Articles

RHYMES IN A TEN-CENT SCRIBBLER

Critics sometimes make fun of the homespun verses of Edna Jaques, Canada’s best-selling poet, but her sweet songs bring help and joy to housewives and sailors and bring her a comfortable livelihood

JANICE TYRWHITT September 1 1952
Articles

RHYMES IN A TEN-CENT SCRIBBLER

Critics sometimes make fun of the homespun verses of Edna Jaques, Canada’s best-selling poet, but her sweet songs bring help and joy to housewives and sailors and bring her a comfortable livelihood

JANICE TYRWHITT September 1 1952

RHYMES IN A TEN-CENT SCRIBBLER

Articles

Critics sometimes make fun of the homespun verses of Edna Jaques, Canada’s best-selling poet, but her sweet songs bring help and joy to housewives and sailors and bring her a comfortable livelihood

JANICE TYRWHITT

IN A FARMHOUSE KITCHEN a small greyhaired woman sat chatting with the farmer’s wife who was preparing dinner in her honor. “Do you always break the china when you’re getting a meal?” she asked as her hostess fumbled and dropped a plate. The housewife retorted, “How would you feel if Shakespeare came to supper?” The visitor was Edna Jaques, a Canadian poet whose work most literary critics refuse to describe as Shakespearean and some even refuse to describe as poetry. In quarters where its definition is somewhat less important than the fact that it rhymes and scans and goes straight to the heart, Miss Jaques’ work nevertheless is poetry, and bigleague poetry at that. It’s the kind of verse women clip from local newspapers because they enjoy its rhyming catalogue of familiar pleasures like. 'Fresh rhubarb in the spring . . the taste of tea. the crunch of wagon wheels.” For Pauline Johnson’s

dramatic intensity Edna substitutes the contentment of The Song My Kettle Sings.

Her talent for pleasing a mass audience has made Edna Jaques Canada’s best-selling poet with an annual sale of five thousand volumes bearing such titles as Roses in December and Aunt Hattie’s Place. Her eight books sell for a dollar twentyfive each and from her ten percent royalty, plus payments for verse and prose sketches in newspapers and magazines, she makes more than a thousand dollars a year. Her second major source of income is her lecturing schedule which has taken her an average of ten thousand miles a year for the past twenty-five years, during which she has crossed Canada five times. Her after-dinner speeches to women’s institutes and community organizations usually consist of recitation and informal discussion of her own writing. Edna Jaques has proved that it’s possible for a Canadian

to earn a comfortable living from verse alone.

“Poets are more famous than rich,” says Edna. Although she keeps a thrifty eye on her finances she gets more pleasure from the fact that her verse cheers and comforts her readers while it brings her „ sizeable share of personal fame. A survey released April 30, 1952, by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion ranked Edna as one of Canada’s most popular women. After many speeches she is discreetly mobbed by admirers. Radio commentators Claire Wallace and Jane Gray read her verses over the air. Some women keep Edna’s books beside their Bibles and never read anything else. During the war when an RCAF pilot asked with unmistakable awe, “Are you the real Edna Jaques?” she replied with characteristic matterof-factness, “Well, I look pretty solid, don’t I?” The airman produced one of her books and said, “Your poems flew over the Pole with me last night.”

A steady stream of fan letters reaches Edna at her lakeside cottage near Clarkson, twenty miles west of Toronto, where she has lived for the past four years. From a British battleship in the Far East a sailor wrote, “I found your poem in an old edition of the Toronto Star, the one called, You Have to Believe in Happiness ; . My girl is getting tired of waiting and I’m afraid of losing her, so I just keep your poem in my wallet and when I get lonely or discouraged I take it out and read it and it helps a lot.” From Prince Albert a farmer with a Santa Claus beard sent a photograph of himself standing in deep snow beside his sheep pen, together with several presents and a proposal of marriage which Edna, a widow, refused. Other readers have set her verses to hymn tunes. A Cobourg, Ont., woman wrote, “I have often tried to picture you in my mind, Miss Jaques, you must be so beautiful.” But another reader was disillusioned: “Before I saw you I loved your poetry, now I never read it. I never was so disappointed in my life as when you got up on the platform to speak to the women of our church in Niagara Falls. I thought you’d be tall and beautiful like Kate Aitken but there you were, short and fat and homely.”

