McLaren's Beach, St. John NB Summer 1930, (D. Lochhead, on left).
These words belong to Peter Sanger, friend to Douglas Lochhead and fellow Maritime poet. I interviewed Sanger for an obituary I wrote on Lochhead. I admired his insights so much, I’m presenting them now as a gift to you. My obituary was in today’s Globe. Most of these comments were left off. Tucked away bits of poetry. I have bolded my favourite pockets.
Inspiration: New Brunswick’s Tantramar Marshes
Douglas first saw the marsh area from a troop train in the closing year of the Second World War when he was embarking to go to England. He instinctively felt that Tantramar marsh country would be one of the places of his poetry.
Most of it would be undersea if it weren’t for dykelands. The dykelands were originally started by the Acadian settlers during the 17th century and they continued working on the dykeland system until they were expelled in 1755.
It’s a land of huge open vistas so that the sky really becomes part of the landscape. It’s basically very flat, and since it’s now drained, most of it is given over to hayfields.
Sometimes it almost seems as if there’s no division between sky and earth. It’s filled with bird life and plant life.
It’s one of these strange places on earth that seems to define itself as a presence. There’s nothing anonymous about it. Although on the surface it seems to be a huge, flat emptiness, once you start walking in it, travelling in it, you realize that it’s teeming with life, especially bird life.
It’s a place of extraordinary climactic variations and contradictions. In the winter it can be terribly cruel because of the winds that blow through that flat land. In the summer time there’s nearly always a wind blowing but it feels like a place of plenitude, with hay growing and birds everywhere.
Across the landscape there are electrical pylons. In a sense they’re scarifications on that landscape but they are signals of human presence. The population is very scattered on the marsh. There are huge distances between the houses. Especially when Douglas first went there, the landscape was dotted with solitary barns without any farmhouses near at all, where marsh hay was stored after it was taken off in the fall and then later retrieved during the wintertime.
There is one major country road that goes through it called the High Marsh Road which lent it’s name to the book that put Douglas’s work really on the map. And that book involves him going out every day, during the months of October and November and writing a small poem, sometimes a small prose poem, sometimes what we would recognize as deliberated line structure, and each of these almost diary entries conveys the presence of the marsh.
When he was giving a reading it was almost as if he were dancing. He didn’t bounce around or anything like that but his body sort of had a dancer’s posture. I often think of his poetry as being the poetry of a dancer. Syntax made into a choreography. Douglas’s work is immensely physical in its attempt to convey the rhythms of the world, the way that the world works, the way that it fits together.
Inspiration: War resistance
Douglas was aware of the kind of rigors and tensions of military life. He wrote a sequence called “The Panic Field,” based on a diary he kept during the Second World War when he entered the military and was trained in Quebec and wound up in Halifax and then London. He expected to go to war. As it happened the war ended before he was called upon to serve in the field.
I always felt somehow that he regretted that he hadn’t seen action. That it would have been a validation of his poetic life and of course of his courage too. He was certainly fascinated by the work of the great French poet Rene Char, who fought in the resistance. Char’s work was one of the influences upon Douglas’s own work of the second part of his poetic career, a very strong influence.
I think Douglas thought of poetry as a form of resistance. A form of resistance to well, first of all, to non poetic thinking. But a form of resistance to tyranny, to unimaginative views of the world. Towards short-sightedness and towards excessively empirically based views of nature.