Monday, January 16, 2006

Poetry Has An Image Problem

The Poet’s Oath
to be sworn before and after writing a poem
or reading one
(Taken from a 19th Century Shropshire Court House)

This notice is posted because I'm writing from Canada — and during a Federal Election, too. Not just that, but I'm also writing from British Columbia, which is the part of Canada cut off from the rest of the country by the cookie cutter of the Rocky Mountains.

Canadians like to say that British Columbia politics is a circus. Na, it’s just that we’re at war, that’s all.

As evidence, I submit a World War II document, published by the C.C.F. Party, the forerunner of the contemporary New Democratic Party.

Rather than being a purely historical document, it reads like a pretty good explanation of British Columbian literature today, because in British Columbia poetry follows politics, not the other way around. Read on:

from Economics for Workers by Geo. W. Weaver,
Published Under the Auspices of the Education Committee, C.C.F. -- B.C. Section. 1942.
The Cold War must have been murder on C.C.F. morale!

Eve: Oh, Harold?

Harold:Yes, Eve?

Eve: So, what kind of rewards do poets get in a society in which they are sixty years behind the times?

Harold: I’m glad you asked, Eve. Here’s a nice leading question that the C.C.F. asked on just that issue:

Adam: No, Harold. What Eve is asking, I think, is if in the past, a poet, like, oh, A.E. Houseman, say...

Harold: Ah, Eve, he was a British poet.

Eve: But, Harold, it is British Columbia, isn’t it?

Adam: Yes, Harold. Back then all poets were British. This was a high holy law. Even today British poetry is the mainstay of the British Columbia high school curriculum. They do not teach poetry written in the 20th Century. Not in British Columbia. In British Columbia the 20th Century has not happened yet. I mean, come on.

Eve: Thank you, Adam.

Adam: Right. So, if this Houseman wrote something truly great, did he get on Oprah? That’s what Eve wants to know.

Eve: That’s what I want to know, alright.

It was a good question, she asked.

Now, I must confess, I really doubted it would happen, time being what it is, but, of course, since there ain’t nothing like going to the poet’s mouth, I cracked open a copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, and what did I find? Well, this really, from A Shropshire Lad:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time.

from "Terrence, this is Stupid Stuff" by A.E. Houseman

Well, he was pretty good with titles, but, well, still, ahem.
Adam: Ok, Ok, did he get appointed to jury duty for the Canada Council, then, because the Canada Council is awfully proud about giving out its awards by jury — awfully proud, may I say?

Well, no, not exactly. Not exactly.

Trial by Fury
British Columbian Poets Rebel Against A.E. Houseman
Click here for the web opera.
(That’s Eve in the front row, making the little ‘o’ with her mouth.)

So, turning the tables...
Judge With the Big Stick: Say hello to the audience, Eve.

Eve: Hello.

Judge: So, did the esteemed poet, the one who lived in a time in which he could still be esteemed, praise God, turn away from it all and build a salmon stream inside his house, like Bill Gates?

Eve: Yes, the Canadian poet who penned immortal lines...

Adam (standing beside Eve, with the goatee and the white vest): Something, say, like Al Purdy’s,

Get your ass out of my beer!?

Al Purdy (presenting testimony to the court): Every time I read my poem "Homemade Beer" it affects me. The audience thinks, "male chauvinist." It's a bawdy, exaggerated poem. Then I can read "The Horseman of Agawa" and it's exactly the opposite. People think you want to be one thing. You're not one thing. You're everything.

Poet Al Purdy Chasing After Beer Thieves

"We (beer parlour operators) can refuse to serve anybody that comes into our premises, and even my own mother I can refuse to serve....If I told my waiter to refuse my own mother, he has the power to refuse to serve my mother, if I gave my waiter instructions to do so." Owner of the Clarence Hotel, 1940. Here is an overview of his court case, after he refused service to a black man.

Eve: Thanks for the explanation, Al! ... or even a serious epic like Leonard Cohen’s...

Queen Victoria,
My father and all of his tobacco loved you.

His Father Loved Queen Victoria
His father’s tobacco loved Queen Victoria, too.
Leonard appears to be smoking his father’s tobacco.
And so dies the royalty.


Eve: (Blush.) A poet like that, he got crowned with laurel leaves, didn’t he. You remember that, Adam? The kind that stay green all year long, that are eternal? You know, the kind of floral designer’s filler that Daphne, lithe, smooth-skinned, twelve-year-old Daphne turned into when Apollo tried to catch her for a little, ahem, (smile) shall we say, unsolicited pleasure?