Although Edna is a small plump woman, barely five feet tall, there’s a breezy look about her that led one small-town woman to remark, “You might be my sister.” She has a strong streak of sentimentality which often crystallizes into sugar in her writing. In her own personality this sweetness is laced with a salty abruptness of manner. Once a western friend phoned to report that a notoriously lazy neighbor had just lost a leg in an accident. “He might as well have lost both for all the use they are to him,” was Edna’s tart comment. After a lecture in Victoria „ woman gushed, “Oh, Miss Jaques, I just love gahdening—my gahdener has designed such « beautiful gahden for me.” Edna retorted, “When I garden I just claw in the earth with my own two hands.”

Her bright brown eyes are the clue to a sturdy vitality of mind and body, bred in her childhood on the Saskatchewan prairies at the turn of the century. Sympathetic toward others, she inflicts on herself a discipline of hard work and adherence to the United Church ideal of abstention. At cocktail parties she nurses a glass of ginger ale. Her married daughter Joyce has smoked moderately for years but Edna still occasionally advises, “Better watch your smoking or it’ll get to be i

“She’s a swell person, but I wouldn’t talk back to her even now,” Joyce admits with a grin.

The keynote of Edna Jaques’ verse is the red geranium on the kitchen window sill, « recurring symbol of cheerfulness in humdrum surroundings. Edna always keeps one of these flowers in her own kitchen. “Geraniums are wholesome plants that just grow without any fuss,” she says. “They’re kinda like me, I guess—just a common ordinary sort of a plant.”

Edna was born in the Ontario town of Collingwood, the Georgian Bay port that was home base for her father, a lake-boat captain. When Edna was eleven Capt. Jaques was hit by a sudden surge of pioneering spirit. A blustering, domineering man, he swept his meek wife and five children off to the unsettled flatlands of Saskatchewan on a wave of enthusiasm that carried them through the early hardships of building a lonely homestead on the open prairie thirty-five miles south of Moose Jaw. Other easterners followed and Jaques became the patriarch of a thriving settlement. When the railway came through in 1911 the tiny town was called Briercrest, after the Jaques’ farm.

The little colony prospered. The citizens of Briercrest were staunch Protestant churchgoers with a strong sense of their responsibility to God and to each other. Early settlers passed on to neighbors their newly learned knowledge of agriculture and domestic skills. When Capt. Jaques first prepared to plow his unbroken fields he harnessed up four wild broncos in the belief that this was standard western practice. Edna and the younger children were ordered out of the way, so they watched the operation

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Rhymes in a Ten-Cent Scribbler

Continued from page 15

from the ridgepole of the barn roof-

Edna’s older brothers, Bruce and Clyde, are still wheat farmers in Briercrest. One younger sister, Madge, is dead: Arlie, the youngest, is married to C. A. Pearson, an accountant with a steamship company in Portland, Ore.

From her God-fearing mother Edna inherited her domesticity and imaginative delight in the commonplace. One of her poems begins, “I’m like my mother, I can see her every action here in me.” Capt. Jaques passed on to his daughter the determined fearlessness that once led him to shake his fist at the storm of hail that swept across the prairie and to defy the Lord to hail him out. The storm flattened the neighbors’ crops on either side of his land but left his wheat untouched. “Even God’s afraid of your father,” Mrs. Jaques whispered to her children.

For Edna verse was a natural way of expressing her thoughts and she was jotting rhymes on scraps of paper as soon as she could write. Her first published work appeared in the Moose Jaw Times when she was thirteen. A year later she sent some verses to Billy Sunday who set them to music and sang them at revival meetings. In her early twenties she left Briercrest with the intention of earning her way around the world and becoming a famous poet.

