Louis Dudek

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Dudek, Louis 1918–

Dudek, a Canadian poet, essayist, and editor, was an important contributor to the modern poetry movement in Canada during the 1940s. Pound's influence is felt throughout Dudek's work, especially in his long poem Atlantis, in which he explicates the present through the past. Dudek was the founding editor of Delta magazine. (See also CLC, Vol. 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

E. K. Brown

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In East of the City the themes are almost the same as those that preoccupied [Mr. Louis Dudek in Unit of Five]. Mr. Dudek is sensitive to the surfaces of things and of persons, and many of his best passages are the records of his simple responses to what he sees and hears. He is also concerned with the social system, and bent upon its reconstruction: he often bursts into indictments of injustice and calls for summary action. The two main levels of his poetry—the sensual and the intellectual—remain separate, and there is little reciprocal enrichment. Perhaps what one misses most is … the distinctive power over words, the individual word, and the arrangement of words in broad units. When this power is lacking a poem may yet move, it is true, but it is scarcely poetically moving, for what it has to deliver is not enhanced by the poetic medium. (p. 251)

E. K. Brown, "Letters in Canada: 1946," in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), Vol. XVI, No. 3, April, 1947, pp. 246-340.∗

Northrop Frye

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[Twenty-four Poems] evidently is a sequence of impressions, one for each hour of the day: at any rate the first poem is called "Dawn" and the twelfth "Noon." They are strongly pictorial in mood, full of colour, and at times are merely decorative pattern. One continually thinks of paintings: so, rather unfortunately, does Mr. Dudek himself, as it seems to me that an over-explicit reference to Klee injures an otherwise fine sonnet. There is nothing startlingly good in the sequence, yet one is always just on the point of calling him facile and being brought up short…. (pp. 19-20)

[The Searching Image], on the whole, contains more serious poetry, some of it, though disappointingly little, on a level with the best of his earlier work in Unit of Five and East of the City. "Theme with Variations" is a series of vivid sketches of sunrise in a city, in a long swinging oracular rhythm, and there is a delicately elaborated conceit in the opening poem, "The Bee of Words." His favourite theme is the affinity between the creative powers of the mind and the vital energy that produces beautiful things in nature…. (p. 20)

He has more room to operate in Cerberus …, a collection of the work of three poets, Dudek, Irving Layton, and Raymond Souster…. In deference to his colleagues, Mr. Dudek endeavours to recapture some of his earlier feeling for social problems, but it is clear from his manifesto that he is no longer in danger of confusing poetry with popular rhetoric. He realizes that the enemy of poetry is not social evil but slipshod language, the weasel words that betray the free mind: he realizes that to create requires an objective serenity beyond all intruding moral worries about atomic bombs and race prejudice. One sentence is particularly striking: "Actuality itself is a metaphor made of iron, the diseased poem which man has erected out of mass frustration, out of centuries of evil." Of the poet he says:

    You will not learn from him of your danger,     You must fear a more mean and mechanical murder.

As long as he preserves this...

(This entire section contains 442 words.)

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austere detachment, he writes at his best, but his hold on it is uncertain: "A Drunk on the Sidewalk," for instance, is a fine poem except for two silly lines at the end; "Suburban Prospect," on the other hand, keeps a dry irony all through. (pp. 20-1)

Northrop Frye, in his extracts from his "Letters in Canada," in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), Vol. XXII, No. 3, April, 1953 (and reprinted in his The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, Anansi, 1971, pp. 10-22).∗

Northrop Frye

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Louis Dudek's Europe … is diary poetry: a sequence of ninety-nine short pieces recounting impressions of a trip to Europe, from England through France, Spain, Italy, and Greece, and ending with the discovery that what Europe, a shattered and demoralized civilization, really reveals to the North American is the virtues of his own culture. The century of meditation is a fatal idea for a facile poet, and although at his best Mr. Dudek escapes being merely facile, I find large stretches of the book unrewarding. In the first place, the influence of Pound is oppressive. Pound is everywhere: the rub-a-dub three- and four-accent line, the trick of snapped-up quotations and allusions, the harangues against usury, the toboggan-slide theory of the decline of Europe after the Middle Ages, and so on. In the second place, the conversational style brings the ideas into sharp relief, and the ideas are commonplace, prejudice reinforced by superficial tourism. To be told in rather pedestrian verse that the English are constrained by standards of what is and is not done hardly adds to the variety of one's poetic experience. Things improve however towards the end, where the rhythm firms up and begins to swing and lilt a bit, and where firsthand observation replaces second-hand theorizing. (pp. 53-4)

