LONG STANDING TOWER
BY ROY J. ADAMS
The Tower Poetry Society is, almost certainly, the most resilient local poetry group in Canada, having met continuously for nearly seven decades. On October 12th, the TPS archives, now safely under the management of the Hamilton Public Library, were opened to the public. As Tower Archivist, I was invited to present an overview of the Society’s history. Here is an edited version of my remarks.
What was to become the Society was founded in 1951 by Ida Sutherland Groom, an established British poet, who came to Hamilton with her brother Bernard Groom, who had accepted a position at McMaster. One of the first projects of the group was the publication of a set of poems written by members, all of whom were associated in some way with McMaster. Initially known as “The Tower,” that publication would eventually become today’s Tower Poetry . In 1956, the group approved a constitution in which it took the name Tower Poetry Society. The tower after which the organization and the publication was named, still stands as part of University Hall on the McMaster campus.
TPS received strong initial support from Lorne Pierce, publisher of Ryerson Press. During the 1950s and 1960s several McMaster professors, many of whom would achieve distinction, were officers of the society and contributors to the annual publication. They include Richard Morton, Norm Shrive, W.E. Keith, Gordon Vickert, John Ferns, James Dale, Dorothy S. Murphy and Margaret Thomson. There was also participation from non-academics such as Laura West Dodson. She served as president in 1963 and went on to be appointed, for her wide-ranging community activism, to the Order of Canada.
During the first few decades, meetings took place primarily on campus. In the 1970s they moved to the Dundas library. More people from the community and fewer from Mac became involved. Regular workshops, in which the poems of those attending were read and discussed, became a standard part of Tower’s year.
A major change occurred in 1975. From that date Tower Poetry was published twice a year. Submissions were opened to both members and non-members from around the world. Eventually poems would arrive, from not only Canada, but also, for example, Belgium, Netherlands, New Zealand, New Guinea, Israel, Sri Lanka, the U.K., Australia and the U.S.A.
By the early 80s, the yearly rhythm that is still in place was set. It consists of monthly workshops, publication of Tower Poetry twice a year and miscellaneous community and social events such as poetry readings at venues in Hamilton and throughout southern Ontario. Promotion of poetry in the community is now the principal objective. Except for the tower symbol, McMaster no longer has any special relation with the Society.
Over the years, TPS faced several challenges. During the first decade, Ida Groom was the mortar that held the group together. She returned to England with Bernard in 1960 leaving the future in some doubt. By then, fortunately, her creation had in place several stalwarts ready to carry on.
Would Tower Poetry survive without the support of a major institution? In Fredericton, New Brunswick, a similar informal publication appeared shortly before the one in Hamilton. It was taken over by the university and became one of Canada’s leading literary magazines – The Fiddlehead. Ida Groom tried to convince Mac to provide Tower Poetry a similar secure base. Unfortunately, despite participation by so many individuals, the English Department’s ambition was set on a Ph.D. program. If it were to publish anything, it wanted it to be a research journal and not a literary magazine.
Despite that disappointment, the little anthology continued to be published on a minimalist budget by dedicated volunteers who rotated editorial and administrative duties. From the ranks and from other supporters, funds necessary to keep a sometimes leaning tower from crumbling materialized.
Tower also needed to survive the emergence of other poetry initiatives in Hamilton. The Canadian Authors’ Association, for example, formed a branch with a poetry section and The Hamilton Poetry Centre appeared. The CAA branch did not survive and the Poetry Centre and Tower each found space to thrive. Indeed, many individuals moved back and forth between the two associations.
The most difficult challenge presented to any voluntary organization is the need to continually motivate people to take on the work to be done. Tower has been particularly fortunate in attracting people willing to stay active for two or three decades or more. For example, Dorothy Murphy served as editor of Tower Poetry three times over a 15 year period and Catherine Bankier took on that task five times over a twenty year period. Vincent Francis served in some leadership capacity – board member, designer of Tower Poetry’s cover, editor and president – for over 20 years. G.W. and Trudi Down have been (and continue to be) active since the 1980s. And, remarkably, Jean McCallion, a founding member, was still attending workshops only a few years ago. Many more long-serving, dedicated people could easily be named.
Province-wide umbrella organizations that bring together writers of several sorts have been around longer than Tower. Some local poetry organizations were formed before Tower but my research (and that of others reported in Tower minutes and newsletters) has not been able to identify any that have met continuously for more than Tower’s 67 years. The achievement is a noteworthy part of our cultural history. We are fortunate that it will now be preserved as part of HPL’s Local History and Archives.
Roy J. Adams is a Canadian-American academic, author, and labour rights activist. He received his B.A. degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1967 and his Ph.D. degree in Industrial Relations from the University of Wisconsin in 1973. From then until 1997 he was a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and has also been a visiting professor at 14 other institutions in 11 countries. He has published widely on comparative industrial relations, labour policy, industrial relations theory, and human rights in employment, especially on the topic of collective bargaining as a human right. His poetry chapbook, “Bebop From Beau’s Caboose,” published in 2018, is available from thebookband.com and his first full book of poetry, “Critical Mass,” is scheduled for publication in January, 2019. It will be available from Silver Bow Publishing and Amazon.ca.