The Fiddlehead and Fiddlehead Poetry Books

Shortly after he began his work at UNB, Cogswell took over editorial control of The Fiddlehead (his editorship was announced formally in 1953). The magazine had been sputtering for a few years because the original group of approximately ten private members had either moved away or wearied of their association. At the suggestion of Robert Rogers and A.G. Bailey, Cogswell contacted Alan Crawley, whose magazine Contemporary Verse had ceased publication in February 1953 after thirty-nine issues. After consulting with Dorothy Livesay (and, it appears, moving to check the increasing power of Louis Dudek and the second-generation Montreal modernists, whose male bravado was a source of growing agitation among Livesay’s female peers), Crawley agreed to furnish Cogswell with CV’s mailing list of subscribers, which got The Fiddlehead off to a new start. As UNB President A.W. Trueman wrote in Cogswell’s inaugural issue, “It is now the intention of The Fiddlehead to open its pages to poets anywhere in the English-speaking world. In sponsoring this development, the Bliss Carman Society hopes to extend the audience to which it speaks, and to enrich the contribution which it has been making, on a modest scale, for the past eight years. There is not only room in Canada for a magazine of this type; there is a need of it” (2). And so Cogswell responded by opening the magazine to a large audience, enacting an editorial praxis of eclecticism to accommodate as wide a readership and authorship as possible. As he later explained, his desire was “‘to create a potpourri of types, attitudes, ideas and sensibilities within which people could be interested in something other than what they were doing’” (qtd. in Hatt 39). When challenged by Dorothy Livesay to make the magazine more responsive to Canadian talent, he responded that “I think it wiser to stay international. . . . The best chance for Canadian writers is to produce work that can compete with English and American” (Letter to Dorothy Livesay).

With the demise of Contemporary Verse and Northern Review, Cogswell’s magazine and The Canadian Forum became the incubators of creative writing in the country. To fulfill that rather daunting responsibility, observed Andrew Moore, Cogswell “literally reshaped the magazine, shrinking its pages to a more conventional size [the earlier format was 8 ½ x 11-inch mimeographed sheets], setting aside space for advertising, and adding literary reviews to the content of each issue” (n.p.). By 1959, he also started accepting fiction, which was a condition of the Canada Council grant that he began receiving. Cogswell retyped each entry, assigned them numbers for blind review, and then circulated copy to five editors for ranking. On top of that, he took sole responsibility for correspondence, proofreading, financial management, printing, and distribution. As first reader, he read upwards of 5000 poems every year once the magazine got going, endeavouring to provide constructive feedback to each poet. For Cogswell, who had been with the magazine as an undergraduate student since its early poetry workshop days, The Fiddlehead’s mission was as much to cultivate talent as to showcase it. The duties were daunting and the work exhausting, but Cogswell had even greater ambitions.

A year after he began remaking the magazine, he and Al Tunis, a like-minded colleague in UNB’s Sociology Department, founded Fiddlehead Poetry Books, the logical extension of the periodical. Tunis had been an editor of the McGill Daily (1947-48) and was frequently heard reading poetry on CBC radio. Both approached UNB for start-up money and office space, which was provided. The first books published (500 copies of each) were Cogswell’s The Stunted Strong (1954) and G.V. Downes’s Lost Diver (1955). With Pacey’s help, Tunis and Cogswell ran the imprint until Cogswell won a Nuffield Travelling Fellowship in 1959 and went on leave. In his absence, the university collapsed the press and reallocated its resources, a decision related to the growth of professional-school faculties at the university. Faced with the prospect of losing the publishing venue, Cogswell convinced UNB to turn over ownership to him, and he ran the press out of his own office until he sold it to his English Department colleague Peter Thomas for one dollar in 1981. (He was able to sell it for that price because he had completely wiped out its debt and because he felt literary publishing was a civilizing rather than corporate mission.) During Cogswell’s tenure as owner/publisher, he published the work of Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Dorothy Livesay, Norman Levine, Joy Kogawa, and many others who would go on to become the best-known poets of the 1960s and 70s. “[F]ew other Canadian publishers,” wrote Gwendolyn Davies, “have produced the number of poetry books or attracted the same caliber of writer as Fiddlehead” (38). Canadian literary critic Emeritus George Woodcock agreed, writing that Cogswell’s efforts created “a literary ambiance . . . of a kind that had never existed in this country before” (293). In total, Cogswell published 307 books of poetry, forty-four of those in 1973,[7] and many funded by his own resources. As editor of The Fiddlehead (1953-66) and publisher of Fiddlehead Poetry Books (1954-81), he established himself as both the friend and mentor of an entire generation of Canadian poets.

