Excerpt from chapter IV: If You’re Stronghearted
If you’re stronghearted look at this Island;
red gouges of creeks at low tide and
the stronger red which spreads behind plows.
Don’t hold your tongue too long, it’ll swell
with so much good and so much bad to say.
— “If You’re Stronghearted”
FROM THE MID-1950s ON, poetry was so central to Acorn that he seemed to have been born with metaphors in his mouth. [Artist] Hilda Woolnough says, “He was always a walking poem-in-progress.” Few, if any, would disagree. It is natural, therefore, to assume he was writing poems before or immediately after his military service. For example, Valerie LaPointe, a close friend late in his life, repeats a familiar refrain: “He learned carpentry but knew from an early age that his vocation was to be a poet” (“Celebrating” 4). Even better, here is Acorn speaking to a Charlottetown reporter in June 1968, three months after he returned to PEI from his years in Vancouver: “I can remember writing poems since I was 20, but people tell me I was writing them when I was much younger” (Maclntyre). This contributes to the Acorn myth. But his apprenticeship began differently.
Likewise, when one reads Acorn’s poems and articles about him, it is easy to picture him as an apprentice and journeyman carpenter from 1944 or 1945 until he sold his tools, in a dramatic gesture and declaration of poetic vocation, in Montreal in 1956. Moreover, he played up the image of a man called to the time—honoured vocations of poetry and carpentry, and torn between them, until one craft prevailed over another, the proletarian tradesman following his muse.
Here is part of a proﬁle from Books in Canada in 1981: “Acorn’s sleeves are almost always rolled up, carpenter-style. His forearms are broad and strong—looking. He had, in fact, worked as a journeyman carpenter until 1956, when he decided to sell his tools. He was thinking too much about poetry to be doing good work, but then he had always been thinking about poetry. His voice rolls like an old-time sermon. ‘One thing that has followed me all my life,’ he says, ‘is the poetry.’ But carpentry had helped him roam around a bit, and he felt at ease working outside. ‘Carpentry was my grand tour,’ he says” (MacFarlane 4). It is difficult not to think of another carpenter who put down his tools to speak the word, especially when Acorn claimed that “Jesus was a proto-Marxian, an early Marxian” (Burrill 7)—thus casting Jesus as a forerunner, the archetypal tradesman turned prophet and radical, preaching liberation to the masses with inspired language and parables.
Another writer constructs a melodrama from unreliable accounts of Acorn’s wartime experience and poetic salvation: “He was on his way to ﬁght in the Second World War when his ship was torpedoed crossing the Atlantic. He suffered a head injury so debilitating that he collected a military pension the rest of his life. After his release from hospital, his fate seemed set in stone: he would be poor, wounded and adrift. What could not be imagined was that poetry would rescue him as he had been scooped up from the burning sea surrounding the sinking ship” (Wayne 14). His ship was not torpedoed. He did not fall into burning seas. He did not apply for a disability pension until the mid—1950s. The hyperbole and inaccuracies may be partly owing to Acorn’s need to have a legendary launch for his poetic voyage, and not just to his admirer’s need for a tragic hero rescued by the Muse.
And here is an excerpt from a tribute published after his death in Canadian Dimension: “As one who was not left as a ‘worm-cast of Europe,’ he became a carpenter by trade, but he left construction carpentry in the late 1950s to become a full-time poet” (MacKay 41). Acorn sometimes encouraged people to think that he strapped on his carpenter’s belt from time to time after 1956, when the poet needed more cash. This is Acorn again in 1968: “A carpenter by trade, Mr. Acorn says he has not done much of that type of work lately. ‘In my travels I have found that having a trade sustains me economically. I also draw a war pension from the Canadian government” (Maclntyre). While this aspect of Acorn’s persona is attractive and vital, the reality was somewhat different, and no less fascinating or worthy. After his discharge from the military, he lived for several years with his middle- class parents, hardly poor or adrift. His parents’ economic support, Uncle Stanley Bryant’s construction business, several labourer and civil service jobs, his mother’s emotional and literary support, and his brother’s literary advice and encouragement enabled him to spend nearly ten years discovering his poetic voice.
According to Robert, Milton was visited at home soon after his discharge by two men from the government. They inquired about his injury and whether he wished to apply for a pension. “He told them he didn’t want a pension and that his nerves had always been bad. He didn’t know at the time how difficult it would be to earn a living.”
When he came back from the war, Acorn’s first job, from 31 January until 1 March 1943, was at the Charlottetown airport where he worked as a fireman’s helper for the Department of National Defence. He also briefly worked at the Provincial Hospital in Charlottetown and as a stevedore on the Charlottetown wharves during this first year back from the war. “There used to be a wharf called the fertilizer wharf,” says Robert, and Milton was “loading and unloading fertilizer ships. He’d come home covered head to toe in fertilizer, only his mouth and eyes showing. You had to be in the union to work on the docks.” There are no records indicating when he worked on the wharves or at the hospital, but he almost certainly held these jobs between March 1 and the Christmas season of 1943, when he was a temporary clerk at the Charlottetown Post Office.”
In February 1944, Acorn went to the CNR freight yard on the water- front looking for work. He came home and told his father, “The man said I wasn’t good enough for the job,” which involved “lugging stuff around” (R. Acorn). But Acorn was in excellent physical shape, except for his hearing, and prodigiously strong. Perhaps Milton misheard the man, for when his father went down to the freightyard, he returned with a different story: “The man said the job wasn’t good enough for Milton.” But Acorn wanted the job, and his father, middle class or not, wanted him working: “He wasn’t going to hang around the house. Dad would tear on him for not being able to support himself” (R. Acorn). So Milton returned to the railroad sheds and signed on with the CNR.
Before Acorn arrived at the sheds on his first day of work, some of the men were discussing their new workmate. One of those men just happened to be Acorn’s old nemesis, the neighbourhood bully most responsible for mistreating him during his childhood. When this man heard the new worker’s name, he dropped his tools, took to his heels, terrified, and never returned. Acorn worked there as a freight porter into June of 1944.
Apparently, these kinds of jobs did not entirely please Acorn’s father, nor did the first signs of his inclination to “hang around the house” working “on his typing,” says Robert, who explains what was expected of a middle-class child returning from the war: “In those days if you were from a middle-class family, you automatically got a middle-class job. There were no ifs or buts about it, it was there for you, practically came to look you up. Milton was going to all these weird jobs.” Milton showed no signs, however, of settling into a career as a labourer or clerk. It is likely that a combination of his restlessness and his lifelong “dreaminess” or self-absorption—his concentration on “stories,” rather than on the movement of fertilizer or mail—were steering him away from a “regular” job and toward his literary vocation.
Lemm, Richard. Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger. Ottawa: Carleton U Press, 1999. (pg. 67-70)