The Essential Kenneth Leslie by Zachariah Wells
Though barely remembered today, Kenneth Leslie was one of the most remarkable Canadians of the 20th century. An award-winning poet and an influential political activist in the U.S. during the 1930s and 40s, he lived with a rare, furious passion that found expression in everything from his writings to his turbulent personal life.
In a career that spanned more than half a century, Kenneth Leslie published six books of poetry, including By Stubborn Stars, which won the Governor-General’s medal in 1938. He also created The Protestant, one of the more controversial political publications of the 1930s and ’40s, which earned him a national reputation in the United States as well as the unwanted attention of the FBI. ‘God’s Red Poet’ also produced a mass circulation anti-fascist comic book, and composed the words and music for ‘Cape Breton Lullaby’, a well-known popular song. Among his less successful ventures were a ‘Broadway’ musical, which collapsed in rehearsals, and a few dozen other songs which did not sell in Tin Pan Alley.
Table of contents
By Stubborn Stars
Halibut Cove Harvest
The Hill Heart
The Word Had Need of Flesh
Tea With the Professor
The Candy Maker
It Cannot Be Easy
Sorrow Must Sing
To My Father Drowned at Sea
Beauty Is Something You Can Weigh In Scales
Cape Breton Lullaby
Rory’s Praise of Elspeth
Jesus Thought Long
The Old Man
Early Summer Storm
No Poem Is Ever Ended
Kenneth Leslie (1892--1974) was a Canadian poet and political activist whose poetry deserves to be rediscovered for its mastery of form, meter, and language. His first four, of a total of six, books were published in the 1930s, when the Modernist movement in American and European poetry (led by Ezra Pound’s dictate to ‘make it new’) was freeing poetry from the perceived constraints of meter and form. Though Leslie was awarded the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s top literary honor, in 1938, for his fourth book of poetry By Stubborn Stars (which featured a 28-sonnet sequence by the same name) the waves of Modernism would soon leave him in its wake.
Editor Zachariah Wells has carefully selected Leslie’s work in The Essential Kenneth Leslie, presenting poems that showcase the variety of forms he uses, as well as his range of subjects. The poems in this collection function as a window into Leslie’s world: his beliefs (that formal education makes dullards of its students in ‘Cobweb College’ and ‘Tea with the Professor’); his tumultuous personal life (his separation from his wife and estrangement from his children in ‘By Stubborn Stars’); and his artistic convictions (that true beauty lives in the commonplace in ‘Beauty Is Something You Can Weigh in Scales’). Additionally, Wells subtly arranges the poems in small groups by mood and topic. Readers are able to give the poems more individual attention and share in Leslie’s feelings without the risk of being overwhelmed by them.
The true beauty of Leslie’s poetry lies in his often stunning use of language. His seemingly simple word choices, combined with his attention to meter and form, may remind readers of the early work of W. B. Yeats. Additionally, he draws readers in with sound (‘waiting for the snow, / the foam of bloom forgotten’), at times reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
But the daring of Leslie’s work stems from his desire to reveal the complex dualities with which he wrestled in his personal life. From the double entendre in ‘the crotched necessity of standing true / to her while pledging life and love to you’ to the moody repetition of ‘this monster ledge / of granite under granite clouds,’ Leslie’s language lingers in the mind and on the tongue.
The Essential Kenneth Leslie is a finely-crafted book that readers of poetry will enjoy having in their hands. In the simple, inviting cover design the lasting Smyth-sewn binding, and the clean, antique-feeling font, the publisher’s attention to detail reveals a love of books and the authors it showcases.
—Jennifer Fandel, ForeWord Reviews
‘The Essential Kenneth Leslie, edited by Zachariah Wells, returns to us a unique and wily versifier who was a major element of Canadian poetry in the 1930s, but who is all but forgotten today. He faded from view slowly. Milton Acorn said of him, ‘‘When we come to the loveliest of our orthodox sonneteers, Kenneth Leslie, the battle for the Canadian voice is being fought, and he is winning it.’’ It is good to have these poems back in print.’
