What are poets for? What are their uses? It’s an age-old question. Are we low-rent historians, minus the faculty of objective thought? Are we entertainers, just another sideshow in the global entertainment-industrial complex? Are we comforters of the human spirit, there to empathize, or provide politicians with platitudes when times are tough? Or are we just here to indulge ourselves in our private, insulated world of high-flown aesthetics that only a few can understand? I suppose the answer would have to be, “All of the above, and more.”
For me, a good place to start is the old journalistic dictum that a newspaper’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The same should be true of poets. Elite rulers have known at least since the time of Elizabeth I that if they want to do as they please, the capacity for dissent must be neutralized. John Ralston Saul outlines the principle in his magisterial work Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West: “It is hardly surprising that those who hold power should attempt to control the words and language people use. Determining how individuals communicate is the best chance rulers have to control what they think.” During Elizabeth’s bloody subjection of Ireland the Irish bardic order was heavily suppressed. Although closely allied with the traditional Celtic aristocracy, bards were as much feared as admired by Irish kings and clan chieftains for their capacity to satirize their patrons. These itinerant poets were the 16th century equivalent of Facebook or Twitter, and no king wanted to be on their bad side or soon the whole country would be aware of his failings.
With the proliferation of creative writing faculties over the past few decades, poetry has been turned into an increasingly specialized vocation with an increasingly insular—and decreasing—audience. I’ve said for decades now that poets have only themselves to blame for their lack of audience. Postmodernism exalted form over content, exiling political content from poetry. Thankfully, as times have gotten worse, this trend is beginning to reverse, with poets like Tom Wayman, Gary Geddes, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver avoiding pointlessly arcane verse in favour of something that actually speaks to Joe or Jane Average. Geddes has used his poetry to focus on social justice issues around the world—the Kent State shooting in 1970, human rights abuses in South America, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and more. As a consequence of the view in some writing circles that no one has the authority to speak about anything but their own experience, narcissistic self-absorption has become all too common in contemporary poetry. Writing of Geddes’ volume of selected poems What Does A House Want? Collins observed: “It comes as a relief to read work by a poet who appears to be at least as interested in the world as he is in himself.”
In the Canadian poetry anthology Rocksalt, a collection of contemporary poetry published in 2009, poet Kate Braid outlines a primary function of poetry: “In my naïve and foolish adolescence and young adulthood, I was often misled by intellect; I was easily dazzled by language and for a long time figured that to be incomprehensible was to be wise. Now I find that for words to be merely pretty or merely clever is not enough. The reason we talk to each other – all those exchanges that make up culture and community – is connection.” (Emphasis mine.)
And connection is surely what we need most desperately during this time of lockdown, when even our most basic civil liberties have been wiped away with the stroke of a keyboard. As Naomi Klein explains in her essay “A High-Tech Coronavirus Dystopia,” the tech lords who run our economy would love nothing more than to re-engineer society around their products. The lockdown has hugely benefited these businesses—particularly Amazon, Netflix, Google and social media generally—while millions of small and medium businesses go bankrupt. It’s the ultimate triumph of Virtual Street over Main Street, of screen time over the public square. Klein writes of how former Google CEO Eric Schmidt sees this as a grand opportunity for changing the way our kids learn, that is, entirely through screens and distance education. This despite mountains of neurological evidence that increased screen time in schools leads to worse, not better, educational outcomes in children. Sure, we’re grateful for things like Zoom, Facetime and Skype when we’re under house arrest. It’s marginally better than complete solitary confinement. But people like Schmidt and Bill Gates are pushing for this to become the “new normal,” where actual face-to-face contact is a relic of the past. “It’s a future in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces,” writes Klein, “but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails.”
Aside from the obvious financial motives, there’s a geopolitical agenda at work here that meshes seamlessly with the gears of governments the world over seeking ways of stifling dissent. Keep in mind that, according to an article by James Clark for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2019 was a landmark year for protests against unjust regimes around the world, with demonstrations for social justice in nearly 20 countries. That included everything from the well-known democracy protests in Hong Kong, to the ‘yellow vest’ movement in France, revolts against austerity policies in Chile, Indigenous protests against the coup in Bolivia, etc. In Canada alone, the fight for indigenous sovereignty resulted in Wet’suwet’en blockades of the gas pipeline in BC, Alberta pubic sector unions fighting rollbacks proposed by Premier Jason Kenney, Ontario teachers fighting draconian budget cuts made by Premier Doug Ford to education, and the Quebec movement against a bill that would ban pubic sector workers from wearing religious symbols. That’s a globe-spanning motive for the elite to find ways of squelching dissent—fast. If you think that’s a stretch, note, as Clark writes for the CCPA: “Some movements have already toppled governments, giving us a glimpse of what could be in store for 2020, while others are only now coming to a head.” (Too bad Clark’s crystal ball didn’t foresee the lockdown and its stifling of all public protest.) So lockdown, for these power-hungry elites, didn’t come a moment too soon.
