Celebrating the lyric craft of Newfoundland columnist Ray Guy

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I had the honour of participating last weekend in a tribute to Canada's greatest columnist, except he wasn't Canadian. He was Ray Guy and he was a Newfoundlander.

Such privileges out there are always iffy. The first time I went to work on a play with a Newfoundland theatre company, local authors would sometimes roust me at 3 a.m., to berate me for having the gall to come out from Canada to tell them how to celebrate their heritage. I was totally sympathetic. How true, was basically my response. Hit me again.

Guy, who grew up in a small fishing community, began columniating in the 1960s and persevered nearly till his death in 2014. In the 1960s, he took on the one-man, tyrannical-cum-comical regime of Joey Smallwood, then the Only Living Father (O.L.F.) of Confederation. Guy did it pretty much alone and pretty much brought Smallwood down with a blend of meticulous reportage and savage humour.

It was incredibly brave… fun. At the tribute, comic doyenne Mary Walsh (who flabbergasted Rob Ford, in character) recalled coming home as a teen to read Guy for the "real news" as kids more recently did with Jon Stewart.

As a writer he took advantage of a still vibrant oral tradition in the outports, where print hadn't yet claimed dominion. His Encyclopedia of Juvenile Outharbor Delights columns ("Leave no tern unstoned") weren't sentimental. He was relentless describing the sadism of teachers in those crude schools.

In fact Newfoundland's denominational (Catholics, Pentecostals etc.) school system drove him to fury. Fury is the moment of truth for a columnist. Do you just fulminate or do you get control of your rage? He proposed a swap in which schools would become public in return for denominationalizing fire departments. (The fireman, at the moment of rescue, asks the mom in peril: Are you right with Jesus, Ma'am?) He capped his rage like a gusher and channeled it.

Column writing is a literary genre of its own and in close continuity with the oral tradition, though it usually comes in written form. (Guy also did radio and TV "columns.") What marks the oral tradition isn't an actual voice but the back-and-forth between speaker and audience. The interactivity. No reviewers intervene and each side is constantly adjusting and responding to what the other just said. It can be exhilarating and frustrating, believe me. Guy's relations with his readership were impassioned -- they were one community -- and when he occasionally tried to transfer his work to the mainland (us), it didn't quite take.

As a genre, I'd argue columns are closest to lyric poetry, like sonnets: intense, self-contained fragmentary bursts of experience, held up for thoughtful examination. At least those are the columnists I've liked most: Greg Clark, Pierre Berton, Joey Slinger. And they can occasionally be transcendent and sublime.

In an early column, Guy imagined a conversation between an outporter who died in 1943 and a Ray Guy-like person from the 1970s. The latter tells the former that "we" won the war, which comes as a relief. Then in passing, he mentions Confederation, i.e. Newfoundland joining Canada.

It stuns the figure from the past. "But you said we won," he interjects. The younger man carries on with other things. "Then how many was there killed?" asks the older. The younger says none, and lists some of the marvels that he assumes will "sound wonderful odd" to the presence from the past: television, moon landings, etc. But all the voice of the past says is: "There wasn't no one killed?" It has immense craft and perfect pitch. It's a lyric column.

So he was a patriot, but I'd say his basic impulse as a writer was political -- precisely because he loved the place so much. Take his argument for why Newfoundlanders should stay home rather than migrate, as so many did. Guy said they should stay not because it was home, or a community, or primally beautiful; they should stay because they could change things.

What an amazing thought, especially during this election. Even if we change things, how much will they really change? Ray Guy changed things on his own, and he was just one writer with a column. Imagine if a whole population took on that responsibility.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Dean/flickr

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