by Peter Byrne
Ah sonnez crevez sonnailles de vos entrailles
riez et sabrez à la coupe de vos privilèges
grands hommes, classe écran, qui avez faites de moi
le sous-homme, la grimace souffrante du cro-magnon
l'homme du cheap way, l'homme du cheap work
le damned Canuck
seulement les genoux seulement le ressaut pour dire
Le Damned Canuck, Gaston Miron
(Clang your bells till they open your gut
laugh slash taste your privileges
big men all, who stand over us, making me
sub-human, a cro-magnon grimace
a man for cheap work, bargain sweat
the Goddamn Canuck
who mumbles on his knees)
(Swans - June 2, 2014) If variety means as much to the readers of poetry as the proverb claims it does in life, then poets would do well to consider the spice cabinet of the Québécois Gaston Miron. Though wounded like everyone by his givens as a forked animal, he managed to be heard above the monotonous hum of our stewing in personal relationships. He climbed out of the foul rag and bone shop to hoist a flag. The nation of Quebec may not yet be consecrated by international law, but Miron is already its national poet. How and why is surprising, not least because it happened in North America where poets have long since hunkered down in the twilit Groves of Academe.
Miron was born in 1928 in the village of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts in the Laurentides sixty miles north of Montreal. The place reverberated with themes familiar to French Canada. Despite its large majority of French-speaking Catholics, it was already on the defensive. Jews and Protestants were seen as a threat to ethnic integrity; lesser evils tolerated for commercial reasons. The siege mentality conformed to one French Canadian narrative that insisted the British defeated them in battle and colonized them ever since. The foe now wished to obliterate French Canadian identity, its culture and language, by assimilation. The English language was its weapon of choice.
Power in such places was in the hands of the Catholic Church. Sainte-Agathe's clerical overlord was a typical 1930s racist named Monsignor Bazinet. He not only wanted to protect his flock from outsiders and their ways; his larger enemy was the modern world. Miron, an active, happy child and good student, seems to have fit into this moral landscape without any gesture of revolt. He was a conscientious choir and altar boy destined by his family for higher education and a role in his father's small but thriving carpentry business.
Then in 1940 Miron's father died suddenly at forty-four. The Canada of the day didn't offer much help in such cases. When the family savings ran out Miron's mother had to sell the family home and take in washing to keep her four daughters. Gaston at thirteen was sent off, willingly enough, to become a teaching Brother at the Brothers of the Sacred Heart normal school near Granby, ninety miles from home. The boarding school regime is startling to consider. There were no summer vacations, only August spiritual retreats. In six years Miron would make but one visit home. His mother and sisters visited him twice.
The death of his father and sudden break with home and mother, to whom he was strongly attached, had to be traumatic. Miron's reaction was to embrace his new school's ideology. It justified separating boys from their families and normal life for the sake of their higher calling. Their vocation had to be protected from ordinary life just as Monsignor Bazinet, the anti-Semite enemy of unions and alcohol, protected Sainte-Agathe from Jews and Protestants.
Two decades earlier another literary figure suffered beginnings just as trying. Jean Genet was separated from his mother when a year old and put out to adoption. He was raised by a foster family in Alligny-en-Morvan, in the Nièvre department of central France. A bright student, he was moved to another family when his foster mother died. His reaction turned him to petty crime and forever running away. At the age of fifteen he was sent to the Mettray Penal Colony where he was detained for three years from 1926. The official ideology there was redemption by a spartan routine and work. Unofficially the boys learned the byways of crime and homosexuality. Genet loved Mettray and it marked him forever.
Miron loved the training school of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart at Granby. He stayed from the age of thirteen to nineteen. The diaries he wrote reflect only the official viewpoint, which called for goodness and purity in the eyes of an ever watchful God. But just as at Genet's Mettray, there was surely an unofficial life going on. The fact that Miron never spoke of it afterward was a reflection of his role in Quebec as a public figure. Traditions, good or less so, were not to be rubbished. He was all the same marked forever by the males-together life he led at school and would never be fully at home in a different milieu. The Montreal life that he began in 1947 as a kind of Boy Scout was a continuation of school days. Despite all the criticism of oppressive religious institutions that Quebec would know in its transition toward secularism in the 1960s, Miron never faulted his life at school or the Brothers. During a lifetime spent among writers of an anticlerical bent, he was reluctant to speak a word against the Church.