By hiring herself out by the day as a dressmaker she worked her way as far as Calgary. There in 1918 she wrote the war poem which brought her forty dollars and her first success. One day while she was sewing, a verse sprang fully formed into her mind; she jotted it down on the bottom of a spool box. A reply to In Flanders Fields, it began, “We have kept faith,

; ye Flanders dead . . .” It was read at ' the unveiling of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.

! With the Belgian national anthem it I was printed on a card which was sold in the United States by the Federation of Women’s Clubs for ten cents a copy and raised a million dollars for war j relief.

The Calgary' Herald plunged into an energetic campaign to welcome the cityr’s new literary star but Edna was so shy three weeks passed before she summoned up courage to present herself at the newspaper office. The editor wanted to send her to university but Edna explained she hadn't time—she wanted to see the world. So the Herald sent her up for a ride around Calgary in a little stunt plane which crashed the next day'. Then, at Edna’s own suggestion, the paper paid her way out to the west coast.

After six months as a stewardess on the coastal steamer Princess Adelaide, Edna saved enough money' to take u course in typing and shorthand. She applied to a business school where the length and cost of the course were explained to her. She asked, ‘Tf I learn to type in half the time can I get the course half price?” Later she worked on the Vancouver Province. But after several months she went home to Briercrest where she soon married William Ernest Jamieson, a neighbor whom she remembers as a charming, rather weak man with an air of elegance. "He could look dressed up in anything.” she says. “He proposed to me when we were walkin’ up the tracks at Moose Jaw.”

After their daughter Joyce was bom the Jamiesons went north to a lonely homestead near Prince Albert. Edna hated everything about this primitive I existence—the skimpy diet of pancakes

and dry bread, the howling wolves tha. circled the log cabin, her job of carryi mail from the railway to earn the elever dollars a month that was often theh only' source of income. After fom years she and Joyce left the homestead forever. There was no divorce Jamieson died some time later.

Edna had her first lecturing engagement in 1929 when the president of the Canadian Club in Moose Jaw asked her to make an after-dinner speech. “I must be crazy,” she remarked to her brother Clyde. “I just told some dam group of women in Moose Jaw that I’d go and speak to them.” Soon she was speaking regularly' to women’s clubs and church societies and found enthusiastic audiences. Her simple speeches invariably described her life at Briercrest and the writing of the verses which by then were being published regularly by newspapers in British Columbia and the prairie provinces. Her lecturing manner is so apparently artless a friend once suggested she should take a course in elocution. “That’s just what I’ve been doing for the last year.” Edna explained indignantly.

Although from 1929 to 1935 Edna took a stenographic job in Victoria to support her small daughter she took time off to make two trans-Canada lecture tours for the Canadian Club. After six years she left Victoria and sent Joyce to live at Briercrest while she lectured full time, traveling about the prairies doing university extension work for the women’s institutes.

In the drought years of the Thirties the prairies lay baking in a dry' windless heat, flat and monotonous to the horizon. When clouds appeared they were clouds of dust, and farm women kept their furniture under cloth covers all year round. Edna describes the barren years:

Just sort of holding on for one more crop

Hoping and praying that the drought will stop.

Watching the brassy brightness of

Hearing the hollow sound of the wind's cry.

My neighbor’s face reflecting clear and plain

The aching hope of everyone for rain.

For the drought-sick women of the prairies Edna’s speeches provided welcome relief. By communicating her sympathy and confidence in terms they could understand she won a western audience that has been faithful ever since. One of her poems begins:

If you are prairie-bred . . there seems to be

A sort of fellowship that speaks to me.

At one lecture a rugged old farmer rose in his seat and bellowed, “Give it

to us, Edna! That’s the stuff to give us morale!”

