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Childhood, Schooling, and Military Service

As a child, Cogswell became the ground over which his parents quarrelled. His mother wanted him to leave the farm and become a Baptist minister, not from allegiance to spiritual servitude, but simply from a desire that he expand his horizons. He was strong, having survived pneumonia and a dog attack before his first birthday, yet also unusually cerebral, the perfect candidate, she thought, for the ministry. At seven he was reading at an adult level and asking questions that annoyed his practically minded father. He also had an amazing memory and mathematical aptitudes – akin, in fact, to the talents of one “Hugh Wiley Peppers Lewis” that an older Cogswell would write about (85). Young Cogswell could add multiple columns of numbers in his head and easily calculate the seconds in a year or the near-exact potato yield from sixteen acres. When he realized the extent of the ridicule that intelligence attracted in rural environs, he started acting the fool to win the favour of his peers. The older poet recalls this compromise with wry sadness: “A teen-aged oaf, I sang off-key / And they would clap in ridicule. / The fool they needed then was me, / Paying back for my marks at school” (“The Singing Fool” 92). Seeing this compromise, his father Walter became protective of his oldest son, concerned especially about the malocclusion and speech impediment that he thought would limit the boy in the ruthless wider world. (He was not far wrong: when Cogswell was hired at UNB, the appointment was conditional on students being able to understand him.)

Cogswell would always be torn between the world of the mind that his mother demanded and the world of the earth that his father inhabited. Like Hardy’s Jude Fawley, he would come to accept both realms as his inheritance, even if the “strong roots that held and fed [him were] bread that was more like glue than honey” (“In My Young Days” 52). Perhaps not surprisingly, the denigration of that rural world among the urban sophisticates of his later professional life moved him closer to his father, as the short poem “Antaeus” reveals: “Of ancient warriors strong Antaeus / To me had special worth. / When other heroes leaned on heaven / He drew his strength from earth” (59). What the poem states by inference, and the sum of Cogswell’s work supports, is that he was much more sympathetic to his father’s tactile meeting of the world than his mother’s longings for escape, for as he wrote elsewhere “[d]eeper than reason run the tides of life” (“Apollo and Dionysus” 57). Later poems such as “My Father’s Counsel” (Folds 56), “To My Father” (In Praise of Old Music 1), and “Husbandman” (The Trouble With Light 45) make this affection clear. His mother was estranged from him in ways that his father never was, a clue, perhaps, to his later embrace of Acadia’s literary project. In that project he rediscovered his mother’s heritage and reconciled with her.

Until grade nine, Cogswell attended a one-room schoolhouse across the street from the family farm, which was approximately three kilometers from the town of Centreville. To his peers he was odd, always eager to join but preoccupied with strange interests like chasing butterflies, collecting flowers, and reading the dictionary, one of the few books available in his rural school. He was also awkward, not only big-boned and strong, but shy, gentle, and self-conscious, very much like the poet Alden Nowlan, who would build his own poetic career on the vulnerabilities that came from the combination of strength and gentleness.

One of Cogswell’s formative experiences was being mocked by three girls when he was eleven. Their ridicule of his speech impediment seemed especially calculated to harm, causing him to withdraw into his imaginative world and become an early champion of the hurt and underdog. With no close friends, he tended to the periphery of crowds and events, always present but in the background. What distinguished him were his unusual allegiances. He became notorious in Sunday School for his defence of the devil, who he thought got a raw deal in the Abrahamic tradition. Likewise, if the Toronto Maple Leafs were atop the NHL standings, he’d cheer for the Montreal Canadiens, a sometimes-dangerous allegiance in Baptist (and KKK-occupied) New Brunswick. When he was eight one of his uncles gave him a set of crystals with which to fashion a crude radio. He built the radio to listen to baseball games, the first time he could hear live games from Boston and New York. Northrop Frye would later write humorously about a similar practice in Moncton, New Brunswick, declaring that “[w]e never had a radio in our house, just a heavy supply of static” (qtd. in Bogdan 250). Cogswell continued listening to live MLB games until he died, declaring with pride that the only World Series he ever missed was during the war. When he attended high school in Centreville, about two miles from the family farm, he earned renown for his encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics – though why anyone would bother with baseball statistics was a mystery to his peer group. He would run home after school to do his farm chores, then run back to play ball, his frequently broken fingers proving no deterrent to his obsession with the catcher’s position. With no gloves available for left-handed boys, he had to make do with pieces of burlap sewn together as a catcher’s mitt, a poor substitute at best for the protections of proper equipment.

