canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Political Poetry and the Canadian Tradition

by Shane Neilson

Remembrance Day is not only cause to reflect on and honour Canada’s role in past military campaigns, but it also spurs consideration of Canada’s contribution to the annals of political poetry. Just as Canadians entered the First World War as a loose and impromptu fighting force, our poets too possessed diffuse talents that, mirroring the course of their soldierly counterparts, rapidly toughened as the war progressed.

Political poetry is a subject of great interest to me. Since I came of an age able to digest political thought, moral feeling, and satire, I’ve found the martial rhythms and gruesome images of political poetry irresistible. This not a solely aesthetic predeliction; ever since I was energized on reading my first political poem, I became aware of the singular characteristic of the genre: its power. As I read that poem, I felt in me a stirred sense of horror or indignation, a circumstance entirely intended by the poet. So inspired, I sat down to write my first political poem (which was insufferably bad, titled "Bad Serbs".) Like our countrymen, I slowly improved with practice.

Erotic poetry may inflame the loins, but that’s it- the end result is copulation. A nature lyric cannot save rain forests or enforce conservation. Confessional poetry is cathartic for the writer, and sometimes exhilarating for the reader, but the insights conveyed are usually idiosyncratic and are almost always more indulgent than constructive. In modern poetry, then, the arena for change is solely a political one, and the ultimate mode of political poetry is war poetry. Few things compete with war as a harbinger of change.

Balancing this special ability is the tendency amongst the literary establishment to consider political poetry as inferior to more covert poetry devoted to higher sentiments- chiefly, nature, love, and death off the battlefield. Political poetry suffers critically because it tends to be fashioned for a material purpose, as opposed to an abstract one. By its nature, a "political" poem is overt. If one concedes that, to some extent at least, political machinations direct the poet’s choice of subject, tone, and word usage, then the "political" poem is an order higher than the baseline affiliations of the general poem. Overtness is not necessarily a handicap; obfuscation is not in itself a good strategy, and directness has the already stated benefit of more completely mobilizing the reader’s attentions and emotions. Yet a strength can also be a weakness, and so it is that mediocre or outright lousy verse practitioners are the poets attracted to one-note anthems featuring morally uncomplicated stanzas. Such poets utilize argumentative poetics (it goes without saying- no poem should argue. Instead, a poem should persuade.) mobilized for the destruction of X, the repeal of Y, the downfall of Z. By arguing so simplistically, the lesser political poets are oblivious to their audience, which does not need convincing. All know that death, pestilence, and evil are all undesirable.

Odious poets, like politicians who enjoy power for its own sake, are the ones most susceptible to the power of their verse office. Because political poems effect by force of affect, poor politicos rush into production vapid solemnities decrying the headline of the day. Bad poets are legion in any age, but this is doubly true of the political cohort. Good political poets get tarred by association.

Exemplars of political poetry diverge from their less talented fellows not in intensity of feeling, for I suspect both camps, being poets, feel just as acutely. No, the bifurcation occurs when comparing the relative degrees of moral sophistication and the amount of obliquity involved in the poet’s analysis. Instead of relaying that X, Y, and Z are mere monstrosities, the good political poet takes a roundabout route towards the overt truths of the Holocaust, for example. In the process, he develops a poetic surreality capable of introducing businesslike horror. Absurdity allows a better look at the totality of horror because of the seeming impossibility of the historical acts themselves; isn’t torture absurd to the common sensibility? Isn’t mass extermination?

In forcing the reader to take a deep contemplative breath, to encourage him to make leaps in lexical logic and deductions in grotesque metaphor, the immensity of barbarity is revealed, as if the poet is saying: yes, dear reader, we did indeed do that to one another. You had to think about it for a moment, didn’t you?

As co-poetry editor of the Danforth Review, I sift through about a hundred submissions every four months. A third of these could be considered political poems. An informal survey of other poetry editors showed a similar experience to my own. In the months after 9/11, this ratio was predictably weighted much in favour of the political spectrum. Yet in my few years as editor, I have never published a political poem despite the fact that a good proportion of the submissions possess political content.

The usual mistake is –alas- grammatical error. Half fail for this reason, and they are the blessedly bad poets whom are easy for an editor to recognize and reject. The remainder display a reasonable appreciation of the language in their poems but unfortunately give the game away when they substitute profundity with forceful judgment. Their poems bully the mind, offering the reader no alternative but assent. All agree that bad things are, by definition, bad things. But this is the extent of the moral inquiry- a mere declaration. Better political poets ask questions in their poems, and though they do not arrive at answers, they create a dimension of evil as absurd as it is abhorrent.

