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Translation and Cultural Advocacy

In the late 1960s, Cogswell would put that ethic of action into force yet again, when, with the support of a Canada Council fellowship, he went to Montreal in 1967 to study and translate French. He had already done a few Latin and Middle English translations, but those, he felt, supported a classical world with little relevance to his own bilingual space, which current events seemed to be hailing. The first six volumes of the Laurendeau-Dunton Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism were released in 1967 and Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was threatening to explode into the streets. More than political activism in Quebec was at play, however, in influencing Cogswell’s decision to explore his submerged French heritage. Events were happening in New Brunswick that spurred him to action. Acadian Premier Louis J. Robichaud’s Equal Opportunity reforms were taking shape and, as importantly, beginning to elicit a response that Cogswell considered downright racist.[10] When editorial cartoons depicting Robichaud as a decadent King Louis XVI of France started appearing in the Irving-owned Daily Gleaner, and then an anonymous letter appeared in the Irving-owned Telegraph-Journal accusing Robichaud of “robbing Peter to pay Pierre,” Cogswell became convinced that English intellectuals had to come forward to defend the interests of the French in New Brunswick. Why was a country that claimed to be so cosmopolitan at its World Fair (Expo ’67) being so retrograde with its own citizens? Why, wrote Cogswell, did “the English-speaking writer in New Brunswick [make] little attempt to understand his French neighbour and still less of an effort to use him as a subject for serious literature” (“The Development” 21)? Try as he might, he couldn’t consider these questions but through the lens of the KKK’s earlier activities in Carleton County.

He sought to explore these questions, and to understand intolerance, by learning the literary language of the French, Canada’s vanquished citizens. Star-People, his best collection after The Stunted Strong, appeared in 1967 – its preoccupations the freedoms and confusions of the decade of political turmoil – and One Hundred Poems of Modern Quebec was published in 1970, the year after New Brunswick became officially bilingual. When Antonine Maillet’s ground-breaking La Sagouine came out in 1971, Cogswell started to read Acadian literature in earnest, convinced that opening the French sensibility to English readers would buttress tolerance through understanding. In the essay “Modern Acadian Poetry,” which came out a few years later, he celebrates the cultural archaeology undertaken by Acadian poets, distancing it from the dominant “alexandrine” (64) tendencies at work in English Canadian poetry. Those latter tendencies, he argues elsewhere, dehistoricize place and people for New Critical fetishes for text that deny political and other social influences on artistic production (Galloway 222-23). Far healthier, he maintains, is the Acadian commitment “to an essentially personal and honest response by the individual to the circumstances of his immediate surroundings” (“Modern Acadian Poetry” 65). It was largely through his exposure to those personal responses in Acadian poetry that Cogswell’s exploration of his own French heritage began.

And so also began his work to counter those “alexandrine” forces that, through McLuhanesque play and masque, deflected attention from what silenced and marginalized Canada’s peoples. His counterstrike began, as it had before, with publishing, much as it had with his hero Joseph Howe, except this time Cogswell’s efforts were pan-Canadian.

In 1971, less than a year before his tenure ended as editor of the Canadian Humanities Association Bulletin (1967-72), Cogswell became a founding member of the Independent Publishers’ Association (IPA), which, after 1976, became known as the Association of Canadian Publishers. A year earlier the Ryerson Press had been taken over by the New York firm McGraw-Hill, a move that, in Cogswell’s view, threatened to stop the momentum that had been building toward a vibrant, Canadian-owned publishing industry. Cogswell joined a small group of like-minded cultural nationalists to lobby government for more attention to the material conditions by which art is disseminated. In 1972, the Canada Council announced the first substantial programmes of financial support for Canadian publishers, and, two years after that, legislation was adopted that restricted foreign investment in Canada’s publishing industry. As an executive member of the IPA, Cogswell was instrumental in these advances, and for his efforts he was named an honorary life member, the only person to have ever held that distinction.

When the Literary Press Group formed in 1975, Cogswell was also involved, as he had been a strong advocate on the IPA executive for a separate body that would speak primarily for literary publishers in Canada. With the assistance, again, from the Canada Council, the Literary Press Group became instrumental in raising awareness about Canadian literature across the country. Efforts were made to link the interests of publishers and booksellers, and to bring writers into this partnership, the result being a renewed sense of national purpose in the literary arts.

