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by Shaun Hunter
It was not the first time Annie Osborn’s writing provoked a response. Before the Australian journalist moved to Edmonton with her Presbyterian minister husband, in a Melbourne newspaper she denounced a frenzied crowd at a prize fight while Australian soldiers were dying at Gallipoli.
Years later, in a September 1936 interview with the Edmonton Bulletin, Osborn recalled those Australian readers’ anger with “a thrill of pleasure.” The article was a highlight in her journalism career.
Two months after that interview, Osborn’s preface in an Edmonton poetry chapbook also whipped up attention. As the province faced continued economic hardship, the unravelling of King Edward VII’s reign, and the rise of fascism abroad, Albertans were talking about poetry.
Osborn served as one of five judges for the seventh annual province-wide poetry contest organized by the Edmonton branch of the Canadian Authors Association. Since 1930, Edmonton writers had been publishing the winning poems in the Alberta Poetry Year Book, a slim volume sold for thirty cents at local shops before Christmas. The annual project was one of many grassroots poetry efforts popping up across the country to foster homegrown Canadian literature.
In the foreword to the inaugural Year Book in 1930, noted Edmonton jurist, activist, and writer Emily Murphy applauded the organizers’ aim to encourage Alberta poets. “Our land must not be songless,” she wrote. “We need an expression of our own.”
The Poetry Year Book editors saw their literary project not only as a way to inspire verse by and about Alberta; it was an opportunity to instruct local writers in the art of poetry. From the first issue, editors included detailed judges’ reports as a preface to each edition – a unique feature of the Alberta chapbooks. Judges’ comments extended beyond praise for the winning poems, honing in on the finer points of poetic craft. Their assessment of contest entries was often blunt. The judges for the first contest wrote: “Many of the three hundred or so poems were frankly doggerel.”
In 1936, Annie Osborn’s written remarks on behalf of the panel set off a flurry of controversy. She commented on “the toil of reading much crude material.” Among the 350 entries, she found “flaws, more or less serious, in all but two… palpably evidences of careless work.”
Osborn was disappointed “to find so small a range of subjects chosen, so grave a lack of poetic conception underlying the work, so few indications of the transcription of actual feelings or experiences… Individuality… is woefully rare.” In her view, the entries submitted did “not measure up… either in quality of thought and composition or in range of subjects” to the poems published in the six previous editions of the Year Book.
For Osborn, poetry was as Wordsworth defined it: “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’”
Two weeks after the chapbook was published, Edmonton branch member Jim H. Binny took issue in the Bulletin with Osborn’s comments. The judges, he wrote, were “a trifle hard on the competitors… It seems as if the entries were received in very critical aura: to be dissected rather than welcomed and to have their weaknesses rather than their strengths emphasized.”
Binny suggested another measure to judge a poem’s merits: “its capacity to please the reader. It is the emotion that the words set up that counts. If the poem is capable of pleasing the majority of its readers, then there cannot be much wrong with it.”
In Calgary, an anonymous critic writing for the Albertan agreed with Osborn that the 1936 chapbook “does not seem to reach its usual high standard.” The writers also noted “the West as a subject should undoubtedly be encouraged but too often it is used in doggerel which is not particularly attractive to the ear nor the eye.”
In late November, one of the contest winners and a published poet, Isa Grindlay Jackson of Lonira, Alberta responded in the Edmonton Journal. Her spirited “In Defence of Alberta Poets” took issue with Osborn’s discouraging remarks: “If our work is so entirely lacking in merit and charm, why publish the fact and offer us as a target for levity or scorn to the whole English-speaking world?” She also dismissed the judge’s definition of poetry as “sustained self-searching and self-communing.”
“Perhaps Alberta poetry is not bad but only ‘different’ since, in the eyes of the world at large, Alberta is different anyway. For one thing it is a very young country where self-searching and self-communing have not really got away to a start yet. Tennysons and Brownings probably never interrupted their muse while they popped the vegetables into the boiled dinner or set a couple of mouse-traps in the cellar. Different conditions, no doubt, must produce different poets.”
The poetry commotion continued. A few days later, the Journal published F. G. Roe’s “In Defence of An Alberta Critic,” a two-column response to Jackson. The Canadian National Railway locomotive engineer and author of western Canadian history books was vice-president of the Authors Association branch and served as contest judge for the previous year’s chapbook.
“The function of a critic is to criticize… One of the chief functions of the annual poetry competition and of the person or persons acting as judge, is to point out technical blemishes; so that thereby contributors who fall may rise.”
Roe then shared his definition: “Poetry is what poetry is, to the individual judge of the moment, each in his own inalienable sovereign right.”
The response to Osborn’s comments sparked the Authors Association branch to call a meeting to discuss criticisms of the 1936 Year Book at the YWCA. Oh to have been a fly on the wall.
In the Journal’s “Letter Box,” the discussion continued. Finally, Annie Osborn weighed in with a lively two-column defence in the Journal. “Wholly unrepentant” for her remarks as contest judge, she claimed that though she could not write poems, she was “an ardent lover” of poetry. Her conclusion? “I think literary criticism is sadly needed in this province. If I have stimulated thought regarding it, I shall have done a great deal more than I had hoped to do.”
Osborn did not stay in Alberta long enough to help fill the critical void. In May 1937, after five years in Edmonton, she and her husband left Alberta for a new church posting in New York State.
When the Year Book’s eighth edition was published in late 1937, editors elected not to include judges’ remarks. After a brief hiatus the feature would return, included in each Alberta Poetry Year Book until the project wrapped up in 1990.
In 1936, the debate this small annual chapbook stirred up showed that many Albertans were engrossed in the act of writing, reading and caring about poetry as the world churned around them.
About the author:
Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. Her map of Calgary’s 1920s literary scene is forthcoming from the Calgary Atlas Project. You can find Shaun at shaunhunter.ca.
Feature image credit: Alberta Poetry Year Book 1936 inside cover. Photo courtesy Shaun Hunter.