Mary Dalton

Mary Dalton, poet, educator (born at Conception Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, 1950).

Mary Dalton

Mary Dalton, poet, educator (born at Conception Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, 1950). Mary Dalton is a poet and public intellectual specializing in the post-confederation cultural experiences of NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR, with an emphasis on the changes visited upon outport life after 1949 (SeeNEWFOUNDLAND BILL). Her youth and early education was spent in the IRISH-Newfoundland communities around Conception Bay, such as Lake View and Harbour Main. Her work remembers many of the touchstone cultural experiences of that time and place, such as the normalization of Newfoundland as a Canadian province and the corresponding RESETTLEMENT policy of the new provincial government that collapsed, amalgamated, and often simply relocated whole fishing villages in the name of modernization (SeeFISHERIES HISTORY). Dalton's role in developing a post-Confederation voice for Newfoundland poets has built her national reputation.

A Woman of Letters

Dalton left Newfoundland to pursue a BA in English Literature at the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, and followed this with graduate work in her home province at MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY OF NEWFOUNDLAND, a place that would host her academic career. Dalton became, in time, expert in the fields of Newfoundland literature and Anglo-Irish prose, and ran the university's international LITERARY journal, TickleAce. Years later, Dalton would say to the GLOBE AND MAIL about her office at Memorial University, perhaps summing up the appeal of her academic profession, "I know my place. It's among books. This is the kind of worm I am."

The Breakwater Collections

Throughout her early career, Dalton's creative work existed peripheral to her academic accomplishments. An encounter with the newly-published Dictionary of Newfoundland English (DNE) in 1982 helped encourage the development of a poetic vocabulary organized around the disappearing lexicon of rural Newfoundland. She published two collections with St. John's' Breakwater Books in 1989 (The Time of Icicles) and 1993 (Allowing the Light). These books flirted with themes both specific to the Newfoundland experience, and beyond it. Her reputation as a conveyer of cultural memory and an energetic re-organizer of Newfoundland folklife predicted the tropes found in her better-known works, though the wait for them would be long. (SeePOETRY IN ENGLISH, FOLKLORE.)

The Salt Accent

Merrybegot (2003) is perhaps the most focused of Dalton's examinations into the lilt and cadence of Newfoundland speech, what Dalton would later call "the salt accent". It is also the book most directly inspired by her totem text, the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. The collection arrived after a ten-year lapse between book-length projects. It was guided to publication by controversial critic-turned-editor Carmine STARNINO, through the Vehicule Press imprint Signal Editions. Shortly after Merrybegot's appearance, Dalton described it to a local journalist as constituting "original research into the language." It is a study, using the DNE as a guide, of the quickly decaying individuality of Newfoundland vocabulary and speech patterns (SeeENGLISH LANGUAGE). The title poem offers a case study in this, with the word "merrybegot" suggesting a cheerier and more optimistic idiomatic address for the larger culture's common word "bastard". Both refer to a child born out of wedlock. Arranged in alphabetical order and composed of tight, quick-to-read poems written in free verse, Merrybegot moves between dramatic monologues, eulogies and riddles.

This project of language-research continued in Red Ledger (2006), Dalton's follow-up to Merrybegot, also published by Vehicule/Signal. Red Ledger features a more variegated formal palette than Merrybegot and also allows for more contemporary concerns, such as the lifestyle of 21st century St. John's and the controversy surrounding the Newfoundland SEAL fishery. It also contains a suite of riddles set in the communities of her youth. Both Merrybegot and Red Ledger were shortlisted for the E.J. Pratt Poetry Award, with the former winning it and also earning a nomination for the LEAGUE OF CANADIAN POETS' PAT LOWTHER MEMORIAL AWARD.


Further Reading

  • Anne Compton, Laurence Hutchman, Ross Leckie, Robin McGrath, eds., Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada (2002)