As he grew, his preoccupations with reading and writing became pronounced, giving him a way to move from the periphery of events into the centre of a mostly imagined culture from away. By age ten he had discovered Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, an anthology of poetry that was standard in British and North American schools – and, as standard, the common ground shared by many of the Canadian modernists of Cogswell’s generation. In fact, some of the first discussions between Cogswell, Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster, Irving Layton, and Earle Birney centered on the pivotal role the Treasury occupied in their literary apprenticeship. Cogswell began writing by copying the forms and sentiments of the Victorians, whose body of work was the focus of the second volume of Palgrave’s anthology in his school. He was especially interested in poetic forms, making a game of using the strict rules of the forms to generate his own verse. As he has said repeatedly since, the forms supplied an avenue for thought, determining the direction an idea went. Coupled with his reading of the dictionary, his writing career saw its beginnings as this kind of controlled word play.

There were also the early books that came at Christmas and from neighbours who wished to encourage him. He read Charles G.D. Roberts’s animal stories, Walter Scott’s historical fictions, and Gilbert Parker’s works, those a New Brunswick obsession since George Parkin introduced them to students at the Fredericton Collegiate many years earlier (Parker and Parkin were two of Canada’s strongest advocates for Imperial Federation, thus a fixture in colonial New Brunswick). James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo (aka Hawkeye) and the chivalrous heroes in The Boy’s Own Paper were also Cogswell favourites, as were the occultish radio stories of Bulwer-Lytton, which came in on the family radio. Reading was “an escape,” he told David Galloway many years later, “because the books that I read when I was in my teens were in many ways more real and more satisfactory to me than the social and other experiences which I was having in the settlement where I lived” (209).

Given his school’s student/teacher ratio of approximately 60:1, he had time during the day to indulge his interests – his preoccupied teacher allowed her dutiful students to do what they wanted. By age twelve, Cogswell had completed grade eight, and by the time he graduated in 1934 from Centreville Superior School, he had read as extensively as his teacher.

In 1935 he enrolled in Normal School in Fredericton, distinguishing himself in that simple action as a rare intelligence. When he left his village in early September of that year, a small parade accompanied him to the train station. One occasion at Normal School proved especially momentous, a visit by Dr. V.K. Wellington Koo (Ku Wei-chün), China’s representative at the League of Nations. “What I heard him say,” wrote Cogswell many years later in the aptly named poem “It Began In 1935,” “expelled / From me what I thought was education” (41). Koo, in effect, dispelled the dominant myths of “the yellow peril” that had been circulating freely in Canada since Sax Rohmer’s popular Dr. Fu-Manchu series of detective stories in the 1920s. Koo’s humble eloquence opened Cogswell’s mind to Chinese thought, prompting him to buy Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living when it was released in 1937. That book was his introduction to Taoism and the deep ecology of interconnectedness, the philosophy that taught individuals to find meaning in simplicity, undirected conversation, and other avenues of release from the anxieties and desires of encroaching modernity. The “greater league” (41) to which Cogswell refers in the poem is the alternate realm of eastern beliefs that provide formulae for living differently than his democratic capitalism and evangelical Christianity allowed. He would move from Lin Yutang to Tom MacInnes’s The Teachings of the Old Boy (1927) – delighting particularly in MacInnes’s haikus, his first exposure to the form – and later to Arthur Waley’s The Way and Its Power: A Study of the TAO TÊ CHING and Its Place in Chinese Thought (1936). Each would equip him with “a more rational education,” which he described in “It Began In 1935”: “Out of opposites came complements when / Yin and Yang together created league” (42). With that 1935 visit, then, the Biblical world within which he had been formed and trapped was completely undone. At age eighteen, he was free from its narrowness for the first time.[2] Taoist tenets would inform his ethics for the rest of his life. (Despite this, it was only as an older man that he would write of his emancipation, particularly of the narrowness and false hope that “the forefathers gave” [“I Found The Hope” 34]).

After graduating from Normal School with a first class Superior license in 1936 Cogswell worked in small rural New Brunswick schools for a couple of years, one in Gordonsville, the other in Hartley Settlement, both close to Centreville. But the experience of maintaining school discipline defeated him, and he lost both jobs, as much out of sympathy for the inattentive boys as out of duty to his wider calling. When he asked Mr. Waugh, his old principal at Centreville Superior School, for advice, he was told to hit the larger boys over the head with the book while saying “let that sink in.” But he never had the heart to try, telling an interviewer years later that his “emphasis on the individual worth of students was an avant-garde style for that time [that] came hard up against . . .  ‘institutional warfare’” (Hatt 39).

