- The Personal
My mother, Dianne Joyce, died on Thanksgiving Day, October 12, at age 79 from heart and lung complications due to a rare lung condition known as Interstitial Lung Disease. From her first diagnosis some four years ago, her health deteriorated rapidly until she was homebound and completely reliant on oxygen supplementation to breathe. Thankfully my parents had a longstanding relationship with their family doctor, a compassionate man who made sure we were able to be at her bedside during her final hours in hospital. Contrast this with the story I was told of two sisters who each made epic journeys by car for hundreds of kilometres to be with their dying father at a hospital in Cranbrook. When they arrived, they were told that only his wife was allowed in to see him and were turned away. You can imagine their heartbreak, and the awful, damaging cruelty of it that will leave a mark on their psyches the rest of their lives.
Our family had, in the initial days of shock and grief following my mother’s death, discussed holding a memorial service in the weeks ahead. But then the ugly reality of the COVID crisis set in. Even if we weren’t convinced of its virulence, others who would want to pay their final respects might be. So we’ve had to postpone it, like millions of other families, until next year. We need to hold our errant politicians to account to ensure that 2021 is indeed the Year of the Memorial, when we’re allowed to hold public funeral ceremonies for our lost loved ones. In fact, we need to go beyond asking for permission and insist upon it as a fundamental human right.
Another dear soul who left our community this year, Sally Lamare, was one of the most gregarious and social beings I ever knew. She probably knew almost everyone in the Slocan Valley and was loved by many. As a schoolteacher, she taught multiple generations of children prior to her retirement. To expect a memorial with only 50 or fewer people to properly honour her life is therefore a travesty. Some believe that hers ranks among the “deaths of despair,” and indeed, she died during the spring lockdown. Although she was 80 and had a heart condition, she was otherwise in good physical condition and had not been ill.
What’s too easily forgotten in this age of carefully cultivated historical amnesia is that at least as far back as the Neolithic Age, we’ve laid our dead to rest with due ceremony. In fact, the first evidence of human culture found in archaeological sites has to do with the ritual disposal of the dead, long before written language or other aspects of culture. “For humans,” explains Anthropology magazine, “death is an enormously culturally meaningful process. Cultures around the world honour the deceased with rituals and ceremonies that communicate a variety of values and abstract ideas.” Recent archaeological evidence dating to 100,000 years ago has found that even transitional hominid species prior to Homo sapiens buried their dead with care and ceremony.
- The Poetic
Meanwhile, I find myself thrown into the maelstrom of grief, no longer in the driver’s seat of my own emotions. I remain haunted daily by my mother’s loss. Poetry—both the reading and writing of it—has been a great comfort. Poetry has helped me cope with life’s adversities; I’ve always considered it the most spiritual of the arts. As the Indian mystic poet Osho wrote: “Poetry contains all: it is love, it contains prayer, it contains meditation, and much more. All that is divine, all that is beautiful, all that can take you to the transcendental, is contained in poetry.” And having now practised the art of poetry for some four decades, I have some facility with writing that allows me to “get out of my own way,” as many writers assert, and allow the Muse to speak freely. This decidedly classical concept of poetic inspiration has long since been abandoned by contemporary academics as passé. Too many contemporary writing schools have embraced a nihilist postmodern aesthetic that favours the personal over the universal, street slang over attention to well-wrought language, and a wholly inward retreat into narcissism. The late American poet Hayden Carruth wrote a verse corrective to this self-obsession:
True, I happen. So
put ‘I’ in. But randomly,
I am not the song.
Interestingly, those in the shamanistic tradition of aboriginal cultures often share common ground with the classical tradition. In this tradition the poet is merely the flute, the instrument through which the Muse plays her song, whether one defines “the Muse” as an external deity or a psychological principle. I’ve heard the poet thus described as, respectively, “the reed” or “the hollow bone” through which the universe sings or laments. This is what writers mean when they say, “Get out of your own way.” Try to be receptive to the subtle energies of consciousness that connect us all to each other and to the universe. As Carruth wrote, you are not the song, only the vehicle for the song. Sadly this is a notion that, in our self-obsessed culture, has lost ground in favour of an aesthetic that too often focuses attention on the ego of the poet rather than on the poem.
In many ancient cultures poets were both singers and seers. William Blake wrote of “the spirit of prophecy” as being synonymous with the spirit of poetry. In a similar vein, the psychologist Carl Jung had symbolic dreams that foretold both world wars. No one today expects a poet to be a prophet. Still, to quote ’60s radical group the Weathermen: “It doesn’t take a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing.” Or, to quote one of my all-time go-to poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, distantly echoing Blake: “The poet’s voice is the other voice asleep in every human.” Thus, the poet should be an astute observer of human nature, tapped into the sense of intuition most of us are trained to ignore. A close reading of current events combined with intuition allows a synthesis to occur that is greater than the sum of its parts. Even scientists speak of the “Aha!” moment often arrived at through a similar process of inspiration.
