Inward of Poetry: George Johnston and William Blissett in Letters

By William Blissett and Sean Kane and George Johnston

© 2011

Inward of Poetry presents fifty years of thoughtful and, by turns, chatty letters between poet George Johnston and his good friend and frequent editor, the scholar William Blissett. Edited by former student Sean Kane, this lively collection includes several hitherto unpublished Johnston poems and reveals the development and creative necessities of one of Canada's revered poets and translators.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Porcupine's Quill
  • Page Count: 432 pages
  • Dimensions: 5.6in x 1.4in x 8.8in
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SKU# DT061191

  • PUBLISHED OCT 2011
    From: $29.95
    ISBN 9780889843455

Quick Overview

An essential part of the folklore of Canadian academia in the 1950s and 60s, George Johnston's poems were recited with glee by readers largely unaware of their publication abroad in the New Yorker, Partisan Review, Poetry (Chicago) and The Spectator. This book shows the making of those poems, and several hitherto unpublished ones, forged in the hard craft of Icelandic saga, American Imagism, and in the voices of family and community Johnston took as his material.

William Blissett enjoys a unique presence in academic folklore today, having seeded it with his perceptions and sayings for over sixty years as an authority on Wagner and the shape of literary modernism, Renaissance epic and drama; the work of his friend, the modernist poet David Jones, and his friend, George Johnston, whose poems he frequently critiqued in draft.

Sean Kane, once a student of both Johnston and Blissett, engagingly presents a friendship told in fifty years of letters between the two men, set in the affectionate, gossipy, aspiring world of English Studies in Canada when it was ruled by A.S.P. Woodhouse and Northrop Frye.

Inward of Poetry: George Johnston and William Blissett in Letters

By William Blissett and Sean Kane and George Johnston

© 2011

Inward of Poetry presents fifty years of thoughtful and, by turns, chatty letters between poet George Johnston and his good friend and frequent editor, the scholar William Blissett. Edited by former student Sean Kane, this lively collection includes several hitherto unpublished Johnston poems and reveals the development and creative necessities of one of Canada's revered poets and translators.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Porcupine's Quill
  • Page Count: 432 pages
  • Dimensions: 5.6in x 1.4in x 8.8in
`Oh, Johnston was an academic of some sort, a scholar, too; purveyor of Icelandic sagas ... sometimes, even deep in the fustier nooks and crannies of said academe, one might chance across an authentic beating heart for whom poetry, and not just some fantasia of the thing, truly does matter. A tip of the hat then to Porcupine Quill's publication of the George Johnston-William Blisset correspondence: Inward of Poetry.'
Norm Sibum

`These letters between William Blissett and George Johnston offer a precious glimpse into a Canadian literary world now largely vanished, an age celebrated in names such as A. S. P. Woodhouse, W. J. Alexander, and Harold Innis, and -- still flourishing in and dominating the Toronto I knew -- Northrop Frye, Earle Birney, Farley Mowat, Robertson Davies, Claude Bissell, Ernest Sirluck, Barker Fairley, and Marshall McLuhan. The two humane, generous, self-deprecating figures whose lifelong friendship and half-century of correspondence lie at the heart of this volume shared a love of poetic craft and painstaking workmanship that, as one of George's favorite Icelandic skalds put it, ``will be slow to grow old.'' '


Roberta Frank, Yale University

`The very lively correspondence of almost fifty years between two writers whose friendship was largely expressed in helpfully criticizing each other's ongoing work, besides sharing their travels and encounters along with the griefs and joys of daily life -- engagingly edited by Sean Kane, ex-student and friend of both, and presented with his usual elegance by Tim Inkster. There is a problem of balance -- Johnston's usually short lyrics can be included in the text as Blissett's (astonishingly many) substantial essays cannot; but Blissett's wide thinking, wide reading and writerly skill shine out in the letters, inviting readers -- certainly this reader -- to become better acquainted with them. Read in this form, the letters seem a collaborative work left us by two wise and treasurable souls.'


Jay Macpherson, University of Toronto

William Blissett was born in Saskatchewan on October 11, 1921. Reading the modernist poets at age sixteen, he wrote his first published scholarly essay, on T.S. Eliot, while still an undergraduate at UBC. He met George Johnston in graduate school at U of T where Northrop Frye supervised both their theses. Following ten years at the University of Saskatchewan and five at Western, Blissett returned to the University of Toronto in 1965, becoming a long-serving editor of the University of Toro|

Sean Kane took his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, which led to a tenure-track position in the Department of English there. He left to become the founding chair of Cultural Studies at Trent University. Kane still teaches and writes at Trent, where he is emeritus professor of English and Cultural Studies. He is the author of Spenser's Moral Allegory (1989), Wisdom of the Mythtellers (1998), and Virtual Freedom, a comic novel that was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock|

George Johnston was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 7, 1913. Johnston knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, and published early poems (often comic-satiric), as well as newspaper columns, film reviews and plays, during his years at the University of Toronto's Victoria College, where he studied philosophy and English.