Northrop Frye, in his extracts from his "Letters in Canada," in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), Vol. XXV, No. 3, April, 1956 (and reprinted in his The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, Anansi, 1971, pp. 44-57).∗

Saturday Night

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Since Mr. Dudek professes himself to be inured to misunderstanding and lack of appreciation from the Canadian public, it will come as no surprise to him to hear that a reviewer finds little resemblance to true satire in [Laughing Stalks, a] new book of satirical verses which resemble rather the rude noises and nose-thumbing gestures of a small boy bent on making himself objectionable to his disenchanted audience.

Mr. Dudek is sometimes betrayed by his own skill at parody. Not in the second volume under review, however. En México is another of the thoughtful, impressionistic, poetic ramblings that best suit his talent. Mexico seems to have been for the poet a traumatic experience which made him deeply conscious of the ironies implicit in historic time and in man's relation to time.

All aspects of Mr. Dudek's poetic personality merge here, as in his poem Europe, to express a universal response. Because it is written with greater mastery and deeper feeling, because it represents a more complete transfiguration of experience, En México is an even better poem. (pp. 34-5)

M.A.H., "Boy and Man," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1958 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 73, No. 23, November 8, 1958, pp. 34-5.

Northrop Frye

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Louis Dudek's En México … is a long fragmented poem, less ambitious than Europe, but in my opinion more successful and better unified. It gets away to a slow start: the impact of a new country, like nostalgia, can often be a ready-made substitute for genuine poetic feeling, and, again like nostalgia, may produce only a facile reminder of experience, like a colourful label plastered on a suitcase. The comments about life and death which intervene are not much more rewarding, for Mr. Dudek has little to add to the eternal verities. But he soon picks up his main theme…. Nature is an organic process out of which man evolves, and the process itself is full of unconscious art…. Man's life forms a history, which "Begins from the place we're in," out of which his art evolves. Art is therefore, for man, the key to reality, for "Form is the visible part of being." The whole poem leads up to this recognition of art in the final pages, and the observations on the jungle, the Aztec temples, Christianity with its man of sorrows, the modern class-conscious students of Mexico, the frogs and crabs and snakes and "all the gentle mechanical creatures that we kill" fall into place as integral parts of the total vision. In the middle is the simple human act, the routine work on which all history turns, symbolized by women washing laundry in a stream. In this poem Mr. Dudek has matured his technique of indented lines and parenthetical rhythms, and the gentle rocking sway of this meditative poem is full of a contemplative charm.

Mr. Dudek's other book, Laughing Stalks …, is a collection of light verse. Some of the poems are about nothing except the poet's own self-consciousness: these are expendable, even though some of them proclaim the virtues of expend-ability. The reflections on scholarship and criticism illustrate a highly confused state of mind that may be called pseudo-anti-intellectualism. But when Mr. Dudek is not pretending to be a simple soul, and is his natural complex self, he can be witty and amusing…. ["Reality"] explains very clearly how the conception "beauty," if used in its proper sense as an attribute of good art, has nothing whatever to do with the conception "attractive subject-matter," in spite of the fact that most people, including most of the cultivated Canadian public, are firmly convinced that it has. This opposition of beauty to sentimentality is a central issue in Mr. Dudek's poetry, and is what gives most of the real bite to his lighter verse. (pp. 98-100)

Northrop Frye, in his extracts from his "Letters in Canada," in University of Toronto Quarterly (reprinted by permission of University of Toronto Press), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, July, 1959 (and reprinted in his The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, Anansi, 1971, pp. 87-107).∗

Wynne Francis

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For [Louis] Dudek, as for [Matthew] Arnold, poetry is a serious search for moral truth…. Arnold could say "For poetry the idea is everything … poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the 'idea' is the fact." And Dudek after him, "… it is what you say with language that really matters." (pp. 5-6)

The poet, for Dudek, must constantly take account of life as it is being lived. He must use words only to say honestly and simply what he thinks and feels about that life, to extract its essential meaning. His function is not to make decorative verses, forge new metaphors or illustrate myths, but rather to record in words the results of his personal explorations in the various dimensions of actuality and to share with the world his search for new depths of truth and beauty in human experience. Specifically, Dudek says, the modern poet's task is to "redeem the actual"—to find "a way of knowledge and vision, practicable against the evil, unknown to the absinthe drinkers and the squares…." (p. 6)

