and so the books
have opened, and although
I am as much
a child as any child
who cannot read
as to why the things
should be that are,
the debt I owe
the books is this:
the books have taught me
not to be afraid.
(Cogswell, “The Debt I Owe the Books” 93)
Fred Cogswell was one of a small number of cultural workers in Canada who came to Canadian literature at the moment of its greatest potential. With the end of the Second World War in 1945, thousands of young servicemen, Cogswell among them, returned to Canada with a greater sense of the larger world, a sense that demanded more of their country than their fundamentalist and provincial origins could deliver. This need was soon to find expression in a host of public policy initiatives that shaped national identity for Canadians, thus delivering on the promise that our soldiers had indeed fought for something more tangible than commonwealth and Queen. A beefed up National Film Act was passed in 1950. A year later, the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences recommended the development of the Canada Council and comprehensive spending in public broadcasting, the extension of which was the Fowler Commission on Broadcasting in 1955. Driving these initiatives was not solely the appetite for cultural nationalism but also the same worry that had attended Confederation: that with the rise of America as a world super power, Canada, a sparsely populated nation perched precariously on its border, should assert its own sovereignty, if only that sovereignty could be found. Surely we were more than a disparate federation of immigrants who looked to our countries of origin for meaning.
It was into this milieu of post-war fervour that Cogswell arrived in A.G. Bailey’s freshman Arts class in 1945. Already a precocious reader and gifted student, and eager to acquire the credentials that would provide entry into the world of intellectual work, Cogswell immediately set out to pursue a course of cultural stewardship. Only a year after the Massey-Lévesque Commission had tabled its report (1951), Cogswell was a published poet, a university professor, and the editor of what would become one of the most important literary magazines in the country. Moreover, given his drive and his proximity to many of the country’s literary pioneers, his was a name that came to mind when projects of pan-Canadian importance such as the Literary History of Canada were proposed. A young Cogswell therefore soon took his place beside Louis Dudek, Dorothy Livesay, Roy Daniells, Desmond Pacey, George Woodcock, Phyllis Webb, and Malcolm Ross as one of the pre-eminent cultural workers in twentieth-century Canada. This volume is intended to illuminate the many dimensions of his work. That those dimensions have not yet been examined with the critical rigour they deserve is a consequence of the unevenness of our nation’s distributed federalism. Suffice it to say that my hope is that this volume will correct the oversight, at least as it concerns Cogswell.
Because he was another “portmanteau-man,” a term devised by Wyndham Lewis to describe his own many-dimensioned self (3), I organized this volume to reflect Cogswell’s most important facets. Chapter One is a biography of Cogswell that covers his family background, his Acadian ancestry, his intellectual development and influences, and the many roles he played as editor, publisher, poet, scholar, and mentor. The chapter extends to his death in June 2004.
Chapter Two is dedicated to the discussion and presentation of Cogswell’s poetry. Because he thought of himself primarily as a poet – “[T]hough deeds may cause biography / Words I write are the best of me” (“An Epigram” 73) – this chapter constitutes the largest portion of the volume. It begins with a discussion of editorial decisions that influenced my selection of his poems, proceeds to my own interpretation of his aesthetic, and ends with a representative selection of his poetry. Though extensively interviewed and reviewed, Cogswell has never before received the kind of careful critical treatment that I have given his work here, so this chapter should make clear some of his formal and aesthetic intentions.
Chapter Three foregrounds Cogswell’s editorial work, showcasing examples of the correspondence for which he was so universally admired. That admiration came not because his penmanship was elegant or his prose mellifluous, but because his advice was so earnest. It was in his letters to other writers that he earned the nickname “friend of poets,” and there is no better example of his cultural stewardship than in those letters.
The final chapter presents as comprehensive a Cogswell bibliography as could reasonably be compiled. Because Cogswell sent his poems to obscure and often short-lived international literary magazines, and because he cared almost nothing about a legacy (which meant that he spent little time keeping records for posterity), the work of constructing a Cogswell bibliography is both challenging and inevitably incomplete. Nevertheless, the bibliography in the final chapter is the most comprehensive one to date.
The sum of the combined parts will, I hope, provide a picture of a man with indefatigable energy for work, creation, compassion, and leadership. The evidence in this volume clearly reveals that Fred Cogswell was one of the pillars of Canadian modernism in the twentieth century.