Louis Dudek

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Dudek, Louis 1918–

Dudek is a Canadian poet, essayist, and editor. He was one of the most important contributors to the modern poetry movement in Canada during the 1940s. Critics have noted the prose-like quality of his poetry, which presents a verse that is strongly philosophical in content. Pound's influence is felt throughout Dudek's poetry, especially in his long poem Atlantis, in which he explicates the present through the past. Dudek is the founder and former editor of Delta magazine. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

Northrop Frye

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Mr. Dudek is introverted and emotional: what takes fresh and novel shape in his poetry is a sensuous reaction. In The Transparent Sea …, a retrospective collection, the best pieces are songs conveying an immediate mood, such as the one beginning "A bird who sits over my door"; or studies in the movement and sound of words, like "Tree in a Snowstorm"; or ideas that suddenly twist round into paradoxes, like the admirable opening poem on the pineal gland, or his comparison of the universe to a watch which makes religion a search "for larger regions of clockwise justice"; or quick vivid sketches like "Late Winter" or "Lines for a Bamboo Stick," the latter with an Oriental reference; or a study of swift movement, like his picture of a little girl skipping called "The Child."

One of his favourite adjectives is "wet," and some of his best poems have the quality of the wet water-colour that is done quickly and makes its point all at once. Sometimes an image strikes him in a grotesque form, as in the astonishingly successful "Mouths"; sometimes as a muttering and brooding anxiety, as in the near-prose fantasy "The Dead." One often feels that a poem is inconclusive, but then one often feels too that the inconclusiveness is part of the effect, as it is in a sketch (pp. 305-06)

In short, I feel that when the poet says

      The world I see (this poem)
      I make out of the fragments of my pain
      and out of the pleasures of my trembling senses

he is telling us the exact truth about his poetic process.

It follows that he is working against his best qualities when he writes in a sequence, whether of description or thought. Here he is dependent on habit, and produces the clichés of habit. In the "Provincetown" sequence there is the same kind of maunderlust that filled so much of Europe. Sexual imagery is also a trap for him, for sex is something he feels self-conscious and explanatory about. At other times he is not satisfied with inconclusiveness, and some of the poems sag into platitude in an effort to round off, as in "On Sudden Death" and elsewhere. Yet … there is much to be grateful for in Mr. Dudek's book, and a great variety of pleasant and melodious writing. (p. 306)

Northrop Frye, in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Quarterly), April, 1957.

Dorothy Livesay

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["Functional Poetry: A Proposal"] establishes Dudek as the contemporary Canadian poet most consciously concerned with shape, form and sound: the origins of rhythm. He feels that the widening scope of prose rhythm has set up an impasse for poetry which he would like to break through…. His aim apparently is to invade the fortress where prose has taken hold and return it to the rightful owner, poetry…. (pp. 26-7)

Before he reached this eighteenth century critical position Dudek as man and poet went through many phases. His earliest poetry in East of the City is lyrical and imagist: concerned not with sound effects so much as with pictures in rhythmic...

(This entire section contains 615 words.)

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arrangement. Already the clouds and the sea he is so fond of observing represent his objective correlative for the world of poetry: a world where recurrent rhythms subject to wind and weather, subject to sun and moon, are expressed through language…. In many of these short lyrical pieces the poet's "eye" is on the object but in the background is a subjective, emotional "I" responding to these objects…. Dudek's search for "straight language and relevance" is certainly to be found in these early poems. Nonetheless he is not wholly free from the metrical bonds of the past. (pp. 27-8)

Even twenty years ago … Dudek had made his stand known. He was opposed to "musicality" à la Keats. He wanted poetry to reveal itself naked, without the props and embellishments of sound. His best poetry is unified, of a piece, and not discursive as is prose….

Dudek's apparent philosophizing, his didacticism, are in reality a consideration of possibilities. His prose content, like his prose syntax, is a kind of disguise. (p. 30)

It would be a mistake to assume that [Dudek's] simple, straight-forward use of languages, which never falls into obscurantism or ellipsis and which is always syntactically complete, is necessarily the language of prose. Dudek's poems are rhythmic wholes…. Order and control are the keynotes to this poet's work: as in sculpture, the whole must be visible at a glance, but the detail must be exact, and highlighted where essential. Moreover, none of Dudek's poems can be accused of being too short or too long (for even his "epic" poems are a series of short apprehensions). Quite frequently the poems seem to lack drama and dramatic tension, but they are a true rhythmic mirror of the poet's intention. No word or phrase can be taken away; none can be added. There is, further, only the sparest use of adjectives; instead there is strong reliance on nouns, verbs, clauses. (p. 31)

