“Sift in an Hourglass”: Remembering Ralph Gustafson
by Bruce Whiteman

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Photo Courtesy of Bishop’s University

Ralph and Betty Gustafson loved Chinese food. Perhaps there was no Chinese restaurant in North Hatley, the small town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships where they lived, because every time they came to Montreal we would meet, at their suggestion, at one restaurant or another in Chinatown. I’m not sure where this hunger for Chinese food came from. They met in the 1950s in New York City, where Betty was a nurse at the Presbyterian Hospital, and where Ralph had lived since working, during World War II, for the British Information Services, an arm of the Ministry of Information that summarized American war news and remitted it to London. Betty liked to reminisce about some of her famous patients, including the violinist Jascha Heifetz. In the ’50s, Ralph pieced together a living as a freelance music critic and writer. Among other things, he wrote copy for the sleeves of classical music records, while also composing a novel that remains unpublished.

I first met Ralph and Betty at McMaster University in 1983. The Canada Council then had a program of sponsoring short-term writers-in-residence, and I invited Ralph to come to Hamilton in that capacity. While we’d never met, Ralph had supported my application for a writer’s grant at the end of the 1970s, when I had finished graduate school and wanted to travel for a while to write poetry. I had received, out of the blue, a warm letter from him after the publication of my book Inventions, which said in its entirety—how could I ever forget?!—“Dear Bruce Whiteman, Your Inventions comes straight from the celestial horse’s mouth,” so I made bold to ask for his support. I started working as a librarian at McMaster in late 1979, after a European jaunt, and soon after attempted to bring some poets to campus, first through a reading series, and subsequently through the short-term writer-in-residence opportunity. Ralph and Betty came and stayed for two weeks, I think, or a month. The University put them up at the President’s Residence, which impressed them deeply. I don’t remember what literary calisthenics Ralph had to execute for his money, but presumably he gave a reading and met with student poets. My wife, Deborah, and I saw a lot of the Gustafsons, and we all four quickly became good friends. It did not hurt at all that I had a grand piano in my living room.

Ralph studied the piano as a boy and nurtured musical aspirations. He once said that, alone, he played like Franz Liszt, but that he did not relish playing for other people. He bought a Steinway when he and Betty moved back to Quebec in the early 1960s, when Ralph took up a professorship at Bishop’s University. But during all the years that I knew him, from the early 1980s until his death in 1995, I could never convince him to play for me. I played for him a few times, a little embarrassedly, like a fourteen-year-old pushed by his parents to read his sonnet to guests at the dinner table, mostly because I hoped that, if I played, he would. But he wouldn’t. All the same, music drew us together as friends as much as poetry did. Later, when Deborah and I would drive out to North Hatley from Montreal, where we had moved in 1988, the talk would just as often circle around the piano as around writing. Ralph loved above all the pianists of the Golden Age, players like Benno Moiseiwitsch, Paderewski, Rachmaninoff, Vladimir de Pachmann, Leopold Godowsky, Josef Hoffmann, and others. He told me that he’d heard Nikolai Medtner play in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1923, when Ralph was a teenager, and that the recital had made him decide to be a pianist. That did not happen, but his knowledge of repertoire and pianists was exhaustive. We disagreed only about Glenn Gould, whose playing Ralph could not abide and whom I adored. Oh we disagreed also about Mahler. Ralph even published a poem entitled “Enduring Mahler.” Ralph, how could you!

Back in Hamilton, the only piano recital that took place during Ralph’s brief residency was a concert by a pianist who specialized in the music of Kaikhosru Sorabji. Paul Rapoport, who taught in the university’s music department, was a Sorabji specialist and must have helped to arrange this recital. Ralph and Betty went and were very good sports about listening to a body of music that undoubtedly was not really of much interest to Ralph, though the virtuosity necessary to its performance would have impressed him. The pianist, whose name was Michael Habermann, played Busoni’s Fantasia Contrapuntistica in the first half, and several pieces by Sorabji in the second, including a Valse-Fantaisie inspired by Johann Strauss. The year of its composition, 1925, was also the year of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1, of Varèse’s Intégrales, and of Berg’s opera Wozzeck; but Sorabji’s music existed at some different frontier where these composers, even the most experimental among them, had not strayed. Compared to Varèse and Berg, Sorabji was a Romantic, though one who had cut his ties with even late Romantics like Liszt or Mahler or Scriabin. His pianism is virtuosic, and his music incudes thousands of notes, thrown into the air like disordered skeins of silk. That recital did not make an aficionado of Ralph, but he enjoyed the experience. I forget whether he had heard the Busoni piece before, but he would certainly have known Busoni as a pianist from recordings.

