Louis Dudek

Poet, Critic, Teacher

Article on the 20th anniversary of his death,

Biographical Information

Poet, teacher, publisher, essayist, translator and editor Louis Dudek was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1918. He taught at McGill University from 1951 to 1984. His publishing career includes the founding of such significant 'little magazines' as First Statement, Delta, CIV/n, as well as Contact Press, Delta Canada and DC Books. He is the author fo over twenty-five books of poetry, essays, epigrams and notebooks; as well as the editor of several anthologies. According to Canadia Literature: "Dudek is now properly regarded as one of the central figures of twentieth-century Canadian poetry." Robin Blaser referred to Dudek as "Canada's most important -- that is to say consequential -- modern voice."
-- from 1941 Diaries .

Louis Dudek, born in Montreal, was educated both at McGill and Columbia University. In New York, as a young poet, he corresponded extensively with Ezra Pound. Back in Montreal, he joined the McGill faculty, where his lectures on literature became legendary. In combination with other key figures in the first and second waves of Canadian poetic modernism, he commenced many of the most important small magazines and literary presses of the mid-century. As a writer, critic, and cultural observer, his career has been dedicated to ongoing intellectual and artistic discussion. Identified as Canada's premier man of letters, Dudek died in 2001.
-- from About the author at Amazon.com.

On this page: Obituary | Globe Article | Gazette Article | McGill resolution

Miscellaneous links elsewhere:

The launch of the bilingual edition of the book of translated poetry

Louis Dudek: For you, you - Fur Dich, Dir
took place at the Bureau du Quebec, Sept 18, 2006 , Pariser Platz, Berlin, Germany.

Long article from the Globe and Mail:

Infinite horizon
Poetry activist and polemicist, anthologist and publisher,
Louis Dudek inspired a generation of Canadian poets
to explore the possibilities of the modernist form

Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, March 26, 2001

EDMONTON -- In 1959, when I entered his class in European Modernism at McGill, I had no idea Louis Dudek was an important Canadian poet. Indeed, in those pre-Canada Council days, I didn't know there were any important living Canadian poets. And, although his enthusiasm for Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot first pointed me toward the possibilities of open form, it wasn't until some years later that I found a copy of his little magazine, Delta, and realized that my old professor was himself a poet and editor of outstanding merit, energy, and commitment.

When I was a student and apprentice poet in Halifax in mid-sixties, Delta was one of the little mags that kept me posted on what was happening in the world of poetry. His own few books were hard to find. Nevertheless, as he began publishing sections from his new work Atlantis, I came to realize that he was one of a very few poets in Canada exploring the possibilities of the modernist long poem.

The death of Louis Dudek on Thursday marks the beginning of the end of the pioneering forties generation of Canadian modernism. His early partners, Irving Layton and Raymond Souster are largely silent, and, of the women of that generation, only P. K. Page still seems to be going strong. Some of the major poets of the fifties are still with us, notably Phyllis Webb, but the poets who emerged in the sixties have become "the elder generation" of Canadian poetry. Yet they eventually found their own elders in their own country, and Louis Dudek was one of the most influential.

He was one of Canada's major modernist poets, a poetry activist and polemicist, an anthologist and publisher, a member of the Order of Canada, and a great advocate of local emerging talent in anglophone Quebec.

Born, Feb. 6, 1918, to Polish immigrants in Montreal's East End, he was raised in that primarily working-class and francophone neighbourhood, graduating from McGill University with a BA in 1940. From 1943-1951, he lived in New York City, where he graduated with a PhD from Columbia, and then taught English at City College of New York.

His friends during this period included Paul Blackburn and Cid Corman, and he visited Ezra Pound during his confinement at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, beginning an important correspondence with the elder poet. Eventually, Dudek returned to Montreal and taught in the English department at McGill University. Despite his many efforts on behalf of poetry in his city, his province, and his country, he was never one to stand in the spotlight.

