canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Whither People’s Poetry?

A report on the Controversy of Poets at the Junction Cafe (Hamilton, Ontario - June 1, 2002)

by Terry Barker

During the winter of 1998 - 99, Hamilton poet and publisher James Deahl proposed to a number of contemporary practising People’s (populist) Poets in Canada the convening of a meeting to discuss the future of their literary form. The deaths of several founders of this genre, and changes in public political and poetic consciousness over the previous decade were the chief reasons given for the need for People’s Poets to consult.

A tentative date (early summer 1999) and place (the Ameliasburg, Ontario, home of the group’s senior member, Al Purdy), were decided upon, but this arrangement had to be cancelled due to the failing health of Purdy.

The idea was revived, however, this past spring, and a Controversy of Poets was held under the auspices of Mekler & Deahl, Publishers, at the Junction Cafe in Hamilton on June 1st, aiming to "explore the future of populist culture." Featured speaker was Brantford, Ontario, People’s Poet and essayist John B. Lee. And there was also a prepared presentation by Toronto poet Phil Hall. Other participants, besides James Deahl, who acted as chairman, were Toronto poets Joan Latchford and Glen Downie, Hamilton poets Jeff Seffinga and April A. Severin, and Mississauga poet Stella Mazur Preda. I kept minutes of the meeting. A written response to the discussion was circulated later by Jeff Seffinga, and the import of this will be included here.

In his paper "People’s Poetry - Not By Reason Alone", John B. Lee was at pains to point out that "there’s a mystery at the heart" of poetry itself, and, by extension, a difficulty in defining People’s Poetry and even in defining "the people." Using a method something like the "negative way" in Christian theology, whereby various images and formulations of the divine are shown not to be the true location of the Mystery, Lee presented various notions of the popular, of populist poetry (doggerel verse, cowboy poetry, rap music, etc.), and of "the people", only to show that the mystery of People’s Poetry is not located in them, but in "a common sensibility." This consists in:

A shared sense of the value of all life. A cherishment of common human ground . . . The love of life. The way we live our days in respect and awe.

For Lee, then, "At the heart of all people’s poetry is the celebration of, the reverence for, the paying attention to the human predicament." The latter includes "the paradox of our existence", "the irony of our state", and "the comic, tragic wonder of it all."

Given this understanding of People’s Poetry, Lee noted that the great People’s Poets from the area of his birth, Southwestern Ontario, were Archibald Lampman, the prominent nineteenth-century Confederation Poet, and Raymond Knister, often considered to be the founder of Canadian Populist Poetry, examples which encompass both the learned and the unlearned social sources of "the people" as understood by John Locke, the seventeenth-century English liberal thinker and inheritor of the Puritan and New Testament ethic. For Lee, this is the "sensibility at the heart of people’s poetry" that "gives rise to work which includes the heart, the mind, the body, the soul and the spirit in one cherished surround", and that "engages us inclusively in the mystery and the certainty of our own ineluctable importance . . ."

A very different perspective on "the people" and their poetry was put forward by Phil Hall in his paper "Sequence of Disclosure: Toward a Prosody of Populism". In an aphoristic manner, Hall declared his conviction that populist poets "are long overdue in developing a prosody of Populism": i.e., a critical body of knowledge of how People’s Poetry works and could work better to achieve its ends (as opposed to a poetics, or theory, of People’s Poetry). Hall’s own major criticism of populist poets to date is that they have failed to articulate both their ends and their methods, even to themselves, taking refuge in vague notions like "inspiration", thus assuring the assimilation of themselves and their work to the established (liberal democratic/capitalist) society, which "has meant not apprenticing the young into language’s social responsibilities or its blood base."

What Hall wants, as he clearly states, is to be able to read something in the future that might be called How To Build A Poem To Carry The Tribe Downstream, which the efforts of neither "our best philosophers of poetics" nor those engaging in general "talk about writing" have succeeded in producing. This is because, Hall averred, the philosophers "have made it sound as if the main skill in poems is intelligence - which it isn’t", and the general discussions are useless as criticism because they are really about politics, using idealistic words such as "’value’, ‘intensity’, ‘clarity’, ‘facts’", which "point to social change, not language revelations or innovations."

For Hall, and for those People’s Poets who have not "fallen for the lies", presumably, "the body won’t come right out and say: Rhythm is knowledge. But it is." In general, though, Hall continued, "we populist poets have been confusing our bodies with our languages, our lives and livelihoods with our poems." But "poetic language does not eat, vote or work. It forages, invents, has elusive schedules, private orthodoxies."

