Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

So who was Bertram Brooker?

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So who was Bertram Brooker?

I keep calling him Canada's first avant-gardist, but what does that mean? In a series of sketches, I'd like to offer an introduction to Brooker and his revolutionary writing. He was Canada's first Futurist, flirted with Vorticism, dabbled in Cubism, and fashioned his own breed of Ultimatism. He did all of that before the First World War -- in Neepawa, Manitoba.

The sketches will be organized by vocation, starting with journalism.

Brooker was a journalist in Manitoba during the golden years of Canadian newsprint. Winnipeg, at the time, was the best place in the country to write. The prairie city developed a school of journalism headed by notables such as Sir Clifford Sifton, and his son Harry Sifton, E.H. Macklin, and J.W. Dafoe, the founders of the Canadian Press. Florence Randal Hamilton, who would come to play an important role in the emergence of modern Canadian poetry, worked on the staff of the Winnipeg Telegram with her eventual husband J.F.B. Livesay. Their daughter, the poet Dorothy Livesay, spent much of her growing up in Winnipeg.

Brooker worked the small local papers, doing music reviews, theatre reviews, community profiles, even children's stories, until he managed to needle his way right into the heart of the newspaper world, gradually joining the staff of the Winnipeg Free Press. Macklin, the editor, was the best editor in the country, and Brooker flourished under his attention. On staff at the time were Governor-General's award winning author Thomas Roberton, and the acclaimed novelist Martha Ostenso. Brooker wrote mostly unsigned news pieces during the period, or 'pot-boilers' -- even creating a series called "Gulliver in Winnipeg" as local boosterism.

For the greatest news story of the period, the Winnipeg General Strike, Brooker crossed the line and worked simultaneously as journalist and also as a Specially Appointed Constable by the province. In that role, he witnessed Manitoban police recruit American thugs to break up the strike, and saw the eventual “Bloody Saturday” killing of two unarmed strikers. Brooker never returned to “hard news” again: according to his son, “He was so upset about the General Strike that he changed all his views.” Class strife and class consciousness entered his writing and added an important perspective to all his subsequent work.

When he moved to Toronto in 1921, Brooker worked as a writer for an advertising magazine -- Marketing Magazine, that still runs today. He eventually took over the entire operation and, on occasion, would write every article in the bi-weekly magazine. His articles on advertising began appearing in newspapers and trade zines around Canada, and throughout the States. Brooker survived the Great Depression on his advertising articles. He also authored two text-books on advertising and design methodology that anticipate Marshall McLuhan in numerous ways.

In Toronto, Brooker began writing arts columns that advocated the rising modernist spirit in the country. He praised the Group of Seven, reviewed E.E. Cummings, and penned support for the "modern spirit." These articles caught the eye of many and Brooker was rewarded in 1928 with a weekly arts column, syndicated across the country through the Southam chain.

The weekly column provides the best survey of modernist activity in Canadian painting, literature, drama, dance, music, sculpture, and architecture from 1928-1930. He was particularly attentive to the emerging modern arts movement evolving in Europe. He praised Gertrude Stein’s “curious rhythmic prose” and James Joyce’s “puzzling” and “erudite” experimentation as the literary equivalent to his own experiments in painting: “Words are placed in relationship to one another as forms and colours are in an abstract painting – purely for the purpose of constructing a ‘pattern’.”

While the primary focus of the column was to develop interest in the modern arts, Brooker would occasionally critique even truly innovative, experimental arts – such as Morley Callaghan’s first novel when it appeared in print, or the fiction of James Joyce, or the poetry and plays of T.S. Eliot – for their resistance to or ignorance of the mystical potential of literature. His most outspoken criticism, however, was reserved for that tenacious tendency amongst Canadian critics and reviewers of Canadian boosterism. He openly criticized William Arthur Deacon, for instance, for obscuring the “devastating deficiencies” of Canadian art for the sake of promotion: “The extreme of enthusiasm here seems to arise from [a] double standard of judgement, and I believe that such a double standard is a bad influence. It can sometimes be more than bad. It can be insulting…. An artist in any field of activity, who is genuinely attempting to create on a level with the rest of the world, and with universal standards as his lowest goal, will not be flattered by these genial back-slappings. He will rather resent them, preferring severe criticism, if just, to ‘home town’ hurrahs.” Brooker displayed no patience for critical exaggeration, particularly in the service of an ill-conceived nationalism.

As if to prove the point, Brooker wrote a small number of articles that were critical of the Group of Seven. He claimed that, while they were radical when they began, they had outlived their usefulness. It was time to move one. Shortly after his columns, Lawren Harris, the leader of the Group of Seven, stopped painting. He endured a crisis of form and never returned to landscapes. The Group of Seven broke up, as indeed the moment had passed. Did Brooker's journalism contribute to their demise? More likely, he was the first to recognize the limitations of their contribution to the ongoing development of Canadian art.

For more on Brooker, be sure to check out this forthcoming book.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page