Toronto Star file photo Milton Acorn was a Canadian poet, writer, and playwright. The often controversial figure won the Canadian Poets Award in 1970. A poetry award in his honour was established in 1987, a year after his death.
There is a new Milton on the shelves; it was launched recently at the Imperial, a modest bar tucked away in the corner at Dundas and Yonge.
But when I say Milton, I do not mean the one going on about his blindness. I mean Milton with the cigar and the growl, the chronic nosebleeds and the red worker politics; your Island poet, your people’s poet.
The tough nut.
As for the Imperial, it is where the downtown guys bring their deep thirst late at night, and where Ryerson kids mourn or toast their future.
Now and then, you get poets.
The evening was lovely and chaotic. There was singing. There were skits, one of which involved an eyeball flung across the room.
There was a reading by the actor David Fox, who looks as unlike Milton as anyone can be, but he played Acorn on stage long ago, and he drew on that when he read.
Oh, how he read.
I mean that half the pub held students drinking deeply, and thinking less deeply, and they were also — Milton would have approved — looking for a little tenderness with the help of beer. They were rowdy. They didn’t care.
Fox made them care.
I had one or two coffee-house poetry flashbacks. I saw an old guy sleeping on a bench during the folk songs; a long time ago he would have been stoned. I think this guy was just old, cold and tired.
And then four bicycle cops marched in, one after another; bright yellow jackets, guns on their hips. They snaked through the room in single file, a kind of bike cop conga line. Who knows what they were looking for?
I should say I met him once. He was a stalwart in the Canadian Liberation Movement when I was a new recruit. This was years ago, in Thunder Bay, and he was passing through.
The political philosophy of the CLM was so rigid it hurt. Our tactics included a naïve Canadian nationalism, to which I still cling.
I recall the sticker we used to slap on cars with American plates: “Yankee Go Home. We Don’t Like You The Way You Are.” This was the time of the Vietnam War. I slapped a few stickers on cars myself.
I blush to confess it now.
Anyway, Milton came to my place with some other cadres. He fell instantly for the girl I was seeing, and he saw my chessboard and he thought he would show off, and show me up at the same time.
I thrashed him.
Then I offered him some of my poems. He read them wordlessly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and growling all the while.
I was, in those days, writing sharp little imagist poems. He said nothing, and then he growled that the poems sounded like Black Mountain stuff — American, a CLM sin — and therefore no good.
I now see my mistake.
I should have shown him the poems first, and then beat him at chess. Not that it mattered. He didn’t stand a chance with my girl.
The book is called In A Springtime Instant. It is published by Mosaic Press, and it was edited by James Deahl, himself a poet to contend with.
Say what you will about Acorn — and you can always say he needed a bath — he was Whitmanesque. I bet that would have bugged him. Old Walt was American.
Old Milt should be read.
Joe Fiorito appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Email: email@example.com.