The long poems, Europe, En México and Atlantis, were impressive attempts at something in the line of Pound's Cantos, but with Dudek's own insights and perceptions and his rigorous insistence on the primacy of intellect over emotion in poetry. En México remains the most inviting and complete of these books partly because it fails to live up to Dudek's ideal, rendering its varied perceptions of the country and its people and history with empathy and feeling: Now the jungle has an oceanic luxury:
boys by a heap of papaya
. . . and thatched native huts
with little children in the puddles.
Rain, . . . then sun, more sun --
building pyramids of green
and las flores
in the Huastecan jungle,
the pre-Aztec world

As a dedicated intellectual of his time, Dudek felt it was necessary defend the intellect against what he saw as its degradation in the sixties. He turned away from En México's emotive and imagistic possibilities to a more stringently aphoristic style, in which he could stake out his argument with the contemporary world. This became the method of his last long poem, Continuations, which he worked at for the rest of his life. While many of his aphorisms bitingly attacked the degradation of high culture in the post-war period, he too often ignored the evidence of cultural vitality presented through jazz, blues, the new poetry and fiction, and other media. Like his mentor, Pound, he remained aloof to the forms of popular culture, and so missed much of what was energizing younger poets.

And yet it was his McGill Poetry Series for Contact Press that published Leonard Cohen's first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, and early work by a number of young poets from Montreal. As well, Contact Press, founded by Dudek, Souster, and Layton in 1952, published, among others, early books by such important young poets as Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Frank Davey, D. G. Jones, John Newlove, Alden Nowlan and Al Purdy (who, though the same age as Dudek, belonged to a later poetic generation). He was in touch, and if he sometimes argued with the directions these poets took in their work, he also fought for their right to say their say.

At first, it seemed the sixties poets ignored his pioneering work as they sought their individual paths in poetry, often, like Dudek himself, looking south to the U.S. for inspiration: to Pound, and Williams, Olson, Creeley, Duncan and others who were gaining prominence in those heady days.

But Dudek's little mags, from First Statement in the forties through to Delta in the sixties, and his books did reach out, and eventually we discovered those long poems, written in the tradition we sought to emulate, but written here, by one of us. Nevertheless, even as he supported many younger writers in Montreal, he argued against much of the new poetry. In a controversial article in Canadian Literature, he attacked what he saw as the slovenliness of many poets who began writing in the sixties.

Still, artistically and personally generous, he willingly entered into dialogue with them, as his spirited discussion with George Bowering, Frank Davey, Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol in the journal Open Letter demonstrates. Indeed, once engaged he was willing to change his opinions but not his fundamental beliefs.

Dudek believed in the value of art, and that poetry must have a use. He wanted a "functional poetry," as he said in the poem of that title, seeking "a renewal of substance, of technique / that goes to the origin and source," that would give us "what we need: straight language / and relevance to our real concerns."

He was a politically and morally committed student of culture, and he insisted that poetry was vital to a society.

His many essays, and the CBC Ideas lectures, The First Person in Literature, in 1967 demonstrate the depth and breadth of his concerns. "Our problem," he said, "is the radical absence of any valid grounds for universality." Still, his optimistic philosophical argument is that "the liberation from the gods, and the liberation of the individual self, to face alone the great issues of existence . . . is the great adventure" of our time. As editor Robin Blaser says in his introductory essay to Infinite Worlds: The Poetry of Louis Dudek, "The 'infinite horizon of possibilities' shapes and reshapes in his continuous form." And he kept after that "infinite horizon" to the very end; to do so was his métier.

Charming, lively, sometimes irascible, always involved, Dudek the teacher, who sought with such energy and delight to alert his students to the difficult but rewarding adventure of exploring the great art of modernism, was a measure of Dudek the man and poet, who sought by every means to bring everyone he touched to the same recognition. He is gone, but his writing will continue to offer its rich rewards to all who read it.

Douglas Barbour's latest book of poetry is Fragmenting Body etc (NeWest Press 2000). His Lyric/Anti-Lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry will be published this summer.

The page is maintained by Gregory Dudek, Louis Dudek's son.
email: dudek@cim.mcgill.ca
Louis Dudek died Thursday March 22nd, 2001. I was by his side. I will miss him enormously, and will find his company irreplacable.