With the trials of high school teaching over, he attended the Carleton County Vocational School in Woodstock to study clerkship and accounting, hoping to put those skills to a career in the Canadian diplomatic service. That, at least, would get him off the farm (Northrop Frye used the same logic when taking his vocational courses). Cogswell completed his vocational training in 1939, leaving with a Commercial diploma. But when his application to write the Foreign Service exams went unanswered – because, he later learned, an Ottawa bureaucrat erroneously forwarded his application to the Treasury Department of the federal civil service – he set off to Fredericton on a cold day in February 1940 to enlist. The walk took him two long days with an overnight at a cousin’s house, but when he arrived in the capital he was heartened to discover that his poem “Poland” had just appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, the widest-circulating New Brunswick daily. It was his first published work, though he had been writing poetry for many years. (The poem was a critical commentary on war preparations.)

His desire to join the military was influenced by events close to home. With the Battle of the Atlantic heating up and the Battle of Britain only six months away, a number of young men who Cogswell knew had joined the Carleton and York Regiment, sending home stories of their adventures. Also, the Victoria Gazette, his rural paper, was running ads for RCAF youth training programmes that paid $7.50 per week, which, to a farm boy, was substantial money. With no interest in being a flyer, and even less a tail gunner, Cogswell opted for the infantry; however, his hopes were quashed by crooked fingers and poor sight. He signed up for the forestry corps instead, shipping first to Quebec for training, then overseas to Scotland, where he worked on a telephone switchboard to maintain inventory of the 100,000 board feet of timber cut each day by his unit. The timber was used for mineshafts and railway ties. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant and was able to avoid combat, but at the expense of the rich inner life he formerly enjoyed. “Instead of poems,” he said, “I wrote / Part II Orders, skeleton’s [sic] of War’s truth. . . . Inside myself the world I made was dead” (“Three Legs” 30).

Despite that monotony, his war years were some of the best of his life. He was part of a large group of New Brunswick men who were used to hard labour and the camaraderie it instilled. Stationed in the Highlands east of what is now Cairngorms National Park, they worked hard, ate well, and were safely out of harm’s way. When he got leave, Cogswell would travel south to hear lectures at one of the British universities that had opened its doors to enlisted men. He read voraciously, the army libraries superior to the ones he’d known in New Brunswick, and he also wrote and published a few poems, one in the prestigious Chambers Journal. He became especially fond of the work of Stephen Crane, altering his own verse to match what he later called Crane’s “shorter epiphanies of the incongruous” (Interview with author), those treatments of incongruity particularly appropriate to the environment he was in. On one of his furloughs (this time to Exeter), he met his future wife, Margaret “Pat” Hynes, an Irish nurse from Scariff, County Clare. Margaret was the only one of ten siblings who had been educated, that education the result of compensation received after her father, a truck driver, had been shot by the British in 1922 during the troubles in Ireland.

Margaret was stationed at an Exeter infirmary to care for children who had been evacuated from London hospitals. She was nine years older than Cogswell, and much more worldly, having sampled the life of English cities for the last four years. She had also worked as a private nurse for the English gentry, spending considerable time in country estates looking after the sick and elderly relatives of rich landowners. When they met, she had been on her own for fifteen years.

On his next leave they were engaged and on the leave after that (July 1944) married. They were called back from their honeymoon because of post-D-Day troop movements. Until the day she died, Margaret never told her family she had married a Protestant, for Protestants had been responsible for the death of her father. She transferred to Aberdeen, Scotland to be near her husband, staying until he was shipped back to Canada in August 1945. They were reunited in Canada only when the war brides and children were released a year later. Margaret and daughter Carmen Patricia arrived in Halifax on the Queen Mary, boarded one of the many trains carrying women west, and got off at Juniper Station, as close to the middle of the woods in New Brunswick as one could likely get. Fred saw his oldest daughter for the first time when she was a year old.


Next: Universities of New Brunswick and Edinburgh

[2] The parallel of Cogswell’s experience to Northrop Frye’s, and at almost the same age, is uncanny. Frye recalls: “’suddenly that whole shitty and smelly garment [of fundamentalist teaching I had all my life] just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there. It was like the Bunyan feeling, about the burden of sin falling off his back only with me it was a burden of anxiety. . . . I just remember that suddenly that that was no longer a part of me and would never be again’” (qtd. in Ayre 44). The parallel of this experience in two leading New Brunswick authors warrants further study of the saturation of evangelical Christianity in New Brunswick, particularly among its precocious youth. G.A. Rawlyk’s Champions of Truth: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Maritime Baptists (1990) is a useful place to begin that study.