Greg Power (1909-1997)
Gregory Power maintained that poetry needs to be about something, an actual experience, for, as he claims, “it’s better to have it outright, isn’t’ it?” (Porter 18). This sentiment carries over in his writing career, both in his contribution to poetry and his avid political satires.
Born in Dunville, Placentia Bay, Gregory Power began writing poetry in a round about way. An encouraging athlete in his youth, he travelled to the British Empire Games in Hamilton in 1930 and holds records for the high hurdle and the triple jump, in addition to being a member of the Newfoundland Sports Hall of Fame. Contracting tuberculosis during his adolescence, he was admitted to the Sanatorium in St. John’s, but chided its atmosphere as a death house and decided to return home, where there was a strong chance he could die. He recounts of his near death experience that his mother would give him “brandy and eggs three times a day so I was on cloud nine most of the time. I believe that did it. It took your mind off it and you didn’t care” (Porter 15). While recuperating, he began his early works, many of which have a preoccupation with death. A graduate of St. Bonaventure Collegiate, the Methodist College and later of Memorial University, where he studied geography, he had an extended career in writing and provincial politics.
Power’s lyrical poetry, often being compared to Hardy or Frost, focuses on his experiences growing up and on his depiction of the land. Commenting on one of his most recognized poems, “Bogwood,” he claims: “Oh yes. We had a farm at Dunville and I used to grow celery, tomatoes and cucumbers, stuff like that. There was a market for these. There was a marsh on the farm and I decided to drain it. There had been forest there at one time and when it fell down into the bog it was preserved. So that’s how that came to be” (Porter 17).
Excerpt from “Bogwood”
The year we plowed the river field, we found
Deep in the silt, the warped and blackened bones
Of ancient trees; and most of them were sound,
Though every bit as heavy as the stones.
Among them there were ribs, backbones, and knees,
Thin fingers that had held green leaves, or fed
White blossoms to the wind, lost springs, when these
Made magic here.
Power’s work also tends to explore the organic workings of nature and its relation/opposition to the divine. In “Answering A Child” he explains the formation of the landscape as a product of God, whereas in “Blissful Ignorance,” where he “does not ask hard scientific reasons,” he contemplates that a profound nature is best experienced when it is left as mysterious. Even though the “Trinity demands a definition,” nature is a “precise, and predetermined thing” that cannot be turned into an “old wives tale.” At other times his works center on the experiences of the people, as in “The Price of Bread,” where he depicts the fisherman and shipbuilders prior to the days when technology made fishing much more safe.
Power’s selection of poetry is not as abundant as some of Newfoundland’s other poets, most notably because, after recuperating from tuberculosis, he focused on his career and “making a living,” as he puts is. Power progressed, however, to become a well-known and talented political writer, most notably for his satires, along with his political analysis and criticism. He was one of the most influential members of the confederation movement, evident in his position as an editor for The Confederate and as a member of the Newfoundland Confederate Association. He is often described as Joey Smallwood’s right hand man and the second in command under the Smallwood government. In his political life, Power acted as Finance Minister and Minister of Highways under the Smallwood administration and ran for MP for St. John’s West. By the end of the 1950s Power had become critical of Smallwood's government and was writing about his concerns in his “Listening Post” column in The Evening Telegram. Years later, however, Smallwood and Power resumed their close friendship. For the rest of his life, Power remained proud of his affiliation with one of the fathers of Confederation.
His interest in politics occasionally carries over into his poetry. In “The Ballad of Oleo Margarine,” he satirises the popular public sentiment that confederation lead to the abandoning of Newfoundland’s use of inexpensive margarine, known as Green Leaf, as the latter had been banned from use in Canada in favour of butter, which protected the commerce of Canadian dairy producers.
Excerpt from “The Ballad of Oleo Margarine”
I pray that I shall never know
A future without oleo,
Or live to see my little sons
Turn up their noses at my buns;
But there is one with soul so dead,
Who’d sacrifice our spread for bread,
And ban from every Newfie table
Our wholesome, rich, improved Green Label.
He began writing more frequently, particularly narrative poetry, in the 1970’s after retiring from politics and from his successful poultry business, Mary’s Poultry Farms Ltd.
In addition to winning the O'Leary Newfoundland Poetry Award twice, he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Memorial University in 1995, where he reminded Memorial graduates: “I suspect that many of you students are unaware of the fact that Joe and I made you Canadian citizens.” Married to Mary Ellen Crosbie, whom he had seven children with, Power’s contribution to the island’s poetry movement is remembered in the annual Gregory J. Power Poetry Award, an annual competition at Memorial University of Newfoundland that aims to recognize and encourage inspiring poets.
Article by Aaron Peach. © 2006, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site.