Toronto poet Ronna Bloom, that novelist, poet and literary critic Stan Dragland died earlier this week, half-through his eightieth year. As Stephen Brockwell responded to the news over email: “He was instrumental in shaping my perceptions of Canadian poetry. An open hearted, curious reader and writer.” Most probably already know that Dragland spent his teaching career the English Department at University of Western Ontario, where he remained until retirement (becoming Professor Emeritus), during which he was a co-founding editor and publisher of Brick Books (with Don McKay), a position he served until not that long ago, as well as a founding editor and publisher of Brick: A Literary Journal (with Jean McKay). After retirement, he relocated to St. John’s, Newfoundland and built a home with the writer and Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett. He also published a stack of incredible books: if you look at his Wikipedia page, you can find a list of his titles, any and all of which I would highly recommend (I’ve even reviewed a few of them here and here; and mentioned him and his work in essays here and here).
As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve always envied Stan Dragland’s ease with literary criticism; how he articulates the interconnectivity of reading, thinking, literature and living in the world in terms deceptively simple, deeply complex, and incredibly precise. I’ve envied his sentences, and how his prose connects seemingly unconnected thoughts, ideas and passages into highly complex and intelligent arguments that manage to collage with an almost folksy and deceptive ease (a quality his critical prose shares with the poetry of Phil Hall). If the 1960s and 70s saw George Bowering as one of the most prolific reviewers of Canadian poetry, and, as many have said, Frank Davey was our finest literary critic during the same period, Stan Dragland would emerge out of those years as a literary critic with an open and inviting heart, displaying a deep and abiding love for the materials he chose to explore. It was through Dragland’s eyes that I first understood just how wide-ranging criticism could be, as he brought in a myriad of thoughts, references and personal reflections to craft a criticism far more astute, and more intimate, than anything else out there.
I caught a second-hand copy of his Journeys Through Bookland and Other Passages (Coach House Press, 1984) rather early in my twentysomething explorations, and was struck by his depth, composing perfect sentences of pure craft. It was through Dragland that I was allowed a further view into the work of writers such as Robert Kroetsch, Elizabeth Hay, Phil Hall, Lisa Moore and Margaret Avison. I’ve probably read through that collection a good dozen times, even taking it with me as part of reading tours, rereading his thoughts on Kroetsch, for example, some twenty years ago on the overnight passenger Via Train heading west beyond Winnipeg. Given how often I’ve picked it up over the years, it’s never where it should be on the shelf, and always takes forever to unearth. I can’t even figure out where it currently is, now that I want to look at it again. Instead, I offer an early paragraph of his more recent The Bricoleur & His Sentences (Pedlar Press, 2014) [see my review of such here]:
Even casual reflection shows that the business of character, biography or autobiography, is a lot more complicated than a person might think. I got to thinking about this when Michael Ondaatje asked me to send him my bundle of sentences, because it’s personal and quirky and not meant to be shared without commentary. I began to think of it as a kind of postcard taped to the fridge. What would Michael and Mary Oliver and the barbershop dog think of it? I foresaw scratching of the head. Then I began to think about the word “bricoleur” as regularly applied to me by Don McKay. Might it fit not only my gathering and making of odd things, but also my puddle-jumping mind? Does it describe me all too well? This is not modesty. I think better sideways or in circles than straight on, so I hand my best attempts to others then do what I can to fix the flaws they spot. Do not imagine that this comes direct from me to you.
Dragland was kind enough to offer a reworked excerpt of The Difficult (2019) for my recent festschrift for Phil Hall, which included information in his author biography about a forthcoming title. As he wrote: “James Reaney on the Grid: An Essay will appear in 2022.”
Already some other tribute pieces have posted as well, such as over at Book*hug, and two poems by Ronna Bloom.
to his friends and family, including his children, and to Beth.
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