Here’s to a gallant doffer Greatcoated
lover of poets more than of their poems.
(Robert Gibbs, “Fred’s Overcoat” 164)
The fourteen letters that follow are an infinitesimal sampling of a correspondence that is best described as voluminous. Cogswell wrote thousands of letters, many now scattered among the literary papers of Canada’s leading writers and editors of the last fifty years.
His impetus for letter writing started when he was a boy, a boy who felt especially isolated in a New Brunswick village that seemed far away from the rest of the world. He wrote letters to make contact with that wider world in the hope that he might discover a sensibility similar to his own. The practice was common among children in Canada and other countries of the commonwealth, where “pen pal” associations were advertised in comic strips, children’s books, and domestic magazines. As Cogswell grew into adulthood he continued the practice, turning what was once a personal outreach into a professional one. To these letters he affixed poems that were descriptive of the place he lived or the neighbours he lived among. The people who most often answered were editors of small magazines in the U.S. They were generous in their comments about his verse and often sent a copy of their current issue for his reading. It was in these obscure little magazines that his first poems appeared.
When Cogswell returned to New Brunswick and became editor of The Fiddlehead in the early 1950s, he never forgot the generosity of those distant editors – or the need of isolated writers to make contact with sympathetic listeners. When Robert Kroetsch wrote a greeting to celebrate The Fiddlehead’s 50th anniversary, he observed that the magazine “was always a listening kind of journal, an ear placed at a distance from the hubbub and able to hear what the centre, often, was not willing to listen in on” (qtd. in McKay, 1995 234). Kroetsch was speaking indirectly of Cogswell’s influence on the magazine, for The Fiddlehead’s listening sensibility was almost entirely Cogswell’s own.
His correspondence, then, is of a particular kind. It is always personal and informal, his tone and address rarely harried, officious, or doctrinal. He clearly saw himself as the ideal editor to which he, as a novice poet from a distant outpost, wrote. Whether the material he received was good or bad, and even if the query was vapid, he responded with warmth, encouragement, and tactful assistance – the kind of assistance aimed especially at improvement. Moreover, his letters are never fawning or solicitous, but surprisingly frank, detailed, and erudite, even if couched in easy conversational style. His favourite method of criticism was to send writers to other poets and magazines, and to expound on international trends in literary practice, hoping, it is clear, that young poets might learn by reading and emulating other poets. His letters alone provide an excellent overview of small magazines in Canada, the U.S., and abroad.
As he was nearing the end of his editorial stewardship of The Fiddlehead, he wrote what might double as his epistolary ethic:
When I was a soldier in World War II, I once read in a British magazine called Nature the following lines:
on every spray
sings its own song
in its own way.
I know that this statement is neither biologically nor artistically true, but belief can, I believe, create miracles. As a writer I have tried to obey what these lines express, and as an editor I have always respected the attempts of others to follow them. (“Choosing a Printer” 36)
As listening post, he read each poem he received and responded to every letter, the number of which soared to nearly 1000 annually when the magazine reached its international audience. Typically, he selected the best one or two poems he received for publication, preferring to showcase poets rather than poems. This practice sometimes aggravated the more seasoned of his correspondents, notably Alden Nowlan, Al Purdy, and Dorothy Roberts. As his correspondence makes evident, however, his larger intent was both to encourage and cultivate new poetic talent, a desire that required him to offer more than the usual constructive criticism in his responses. Though this work must have been exhausting, it was an integral part of the civilizing mission that he, like most modernists after Pound, was embarked on. For Cogswell, however, that mission was rooted in a place-based ethic that supported individuals rather than ambiguous notions of art. He wished for the voiceless to acquire the miracle of literary speech. That wish must be understood in the context of the geo-politics of his New Brunswick locale, the blackout of his family history, and the constraints placed upon him by an accident of birth (i.e., malocclusion-related speech impediment). That The Fiddlehead now enjoys the status of Canada’s longest-living literary magazine is in no small part traceable to Cogswell’s attentive ear and welcoming disposition.
See letters that follow.