Anne Compton, BA, MA, PhD, (poet, academic, professor, editor, and arts organizer) was born in Bangor, Prince Edward Island, in December 1947 and currently lives in Saint John, New Brunswick, where she teaches at the University of New Brunswick Saint John (UNBSJ).
The Comptons were United Empire Loyalists who arrived in Saint John and eventually made their way to PEI, where they remained for generations, forming Compton Company, a religion-based, pacifist co-operative consisting of roughly 100 family members. Anne Compton was born to Benjamin Compton, a farmer given 140 acres of land after Compton Company dissolved in the 1940s, and Lydia (Jardine) Compton, who raised their eleven children. Compton, the youngest of her five brothers and five sisters, grew up in rural PEI with what she describes as a “pretty wonderful” childhood. Her “playground included fields, woods, a river, not to mention all the buildings, and the animals they contained. Lots of scope for the imagination” (Email interview). Compton says of her childhood home, “It was a busy household and I had a secret room under the dining-room table. The shelf formed by the spare leaf under the table was where I kept my papers” (Email interview). It was here that Compton wrote her first poem at the age of nine, a hymn (Email interview).
Compton’s childhood environment was also supportive for her writing, as her mother had an “appetite for books,” and there was a great respect for poetry that came from a reverence for the poetry of the Psalms. Compton also found “openings” into literature by reading texts such as Elizabeth Madox Roberts’s novel The Time of Man and by memorizing poems in school, such as John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (“Poets”). Keats provided inspiration in his vision of the “immense horizon offered in literature,” and Roberts’s novel showed Compton that “literature could be made out of the ordinary things of daily life” (Email interview).
Compton did not remain in PEI for long. As a teenager, she spent her summers in Toronto living with one of her older sisters and helping with her children. She returned to the Island to complete her Bachelor of Arts in English literature and history at the Prince of Wales College (now the University of Prince Edward Island). It was there that Compton met John Smith, a poet and professor who reignited her interest in poetry. Compton had originally planned on becoming a historian, but she changed her focus to literature after meeting Smith. Upon completing her degree in 1969, Compton travelled around Europe for a time and then moved to Toronto to complete her MA in Canadian and American literature at York University, graduating in 1971. She then returned to the Maritimes for family reasons, completing her PhD at the University of New Brunswick in 1988. Her PhD thesis, which focussed on the Canadian poet A.J.M. Smith, was later published by ECW Press as A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical (1994).
Compton returned to PEI after the birth of the first of her two sons, but since the 1980s, she has spent most of her time living in New Brunswick. In 1998, she became director of the Lorenzo Reading Series at UNBSJ, a highly reputable university reading series (“Compton”). Compton was later appointed writer-in-residence at UNBSJ, a position she still holds. She also teaches several courses for the English department.
During her time at UNBSJ, Compton has published the following works: Opening the Island (2002), Processional (2005), and Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews (2006). She also took on an editorial role with The Edge of Home: Milton Acorn from the Island (2002), as well as Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada (2002). Over the course of her career, Compton has won two Atlantic Poetry Prizes (2003 and 2006), the Governor General’s Award (2005), several Excellence in Teaching Awards, the National Magazine Award (2008), and the Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts (2008) (“Dr. Anne Compton”). Her most recently published work of poetry is Asking Questions Indoors and Out (2009).
Compton’s poetic style is formal, for as she suggests in Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews, Maritime poets have a tendency toward disciplined forms. She qualifies:
Formal poetry isn’t just end rhymes and verse forms. It includes many structures, the way for example, a metaphor can structure an entire poem or even a collection of poems. A musical pattern in the verse, in the speaking, is also a version of form. I am not a formalist in the narrow sense of the word but I am a formalist in the broader use of the term. (Email interview)
Her use of sentence fragments and varied line lengths is an imitation of natural speech, though as David Hickey suggests, her “progression from one item is pleasantly unpredictable, in much the same way the flippancy of our own imaginations can entertain us for hours” (29).
Compton’s poetry is also very much rooted in the Maritimes. In his article, “The Poet in the Landscape is Made by the Landscape,” fellow PEI poet and critic Brent MacLaine writes that Compton’s work is “an exploration of the ways in which a landscape, a home, and an island have shaped a creative intelligence that is both ambitiously speculative and imaginatively plastic” (84). However, Compton states that though her work is expressed through “an Island voice,” the “New Brunswick landscape is fairly pervasive” throughout (Email interview).
Compton’s poetry is largely taken up with “the calm, incisive recapturing of elements in the poet’s life that imprinted themselves on her imagination, including houses, life in them, nature and the seasons, the past, death and dying” (“Compton”). This informs the content of Processional, where poems are separated by the season in which they take place. Each section also occupies a house, both past and present, questioning, as with the majority of her poetry, “how memory works” (Email interview). The houses in Compton’s poems become symbols for such things as one’s reluctance to deal with death, as in “Every House Backs on a Seawall,” in which she writes:
The mind has fences it erects, hedges.
Houseguests it’d rather not admit. It’s hired a realtor.
The lot, it says, is upkeep I’ve no knack for.
There’s ways I’m handy, ways I’m not. I’m best
at borders, definitions, that sort of thing.
Interiors—where the cupboards stand open—are my
aversion. (Processional 30)
Houses reappear many times in Compton’s work, as well as the sea they are surrounded by. For example, in “North Shore, PEI,” Compton brings up the sea and with it that “mysterious margin between mythology and the mundane, past and present” by blending the Prince Edward Island she knew with its mythologies (Campbell 159). Compton says of these narratives, “what they know must be as limitless as the sea” (Opening the Island 3).