What concerns me is the virus-like spread of conformity that has occurred during lockdown, or what I call the “politics of capitulation.” I’ve found that even—or especially—among what I call the “civil rights generation”—Boomers who forsook their own country to protest an unjust war in Vietnam, who put their bodies on the barricades with Martin Luther King Jr.—the fear of their own mortality has worked a charm, keeping them in line. It’s a master stroke of strategy on the part of the elite—take a middling virus with a mortality rate no greater than seasonal flu, blow up the statistics, stoke the fear messaging in the media, crack down on dissenting voices even if they are experts in their field, and, as the British say, “Bob’s your uncle!” Or to use a more American slang, “Done and dusted!” It’s well known that fear bypasses the frontal cortex in the brain and directly stimulates the limbic or “reptile” brain, which cannot reason and is the reactionary centre for basic survival and reproduction instincts.
As a member of both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Federation of BC Writers, it dismays me to see yet another newsletter full of cute articles on “Things We Can Do to Cope During Quarantine.” Or poems myopically focusing on domestic details within the four walls of confinement, as if they were written by some kind of Stockholm Syndrome victim praising her kidnappers. I’m sure these writers are writing from sincere motives, but they don’t seem to understand that in fact, they are volunteering to be another cog in the crushing wheel of oppression. Both the Irish Cercle Littéraire Irlandais through its Poetry Day Ireland initiative and the Academy of American Poets “Shelter in Poems” series sought to, in Irish writer Patricia Killeen’s words, use poetry “as an ongoing salve, anointing for many of us a pandemic driven diasporic loneliness, helping us grieve and to find sense in the midst of an unprecedented situation; enabling us to go on.”
Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for the comfort that poetry brings. I’ve long said I believe it’s the most spiritual of the arts, that it has a latent capacity to heal the human spirit. It has helped me through some intensely dark periods in my life. I don’t begrudge anyone that essential balm. As poet Gary Snyder once wrote, “People are always asking ‘what’s the use of poetry?’ The mystery of language, the poetic imagination, and the mind of compassion are roughly one and the same, and through poetry perhaps they can keep guiding the world toward occasional moments of peace, gratitude, and delight.” I concur one hundred percent! But poetry is a gem with many facets, and which of its faces we need, which of its pairs of eyes we need for clear vision, varies according to the circumstances on the ground. For it to remain a vital art with relevance to peoples’ lives, it must move with the times—and beyond them. Some of the best poets are ahead of their time, possessing a visionary quality that seems beyond quotidian knowledge.
If we remain reactive only, and not proactive, if we fail to stand up for the most basic human rights—the right to move about freely in this world without being tracked, masked, managed and corralled, then our words only aid and abet our oppressors. The social engineering is so all-pervasive that when I got my first haircut after two months—my hairdresser offers a mobile service and comes to your home—I was told we both had to wear masks! Yet there’s no more scientific proof that these masks protect us any more than medieval plague masks did. Both rely on theories of airborne transmission of disease, making it hard to see how medicine has really progressed in its understanding of pandemics in 300 years. (See Jesslyn Shields’ article, link below, for an explanation of medieval disease theory.) It’s the long arm of government, reaching right into my own home to micro-manage my behaviour. Only a fool thinks that more rules will make us more free.
John Ralston Saul commented in Voltaire’s Bastards on the increasing professionalization of poetry already apparent when he wrote the book in the early 1990s. “Most citizens still see our contemporary wordsmiths as an independent voice given more to criticizing the established powers than to praising them. And yet it is hard to think of another era when such a large percentage of the wordsmiths have been so cut off from general society and when language has been so powerless to communicate to the citizens the essence of what is happening around us and to us. The workings of power have never been so shielded by professional verbal obscurantism.” By contrast, he argues for the poet’s role as shit-disturber, a voice of conscience calling out the corporate charlatans and power brokers for their crimes: “The wordsmith—prophet, singer, poet, essayist, novelist—has always been either the catalyst of change or, inversely, the servant of established power… His weapons are words well used to disturb and to clarify thought, emotion and action. His genius, if he has it, will help him to explode self-satisfaction. He will create confusion in order to make clarity possible.”
NOTE: For deeper historical context—and some corrections to misconceptions about Queen Elizabeth’s role in suppressing poets and harpers, have a look at the article “Dictates About Harpers” at Wire Strung Harp: https://www.wirestrungharp.com/harps/harpers/dictates_against_harpers.html
LINKS & REFERENCES:
- “Another Year of Revolt: Twenty Key Struggles to Watch in 2020,” by James Clark, The CCPA Monitor, March/April 2020 newsletter, published just before lockdown: https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/monitor-marapr-2020
- “A High-Tech Coronavirus Dystopia,” by Naomi Klein, The Intercept, May 8, 2020: https://theintercept.com/2020/05/08/andrew-cuomo-eric-schmidt-coronavirus-tech-shock-doctrine/
- “Why are Irish poets on the frontline of the world stage during lockdown?” Patricia Killeen, Irish Central, May 20, 2020: https://www.irishcentral.com/opinion/others/irish-poets-world-stage-lockdown?utm_campaign=IC+FAV+-+May+21+-+2020-05-21&utm_content=Story2&utm_medium=Email&utm_source=Infusion&inf_contact_key=291b3bd0502ec211199dd0a4b1f15ded4dfbc39d7283b2cb89d5189540b69330
- Academy of American Poets “Shelter in Poems” initiative: https://poets.org/shelter-poems
- John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards—The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Penguin Books, 1992.
- “17th-century Plague Doctors Were the Stuff of Nightmares,” by Jesslyn Shields, How Stuff Works, February 12, 2020: https://history.howstuffworks.com/european-history/plague-doctors.htm