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Introduction

Extracting a poet’s convictions from his art is also fraught with dangers, inviting efforts that seek to separate intention (the author’s and editor’s) from textuality (the author’s and reader’s). One question that arises in attempting that separation is how to treat the confessional poet, the poet who, by admission, breathes himself into his own creations – and who, moreover, offers “the personal” as refuge from the impermanency and falsehoods of the outside world. In Cogswell’s case, those questions are complicated by how compelling his confessions are, as evidenced by a frequent self-effacement in his work. The following lines will illustrate:

Though words set down kill trees, we yet will write
As, limpet-like, we clasp our egos now:
To love all life is still too great a task.  (“How We Live” 38)

Cogswell was such a poet – both master of his vision and slave to his ego – but one who worked consciously in a New Brunswick tradition of like-minded “public” writers. From Bliss Carman and Francis Sherman to Elizabeth Brewster, Kay Smith, and Alden Nowlan, statements of self, purpose, and commiseration have always characterized the New Brunswick poetic voice. In fact, preoccupation with “the personal” has been the ground for anti-modernist accusations by critics from elsewhere who do not understand or share the privations of economic consequence as a living community narrative. This was never better illustrated than in a criticism made by one commentator from Montreal who observed that “the Maritime provinces were like a housewife who having married for money which failed to materialize ‘neglected her housework, went down to the seashore . . . watched the ships go by[,] and pouted’” (qtd. in Forbes, “In Search” 59).

In answer to this privileged dismissal we must finally take our cue from Cogswell, whose poetry and criticism provide ironic counter to the haste of limited judgement. “[I]n the land of written dreams / Where words are wealth,” he writes, “I hope they count” (“I’ve Written Poems” 60). And, indeed, isn’t that the hope we all share: that what we value most endures? Cogswell can therefore write with confidence,

I am not one of those that dies
Although a cause can unify the mind
And bring new colour to its skies;
All measurement is limited or blind.  (“When I Visit” 15)

 

Next: Traditional Metres and Form