Cogswell would yet again be instrumental, and for the same reasons, in the later formation of the Atlantic Publishers’ Association. His motives in taking on this pan-Canadian cultural work were not directly related to his own interests or to a politics of cultural nationalism, though both were served by his work at the policy level of cultural governance. Rather, he desired primarily to support individuals, especially those silenced and marginalized, at the most fundamental level of their artistic practice. His work at building capacity for artistic expression was rooted in a memory that he harboured, and which he and Alden Nowlan had discussed in their early meetings: simply put, he considered himself privileged to be in the position he was and wished to use that position to make it easier for others than it had been for him to find publishing venues in a still-rural and colonial country – a country, moreover, curiously susceptible to self-aggrandizing and manifesto-inducing “clubs” that reminded him of “bardolatory” (“Modern Acadian Poetry” 65). He was referring specifically to Warren Tallman’s TISH group, whose inward-looking histrionic poetics Cogswell considered very non-inclusive, thus the opposite of his own editorial practice of eclecticism. Cogswell told David Galloway in 1985:

Perhaps it’s conscience money [that motivates my generosity to other artists]. . . . I have compromised. I have taught, and enjoyed a reasonably good living. Many other people with whom I have come into contact have chosen to take [the] other road. That is why they have been poor and needed help, and they have been more out-and-out poets than I have ever pretended to be, and because they are such, I have valued and respected very much the kind of thing they were doing, very often even though it was not terribly fashionable, nor terribly appreciated and sometimes not even terribly good. What I respected most of all, I think, is somebody who is capable of giving in a big sense, rather than a small sense, to that which he or she believes is worth giving to. (219)

This statement reveals much about the place of ego in Cogswell’s ambitions. What appeared to some as shyness and a stubborn reluctance to promote his own verse was rather a sophisticated ecology, perhaps an offshoot of his Taoism. Though he did indeed publish his own work in his magazine and imprint series, he did much more on behalf of others, considering their worth equal to his own – and their need often greater. His haiku “Snob” seems illustrative of this view: “The humming-bird / flies by here and flies by there / without seeing me” (46). In the detente achieved between “here” and “there,” the poet is negated, his subjectivity existing somewhere along the plane of the balance created between opposing energies. The transfer of that ethic to his cultural work occurred early. In 1957 he wrote the following in a letter to Richard Ashman:

I have always been remarkably patient with contributors, . . . Several writers whom I have secretly dismissed as hopeless have come up with quite respectable poems and won acceptance. I have come to the conclusion that any one who had it in him to try can miraculously enough produce a poem if he tries hard enough and long enough. In this world of conformity, I have great respect for even the rudest attempts at poetry. Wretched as they often are they are signs of the resurgence of the human spirit. (30 September 1957)

Though that teaching came early, the learning was hard won, for the early 1980s were especially difficult years. On the one hand, the accolades started coming in regularly. In 1980, the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Publishers’ Association commissioned a Scroll in his honour, a collection of poems signed by forty-nine Canadian poets. The ceremony at Dalhousie University recognized Cogswell-the-publisher as a man who “listened / heard them all / and knew their need to sing.” He received the Order of Canada a year later, and a rare Professor Emeritus status was conferred by UNB in 1983. Honorary degrees for outstanding achievement in the arts followed: 1983, LLD, St. FX; 1985, DCL, King’s College, Halifax; 1988, LLD, Mount Allison. As if in response to these “local” attentions, he immersed himself in Maritime literary criticism, undertaking major restorative projects on Charles G.D. Roberts and Atlantic writing. His focus now was decidedly regional, a narrowing influenced by the political activism in the language of the Acadian literature he was reading. In the fall of 1981, however, the equal measures of pain worked to rebalance the joys that he had been harvesting. His oldest daughter Carmen, just thirty-six, was diagnosed with an insidious form of bone cancer. She had been working as a librarian in Vancouver. Cogswell missed a number of classes that semester to be with her, then made the difficult decision to sell Fiddlehead Poetry Books, its demands no longer at the forefront of his mind.[11] Over the next two years he made many trips to the west coast, struggling in his personal life to deal with Carmen’s suffering. His collection Pearls (1983) addresses her prolonged struggle with sickness, and his struggle with her death. In that collection, observed one critic, Cogswell “achieves a moving exploration of memory and death in some of the most intimate and finely controlled poems of his career” (Davies 36). He lost himself for a time in his daughter’s death, devoting himself compulsively to the weighty metaphysical questions that were occupying him. His retirement from UNB in 1983 prolonged that process, as did his preoccupation with Émile Nelligan’s work, which he had been translating during the worst part of Carmen’s illness. Nelligan’s darkness seemed to speak to his own. Both were in a sense trapped in a mental anguish neither could entirely escape. Though he was never suicidal, Cogswell’s letters of that period reveal the hope that he too would be taken.

Antonio D’Alfonso, who compiled Cogswell’s Selected Poems (1983) at this time, should be forgiven for writing the following about Cogswell in 1983: “Too busy perhaps, publishing the works of fellow poets, Fred Cogswell was not to become what we normally call a prolific writer” (7). While the first part of the comment is certainly true, the second part is not, for Cogswell would go on to publish seventeen volumes of his own work after 1983, making him among the most prolific of Canadian poets. What appears to be an oversight now, however, provides a clue to an important intersection in Cogswell’s career: after 1983, the year of his retirement, he was freer than ever before to write his own verse. Free, that is, from the teaching, administration, editing, publishing, and other cultural work that had inundated him for nearly thirty years.

