Acorn, Milton 1923–
Acorn is a Canadian poet and editor. His work is often political in content, revealing the poet's leftist and nationalist sympathies. The poet's concern for establishing the rhythms of the human voice in his work is reflected in a poetic diction stressing common speech and idiomatic expressions. A native of Prince Edward Island, Acorn creates poetry informed by the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape. His finest work is characterized by its driving rhythms and vivid natural imagery.
Milton Acorn's The Brain's the Target … deserves the place of hour among Ryerson Press's current crop of chapbooks…. Mr. Acorn's work has been getting better and better during the past five years, and he seems about to become a very convincing and solid writer indeed. Such "solidity" is most obvious in his habits of speech—in the crushed rhythms, heavy alliterations, and words like boulders which have become his trademark…. The verse wrests whatever freedom it has from a rhythm of hard blows against an unyielding texture. But for Mr. Acorn society too is a dialectic of will and resistance; only here the struggle can be mutually destructive. As in that T.V. ringside poem "The Fights," "the brain's the target," whittled away until nothing human is left. I wish that Ryerson (or the author) had seen fit to represent the poet of society and the poet of ideas more adequately. In The Brain's the Target the Maritime regionalist (admirable in himself) is allowed to overshadow the debater, and Mr. Acorn's development seems truncated. That development displays a solidity of its own and has proceeded not by a process of reaction or attrition, but by accumulation like a snowball. The lyricist, the regional scene painter, the sketcher of people, the social protester, the muscle-bound arguer, these don't exclude one another; as a poem like "Mike" makes clear, nothing poetic or geographical has been finally rejected on the roads between Charlottetown and Toronto and Montreal. Because Mr. Acorn stands so obviously apart from the characteristic fashions of recent Canadian verse, one is likely to overrate his potentialities. Still, if, in due course, he doesn't produce one of the best books of the Canadian 60's, I shall be much surprised. (p. 395)
Milton Wilson, "Letters in Canada: 1960," edited by F. W. Watt, in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), Vol. XXX, No. 4, July, 1961, pp. 380-401.
[Many poets of the sixties] seem to be becoming somewhat fatigued by cerebral and mythopoeic poetry. There is a return to Imagism; and with that return lyricism inevitably canters alongside. (p. 33)
Of all contemporary Canadian poets, Milton Acorn is most at home as a part of this development…. As he describes it, he grew into poetry the hard, unschooled way:
I started to write in iambic patterns…. Iambic was theoretically based on the 'natural' rhythms of the English language…. But among the great majority of people living on the North American continent the speech patterns (stress and rhythm) have changed. Iambic no longer fits.
Acorn first began to break with the iambic pattern from listening to seamen talk…. His aim was "a line that flowed more in terms of their own natural idiom". [He] began to grow away from the iambic pattern, while yet maintaining a unity of structure based essentially on strong-stress (ballad) rhythms. (pp. 33-4)
Notable in [his poem "Charlottetown Harbour"] is the lack of overt emotion and the absence of metaphor or symbol. We are presented with a still-life painting in the Imagist tradition. Generally Acorn's early work seems to follow this Imagist pattern of minute detail, enclosing an internal movement which is created by the use of phrasal rather than clausal utterances. Yet Acorn is a poet unable to sit still for long: man interacting on scene is what really interests him. (p. 35)
Even in his first book it is apparent that Acorn's poetry is beginning to eschew description, or even simile and metaphor, in favour of a more dramatic presentation. The landscape is now acted upon, as in the poem, "Old Property"…. There is no internal juncture [in this poem as there is in some of Acorn's work] and even end-juncture is disguised by run-on lines…. The effect is to emphasize word or phrase at the beginning of the line. From now on, this will be one of Acorn's chief technical devices…. [In parts of this poem] he extends himself farther than imagism, into symbolism. And from there on he questions, questions. (pp. 35-6)
[There] are three aspects to Acorn's style, evident in both his early and his late poems. These are: vivid imagery, rhythmic progression, and the ability to create a synthesis of what has gone before…. [The] poet works on his material, activates it and re-creates it into a new synthesis. He succesfully integrates form and content. (p. 37)
It is as an experimentation with form that Milton Acorn's poems...
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Al Purdy and Milton Acorn have a lot in common, especially in the recent history of Canadian poetry. They both came to maturity at about the same time in the early sixties, not at an early age for either of them. They edited a magazine together in Montreal where Purdy was working in a mattress factory and Acorn was selling his carpenter's tools. Acorn was flopping at Purdy's flat, reading Purdy's library, and being introduced to Purdy's poet-influences, Layton, Dudek, et al. More than one reader thought at the time that Acorn was a pen-name for Purdy. That was all more than ten years ago. Now it is fitting, not to mention fortunate for Acorn, that Purdy edits the selected poems of his old pal [in I've Tasted My Blood: Poems 1956 to 1968]. (p. 84)
Having so many good poems together in one book convinces me that Acorn is not only honest and exciting, as no one has ever doubted, but also very much accomplished as an artist, not so much the natural beast as he has often been envisioned:
so man's truest home is the wind
created of his breath
and he breathes deepest in mystery.
That kind of imagination has as much root in Acorn's earlier trade of carpentry … as does his celebrated socialism. He is still resolved to make his lines run true, to make the sounds render their finest possibilities lying in rime...
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The title of [More Poems for People] is from Poems for People by Dorothy Livesay, to whom it's dedicated, and who "began in this book the tradition of Canadian poets who dedicated their poems and their lives to the working class."… It consists of 47 poems, one prose allegory "The Garbageman is Drunk", and two essays, "On Not Being Banned by the Nazis" … and "What are the Odds?" (a discussion of the possibilities and tactics of resistance should the American Empire invade Canada). Over two thirds of the poems are explicitly political…. Some, like "The Schooner Blue Goose" and "The Microscopic Army Ants of Corsica" are witty political allegory. There are also about a half dozen love lyrics, and an equal number of poems about poetry and the craft of writing.
When Acorn views the Canadian landscape … it isn't a barren wasteland of unnamed horrors, but a land inhabited by the people who work it—miners, Indians, northern Québécois. And there's more than a semantic difference between seeing these people as victims and seeing them as the exploited producers of surplus value in our resource-extracted economy. Some of the landscape or nature poems which don't describe people seem deceptively lyrical, out of place in this book, because of their quite different calm and meditative tone. Actually, Acorn is making a political point in a poem such as "The Mine is Also of Nature":
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