—Paul Vermeersch, OpenBook Toronto
‘In his forword to The Essential Kenneth Leslie, Zachariah Wells writes, ‘‘One explanation for Leslie’s all-but-disappearance is his old fashionedness.’’ But while he was out of step with modernism in his time, Leslie’s work rings truer now than Ezra Pound’s claim ‘to make it new.’ It’s been 75 years, and modernism has only bred a coldness. The Governor-General’s Awards were right to honour Leslie in 1938. Instead of writing new, Leslie, who was Pictou County, N.S., born and Harvard educated, wrote real. His father’s death at sea, divorce and the politics of the time are all captured perfectly with fervour and a clear voice. He offers a window onto the ’30 and ’40s when other poets were too busy trying to look ahead.’
‘The Essential Kenneth Leslie is a treasure trove of poetry, highly recommended.’
—The Midwest Book Review
‘For Leslie, the Shakespearean sonnet is the form that helps him to be critical of modernity and modernism. Editor Zachariah Wells has made a fine selection of Kenneth Leslie’s work, including a sequence of ... sonnets entitled By Stubborn Stars.’
—Joel Deshaye, Canadian Literature
He was a farmer, a teacher, a preacher, a political activist, a journalist, a broadcaster, a composer, a restaurateur and a cab-driver. He was a dashing ladies’ man and though he married four times, he had a need, as Burris Devanney has written, to ‘make grand, if not total commitments.’ He was an international jetsetter who lived in Paris and New York as well as Halifax and the Annapolis Valley, but who never forgot his roots in the rocks of Nova Scotia’s north shore. He was a socialist who played the stock market, a mystic who believed in practical measures. On top of all this, Kenneth Leslie was one of the most gifted poets of his day.
Leslie was born on Halloween night, 1892, in Pictou, Nova Scotia, to Robert Jamieson Leslie, a politician and businessman, and Bertha (Starratt) Leslie. Robert Leslie died on December 4, 1905, when one of his own boats, the steamship Lunenburg, sank in a storm off the Magdalen Islands, the jurisdiction he represented in the Quebec legislature. The younger Leslie would memorialize his father in his sonnet ‘To My Father Drowned at Sea’ and in the free verse dirge ‘Lowlands Low.’
Leslie was educated at Dalhousie, Nebraska and Harvard, where he would have received a PhD in Philosophy, had he not failed the lingual test. He had a deeply ambivalent relationship with institutional education; he revered the best of his teachers and worked as one himself on several occasions, but distrusted universities, which he saw as breeding grounds for dullness and conformity, as is manifest in his satirical sonnet ‘Tea with the Professor’ and especially in his long satire ‘Cobweb College.’
Most of Leslie’s career as a publishing poet was confined to the mid-to-late 1930s, another probable cause for his slide into obscurity. His first book, Windward Rock, was published by MacMillan in 1934, followed quickly by Lowlands Low in 1935 and Such a Din! in 1936, both of which were privately published. In 1938, Ryerson published By Stubborn Stars, which won the Governor General’s Award. He would not publish another book until 1971, when The Ladysmith Press released The Poems of Kenneth Leslie. Angered by editor Sean Haldane’s exclusion of several poems ‘because they seem not to have worn as well with the passage of time, or because they were light verse, or political verse, which fulfilled a temporal need,’ Leslie self-published the unexpurgated O’Malley to the Reds and Other Poems in 1972.
For Leslie, as for his contemporary F. R. Scott, politics were at least as important as poetry. Living in New York and Boston in the 1930s and ’40s, Leslie rose to prominence as an indefatigable anti-Fascist activist. Somewhat paradoxically, Leslie’s socialism was inextricably intertwined with his Baptist upbringing. He founded and edited The Protestant Digest (later renamed The Protestant), which reached a circulation of 50,000 at its peak, and he was much in demand as a speaker. He also started The Challenger, an anti-Fascist comic book that appeared in 1944 and ’45. For his troubles, Leslie was named -- along with such notables as Arthur Miller, Albert Einstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann and Langston Hughes -- as one of fifty ‘dupes and fellow-travellers’ of Communism by Life magazine in 1949.
