Our Racist Poet

By Bruce Serafin | April 7, 2004

One afternoon about ten years ago I was talking to the five-ton driver at postal station D in Vancouver, where we both had day jobs. We got to talking about writing. The driver, Roy McCain, asked me if I was working on anything. I told him I was thinking about William Henry Drummond’s “Habitant” poems, which were written around the turn of the century.

He couldn’t get the reference.

Finally I said, “You know. Leetle Bateese.”

“Right! Right!” Roy said. “Leetle Bateese. `Leetle Bateese, you bad leetle boy.’ I remember that. I read that when I was a kid. Excellent stuff.”

In the next two months I talked to maybe a dozen people about Drummond. I found that about half remembered reading his poetry in school. True, three or four people hadn’t heard of him at all, and one person confused him with the inventor of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. But in general the responses I received were enthusiastic. Like popular songs and advertising jingles, this was the kind of poetry that stuck in your brain.

But while Drummond was the only turn-of-the-century Canadian poet I knew of who was remembered like this, his writing had disappeared from the curriculum. He wasn’t discussed even as part of Canadian literary history. In fact, it became clear to me as I researched him that your typical Canlit professor would almost certainly agree with what B.W. Powe had in mind when he wrote the following (Powe was talking about the difficulties faced by Irving Layton early on in his career): “Add further complications: a place without a flag to identify as its own, whose `Literature’ (it cannot be called writing yet) is either imported or institutionalized, where someone can poeticize

Dere’s somet’ing stirrin’ my blood tonight,
On de night of de young new year,
W’ile de camp is warm an’ de fire is bright,
An’ de bottle is close at han’…

and it could be considered a part of the national treasury.” The quotation is from Drummond’s “The Voyager,” and it’s plain that Powe is using Drummond to epitomize everything that’s parochial, corny, and hideously and embarrassingly old-fashioned about Canadian writing.

Which is fair enough: Drummond is these things. If you were to compile a Canuck Treasury – a book whose cover was wreathed in toques and moose antlers – Drummond’s poems would probably fill about thirty percent of it. No other Canadian poet before or since has had Drummond’s unabashed vulgarity. But since this is so, since he is spectacularly corny, why isn’t he discussed? After all, every other Canadian writer who might have even the faintest claim on our attention has been resuscitated in the past two decades. (I know. I’ve taken Canlit classes on authors who for all intents and purposes were unreadable.) What does Drummond have wrong that these writers don’t?

Well, he was a bigot. Open any collection of Drummond’s Habitant poems and a concentrated blast of stereotypes hits you in the face. It begins with the lines of dialect themselves, whose vowel-consonant combinations are saturated with the pure dumb nasal ho ho of the Jean Chretien character on “Air Farce” (“`Yass—yass,’ I say, `mebbe you t’ink I’m wan beeg loup garou’”) and it goes on from there to build up a world as swollen with popular mythology as the world of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Like Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo” (“Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,/ Barrel- house kings, with feet unstable…/Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom…/Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM…”), Drummond’s verse has an embarrassing, red-assed nakedness to it. It is the forbidden. Read his stuff, and you are back in the world of “The Happy Nigger” and “The Pigtail of Wu Fu Li.”

Yet the really embarrassing thing about this is just how familiar the universe of Drummond’s verse is. Having just reread the Habitant poems, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the mental image most English Canadians over the age of 40 have of Quebeckers is still largely the one propagated by Drummond.

No wonder so many Quebecois – especially older Quebecois – hate us! All the stuff Drummond ladles onto the plate – the playfulness, the toques, the Saturday soirees with their fiddle music, the enormous families, the black-haired boys and girls who are always getting together to “spark,” the sheepishness, the bad education – the dumbness, really – all this is still part of the mythology of the French Canadian so far as English Canada is concerned.

Reading Drummond’s poems is like watching the return of the repressed. Everything that gets scrubbed out of the educated Anglo in our cultural washing machines comes back, and you settle into the writing with the same bemused sense of irritation that you feel when you listen to your mild 70-year-old uncle talk about getting jewed down by the Chink grocers in Edmonton.

Like that old uncle, Drummond was an amiable person (it’s hard to overemphasize what a hit of white sugar his verse is) who also happened to be saturated in the prejudices of his day. The upshot of this combination of amiability and prejudice is that his poems seem almost grotesquely sentimental. This isn’t just a matter of their “leetle guy” attitude, either, all those gran-peres who’d rather be poor and ‘appy than rich and corrupt like the Yankee, for example. It goes deeper.

