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Recommended Reading: Lawren Harris in The Ward: His Urban Poetry and Paintings, Edited by Gregory Betts

elana wolff writes...

Lawren Harris is best known for his stark, mystical landscapes of the Canadian north, and for being a founding member of the Group of Seven. Lawren Harris in The Ward: His Urban Poetry and Paintings provides a glimpse into the artist’s life and career, just as the Group of Seven was emerging into the national spotlight in the early 1920s. In 1922, Harris published a book of poetry, Contrasts— a collection that Gregory Betts dubs “the first modernist exploration of Canadian urban space in verse.” He also created a set of striking, stylized cityscapes that capture a lost time and place in Torontonian history.

Betts brings together forty-four of Harris’s poems— some previously unpublished— and twenty colour images of the artist’s early urban paintings in this compact (7" x 7"), beautiful-to-hold-and-read, genre-crossing collection. The book also contains a thirteen-page walking tour of “The Relics of Lawren Harris’s Toronto,” including historical and biographical tidbits like these: “Eccentrism was... in the air. By the late 20s, Harris had become the most prominent member of the increasingly prominent Canadian Theosophical Society... He led workshops and gave lectures on art and mysticism”; “...the secret bohemian heart of the city [was] veiled in Wychwood, in Casa Loma, and in the Group of Seven’s Studio Building” (located at 25 Severn Street in the Rosedale Ravine); “Toronto was not a city of cafes or public squares... alcohol and even dancing were strictly controlled... outsiders visiting during the period, like Ernest Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats, were shocked to find that there was no place to go in Toronto, no downtown scene... everything of any note happened behind closed doors, hush-hushed, — or worse, happened up in Muskoka on private cottage estates.”

In his companionable introduction, Betts presents Lawren Harris the wanderer— the privileged scion of one of the wealthiest families in the Dominion who “could stand on the step of his cushy bourgeois respite and stare long into the mystery of poverty.” Harris was a visitor to the slums of Toronto, but a visitor with genuine interest in the idiosyncracies of workaday life beyond the idyllic bubble his privileged world. He walked the impoverished streets of the neighbourhood once known as The Ward— bordered by College Street, Queen Street, Yonge Street, and University Avenue— sketching and scribbling, impelled by “curiosity and open wonder.” Although painting superseded poetry in Harris’s investigation of the “spiritual realities of the world,” spiritual interest, eye, and idiom are readily evident in his poems:

“In a part of the city that is ever shrouded in sooty smoke... hides a gloomy house of / broken grey rough-cast, like a sickly sin in a callow soul.” (“A Note of Colour”)

“This is the age of the soul’s degradations, / Of tossing into the sun’s light / The dross and slime of life, / and glorying in the miserable glitter./ Hell’s tinsel, and allurements and stupifying glare / Shot over the soul’s great sadness / With cries and sneer and hard hosannahs.” (“The Age”)

“The soul shrinks in sorrow / And expands in joy / Breathing itself / To a God-like capacity.”

Underlying the plain, direct diction of Harris’s transcriptive verse is a plea for freedom, happiness, and social harmony, as well as the acknowledgement that these are hard to achieve when intolerance and poverty impinge:

“Are you sad when you look down city lanes, / Lanes littered with ashes, boxes, cans, old rags; / Dirty, musty, garbage-reeking lanes / ... Seething with blind, driven people— / Seeing pilgrims settling down in the earth’s scum, / In mud... / Are you sad?” (“A Question”)

“So many people / Are busy / grinding axes / that they never look up / To say / How do you do / With their eyes... ‘Tis rare / on earth / To be able / To go out / To another, / As if / to say / Here’s you , / Here’s me / Let us smile, / Through and through.” (“Occupied People”)

As Betts highlights in a quote from an essay by Lawren Harris, Harris held hope for a new order, an equitable system, the interdependence of all peoples. He believed in the transformative power of art. He portrayed a crumbling and broken world in his early urban work, yet was optimistic about the potential for social and spiritual renewal. Although Harris wrote only one book of poems, he would surely have held— with eminent American modernist poet Wallace Stevens— that “poetry is a companion of the conscience, and the poem a faithful act of conscience.” Harris’s poems are infused with ethical sense and a message that is as salient today as it was in the days when the area now occupied by the Old and New City Halls and institutions of Toronto’s university health network was a slum.

This small album of poetry, paintings, and biographical walking tour ought to be on every Welcome to Toronto (and Canada) book list. Gregory Betts’s smart, illustrative writing, which convinces by style as well as content, and Exile Editions’ winning presentation, combine to make Lawren Harris in The Ward a fresh look at the early work of one of Canada’s most iconic modernists.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.