GENERAL ARTICLES

NED PRATT-POET

He started out as an $80a-year drygoods clerk . . . Today Edwin John (Ned) Pratt is one of Canada’s most distinguished poets

THELMA LECOCQ November 15 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

NED PRATT-POET

He started out as an $80a-year drygoods clerk . . . Today Edwin John (Ned) Pratt is one of Canada’s most distinguished poets

THELMA LECOCQ November 15 1944

NED PRATT-POET

THELMA LECOCQ

He started out as an $80a-year drygoods clerk . . . Today Edwin John (Ned) Pratt is one of Canada’s most distinguished poets

EDWIN JOHN PRATT is a Canadian poet who can expect a fair amount of glory when he’s dead. He also manages to have a good deal of fun while he’s alive. To his glory are 10 volumes of verse, which have earned him two Governor-General’s medals, one Royal Society medal, a little money and a great deal of satisfaction.

In Canada he’s know from coast to coast through personal appearances and radio recitals of his poems, and he has been grouped with Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott as one of the poets of merit this country has producer! to date. Recently he has been recognized in the United States. William Rose Benêt devoted almost a full column to him in the Saturday Review of Literature. One of the big American book houses is publishing his collected poems with the same genteel fanfare accorded a major American poet.

Because he wears these honors lightly, even humorously, Poet Pratt has no trouble fitting into the world of ordinary men. If he dreams sometimes in iambic pentameter, he dreams also of thick juicy steaks and scoring a hole in one.

Thanks to his interest in food, golf and other earthy

matters, Poet Pratt is not the type of bard that strong men flinch from. In appearance he’s comfortingly solid, five feet ten and adequately padded. In clothes he runs to nothing fancier than plain worsteds and snap brims; wears his shirt open at the throat only in summer when it’s hot. His face, which he describes with a little false modesty as a mug, is broad, well tanned, not far from smiling even when he’s serious. His deep blue eyes have no wild light in them, only a pleasant twinkle. HLs dark hair is long only across the top where he smooths it over a bald spot. This is probably his one personal vanity and may be excused on the grounds that he’s 62, looks 50 and feels even younger.

In everyday life Poet Pratt is a professor, lectures on modern poetry, modern drama and Shakespeare in Toronto’s United Church Victoria College. Serious students report him as well worth listening to, never spectacular, though sometimes inspired. Inattentive backbenchers are apt to remain untouched by him, as his soft Irish-sounding voice doesn’t travel that far. Of himself as a professor, Pratt says, “I blush when I think of how little I know. The only language I know thoroughly is the English language.”

His own description of his scholastic attainments is an M.A. on demonology and a Ph.D. on hell — both written, not because he cared very much about them, but because in order to be a professor he needed the letters after his name. The latter thesis, published under the more dignified title of “The Eschatology of St. Paul,” he refuses to have listed among his published works, because “it’s dull and was done to a formula,” and the only use he professes to have found for it was to toss a copy or two on the fire on cold, impecunious days.

For the first 30 years of his life Ned Pratt knew plenty of such days. Born in Newfoundland, the son of a Methodist parson and the third in a family of eight, he found it an economic necessity to leave school at 15. With a view to securing his future his father apprenticed him to a draper’s shop, where he earned $80 a year, considerably less than the cost of his board. To supplement his income he sold brown sugar and corsets in the days when corsets were not fitted on the premises. These garments taught him a lesson in human nature he’s never forgotten, and he tells the story of sizing up a customer as “large,” having her swoop down on him in fury for his unflattering accuracy, and being warned by the manager in future to name at least one size smaller than a lady was likely to require. It is improbable he made the same mistake again for at the end of his apprenticeship Ned Pratt was offered a partnership in the firm. Three years there had taught him one thing. All he wanted from a draper’s shop was to get out of it. At the family conclave on his future he had only one thing to say, he wanted to go back to school.

Teacher—Preacher

THIS WAS arranged and at 18 Ned Pratt entered the Newfoundland Methodist collegiate with two years high school to go. In those simple times his matriculation qualified him as a teacher, which in turn led to his becoming a preacher. For three years he taught at Moreton’s Harbor, began by teaching the children what he thought they’d enjoy knowing— about the stars and natural beauties of the country— and produced a complete set of failures at exam time. Following the orders of an irate school board he had less fun the second year but scored 100% success in pass marks at the examinations.

