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ISBN 0-88984-115-2

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Louis Dudek:
A Personal Memoir

David Solway

I can vividly recall when, as a sophomore at McGill in the early sixties, I saw him walk into the classroom to open the book on European Modernism, a tall, thin, scholarly-looking man who seemed a little tilted to one side as if he were listening to the conversation of a shorter world. There was an air of expectation in the room of the kind that attends a man who precedes his reputation by force of sheer presence, but without a hint of the intimidation or superiority that professorial entities often radiate. What endeared him to me most at first was his expression, which I have never forgotten and which was constantly rekindled even in his old age: a look of habitual concern and earnestness that would suddenly vanish to be replaced by the puckish grin of a clever street urchin who had just picked Shakespeare's pocket.

Allied to his unfailing courtesy, this had the effect of putting us all at our ease and turning the proceedings away from seminar seriousness toward something like a social occasion in which peers met to discuss intellectual issues. Yet we understood that we were being addressed, questioned, prompted and taught by a polymath who seemed to know incalculably more than his subject, whose lectures seemed like unrepeatable performances (except that he repeated them every week throughout the academic year, each one different from the last) and whose classes would frequently conclude to a spontaneous burst of applause.

In thinking about Dudek as a tutor and guide, `charismatic' is not quite the right word to apply, since he could also be so appealingly modest and self-effacing. He was, in fact, the archetypal teacher, whose lectures one looked forward to the way one anticipates going to a movie or a play. Something was always happening. As his student over a period of several years, I cannot attest to a single moment of boredom. He had the art of bringing ideas to life, of drawing brilliantly apt comparisons, and of choosing illustrations from any historical period or apparently unrelated discipline. Moreover, he carried his erudition, which was encyclopedic, as casually as a Rolodex. I still remember the highlights twinkling off his glasses like little asterisks indicating the commentaries, jokes and asides with which he would sprinkle his talk. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I have never met anyone who could mix gravity and levity so effortlessly.

But his finest virtue as a teacher was his power for igniting enthusiasm, instilling in us a desire to learn and to emulate. This was not simply a pedagogical gift but a function of the lively and passionate imagination of a poet and a lover of poetry. Whether quoting whole passages from memory or lavishing on us anecdote, he made the poets and their work seem real, even irresistible. A sizeable number of his students decided they were intended by fate to become Dante or at least Baudelaire. Nearly everyone began to write.

Fired with a partly borrowed eagerness, we tended to see our fledgling literary steps as the colossal strides of the divinely anointed. He made us feel chosen, as if we belonged to the circle of the elect, to Wallace Stevens' `poetic sodality'. We felt masonic, revolutionary and indomitable. I sometimes think that I owe my present unenviable condition to Dudek for it was he, in his dual capacity of mentor and editor, who first convinced me that I had the wherewithal and stamina to become a poet. Punning on the name of the great nineteenth-century Italian master Leopardi, to whose work he initially introduced me, he said to me one day in his office after reviewing a manuscript I had submitted for commentary: `Welcome to Leo's party.'

In later years our agendas took us to different places. His deepening involvement with Ezra Pound made his poetry seem derivative and somewhat prosy, at any rate to his newly critical ex-student. Much as I tried, I could never come to accept his long poems, Europe, En M[e']xico, Atlantis and the Continuations series as anything more than the diary entries of an interesting mind. I found myself agreeing with Irving Layton that Dudek's true gift as a poet was for the lyric mode he had abandoned many years before and recollected in Continuations I (An Infinite Poem in Progress) as

    `Putting together lyrics'

    With sex, talk, contact ...

    Having lost the dream, I feel no anguish
    Lassitude itself is a dream

    Still a happiness between the thighs, an awakening
    A pleasure in the morning light

-- lines that take us back almost a lifetime to the marvellous `Pomegranate' and its `hexagons of honey' crystallizing into lucent gems, giving off their own interior nuptial light as `the world starts to life.' When Dudek wrote of pomegranates, he was a poet. When he wrote of infinity, I'm not sure what he was, but he was not the poet he should have and perhaps could have been.

[Louis Dudek]

But, to keep things in perspective, I should point out that Dudek came in time to regard my own work as disablingly conservative and neoclassical. He had published my first book, an entirely uncooked and moonstruck affair, in his McGill Poetry Series and launched my career as a stuttering and premature imagist poet in the tradition of Williams and Pound. He was, no doubt, merely trying to bolster a gosling's sense of chosenness. The result was that I found myself walking into a poetic cul-de-sac it took me nine years to work my way out of and another five or six to lay definitively to rest. It was only by going against the Dudek grain, painfully unlearning so much of what he had taught me to do as a practising poet, that I was finally able to arrive at my own sense of what a poem might be, but -- and this bites to the core of our relationship -- only with the help of the very tradition into which he had initiated me. So I gradually realized that despite our alienation I owed my former teacher a profound if troubled debt of gratitude.

As it happened, years went by without the two of us exchanging a word. Eventually we managed to bring off a tentative rapprochement in which he forgave me my apostasy and I acknowledged his right to err, the two of us as stubborn and latterly affectionate as a master teacher and a headstrong student could possibly be. Yet even during our estrangement it was always consoling to know that he was around, writing, editing, publishing, lecturing, engaging in polemics, and encouraging new writers to tempt success -- which also meant to court failure -- with neither arrogance nor fear, but always with conviction in the redemptive power of the imagination.

Louis Dudek was a superb teacher and an important poet. He was also a great man. His leaving diminishes us. He will be missed no less than he will be remembered.

    - David Solway, Director's Cut


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