When war was declared, he joined the RCAF and served four and a half years, including thirteen months as a reconnaissance pilot in West Africa. He returned to



Chapter Three: The Cruising Auk

. . . .

There are more letters for 1954 (fourteen) than for any other year of the fifty years in which Johnston and Blissett wrote to each other. The themes continue much as we see them in 1953: the volume, Imitation and Design; the continued publishing fate of Blissett's Macbeth piece and of Johnston's ``The Phoenix and the Turtle'' article; Johnston's study of the painter Carl Schaefer; plans to meet at the Stratford Festival (a new institution in the 1950s); gossip about Gordon Wood and other academic colleagues (``MacLean ... discloses that Hornyansky is coming dwadwa & that Hoeniger is en route to London for Ph.D.''), as well as Malcolm Ross, James Reaney and, always, Millar and Evelyn MacLure. There is first mention of Blissett's writing to modern poets about the reputation of Edmund Spenser; continued praise of Jay Macpherson; discussion of some modern poets, especially Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves; and persistent attempts by Blissett to force Catcher in the Rye on Johnston. Some of these subjects will be found in other sections of this volume on the correspondence. For the correspondents themselves, of course the most important subject is the mutual editing by Blissett and Johnston of each other's writing during the period when they both attempted to honour the muses of creativity and scholarship.

For this, we start with the poem ``Roses'' sent on 2 February 1954, in which Miss Knit, a sort of Blakean Female Will, ensnares the unsuspecting solar deity, Mr. Byers:

Among the roses around behind the house
Snip snap snip go the little cutting pliers;
Sweet Miss Knit, who is a kind of mouse,
Is gathering buds & blooms for Mr. Byers.
Mr. Byers is a kind of a hungry cat,
But he doesn't pay much attention to sweet Miss Knit;
She loves his magnificent person, which is fat,
And wishes she had to herself his every bit.

Ah roses, roses on Mr. Byers' table
That lean your thorns above the polished wood,
Miss Knit would borrow your death, if she were able,
To darken her small heart, which is sweet and good;
For certainly Mr. Byers' great concerns
Overpower his taste for the good & sweet,
And when he flies across the sea & returns
It's the unremembering and bitter he wants to meet.

Blissett responds (14 February 1954):

`Roses' is nice (& so is you. This is St. Valentine's Day). But whether you can persuade an editor to take all those extra syllables is a moot question (in `attention' & `magnificent' e.g. why not `heed' & `massive' they will say. Your answer is that the reader has to get used to scurrying -- as in the last line of the first stanza, and lopsidedness -- as in the last line of all; otherwise no poem.

The published version shows relaxations throughout, but where Blissett's argument has prevailed wholly is in the last few lines: the Blakean mythopoeia gives way to ironic sensory particulars:

And yet the room's mahogany-deep light
And all the little rainbows in the glass
Seem to surround her movements with delight
And watch her mouse's footsteps as they pass.

Johnston's letter to Blissett of 20 March does not refer to this editing, but soon after, on 24 April, he encloses ``Kind Offices''; except for an allusion to his family in ``War on the Periphery,'' this is the first of the poems about his children to enter the correspondence. It entered Auk unchanged, having passed Blissett's scrutiny (``nice, should be worth dough'' -- 8 May 1954):

Kind Offices

Andrew, an understanding boy,
Helps Cathleen: he gets her toy
Or puts her dolly in her hand;
He sits her up, he makes her stand;
He picks her dolly up again
And gives it back to her and then
Re-erects her on her feet.
In all he does his air is sweet,
Olympian, perhaps. His smile
Is Heaven's blandest. She meanwhile
Is rage itself. I cannot tell
Her rage; she's brimestone pits and Hell.

Johnston's April letter also included ``Cat,'' I and II. These are the first of Johnston's famous cat poems. While Blissett has said, ``I don't know of another poet who celebrates his children so fully,'' I don't know of another with such an affinity for felines:

Cat

I.

Pussy's caught a baby bird
And she's so pleased with it
She's purring as she's never purred.
She