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Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger

Richard Lemm, author. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1999.

I met Milton Acorn for the first time the day I immigrated to Canada in 1967. I didn’t meet him again until I moved to Prince Edward Island in 1983. A few years after his death in 1986, I was teaching his poetry to my students at the University of Prince Edward Island. This book would not exist with the encouragement and expertise of the late Harry Baglole, director of the Institute of Island Studies (UPEI), and Laurie Brinklow, publishing coordinator of the IIS.

“In the first major biography of Milton Acorn, the voice of one of Canada’s leading poets resounds across the years since it was raised, impassioned and protesting, in the 1960s and 1970s. This study traces Acorn’s essential patriotism to his roots in Prince Edward Island and shows that family, landscape, and the troubled shades of postcolonial society were continuous spurs to his creative life. Through archival and private sources, many previously untapped, Richard Lemm connects Acorn’s self-perpetuated image as a working-class rebel, and his peculiar brand of communism, to his employment history and experience of war. The poet’s troubled relationships with family members, his wife – writer Gwendolyn MacEwan – lovers, other writers and friends, and his chronic ill-health are all explored as sources of both personal pain and inspiration. This is a warts-and-all portrait of the only writer ever to be honoured by his peers as ‘The People’s Poet of Canada’.”



“A remarkable achievement. This book not only gives us new insight into Acorn’s life, but also into his work. A fine critical biography of one of Canada’s great poets.” Patrick Lane.

“A crucial view of Acorn’s genius and his writing of region and nation in the Canadian experience … Like Acorn himself, Lemm reveals the strengths and the vitality of our national culture.” J.A. Wainright.

“In Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger, Richard Lemm expertly integrates the life and the work. A main focus is the exploration of the influence on Acorn of the P.E.I. background that author and subject share. Lemm also shares with his subject a certain pugnacity of character. While most biographers stake out their territory and deal with critics and previous biographers in the preface, Lemm has a disconcerting habit of throwing punches at them throughout the book. Sometimes this is warranted, when he corrects the myths surrounding Acorn. But often the disputations could have been relegated to footnotes and the space put to better use.

The basic concept of a “people’s poet,” for instance, bears examination since Acorn’s heritage places him in the middle rather than the working class. Moreover, it was the literati and middle-class champions of the underprivileged who bestowed the title on him. What the people choose as poetry is more likely to be found in obit columns, country music lyrics, and in such writers as Kipling and Rod McKuen.

A crucial factor in Acorn’s life is the war injury he sustained on a troop ship en route to Europe. This unidentified accident, thought to be an explosion, is the purported cause of his poor health and mental illness. It is tempting to speculate that the explosion was figurative rather than literal. Lemm quotes various opinions, including Acorn’s and his family’s, without solving the mystery. Surely diligent research could have turned up some military records.” Joan Givner, Quill and Quire (1999).

James Doyle. “No Man is an Island.” In Canadian

Robert Gibb. “Our Milton: Radical and Rooted.” Review of Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger by Richard Lemm. Fiddlehead Vol. 204 (Summer 2000): 219-222.

David Solway. Acorn, Lemm and Ojibway. A Recollection of Milton Acorn. Books in Canada.

Lemm, Richard. “Milton Acorn: Poet in a Dark Age.” Arts Atlantic. 7.3 (1988): 50-51. Print.

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