Evidence Presented to the Court
Santa Claus’s Arch Enemy Under a Laurel Tree in the Garden of Eden

Adam: That wasn’t a laurel tree in the Garden, was it? I thought it was a pear tree.

Eve: Maybe it was.

He Likes Little Girls

Eve: He was also the god of plague.
Adam: And the God of Reason.
Eve: Notice that someone tried to glue his head on straight.
Harold: Forget that. Notice the helmet head, the ring around his temples just perfect for holding a ring of laurel leaves. I bet you haven't seen that for awhile, have you?

This, folks, is the problem with trial by jury, when you’re simultaneously just as likely to be prosecutor and defendant, but, well, there you have it, straight from Grandma and Granddad themselves, back in the old days, when the deal was that poetry made you young again...
Eve: It was a kind of hair tonic, actually.

Incredible, isn’t it! Who knew!

The Poet Ezra Pound Reading a book in Sylvia Beach’s Bookstore in Paris

It looks like he has had a good dose of hair tonic.

But, wait, isn’t this him again?

Austrian Christmas Postcard from the Early Modernist Period
My friend, the sum of your sins is complete...

The seated figure poring over a book is the Krampus, a pagan fertility god who survived right up and into World War II (and was Santa Claus’s Arch Enemy), but who went under shortly afterwards. He liked to chase after young girls, too. And older ones.

Looks like he’s writing a poem.

He also had a nine inch tongue, wink wink, and carried a switch.

Krampus Sends His Christmas Greetings

The making of Krampus cards was a very successful cottage industry in Austria at the turn of the 20th Century. Take a good look at that bundle of sticks. We are definitely going to see them again next week. They are pretty much all of Krampus that has survived the last century.

But, hey, doesn’t he look a lot like Ezra Pound? Like Pound, the bugger has been largely forgotten.

Adam: It is at times the prerogative of a civilized man

Eve: or woman!

Adam: or woman... (Smiles.) forget.

Eve: You’re sure right there, Adam. There’d be no progress in the world if we didn’t forget everything and then have to make it up all over again. As Queen Victoria said of childbirth:

"Doctor Snow gave that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting, and delightful beyond measure."

Queen Victoria, Defender of the Faith, Was in Favour of Anaesthesia
Some things are too painful to remember.

Some poetry is like that. As Al Purdy wrote:

In a world so abundant with both good and bad things, in which my own unique lighted space of human consciousness burns and flickers, at this moment when the past and future converge to pinpoint now, at am age when the body says, "Slow down, you silly bugger," there are still important things in my life, and still poems I want to write.

Which is a very long sentence: it makes me thirsty for a beer or two. And it occurs to me that if I were aboard a rowboat floating in the middle of all the beer I've drunk in a lifetime, I'd never be able to see the shore.

The French Poet and Lifeguard Arthur Rimbaud in His Drunken Boat
Coming to Rescue The Canadian Poet Al Purdy in His Sea of Angst

And as I was drifting, down a careless river,
I realized the hawkers had gone from the banks.
The squawking Redskins had nailed them, such
easy targets - stripped them and tied them to the pointed stake.
Arthur Rimbaud, tr. Jeremy Reed.

So, there you go: just as I thought — it was not just poetry. It was about whose land this is.

It was about who was shooting arrows at whom.

That’s what Al Purdy was going on about: Al, who used to go to poetry readings with a case of beer under his arm. He didn’t necessarily drink the beer, but it was a successful stage prop.

Eve: Well, for young men anyway. The young women were willing to wait for Oprah.

Canadian Poet Al Purdy On His Way to Another Poetry Reading

Either way, though, back before Al’s time, and even in Al’s time, Canada used to be a country dominated by conservative elites. Civilization itself used to be the job of keeping the working classes at bay.

Harold: If I may just interject into my own interjection, the word itself, civilization was meant as an active process, not a description of a heritage of complex social organization. It was something that was done to you.

Eve: Oh, I can identify with that. That’s for sure.

Al Purdy changed all that.

Moroccan Soldiers and their Oh-So-Literate Officer
Getting Ready to Move into the Line in France Early in World War I

At least he had the decency to dress in red, as an easy target.
Note the identical standing men, one sharp (a particle?) and one blurry (a wave?) staring at each other in the mirror of their mutual self in the centre rear.
(Hey, is that a camel saddle in the foreground? In France? Check it out.)

