Monday, September 6, 2010

James Reaney, [b.1926-2008]

On the first of this month was the birthday of beloved James Reaney, a Canadian poet, playwright, professor and critic. He was born in South Easthope Ontario and led a thoroughly literary life, inspired by the noteworthy Northrop Frye. Reaney was awarded his PhD, here at the University of Toronto, in 1958. Having taught at both the University of Western and the University of Manitoba, Reaney's accomplishments did not end with his students. He won three Governor General's Awards and launched a successful career in writing drama. Several of his plays have been performed at Hart House's very own Theatre.

Beginning in September, the Hart House Library dedicated a display to several of James Reaney's books to begin educating people about his influence on Canadian literary culture.

James Reaney's style has been referred to as "Southern Ontario Gothic." Margaret Atwood was also quoted as saying that without "[Reaney's short story] The Bully, my fiction would have followed other paths."


These clouds are soft white horses
That draw Weather in his wagon
Who bears in his old hands
Streaked whips and strokes of lightning.
The hooves of his cattle are made
Of limp water, that stamp
Upon the roof during a storm
And fall from dripping eaves;
Yes these hooves have worn away mountains
In their trotting over Earth.
And for manes these clouds
Have the soft and various winds
That still can push
A ship into sea
And for neighs, the sable thunder.

Reaney's poetry demonstrated a true playfulness, as shown in "Ice Cream," a poem from his collection Souwesto Home, currently on display at the Hart House Library.

"Ice Cream"

The local poet is riding his bike uptown
On a fairly hot summer day
Bent on Jumbo's Ice Cream Booth
Before mailing a poem to Chimaera at the Post Office
At Jumbo's Ice Cream Booth there are
Thirty flavours including --
Licorice, fudge, lemon, orange, apple, grape,
Banana, chocolate, cherry, Maple Walnut (my favourite)
Vanilla, of course, peppermint, strawberry, raspberry --
Weren't there some vegetable ones? Do I remember --
Onion ice cream?
And this pair of double dip skim milk flavours
Cost only a nickel each!
And the ceiling was of pressed tin!
So, I plunk down a nickel for a Maple Walnut!
And so out the door bent on making the cone
Last till I reach the Post Office Door --
The Post Office is French Provincial with four clocks.
The poet holds his bicycle up with his left hand.
Walks slowly licking as he proceeds.
Two little girls say scornfully: "He's acting
Just like a little kid!"
But he thinks -- "Isn't that what life is all about?"

One website remarked that James Reaney has treated the contrasting worlds of innocence and experience, the underlying forces of evil in everyone, love's power to redeem and the process of growth from childhood to adolescence and maturity. He has done so with talent and grace. This year, James Reaney would have been 84 years old and his works remain alive with each re-reading. Isn't that what literature is all about?

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