[Proof] that Dudek is more concerned with musical articulation than with onomatopeia—music as "cry"—is to be found in the texture of his vocabulary. Although he maintains a harmony of vowel sounds there is apparently no effort towards alliteration, assonance or half-rhymes (except in a few of the latest lyrics in En Mexico). It is as if the poet had an instinct for the right sounds without consciously working to make them so. (p. 32)

Sound harmonies …, together with a beautifully balanced phrasal pattern, enhance the conceptual conclusion which is the theme of all Louis Dudek's poetry: that harmony and order in nature towards which mankind strives. All his recent poetry of the fifties and sixties, with the exception of the satirical pieces of Laughing Stalks, repeats the same theme…. As a sculptor takes a lump of clay and fashions it into varying shapes he retains the essential element that makes it a work of art: rhythm. So in his cool, grave, lucent poems does Louis Dudek create and magnify his world. (p. 35)

Dorothy Livesay, "The Sculpture of Poetry: On Louis Dudek," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1966, pp. 26-35.

Paul Denham

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At first sight, Louis Dudek's long poem Atlantis appears to be a re-working of the material of his earlier volume Europe (1953), since the imagery and structure of both are drawn from a North American's passionate pilgrimage in various parts of Europe. However, this volume is at once more concrete and more philosophical; he is not just looking for Europe, but for a submerged continent, a vision of a kind of Platonic reality underlying the dizzying multiplicity of human experience. He explains his procedure thus:

            Every object a word, language, the record we make             a literal transcription,                       then a translation             into moral, abstract meaning.

The "translations" are the weakest aspect of the poem: too often Mr. Dudek's abstractions become rather ponderous, and the rhythm of the verse, so surely handled throughout much of the poem, tends to go flat.

Perhaps the most satisfactory parts of the poem are those which deal with the arts; here he seems to feel less need to "translate" everything, yet still manages to convey a vigorously realized sense of the importance of the arts to his exploration. The reader may not feel that he has found Atlantis, but the journey is an important and intriguing one in any case. (p. 234)

Paul Denham, in Canadian Forum, January, 1969.

Douglas Barbour

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What struck me … as I read through [Dudek's Collected Poetry] was the way in which certain approaches to subject matter, certain ways of articulating what can only be called arguments, form a part of his poetic content right from the start. Although he doesn't find the proper form for his "statement" right away, he is always striving for an intellectually tough poetry. Even in the early poems, where his control of "voice" is weak, the philosophic tone that marks all his serious poetry is present.

One of Dudek's continuing interests has been the process of thought. His poems often provide paradigms of that process, or icons of the results of that process. They move from a formal, traditional metric towards a prose-like, argumentative, "open" metric, which often resolves (in the longer poems, and especially Atlantis), into a near-prose of short maxims which remind me of La Rochefoucauld. (pp. 110-11)

"On Poetry" is interesting partly because it is an early poem in which Dudek essays the open form. But he does not stick with it, and many of the poems of the next few years … are in traditional forms, like the quatrains of "Flower Bulbs". This very interesting poem, which is a love poem of sorts, is yet very reminiscent of metaphysical poetry in the way it uses an image from nature as a basis for a closely argued and witty proposition. The argument is just as important as the lovely image which informs it, if not more so. (p. 111)

"Line and Form" is one of the most interesting of the pre-Europe poems, because it is so obviously an essay in the aesthetics of universal creation. Aesthetics is one of the major areas of philosophy that interest Dudek, and the concerns of this poem will reappear throughout all his later poetry….

Even in such an obviously philosophical poem [as "Line and Form"], however, Dudek makes use of what is an obsessive image in his work, and that is the great Sea itself. Here the line, "an ocean arrested" is both a major link in his argument and a reference to the vast chaos of possibilities that the sea has always represented to man. It is a natural reference for Dudek to make, for he has always been possessed by the sea; it appears in all his work, from the early tone poem, "The Sea", through Europe and En Mexico, to Atlantis and beyond. Although his poetry tends to be intellectual and lacking in obvious emotionalism, the sea always provokes emotional outbursts from him. It is his true muse. (p. 112)

I find few of Dudek's "humorous poems" funny, and I don't think his sense of humour is amenable to poetry. Too often such poems telegraph their punchline and utterly fail to provide the "surprise" of a good joke. Arthur Koestler says that the "unexpected" climax to a good joke must be "both unexpected and perfectly logical—but of a logic not usually applied to this type of situation. It is precisely this "logical unexpectedness" which is missing in Dudek's poems. His parodies of Canadian poets, however, especially those of A. J. M. Smith, A. M. Klein, and Irving Layton, are often dead on, and reveal and acute critical wit.