I remember that it was in my car, perhaps when they were leaving Hamilton, that Ralph mentioned his correspondence with W W E Ross, and asked whether I might be interested in editing it for publication. It is striking that, of all the poets with whom Ralph corresponded during the time when he was putting together the Penguin Anthology of Canadian Poetry (first in 1942, and later in 1958), Ross should be the one whose letters stuck with him and seemed to him to merit publication. Poets like Earle Birney, A J M Smith, and F R Scott wrote to him more often and more at length, perhaps; but it was Ross, a poet whose imagist work could not have been more different from Ralph’s, at least in the 1940s and ’50s, who seemed to him important in the development of modern Canadian poetry. I promised to ask for copies of the letters and to have a look at them. They were divided between Ralph’s own papers at the University of Saskatchewan Library and the Ross papers at the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto. (It was because of Irving Layton that Ralph sold his papers to Saskatchewan. Layton had done so earlier, and suggested to Ralph that he could get a down payment for his house in North Hatley by selling his archive. And so Ralph did.) It took me a year or two to prepare the letters for a book that was eventually called A Literary Friendship. ECW Press published it in 1984. I loved the design by Helen Mah of The Dragon’s Eye Press. She placed the book’s many footnotes on the side of the leaf, a wonderful solution to the usual irritation of jumping to the back of a text for the notes, and a pleasant alternative to footnotes. My only moment of dread over this book occurred when my first copies arrived near Christmas. In flipping through it I noticed that many leaves were bound in the wrong order. The binder had incorrectly folded an entire signature, and, in the absence of page numbers, there was no obvious indication of this disastrous misstep. In the event, the entire run had to have the covers torn off, the spine guillotined away, the offending leaves manually reordered, and a reprinted set of wrappers glued back over the spine. Now my book was perfect bound, not folded and sewn. This “second state” of the binding is just perceptibly shorter than the original state. I don’t think Ralph ever received a copy of the wrongly folded version. He was hugely enthusiastic about the book, and grateful for my work. That project really cemented our friendship. In 1984, after the Gustafson-Ross letters were published, he sent me a copy of his At the Ocean’s Verge (a version of his selected poems for the American market) inscribed “For Bruce Whiteman in gratitude for his “Literary Friendship” and more so for his real friendship.” In the Introduction to that book, he writes that poets “are on the side of love,” and is at pains to ally poetry with music. “A poem is superior to the extent that the verbal music heard is the meaning; otherwise, it is prose.” Music was always uppermost in Ralph’s thinking and composing. Composing poems, that is.