In the best of our own popular art – in movies and rap songs – the deprived Other is at least seen as tough. In Drummond’s verse, though, the illiterate farmers and loggers are completely stripped of their virility. They become children – so much so that when you’re reading the poems in their original format and come across one of Frederick Coburn’s illustrations of rawboned, serious men, it’s a small shock: you expect little round fellows with apple cheeks. In the following, for example, it isn’t just the horrific size of the family that makes you grimace (and helps you understand why Quebec women now have just about the lowest birthrates in the world); what also sticks out is the smarmy, placating, Norman Rockwell chuckle:

Ma fader an’ ma moder too, got nice, nice familee,
Dat’s ten garcon an’ t’orteen girl, was mak’ it twenty t’ree
But fonny t’ing de Gouvernement don’t geev de firs’ prize den
Lak w’at dey say dey geev it now, for only wan douzaine

De English peep dat only got wan familee small size
Mus’ be feel glad dat tam dere is no honder acre prize
For fader of twelve chil’ren—dey know dat mus’ be so,
De Canayens would boss Kebeck—mebbe Ontario.

But dat is not de story dat I was gone tole you
About de fun we use to have w’en we leev a chez nous

Drummond’s master was Kipling. But it’s hard to imagine Kipling’s soldiers saying those last two lines. His Cockneys with their stunted legs might have bowed to the social order, but Kipling never presented them as ass lickers. He accepted his subjects for what they were in a way that Drummond did not.

So why has he endured? He was a bigot, he was sentimental, he poured on the sugar and turned the unblinking anger of the Quebecois into treacle. So why is it that he – like Pauline Johnson and Robert Service – still lasts in some way, while other writers who are far more favored by the Canlit academy go unread? Why does Roy McCain, a literate five-ton driver at Canada Post, still remember lines from his work?

The answer is complicated. But what has to be recognized right off is that exactly where Drummond is at his most embarrassing he becomes most vital. In his use of Habitant patois Drummond tapped into a current which I want to argue is now much more important that the Tennysonian-Romantic flow found in the poetry of his peers – a current that remains alive, and in fact is probably the chief source of energy not just in contemporary books and movies, but also in modern poetry insofar as such a thing can be said to exist. What I have in mind might roughly be described as the replacement of the voice of the individual with the voice of the crowd, the mass public; and maybe the best way to begin to evoke this aspect of Drummond’s verse is through quotation.

Below I’ve listed four pieces of writing: three by the “Confederation poets” who were Drummond’s peers – Bliss Carman, D. C. Scott and Archibald Lampman – and one by Drummond. All of them deal with nature (which is one of the bigger themes of the Habitant poems, and probably the theme of the more artistic, “Canadian” poetry that the Confederation poets were trying to write). Bliss Carman first:

Was it a year or lives ago
We took the grasses in our hands
And caught the summer flying low
Over the waving meadow lands,
And held it here between our hands?

D. C. Scott:

A storm cloud was marching
Vast on the prairie,
Scored with livid ropes of hail,
Quick with nervous vines of lightning –

Archibald Lampman:

Where the far elm-tree shadows flood
Dark patches in the burning grass,
The cows, each with her peaceful cud,
Lie waiting for the heat to pass.
From somewhere on the slope near by
Into the pale depth of the noon
A wandering thrush slides leisurely
His thin revolving tune.

And finally Drummond:

An’ down on de reever de wil’ duck is quackin’
Along by de shore leetle san’ piper ronne –
De bullfrog he’s gr-rompin’ an’ dore is jumpin’ –
Dey all got der own way for mak’ it de fonne.

To drive the difference home, here is part of a ballad by Carman:

On the long, slow heave of a lazy sea,
To the flap of an idle sail,
The Nancy’s Pride went out on the tide;
And the skipper stood by the rail…

And part of one by Drummond:

On wan dark night on Lac St. Pierre,
De win’ she blow, blow, blow,
An de crew of de wood scow ‘Julie Plante’
Got scar’t an’ run below –
For de win’ she blow lak hurricane
Bimeby she blow some more,
An de’ scow bus’ up on Lac St. Pierre
Wan arpent from de shore.

I could go on, but these quotes ought to demonstrate the vigour that Drummond managed to get into his work. Drummond discovered the power of spoken language, the fact that it carries with it all the atmosphere of the situations in which it is used. He discovered that once you let bits of common speech into your verse – “gr-romping,” say, or “bus’ up on Lac St. Pierre” – the writing immediately gains bite and tactility. And he discovered that the use of such speech lightens the verse’s Poetic Solemnity: it becomes a man who is speaking, not an intoning artificer.

This gives the verse life. But even more, it puts the writer on the side of his audience. Common, everyday speech is what we use to touch others, after all, the kind of speech that goes along with arm gestures and a warm tone of voice. So that by using an intensely colloquial language, Drummond immediately gains a sense of vivacity and ease.

But now look at what his peers were doing. The painful fact is that the harder Lampman and the rest strained to write in a “pure” language not stained with the dirt of common use, the more their poetry was emptied of any sense of a natural voice, of that sort of idiosyncratic yet instantly recognizable syntax that you find in Whitman or Robert Browning, say.

Drummond, to be sure, wasn’t able to suggest a specific individual either: Quebec patois was too far from his own English. Nevertheless, the fact that his verse used the fluent spoken phrase instead of the painfully constructed sentence or line not only allowed him to develop a persona through which he could freely express his emotions (something none of the Confederation poets were able to do); it also allowed him to use the new vocabulary that at least one section of the Canadian world had developed for itself and so to bring that world into written existence in a bold and direct way.

