The Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books
Conducted by Eli MacLaren
Between 1925 and 1960, the Ryerson Press of Toronto printed two hundred little collections of poetry by English-Canadian authors. The director of the Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books was Ryerson’s book editor, Lorne Pierce, who founded the series as one of a number of initiatives aimed at building a national literature. The series contains much remarkable poetry, but it has been ignored by subsequent critics and left out of the anthologies that now define Canadian literature (with one or two exceptions such as Anne Marriott’s The Wind Our Enemy, 1939). Thus it cannot simply be taken for granted that Pierce achieved his goal of building a national literature through this initiative.
The research project therefore poses two questions. First, how were the chapbooks published? Financially, they appear superfluous to Ryerson’s principal activities as publisher-agent (import-distributor) and school-book publisher – they seem to be cheap “one-offs” with no commercial future, and Pierce’s correspondence does indicate that he regularly asked the author to assume the financial risk. At the same time, the very cheapness of the series seems to explain its impressive longevity : it was the longest-running initiative of its kind in Canadian history. In this light, it appears that Pierce’s efforts helped bring into being what we now think of as the Canadian small press – the regional, decentralized publishing sector that is driven by aesthetic and intellectual goals more than by financial ones, and which, with the crucial support of government grants, has indeed become the principal channel for the creation of Canadian literature.
Second, how should the neglected Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books be incorporated into Canadian literary history? They are easily dismissed as un-modernist and therefore irrelevant to surveys expecting this period to reflect the influence of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. But how did these poets define and practise poetry? How did poetry fit into their lives, and what functions did they expect it to fulfill?
The aim of this project is to deepen and enrich existing concepts of the evolution of Canadian literary publishing and of the diversity of Canadian literary history.