On December 18, 2001 legislation to
create the office of Parliamentary Poet Laureate was given Royal Assent. The
idea originated in a Senate Bill introduced in November 1999 and re-introduced
in January 2001. The following article, by the sponsor of the Bill,
is taken from testimony before the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs
on March 29, 2000.
The motivation for this bill is the digital era of media
convergence which is pushing some say, crushing us. Senses are swamped by
the warp and the woof of this unreal world. Our shared heritage, the canons of
the word, are almost drowned out. We fear our children are becoming
grammatically illiterate, and worse, culturally ignorant. Just as Parliament is
predisposed as a check on state powers, so poetry can provide a reality check
on the confusing image chaos and information fog rampant in our civic society.
In a collectivizing age, we need many
more platforms for stronger individual voices. As a modest counterweight to
this digital tidal wave, I would argue that we need poetry more than ever
before. From this worrying, spinning society, a virtual cycle has suddenly
emerged, a surprising revival, a renewed interest in poetry and poetry readings
Poetry boils ideas to their essence. It
steps back and reorients virtual reality. Poetry exposes the individual
aesthetic. It helps us look inwards to ourselves and beyond our situation more
clearly. At times, poetry and virtual reality are like competing entities of
The speed of digital change seems, in
itself, disorienting. In turn, malaise, ruthlessness and apathy eat away and
displace a country’s nurturing common dreams and shared values as societal
anchors. Violence erupts when common values we share fragment, erode or implode
too quickly. Poetry can ease and soften the impact of these forces of
distortion, so overloaded as they are with floods of information that make our
modern life so confusing and disorienting. Sometimes one speech can become
a prose poem that binds a country and its people together, armed only with the
simple phrase or a thoughtful metaphor.
The parliamentary tradition of a poet
laureate goes back 400 years. The first one was Ben Johnson, in 17th century
England. There is a long and honourable tradition of having a national poet
laureate. This applies in the United States since the mid-1930s.
Robert Pinsky, the American poet
laureate argues, that in its proper place poetry may bring “harmony from
disharmony, understanding from confusion.” Poetry and the written word can help
us refocus. In this 24 x 7 world, time is the essence. Poetry can freeze
experience and then defrost, with a word, a phrase, a line, a paragraph, a
verse, a poem, a metaphor.
Walt Whitman argued that the United
States was so immense, fragmented, disparate and divided that, if it could only
be held together by one thing, it would be by poetry. Untutored forces can work
in an unintended way, without our assent, to press us together in crushing
conformity. Our society needs other visions, alternate voices, fresh breathing
room, more thinking time, different rhythms.
Poetry and poets can give us space,
give us pause to analyze our society and our own work in slower motion.
Now some scoff at poetry. Some argue
that poetry has simply no place associated with political power. Parliament can
only taint poetry, they say. Poets would be held in bondage by the poet’s
association with Parliament. There is some force to this argument.
But if you think back, what do you remember
about political history? I remember Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided cannot
stand alone.” That was in a way a poetic metaphor. We remember history through
pictures, but we remember history equally strongly through simple phrases or
metaphors. Pierre Trudeau’s line about the state having no business in the
bedrooms of the nation. That was a brilliant piece of poetry. It was prose that
reached the heights of poetry.
We need more of that. We need leaders who
help us to understand what is happening around us. Poets help. Robert Frost
certainly helped John Kennedy to understand what was happening. A poet laureate
would help us in Parliament to have a better understanding of what we do.
The great English poet, William Blake,
was often quoted in the British House of Commons. The power of poetry is
potent. Everything we do here is based on words. Words are the only business of
parliamentarians. Some say Parliament works in a cocoon, immune to the
realities of life since Parliament can deal mostly in laws that please the
largest numbers. The poet laureate can place a mirror before Canadians that
refracts different images of life. He can parse our common lexicon in different
ways. We need diversity of thought to create a unity of dreams and a unity of
visions. Poetry might even add some greater sense and sensibility to the word
factory of Canada – to our Parliament. Poetry might bring fresh realities, new
light, to the very heart of the Canadian soul, wherever it may reside.