It is always difficult to judge the nature of a marriage other than one’s own, but Ralph and Betty seemed to be an almost perfect match. In his autobiographical poem, Configurations at Midnight, Ralph wrote of Betty, “Just to have her walk into a room, / Downs death.” After they married and moved to Quebec, Betty worked as a nurse at the Sherbrooke Hospital. She was from Philadelphia and was born Elizabeth Renninger in 1921. She did not brook fools gladly. She was Ralph’s greatest fan and worked hard both to protect his time (for writing) and, after his death, to promote him and to make sure he was not forgotten. But she also worked hard in her own career and had her own musical interests, primarily the ballet. When Ralph was alive, Betty could be slightly prickly if the conversation turned towards Ralph’s life before their marriage. For this reason, I never learned much about Ralph’s friendships with people like Somerset Maugham, Paul Robeson, and Jacob Epstein, all later memorialized in his autobiographical poem. My impression, reinforced often, was that certain subjects were off limits. There was Ralph’s relationship with the Canadian pianist Ellen Ballon, for example. Ralph seems to have acted as Ballon’s agent at one time, a time when she had a growing international career. While his first ’prentice collection, The Golden Chalice (1935), was dedicated to the memory of his mother (“Her who first brought Beauty”) and the Penguin anthology to his father, Flight Into Darkness (1944), arguably his first real book, was dedicated “To Ellen.” Ballon came from Montreal and studied with some of the great piano teachers, including Hofmann, Wilhelm Backhaus, and Rafael Joseffy. She was born in 1898 and was a decade older than Ralph. Through her, Ralph got to know the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, “fabulator / Of ten-foot stories,” as he called him. Ralph remembered his cigar smoking, and claimed, truthfully if in fun, I have no doubt, that Villa-Lobos had once made him his Canadian agent, with the right to accept or nix all Canadian performances of his music. Ballon had commissioned Villa-Lobos’ first Piano Concerto, and had given its premiere; but in the 1950s she married a Canadian military man who had been secretary to Camillien Houde, the mayor of Montreal, around the time that Ralph and Betty also married. There is certainly more to learn about Ralph’s relationship with her. Her performances of the Villa-Lobos Concerto and the Chopin Piano Concerto no. 2, both under Ernest Ansermet, can be heard on YouTube, along with some solo pieces.

Ralph and Betty seemed happy, as I say, and after Ralph died in 1995, Betty took newfound pleasure in researching his earlier life and no longer minded talking about it. She had some old home movies taken in Connecticut in the 1930s, with Ralph in the company of Maugham and the sculptor Sally Ryan, among other friends, transferred to videotape so that we could see them. There was a little print, or perhaps it was a drawing, on the wall in the bathroom of their house, of a couple, largely out of the frame but showing their legs intertwined, a petits pieds sort of piece but comic, that bore the words “Le lit arrange tout” across the bottom of the image. I don’t know anything about the Gustafsons’ intimate life, but I cannot help but think that it was satisfying. As a young man, Ralph had what they used to call movie-star good looks, and he may well have had relationships about which I know nothing. He did confide to me once, under strict admonition of secrecy, that F G Scott, F R Scott’s father and a poet as well, had once made a pass at him. He also recalled more than one occasion on which Scott would corner him and recite poetry as though he were giving stock market advice. (Scott was a chaplain during World War I, and his memoir. The Great War As I Saw It, confirms that he liked to inflict his poems on soldiers too.) Betty did tell me that she decided not to have children so that Ralph’s creative life wouldn’t be affected; given that he was almost fifty when they married, that was probably for the best. Betty outlived Ralph by more than a decade and died in 2009. I was living then in Los Angeles, and sadly could not attend her funeral.

Throughout the later 1980s and into the 1990s, we saw the Gustafsons regularly. We would drive south off the island of Montreal and east along Route 10 to North Hatley, for lunch or dinner, occasionally running into Ralph and Betty’s literary neighbours (Ron Sutherland and Doug Jones) and enjoying walks along Lake Massawippi. Almost always we would sit for a while in the living room and listen to music, new CDs which Ralph had acquired in New York or elsewhere, Romantic-era piano music largely, though Ralph developed a late-in-life affection for Haydn. (“Only comedy will do.”) He had earlier collected 78-rpm recordings of the Golden Age pianists and had many stories of his collecting adventures, finding rare 78s in off-the-beaten-track places like Istanbul, for example. That collection was donated to Bishop’s University, I think, and Ralph subsequently acquired hundreds of CDs as his active listening library. His poetry is full of musical references and embodies not only his passion for classical music, but equally his contention that poetry and music are rarely far apart. “Nothing in the arts is in closer communion than words and music,” he wrote once in a short essay, though he cautions that “this interplay is affinity, not takeover, analogy, not identity,” which is wise. “Words and music love one another.”