• Of his next venture, as the pastor of Portugal Cove, a fishing village of 100 people, he says, “I married, baptized and buried, but I never felt at home in the pulpit.” This was no doubt partly because his mind was on other things and young Ned Pratt was cooking up a plan hardly becoming to a gentleman of the cloth. His motive was above reproach—to raise the money to continue his education at the University of Toronto. The means he used was to form a joint stock company with a friend for the production of a Universal Lung Healer. To this day Ned Pratt insists it was done in good faith from the testimonial of a man who said he had been cured of tuberculosis by a pungent brew of spruce buds, cherry bark and roots— with a dash of rum for a preservative. The aspiring students brewed the mixture, ordered 500 bottles, 500 cartons, printed in English, French and Italian— they aimed at a world market—and proceeded to sell it from door to door. “We did well enough,” Ned Pratt recalls, “because I was nearly always announced as ‘here’s Parson Pratt’s son to sell something.’ ” His own part of the proceeds amounted to $150, enough to launch him on his journey to Toronto, where he was mercifully out of reach of his irate customers. Overestimating the power of the demon rum, young Ned Pratt had used too little of it and when winter came the Lung Healer froze and burst its bottles.

At Toronto, where he entered college in 1907, Ned Pratt got his education the hard way, sharing a thirdfloor room on Charles Street, near the University, with two other Newfoundlanders. “We each paid $1.25 a

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Ned Pratt—Poet

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week rent, and paid another $1.25 for our food—mostly oatmeal and beans, which we cooked ourselves.” His subjects were psychology and philosophy and he put them to practical use to relieve his own poor circumstances by winning a medal in his second year and selling it for $17. With this money he gave a dinner party for 10 of his friends, “to compensate for all our poverty and malnutrition.” The place was the old Queen’s Hotel, famous for its dollar dinner; the instructions, “to j eat very little lunch and meet at seven I o’clock.” Although dinner parties have lighted Ned Pratt’s life like beacons ever since, he has never forgotten the j menu of that one—hors d'oeuvre, a j thick potage soup, sweetbreads “which the waiter suggested and none of us i had ever tasted,” roast beef, with three 1 vegetables, roast duck, pie, raisins, dates, nuts, coffee and “an apple each to ; take home in our pockets.” The final grand gesture was a $2 tip to the waiter.

During his college vacations Ned i Pratt tried various ways of making a I living, most of them uncomfortable and j none highly successful. Drawing on his experience at Portugal Cove, he went West, ran a mission circuit in Saskatchewan for the Young People’s { Forward movement. Billeted with a farmer he earned his keep cleaning pigpens, driving a binder and delivering j His Majesty’s mail three times a week.

Oddly enough this does not seem to I have turned him against the land and, j touched by the mania rampant at that ! time, he bought 160 acres, to be paid j for at some unspecified future date.

! The next year he went West again, this I time in a literary capacity, mounted on J a bicycle and taking orders for the Standard Dictionary of Facts. Orders piled in: his farm, sown with flax and wheat by a farmer friend, was a promising green. But by fall his hopes were

dashed. Many of the farmers who had ordered the dictionary out of affection for the young man were unable to pay for it. His side line, a refreshment concession at the Regina Fair, was rained out. An early frost ruined his wheat and flax. With that summer Ned Pratt’s agricultural sorties came to an end, and he probably was not sorry when his farm reverted to its former owner.

With the acquisition of his B.A. in 1911 and his M.A. a year later, Ned Pratt decided he was the academic type, continued his studies till he became Dr. Pratt in 1917. Coincident with the degree came an appointment as demonstrator in the Department of Psychology at Toronto University. At 34 Dr. Pratt found himself with his first steady job and a resulting tranquility of mind that allowed him to turn to poetry at an age when most young men have left it behind them. His first attempt was “Rachael,” a Newfoundland narrative after the style of Wordsworth’s “Michael,” which he describes as “imitative, ordinary and unworthy.” His next poem on a grand scale was “Clay”—“full of theories and reflections of theories about life, ethical maxims, philosophical truisms, bald, very bald generalizations — practically the whole cargo of the Department of Philosophy as it existed 25 years ago at the University of Toronto.”