Over the years [Dudek] has exhibited widely varying styles in his poems and if readers fail to detect a lasting and distinctive "Dudekian" motif, he himself will share their difficulty. He is still searching for style—"metrical structure" is the term he prefers. His predilection of late years has been for a loose, organic rhythm … and for visually oriented verse patterns rather than rhetorical structures. His admiration for E. E. Cummings is partly based on that poet's experiments in calligraphy; and he has devoted many pages of Delta [Dudek's poetry magazine] to poems which explore the possibilities inherent in the distribution of black letters on white paper. Students of his poetry will also find "Functional Poetry" … and "Lac en Coeur" … of considerable interest. They reveal Dudek's intense striving to fuse "things" with "words", to eliminate as far as possible the distinction between the experience and the poem, between life and literature.

Implicit here is a theory which sets Dudek in fundamental opposition to at least three other possible views of poetry current in Canada—the literary allusive traditionalism of a poet like Roy Daniells, the witty seriousness of George Johnston, and the myth-structured poetry of James Reaney. Dudek is especially reactive to the last of these, He has frequently used the pages of Delta to make forays against myth, attacking it with the same fervour he uses to attack religion.

Indeed, he senses that the mythic consciousness is an aspect of the religious consciousness and berates the "myth critics" for relegating poetry to the position of handmaid just as religion had done. Precisely because for Dudek poetry is a religion—poetry is his way of relating to and evaluating existence—he deplores what he feels is a relapse into prescientific orientation. (pp. 17-18)

Another of the themes frequently sounded [by Dudek] is the relation of poetry to science. Poetry being Dudek's word for Arnold's "culture", the theme is a transposition into twentieth-century terms of Arnold's nineteenth-century campaign. Like Arnold, Dudek believes that poetry can redeem science. Like Wordsworth, Dudek believes that the poet's function is partly to stand at the side of the man of science, "humanizing and transfiguring" the changes the scientist makes in our mode of existence. Like his own contemporary, C. P. Snow, Dudek deplores the existence of two cultures and strives to find a mode of union between the sciences and the humanities. (p. 18)

It is ironic that as a book, Literature and the Press [which began as Dudek's doctoral thesis], must be considered a failure. To many readers it appears to be a painful exercise in the methods of graduate school research. But even apart from its form, the book suffers badly when compared to the almost concurrent work in a similar field by Marshall McLuhan. The topic so laboriously "researched" by Dudek was already being so radically reinterpreted by McLuhan (albeit in his own execrable jargon) that Dudek's concepts appear naïve, his methods pedestrian, and his conclusions out of date or irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the book stands as an illumination of the prime and fundamental concerns of Dudek as a man of letters over a period of twenty-five years. In it, he tracks down his long-standing conviction of the essential antagonism between literature and the conditions of modern society…. The most readable chapter in the book deals with literary magazines and shows convincingly—and prophetically—the importance of the private literary effort in the form of the "little magazine". Having finished the book, the reader no longer wonders at Dudek's zeal for publishing. One clearly understands his devotion to Contact Press, Delta and the McGill Poetry Series when one reads his conviction that "within the machine and money-profit system, the survival of civilized arts and literature can be maintained only in areas where neither quantity production nor money play a leading role." (pp. 19-20)

Europe (1954) is a long, loosely-structured poem which records [Dudek's] impressions of his travels. The most successful portions of it deal with the sea in many different moods. Dudek's preoccupation with the sea, in this poem and others, is significant. As an image it comes as close to acting as an archetype for him, being the "Creative Chaos", the source of life, the shape of meaning. Structurally, "the sea is the only measure of music," and its loose organic rhythms are those which Dudek attempts to imitate in his verse.

