Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Canadian Worker Poet:: The Life and Writings of Joe Wallace

By James Doyle
Canadian Poetry Press

Joe Wallace's poetry, declared Milton Acorn in 1977, was "usually bad, but sometimes totally inspired". The author of five volumes of verse, Wallace was for almost all his adult life a member of the Communist Party of Canada. He was also a reporter and columnist for several periodicals, including the three major Canadian Communist newspapers, the Worker (which was published from 1922 to 1936), the Daily Clarion (1936-39), and the Canadian Tribune (1940-75). Besides being an active Communist, Wallace remained all his life a practising member of the Roman Catholic Church, and the interaction between his religious and political loyalties is evident in much of his writing.

Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky and Canadian poet Joe Wallace during Voznesensky's visit to Canada, 1971
Although Wallace was little known in Canada except among members of the Communist Party, he was probably the most famous Canadian poet in Eastern Europe and China from the 1950s until well after his death in 1975. This lack of honour in his own country is partly attributable to the same political bias that prompted many people in Canada to ignore Norman Bethune until his fame in China forced him on his country's attention. But unlike Bethune's medical achievements, Wallace's poetry is open to severe criticism. It lacks the innovative techniques and ideological subtleties of the work of his great European and South American political confreres such as Bertolt Brecht, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Hugh MacDiarmid and Pablo Neruda.

Indifferent to most of the modernist poetic developments of the twentieth century, he derived his notions of literary form and language from nineteenth-century British, American, and English-Canadian traditions. His favourite foreign poets were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Burns. For Canadian poetry, he preferred the work of Victorians like Archibald Lampman, Alexander McLachlan, and Peter McArthur, and their twentieth-century imitators such as Wilson MacDonald. He remained cool even to the work of modernists of leftist political sympathies, such as Irving Layton, F.R. Scott, and Dorothy Livesay. Yet in spite of the frequently derivative quality of his writing, he deserves attention because of his international reputation, because of his contribution to a tradition that is frequently ignored in the history of Canadian literature and because, as Acorn pointed out, his poetry could on occasion be "totally inspired."

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