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Essay

Zachariah Wells on R.G. Everson's "He Loved in all Directions"

(How Poems Work, December 2003)
Al Purdy said of R.G. Everson that he had “one foot in the nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth.” Born in 1903, he was raised on a farm outside Oshawa, obtained a law degree, spent five years writing in an isolated log cabin, and became the president of a Montreal PR firm, just two years out of the woods. This unique position vis-a-vis multiple ages and worlds is ingrained in the language and structure of “He Loved in All Directions,” a poem at once classic and modern, laidback and letter-perfect.

Al Purdy said of R.G. Everson that he had “one foot in the nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth.” Born in 1903, he was raised on a farm outside Oshawa, obtained a law degree, spent five years writing in an isolated log cabin, and became the president of a Montreal PR firm, just two years out of the woods. This unique position vis-à-vis multiple ages and worlds is ingrained in the language and structure of “He Loved in All Directions,” a poem at once classic and modern, laidback and letter-perfect.

Al Purdy said of R.G. Everson that he had “one foot in the nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth.” Born in 1903, he was raised on a farm outside Oshawa, obtained a law degree, spent five years writing in an isolated log cabin, and became the president of a Montreal PR firm, just two years out of the woods. This unique position vis-à-vis multiple ages and worlds is ingrained in the language and structure of “He Loved in All Directions,” a poem at once classic and modern, laidback and letter-perfect.

In this laconic biography of Romantic poet John Clare, Everson blends gritty everyday speech (“hired fired rural labourer”) with more formal constructions (“lavishing his honey-time confections”) and quoted material (the quote in lines 5-6 is from Dr. Fenwick Skrimshire’s diagnosis of Clare’s insanity) in such a way that they constitute not a mishmash of multiple dialects but a single Eversonian tongue. This diction of simultaneous present and past, sophistication and simplicity, imparts to the seemingly plain verb “wants” two diametrically opposed meanings, as it contains in a breath both the standard, somewhat prosaic, connotation of “desires” (i.e. Clare desires love from others) as well as the more outmoded poetic sense of “lacks” (i.e. Clare, though he loves nature, has no great love for society), succinctly encapsulating both poets’ oftentimes ambivalent relationship with humankind.

Similarly, the poem’s structure pays homage to more traditional verse forms, with rhyming couplets in lines 9-10, 11-12 and 14-15, but does not commit to a fixed rhyme scheme. The metre is iambic pentameter, but Everson substitutes feet freely and uses lines as short as seven syllables and as long as twelve. Despite its irregularities the poem follows a regular stanzaic pattern, creating a structure that is at once old and new, open and closed.

Everson’s playfulness is reminiscent of Clare’s own experiments with metre and the sonnet form, his fusion of Augustan urbanity and readymade Northampton dialect. The result for both poets is an effortlessly casual formality defying both age and imitation. Paradoxically, this timelessness may help explain why Everson’s poetry, as Clare’s long did, has suffered neglect. His verse, though much admired by the likes of Northrop Frye, James Dickey, E.J. Pratt, Purdy, Irving Layton and Louis Dudek, was slightly out of step. Neither Victorian fish nor colloquial fowl, both behind the times and ahead of them, he never developed a large following, a matter complicated by the fact that he didn’t hit full stride as a poet until his sixties. Since his death in 1992 Everson has slipped into outright obscurity. His poems, out of print since 1990, are widely ignored by anthologists and scholars.

Ron Everson first published this poem in 1958, well before the bulk of academic Clare salvage work had been undertaken. He recognized—at a time when most Canadian poets and critics were stridently affirming the primacy of cultural nationalism—Clare’s importance to an age that was finally giving credence to the voices of various disenfranchised peoples and languages. With Canadian poetry’s growing re-investment in formal inventiveness and linguistic hybridity, a poet like Everson is more relevant now than ever. So now, at the tail end of his birth’s centenary, we owe it to Everson, and to ourselves, to ensure that he, too, endures.