The Drifting Archipelago: The Middle Years

by Mike Doyle

Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2017

$25.95 / 9781771712354

Reviewed by Ron Dart


Mike Doyle (1928-2016) is with us no more, but his three-storied autobiography tells much about his layered and all too human journey.

Floating Islands: A Writer’s Early Life (Ekstasis, 2015) opened the portal into Doyle’s life, while The Drifting Archipelago: The Middle Years (2017) is mostly focused on Doyle’s teaching, writing, and lived life from 1968-2002. The forthcoming Cutting Knots: The Later Years (Ekstasis, 2019) will do exactly as the title suggests — as the journey comes to its inevitable end, knots must be severed and cut in all sorts of ways. But first, to The Drifting Archipelago.

Doyle’s more settled and rooted literary years in Victoria from 1968-2002 are front and centre in this second of his fast-paced memoirs. Five major themes emerge again and again in Doyle’s reflections on his years that have flown.

First is the drama (at times melodrama) of his marriage with Norah (and Doyle’s multiple probes into their oft-contentious relationship and years-long and agonizing separation); his much shorter relationship with Rona; his “going solo;” the raising and maturing of the children (and his children having children) into married adults; and Doyle’s broader Irish family connections. In short, much of The Middle Years circles round and round the finely textured nature of frayed family relationships (immediate and extended) and reflections on his family, which nurtured and was provided much beauty and hope.

Mike Doyle, 1950s

Second, Doyle’s vocation as a poet, literary critic, professor of English at the University of Victoria after 1968, and literary biographer is a golden thread that run through this charmer of a read. But which of the four threads was closest to Doyle? The answer is apparent the more the reader joins Doyle on his journey: poetry. Doyle’s poetic pathway became obvious in his emerging years; his time in New Zealand clarified his poetic centre and core; and his years on Vancouver Island (with its literary in-house tribal tensions and clashes) forced Doyle to find (as much as he could) his unique poetic voice and speak from such a place.

The fact that Doyle was, when younger, impacted by the Black Mountain Tradition (as were many Canadians at the time) and the American poet Cid Corman (with whom Doyle had a lengthy correspondence) meant that for Doyle to find his score sheet, much weaning had to be done. Many are the comments (sometimes repeated) by Doyle in The Drifting Archipelago where he clarifies both his attraction to the Black Mountain clan and Corman, followed by his conscious distancing from them. Matthew Arnold’s term “felt life” suggests Doyle’s north star in this journey.

University of Victoria, circa 1973, with the American Gulf Islands behind and Mt. Baker in the distance. Courtesy Vintage Victoria

Third, when Doyle arrived in Victoria in the late 1960s, Canada was going through an upsurge of nationalism and various forms of patriotism. There was a decided tendency to recognize that Canada had a distinctive heritage and that this needed to be supported and affirmed. Doyle had partially left New Zealand as a flight from nationalism, and when he encountered it in Canada and on Vancouver Island, he tended to recoil, and his contrarian temperament would not be silent.

Mike Doyle

Doyle lists many of the Canadian literary worthies he encountered in The Drifting Archipelago (some he holds uniquely high, including Purdy, Lillard, and Birney), others he has mixed reactions to (Skelton, Layton, Woodcock), of some he seems disappointed that nothing emerged (Mackay and Zwicky), and others are dismissed with a wave of the hand. There can be no doubt, though, that for those interested in a review and evaluation of the Canadian literary scene from Doyle’s perspective, this is a must-read book. He always nudged nationalism to the edges and placed some form of international or cosmopolitanism at the core.

Fourth, Doyle was an Irish Catholic with decided left-of-centre sympathies, as manifested in his work with peace movements; with St. Vincent de Paul Society (fourteen years); Pax Christi’s B.C. branch; his contribution to “Medicare at Risk;” his contribution to Warren Magnusson’s The New Reality: The Politics of Restraint in British Columbia (New Star Books, 1984, contra the Social Credit party of Bill Vander Zalm); board member of a halfway house; and a founder of the men’s movement in Victoria in the 1990s. Doyle has many an incisive thing to say both about the men’s movement and Robert and Ruth Bly.

