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Canadian poets write letters of love

A collection of love letters from 130 poets past and present offers a slice of literary history.

BY NATALIE SAMSON | JUL 21 2015

Dave Eso traces the genesis of his first book back to a bald-faced lie. After reading an article on love and poetry, Mr. Eso was inspired to contact an old flame about the love letters he had penned for her. Could he get them back? Sure, but she insisted on knowing why. Embarrassed by his nostalgia, Mr. Eso fibbed: he told her they were for an editor compiling love letters by Canadian poets. In February this year, Mr. Eso restored his reputation as an honest man with the publication of Where the Nights Are Twice as Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets, 1883 – 2014 (Goose Lane Editions).

The book offers up about 400 pages of correspondence from 130 poets. Contributors to the collection range from the well-known (Priscila Uppal, P.K. Page, Robert Service, Susan Musgrave, Al Purdy) to poets the literary canon has all but forgotten (Pat Lowther, Andrew Suknaski); from emerging voices (Shannon Webb-Campbell, Chris Masson, C. Isa Lausas) to writers better known for their work in other fields (Leonard Cohen, Louis Riel).

Mr. Eso co-edited the collection with Jeanette Lynes, a professor of English and coordinator of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. In a unique twist, Mr. Eso and Dr. Lynes opted to organize the writings by age, starting with poets writing in their late teens and ending with poets writing in their seventies and beyond. A 19-year-old Gwendolyn MacEwen wrote to her future husband Milton Acorn, 18 years her senior: “Of course I love you! But I am neither capable nor ready for the kind of love you offer me. I don’t even have a half-decent letter to give you, let alone myself!” A 30-something Susan Musgrave, meanwhile, offers a more tender and nuanced reply to her lover: “I’m feeling vulnerable, too. I wonder where vulnerable comes from, what’s the original meaning of the word. I should have studied linguistics. The art of tonguing things?” The result is a nuanced portrait of love and romance – the shyness, the ecstasy, the anger, the second chances – that span generations, life experience, geography and the technologies of correspondence.

Mr. Eso, who begins a PhD in English at the University of Victoria this fall, sees this collection as more than just a window into the intimate lives of poets for literary voyeurs, but as a source of literary history. A letter “captures an image of life as it’s lived,” he says. “It gives a sense of, say, the 18-year-old who’s going to become a significant literary figure speculating on their future.”

And, taken together, the letters challenge traditional notions of love and romance. “There are letters of courtship, but there are also letters of divorce, prison letters, letters of people contemplating suicide, people dealing with domestic violence – both as perpetrators and victims.” Perhaps it’s not what you’d expect from writers in love, but that’s the point, says Mr. Eso. “This is a way to highlight the emotionality of literature in rich and complex ways that doesn’t avoid the darkness of the emotional life.”

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