In memory of Louis Dudek,
on his 104th birthday
went out of my way to study with Louis Dudek. It wasn’t just happenstance.
first heard of and became aware of Dudek as the teacher of Leonard Cohen. At
the age of sixteen I was a Leonard Cohen fanboy. And I knew that Cohen had
attended McGill University and studied with this professor named Louis Dudek.
Dudek had also published Cohen’s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in the McGill Poetry Series.
I wasn’t supposed to attend McGill University for my Ph.D. I was supposed to be going to York University
and taking Frank Davey’s graduate Canadian Poetry seminar.
in the summer of 1975, I was doing advanced reading for that course while still
living in Montreal with my new girlfriend Barbara. We were living in an
apartment up on Cote des Neiges.
ahead for Davey’s course is how I first encountered Dudek’s poetry. I was
reading “the white book”: The Collected
Poems of Louis Dudek. And I was
really impressed by what I was reading.
The early lyrics were magnificent. And then there
was a long poem called Europe. And then there was another long
poem called En Mexico. By the time I got to Atlantis I was at
least a fan, possibly a disciple. And Atlantis just wiped me out.
Several years later, I was deeply gratified when bpNichol told me that the
Epilogue to Atlantis was one of the greatest achievements in Canadian
poetry. I agreed and agree with that completely.
My life got rewritten on a morning in late August.
I was alone in the apartment when the phone rang (Barbara was down in Toronto,
looking for an apartment for us). On the phone was Archie Malloch, who was the
graduate director of the English department at McGill.
After exchanging greetings, he said to me, “I’m
afraid I spoke too soon when I said we didn’t have a teaching assistantship for
you. Someone has dropped out of the program, and I can offer you one now.
You’re still coming, right?”
I paused for a moment, then decided to tell the
truth. “Well, actually, I sent a letter declining admission back in May,
because there wasn’t a teaching assistantship,” I admitted.
“We never received it,” Professor Malloch said.
Pause. Think. “Okay, then I never sent it,” I said.
And so it was resolved. I would be a candidate in
the Ph.D. program at McGill. The teaching assistantship at York was $2,400, at
McGill $7,000. It really was a no-brainer. I called Barbara and told her to
come home, we were staying in Montreal.
Labour Day, it was time for me to check in with McGill.
were three fateful meetings to have.
first was with Professor Archie Malloch, who supervised teaching assistants. He
welcomed me to the program, then asked me if I had any preferences for courses
I’d like to be an assistant to. On a whim, I said Canadian Literature.
great,” he said, “no one ever asks for that.”
was then on to meet Professor David Williams, who was the Chair of the English
Department. He welcomed me to the program, then gave me a fifteen minute
lecture on how, to be successful at literary studies at the Ph.D. level, you
had to have a methodology. It wasn’t enough to just love reading books. I
assured him that I would develop an adequate methodology (I did: it was literary
timed things right. I appeared at the door of Professor Dudek’s office just as
he was beginning office hours. I knocked, and was told to enter.
was a big office, on the second floor
of the Arts Building, that members of the English department are probably still
fighting over. There were big bookshelves, and behind the desk there were large
windows, with an amazing view of the campus and of downtown Montreal.
behind the desk was Professor Dudek.
introduced myself, and quickly handed over a copy of my first poetry book, Vegetables.
I could even get comfortable in the situation, he said, “Give me some time to
read this. Come back next week.”
first meeting had lasted all of two minutes. Not promising.
I returned the following week.
time he motioned me to the student chair. He allowed me to get settled before
he started speaking.
book reminds me of Joe Rosenblatt,” he said.
hadn’t yet read any Joe Rosenblatt, so I had no idea what this meant.
Art gestures. You aren’t going to get very far writing poems about vegetables.”
I ask Why not? I don’t think so. I was intimidated. I was still a kid. What did
I know about poetry?
rose from his chair. It was my first glimpse of how tall he was. He walked to
the window and gestured towards the outside. “There’s the world. Why don’t you
write about it?”
seemed like a reasonable suggestion.
conversation moved on. I told him I was a Ph.D student in the program and
proposed to write a Ph.D. dissertation on D.H. Lawrence.
fiction or the poetry?” he asked.
the poetry,” I replied.
you probably know, there are no formal classes for Ph.D. students. You can
audit my graduate class in Modernist Poetry if you like.”
told him that I would like to do that.
also told him that I’d been reading his Collected
Poems and that I thought he was a fine poet.
told me when the graduate seminar met, in his office (his office was big enough
for a small class to meet there), and wished me good day.
I got to know Louis, he began to school me in Can Lit. I was like a sponge, soaking
up everything. In fairly short order, he knew that I was a both a poet and a
cultural activist. He started to educate me in the work that needed doing.
began to school me in what I have always called The Five Missions. They are the
tasks I would have to undertake as a Canadian writer. They were the tasks that
Dudek, himself, had already fulfilled.
first mission was simply being the writer, being the poet. Canada wasn’t
exactly an hospitable environment. He taught me that I would have to be
self-motivating while also developing a very thick skin and a will to survive.
second mission was to be a literary magazine editor. There were very few
outlets at the time for Canadian writing, and writers needed to run magazines.
also needed to run publishing houses. Dudek and Layton and Souster (and later
Peter Miller) had set the finest example for literary publishing with Contact
Press. They started Contact Press because Dudek and Souster could only get
chapbooks published by Ryerson Press, and Layton could not get anyone to
publish him in Canada at all. In later years, Robert Creeley would regale me
with stories of how he came to publish Irving in the 1950s.
fourth mission was to be a reviewer. If writers did not review Canadian books,
no one reviewed Canadian books. I was happy to have found a place at The Montreal Gazette under the tutelage
of Doris Giller. The good news was that I could write the necessary reviews,
and also get paid for doing so.
fifth mission was to teach Can Lit. It was now my specialty.
the time, I acknowledged that Dudek had to perform all five missions. I wasn’t
so sure that I wanted to, or that I needed to. Maybe a few things were
beginning to change. Maybe, by 1980, we had some book reviewers and some Can
back, I see that I fulfilled all five missions. Not necessarily all the time
for a lifetime, but at points in time. I’ve been a practicing and publishing
poet for forty-eight years now. With my American friend Jim Mele, I ran the
magazine CrossCountry for close to a
decade. I participated in the running of other poetry magazines like Mouse Eggs and Somewhere Across The Border. Jim and I ran CrossCountry Press for a
decade, producing twenty-three titles. Along with Endre Farkas and Artie Gold,
I was a poetry editor at Vehicule Press from 1975 to 1981. I “assisted” Endre
Farkas in running his publishing house, The Muses’ Company, from 1980 to 1995. I
wrote an abundant amount of newspaper reviews for The Montreal Gazette under the tutelage of Book Review Editor Doris
Giller. And I taught Canadian Literature (and Creative Writing) at the
University of Maine for thirty-three years.
Dudek taught at McGill for thirty-three years, and I taught at U. Maine for thirty-three
years. Teaching thirty-four years just wasn’t possible. I didn’t want to
attempt to go past him, even in that small regard.
Ken Norris was born in
New York City in 1951. He came to Canada in the early 1970s, to escape
Nixon-era America and to pursue his graduate education. He completed an M.A. at
Concordia University and a Ph.D. in Canadian Literature at McGill University.
He became a Canadian citizen in 1985. He is Professor Emeritus at the
University of Maine, where he taught Canadian Literature and Creative Writing
for thirty-three years. He currently resides in Toronto.