On Milton Acorn, on his birthday, Canada’s People’s Poet

The Silver Dollar Room at the Waverly Hotel, where Milton Acorn lived on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Below: Milton Acorn (drawing found on the Internet).

Today was the birthday of Milton Acorn, the People’s Poet, who lived rough, and died before he was eligible for the Old Age Security, even under the old rules.

For those of you who have missed him until now, Milton Acorn is not only Canada’s greatest poet, he may be our only great poet!

The first time I heard of Milton Acorn was back in the distant Sixties, or maybe it was the early Seventies, when some Chamber of Commerce type in Abbotsford, B.C., or thereabouts almost tumbled off his rocker because a poet who was a Communist (a self-described Communist, as the media used to say in those days) and who now and then put a profanity in his verse had been given some money by the federal government.

The Canada Council? Possible. But Unemployment Insurance, as it was known in those pre-Orwellian times, was more likely. Whatever. As for the occasional swear, there were precious few in Acorn’s poems – as befit a rather prim old Red who’d had a little trouble with the Hard Life.

Milton Acorn 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 too, as a stout man sweating through a cheap polyester suit with a necktie knot as big as his head, which would have been filled with the Social Credit nostrums of that era and location. No doubt he too, just like Milton, was only trying to build a better world, according to his own lights.

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, I have had a beer or two in the Waverly Hotel, where he lived, heard the clarinetist play Lili Marlene in the beer parlour there, hung around its sleazy Silver Dollar lounge, listened to the jazz at Grossman’s, marveled at the strength and dignity of the working men and women of Chinatown next door, devoured a falafel at Moshe’s next to El Mocambo, where poor Margaret Trudeau sat on the curb and gave us all way too much information.

I’m sure that I’ve heard some gunshots down there too. And I’m pretty sure I’ve also bought the bulldog edition of the Globe and Mail from what must have been that same newsie with his dirty pink chapped face, Acorn’s description 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 Prince Edward Island, 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 still 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.

Ignored by the Governor General’s Award committee in 1970, Milton Acorn was declared The People’s Poet, a more noble title, one title to aspire to. The GG’s Award came belatedly, in 1976.

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. Carpenter. 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 the arts barely deserves the title of culture. For, after all, just as a poem erases and rewrites its poet, poetry erases and rewrites its society.

From time to time we need that.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

5 Comments on "On Milton Acorn, on his birthday, Canada’s People’s Poet"

  1. ward says:

    "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."

    Thank you for that… and it does help to put the current political scene in perspective…

    Here's to the Silver Dollar…

  2. Anonymous says:

    David – I can't help but think that the juxtaposition of a blog about Tom Mulcair and then Milton Acorn must have some meaning, but I won't go further with this thought.

    I do appreciate the interjection of some art into a mostly political blog as I feel that we need to respect the role of artists in shaping what many of us have become. Unfortunately, too many politicians are swayed by crass political considerations when they should be paying more attention to the human condition as expressed by art in all its various guises.

    Thanks for the change of pace

  3. Ronmac says:

    No doubt there is a secret plan in the works to have Milton Acorn banned from the Canadian curriculum to be replaced by Ann Rand.

  4. Brian Mason says:

    I met Milton Acorn, in Charlottetown, round about 1976 or 1977. I was attending a National Union of Students conference, which was at the old hotel near the water – I forget the name of it. One evening in the lobby, there was a reception, which turned out to be for Convocation at PEI University. The two recipients of honorary degrees were John Diefenbaker and Milton Acorn.
    I was with a group of student activists and we were making plans for dinner, when I spotted Diefenbaker. Just as I was getting up the nerve to go over and say hello, this guy came over and asked what we were up to for the evening. We said "going out for dinner" and he asked if he could join us. We said sure, and headed out to the rented station wagon. We ended up at the local A&W, with this guy in the back seat, wedged between two students.
    I remember him responding to our earnest, social-democratic chatter about the state of the country with a couple of well-targeted and very ironic comments.
    When we got back to the hotel, we dropped him off, and went on to a student party in one of the hotel rooms. I asked my companions who he was. That was Milton Acorn, one of them said, the People's Poet. Really, I responded, he seems pretty far to the left. Oh yes, my friend said, he's a Maoist, actually. No kidding, I replied, and we went back to discussing the state of the country.
    So that's how I met Milton Acorn, and missed out on meeting John Diefenbaker.

  5. Chris Robinson says:

    Thanks David. I’ve been inspired to try and write a musical about Milton, and am still in the early stages. I recall meeting a man reciting poetry in the bar car of a East-bound VIA train heading for Amherst, in mid-70s. I think it was Milton. The musical will start with Anne of GG singing the “ice cream” song, which will turn discordant and dark and the scene changes to WWII naval battle where Milton s injured in depth-charge explosion. The rest will be about belonging, and McLuhan’s isolation due to global village etc.


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