In Canada, things were just as fraught with chance and control and their implications. When Al Purdy made his beer at home, and when he chased the neighbour’s kid out of it, too, he knew what he was doing. The alternative to self-sufficiency and pride, such as it was, was something like this:

According to arbiters of decency, beer parlours were spaces of moral turpitude and working-class dissipation which required constant surveillance. The tireless regulation of these spaces drew on social codes of decency and respectability, and those denied entry to the parlours were those similarly marginalized by the society at large.
Lindsay McMaster, in Canadian Literature, reviewing Robert A. Campbell ‘s Sit Down and Drink Your Beer: Regulating Vancouver’s Beer Parlours, 1925-1954.

Sadly, the war goes on, and it's not just about beer anymore, either. It’s about trees. We build houses out of trees around here: gigantic games of pickup sticks. Or we cut our trees up into boards and ship them to the United States where men build houses like cricket cages. We do it so that we can pay illegal tariffs imposed by a positively comic legal system.

All that heavy truck traffic is murder on our roads though.

It helps keep us in line, doesn't it. Oh, now, I don’t mean politically. I mean, the roads are so rutted that you just have to sit your car in the ruts and, whoa!, it’s like a Walt Disney Ride, leading south.

Log House Construction in Sugarcane, B.C.
That’s the Indian Reserve Village in the background, along the curve of the hill. It was the only Reserve in British Columbia which was bought by the province, as all the other land here in the Secwepemc heartland had been preempted by ranchers, before the opening date for preemptions.

And here are the trees on the hill in behind, who have to watch the whole process, day in and day out.

The Trees Are Not Amused.

As Leonard Cohen sings:

There is a war, between the rich and poor,
between the man and the woman.
There is a war, between those who say there is a war,
and those who say that there isn’t.

We’ve already met one of the combatants in this war, Krampus himself, with two kid’s horns, one goat foot and one human foot, with chains tying his hands together, and that dandy, dandy little switch.

Here’s an snapshot of the other combatant, hard at work saving civilization with a jumping jack:

Santa Claus Saving Civilization

Notice Jumping Jack in Santa’s hands, the Jack in the Box getting ready for a fight to the death, and, my personal favourite, the Foot-in-the Box.

And Santa’s sleigh? What’s that all about? A bed from the Sears Catalogue, complete with throw cushions and lots and lots of linen? Oh, cozy!

This was, of course, before Santa accepted a long-term endorsement from Coca Cola, and dressed in red and white, and moved to the North Pole. Here he’s dressed in a spare American flag, and, what is that anyway, a Prussian spiked Helmet?

The British Columbian circus comes to mind, doesn’t it.

Let’s have a closer look.

A Closeup View of Santa’s Hat
Prussian Helmet, with a Tea House on its Peak.

Eve: Oh, I like that. Can we have a closer look? I do feel like a cup of tea.

Adam: You’re starting to sound like Queen Victoria.

Eve (Coquettish): Maybe I am Queen Victoria.

Closeup View of the Tea House on Santa’s Helmet
as replicated in Frederick The Great’s Garden at Sans Souci

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, whose wars for European dominance led to the loss of Quebec to the British and the consequent formation of both the United States and Canada, had the garden itself planted with satyrs carrying away naked nymphs. That’s what he liked. Himself? He had gout. He could only watch.

Adam: Talk about reading the world as a poem.

Eve: Well, is that any better or worse than reading a poem as the world?

Well, that’s what you get when you live out here in one of Al Purdy’s poems. Up to now, every year we have had to put up with snow knocking the whole world for a loop until, after six months of the frosty stuff, we’ve been convinced the flowers won’t bloom again.

Except now. Now with global warming, it’s been spring all winter, with a couple days of summer thrown in for good measure. Pretty soon we won’t need to go to the Bahamas or Disneyland in the middle of the winter to warm up, because,

All Together Now: Disneyland will want to come to us.

Voice Over (Santa Claus): Stop it. Talking about stuff like that is murder on a sense of national identity. What will Al Purdy think?

Eve: Oh, but, really, Santa! What will the neighbours think?

President George W. Bush, Commander in Chief, in His Flight Suit
He seems to like Canadian poetry well enough, doesn’t he.

Doesn’t he?

Next Week: Poet Carmine Starnino, Mussolini’s Favourite Wine, Ezra Pound’s Bomb, an experiment in social engineering, and the state of the Canadian justice system.


Post a Comment

<< Home