Already by 1976, Ferlinghetti was calling on poets to return to what his fellow Beat poet Allen Ginsberg called their “vatic” role. “No time now for the artist to hide above, beyond, behind the scenes. No time for our little literary games…” He throws humour into the mix, playfully satirizing Ginsberg: “We have seen the best minds of our generation / destroyed by boredom at poetry readings,” and concludes that it’s time “for keening and rejoicing / over the coming end / of industrial civilization / which is bad for earth and Man.” In the light of global socioeconomic conditions circa 2020, this sounds distinctly prophetic. And rather than merely paint a picture of evil and leave us stumbling in the darkness, he offers a series of correctives in his indispensable little volume Poetry as Insurgent Art. He calls out “all you poet’s poets writing poetry about poetry, / All you dead language poets and deconstructionists… / Where are Whitman’s wild children, / where the great voices speaking out… where the great new vision… the high prophetic song of the immense earth and all that sings in it.” Rather than continue indulging in “our little literary games,” Ferlinghetti sets a tone of transcendence in poetry: “A poem should arise to ecstasy, somewhere between speech and song.”
The classical poets and dramatists would likely agree. Third century BC writer Longinus (some sources say author unknown, 1st century CE), in his treatise On the Sublime, writes: “For the effect of elevated language is, not to persuade the hearers, but to entrance them… what transports us with wonder is more telling than what merely persuades or gratifies us.” He and Ferlinghetti are clearly on the same page. And while accurate, minimally biased history is certainly vital, poetry has another mission. Commenting on Aristotle’s Poetics, academic T.S. Dorsch notes: “…in its concern with universal truths, the poetic treatment of a subject is more valuable than a historical treatment… poetry is, indeed, more concerned with ultimate truth than history.” Some years ago, during yet another American political crisis, Susannah Herbert, director of National Poetry Day, said: “At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets. Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”
As Ferlinghetti, Herbert and Longinus seem to agree, poetry is “elevated language” that “transports us,” and is far more nuanced than most of today’s polarizing political rhetoric. It touches the heart and soul with basic truths that unite us all in our shared humanity. In today’s deeply fractured social climate, divided along more lines than at any time in history, this is utterly essential. Indeed, writing political poetry is possibly the greatest challenge a poet will ever face. Even one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, Pablo Neruda, stumbled on occasion when walking the fine line between poetry and political rhetoric. A poem can easily devolve to a mere screed that quickly becomes dated once the political crisis in question has passed. It takes great skill to balance the aesthetic and the political so that the element of the transcendent remains dominant. As I’ve often said, if I’m going to lead my readers into the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I feel obligated to lead them back out into the light.
So here’s just one of many poems I’ve written this year as I’ve battled through my own personal Hell in response to the lockdown measures—now estimated to have taken far more lives than the coronavirus. Like Frodo and Sam struggling through Mordor to destroy the ring of the evil lord Sauron, or Inanna having to pass the seven gates of the Underworld, it’s been a harrowing journey. The World Economic Forum has admitted that, “With some 2.6 billion people around the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting arguably the largest psychological experiment ever.” They should know—they’re in the inner circle of lockdown architects. One might take it a step further and say that it’s the largest psychological torture experiment ever. As Amnesty International explains, “When we think of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, we often think of things like stress positions, electric shocks and waterboarding… But such abuses can also include things like inhumane prison conditions, solitary confinement, and denial of medical treatment. Under international law, torture and other forms of ill-treatment are always illegal. They have been outlawed internationally for decades.” By this standard, the confinement of an entire population in lockdown constitutes psychological torture and a contravention of international law. The result has been to drive millions into despair, overdose, potentially fatal medical neglect, and even suicide. As the poet Byron wrote in Prometheus, “The suffocating sense of woe / Which speaks but in its loneliness…”
I’m hopeful that some semblance of sanity will have returned by next year, or better yet, an International Criminal Court proceeding against the perpetrators of this fraud and torture. Scaled-down memorials may work for some families in the meantime, but not for all. It’s time we pushed back the tide of tyranny and offered due recompense for our ancestors, who did so much for us, without whom, none of us would be here.
So, as a balm for the spirit struck low by lockdown, visit my next blog post to receive my Christmas gift of poetry.
 “Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa,” Lee R. Berger, John Hawks, et al., eLife Sciences, September 10, 2015: https://elifesciences.org/articles/09560
 The Selected Poetry of Hayden Carruth, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York/London, 1985.
 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art, New Directions Books, 1975 (2007 ed.), p. 47.
 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art, ibid., pp. 70, 71.
 Classical Literary Criticism (Aristotle/Horace/Longinus), Penguin Classics, 1965, p. 100.
 Classical Literary Criticism (Aristotle/Horace/Longinus), ibid., Introduction, pp. 17, 18.
 “Government data shows lockdowns more deadly than COVID-19,” Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, Flying Blind report: https://www.jccf.ca/government-data-shows-lockdowns-more-deadly-than-covid-19/