think it was that dramatic. The award that year was shared by Michael Ondaatje and bp nichol. Pretty tough competition methinks.

    I heartily quibble with your assertion that Acorn is Canada’s “only great poet”. Just look at the two names from the GG in 1970! Some greats have passed on, some recently – Irving Layton, A.M. Klein, Margaret Avison – but giants still walk among us – Atwood, Ondaatje, Cohen, Anne Carson….


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