The year 1935 marked the publication of Edna’s first major collection of poems, My Kitchen Window, which has since gone into nine editions and proved a pint-size bonanza for the Toronto publishing firm of Thomas Allen. In Victoria Edna had made friends with writer Nellie McClung who persuaded Thomas Allen, her own publisher, to run off a few thousand copies of Edna’s collection. Edna says, “I guess Nellie just brow-beat old Tom Allen into taking me on.”

Since then Edna has produced seven other volumes at about two-year intervals. Each book is a collection of poems first published in newspapers or magazines. Her publishers count on selling from three to five thousand copies of each new volume and the earlier books maintain a steady sale. In 1951 the price per copy was increased from one dollar to $1.25. Gross receipts for Edna’s books since 1935 total over seventy thousand dollars. About forty percent of sales are in eastern Canada; the remaining sixty percent sell to the west where Eaton’s mail-order department in Winnipeg is the biggest single

Edna’s publishers congratulate themselves on the fact that her lectures provide good publicity for her poetry. Edna herself takes a stack of books to each lecture and personally sells a thousand a year. On the other hand, handling Edna’s business means two minor headaches for the firm: first, the flood of manuscripts from hopeful Canadian amateurs who model their poetic style on Edna’s (so far none has been accepted for publication); and second, Edna’s insistence on designing her own book jackets which depend on the homespun appeal of a fireside or a rose-covered cottage to compensate for their artistic shortcomings.

In 1939 illness brought Edna east to a Toronto hospital where she underwent an operation for a spinal tumor. During the tedious year that follow-ed she lived in a tiny room in a lodging house, eating cheap meals of milk and peanut-butter sandwiches while she taught herself to walk again. Though she doesn’t limp, her right leg is still so numb she can jab it w-ith a pair of scissors without feeling pain. At this time she began her present arrangement of supplying the Toronto Star with first rights to ten verses a month for its column A Little of Everything. As her strength returned Edna plunged into Canada’s w-ar effort: from 1940 to 1942 she operated a fifteen-ton powder press in a Canadian General Electricfactory in Toronto.

In 1942 she went to Ottaw-a where she WTote articles for the information branch of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board on such subjects as price control and wartime economy. She carried her homespun style into her accounts of national finance and smalltown papers all over Canada clamored for her material while they passed up the more technical offerings of other civil-service publicity writers. Donald Gordon, then the all-powerful chief of the Canadian economy, at first had some reservations about the value of Edna’s work. To check on the reception she was getting he asked to see a file of clippings from weekly papers that used Edna’s reports. One day’s clippings totaled forty-four, a record. Gordon said: “Well. I'll be damned.”

Edna lent a domestic flavor to the staid Prices Board budding by converting her office to a makeshift approximation of the kitchen she no longer possessed. Other offices had electrickettles, but Edna was the only staffer with a tea cosy for her teapot. Other employees kept pins in old tin boxes

but Edna’s desk sported a bright little calico pincushion. Her window sill blazed with potted plants. To colleagues she explained, “I just can’t live in a place that doesn’t look homelike.”

When her book Back-Door Neighbors was ready for publication Edna left her typewriter, whipped off her gingham apron and marched up the long corridor to Donald Gordon's office. “I’ve come to ask you to write a preface to my new book,” she explained. He thanked her but remarked that he wouldn’t know what to say. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Edna cheerfully, “I’ll write it and you can sign it.” Next day she returned with the foreword that eventually appeared in the collection of verse:

What Robert Bums was to Scotland . . . Edna Jaques is to Canada . . . the voice of the people.

Her poems — as she says herself — are clad in print and homespun and the rough weave of common folk.

This collection of verse. Back-Door Neighbors, is like an old-fashioned patchwork quilt, varied and original. Here is a patch of blue Canadian sky ... a yellow strip of prairie . . . the rose of a sunrise, gradually deepening into the warm shades of day . of joy and promise.

Life is like that too, and Edna Jaques has captured it all between the covers of this book. It might truly be said cf her "she sings the glory of the commonplace."