It was the Brothers who taught Miron introspection. Recruits for the religious life learned to look inward to their conscience to see if they were up to scratch morally. In his diary written at school the air was thin with abstractions and Miron would often address God directly. His ultimate literary voice would flow from the mix of this ritual self-abasement and his lyric poet's narcissism. He was by nature a performer and excused the egoism involved by performing for God. He mixed talk of his unworthiness with enormous claims for himself. Later his people, his nation, and his language would take center stage with God pushed into the wings. Miron would perform for them.
Looking back, Miron would thank the Brothers for their excellent instruction in French. They never discouraged his efforts in poetry and steered him into the classic forms of French verse. He wrote away in rhymed alexandrines about the beauties of nature, little else being on offer around the isolated school.
Change came in 1946 when he finished his studies and began teaching in Montreal as an apprentice Brother. Reluctance to bind himself to chastity and his absorption in poetry soon made for a crisis that saw him abandon the religious life. He began to live in the city on his own, scraping a livelihood. He confronted the modern French poets. His real education began.
Montréal est grand comme un désordre universel (Montreal is large as the whole world's disorder)
La marche à l'amour
For the most part Miron kept the poems he wrote to himself and friends, acquiring a reputation as a gifted, unpublished poet. In 1953 he cofounded the Hexagone publishing house for the promotion of new Quebec poetry. Change was coming to Quebec and the arts announced it. The painter Paul-Émile Borduas and his group had launched the manifesto Refus global in 1948 that challenged every aspect of Quebec society. The poets followed him.
Les poètes de ce temps montent la garde du monde (The poets of our age mount guard for the world)
Effective change started with the death of Maurice Duplessis, Provincial prime minister for all but five years from 1936 to his death in 1959. There were reasons why his era was called la Grande Noirceur or the Great Darkness. Duplessis headed a powerful, patronage-based political machine that promoted social conservatism and free enterprise, especially for foreign corporations. He had the strong support of a benighted rural population and of a Catholic Church that was as authoritarian as that of Franco's Spain and of de Valera's Ireland. British Canada had a tacit pact with the bishops. They could run Quebec as they pleased if they kept it from disrupting federalism. The black clouds over the province finally dispersed when a modern society began to take shape that could no longer be contained in the stalled political and social system.
It is too often said that what happened in Quebec after 1960 was a révolution tranquille or quiet revolution. There were indeed abrupt changes, but to lump them together and call them a revolution is to mistake adjustments for a clean start. Individuals were suddenly aware of new possibilities in their lives. However, far from being tranquil, they were all in a stir. That was the case of practitioners in the arts. No one had changed the calendar for years and an office boy proceeded to tear off the yellowed pages. The boy was no more a revolutionary than Gaston Miron, whose poetry was less a thruway to the new Quebec than a old country road tidied up to take heavier traffic. Miron not only adopted some of the French Canadian stereotypes but used his imagination to strengthen them.
In the late 1960s the Quebec sovereignty or separatist movement gathered force. It would lead to a polarization within Quebec opposing independentists to federalists. Two referendums on the question in 1980 and 1995 decided against independence, the second by only one percentage point. The question is far from settled. Miron's adhesion to the separatist cause was the pivot of his life and his poetry. Since his arrival in Montreal his verse showed him immersed in self-contempt and disarray. His relationship to women was all yearning and failure. He hoped that collective action might be a personal way out and participated in various youth club activities with a religious tinge. Joining the sovereignty movement was the next step.
Hommes, souvenez-vous de vous en d'autres temps (Men, look to what you were in other times)
Les années de déréliction
There was something more than his background steeped in Quebec tradition that led Miron to separatism. It was his peculiar relationship to language. Many Quebec writers had found language a stumbling block. They shared a major world tongue with a prestigious European nation that they had been in touch with only in a one-way romance for two centuries. Should their isolated community of six or seven million write like Frenchmen, the European nationals that are the most fastidious about linguistic rules and regulations? The practical impossibility had made Hamlets of many potential creators in Quebec. More than troubled by the question, Miron felt paralyzed. He thought English was to blame.
