Review of Joel Deshaye's The Metaphor of Celebrity

Feb. 21, 2017

Originally published in Journal of Canadian Poetry 31.


JOEL DESHAYE, The Metaphor of Celebrity: Canadian Poetry and the Public, 1955-1980. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Hardcover. Pp. 264. $50.00


The 1960s and 1970s were a fine time to be a poet in Canada, at least if one sought national recognition. The era’s heightened nationalism, with its attendant drive to establish Canadian cultural icons, meant that the mass media were paying a degree of attention to poets that seems remarkable today, while increased government funding of the arts, expanded university enrolments, and unprecedented offerings with respect to courses in Canadian literature meant that there were more Canadian books published, bought, and read than ever before. A numerical indicator: in 1959, there were only 24 volumes of English-language poetry published in Canada; in 1970, there were more than 120. Canadian poets couldn’t reasonably hope to become global celebrities thanks to their poetry alone, but they could plausibly aspire to become—to use Mordecai Richler’s well-known phrase from 1963—“world famous . . . all over Canada.” For a sense of the energy that greeted Canadian poetry at the time, one need only watch the opening of the National Film Board documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965) and observe the rapture with which a packed house took in a reading by Cohen. Three years later, on the back of such reception, and thanks to Cohen’s newfound success as a singer-songwriter, his Selected Poems (1968) sold 200,000 copies in its first three months. Joel Deshaye sees this period as a golden age for Canadian poetic celebrity. After 1980, he argues, poetry was outstripped by the novel in terms of public interest, and poets never fully regained the spotlight they had enjoyed.

In making this case, The Metaphor of Celebrity joins a small number of Canadian scholarly texts addressing literary stardom, the most prominent of which is Lorraine York’s Literary Celebrity in Canada (2007), to which Deshaye duly nods and with which he never substantially disagrees. While York’s book ranges across centuries and literary forms, moving from Pauline Johnson and Stephen Leacock to Carol Shields, in contrast with Deshaye’s focus on poets in the sixties and seventies, both volumes examine celebrity’s cultural functions and significations while recognizing the precarious, often ironic place it has had in terms of Canadian literature. As Deshaye’s and York’s books do so, both remind us that the writing and reading of literature don’t happen in a vacuum; rather, they’re complicatedly involved in an industry where things such as interviews, advertising, and prizes seek to turn books and authors alike into widely circulating texts. Deshaye and York also both recognize that celebrity often foregrounds tensions between the public and the private; between creativity and commerce; between elitism and populism; between a notion of the self as essential and the notion of it as performed. In these regards, celebrity has significance qua celebrity, but Deshaye insists that it is a metaphor, too, one repeatedly explored by the authors he discusses.

Deshaye’s attention is limited almost entirely to four poets: Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, and Gwendolyn MacEwen. Deshaye’s rationale for this narrowness of scope is that these poets were the sole Canadians in the sixties and seventies to make celebrity a significant topic in their poetry. But while Deshaye is interested in what they have to say on the matter, he also wishes to establish how well-known each of them was. To that end, he devotes ample space to reporting his results after tallying their appearances, along with those of Margaret Atwood and Al Purdy, in Canadian mass media during the period. It turns out that, if the number of such appearances is any indication of stardom (and Deshaye offers several caveats about his methodology’s limitations in this respect), there were really just three poets in Canada with a creditable claim to national celebrity during the era: Layton, Cohen, and Atwood. Even with regard to those poets, one needs to keep a sense of proportion. At the height of Layton’s “celebrity,” for instance, his Governor General’s Award-winning collection A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959) sold fewer than 8,000 copies over five years; in those same years, the periodical publications he wrote grossly outnumbered articles about him. Moreover, Deshaye is quick to recognize that none of these three poets became celebrities principally by virtue of their poems. Rather, it was Atwood’s prose, Cohen’s music, and Layton’s broadcast appearances that really made their names beyond the literati. As for Ondaatje, MacEwen, and Purdy, Deshaye finds little evidence that they enjoyed significant visibility outside the publishing community. The point, then, although Deshaye doesn’t put it exactly this way, is not that the sixties and seventies were a time of widespread poetic celebrity but that they were a time when poets gained sufficient exposure to taste celebrity and to meditate on it in their work.