They're simple homey little poems of the popular type . . but they're jammed and packed with rich feeling. gentle humor . . . broad human sympathy

A choking realism, mellowed by love and hope . . . faith and charity.

Gordon read it and signed, with the comment. “I consider it a privilege to sign this. Miss Jaques.”

“And well you might, Mr. Gordon,” Edna replied, “because long after you and T are dead these poems of mine will live on.”

In the summer of 1947 Edna returned to Toronto and set about building her present home, a cottage in the lakeshore farn ing district twenty miles west of Toronto. Most of the space in the tiny white clapboard structure is taken up by a living-room-kitchen brightly painted in sky-blue by Edna herself Cn the walls are decorations in the style of homemaking magazines, knickknack shelves and prints of brilliant autumn scenes that mirror the artistic taste Edna shares with her readers.

On summer mornings Edna gets up at six o’clock, pulls on an old shirt and a pair of blue overalls and begins working in her garden. Her three acres of land, stretching from Highway No. 2 south to Lake Ontario, are planted in strawberries and raspberries that pay off during the fruit season. Edna hoes and tends and picks all her own berries, then sells them at a stand beside the highway. “It's more fun than a picnic,” she says. “Year before last I made over a hundred dollars.”

Edna’s move to Clarkson meant more opportunity' to see her daughter from whom she had been separated for twelve years while Joyce attended Saskatchewan boarding school, trained for nursing at the Women's College Hospital in Toronto and worked as stewardess for Trans-Canada Air Lines. Joyce, dark and strikingly' pretty, is now married to Toronto pharmacist Murray Sugar. Edna is devoted to her two grandsons, Gary', three, and Steven, one. “She’s the best baby-sitter a person ever had,” says Joyce.

Edna often stays with the Sugars during the tiring grind of lectures which lasts from September to May. She draws up her own schedule and sometimes speaks five times a week.

Although she has made only one trans-Canada tour since she moved to Clarkson she is usually booked six months ahead for engagements all over Ontario. She travels so much that occasionally she gets confused about where she’s going. Once she asked a railway ticket agent what town she was in. “Wetaskiwin.” he answered. “Well,” she said thoughtfully, “I must be going someplace else.” “You sure are, lady',” snapped the agent. “You’re going nuts.”

Edna thrives on attention and enjoys everything about the lecture? tours except the food. In each town her hostess takes pride in serving a blueribbon meal, and after a few days of this rich diet Edna says, “I get so if I smell turkey cooking or hear a whipped-cream beater I just feel sick. Once a woman asked what I’d like for supper and I said a boiled egg and a slice of brown bread. She told me she’d never live it down if she didn’t give me roast duck—so we ate roast duck. On my last trip I gained twenty pounds. I got so fat I couldn’t button my jacket.”

Edna, whose writing habits are simple, has worked her way methodically through a series of forty-eight ten-cent scribblers. On each page she

begins a verse in pencil, perhaps with only the first line, perhaps with twelve or twenty lines. To a friend who asked her to write a rhymed publicity spiel for a charity drive Edna exclaimed in amazement, “You know I can’t do that—I have to be inspired.” She sparks her imagination with words such as “isolation” and “home-coming" that have caught her fancy in reading or conversation. Phrases that will serve later as germs for verse are scrawled down the left-hand margin of each scribbler page.

Critics have drawn a humorous parallel between Edna Jaques and Sarah Binks, the sweet songstress of Saskatchewan created by satirist Paul Hieben. Edna hasn’t read Hiebert’s book but doesn’t think she’d care for it: “I remember it came out a while ago but I haven’t read it—it was one of those things that was kind of supposed to be clever but likely I wouldn’t see any cleverness in it.” Edna has never studied technique or criticism or even read other poets for fear she might be accused of copying their style.

The fact that other writers are rated higher by literary authorities doesn’t bother Edna in the least. “Who wants to be an unread genius?” she asks. “My poetry is about the things people know and enjoy. I speak their language. I think those other Canadian poets try to be too highfalutin’.”