|Quiet Hero: Louis Dudek (February 6, 1918 - March 22, 2001)
I met Louis in the summer of 1997 when he agreed to let me interview him for research I was doing on the role of the little presses in Montreal during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. He suggested we have our first meeting in the cafeteria at Concordia University and when, after introductions had been made and we had settled down to talk, I asked him why he had chosen that particular location, he told me how much he missed being around students. He said he missed their energy and enthusiasm; he missed the intellectual stimulation and challenge they offered him; and he missed the simple hustle and bustle of being in their midst.
I was taken by Louis’ response. Here was a man who had traveled extensively – who had known, befriended and published some of the greatest modernist writers in Europe, the United States and Canada. Here was an academic, whose intellect was towering, whose education was vast, and whose breadth of knowledge was formidable. Yet, it was to his students that he longed to return – to those who were the least knowledgeable, least experienced and most naive. I was touched by his humanity and inspired by his loyalty – a loyalty that I grew to understand was deep and profound.
The first part of my research involved a study of First Statement magazine and press. And so Louis and I met several times in the following months to talk about his association and friendships with Frank Scott, Arthur Smith, P.K. Page, Patrick Anderson, A.M. Klein, and other Preview members, and then to consider his relationships with John Sutherland and Irving Layton and their joint commitment to “open the windows and doors and let the sun and the wind in – when it came to writing.” He told me how he had met these various people, as well as anecdotes about parties and literary gatherings. And on several occasions recalled the story of how he and Layton had walked home one evening from McGill University after a literary society meeting and, feeling like they had found a kindred spirit in each other, stopped in the middle of the Jacques Cartier Bridge to proclaim to the world that they would change the course of Canadian literature – which they did.
He talked of his admiration for Layton’s “spunk,” and his concern for Sutherland’s health. He also worried about Sutherland and Layton’s changing perception of him as he continued to pursue an academic career at a time when they were unable. But most of all he reflected on the enthusiasm and hard work and the fun of the First Statement days when they met to select the poems and essays they wanted to publish, as they typed the stencils, and ran the gestetner and collated the pages for stapling. He had many stories to tell about the purchase of the press, and how because Layton seemed unable to touch it without it breaking, that he – Louis -- became the primary typesetter in the group. And he spoke longingly of the smell of the press – of the oil and ink that permeated his clothes when he was working on it.
Louis also told me of the tensions that were sparked as First Statement merged with Preview to form Northern Review and the change that took place in Sutherland as his health continued to decline. He spoke of the conflict that he, himself, felt when, while wanting to be loyal to Sutherland as a friend, he could no longer align himself with Sutherland’s literary vision and so felt compelled to agree to work with Ray Souster, who was ready to begin a new little magazine – Contact.
And so, the first major part of my dissertation came to be. As Louis talked to me, he “made it new” and, even more, he made it real. John Sutherland’s early vision for First Statement was Louis’ vision, as well. Layton’s initial triumphs were his, too. The important events he recounted were from his own memories. The people of whom he spoke were his friends and colleagues. They were ordinary human beings, with personalities that both gelled and clashed, who worked together to do something extraordinary. But that was just the beginning.
Ever supportive and encouraging, Louis agreed to continue meeting with me to discuss the next magazine and press that he was involved in – Contact. Both Louis and Ray Souster had come up with the name independently of each other, because both shared a belief in the need to provide a means by which writers could make contact with one another – in the U.S. and Canada. And because Souster lived in Toronto, while Louis and Layton resided in Montreal, the majority of their early activities were centered at Louis’ house in Verdun. It was there, for example, that the press was installed. And once again, Louis did the majority of the typesetting and printing.
Louis recalled the exhilaration of the early days with Contact. As he, himself, has pointed out in various essays, Montreal was a particularly energetic venue in the middle part of the century, filled with young and ambitious artists, musicians and writers. And so the time and the place were lively, and the magazine did not lack for submissions. In fact, in addition to launching their own careers as poets, Louis, Souster and Layton helped provide a base from which all of Canada’s major writers sprang. In the sixteen years of its existence, Contact Press published of Canada’s most important modernist poets of mid-century, including Al Purdy, George Bowering, Louis Dudek, D.G. Jones, Daryl Hine, Henry Moscovitch, W.W.E. Ross, R.G. Everson, Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Alden Nowlan, Irving Layton, Raymond Souster, Leonard Cohen and Margaret Atwood.
Interestingly enough, these names are now known to us because Louis, Layton and Souster promoted them through Contact Press when no other publisher would. Then, after Contact Press had proven them commercially viable to the larger, more established presses, these writers moved on, leaving the little presses – and Louis -- behind. Here, again, then, is where Louis’ integrity and loyalty can be found.
At first Layton then Souster pulled away from Louis, attracted by the attention of American writers and publishers - particularly Robert Creeley, Cid Corman and Charles Olson. Louis remained loyal to Canadian writers, continually attempting to redirect his colleagues’ energies on their behalf. And while his colleagues found recognition – even fame – through the larger publishing houses, Louis remained true to the spirit of the little press – a spirit that demands liberation from the constraints of the establishment which, in turn, requires and promotes intellectual and artistic freedom. But he did so at personal cost.
In so many of our conversations Louis became wistful, concerned that while he had devoted his life to the promotion of Canadian poets and poetry, his work would be forgotten when he was gone. That most people did not understand the power in Canadian literature and in its poetry in particular, and were therefore unwilling to advocate for it, frustrated him. He told me that when he was particularly depressed he wondered if all his effort had been worthwhile.
This also informed his concern about the advent of the Canada Council, and its influence over the freedom by which poets might write. In a letter to Peter Miller, for example, he writes,
as soon as you submit to gov’t subsidy you’ve got civil service mentality to deal with: the MS has to be immaculate, with starched shirt and full-dress suit and before long the poetry too will toe the mark. They are bound to help poetry that has nothing to say and that is perfectly finished as a new-laid corpse.Considering Contact Press in retrospect, Louis recalled that as it became more successful, it also became more establishment-like. Consequently, Louis recalled being less and less committed to the enterprise. So, in 1965, when his former student, Michael Gnarowski approached him about starting another little press, he was ready to begin again. In this way, then, Delta Canada was born and a new generation of Canadian poets – the last Canadian modernist poets -- were given a place to sound their voices.
First Statement, Contact and Delta Canada were only three of the little presses and many literary activities in which Louis participated. These three, however, gave rise and place to modernist poetry in Canada. Through them Louis directly influenced the shape of our national literature. For this he needs to be remembered and celebrated. But that is not enough.
Those of us who knew Louis and of his selfless devotion to promoting Canadian poets and poetry are changed because of him. And as he changed us he can change others – as long as we continue to bring him forward and tell those who will listen of his work. Furthermore, if we value the work that Louis did, then we must continue it.
Now that I am a teacher, myself, my initial surprise at Louis’ need and desire to be with students is replaced with understanding. Now I can see that it is in those who are seeking knowledge that there is hope for change – hope for a better world. On our own it is too hard to maintain the energy and the enthusiasm to get the work done; above everything else, Louis taught me this.
In terms of Canadian literature, there is so much work to be done. And we must do it, for, as Louis reminds us,
The way to freedom and order in the future will lie through art and poetry. Only imagination, discovering man’s self and his relation to the world and to other men, can save him from complete enslavement to the state, to machinery, the base dehumanized life which is already spreading around us. (Cerberus 13)Now where do we begin?
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