For over a century, those three
miserable “isms,” – communism, fascism and nazism – all organized to harness
the poet’s art to the uses of state power; yet our Parliament was created
precisely as a popular check on state power. Hence, the model that informs this
modest recommendation is that the cabinet, the executive of state power, would
have no hand in the selection of the poet laureate.
I tried to blend, several ideas. First
of all, the two Speakers in effect make the selection. They are our senior
representatives of Parliament. I placed the poet laureate with the Library of
Parliament because the Americans have done that and it seems to work well.
There would be space there. The poet laureate would be close to books, close to
the poetic collection. It is an easy way of dealing with the issue. The Library
of Parliament is within the confines of Parliament.
The leaders of our major cultural
institutions, the Library of Parliament, the National Archives, the National
Library, the Canada Council and the Official Languages Commissioner would
biannually propose nominees. Poets, their societies, writers and the public
alike would be encouraged to lobby for these selections. Three people would be
nominated, and from these, the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the
Senate would take a decision. The poet laureate would serve for only two years.
He or she would act freely as a catalyst to bring poetry to the heart of the
public dialogue, to heighten public awareness.
It will be left up to the poet laureate
to write poetry for occasions of state, if he or she so chooses. However, my
requirement, if this bill should succeed, is to allow the poet laureate to do
what he or she chooses to do to advance poetry, to give that person a platform
in Parliament. The duties of the poet laureate would be minimalist – for
example, sponsor poetry readings, give advice, perform such related duties as
requested by the Speaker or parliamentarians.
What I foresee is a series of poet
laureates who will speak from their view. It is an individual art. Poetry, like
painting, is not a collaborative art. Therefore, we would hear one voice, one
at a time, in various phases, to give us their vision of the world.
The Library of Congress in the United
States has annual poetry readings, and they are widely attended. Some of them
are quite magnificent. One of the things that Robert Pinsky did was to foster a
millennium project, where a hundred Americans would read their favourite poem.
It will go into the National Archives. It is a simple, costless exercise, one
that will be a magnificent record of the United States in the year 2000; a
record about what a group of 100 Americans believe is their inner vision of
what is occurring around them.
The Language Issue
I have given the issue of bilingualism
considerable thought. I concluded, after consulting, that what we were looking
for in a parliamentary poet laureate was absolutely the best poet in Canada. We
have, in this country, a grand tradition of translation. In a way, we demean
both official languages if we were to conclude that we needed to have two where
one would do. I do not think that that person necessarily must be bilingual. We
are able to have strong, creative and intelligent translation.
Unlike in England, I proposed that we
have a short term for a parliamentary poet laureate. A new person would be
selected every two years. We do not have two prime ministers. We do not have
two Governors General. We have one to represent the common values. Our power to
be able to listen to that person in his or her original tongue or through
translations would suffice.
There is also a recent book, called Reading
Rilke: Reflections on the Problem of Translation, written by a great literary
critic in the United States, William H. Gass. He deals fundamentally with the
issue we are discussing. The argument he makes is that it is important to
listen to the voice of a poet in that person’s language. I would prefer to have
a superb francophone, who is a great poet, or an aboriginal, or somebody who
speaks Chinese, writing in their language, and select that person as opposed to
dealing with the question of trying to accumulate the creative talents into one
person. I do not think the idea of official bilingualism would be hurt by this
process. In fact, I think it would be enhanced.
While it is my expectation that the
official version of the poet laureate’s poems will be in the language of the
poet, there will be unofficial versions in both official languages.
Therefore, I do not agree with those
who say we need two poets laureate. We have one Canada, one country. I think
the ability to alternate quickly would give every region, every sector, part
and language in this country an opportunity to have their voice heard.
I do not expect that any one person can
encapsulate all the dreams, all the visions and all the issues of unity in one
poem or one poet. That is an impossibility. That is not the purpose of poetry.
The purpose of poetry is to listen to the words of a poet through their
singular vision of how they look at the country. I would assume that what we
want are many different images of the country, expressed through the eyes and
words of different poets. I do not think one poet represents all of Canada
because there are too many diverse impulses in the country.
Following adoption of
the Bill the first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Bowering was appointed
on November 12, 2002.