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September 16th, 2015 · No Comments

Heritage Toronto plaque honours poets MacEwen and Acorn

Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), Christopher Hayes of Scotiabank, poet laureate George Elliott Clarke, and Heritage Toronto board member Kate Marshall unveil a plaque on Ward’s Island commemorating poets Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn. COURTESY?HERITAGE?TORONTO

Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), Christopher Hayes of Scotiabank, poet laureate George Elliott Clarke, and Heritage Toronto board member Kate Marshall unveil a plaque on Ward’s Island commemorating poets Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn.

By Annemarie Brissenden

He was large, gruff, almost a bully, and an ardent Marxist who used poetry to foment revolution. Equally passionate, she was a fey little thing who decided in her teenage years that she would live for poetry. And for a brief, explosive time, Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn MacEwen were married and living on Ward’s Island at 10 Second St. All that stands there now is a vacant lot – the house they lived in was demolished in the 1970s – but a Heritage Toronto plaque unveiled late last month will ensure that the poets and their legacy are not forgotten.

“They were an important couple for the flowering of Canadian poetry that took place in the 1960s, particularly in Toronto,” explains George Elliott Clarke, the City of Toronto’s poet laureate and the E. J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto.

Having worked previously with Heritage Toronto to install a plaque honouring poet Raymond Souster, Clarke – long captivated by the couple’s story – thought one focused on MacEwen and Acorn would be equally successful. Yet, he’d never even been to the island before the bitter cold day in November when the team came over to look for a suitable site.

“For a guy from PEI, living on the island had to have been for [Acorn] a little bit of homesickness being remedied,” reflects Clarke, who likes the spot at the intersection of Second Street and Lakeshore Avenue. He wasn’t sure that MacEwen found it quite so bucolic.

But for the residents of Ward’s Island who turned up at the plaque’s unveiling, MacEwen’s presence seems to have left a permanent stamp on the landscape.

“You move in and you hear about her right away,” says Barbara Klunder, who has lived on the island for 30 years. “It’s in the air.”

Her friend, painter Pat Jeffries, also an island resident, concurs.

“There’s a lot of poets over here; they owe her everything.”

There are so many stories of MacEwen to tell. One tale is of her regular walks with a man everyone dubbed Merlin because of his tendency to wear a turban and cape when out and about. He believed he was in contact with extraterrestrial beings, and wrapped their house in tinfoil to ward off evil rays.

MacEwen had decided early on that she would be a poet and never had any interest in doing anything else. She was a mystical poet, relates Clarke, and “one of a few Canadian poets to achieve greatness without having acquired a university education. Language systems inspired her, and her poetry tends to be as mystical and cryptic as her understanding of language systems.”

Yet her poetry still resonates with many people.

“I always think of her as a passionate woman,” says Joanna Poblocka of the League of Canadian Poets.

Henry Martinuk, also at the unveiling, remembers meeting MacEwen at the Harbourfront Reading Series.

“She was incredibly generous, kind, and patient with the hundreds of people who wanted to meet her and have her sign a book,” he recalls. It’s quite a contrast to his encounter with Milton Acorn, whom he met at the Kress Grill when he about 16.

“He called me a little shit.” It was a better response than he expected.

“Acorn was probably the most important political poet of the 1960s. He wrote in a very insistent fashion. He was a revolutionary dude,” says Clarke. He believes, though, that “the poems by [Acorn] that people are likely to remember best are the ones that deal with nature and are very romantic”.

Both poets were innovating in Canadian poetry from the island, adds Clarke, which is what the plaque celebrates. It includes a picture of MacEwen and Acorn, and quotes from poems they wrote for each other.

Heritage Toronto board member Kate Marshall said she liked the plaque because it honours not just a historic site or location but people, two “very accomplished Canadian literary figures” who “both made important contributions to Canadian literary culture”.

“We don’t often think of the island and its great heritage,” says Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale). “Babe Ruth knocked his first homer out of [Hanlan’s Point Stadium] on the island [for the Toronto Maple Leafs].”

The local councillor characterizes the island as “one of the first great artists’ colonies in the city” and highlights “the spirit of individualism and creativity embedded in the spirit of its residents”.

Effusive and almost rushing into rhyme – “sorry for speaking so fast, I come from Halifax” – Clarke admits that the couple didn’t have the happiest of marriages, “but the happiest part of it was probably their stay in this community”.

Both poets would go on to live in the Annex, where Acorn famously lived in the Waverley Hotel, and there is a park named for MacEwen at Walmer Road and Lowther Avenue. Acorn won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1976 for The Island Means Minago, while MacEwen won in 1969 for The Shadow Maker, and again in 1987 for Afterworlds. They passed away within a year of each other in 1986 and 1987 respectively.

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