Or je suis dans la ville, opulente
la grande St. Catherine Street galope et claque
dans les Mille et une nuits de néons
moi je gis, muré dans la boîte crânienne
dépoétisé dans ma langue et mon appartenance
déphasé et décentré dans ma coïncidence
ravageur je fouille ma mémoire et mes chairs
jusqu'en les maladies de la tourbe et de l'être.
pour trouver la trace de mes signes arrachés emportés
pour reconnaïtre mon cri dans l'opacité du réel
Monologues de l'aliénation délirante
(Now I am in the bounteous city
great St. Catherine Street clatters and gallops
through a Thousand and One Nights of neon
while I cringe, within my cranium walls
with my familiars and language depoetized
decentered and my convergences all confused
memory and flesh. I ransack and delve
down to spoiled roots and a spoiled being I dig
to seize some trace of myself torn off swept away
to unearth my voice in the dark teaming reality)
A creature of words, Miron felt diminished metaphysically, mutilated in his being, by the overwhelming presence of English in North America. He projected his feeling on Quebec culture as a whole. He felt alienated and so declared a whole people alienated. In his naiveté he ignored a number of places around the world where literature flourished in a multilingual context, often with a dialect or two thrown in for embellishment. Furthermore, numerous excellent and productive Quebec writers didn't share his mindset and simply went ahead with the linguistic material at hand. A new generation of poets even appeared that scoffed at his linguistic xenophobia and have unleashed a Joycean lust for language that excluded from their vocabularies nothing ever uttered. Miron's influence on young poets today isn't strong. They have left the epic and the heroic, the national and the political, for the intimate.
As an independent nation Quebec could, Miron believed, erect a wall and keep foreign words out. He would then feel at ease. Late in his life, Gaston Miron, the defender of Quebec's uniqueness, would admit that he felt fully human only among the sixty million French speakers of France. It was a significant avowal and indicated that his problem with language remained a very personal one. Whatever one feels about Quebec becoming an independent state -- and the idea pleases this writer -- Miron's hopes were another exercise in credulity. The omnipresence of English on the planet would hardly be undone by Canada's loss of a province. Fortress Quebec chewing over its language woes would risk becoming a kingdom of otherworldly cranks.
Miron became a highly visible proponent of the separatist cause. There was no doubt of his sincerity, but his engagement was also a literary strategy. Militancy certainly invigorated his poetry to begin with. It gave him a focus and kept him from the trivial. His hypersensitivity to words made him a remarkable poet but it also ended his creativity prematurely. He clearly found it easier to throw himself into promotional and political work -- speech-making, organization, propaganda -- than to sit down and write poetry. His exhausting schedule served as an alibi for not squaring up to his writer's block. At the end of his life he was more a public performer than a creative writer.
Miron was ingenuous to the last. No doubt Quebec had not got the best of deals in the Canadian Confederation and was reasonable in wanting out for that and other reasons. But it was laughable to quote Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth and lump Quebecers with the colonized people of the Third World. Miron could be a clumsy foot soldier in the battle of ideas. From behind his plain man façade, megalomania regularly peeked out.
In the end there are the poems. It's the quality of his total identification with his people, a people he sees in his idiosyncratic way, that made Miron the national poet of Quebec. His commitment is stirring.
Je suis sur la place publique avec les miens
la poésie n'a pas à rougir de moi
j'ai su qu'une espérance soulevait ce monde jusqu'ici
(I am with my people in the public square
poetry needn't blush for me
I understood that hope brought our world here)
The epic sweep of La marche à l'amour and the desperate confusion of Séquences continue to astonish. Read closely, however, Miron's poems are the utterances of an individual and not of a nation.
Busy editing other poets' work, he was never satisfied with his own. He was finally induced to publish in 1970 L'homme rapaillé (The Man in Patches). (1) He would remain the poet of a single book, but one enlarged and revised seven times. It would be published again in Montreal in 1993, 1994, 1996 and, in the definitive version, an anthology of sorts, in 1998, two years after his death. It was published in France in 1981 and 1999. (2)
Miron wrote regular alexandrines at school. The signature line of his maturity will still contain some perfect examples. They are closed on themselves, sharply divided by a caesura after the sixth foot and contain exactly twelve feet. Often they are the most important verses, the first or last of a poem or stanza and standing for the whole, as in Poème de séparation 1:
Je suis un homme simple avec des mots qui peinent. (I'm a plain man with words that labor.)
His syntax is regular but lightly applied, creating well defined groupings. Each closed verse has a clearly felt unity. He holds to tradition but ignores some of it. He excludes rhyme, and varies length. Methodic versification isn't pushed over the edge but kept at arm's length.