But populism also shows the way forward in its very concept, Hall thinks, a realization that suggests an outline manifesto:

A prosody of populism will necessarily be about negative as well as positive collectivity . . .

A prosody of populism will draw its energies not from the ‘pop’-ular arts that glorify the first person pronoun, but from the anonymous and amateur traditions that are ancient and that sustain the dignity of the third person (unroyal) plural:’we’.

As populist writers, we have the same interest in dissolving or de- emphasizing the ego as experimental writers do. The ‘I’ de-emphasized becomes "us".

The ‘I’ re-forged into a ‘we’ is counter-imperial as well as anti-phallic.

. . .

A prosody of populism will not transfer into its language as virtues the oppressive signature elements of class oppression, or other oppressions. Obviously.

. . .

A prosody of populism might start with the mechanics of anger . . .

A prosody of populism might take a page from the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh. The return to Celtic and Gaelic words, the return to indigenous languages, away from Latin and Britishisms, has meant a revival of poetry in those countries, but also a revival of criticism . . .

A prosody of populism will finally accept that the label ‘academic poet’ is as much a dusty old misnomer as would any label such as ‘Populist Laureate’ . . .

. . . a prosody of populism would strive toward linguistic pathways owned by use. Owned by use: common law (government of tongue).

A prosody of populism will have allies in ‘wild culture’, ethnopoetics, the broadside, the ballad, the regional, bricolage, the self-published, the sendup, the spoof, the ephemeral, the instantly produced, the cross- disciplined, master printers, and the so-locally-specific as to be incomprehensible . . .

A lively discussion preceded and followed both papers, and, to some extent, even interrupted the presentation by Phil Hall. John B. Lee noted that in villanelles "content carries the day", and James Deahl pointed out that, in contrast, in the New Formalism there tends to be no great concern for content, only a great concern for perfect form, but "not enough artifice to make it art." Lee responded with the statement that "the poem, not the poet, is the point", and there was some general discussion of Robert Frost’s people’s poem. Phil Hall said that he agreed with the opening quote in Lee’s paper (he was, I think, referring to a passage quoted by Lee from Emily Dickinson’s "Number 280":

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down and down -

And hit a World, at every plunge . . .

or, perhaps Lee’s initial self-quote: "as for me, I’d just as soon slip the noose of naming.")

In response to Hall’s call for a populist criticism, James Deahl agreed, indicating that so far only Selden Rodman (in the United States) had engaged in this activity, although the Pittsburgh People’s Poet Peter Oresick was currently involved in it too. John B. Lee complained that Hugh Kenner, the New Critic from Southwestern Ontario and the champion of The Policeman’s Beard is Half Constructed, was unsatisfactory in this regard, and Glen Downie added that it is really up to populist poets to provide such criticism themselves. Hall noted that Wendell Berry "replaces packing in theory with faith." Lee thought that a critic’s job is to illuminate and the reviewer’s job to evaluate, but Hall insisted that all he was hearing from People’s Poets by way of criticism was "boy am I ever hurting" and/or "I’m smarter than you are." He remarked that greats of the past, such as Wilson MacDonald and Carl Sandburg, didn’t romanticize experience or pander to readers’ proclivities, and neither should populist poets today. He concluded by observing that during a recent lunch he had had with Erin MourE, there was some discussion of the fact that Canada was known internationally for experimental work in poetry.

Joan Latchford, April Severin, Jeff Seffinga, and Stella Mazur Preda contributed to the discussion by giving examples of their own experiences as People’s Poets with regard to public perceptions of poets and poetry, the varieties of poetic expression among different publics, the role of populist poetry to engage marginalized communities, and the function of poetry in Native Canadian culture. I raised a number of controversial issues in my role as non-People’s Poet and surrogate critic (such as the passing out of existence of "the people" celebrated by John B. Lee’s mentors - the rural and small-town Ontario Protestant Lockean liberal populists, with their Existentialist descendants, such as Al Purdy; the irrelevance of criticism as a basis for action after the Hegelian revolution in philosophy in the mid-nineteenth century; the lack of a hermeneutics, or theory of interpretation of the history of People’s Poetry from its inception in the early Enlightenment in Europe and its variants in America, at least among its contemporary practitioners).

Jeff Seffinga’s response to the discussion, and to the papers of Lee and Hall, which could be said to stand at opposite extremes of the spectrum of the current debates about the future of People’s Poetry, filled in, in general terms, this missing middle hermeneutic ground. For Seffinga’s paper, entitled "Toward an Understanding of People’s Poetry", reviewed the general principles that have, over the time dimension of experience, created a community of discourse that, among other things, allows such a discussion as this one held in Hamilton to occur at all.