One poet that Cogswell mentored very closely in his early days of editing The Fiddlehead was Alden Nowlan. “Fred Cogswell was more than the first poet I’d ever met,” remembered Nowlan; “he was the first person I’d ever met who read poetry. He gave me magazines, and books by people like Louis Dudek, Irving Layton and Raymond Souster. . . . I was twenty-four years old and, in one sense, I had never before had anyone to talk with” (“Something” 9-10). So integral was Cogswell’s counsel and friendship that Nowlan credited both with inspiring the start of his mature work, writing that “the best poems I wrote that fall are the oldest that I still take seriously” (10). Though the two poets had previously met in the pages of small magazines, and then in correspondence, it was only when Cogswell took a bus to visit Nowlan in 1958 that their association started.[8] Drinking in Nowlan’s car in an abandoned schoolyard in Lower Brighton (just south of Hartland) cemented a friendship that lasted until Nowlan’s death in 1983. Cogswell would publish Nowlan’s first collection of verse as a Fiddlehead Poetry imprint, The Rose and the Puritan (1958), and, with University of Maine folklorist Sandy Ives, propose Nowlan for a Guggenheim Fellowship, which Nowlan used to write The Wanton Troopers, his first substantial work of fiction. Cogswell even became a surrogate father, lending Nowlan the money to get married – and the advice that enabled him to stay married.

As mentor, editor, publisher, professor, literary critic, and poet, Cogswell’s workload was colossal. And the burden of that load has been one of the facets of the man that many commentators have noted, even if they remain confused by his incessant drive and capacities. As a farm labourer’s son, however, Cogswell had theorized an ethic of work in advance of his intellectual labours, writing that the “Use of strength which makes muscles sound / Applies as well to thought” (“The Work Ethic” 64). He expounded on that ethic in numerous poems that speak of work in a larger context of cosmic vitalism. “What won’t move, decays,” he said in “Ballade of Light and Heat,” “What would there be when movement dies / But nothingness, life’s truest hell?” (107). Though the symbolism suggests a Calvinist view aligned with his Baptist upbringing – the view that work is the process by which covenants of natural law and personal salvation are realized – Cogswell thought of work as an escape from dogma. For him, work was neither duty nor the consequence of depravity (a Calvinist’s punishment for sin), but rather a conduit to creation, thus beyond the darkness of blind duty and enslavement. He expresses this idea in the poem “This Poem Aching to be Born”: “write for the poem’s sake, already / Waiting, fledgling work after fledgling work, / To be born of memory and the will / In mute brain-cells that join and mate together” (45). Work, in other words, is a generative force, a literal mating of potencies for creation; it is not done to atone or appease, but for the thing made. This ethic of “labour” (a metaphor/pun for giving birth to creation) is expressed again in the early poem “Joy”:

Of all pleasures, the artist’s is most rare,
Whether he carve a stone, write a sonnet,
Compose, paint, play an instrument, his joy
Is most remarkable of all in that
It is akin to God’s as it draws from
Chaotic things to form a new creation. (26)

Tying work to creation is vital to understanding Cogswell’s higher aims, for he also believed that the energy dispensed through work was an immortal force in the universe – and “that energy will never end” (“More Than Anything” 33). To work as an artist or enabler was therefore to enter into harmony with a natural process and to rise above man’s normal action, as the poem “The Masters” further elaborates:

When patient artists find and fix
Clear patterns out of time and space
They sense their works are only tricks
That score the surface, not the base.

Around them Masters (Sun, Moon, Earth,
Worm, Wind, Wave, Tide, and Chlorophyll)
Have toiled since energy had birth
To paint what even we can kill. (16)[9]

Speaking of himself in the third person, Cogswell writes of what he, as an artist/editor, does to counter the end – that is, the violent end – to which work is normally put: “I think the most important thing he gave / Was love disguised as work, a sesame / That seemed to open doors to ample life” (“Earth and Sky: A Marriage” 48). Life, creation, service, and harmony with a vitalism more powerful than himself were cognate in Cogswell’s ethic of work. His end was thus not an end, that view “too simple for my faith” (“More Than Anything” 34). In old age, he slowed but never tired because work was a cornerstone of his ethical system. “What matters is what I have done,” he concludes, “Not whether folks praise me or weep. / I want to die with my boots on / And not slip away in my sleep” (“Earth, I Have Always Made My Prayer” 7). It was completely in character, then, that on his deathbed Cogswell told his daughter Kathleen that he was ready to go, having done all that he could do. Action informed his view of mortality.


Next: Translation and Cultural Advocacy

[7] This perhaps-apocryphal fact originated in an interview that David Galloway did with Cogswell in 1985. See Galloway interview in Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne (208).

[8] The question of Cogswell’s first face-to-face meeting with Nowlan occupies the middle part of Patrick Toner’s biography of the latter. And it is a question that Toner rightly invests with importance, for their association “did indeed change Nowlan’s life as a writer” (Toner 98). While Toner is unsure of the facts of their first meeting, he disputes both Nowlan’s and Cogswell’s memory of it. In fact, Cogswell wrote to Alan Reidpath on 09 January 1958 that “I would like to meet [Nowlan] but so far haven’t had the chance” (Letter to Alan Reidpath). It was not until the late spring of 1958 that they did meet in the abandoned schoolyard.

[9] See also “Mind: Con and Pro.” A Double Question. Nepean: Borealis, 1999. 86-7.