The 9/11 poems I received are a good example. Each expressed socially sanctioned outrage. A few adopted anecdotal stances, detailing where the poet was when the jets hit. Other poets presumed the experience of the trapped passengers on the commandeered planes. Yet not one reflected a subversive attitude, an inappropriate sentiment. There was no absurdity or liveliness to the general evil, only the cinematic equivalent of black-hat terrorists driving planes into buildings –cue cackle- and white-hat firemen and policemen responding heroically to the challenge.

The absurd is an artistic method that has been around for a long time. At a fundamental level the technique’s engine is humour. Absurdity requires an imagination with the capacity not only to rue our folly, but also to chortle at it. Synonymous with the word "absurd" in this context is "whimsy", and all political poets of stature are able to laugh in verse at how terrible human beings are to one another. The seeming inappropriateness of this gesture heightens the moral stakes- how can the poet laugh at such inhumanity? The answer: by writing a great poem at odds with itself, one that rues its laughter. Preservation of humour in the face of awfulness proves the poet human, proves him ultra-human. A close inspection of that laughter reveals that it is the perfect embodiment of regret and bitterness, but also of terrible acknowledgement. The poet is laughing at what we have lost.

As a regular reader of unsolicited poetry, I have awaited poems about the Middle East featuring Palestinian ice cream bombs and Israeli tanks made out of chocolate; of 9/11 poems featuring a Godzilla-sized Osama Bin Laden clutching George Bush, who entreats: "Don’t eat me, I’ll give you cirrhosis!" I expect playful silliness as well as comic seriousness, poems in which Rwandan Tutsis mass-install machetes porcupine-style on a Volkswagen Beetles and christen the cars "Hutumobiles." I yearn for the tragically humourous, the sad-funny poems that are the highest form of political poetry.

Heaney, Neruda, Milosz, and Ahkmatova are a few immediate examples beyond the genius of Paul Celan, but some respectable entries have been penned by our countrymen.

No poem in our history has achieved the popularity in its day or the enduring legacy of Col. John McCrae’s "In Flanders’ Fields", originally published in the December 8th, 1915 issue of Punch. Generations of Canadian schoolchildren thereafter have been forced to learn the poem by rote, and though "In Flanders’ Fields" edges toward treacle as it nears conclusion, the first two verses typify the two-mindedness of good political poetry:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amongst the guns below.

Understated in its rhymes, austere in its images, the poem presents grief made natural by making the poppy a bloody metaphor in the first verse. Notice the placid pace of the stanza despite the fact that a war’s going on, "Scarce heard amongst the guns below." Poppies blow sedately and such, although McCrae manages to sneak in a sly criticism of war: his choice of bird is the lark, an avian misfit, the bird of all folly.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Quite unexpectedly, the second verse shifts the poem’s tone and pins the poppy to the breast of its "Dead." McCrae uses dead soldiers as the poem’s narrators, thereby injecting an elementary grotesquerie into his poetic. McCrae juxtaposes a natural scene of poppies and larks with talking zombies. He and fellow Canadian poets of the period had yet to choose humour over earnestness -if only McCrae could have presciently appreciated the side-splitting joke of the wounded men he treated, some with sides split, some split at the middles, some sidelong hoping to return home- but the contemporary reader can forgive McCrae his shortcomings, shared even by Wilfred Owen, the greatest poet of World War One. McCrae’s poem became famous not because it trumpeted valour and self-sacrifice in name of country (although it did do that), but instead because the stuff of war subversively leaked into the poem. McCrae had a zombie beat the drum of nationalism, attempting to swell the rosters with enlisted men- and that’s a healthy measure of moral sophistication.

"In Flanders Fields" can be thought of as the nascency of Canadian political poetry, and subsequent poets have built upon this beginning, just as subsequent soldiers followed their fallen comrades in order to establish the reputation of Canadian regiments. First World War casualties had a voice largely articulated by McCrae. Later generations of Canadian poets made these voices more animate. Canada can attest to many bunglers in the early stages, but soon we came to know our way around a political poem. The best example of an Atlantic Canadian’s proficiency is found in Alden Nowlan’s "Ypres 1915", a tender and astonished poem full of wonder and innocence; a more elegiac example is supplied by A.M. Klein in "Meditation Upon Survival" Irving Layton was a rascally political poet, always agitating, and at his irritant best in "A Tall Man Executes a Jig"; even the unlikely Al Purdy wrote the excellent "Dead March for Sergeant MacLeod."

On November Eleventh, a date two months after an updated day of remembrance, Canadians will stand on parade ground squares and commemorate cenotaphs bearing the names of dead men and women. We will listen to the drumbeats and watch the presentations of wreaths by geriatric soldiers whose ranks gradually succumb to the toll of time. In this way and in others we will be reminded of the feebleness of freedom. A solemn voice will recite McCrae’s poem into a microphone, and the ceremony will be done, and we will all go home- though, for the poets and for the soldiers, the work will never finish.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.







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