CBC Digital Archives

Poet E.J. Pratt on turning 75

E.J. (Ned) Pratt was Canada's leading poet of the first half of the 20th century, but you couldn't tell him that without hearing a skeptical chuckle. The friendly professor was, first and foremost, a storyteller and his yarns tell of epic battles between man and nature. In this CBC Radio clip from Pratt's 75th birthday, in 1958, he's asked for a little advice for the poets of tomorrow.
• Edwin John Pratt (in the radio clip, the host mistakenly calls him Edwin James) was born in Newfoundland in 1882 and grew up there in a series of tiny fishing settlements. He married Viola Whitney in 1913 and they had a daughter, Mildred Claire, in 1921.
• Pratt was a teacher and, reluctantly, a Methodist minister like his father before he settled down as a professor of English in Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1920, when he was 38.

• Pratt taught at the university until he retired in 1953. Famed Canadian critic Northrop Frye was one of Pratt's students.
• Pratt published his first book of poetry - Newfoundland Verse - in 1923, when he was 40.
• Many of his poems dealt with the sea, like the long poems The Titanic (1935) - on the ship's sinking off Newfoundland - and Behind the Log (1947), on the North Atlantic convoys during the Second World War.

• Pratt's books of poetry won Governor General's Awards in 1937, 1940 and 1952, the last for his epic Toward the Last Spike. That poem tells of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway from east to west from 1881 to 1885.
• Some critics have chided Pratt for not mentioning the thousands of Chinese labourers who were paid much lower wages than other workers and given the most dangerous jobs, such as carrying explosives.

• Other works commemorating the building of the railway include R.G. MacBeth's Romance of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1924), author Pierre Berton's The National Dream (1970) and singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot's Canadian Railroad Trilogy (1967).
• Pratt was the founding editor of Canadian Poetry Magazine from 1936-43 and was also on Saturday Night magazine's editorial board.
• Marshall McLuhan called Pratt "a one-man creator of a climate for the arts and letters in Canada."

• The week of this broadcast, an article in the CBC Times radio and TV guide noted that Pratt's poems share, "originality, drama, philosophy, humour, deep human understanding and economy of words."
• The story cited Pratt's awards and achievements, adding, "but above all he has been a lover of life, of people, and of humanity."

• Pratt died in Toronto on April 26, 1964. He was 82.
• A library at the University of Toronto is named after Pratt, as is the university's E.J. Pratt Medal for poetry. Winners of the award include Margaret Atwood in 1961 and Michael Ondaatje in 1966.
Medium: Radio
Program: Assignment
Broadcast Date: Feb. 4, 1958
Guest(s): E. J. Pratt
Host: Maria Barrett
Reporter: Jed Adams
Duration: 5:35
Photo: Victoria University Library (Toronto), E.J. Pratt Collection.

Last updated: March 16, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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