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Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Poet's work on $100 bill


Miriam Waddington, one of the leading Canadian poets of her generation — the first generation to embrace modernism — has died at a nursing home in Vancouver. She had been in failing health since January and suffered a stroke in late February that lead to her death on March 3, at the age of 86.

A stanza from her poem Jacques Cartier In Toronto will appear on the new $100 bill, to begin circulating at the end of this month:

Do we ever remember

that somewhere above the sky

in some child's dream perhaps

Jacques Cartier is still sailing,

always on his way always

about to discover a new Canada?

It's a fitting tribute to a woman who felt overlooked in the world of Canadian letters; though prominent friends put her name forward for an Order of Canada, she never received one.

"She was a very approachable poet, always adhered to simplicity of language," said William Toye, who had been her editor and friend at Oxford University Press. "She wanted people to understand her."

Ms. Waddington was born Miriam Dworkin in the north end of Winnipeg, the city's immigrant receiving area, one of two children of a secular Russian-Jewish family that spoke Yiddish at home. She began to write poetry as a teenager and also became a noted translator of Yiddish and German.

Her family moved to Ottawa, then Montreal after her father's business setbacks (he'd been partner in a deli) and she attended high school there, followed by the University of Toronto, where she obtained her B.A. and training in social work. She was a social worker in Montreal in the 1940s and '50s when local writers such as Louis Dudek, Irving Layton and John Sutherland — her friends — were liberating Canadian poetry from Victorian convention and challenging the restrictive British influence hanging over Canadian culture.

She was first published in Sutherland's groundbreaking literary magazine First Statement, and later was editor of Sutherland's collected essays and poems as well as of the Collected Poems Of A.M. Klein (1974), another Montreal poet who helped shape her own craft.

Her work entered its mature phase with The Glass Trumpet (1966) and Say Yes (1969), both collections from Oxford University Press. In the afterword to her Collected Poems in 1986 she said she wrote "out of the belief in my own feelings and in the experience not only in my individual self but in a self in a world made up of other people."

She married Patrick Waddington, a journalist for CBC's International Service, and had two sons, Marcus and Jonathan, but the marriage ended in divorce after 20 years. She never remarried but later had a warm friendship with a New York art critic Harold Rosenberg, which inspired her best love poems.

In 1960, she moved to Toronto and worked for North York Family Services until joining the English faculty at York University in 1964. She retired in 1983 and moved to Vancouver.

As well as poetry, she wrote short fiction and essays published respectively in Summer At Lonely Beach and Apartment Seven. Her final poetry collection was The Last Landscape, published in 1992.

In addition to her sons, she is survived by grandsons David, Aaron and Gabriel. A memorial service will be held at UBC in Vancouver on Saturday.