On several occasions over the years, I asked Ralph whether he would consider writing a memoir. The boy who grew up in rural Quebec, a photographer’s son, the music student (and later music master in boys’ schools), the student at Oxford, the developing writer who was part of Somerset Maugham’s circle, the poet and anthologist, the friend of composers (Villa-Lobos, Dohnanyi) and poets (Dudek, Layton, Scott, Smith and so many others), teacher, winner of various literary awards—all of this, surely, I argued, would make for a compelling life story told by the man who had lived it. But Ralph always demurred. There was no time for prose, he would say. There was too much poetry to write. And he was right. The books that came out in the mid-1980s and afterwards, beginning with Directives of Autumn (1984) and Winter Prophecies (1987) were to be Ralph’s best. Right up to the end, each book got better, more technically impressive, more emotional and more musical. His work did not grow repetitive or lose focus. When he finally decided to write his autobiography, it was not in prose. Configurations at Midnight is a memoir in verse form, an unusual genre in Canada as elsewhere. (P K Page later published a verse autobiography as well.) It is only eighty pages in length and often more reflective than anecdotal or narrative. There are stories in it, such as the one about Artur Schnabel trying to perform Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata as a huge bell in Oxford began to toll 101 times, then finally giving up and walking offstage. There are mentions of famous friends, such as Maugham (“Somerset Maugham fidgeted in his bath”), or Charlie Chaplin (“I once said to Charles Chaplin, / “You are one of my heroes”), or Jacob Epstein (“‘Hats on, Gustafson!’ / You said that day…”), as there are brief stories involving Canadian poets like Robert Ford (a special friend) and Louis Dudek. But in the main, Configurations at Midnight is like a pared-down Wordsworthian Prelude, more poetry than event. And that’s as it should be.

I awoke. I got up.
I brushed my teeth, preserving
The confidence of heaven.

The book was published by ECW Press in 1992 when I was its poetry editor, and it is one of the books issued under my editorship of which I remain most fond. Its final line (“Sensation claims me, I leave my love”) is heartrendingly beautiful.

Ralph’s work on the Penguin Anthology of Canadian Poetry did not come to an end when the original edition was published in 1942. He later revised it extensively, in fact transforming it into a new and fuller anthology, in 1958, when it became The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse. Thereafter there were revised and expanded editions in 1967, 1975, and 1984. By the early 1990s, Ralph must have realized that there would be no further editions of the book, and he asked me, as the rare book librarian at McGill University, whether I might be interested in buying his collection of Canadian poetry for the library. He had been collecting at least since the time of the original Penguin anthology, and owned about two thousand poetry books, including many that were rare: Dorothy Livesay’s first book, Green Pitcher, both of W W E Ross’ first two books, and of course many, many signed and inscribed copies, for example a copy of Irving Layton’s first book, Here and Now, inscribed to both Ralph and Betty. The poetry library of F R Scott had already come to McGill as a donation from Marian Scott in 1989, and Ralph knew that I was trying to build the McGill collections of Canadian poetry and literature in general. I couldn’t buy Ralph’s papers, as they were now promised to Queen’s University, Saskatchewan I suppose having dropped out at some point. But the books were available, and I was delighted to be able to add them to the holdings of the Rare Book Department. It was 1991, and while Ralph and I packed them, he was reflective and a little saddened to find his study shelves suddenly become empty. That is the collector’s emotion and the collector’s challenge, perhaps, although at his age then (eighty-two), he must have been thinking of other kinds of endings as well. I think I appraised the books myself, but I’ve forgotten what the agreed-on price was. Ralph read at McGill that year too. His collection Shadows in the Grass was published in March by McClelland & Stewart, and his reading, on April 4, was doubtless part of a short author tour, as he went on to read in Toronto on the 8th of the month. We had dinner with him and Betty, and with Louis Dudek and Aileen Collins, the evening before. Though I can’t recall exactly, my guess is that we all met at a Chinese restaurant.

