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Out of This World: The Natural History of Milton Acorn

by Chris Gudgeon

In the early 1970s, Milton Acorn was one of Canada’s most famous poets. An antagonistic, argumentative man, his highly acclaimed poems about love, nature, and social and political concerns won him the 1975 Governor General’s Award. Since his death in 1986, however, Acorn has been, according to Victoria author Chris Gudgeon, largely forgotten: most of his books are out of print and he is rarely taught in CanLit courses.

It is unfortunate that, for a biography about a major literary figure, this book tells us so little about Acorn himself. Acorn shrouded himself in mystery, obscuring or revising much of his background, and Gudgeon, author of An Unfinished Conversation, a biography of Stan Rogers, has been unable to uncover much about Acorn the man that the man himself did not want uncovered. The poet told so many versions of his life (including one in an unpublished autobiography), Gudgeon says, that it is difficult to know where reality ended and fiction began.

Despite this, Gudgeon has produced a surprisingly satisfying biography. His subject was a man of many failings, tormented by physical and mental illness, and Gudgeon has produced a portrait that reveals what there is to reveal of Acorn with honesty and great empathy. Gudgeon’s sources include interviews with family members and fellow poets and Acorn’s autobiography. He also dissects and evaluates the major influences in the poet’s life, ranging from his Marxist beliefs to his relationship with his father.

By piecing together a life filled with lacunae, Gudgeon has filled an important gap in the study of 20th-century Canadian literature, and illuminated the poet as a major figure within mainstream Canadian poetry.