Compton also tends to use literary figures and famous artists as speakers in her poems. Opening the Island takes up the voices of fictional characters like Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, Eliot’s Prufrock, and Malory’s Guenevere, along with the voices of historical painters such as Renoir and Monet. In Compton’s poems, these figures are able to respond to their authors and critics, thereby “changing the story” (Email interview). For instance, in “Guenevere Writes to Those Who Wrote of Her,” Guenevere states equivocally, “Arthur was my King, Lancelot my gracious Knight / allegiance easy” (26).
Along with her critical articles and scholarship on Atlantic and New Brunswick literature, Compton’s work at UNBSJ represents her most significant contribution to the province. In the thirteen years she has spent with the Lorenzo Reading Series, she has “introduced New Brunswick readers to hundreds of Canadian books over the years” (Email interview). She has also worked with “a number of beginning and emerging writers,” one of whom, in gratitude, established The Dr. Anne Compton Writing Prize in Poetry.
Mikala Gallant, Winter 2011
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Compton, Anne. A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical. Montreal: ECW Press, 1994.
---. Asking Questions Indoors and Out. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009.
---. Opening the Island. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002.
---. Processional. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005.
Compton, Anne, ed. The Edge of Home: Milton Acorn from the Island. Charlottetown, PEI: Island Studies, 2002.
---. Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006.
Compton, Anne, Laurence Hutchman, Ross Leckie and Robin McGrath, eds. Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2002.
Compton, Anne. "'After the Ebb-Flow': A.J.M. Smith's Nature Poetry." Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 14.1 (1989): 54-72.
---. "As If I Really Mattered: The Narrator of Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House." Studies in Canadian Literature 17.1 (1992): 62-77.
---. "Ascension: Liliane Welch Talks about Poetry." Canadian Literature 166 (2000): 127-41.
---. "Doubly-Crossing Syllables: Thomas O'Grady on Poetry, Exile, and Ireland." Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 26.1 (Fall 2001): 145-71.
---. "In Iron John's Sloshy Swamp, There is a Bitterly Cold Undercurrent." Dalhousie Review 72.2 (Summer 1992): 273-82.
---. "A 'Little World' in Decadence: Majorie Pickthall's Poems on Nature and on Religion." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 43 (Fall/Winter 1998): 10-43.
---. "‘A Many-Veined Leaf': Minutiae and Multiplicity in Brian Bartlett's Poetry." Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 28.2 (Winter 2004): 131-51.
---. "Meditations on the House: The Poetics of Space in Jane Urquhart's Changing Heaven and The Whirlpool." Canadian Literature 150 (Autumn 1996): 10-21.
---. "Patterns for Poetry: Poetics in Seven Poems by A.J.M. Smith." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 28 (Spring/Summer 1991): 1-17.
---. "Physics and Poetry: The Complex World of Alan Wilson." Canadian Literature 170/171 (Autumn/Winter 2001): 91-107.
---. "The Poet Impressionist: Some Landscapes by Archibald Lampman." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 34 (Spring/Summer 1994): 33-56.
---. "Poetry, Photography, Painting: Stephanie Bolster's World." Studies in Canadian Literature 24.2 (March 2000): 186-97.
---. “Romancing the Landscape: Jane Urquhart's Fiction." In Jane Urquhart: Essays on Her Work. Ed. Laura Ferri. Toronto: Guernica. 2005.
---. "Standing Your Ground: George Elliott Clarke in Conversation." Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 23.2 (1998): 138-64.
---. "The Theatre of the Body: Extreme States in Elisabeth Harvor's Poetry." Canadian Literature 183 (2004): 13-27.
---. "W.W.E. Ross's Imagism and the Poetics of the Early Twentieth Century." Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews 39 (1996): 49-79.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Campbell, Wanda. “‘Every Sea-Surrounded Hour’: The Margin in Maritime Poetry.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en Littérature Canadienne 33.2 (2008): 151-70.
Carey, Barbara. “You May Have to Return to Get the Grammar of the Ground: Both Anne Compton and Ronna Bloom Manage that Difficult Art of Combining Directness with Subtlety." Toronto Star 23 Aug. 2009: 7.
Compton, Anne. Email interview. October 2011.
“Compton, Anne.” The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. William Toye. 2nd ed. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 2011. 119-20.
Donaldson, Jeffery. “Strolls with Anne Compton’s Processional.” Antigonish Review 155 (2008): 125-34.
“Dr. Anne Compton.” UNB Faculty of Arts. University of New Brunswick, n.d. <http://www.unb.ca/saintjohn/arts/depts/humlang/people/compton.html>.
Greene, Richard. “I Showed You My Tattoo.” Rev. of Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews, ed. Anne Compton. Books in Canada 36.5 (2007): 32-3.
Hickey, David. “The Longevity of Love.” Rev. of Processional, by Anne Compton. Books in Canada 35.1 (2006): 29-30.
L'Abbé, Sonnet. Rev. of Opening the Island, by Anne Compton. Canadian Literature 176 (2003): 137-9.
Langille, Carole. Rev. of Opening the Island, by Anne Compton. The Antigonish Review 135 (2003): 121.
MacLaine, Brent. “The Poet in the Landscape is Made by the Landscape.” Essays on Canadian Writing 79 (2003): 83-93.
MacLeod, Sue. "At the Edge of Sky and Water: Two New Brunswick Poets Invite us Inside Their Worlds." Atlantic Books Today 48 (2005): n.p.
Neilson, Shane. Rev. of Opening the Island, by Anne Compton. Books in Canada 32.5 (2003): 47.
“Poets in Profile: Anne Compton.” Interview. Open Book. Open Book Toronto, 4 Apr. 2011 <http://openbooktoronto.com/news/poets_profile_anne_compton>.