For if John B. Lee’s People’s Poetic is understood as derived from a working back of Al Purdy’s agnostic Existentialist United Empire Loyalism through its origins in the Vitalism of D.H. Lawrence mixed with the version of New England Puritan mysticism of Bliss Carman, then Phil Hall’s projected Populist Criticism can be seen as an extension of the Whitmanian Hermetic word-conjuring present in Milton Acorn’s work of his middle period, narrowed and focused under the influence of the Kabbalistic methods of French Heideggereans. These two rather esoteric North American extremes within the People’s Poetry tradition are, in fact, united by the much broader Western European tradition of people’s literature and culture, of early Enlightenment provenance, represented by Jeff Seffinga’s musings.

There, in general outline, are found the basic principles agreed upon by British, French, German, Italian, and other European (and, incidentally, French Canadian) populist poets of the early eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries:

I - poetry derives from the "bardic tradition" (of oral story-telling of the periods of the "migration of peoples" pre- and post- the Roman Empire).

II - This original poetry conveyed "common experience", or the experiences of a people over time.

III - Such poetry does "not raise itself above common understanding by using uncommon language".

IV - Such poetry can and must deal with "philosophies, politics, the great and small abstractions into which modern man distils his daily life", but "by its nature it should impart abstractions through those images that can be grasped by the audience, to let the acceptable bear the imponderable."

V - Such poetry "emphasizes the sound of the poem" because, "it is so directly linked to the oral tradition, it articulates through many rhythms similar to spoken language".

VI - A People’s Poem "must, in its own way, be about experiences we can and do share; it must deal with life as we live it rather than dreams or imaginings."

VII - A People’s Poem "has a duty to become part of the general essence of the people, a part that endures even if seemingly forgotten, that can be called upon and retrieved when needed."

VIII - "People’s Poetry has a philosophical and perhaps political foundation that preserves its focus. Its primary purpose is the enlightenment and betterment of the human condition."

IX - "Almost any poet, whether writing out of Marxist conviction, Romantic idealism, social Christianity, humanist ideology or any other belief system that sees mankind as a cohesive community, can be a ‘People’s Poet’."

Seffinga concludes, accurately, that "these are the cornerstones of a People’s Poetry", and the range of principles enunciated can be seen to be reflected, with varying emphases, in the formulations of Lee and Hall. However, put in this uncomplicated way, this set of precepts, which could easily be held together, perhaps, during the eighteenth century, when the notion of a "People’s Culture" arose in various European countries as part of the articulation of "the people" politically, the rise of the nation state, and the reaction against the culturally-dissolving rationalism of Descartes, may seem like a somewhat ill-matched collection in today’s climate of globalizing corporate capitalism.

Seffinga, and the other People’s Poets presenters at the Hamilton meeting, admitted as much and, indeed, the apparent irrelevance of People’s Poetry today was the underlying reason for the convening of the gathering in the first place. This was emphasized by the fact that the more obvious reason for the need for People’s Poets to rethink what they are doing (the disappearance of socialism, in its various avatars the favoured ideological anchor for People’s Poets for a hundred years) was not mentioned at all. Neither was the rather rocky road that populism as an ideology has itself followed over the last century, being a major, if not the major, component of the only ideological invention of the twentieth century, national socialism/fascism, that mishmash of failed ideologies (nationalism, scientism, feminism, biologism, socialism, etc.) united by the decultured natterings of ignorant journalists and crackpot academics, similar to the "Disneyland version of Weimar" all around us in North America today.

But perhaps another, largely unmentioned, set of principles animated the conference of People’s Poets at Hamilton, and gave it the amity and coherence it largely exhibited, and the air of optimism that generally prevailed there.

Scholars have pointed out that the putative founder of People’s Poetry, the eighteenth-century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico, was a typical man of the era in that he "looked both ways": i.e., back to the Classic and Christian spirituality of the Middle Ages and forward to the human-centred secular gnosticism of Modernity. He was, in short, Janus-faced, holding together Christian faith and philosophy and the methods anticipating the great anti-Christian ideologies spawned by Rousseau and Hegel. Perhaps the accumulated details of the long modern war against gnostic politics, ever clearer in its lineaments since the 1950s, have brought this civilizational civil conflict to the field of People’s Culture and Poetry itself. Perhaps, too, the rapid waning of the influence of the greatest disciple of Rousseau and Hegel, Karl Marx, has left only one of the original two philosophical pillars of People’s Poetry standing: Classic and Christian mystic philosophy.

Terry Barker teaches at Humber College in Toronto.






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