The Fifties are crucial years in Dudek's career, however, because during them he wrote the two long poems, Europe (1955), and En Mexico (1958). It was in these poems that he came into full command of his voice, and it was there that he truly became a philosophical poet. Europe is an extended personal essay, a travelogue by a philosopher with a gifted and far-ranging eye. The branches of philosophy which engage Dudek's mind—philosophy of history, politics, aesthetics (and art-history), and ethics—all appear in Europe and in En Mexico. All will reappear in Atlantis. (p. 113)

I think it is important to note that Dudek is a student of modern poetry and a follower of Ezra Pound. Unlike many of the younger practitioners of the popular poetry of primitivism he lashed out against in "Poetry in English", he is a highly educated student of poetic tradition, especially of twentieth-century modernism…. He is the only one of the three Cerberus poets [Irving Layton and Raymond Souster are the other two] even to attempt a truly long poem. He has walked the paths of his art alone. If he has not been completely successful in his poetic quest, surely one of the reasons is that he had to do it all by himself: he had no other poets in Canada to share his particular problems and efforts.

Europe is an oddly likeable piece of writing. Although I am not at all sure that it fully succeeds as poetry, I find myself completely won over by the man behind the work. This says a great deal for the poem, for I began the Collected Poetry with a definite bias against him, based mostly on my disagreement with many of his criticisms of his fellow poets in "Poetry in English". In Europe the poet shows such a genuinely and engagingly interesting mind, uses that mind to deal with such interesting materials, and expresses his opinions with such a refreshing forthrightness, I found it impossible to dislike him. In this he is like Ruskin, another traveller in Europe, to whom he refers occasionally in the poem. As he continues to speak on various subjects during the poem's progress he wins our respect because his intellectual engagement with them is so clear and intelligent. He is also like Ruskin in creating a series of little personal essays, even if they appear to be parts of a poem. Although they contain many richly poetic images and metaphors, the very stuff of poetry, to bolster their various arguments, they are basically essays…. (pp. 113-14)

[His style] is witty, and provocative of thought, but, despite its appearance, and the rhythmic control of certain parts, it would strike many readers as very different, at bottom, from what they know as poetry. This reaction may merely reveal their ignorance of certain aspects of modern poetry, as Dudek suggests, but the periodic sentences and the syntax of those grand periods, are surely qualities normally associated with scintillating prose…. Dudek has carried Pound's dictum, "that poetry should be written at least as well as prose" to its limit…. What one misses in so many of Dudek's poems are the "passionate moments" [which Pound also asks of verse] that would lift us out of ourselves. What we find, however, are qualities of meditative vision and intense ratiocination that are seldom to be found in any other Canadian poet.

In En Mexico, Dudek continues to work with the open form, the long discursive, essay-like "canto", and the philosophical voice he had developed in Europe. En Mexico displays a new mastery of rhythm, however, in many of its parts…. [Dudek's "A Note on Metrics," an obvious development from an early Pound essay,] is his major statement on the uselessness of traditional forms for the contemporary poet. Although he continued to use those forms in the fifties, he has not used them in any of his published work since 1958. It appears that the Note was the final nail in the coffin of traditional verse, as far as Dudek was concerned, for in it he insists that if you write in one of the formal metres, especially iambic, you "thus neglect the essential music, which is that of your sounds, as they fit the content of your poetry, and you produce for the most part an empty rattle of sounds." En Mexico, and all the poems following it, are written in the light of that statement…. En Mexico is a more successful whole than Europe because of Dudek's new mastery of rhythm, but the centre of interest in the poem remains the philosophizing that the trip to Mexico engenders. (pp. 115-16)

The mixture of the maxims and the images of life in Mexico creates a powerful commentary on contemporary civilization, just as Dudek wants it to. Because the whole poem provides such a resonant context for them, these short aphoristic statements have a power and interest that is entirely lacking in Irving Layton's "Aphs" from The Whole Bloody Bird. There is a decorum to Dudek's epigrams which the boring and boorish statements of Layton lack, and that decorum is provided by the unity of tone of the whole poem. (p. 116)

In many ways, En Mexico stands as Dudek's most successful poem: an organic, unified whole.