Undistinguished though they may have been, these poems must have shown promise, for in 1919, with no special qualifications, Dr. Pratt was appointed to the Department of English at Victoria. This appointment, which he still regards as the great opportunity of his life, led to the late but luxuriant blossoming of Poet Pratt. In 1923, at the age of 40, he published “A Book of Newfoundland Verse”—49 short poems, a couple of which he still regards as worthy of being included in his collective works, and one of which, “The Ice Floes,” is familiar to every Ontario child through its inclusion in the school reader.

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After that came “The Cachalot” and “The Great Feud,” representing the period in which Pratt experiences “a revolt from the academic, went back to what he had known in Newfoundland.” What he had known was the sea—his maternal grandfather had been a sealing captain—he himself had lived always within the sight and sound of it. At More ton’s Harbor he used to watch “the whaling steamers tow the whales into the harbor and moor them belly up until they were taken to the factories.” This intimate knowledge of whales caused Poet Pratt a little trouble with his first publisher, who couldn’t be convinced that mother whales produced five-ton babies. At 43 he wrote “The Titanic,” with which he became established as “a poet who has defined his personality and determined his form.” (E. K. Brown “On Canadian Poetry.”)

In his verse Poet Pratt exalts great heroes—the whale, the iceberg, the larger-than-life Brébeuf, the mass heroism of Dunkirk. He’s given to great sweeps of rhythm, to magnificent, resonant words, to sudden flashes of humor. His themes are chosen because they strike a chord in him—“The Iron Door” was written on the occasion of his mother’s death. “The Witch’s Brew,” which he describes as a kind of crazy thing concerning the effect of alcohol on cold-blooded creatures, was written, on the suggestion of his friend Prof. Arthur Phelps, to celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary. It is improbable that he has ever written anything with a view to becoming a great Canadian poet.

Most of Pratt’s poetry is written during the summer at Kingston, Ont., where he lectures at summer school for two hours each morning, works on his poetry in the afternoon, and goes out about five o’clock for nine holes of golf and dinner at the club. Two hundred lines a summer he regards as his average output. Frequently he sits all afternoon and writes nothing, searching for the word that pleases him. Words are his great love but his poetry is no mere mass of verbiage. In poems such as ! Brébeuf, he says, “I like to have the historical facts correct.”

Construction, too, is important to him. “I have to know what the end’s going to be before I begin,” and with Brébeuf he wrote the end first, beginning with a search for “a simile for the Cross which would express alike shame and glory, something strongly vernacular set over against cultivated imagery and language. Two strips of board, nails, Jewish hill and so forth, to contrast with lilies, robes and so forth.”

Poetry No Mystery

! Poet Pratt talks about his poetry— but only when someone asks him— without attempting to make a cult or mystery of it. He first gets the idea, determines the form best suited to it and goes to work. He quotes from himself only to illustrate a point, does it in his gentle conversational voice without poetic singsong, points it up with a very few easy gestures. “No one is more surprised than Ned Pratt,” says one of his friends, “to find himself a poet.” Although he read a great deal as a boy from his father’s and the school libraries, he claims no early poetic yearnings. Nor does he associate his talent with music, for which he claims to have no ear, although he’s “not as bad as the man who recognized ‘God Save the King’ only because people stood up.”

In some ways Ned Pratt fits into the popular thought of pet and professor. He is said to have a transcontinental reputation for absent-mindedness, to be i easily traceable from hotel to hotel

by a trail of toothbrushes and other articles which he leaves behind him. This trait operates almost wholly without profit to Ned Pratt for he has never been known to carry off hotel towels, though he is rumored to have a fair collection of umbrellas and raincoats in odd sizes, the origin of which he can’t explain. Besides being absentminded Ned Pratt is what might be called unhandy. His car driving is said to rank as the most terrible experience in the lives of many of his friends. His only practical accomplishment is to clean up the house after a stag before his wife gets home. This is not from lack of trying. Years ago Ned Pratt fancied himself as a painter, offered to help a friend with one of a row of houses he was building. The offer was accepted, Pratt got to work. One of the more experienced hands watched him for a while, went inside to the owner. “That man working for you?” he asked. “Well, he ain’t worth a damn.”