Leslie’s personal life was no less tumultuous than his public affairs. His first wife was Elizabeth Moir, daughter of wealthy chocolate-maker James Moir. James Moir made a considerable impression on his son-in-law, who dedicated two poems to him. The breakup of Leslie’s marriage -- and his consequent estrangement from his children -- is the subject of ‘By Stubborn Stars.’ His second marriage, to Marjorie Finlay Hewitt, ended because of an affair Leslie had with his secretary, Cathy, with whom he returned to Halifax in 1949, where Leslie took up work as a taxi driver. The much younger woman would leave her husband for his nephew. In 1960, Leslie married the widow of an old friend, Nora Steenerson Totten, with whom he lived until his death on 6 October, 1974.
Since his passing, little notice has been paid to Leslie and his work, but recent anthologizations of his poems, as well as a documentary film, God’s Red Poet, are signs that Leslie won’t easily be forgotten.
Excerpt from book
To My Father Drowned at Sea
They said that days would doctor my great ill,
would grow as good as new what grief had set;
and so I waited while they worked their will;
but twenty slow years had availed not yet
to end the long drouth nor to quench the pain
that scorched away the green blades of my sowing,
sending but fickle gusts of teasing rain
to sprout for withering what might be growing.
This day the dry road has a phosphor gleam,
the grassland flows to water for your child,
your salty laughter breaks my sullen dream
and all the world runs wet and deep and wild.
You stood your trick on deck through my long sleeping,
hands on the wheel, eyes to the weather keeping!
‘When we come to the loveliest of our orthodox sonneteers, Kenneth Leslie, the battle for the Canadian voice is being fought, and he is winning it.’
‘The quality which lends distinction to the best poems of Kenneth Leslie is wholeness. The details of experience are fused in the heat of imagination and expressed in a language that utilizes the idioms and rhythms of popular speech as well as of formal poetry.’
—A J M Smith
Introduction or preface
I first encountered a Kenneth Leslie poem in the anthology In Fine Form, published in 2005. Modestly titled ‘Sonnet’ there, I later learned that it was the untitled fifth poem from the title sequence of By Stubborn Stars, Leslie’s Governor General’s Award-winning 1938 collection. Further trawls through anthologies suggested to me that Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, the editors of In Fine Form, must have found this poem in Margaret Atwood’s Oxford University Press anthology of Canadian poetry. While hunting for content for my own forthcoming compilation of Canadian sonnets, I found the poem again in, of all places, John Fuller’s Oxford Book of Sonnets.
For all its formal perfection and emotional resonance, the stubborn endurance of this poem also signals a significant loss. The poem stands alone beautifully, but what the most recent anthologizations of it fail to announce is that it is only 1/28th of one of the best long poems ever published in Canada. I don’t dispute that this is the finest sonnet in ‘By Stubborn Stars,’ nor indeed that it is the best short poem ever published by Leslie -- but there are several pieces in the series nearly as good, as A J M Smith maintained in the introduction to one of his anthologies, and the suite itself cannot be excerpted without doing damage to it, and to our sense of Leslie’s most important poetic accomplishment.
One explanation for Leslie’s all-but-disappearance is his old-fashionedness. Leslie, whom Milton Acorn called ‘the loveliest of our orthodox sonneteers,’ was keenly aware that the verse he wrote was out of step with Modernism and the dictum of Pound -- seven years Leslie’s senior -- to ‘make it new’: ‘I cannot sing a new song, / I fear to sing the ol’ ’ is how he begins a poem that ends with Pound’s very phrase. If the chart for Leslie’s poetic course was doubtful -- to modify the opening line of the title sonnet of ‘By Stubborn Stars’ -- it didn’t keep him from proceeding headlong: ‘I sail by stubborn stars, let rocks take heed, / and should I sink ... then sinking be my creed!’
That closing couplet tosses a mooring line of sense and rhyme to a poet who had died by drowning over a century earlier. Shelley, born almost exactly a hundred years before Leslie, wrote in his own sonnet sequence, ‘I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!’ There are striking parallels, biographical and poetic, between Leslie and Shelley. Both were resolutely unconventional iconoclasts, idealists, radicals; both founded anti-establishment magazines (Shelly, The Liberal; Leslie, The Protestant) -- though Leslie lived to see his through several years’ worth of issues before it foundered -- both believed in, and worked for, changes to the legislation of the world, and both ran afoul of political authorities for their trouble.