Much of the poetry in Ralph’s late collections shines with his unshakeable faith in the beautiful particulars of the world, even as he must have known that his end was not far off. His “love / Of an imperfect world” is sustained through Winter Prophecies, Shadows in the Grass, and Tracks in the Snow, the final three books before his death. There are moments of anger, moments even of uncharacteristic selfishness, as when he thinks briefly of the deaths of three of his poet friends—F R Scott, A J M Smith, and John Glassco—and shrugs the thought off in an execration: “None of them / Paid much attention to my poetry anyway.” (He’d been more generous to Smith and Glassco in an earlier poem, “Postscript,” collected in his book of satires, squibs, and funny poems that he entitled The Celestial Corkscrew & Other Strategies.) Death, “the going / Without reason” as he called it in one of the final poems in his posthumous book, Visions Fugitive, does not get a blind eye turned to it; indeed, it seems to lurk like an unwelcome presence outside many of the poems of his final decade. At the very end, in the group of poems Ralph wrote in hospital, where he was being treated for bladder cancer, Ralph seems to have given up on faith. Yet on seeing a group of nuns out his hospital window, he writes: “Would I were of their wonder, believing only / In reason, imperfection.” Of their “wonder,” not the expected “number.” Ralph certainly had wonder enough. For his poem “The Final Scene,” in Shadows in the Grass, Ralph chose as an epigraph a line from Wallace Stevens’ “To an Old Philosopher in Rome”: “It is a kind of total grandeur at the end.” There are nuns in Stevens’ poem too. It is worth quoting the full ten lines, of which the one Ralph chose is the first. They conclude the poem, which was among Stevens’ last, and it is obvious why Ralph was attracted to that particular line from that particular poem:

It is a kind of total grandeur at the end,
With every visible thing enlarged and yet
No more than a bed, a chair and moving nuns,
The immensest theatre, the pillared porch,
The book and candle in your ambered room,

Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by an inquisitor of structures
For himself. He stops upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.

Ralph died at the end of May, in 1995, about ten weeks before his eighty-sixth birthday. His memorial service was held on August 16 at St. Mark’s Chapel on the campus of Bishop’s University. That was the day of his birthday. The chapel is a nineteenth-century building, erected as an Anglican church and consecrated by no less a person than Bishop George Jehoshaphat Mountain, the founder of Bishop’s University, the Bishop of Montreal, and himself a poet, if a rather conventional Victorian one. Ralph did not include his work in the Penguin anthology. The chapel had become ecumenical, but Ralph’s service felt conventionally Anglican. The service began with an “Elegy and Fugue” by Healey Willan (who had taught the pianist Harold Brown, then the former head of music at Bishop’s, and a friend of Ralph’s), included Henry Walford Davies’ famous short hymn “God Be in My Head,” and concluded with the extraordinary “St. Anne’s” Fugue in E-flat by Bach, profoundly beautiful music that should accompany everyone’s ascent into heaven. The Anthem consisted of a performance of Andrew MacDonald’s piece “Hundreds of Crocuses,” which is based on a poem by Ralph of that title, one of his Twelve Landscapes. MacDonald was and remains a composition professor at Bishop’s. Three people spoke about Ralph—I was one—and many friends and members of Ralph’s family came, including his sister, Pauline, and Ralph’s nephew, Ian Belton, who would be the executor of Ralph’s (and later Betty’s) estate. It was a solemn but celebratory occasion.

My wife and I moved with our two children to California the year after Ralph’s death, and thereafter we saw Betty only occasionally. My final visit was with my son, Jesse, in August of 2003. We stopped to see her on our way from New Haven to Montreal, after a lovely drive up through central Vermont. We passed into Canada at White River Junction and drove the two hours to North Hatley on a beautiful summer afternoon. Betty gave us lunch, or perhaps it was tea, and we talked about her life, about Ralph, about her memories. Ralph wrote so often and so compellingly about his North Hatley garden and the house that, being there, especially after a years-long absence, felt like inhabiting the poems. They were all around us: “the stricken bedroom stairs,” “the farther green / Where winter’s hemlocks edge / The uphill road,” “the fresh polished enamel on the hawthorn.” Ralph’s poems always leave the reader a more conscious person, more perceptive of the world, more loving of its frailties, its failings; but also more aware of the beauty everywhere, in a flower, in a lover’s glance, in “trombones, trumpets, and drums.” That is what great poetry does. It makes you feel—as Ralph said was true on the night of his and Betty’s first date—that there are two moons in the sky.

—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)

Bruce Whiteman is a poet and critic living in Peterborough, Ontario.


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