Laughing Stalks (1958) is quite different in structure and tone, being a collection of satirical poems. En México (1958) is another travelogue but stylistically at the opposite pole from Europe. Its form is tight, cryptic, laconic, with sometimes as few as two lines appearing on a page. Dudek's potentiality as an exquisite lyricist is revealed…. (pp. 21-2)

Dudek is currently at work on a long poem to be called Atlantis…. It appears so far as a brooding, religious essay along the lines of Wordsworth's Prelude. It is, Dudek says, "about God and Politics and Reality all at once without presenting these as a rational discursive idea." In the parts read so far, he allows his thoughts to wander freely through history and the present, through all the countries he has lived in and visited, through all the various experiences he has had. It is a yearning, melancholic, meditative poem revealing occasionally his anger, his laughter, his love, but suffused with a wistful anguished searching for moral truth.

It is a search for form also. The poet who long ago gave up organized religion as the formal vehicle of moral truth and who today strongly resists the mythic and symbolic projections of this dimension of experience, is still engaged in the task he set himself as a young man: to find an alternative style of expression which will make poetry the mode of redemption. Whether he ever finds his new Atlantis, or rediscovers the old, lost, submerged continent, may be mainly a matter of record in his personal spiritual odyssey, but as a poem Atlantis promises to be an important major work. (pp. 22-3)

Wynne Francis, "A Critic of Life: Louis Dudek as Man of Letters," in Canadian Literature, No. 22, Autumn, 1964, pp. 5-23.

W. J. Keith

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Until recently, Dudek's contribution to the Canadian literary scene has seemed a little blurred. Because his poetry wasn't represented in Milton Wilson's influential Poets of Mid-Century anthology, his work is less familiar to paperback-reading students of Canadian poetry than it otherwise might have been. And his critical writing has up to now been scattered in newspapers, journals and little magazines. But thanks to the appearance of his Collected Poetry in 1971 and the recent publication of these critical gatherings, we are now in a position to see his work as something approaching a totality. And a very impressive achievement it proves to be.

Perhaps his most significant contribution to Canadian criticism (and the implications of the statement for our current literary-critical situation are staggering) is his continued insistence on the centrality of the value-judgment. As he remarks in an appreciation of Alden Nowlan in 1969.

The real business of literature—to know what is good, and why, to explore the range of possible human "meaning," and to see how this is anchored properly in the text—[has] been almost forgotten … What is needed is some kind of total relevant criticism, which would examine the text, relate it to large ideas, and return again to the text for sound evaluation. Criticism really begins and ends with evaluation, whether we know it or not.

This, I think, is the cornerstone to his whole critical position….

Dudek's own criticism is judicious in various connotations of that word. He constantly weighs the evidence with care and ends with a discriminating verdict. His early critique of Innis and McLuhan, for example, is in the best traditions of practical criticism in that he approaches their theories through detailed examination of representative passages of their prose. At the same time, he is careful not to present his work as a salvo in the war of conflicting critical schools. He makes every effort to put each subject in perspective; he is never satisfied with a simple taking of sides. (p. 35)

Selected Essays and Criticism is full of shrewd assessments of … contemporary Canadian poets and developments in the contemporary poetic scene. But his interest in "large ideas" is always present, and in Technology & Culture he opens up to consider the whole range of modern … civilization. It is, I think, profoundly characteristic of Dudek that he should refuse to be confined by the boundaries of purely—or merely—literary criticism and should see the function of criticism at the present time … in much broader terms. The very fact that ours is an age of increasing specialization makes him determined not to be a specialist….

[The] predominant impression conveyed by the book is that of a civilized man brooding stoically over clear signs of cultural degeneration….

We begin to see a continuing preoccupation in all Dudek's work, both poetry and prose. The long "travel" poems—Europe, En México, Atlantis—continually set past against present, old world against new, the cultivated (dead) against the vulgar (living). Dudek is always a literary tourist, and acutely conscious of the vulnerability of his position. "Do the arts matter?" (En México) is a perpetual question, and the affirmative answer is never offered thoughtlessly or glibly. All the more valuable, then, is [the] firm defence of a discriminated tradition from the past … as a model for possible regeneration in the beleaguered present.

I have entitled this review "Poet as Critic" because Dudek's critical writings buttress the unabashedly intellectual vision of the poetry. With the publication of these two books, the essential unity of his contribution to Canadian letters becomes clear. As he remarks himself in Technology & Culture: "Art is incomplete without interpretation. The 'whole event' is a happy cooperation of reason and imagination." There, I submit, is his creative attitude in a nutshell. (p. 36)

W. J. Keith, "Poet as Critic," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LX, No. 698, April, 1980, pp. 35-6.


Dudek, Louis (Vol. 11)