Doyle’s compact insights on 9/11 and the deeper historic reasons why this happened are apt, pertinent, and to the point (pp. 210-11). Doyle’s poetic career and social justice concerns overlapped many times, but his poetic vocation remained as his social and political concerns wavered and were eclipsed.

Not what he seemed: Bruce Partridge

Fifth, Doyle’s “A Brief on the Partridge Affair” (Chapter 5) is a must read for those interested in a controversial moment in the history of the University of Victoria. In 1971 the student newspaper revealed that Bruce Partridge, president of the university since 1969, had two academic degrees from the Blackstone School of Law, a mail order college in Chicago. Doyle reflects how, with some distance and the wisdom of years, he would have handled his role in the Partridge Affair in a different way and manner. Doyle provides much retrospective pondering in these twenty pages in which, as the acrimony heated up and light seemed to subside, Partridge resigned from his post in 1972. Doyle’s varied reflections for those either interested in the “affair,” or those who were in the midst of it, makes for a good read.

Mike Doyle at home

In sum, Mike Doyle’s The Drifting Archipelago reminds me of the proverbial fox that traverses much terrain but lacks the hedgehog’s depth and digging. Doyle covers names, books, places, articles, lectures, dates, and experiences with much haste and sometimes repetition. Such an approach does make for an amiable and compelling sight-seeing approach to Doyle’s journey, but there were moments in which I had hoped he’d slow down and do some deeper hedgehog probes.

There can be no doubt, though, that The Drifting Archipelago: The Middle Years is worth the lingering read for those interested in West Coast and Canadian literary life, and for some important facets and nuggets of the university and political life of British Columbia. Doyle was on front stage for many significant acts in the unfolding drama and his memoir is more than worthy of the hearing.


Ron Dart

Ron Dart has taught in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at University of the Fraser Valley since 1990. He was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s. Ron has published more than 35 books, his most recent being Erasmus: Wild Bird (Create Space, 2017) and The North American High Tory Tradition (American Anglican Press, 2016).


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Editor/Designer/Writer: Richard Mackie

Publisher/Writer: Alan Twigg



Charles Doyle also writes as Mike Doyle. He is a New Zealander who was born in London, England of Irish descent. He came to Victoria in 1968 after a year in Connecticut, and became a longtime resident of Victoria where he taught at UVic, founding a little poetry magazine called Tuatara in 1969.

With Robert Sward, Doyle co-authored a chapbook called Quorum/Noah, published in Victoria in 1970. With P.K. Page he co-authored a chapbook called Planes in 1975. Although chiefly concerned with literature, and a poet, he co-edited two books on B.C. politics, The New Reality (1984) and After Bennett (1986).

Doyle's first poetry collection, A Splinter of Glass (1956), was published in New Zealand; his first Canadian collection is Earth Meditations (Coach House, 1971). Doyle reviewed for Canadian Literature from 1972 to the mid-1980s. As Charles Doyle he has written a biography of Richard Aldington and critical work on William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, James K. Baxter and others.

Doyle has written about his own work as a writer by annotating a diary of his literary life from 1969 to 2006 in Paper Trombones: Notes on Poetics (Ekstasis 2007).

"As a sketchy memoir, it does not avoid a certain amount of ego-tripping and name-dropping; after all I haven't lived in a vacuum, but in a world where one must fend for oneself."

Some of the names dropped include Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Creeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, George Woodcock, Earle Birney, bill bissett and literally dozens of other fellow poets in Canada. Some of Doyle's observations of writers, offhandedly made at the time, gather historical weight with the passage of time. For instance, one entry made in 1974:

"Milton Acorn gave a 'performance' at UVic this midday. Anything more designed to discredit 'Canadian literature' can hardly be imagined. I've read I've Tasted My Blood and reviewed it with sympathy. Also contributed to the special award the poets got up for him. His face ugly, somewhat misshapen, has the high colour and rough texture of a boozer's. His eye glaucous, bloodshot, his teeth a mouthful of rotten discoloured stumps. He mumbled irrelevancies and stray remarks of a vaguely Maoist nature. Incoherent, deadly dull, nearly inaudible. I believe he 'performed' one poem at the end of an interminable dithyramble, but by then I had left. I had persuaded my first-year students to go hear him. Tomorrow, must offer humble apologies. Dorothy Livesay, under whose aegis he appeared, must have been embarrassed. Anyone would be."