Pierre Nepveu points out that the force of Miron's poetry is its rhythm, an effect of repetition. (3) Miron controls the flow of his discourse by anaphora, assonance, refrains, compliments introduced by the same preposition. Michel Lemaire agrees that Miron's strength is in a rhythm that uses a diversity of verse forms without ever destroying the overall unity of his work. (4) Lemaire notes that the metrical constant of Miron's poetry is maintained by a flottement autour de l'alexandrin or variations on the dodecasyllable classic French verse form. At key moments the alexandrine is disassembled and put together again differently. Miron rides the alexandrine like a circus stunt man. His shifts to the flanks of his mount are measured against his occasional upright position in the saddle.
The crucial element in Miron's poetry will of course be his choice of words. What will be the vocabulary of the poet who is at war with the English language and not entirely comfortable in the French of France? The task was complex. Miron had to validate the legitimacy of Quebec French. His ambition was also to establish Quebec writing as one of the world's literatures, not equal to the greatest but at least worthy to stand out of their shadows. Yet he didn't want his poetry to appear completely alien in Paris. Quebec's sharing a major language was after all a bulwark in defending its culture in North America. Moreover, without European consecration a Quebec poet remained only a local hero.
Miron's verse form did not put him beyond the French tradition. The sense of his poems also rendered him congenial to Paris. It was an aggressive defense of his French heritage intimately tied to his personal destiny. In 1967 President Charles de Gaulle of France, speaking in Montreal, caused pandemonium by intoning, Vive le Québec libre! (Let a free Quebec flourish!) France in its own way was itself culturally on the defensive.
The surface of Miron's poems presented enough Canadiana to charm but not to alienate. The poet only at times went two-fisted into the homespun. He does in Séquences, for example, when he lets rip with some specific French Canadian profanity, singular in that it is church language profaned. What translator would have the temerity to attempt a rendering? Certainly not a secularized Parisian, a mealymouthed Anglican, or a hallelujah-shouting Southern Baptist. Batèche is a curse word from baptême or baptism. Sainte bénite is for eau bénite or holy water. Grégousse, perhaps from the English "grey goose," is an enticing woman. Réguine is gear or outfit and maganée, messed up. Miron mixes these with some of his grievances. His father worked late into the night; his grandfather was never taught to read or write.
La batèche ma mère c'est notre vie de vie de vie
batèche au cœur fier à tout rompre
batèche à la main inusable
batèche à la tête de braconnage dans nos montagnes
batèche de mon grand-père dans le noir analphabète
batèche de mon père rongé de veilles
batèche de moi dans mes yeux d'enfant
Damned Canuck de damned canuck de pea soup
sainte bénite de sainte bénite de batèche
sainte bénite de vie maganée de batèche
belle grégousse de vieille réguine de batèche
Though a perfectionist, Miron refused to unsnarl his poems. He said his was a work in progress, never finished. For French readers his unpolished side was attractive. It added a touch of the exotic without disorientating them. To their minds a French Canadian ought to have a rough edge. They were thrilled by Miron's oneness with unlimited North American space and its scarce population. His L'homme rapaillé would please the critics and sell well in France. As always, success there confirmed Miron's value in Canada where the book also sold in unprecedented numbers. There are more than one hundred-thousand copies in readers' hands worldwide. The first Quebec author to be given a state funeral, Gaston Miron had indeed become the de facto national poet of the nation to be.
1) The verb 'rapailler' can mean to gather up but also to repair. Miron is thinking of someone in pieces trying to get himself together. One thinks of The Mikado, Act I/Part II: "A wand'ring minstrel I /A thing of shreds and patches." But Miron's note is grimmer than Nanki Po's.
2) The final version of L'homme rapaillé was published by Typo of Montreal in 1998, ISBN: 2892951461 9782892951462, 252 pages. There have been partial translations. One of the best is Embers and Earth: Selected Poems by Douglas G. Jones and Marc Plourde, whose translations we have consulted for ours: 1984, Montreal, Guernica, ISBN: 0919349358, 122 pages. It includes the original French.
3) Nepveu, Pierre: Gaston Miron: La vie d'un homme, 2011, Montreal, Éditions du Boréal, ISBN-13 : 9782764621035, 935 pages. Nepveu is a poet who knew Miron and deals sensitively with his poetry. It's a biography full of detail and cultural history, the kind that the French used to consider "anglo-saxon" and superfluous.
4) Lemaire, Michel: "La métrique de Gaston Miron." Voix et Images 45, 1990. 28 pages. PDF http://www.erudit.org/revue/vi/1990/v15/n3/200857ar.pdf
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