As he had done before, Cogswell went to the University of Edinburgh to think through the next stage of his life. There on a 1983-84 Canada/Scotland Writers-in-Residence fellowship, he could do little else but read, an activity he put to productive use by compiling two major anthologies of Atlantic Canadian writing, which appeared in 1984 (prose; Ragweed) and 1985 (poetry; Ragweed). In May 1985, however, just when his equilibrium was returning, Margaret, his wife of forty years, died unexpectedly, leaving him alone for the first time in his life. He spent many days on the beach in Prince Edward Island that summer seeking answers in the island’s elemental spaces to questions that were again asserting themselves. Much of the content of Meditations: 50 Sestinas (1986) was composed there, as was the poem “The Beach at Noon,” which expresses the helplessness he felt. One stanza reads:

Although the core of consciousness is me,
The power is otherwhere. Outside are wings
Of mind and gull, are sun, cliff, sky, and waves
That, despite my hope and memory, bear
Their kaleidoscopic patterns in the air,
Intent upon an ever-moving now. (9)

“[I] feel my lack of wings,” he wrote in the same poem; “Outside me now / The discord lays my limitations bare” (9). Unable to go on alone, he remarried only months after his wife died, a decision he would soon regret. But at the time, marriage and poetry were the stable forms that carried him forward.

When The Best Notes Merge appeared in 1988, his mood was one of conciliation. “What I have learned,” he wrote, “is that wills cannot merge” (“Inside the Chapel” 56). Rather, the “discord” of which he previously wrote forms a “Great orchestra whose instruments perform / God’s master-work . . . . and from each place / The best notes merge to find one unison” (56). In another poem of similar focus he would later write, “what turns / My inner wheel of consciousness / And the vastness beyond my view / Is something I can only guess” (“A Speculation” 44). Clearly reconciled to his new understanding (that every process around him confirms destruction), atonement becomes his will, and he has opened himself again to love: “You wake in my heart, love, a darting jay, / A blur of joy to glint beneath my skin / Where all seemed dead and grey before you came” (“Poem for Gail” 12). Only in the late 1980s was he assured that his life would go on – and reminded of “[w]hat a gypsy said at the country fair”: “‘Don’t quit on love, boy. Though it hurts like hell, / How much you live depends on how you care’” (“Loneliness” 2).

And indeed his life did go on, but in a much-quieter guise than previously. Retired, divested of his heavy editorial, publishing, and teaching labours, and living with a mentally ill wife, he spent the 1990s in New Brunswick as poet and seer. He continued to help aspiring poets by using his broad network of connections to find publishing venues, and he continued to translate French verse, endeavouring to bring the work of Acadian poets to English readers. His translations in Unfinished Dreams: Contemporary Poetry of Acadie (1990, with Jo-Anne Elder) were the first Acadian verses that many English New Brunswickers read. His greater energies, however, concentrated on his own poetry, which he finally had the long horizons to cultivate. From 1991 to the time he left New Brunswick in 2002 he published twelve collections, their preoccupations more philosophical than earlier works. In each, memory assuages loneliness, and the poem itself (as creation) is flashpoint for a temporary joy. He was not clinically depressed or despondent, but given increasingly to long periods of contemplative isolation from which he would emerge to attend services at his beloved Unitarian Fellowship. After separating from his second wife in 1996, he lived monastically for a time, then remarried again. In “A Bare Road and a Lonely” he recounts the loneliness of that uncertain time, the freer verse line he employs a metaphor for how unfixed his world was during those years of “hid[ing] in outward smiles the inner ache” (“Self-Advice” 58):

a bare road and a lonely
cold rain-clouds hid the sun
each hill he climbed led only
to another one

in him song welled up anew
spurring his weary feet
and the rhythm it moved to
was his own heart-beat  (31)

In January 2002, Cogswell’s third wife Adele (Anningson) died, leaving him alone once again. When his daughter Kathleen came from the west coast to console her father it was clear that he couldn’t live by himself. Both packed up his books and set off by truck for Vancouver. He was eighty-four. 2002 was his last year in New Brunswick.


Next: Final Years

[10] Cogswell’s concern with anti-French racism in New Brunswick was a frequent point of discussion with Alden Nowlan. When Cogswell became incensed with the English reaction to a proposed community centre in Fredericton (Le Centre Communautaire Sainte-Anne), Nowlan, in sympathy, wrote an op ed piece for theTelegraph-Journal. Entitled “Stop Crying, You Anglophone Babies!,” the piece scolded English agitators for their hypocrisy in the face of overwhelming English infrastructures in the province. Nowlan and Cogswell knew equally what the underdog faced.

[11] Though Cogswell sold Fiddlehead Poetry Books to Peter Thomas, his Welsh colleague was not his first choice. His first choice had been Montreal poet Sharon Nelson. He had earlier published her collections Seawreck(1973) and Blood Poems (1978), and had worked closely with her on the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets. She was the founding coordinator of the Caucus; he was the first, and for a time only, male member to serve on that Caucus. His desire that she take over ownership of the press was born of his loyalty to Dorothy Livesay and his hope that Fiddlehead would become a feminist instrument. When Nelson was unprepared to accept the press in 1981, however, Cogswell sold it to Peter Thomas for $1.