"Lac En Coeur", another fairly long poem of the time, is a quiet meditation full of questions about life. It is a lovely small personal poem, an essay from "the mind and heart of love" of the natural world around the poet. But it is a philosophical meditation, sharing, as do parts of Atlantis, the concerns of such poems as Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli" and the later Cantos, but without their "passionate intensity."… (p. 117)

Atlantis is not the unqualified success that En Mexico was. It is Dudek's longest piece of sustained writing, gathering all his themes and ideas into a single massive argument. Yet, in the final analysis, it fails because he is unable to incorporate everything he wants in quite the manner he wants. Had he paid attention to W. C. Williams's Paterson, rather than just the Cantos, he might have learned an invaluable lesson: that if you do use actual prose, it can mix with your own poetry without much trouble, so long as you juxtapose with care, but if you merely make your own poetry too prosaic in places, the obviously "poetic" parts of your poem will clash with the rest. This is what happens in Atlantis, and it is a definite fault in the poem.

The tone of Atlantis, from the very beginning, is that discursive tone that presents the personal essayist, once again en voyage, once again looking around and noting with great precision and wit what he sees, and then reflecting upon it. The casualness of the speech … does not mask, but subtly underlines the wide range of allusions and ideas the speaker commands. This tone, this manner of speaking, allows for a great breadth of material, but not for everything. In fact, it is a curious paradox of this poem that the sections of "pure poetry" are both the most powerful, and the most out-of-place, parts of it. (p. 118)

In the body of the poem, Dudek continues to reflect upon things; he discusses town planning, moral philosophy, aesthetic history, the concept of pity, the reasons for art, and much else. He even goes in for a very esoteric aquarium list, which he then transforms, through some very precise description, into a lyrical celebration of the many varieties of ocean-going life-forms. All these discussions are fascinating as discussions; some of them fall terribly flat as poetry….

The Epilogue to Atlantis almost saves the whole poem. This is a poetry like that of the late Cantos: pristine, the language pure and magnificent as it apotheosizes "Atlantis", that region of the human/divine soul for which Dudek has quested through all his poems. The first two pages of the Epilogue shine with the very "Light" they celebrate, but the effort of such an ecstatic flight proves too great, and the poet returns to earth, except for a few leaps of a line or two, for the remaining five pages of the poem. Still, it is beautiful, it is a passionate moment, however brief, and yet it does seem somehow out of place in this particular poem. It is not that Dudek is wrong in his approach to poetry; he is following a major modern tradition, one whose value has been proven time and again. It is merely that in this poem he has failed to weld all his various elements into a harmonious sculpture of words. (p. 119)

[The groups of longer poems collected in the section, "Reflections After Atlantis"] continue the approach worked out in Europe, En Mexico, and Atlantis. "The Demolitions", an elegy for destroyed architecture, is essentially a lyrical, autobiographical essay. "Canada: Interim Report" is a bitter, politically oriented, polemic. There are some rather neat juxtapositions, but the tone is too angry, the bitterness too diffuse; it all sounds like a variant on the poems Souster and Layton had in The New Romans, and that kind of poetry is something Dudek has always, until this poem, had the good sense to ignore. The philosopher ranting can provide little pleasure or stimulation, for he is using language in a manner, for him, meretricious, "A Circle Tour of the Rockies" is a mistake from start to finish, but not for the same reasons as "Canada: Interim Report", and it is a mistake of major interest, which also differentiates it from that poem. It is another very good essay, and one could imagine Ruskin, or even Dr. Johnson, writing it in prose. But to even think that such language would work in a poem about mountains betrays the kind of one-sidedness Dudek's preoccupations have led him to. There is absolutely no sense of a response to the overwhelming (emotionally overwhelming!) grandeur of the Rockies…. Dudek failed to recognize the limitations of his poetic; he did not understand that it was not meant to deal with the kind of grandeur (the Awesomeness that the great Romantics felt in the presence of mountains) the Rocky Mountains are. His refusal to use image or metaphor to any extent in the poem is the measure of that failure of recognition. (pp. 120-21)

I see [Dudek] as a product of the Enlightenment who has been forced to cope with certain aspects of humanity (the "Evil" of the twentieth century which he has written so many pages about) the eighteenth century did not have to face. But he seems somewhat out of place, really, in a world which is still living in the Romantic Age, for Romanticism has touched him only slightly, if at all. Perhaps that is an overstatement, but I think it helps to define him and his art…. Dudek pleases us most when he is rational, meditative, the philosopher to be listened to and argued with, but not possessed by. (p. 121)

Douglas Barbour, "Poet as Philosopher: Louis Dudek" (originally published in, Canadian Literature, Summer, 1972; copyright © 1972 by Douglas Barbour), in Poets and Critics: Essays from "Canadian Literature" 1966–1974, edited by George Woodcock, Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. 110-22.


Dudek, Louis (Vol. 19)