Saturday, October 13, 2018

A Tribute to Louis Dudek

Note: This is the text of my speech prepared for the Louis Dudek Tribute held in the Writers' Chapel at St. Jax Church, 1439 Sainte-Catherine Street West, Montreal, Quebec H3G 1S6, on 12 October 2018.

Louis Dudek was one of the most generous people I have known; his generosity touched many people in significant ways. For me, he wrote an introduction to my first book of poems; because of his letters of reference I was awarded several Canada Council writing grants and I was hired to teach English literature at Champlain Regional College where I taught for 35 years; but the most important gift was his generous spirit, that he gave freely of himself. He was a wonderful person, a friend, a teacher, and a mentor, and we all miss him. I enrolled as a graduate student at McGill University in 1974 because I wanted to study with Louis Dudek and it was one of the best decisions I've made in my life. This evening we honour Louis, one of our greatest poets, he enriched many people's lives, my own included.
          I must tell you of a meeting I had with Dudek on March 10, 1975 because it is still important to me. At this meeting in his office he read some of my poems which he liked very much. There is no time to go in to the details of the meeting but Louis gave me something that afternoon that only an older poet can give to a younger poet; I was 24 years old at the time, and what he gave me was confirmation that I was a poet. I left that meeting feeling that I had nothing to worry about, just keep writing and life as a poet would unfold. And that's what I did. The day on which that meeting took place becomes more poignant for me, my father died in 1956 and March 10th was his birthday.
          Another event—it was the afternoon of January 9, 1979—I was with Louis Dudek and Lionel Kearns, who named his son "Louis" after Louis Dudek. We had something to eat at a food court after Lionel’s reading. My then wife was pregnant but was not expecting to give birth for another four weeks. This was the one time I went off by myself, other than going to work, while my wife was pregnant. I arrived home around 5 p.m., the flat on Northcliffe Avenue was in darkness, and I found an almost illegible note scribbled by my mother-in-law telling me to go to the hospital, my son had been born prematurely. This is where I was when my son was born, not in the birthing room at a major hospital, but with Louis Dudek and Lionel Kearns talking about poetry in a food court in downtown Montreal. Life can be very strange.
          Think of Louis' contribution to Canadian poetry. On my book shelf I have almost forty books either written by Louis or about his writing. His books have been an inspiration to many people, they communicate an infectious love for poetry. There are several selected poems; books of his criticism and book reviews; his thoughts on poetry; his epigrams; his 1941 diary; a book on philosophy and another on the mass media; also, several anthologies of poetry that he edited, one that was widely used as a college text book and another one co-edited with Irving Layton; and a collection of texts and essays that he edited with Michael Gnarowski; a book on  "CIV/n", a literary magazine edited by his future wife, Aileen Collins, in the 1950s; also his 1967 "First Person in Literature" talks that were broadcast on CBC radio's "Ideas" programme; and don't forget his book of letters from his friend Ezra Pound. There is also Frank Davey's book on the poetry of Louis Dudek and Raymond Souster; special issues of at least two periodicals dedicated to his work; Robin Blaser's excellent selection of Dudek's poetry; a book remembering and honouring Louis, Eternal Conversation; and Susan Stromberg-Steins' biography of Louis Dudek. Susan and I were in Dudek's graduate seminar in the fall-winter semester, 1974-75. He was certainly the best and most influential teacher I ever had; I learned so much from being Dudek's student and friend, things he said to me decades ago are still remembered today.  
          Dudek is a poet whose major work, Continuation, a long poem that he worked on for over forty years, will one day be better recognized for its importance. Dudek began writing Continuation when he was 49 years old, a month later he turned fifty; however, the concept for how to write the poem was discovered by Dudek in 1956, when he was only thirty-eight years old. Dudek tells us that he could only write Continuation after he discovered his authentic voice, one that was a memory of his thought processes when he was a child. With this in mind, Continuation is Dudek’s life-long work. The theme of Continuation is poetry, what it means, its importance, and the poet's dedication to his work; indeed, poetry is Dudek's religion. When he championed Ezra Pound, and he told me he never convinced anyone to like Pound's Cantos, what he really championed was great poetry.
          I remember Louis showing me the manuscript of his Epigrams before it was published, typed on onion skin paper, in his office at McGill. The key to Continuation, and the foundation on which the poem is written, are Dudek's epigrams. Dudek writes, “Epigrams are one-line poems. A lot of them together are like a long poem” (Dudek, 1975, p. 38). That “long poem” is Continuation. Another key to Continuation is Dudek's admiration for Henry Miller; Louis' ideal for his own poetry is to write in the conversational style of Henry Miller but always maintaining the critical faculty of Matthew Arnold. In Continuation Dudek is able to combine what he learned from Miller and Arnold in order to communicate his poetic vision.
          Louis Dudek devoted his life to writing poems, to the literary community, to teaching, and to his family and friends. I am grateful for having known him, he changed my life for the better and what greater praise can be given to a fellow human than that they changed your life, they made it better, they helped you fulfill your promise and destiny? It is an honour to have known Louis Dudek and to have contributed this evening to this Dudek Tribute.

-- Stephen Morrissey

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