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Tell Me What the Poets are Thinking

Tell Me What the Poets are Thinking

By Gregory Betts

Set that tragical scrug aside, that gorgon downer, for I and the Canadian poets care not a whit whether or not the Hip know what the poets are doing. Against Downie, I hurl the words of the Bard: “You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!”

For this much at least—Thank you, Canadian electorate. Admittedly, Shakespeare’s most sonorous insult might be a bit much for a toad from K-town (or, for that matter, for the Leaside lizard, our former prime minister), but please forgive my enthusiasm. The poets are, for a rare moment, weirdly happy, and we can spare no time for unswimming rock-radio vermin.

All this because a new prime minister has arrived, already festooning joy and recognition to lost causes and beautiful losers across the land. The poets, surprisingly, are included in the bedraggled, grateful fray. Rejoice! A saviour, born on Christmas Day, is returned! Collective appeals rebound echoing one to all to leave us sleeping, that we may never awake from this false, delicious hope.

But is it really all of that? I asked three local poets how they were feeling about the recent election. Here is how they responded:

Adam Dickinson: I feel elated that Harper is gone. I feel like we have emerged from the clutches of the most regressive and damaging government in memory. I am encouraged by what Trudeau is doing, but time will tell. The best thing he could do for the arts would be to shore up the institutions and programs that support artists and then let those artists research, create, and question without interference.

Jade Wallace: Trudeau as leader is less important to me than how the Liberals as a whole will run the country. And, at this point, if their version of running the country means simply refraining from muzzling scientists and destroying archives, then I’ll feel like there’s been a profound improvement. Under our previous government, I had this constant, quiet dread of the future.

As of 2012, a study by Statistics Canada found that national literacy levels had decreased since 2003. In 2012, the average Canadian had level 3 literacy. While people with level 3 literacy “generally do not see themselves as having major reading difficulties, they tend to avoid situations requiring reading.” What could be worse for poetry than people who avoid reading? Though the federal government may not be directly responsible for public education, or libraries, or other organizations and programs that promote literacy (and, thereby, both political and poetical engagement), the federal government can influence the funding and the public discourse about these institutions.

Aaron Giovanonne: As a poet, I’m optimistic that the new Prime Minister cares about the arts more than the last one did, and that he understands the arts require support from public institutions making decisions based on values other than spectacle and mass saleability. In the federal budget, arts funding is a drop — not in the bucket, but in the ocean — so I would be inspired to see the new Prime Minister keep his promise to increase financial support for artists and cultural institutions, which the last government was systematically undermining.

When it was revealed a younger version of our still blooming Trudeau had written Dr. Carolyn Bennett, inviting her to talk more about the implausible idea that “we need poets to change the world”, one could almost feel the collective gasp. With nervous astonishment, our overlooked, riven literary class braced themselves, waiting for the rip, the laughter, the prime ministerial sneer we’ve grown accustomed to. Instead, we hear such sweet, strange words as “Culture is what defines us” coupled with the confirmed pledge to double the funding for the Canada Council. His is truly the mug that launched a thousand swoons.
But do they want the job? Here’s what the poets say about the offer to lead Canadian politics:

Adam Dickinson: The expectation to change the world is a lot of pressure to put on poets, on any artist. If poets have a role to play in changing the world it is not through any systematic plan or prescribed political action; rather, it is in helping to shift the frames of reference we use to evaluate the world, it is in helping to expand our perceptual horizons so that things start to matter in ways we hadn’t realized. I think of poets like I think of the Greek riot dog, Loukanikos, who began appearing at the front lines of the anti-austerity protests in 2010. In a subtle but powerful way, the dog, like a good poem, contributed to the realization of new configurations of community.

Jade Wallace: I don’t think that we need poets to change the world any more or less than we need anyone else to change the world. Poetry, after all, survives regardless of politics, even if it means poetry has to be written in the dark, after working hours, on scraps of paper that will not be tracked by national intelligence.

Aaron Giovannone: It’s an old-fashioned sentiment [“poets to change the world”], and I haven’t heard it from anyone in public office for awhile. I’m not sure what the context of the statement was, but most people would understand this as a symbolic reference to poets: poets as stand-ins for all artists or for free-thinkers generally. While I recognize this as a romanticization of the role of the poet, as well as a politician’s rhetoric (and for these reasons the statement makes me cringe) I do kind of agree with it.

In a modest way, poets change the world by cultivating values like honesty, beauty, and bravery; this isn’t easy when the world values profit, fame, and power. For those who choose to listen, the best poetry offers not just consolation for our personal and collective problems, but an alternative vision and a way forward.

Brock Associate Professor Adam Dickinson is the author of 3 books of poetry, including The Polymers (2013), a shortlisted finalist for the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry. Jade Wallace is a St. Catharines writer whose work has been published by Feathertale, Poetry Sz, and Grey Borders Books ( and whose work is forthcoming in The Nashwaak Review and Pac’n Heat. Aaron Giovannone’s first book of poetry is The Loneliness Machine (2013). Born and raised in St. Catharines, he now teaches at Okanagan College in Kelowna, BC.

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