Because Layton was renowned over the whole of the period, he ends up being the star of the star poets in The Metaphor of Celebrity. He gained the national stage as a regular participant from 1956 to 1958 on the CBC TV discussion-panel program Fighting Words, and he also appeared on the TV shows Tabloid, 90 Minutes Live, Telescope, and Take 30, as well as on the CBC Radio programs Anthology, Ideas, As It Happens, Assignment, This Is Robert Fulford, and Morningside. Deshaye makes a contribution to Layton scholarship by looking closely at the poet’s appearances on Fighting Words, where Layton took part in debates about such topics as the role of mass media in public life, the dearth of public intellectuals in Canada, and the relationship between literary writing and punditry. Layton’s participation in these debates involved him happily playing a contrarian who revelled in controversy; in particular, he didn’t hesitate to exploit his association with high culture and chastise Canadians for their philistinism. But as Deshaye surveys Layton’s career, he identifies a changing attitude towards celebrity on the poet’s part. There was an early anticipation of fame and a configuring of poets as Nietzschean visionaries; later, Layton seemed desperate to maintain his “fading stardom” through increasingly egocentric poetry; and, finally, there was a “gradual acceptance of being overexposed and then passé.” As Deshaye tracks these shifts, he does notable work in rereading such frequently anthologized poems as “The Cold Green Element,” “Whatever Else Poetry Is Freedom,” and “A Tall Man Executes a Jig,” asserting that the poems are preoccupied with matters of celebrity and with representing the poet as “a prophet whose audience, when he has one, comprises demons, gnats, and hunters that assault, confine, and emasculate him.”

Meanwhile, Deshaye asserts that by 1968, Cohen “was the unsurpassed star poet in the history of Canadian literature.” Indeed, Cohen’s star shone so brightly that NFB filmmakers documenting him along with Layton, Earle Birney, and Phyllis Gotlieb edited the final film to make it about Cohen alone. Cohen remarked of this change in direction: “For some technical reason only the parts of the film that dealt with me seemed to have been good.” Deshaye depicts Cohen as both Layton’s protégé and, from the start, the charismatic cynosure that Layton wanted to be. But the psychodynamics of the Layton-Cohen relationship aren’t what preoccupy Deshaye; instead, he’s interested in identifying a turn in Cohen’s work from an early individualism that, influenced by Layton’s, privileged freedom to a preoccupation with the metaphor of celebrity as slavery. Reading Cohen’s collection The Energy of Slaves (1972), Deshaye sees Cohen as suggesting “that he took masochistic pleasure and gained artistic ‘energy’ from his celebrity despite its ramifications for his freedom and his identity.” Deshaye ends his study of Cohen with a consideration of Death of a Lady’s Man (1978), which Deshaye takes to renounce the problematic masculinity and religious pretence that Layton had modelled and with which Cohen’s previous work had flirted.

As for Ondaatje, Deshaye persuasively identifies an ambivalent fascination with celebrity running through his poetry, most notably in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Rat Jelly (1973), and Secular Love (1984). Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid, Deshaye asserts, is “almost completely destroyed by the public,” yet Ondaatje’s inclusion in the book of a photograph of himself as a child in a cowboy costume also suggests the germinal effects of Billy’s stardom. Celebrity, Deshaye observes, can lead to poets becoming fans and “grandstanding”—Deshaye’s term for poets adopting the persona of someone more celebrated than themselves. So defined, grandstanding is what Ondaatje also did with respect to the jazz musician Buddy Bolden in Ondaatje’s historical novel Coming Through Slaughter (1976)—a work that Deshaye leaves out of his analysis, ostensibly because it’s a novel and because discussing it would require more analysis than space allows. I’m not sure that this rationale for excluding Coming Through Slaughter is entirely sound, though. After all, a major claim made repeatedly by Deshaye is that the era of poetic celebrity in Canada, such as it was, ended principally due to the eclipsing of poetry by the novel. Consequently, it would make sense to compare Ondaatje’s treatment of celebrity in his poetry with how he treated it in his novel, which was published as the era waned.