Leslie hated dichotomies, hated the world’s insistence that we make a choice. If faced with Frost’s fork in the road, he would opt to travel both ways at once. Although he cleaved to inherited British, Romantic modes of poetic speech -- perhaps because he did so, stubbornly discarding the fashions of modernism and later of Olsonian Projective Verse -- Leslie believed in a Whitmanesque embrace of contradiction, the fusion of apparent antinomies.
So many things in Leslie cut both ways; in the sixth sonnet of ‘By Stubborn Stars,’ ‘Green ebbs away’ signifies the recession of life and vitality while in the ninth, it is death itself that is green. As Burris Devanney says, ‘the ambiguity of Leslie’s political message persists and seems to allow for no final synthesis. He is indeed, throughout his poetry, remarkably consistent in this one inconsistency.’ This can and should be extended to all aspects of his life and works, not just to his politics. Easier to gather up an armload of live herring than to fix Leslie in any synthetic scheme.
Leslie hated everything that engenders dullness and conformity. In ‘Tea with the Professor,’ a satirical sonnet with a carpe diem theme, the speaker urges the Professor to ‘Hang history and its seven thousand years,’ to let himself be engulfed by ‘this ‘‘now,’’ that, narrowed to a name/for what is not, was never, nor can be,’ and ends ‘Your ifs and ands, your wisdom, heavy and old,/walk on my heart ... your tea is getting cold!’
He develops this theme at greater length in ‘Cobweb College.’ The freshman class at the College ‘are ghosts of boys, cracked wide with knowledge,/their dreams dried out and left the dreamers dead,’ already bereft of ‘illusion’ and ‘romance,’ no vital force left in them for the College’s Spider to suck out, he having ‘drawn their blood too many generations/and spoiled the breed’. In a memorable simile, Doctor Spider describes their wills as being ‘like the blown pigskin that drools/November muck around a soggy field.’ All they want are the Professor’s ‘ifs, ...ands, ...buts.’
It’s not hard to imagine what Leslie would think of today’s Creative Writing industry, snugly ensconced in the folds of academe, star pupils destined to become tomorrow’s teachers, poets acting more as bureaucrats than as legislators, safe in a hermetic world of their own. In such a climate of diminished expectations for poets and poetry, it makes sense that Leslie’s peculiar brand of ambitious but non-careerist poetic excellence, his fusion of the radical and the traditional, of the personal and the public, of the wild and the sophisticated, of musical grace and raw emotion, should have sunk almost out of sight. Although Leslie loved romance and illusion, he anticipated his future obscurity with clairvoyant sangfroid in ‘Street Cry,’ the coda to ‘By Stubborn Stars.’ But he also prophesied those readers in ‘uncut page[s] of time’ who have kept, and who will continue to keep, his words alive.
Zachariah Wells was born on September 10, 1976 in Charlottetown and raised in Hazel Grove, Prince Edward Island. At the age of fifteen he left home to attend high school in Ottawa and has since lived in many parts of Canada (Halifax, Iqaluit, Montreal, Resolute Bay and Vancouver), working as a freelance writer/editor and in various occupations in the transportation sector. Wells received an International Baccalaureate Diploma from Ashbury College and a BA in English from Dalhousie University/University of King’s College in 1999. He first started writing poems seriously in 1998. His poems, reviews and essays have been published and anthologized widely. He is the author of three chapbooks (Fool’s Errand, Saturday Morning Chapbooks, 2004; Ludicrous Parole, Mercutio Press, 2005; and After the Blizzard, Littlefishcart Press, 2008); two trade poetry collections (Unsettled, Insomniac Press, 2004; and Track & Trace, Biblioasis, 2009) and the children’s story Anything But Hank! (Biblioasis, 2008). He is also the editor of the anthology Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. With his wife and son, he lives in Halifax, the only city he likes well enough to have moved to three times, where he works seasonally for Via Rail Canada as an onboard attendant and edits reviews for Canadian Notes & Queries magazine.
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