Although Doyle's engaging comments made in the present-tense, as well as retrospectively, do provide glimpses of his personality, collectively they reveal that the task of becoming an established poet in any country has as much do with making mutually-supportive connections with other poets as it has to do with writing poetry.

Doyle retired in 1993 after 35 years as an academic but has continued to write. He once wrote, "I'm a poor self-publicist and there's a certain Zenlike satisfaction in nonentity."

In 2015, Doyle released his memoir, Floating Islands (Ekstasis) that recalls his Irish family background, his childhood and youth in London during the World War II, through the blitz. At age fourteen, he decided he wished to be a poet. As a high school dropout, he joined the British Royal Navy and was posted to Wellington, New Zealand. Two years later, his first serious poems were published in the quarterly Landfall. Doyle gained several degrees that landed him a lectureship at Auckland University.

His first poetry collection, A Splinter of Glass, received several awards, including a UNESCO Creative Artist's Fellowship, which enabled him to spend months travelling
in the United States with the object of meeting American writers. A Fellowship of the American Council of Learned Societies enabled Doyle to spend a year as a visiting fellow in American Studies at Yale University, during which he wrote a book on the career of American poet William Carlos Williams and the book-length poem sequence, Earth Meditations, which later became his first Canadian book, published by Coach House Press, Toronto. Doyle has also received a PEN New Zealand award.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
After Bennett: A New Politics for British Columbia


A Splinter of Glass : Poems 1951-1955. Christchurch: Pegasus Press, 1956.

Distances : Poems. Auckland: Paul's Book Arcade, 1963.

Messages for Herod. Auckland: Collins, 1965.

Recent Poetry in New Zealand. Chosen and edited by Charles Doyle. Auckland: Collins, 1965.

A Sense of Place : Poems. Wellington: Wai-te-ata Press, 1965.

Small Prophets and Quick Returns: Reflections on New Zealand Poetry. Auckland: New Zealand Publishing Society, 1966.

Earth Meditations 2. Auckland: Charles Alldritt, 1968.

R.A.K. Mason. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970.

Earth Meditations: One to Five. Illustrations by Jack Kidder. Toronto : Coach House Press, 1971.

Preparing for the Ark. Toronto: Weed Flower Press, 1973.

James K. Baxter. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.

Stonedancer. Auckland: Auckland University Press ; Wellington : Oxford University Press, 1976.

William Carlos Williams: the Critical Heritag. Edited by Charles Doyle. London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.

William Carlos Williams and the American Poem. London: Macmillan, 1982.

A Steady Hand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1983.

The New Reality: The Politics of Restraint in British Columbia (New Star Books, 1984). Co-editor and contributor.

Wallace Stevens: the Critical Heritage. Edited by Charles Doyle. London ; Boston : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985.

After Bennett: A New Politics for B.C. (New Star Books, Vancouver 1986). Co-editor.

Richard Aldington: a Biography. Basingstoke, Hants. : Macmillan, 1989. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

The Urge to Raise Hats (Victoria, 1989)

Richard Aldington: Reappraisals. Edited by Charles Doyle. Victoria: English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1990.

Separate Fidelities (Victoria, 1991)

Intimate Absences: Selected Poems 1954-1992. Victoria: Beach Holme, 1993)

Where to Begin (Ekstasis, 2000)

Living Ginger (Ekstasis, 2004) - poetry

Paper Trombones: Notes on Poetics (Ekstasis, 2007).

The Watchman's Dance: Poems 2004-2009 (Ekstasis 2010) $21.95 - poetry

Collected Poems 1951-2009 (Ekstasis, 2011)

Echoes from Pluto: Poems 2009-2013 (Ekstasis 2014) $23.95 978-1-77171-004-6

Riding the Pig: more notes on poetics (Ekstasis 2014)

Floating Islands (Ekstasis 2015). $25.95

[BCBW 2015] "Poetry" "Literary Criticism" "Politics"