Likewise, it seems unfortunate that Deshaye leaves aside a consideration of Margaret Atwood. He does so, he says, because Atwood didn’t discuss celebrity in her poetry during the era. However, she did discuss it at length in her novel Lady Oracle, published in the same year as Coming Through Slaughter. In Lady Oracle, what’s more, Atwood juxtaposes her Canadian protagonist’s successes as a novelist and as a poet, respectively. Given that juxtaposition, Deshaye’s choice to leave out Atwood seems regrettable. It grows even more conspicuous when Deshaye nods to the fact that Atwood was someone whose celebrity was much observed and commented on by other Canadian poets—in Layton’s case, with a telling vituperation.

Deshaye does make room to discuss MacEwen’s novel Julian the Magician (1962), which he reads as an early example of her prolonged fascination with celebrity. Deshaye argues that in the novel and in her poetry collection The Rising Fire (1963), MacEwen metaphorizes celebrity in the figures of magicians who come to believe in their illusory religious significance and who eventually try to flee celebrity due to the oppressiveness of public expectations. Deshaye also offers an extended exegesis of MacEwen’s The T. E. Lawrence Poems (1983), which he takes to cogitate on MacEwen’s own variety of literary stardom. MacEwen had mixed feelings about being in the public eye, and Deshaye doesn’t flinch from wondering whether her particular celebrity might have contributed to her struggles with alcohol and, in turn, her death from probable metabolic acidosis at the age of forty-six. But if MacEwen’s relationship to celebrity seems to have been more destructive than that of the other poets whom Deshaye considers, he emphasizes that all of them express an ambivalence in their poetry with respect to stardom. They all “valorize the private self,” and they all “usually represent celebrity as an experience of unwanted scrutiny and restriction on freedoms of expression, self-definition, movement, and sexual behaviour.” Deshaye agrees with York that such a primarily negative view of celebrity has, in fact, been the dominant one among Canadian poets across history. Having experienced so little stardom, on the whole, they’ve been liable to think that they wouldn’t benefit from more.

For all Deshaye’s interest in historicizing the work of his poets, The Metaphor of Celebrity pays minimal attention to what is surely the most salient element of the period he considers: namely, Canadian nationalism. Partly, this lack of attention stems from his choice to leave aside Atwood and Purdy, whose poetry was often patently nationalist. In contrast, Deshaye’s group of poets frequently looked beyond the nation for their subjects, if not their audiences. Deshaye suggests that Ondaatje’s and MacEwen’s fascination with non-Canadians such as Billy the Kid and T. E. Lawrence bespeaks aspirations to global literary fame rather than to a Canadian stardom that might have been as ephemeral as the cultural nationalism that supported it. Nevertheless, with the exception of Cohen, Deshaye’s poets were known between 1955 and 1980 primarily in Canada, and all four had their work taken up in nationalist ways. For instance, it isn’t coincidental that Cohen’s poem “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward,” one of few by him to deal explicitly with nationalist issues, was included in at least four Canadian anthologies between 1967 and 1973. However, Deshaye’s focus on what the poets had to say, rather than on the reception of their work, means that he never really grapples with the complex interplay of the poets’ cosmopolitanism and their membership in a nationalist cultural field.

Greater attention to the nationalist dynamics at work in the creation and maintenance of the poets’ celebrity would also help to explain why all four were residents of Toronto or Montreal for stretches during the era. Surely, their concentration in these cities wasn’t a coincidence, especially given the proximity to national mass-media outlets that the poets consequently enjoyed. By leaving aside the question of how the cultural forces and players in these cities—editors, publishers, publicists, reviewers, columnists, interviewers, and TV producers, among them—collaborated to make Canadian poetic stardom possible, Deshaye leaves the door open for another book to be written with his volume’s subtitle, Canadian Poetry and the Public, 1955-1980. As it stands, The Metaphor of Celebrity represents a significant effort to break ground in Canadian scholarship by returning to a key period in the nation’s literary history and combining intensive textual interpretation with cultural historiography that makes use of quantitative methods.