Yet Ned Pratt is neither sedentary nor a recluse, never missing a chance at either a golf game or a party. Of his golf, which he plays in the late 80’s, he says, “With a golfer I’m a dub but with my colleagues I’m wonderful.” On the subject of the parties he’s given he can be really lyrical. These are almost always dinner parties of six or eight carefully chosen friends, preceded by his own grace, “Lord grant us capacity, longevity, avoiding obesity,” and followed by a game of poker that’s entirely friendly and for very small stakes. Pratt’s idea of food is none of these small individual portions but an 18-pound turkey with as many helpings on it as everyone can eat. For an outdoor barbecue he favors steaks, gets the best out of his butcher by commencing his order with, “Now what would you give me if I told you the King and Queen were coming to dinner?”

Although most of the guests at these parties have intellectual qualifications —Pelham Edgar, Merrill Denison, the late Sir Charles G. D. Roberts and E. K. Brown have been habitués — intellect is not sufficient. Pratt has many an old friend, whose mind and moral fibre he admires and whom he’s willing to lunch with, who never is invited because he’d be a “dreadful man to spend an evening with.”

Poetry Set to Music

To Ned Pratt friends mean almost as much as poetry and his great moments are exalted by the friends and family with whom he shares them. Of the Royal Society medal, an annual award for Canadian literature, which he received in London, Ont., in 1940, he says, “It’s my most precious possession.” Adding to his pleasure on that occasion was the presentation of the science medal to Dr. R. W. Boyle, because the two had been boys together and had “sat side by side at the old Methodist collegiate in St. John’s.” When his Brébeuf was set to music by Dr. Healey Willan and was produced by Sir Ernest MacMillan in Toronto's Massey Hall with a 70-piece symphony orchestra and 150 voices, that was another great moment, embellished by his wife, his daughter, Claire, and his sister, Floss, dressing in their best for the occasion. “Floss went round,” he chuckles delightedly, “saying, ‘What would mother say if she could hear?’ to which I replied that I hoped mother was listening to better music where she is.”

Ned Pratt is frankly delighted with such public recognition of his poetry. He has heard his Brébeuf broadcast over the CBC on two different oc-

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casions, has hopes that it may be given

too over the BBC and the American networks now that the Collected Works of E. J. Pratt have been published in the U. S. A. Although he has not made a great deal of money he sells well for a poet—5,000 of Brébeuf, 3,000 or 4,000 of “The Roosevelt and the Antinoe,” five editions of Dunkirk, a total of 20,000 of his 10 published works.

The prospect that he may some day make a little money out of versp amuses and does not displease him. Last summer he worked subsidized, like a laureate, on a poem on the Peace to appear in a double-page spread in a magazine. When they offered him a retaining fee, he chuckled, “What if nothing comes of it and Pve spent the money on a dinner party?”

The nearest he’s come to the world of commercial arts was through a summons to Windsor, Ont., to see Gabriel Pascal, the English film producer of “Pygmalion” and “Major Barbara,” who had bought the rights to Paul

Gallico’s “The Snow Goose,” had hired R. C. Shirriflf of “Journey’s End” to write the scenario, paid $4,000 to Jack Miner for photographic rights to his geese, asked Pratt to write verse for a prologue and interspersed readings.

To provide him with inspiration Pascali took the poet on a 25-mile whirl in a taxi to Jack Miner’s. When the poem was written he took him up to Lake of Bays, instructed the boatman to ride them to a wild part of the lake where there were dead trees and a moaning wind, had Pratt’s poem read aloud from a promontory.

Production of “The Snow Goose” has been shelved till after the war but Poet Pratt has been given to understand that Producer Pascal intends to send him a cheque one of these days. Of how much it might be he hasn’t the remotest idea but $1,000 is a figure that has been suggested. It’s more money than Ned Pratt ever dreamed of receiving for one poem and his eves twinkle when he talks of it. “Think,” he says, “what a dinner party I could give with that!”