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1948 Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert


          Lesson 2

Sometimes the packaging is everything


Sometimes the Packaging is Everything

The bookshelf at home holds a first-edition, first-printing copy of the 1948 Leacock Medal winner, Sarah Binks, which I bought from a used-book store in Winnipeg. The store considered it a treasured “old friend”[1] and sent it to me inside two layers of packaging.

          The book bears the signature of the author, Paul Hiebert,[2] but I “treasure” it because of another scribble on the front page: the names of the original owners, Don and Helen Penner, a Manitoba couple who changed laws and affected the practice of medicine in Canada. In their seventies, the Penners packed up their books and other possessions to pass a decade of retirement helping hospitals in Africa.[3]

          This story wrapped around my book gives it value.

          In the same way, Sarah Binks, a poetry collection packaged in a biography-style narrative, has value because of the premise wrapped around it.

          It always surprises me a little when I meet people who have never heard of Sarah Binks. Canadian humour circles celebrate her as “iconic,” in a way that doesn’t abuse the word too much. Canada Reads short-listed Sarah in 2003 with Will Ferguson as her advocate,[4] and humorist Charles Gordon says the book comes as close as anything to being the “quintessentially Canadian” work, stressing that it’s also “damned funny.”[5]

          The humour flows from knowing that we come close to being as unsophisticated as the book suggests, but not quite. Some non-Canadian readers miss the joke and regard Sarah as a serious study, and that’s pretty funny, too.

          Like all great satire, Sarah Binks invites interpretation. You could even say the book, a pretend life history that mocks literary awards, won the Leacock Medal for Humour for making fun of the Leacock Medal for Humour.

          The imaginary Sarah writes bad poetry, lots of it, and this ability to produce quantity over quality brings her the peculiar Wheat Pool Medal and fictional fame in her native province. Among “the highest awards . . . ever . . . bestowed upon one of Saskatchewan’s Daughters” and the “highest award in the bestowal of Saskatchewan people,”[6] the Wheat Pool Medal recognizes increased production in unspecified fields and, like crop planting, does so through a rotational system.

          You might laugh at some of Sarah’s award-winning bad poetry in isolation, but that over-the-top, gushing account of her modest life experience amplifies the humour. As the biographer, Hiebert tells us earnestly that Sarah’s literary influences include the hired man and a neighbor, Mathilda, the least cross-eyed of the Schwantzhacker sisters. He reports with admiration that the Horse-Breeders Gazette and other farm publications profiled her poems and that an agricultural fair honoured her work with the presentation of a horse thermometer. Sarah would die tragically trying to take her own temperature with the poetry prize.

***Graphic 005 (author)

          So, at least a few people noticed the irony when Sarah, the book, won the new and not-yet-acclaimed literary award, the Leacock Medal, in 1948.

          Hiebert was the kind of person who would have recognized and appreciated it, too.

          He understood convolution. An academic and a chemistry researcher, Hiebert won the Governor General’s Medal in 1924 for his science.[7] This might lead you to think that his spoof on poetry and the arts was the condescension of a hard scientist. But, before his shift to chemistry, Hiebert studied literature and ultimately earned an M.A. in the arcane field of Gothic and Teutonic philology. He knew the subject of his satire well, and I believe the book had an edge because Hiebert had a specific target in mind, even though he did not want to overtly ridicule any individual.[8]

          Although Sarah directs its lampoon more broadly on the field of literary criticism, it covers other terrain, from prairie politics and the cultural charms of early twentieth-century Canada to the drama of adolescent introspection. Hiebert also calls on many writing tricks, including slapstick notions like geology-based poetry and names like Chief Buffalo Chip, Colonel MacSqueamish, Rosalind Drool, Professor Marrowfat, and Windheaver, the politician. 

          Sarah’s odes to pigs, skunks, and farm-based love jerk around, change voice, and ooze conceited sounds from every pore. But they usually rhyme, and they follow a metrical structure much of the time; and short of reprinting whole poems along with Hiebert’s laudatory packaging, I would struggle to describe precisely how and why Sarah’s poems are so “damned funny.”

          So maybe I should be charitable to those who read the book as the story of a real poetess. But one reason I treasure the copy on my shelf comes from thinking that Don and Helen Penner got the joke and, like the early Leacock Medal judges and other Canadians, might have been laughing at themselves, too.


Writing Exercise

Write the worst four-line poem you possibly can and then explain why it is the best bit of verse ever written.





[1] Burton Lysecki Books, Osborne Street, email to DBD October 18, 2012.
[2] One of the best resources on what is termed “Binksiana” is the University of Saskatchewan Paul Hiebert Digital Fonds-- An example of the resources here include Hiebert’s modest letter committing his personal material to the university in the imagined native province of his heroine.
[3] Dr. Donald W. Penner, a professor at the University of Manitoba when Sarah Binks was published, became one of “Canada’s foremost pathologists and a pioneer in blood alcohol research.” Helen helped design quality assurance and control programs for the College of American Pathologists.
[4] CBC, “Book Profile: Sarah Binks,” accessed September 29, 2013.
[5] Charles Gordon, afterword to Sarah Binks, by Paul Hiebert (New Canadian Library edition, 2010).
[6] The version used for most of these references is Paul Hiebert, Sarah Binks (London: Geoffrey Cumberlege / Oxford University Press, 1947).
[7] He got his B.A. at the University of Manitoba (1916) and M.A. at Toronto (1917). I was inspired to learn that he did his Governor General’s Award work as a Fellow of the National Research Council of Canada, my employer. We are imaginary colleagues (as per the National Research Council Report on Scholarships and Fellowships 1932: Hiebert, Paul. G., M.Sc. McGill 1922, Ph.D., 1924. NRC Bursary 1922–23, Fellowship 1923–24).
[8] I am convinced that Sarah was modelled in part on E. Pauline Johnson, the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Canadian poetess of mixed aboriginal-European ancestry. Hiebert is quoted, however, as saying that Sarah was not a reflection of any single person.