Like all truly popular writers, from Walter Scott to Leonard Cohen, Drummond, who was hugely successful, was a liar, a personality, a writer who transfigured the world and coloured it with his own emotional tone. On every level he felt free to use or alter what came his way. Both “leetle Bateese” and the child in “The Last Portage,” for example, are based on his own sons. He made up characters out of books he read. He sentimentalized the Quebec patois, preserving its rhythms, but getting rid of its obscenities and coarseness. Even the soft, watercolour freshness of his descriptions of the natural world owe more to his own sensibility than to that of any Quebecois he might have met.

All this contributed to his success. In the end, though, what brought him his enormous popularity was his obvious, ungrudging, almost pulp-magazine willingness to give his readers what they wanted. And that was a Canada that was wild but still softened by social use, a legendary country where the loon cried and the paddle dipped and voyageurs in red wool sashes lived under the signs of the birch bark canoe and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Lampman and Scott had written as solitaries; they had described a landscape seen by a man alone, chilly and overwhelming, undomesticated by communal experience. But Drummond placed communal experience at the heart of his poetry. He crowded his verse with people; his wilderness glowed with storybook colours. And so for his original audience at least he vivified and made human what otherwise would have been just a cold space on the map.

I don’t want to exaggerate. Drummond was a limited poet. Because he had to rely on a constrained vocabulary, he could only do a few things well. Read a lot of him and you realize that his poems have that sameness which afflicts all commercial mass culture and which comes from the need to give the public exactly what it wants, immediately.

At the same time, how much of Canadian mythology derives from this writer! Poutine, toques, checked shirts, beaver and moose, fiddle music, “biere,” “ouaih, ouaih,” and “tabernac” – we laugh, but we like it, too. The fact is, Drummond’s work has an unmistakable vitality. It has that iconic toughness that marks cartoon characters like Donald Duck. It “lives.” You can’t help but respond to its verve, its slambang rhythms:

Ax dem along de reever
Ax dem along de shore
Who was de mos’ bes’ fightin’ man
From Managance to Shaw-in-i-gan?
De place w’ere de great beeg rapide roar,
Johnnie Courteau!

And along with the rhythmic strength of his writing, how much sensuous data his poems contain compared to those of the Confederation poets! Look at his proper names, for instance, which to my ears evoke all the poetry of old Quebec:

Dere was Telesphore Montbriand, Paul Desjardins, Louis Guyon,
Bill McKeever, Aleck Gauthier, an’ hees cousin Jean Bateese

Then there are the various Quebecois terms for birds and other animals – dore, gou- glou – and also the precise feeling for the seasons which is shared by people who live a lot outside – spring, for instance:

W’en small sheep is firs’ comin’ out on de pasture,
Deir nice leetle tail stickin’ out on deir back

And there are the descriptions of men at work, the talk around the stove, the bits of conversation heard out in the field, all of it made vivid by the very thing Drummond is attacked for – that mixture of French and English that allowed him to bypass his over-refinement of feeling and respond directly to the world in front of him.

Well, all this is fine, you might say – but what about the embarrassment of Drummond? What about those ass-licking farmers and cow-eyed Philomenes? Aren’t they sufficient reason to keep him off the curriculum?

I would argue that they are not. In fact, I would argue that we ought to have Drummond in the curriculum at least in part because of those farmers and Philomenes. If we want to really feel our literature as a living thing, it won’t do just to glance with distaste at E. J. Pratt and A. J. M. Smith (those wooden initials, those tongue depressers!). We also ought to read Pauline Johnson’s poems and Ernest Thompson Seton’s animal stories; we ought to know the vast “frontier” literature of B.C. and Alberta, and at least one or two of those books like Gene Stratton Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost and Freckles which defined Canada to the world for at least a third of the century just past. And why not look at the poems of the red-cheeked, hard-eyed British Empire jingoists who used to fill the anthologies, or the old Star Weekly writers like Greg Scott? A true national literature isn’t just a sequence of masterpieces. It is a spectrum of things that in the case of Canada ranges from Margaret Avison’s poems to the writing of Harold “Sonny” Ladoo, from The Dangerous River to Breaking Smith’s Quarterhorse, from Regards et jeux dans l’espace to the anti-Semitic columns in the 30s Le Devoir.

The truth of our past is the most exciting thing about it. And like other exciting things it will sometimes embarrass and even shame us. Drummond is part of that truth. He makes us flush even as he gives pleasure; he makes us recognize that sometimes we can hold two contradictory viewpoints at once when looking at a writer’s work.

The great thing is to read him ironically. And with enjoyment. I remember loving “Little Bateese” as a boy; and I see that poem now as something that belongs to me, along with the Quebec fairytales I grew up with and the stories I thrilled to about the great journeys of Henry Kelsey, Samuel de Champlain and the courier de bois.

3039 w. April 7, 2004


  • Bruce Serafin

    Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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