Between 1925 and 1962, the Ryerson Press produced a series of 200 poetry chapbooks: a monumental achievement in the history of Canadian literature, despite the diminutive proportions and limited circulation of the books themselves. These publications had little to no commercial potential, yet they represented a significant ideological investment on the part of their editor, Lorne Pierce, and the authors who wrote them.
Although they were flimsy to the touch — thin booklets of eight to sixteen pages, mostly bound in paper — the chapbooks were striking in appearance. Until 1942, their covers were adorned with a woodcut by J. E. H. MacDonald, of the Group of Seven: the scene featured trees, a river, mountains, and the flower symbols of five provinces; at the centre, pine cones burst forth from a lyre and evoked the power of poetry to unite the nation. The contents of the chapbooks, each written by a single author, often sang a similarly nationalistic tune and occasionally embraced the romantic idealism and Victorian morality that was already associated with the nineteenth-century Confederation Group poets. Even still, some served as a kind of alternative to modernist little magazines: they constituted an anti-commercial venture where emerging writers could experiment with form.
Pierce’s vision for the series was remarkably inclusive. Just as he embraced different aesthetic and ideological preferences, he was welcoming when it came to gender, race, ethnicity, region, age, class, and ability. The first instalment was authored by Charles G. D. Roberts, already a venerable old poet launching the final segment of his career in 1925; the last was written by James Reaney, who was not even born until 1926. Some of the contributors had decorated and robust literary careers; many others engaged with poetry more sporadically. In general, they assumed financial liability for their own books, and some took on the responsibilities of promotion and distribution as well. It was thanks to their sense of vocation, their desire to see their words in print no matter the cost, and Pierce’s dogged support of literary production in Canada that publication continued throughout both the Great Depression and the Second World War.
In Little Resilience, the McGill professor Eli MacLaren offers a fresh take on literary history through the story of these short volumes, their editor, and five of the poets who wrote them: Nathaniel A. Benson, Anne Marriott, M. Eugenie Perry, Dorothy Livesay, and Al Purdy. MacLaren describes his study as “a publishing history full of literary interpretation and a literary history preoccupied with the ins and outs of publishing.” Following thinkers such as Robert Darnton and Pierre Bourdieu, who have shown how economic and social structures can have a marked effect on literary form and content, MacLaren views the series as noteworthy in part because of the conditions in which it emerged. The Canadian book trade in the early twentieth century was dominated by the agency system, in which domestic firms acted as “agents” for foreign publishers, selling international books here rather than cultivating original work by our own authors. With the chapbooks, MacLaren observes, Pierce defied this system to “publish Canadian literature independently, in Canada alone, in book form, over the long term.”
Little Resilience is exemplary as a piece of book history, and MacLaren’s rigorous and gracious unfolding of even the clunkiest-seeming poems emphasizes the human hope and hard work that went into them. He is at his best when highlighting the earnest labour of little-known writers; one senses his fondness for them, especially for Nathaniel Benson — a journalist, a promotional writer for the Canadian Pacific Railway, a high school teacher and community theatre director, the writer of a handbook on downhill skiing, a biographer and ghostwriter, and an adman. By considering all of the tiny rivulets that ran into the stream of this multi-faceted literary life, MacLaren insists on a broad-minded approach to modern creative careers. He argues that writers like Benson, as well as the Ryerson chapbooks themselves, represent a “poetic culture” that “is not easily visible to literary criticism in search of historical watersheds and avant-garde revolt, but its existence is important because, as a norm, it fed into the basic practice and concept of poetry from which many more distinctive and original talents sprouted.”
We miss a lot, in other words, if we fail to consider the richness of the soil when surveying the complex ecosystems of literary culture. “The Chap-Books,” MacLaren writes, “were insufficient as income and negligible as commodities but replete with the supreme value that poetry possessed for the scores of people who took part in their production.” What matters, and what the chapbooks evince above all, is that people cared about poetry in Canada. This is a conclusion that arises from criticism practised in the very best way — as Lorne Pierce edited, as the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Book authors wrote, and as MacLaren approaches their work: with care, as an act of love.