'The Essential Kenneth Leslie, edited by Zachariah Wells, returns to us a unique and wily versifier who was a major element of Canadian poetry in the 1930s, but who is all but forgotten today. He faded from view slowly. Milton Acorn said of him, "When we come to the loveliest of our orthodox sonneteers, Kenneth Leslie, the battle for the Canadian voice is being fought, and he is winning it." It is good to have these poems back in print.' -- Paul Vermeersch OpenBook Toronto 'In his forword to The Essential Kenneth Leslie, Zachariah Wells writes, "One explanation for Leslie's all-but-disappearance is his old fashionedness." But while he was out of step with modernism in his time, Leslie's work rings truer now than Ezra Pound's claim 'to make it new.' It's been 75 years, and modernism has only bred a coldness. The Governor-General's Awards were right to honour Leslie in 1938. Instead of writing new, Leslie, who was Pictou County, N.S., born and Harvard educated, wrote real. His father's death at sea, divorce and the politics of the time are all captured perfectly with fervour and a clear voice. He offers a window onto the '30 and '40s when other poets were too busy trying to look ahead.' Telegraph-Journal 'The Essential Kenneth Leslie is a treasure trove of poetry, highly recommended.' The Midwest Book Review Kenneth Leslie (1892--1974) was a Canadian poet and political activist whose poetry deserves to be rediscovered for its mastery of form, meter, and language. His first four, of a total of six, books were published in the 1930s, when the Modernist movement in American and European poetry (led by Ezra Pound's dictate to 'make it new') was freeing poetry from the perceived constraints of meter and form. Though Leslie was awarded the Governor General's Award, Canada's top literary honor, in 1938, for his fourth book of poetry By Stubborn Stars (which featured a 28-sonnet sequence by the same name) the waves of Modernism would soon leave him in its wake.Editor Zachariah Wells has carefully selected Leslie's work in The Essential Kenneth Leslie, presenting poems that showcase the variety of forms he uses, as well as his range of subjects. The poems in this collection function as a window into Leslie's world: his beliefs (that formal education makes dullards of its students in 'Cobweb College' and 'Tea with the Professor'); his tumultuous personal life (his separation from his wife and estrangement from his children in 'By Stubborn Stars'); and his artistic convictions (that true beauty lives in the commonplace in 'Beauty Is Something You Can Weigh in Scales'). Additionally, Wells subtly arranges the poems in small groups by mood and topic. Readers are able to give the poems more individual attention and share in Leslie's feelings without the risk of being overwhelmed by them.The true beauty of Leslie's poetry lies in his often stunning use of language. His seemingly simple word choices, combined with his attention to meter and form, may remind readers of the early work of W. B. Yeats. Additionally, he draws readers in with sound ('waiting for the snow, / the foam of bloom forgotten'), at times reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins.But the daring of Leslie's work stems from his desire to reveal the complex dualities with which he wrestled in his personal life. From the double entendre in 'the crotched necessity of standing true / to her while pledging life and love to you' to the moody repetition of 'this monster ledge / of granite under granite clouds,' Leslie's language lingers in the mind and on the tongue.The Essential Kenneth Leslie is a finely-crafted book that readers of poetry will enjoy having in their hands. In the simple, inviting cover design the lasting Smyth-sewn binding, and the clean, antique-feeling font, the publisher's attention to detail reveals a love of books and the authors it showcases. -- Jennifer Fandel ForeWord Reviews
About the Author
He was a farmer, a teacher, a preacher, a political activist, a journalist, a broadcaster, a composer, a restaurateur and a cab-driver. He was a dashing ladies' man and though he married four times, he had a need, as Burris Devanney has written, to 'make grand, if not total commitments.' He was an international jetsetter who lived in Paris and New York as well as Halifax and the Annapolis Valley, but who never forgot his roots in the rocks of Nova Scotia's north shore. He was a socialist who played the stock market, a mystic who believed in practical measures. On top of all this, Kenneth Leslie was one of the most gifted poets of his day. Leslie was born on Halloween night, 1892, in Pictou, Nova Scotia, to Robert Jamieson Leslie, a politician and businessman, and Bertha (Starratt) Leslie. Robert Leslie died on December 4, 1905, when one of his own boats, the steamship Lunenburg, sank in a storm off the Magdalen Islands, the jurisdiction he represented in the Quebec legislature. The younger Leslie would memorialize his father in his sonnet 'To My Father Drowned at Sea' and in the free verse dirge 'Lowlands Low.'Leslie was educated at Dalhousie, Nebraska and Harvard, where he would have received a PhD in Philosophy, had he not failed the lingual test. He had a deeply ambivalent relationship with institutional education; he revered the best of his teachers and worked as one himself on several occasions, but distrusted universities, which he saw as breeding grounds for dullness and conformity, as is manifest in his satirical sonnet 'Tea with the Professor' and especially in his long satire 'Cobweb College.'Most of Leslie's career as a publishing poet was confined to the mid-to-late 1930s, another probable cause for his slide into obscurity. His first book, Windward Rock, was published by MacMillan in 1934, followed quickly by Lowlands Low in 1935 and Such a Din! in 1936, both of which were privately published. In 1938, Ryerson published By Stubborn Stars, which won the Governor General's Award. He would not publish another book until 1971, when The Ladysmith Press released The Poems of Kenneth Leslie. Angered by editor Sean Haldane's exclusion of several poems 'because they seem not to have worn as well with the passage of time, or because they were light verse, or political verse, which fulfilled a temporal need,' Leslie self-published the unexpurgated O'Malley to the Reds and Other Poems in 1972.For Leslie, as for his contemporary F. R. Scott, politics were at least as important as poetry. Living in New York and Boston in the 1930s and '40s, Leslie rose to prominence as an indefatigable anti-Fascist activist. Somewhat paradoxically, Leslie's socialism was inextricably intertwined with his Baptist upbringing. He founded and edited The Protestant Digest (later renamed The Protestant), which reached a circulation of 50,000 at its peak, and he was much in demand as a speaker. He also started The Challenger, an anti-Fascist comic book that appeared in 1944 and '45. For his troubles, Leslie was named -- along with such notables as Arthur Miller, Albert Einstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Charlie Chaplin, Thomas Mann and Langston Hughes -- as one of fifty 'dupes and fellow-travellers' of Communism by Life magazine in 1949.Leslie's personal life was no less tumultuous than his public affairs. His first wife was Elizabeth Moir, daughter of wealthy chocolate-maker James Moir. James Moir made a considerable impression on his son-in-law, who dedicated two poems to him. The breakup of Leslie's marriage -- and his consequent estrangement from his children -- is the subject of 'By Stubborn Stars.' His second marriage, to Marjorie Finlay Hewitt, ended because of an affair Leslie had with his secretary, Cathy, with whom he returned to Halifax in 1949, where Leslie took up work as a taxi driver. The much younger woman would leave her husband for his nephew. In 1960, Leslie married the widow of an old friend, Nora Steenerson Totten, with whom he lived until his death on 6 October, 1974.Since his passing, little notice has been paid to Leslie and his work, but recent anthologizations of his poems, as well as a documentary film, God's Red Poet, are signs that Leslie won't easily be forgotten.