A poet’s birthday praised in verse

Andrew Robinson
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MUN partners with book publisher to remember E.J. Pratt

Memorial University English professor and poet Mary Dalton says the written work of the late E.J. Pratt uniquely captured life in Newfoundland and has not lost its charm over time.

Mary Dalton — Telegram file photo

“They were reflecting the landscape and situations that we knew,” said Dalton, who first encountered Pratt’s work as a student.

Dalton is among several local poets who are scheduled to give brief readings of Pratt’s work on Feb. 4 at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s. The date coincides with the poet’s birthday in 1882. Born in Western Bay, Pratt died in 1964.

Mark Callanan, Tom Dawe and Don McKay will also read Pratt’s poetry at the free event, a joint venture involving MUN’s faculty of arts and department of English and Running the Goat Books and Broadsides.

Dalton fondly remembers coming across Pratt’s work through a copy of “Here the Tides Flow,” edited by Pratt biographer D.G. Pitt, a former head of MUN’s English department.

“People of my generation would have fond memories, I think, of that little orange-coloured book,” said Dalton.

Pratt’s father was a Methodist minister and his family often moved to new communities. While most of his life was spent in Toronto after he moved there in 1907 to attend school, his experiences in Newfoundland informed much of his early work.

“He is generally considered to be the major Canadian poet of the 20th century,” said Dalton, pointing to such epic works such as “Towards the Last Spike” and “Brébeuf and His Brethren” that were inspired by events in the country’s history.

“Certainly, he was a poet for Canada. In terms of where he stands in the tradition of Canadian poetry, he is the major figure, I would say, in the first half of the 20th century, and he is a highly significant figure in Newfoundland poetry.”

Dalton was still determining during the weekend what poems to read Tuesday, but she did manage to settle on at least one.

“The Drag-Irons,” Dalton said, nicely captures the spirit of Newfoundland within its eight lines.

“There’s a kind of dark humour. There’s a hard-bitten, sardonic quality to it ... It’s the very grim joke of the man fishing all his life being brought up like a fish on a hook.”

Audio recordings of Pratt reading some of his poems can be heard on Trent University’s website. Dalton said those recordings show that despite his many years spent on the mainland, Pratt proudly maintained his Newfoundland accent.

“Those lyrics, they take on even more of a Newfoundland quality,” she said.

MUN has continued to acknowledge Pratt’s achievements through its annual Pratt Lecture series, in existence since 1968. Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney and literary theorist Northrop Frye are among the many who have participated in the lecture series.

Running the Boat Books and Broadsides will be selling letterpress editions of two such lectures on Tuesday — Ted Chamberlain’s “The Snarl Around My Dory” and McKay’s “The Speaker’s Chair: Field Notes on Betweenity.”

The Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Literary Arts Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador also hands out the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award every two years.

Tuesday’s event at the LSPU Hall is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. in the Second Space Gallery.

Organizations: Department of English, Trent University, Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador Literary Arts Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Western Bay, Toronto Canada

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