A Poetry War in Prince George

April 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Featured, Articles, Probes

There’s a poetry war going on in Prince George, B.C., the first serious one I can think of for quite a long time, anywhere.

Poetry isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when Prince George hits the news. Pine beetles might, and overcutting the forests should. For the prurient-minded, there’s locally born porn queen Marilyn Star, or for those who enjoy being appalled, the fact that the city has been designated the most dangerous city in Canada by Maclean’s Magazine two years in a row for its high crime rate.

But poets duking it out in gangs? Aren’t poets supposed to be flighty poufters who spend their social energies looking poetical, networking like a herd of downscale MBAs, dreaming up schemes  to make themselves famous in an uncaring-for-poetry culture, or devising ways to make themselves appear more sensitive than the poets around them? There’s quite a lot more going on in Prince George these days. The poets are fighting over what people are allowed to imagine and speak about, and why. And because that is the central cultural battle going on across Western civilization right now, it matters, and not in a small way.

Prince George happens to be my home town, so this conflict and who gets hurt by this war matters to me personally, even if it won’t to the local city council, or to the unemployed loggers trying to make their traditional living in a landscape that is getting very short of trees. A poetry war in a small town might not seem worth taking seriously to most outsiders, but like I said, these are global stakes in microcosm, and so I’m going to try to explain who the players are, what they’re fighting about, and what the stakes actually are, global and local.

The first thing you should know is that Prince George has had an active poetry scene for more than 40 years now. It was touched off in about 1970 by the arrival of Barry McKinnon, who is now regarded as a major Canadian poet with a precision-tuned sensibility that is as tough-minded as it is generous. In 1970, McKinnon wasn’t much more than a pencil-necked recent university grad getting his first teaching gig. But from the beginning, McKinnon was full of all the right kinds of energy: he loved teaching poetry, wasn’t interested in power, prestige or an academic career, and more or less instantly felt at home in Northern B.C.. The scene got an energy boost when John Harris, now regarded as among the most original prose writers British Columbia has ever produced, moved to the city in 1972 to teach at the College of New Caledonia with McKinnon.

McKinnon was educated at UBC and Sir George Williams (now Concordia University) in Montreal, where he took classes from, among others, Irving Layton. Once in Prince George, McKinnon used a deceptively simple method of making his work as a teacher effective: he created books. Folk hero and developer Ben Ginter had donated an old letterpress to the college, which Barry discovered in one of the college out-buildings.  He got it working and turned it into a teaching device, and then, when the college began to move itself toward industrial development stupidities of one sort or another and found McKinnon’s activities morally worrisome and administratively irritating, he found another letterpress in Barkerville, which he moved into the basement of his house. Whenever a poet came to town, McKinnon—usually with the physical collaboration of the poet and his students, would print up small letter-press monographs or broadsides for the occasion.  Many were beautifully produced, and nearly all were at least interesting. Meanwhile, the students learned that poems were made, that both composition and production were linked, and most of them went away enlightened, whether they turned into poets themselves, or went out in the world to do other things.

Vancouver-born Harris came from an impressively Canadian but more conventional academic background, doing undergraduate work at UBC with Bill Schermbrucker and a PhD at McGill under Louis Dudek and Hugh McLennan. Harris was more influenced by Northrop Frye and the conventional canon of Canadian Literature than Mckinnon was, at least before that was shredded by the universities as they turned literature departments into remedial writing facilities to serve the literacy needs of the college and universities’ ascendant science, MBA and industrial job-training programs. Harris, who is arguably more self-deprecating and academically unambitious than McKinnon, was also a different sort of intelligence, less interested in poetry, more interested in personal and public truth, and in narrative. People joke that Harris is incapable of not telling the truth as he sees it, a personality trait that had him permanently on the wrong side of the college administrators, but has made him unique as a writer. It has created fascinating tensions in his fiction, because it forces him to write fiction by recounting, as laconically as he can, exactly what has happened in the real world. Let me explain it this way: when, as part of one of his books, he had to invent a pseudonym for Barry McKinnon, he gave his character the name “Larry McKinnon.” Harris arrived with a press of his own—not using letter-press technologies—called Repository Press. The list of Repository publications over the years, which has included a succession of poetry anthologies and some very useful hiking guides for the North, is startling and deeply relevant to life as it is lived in Northern B.C.

What both McKinnon and Harris have written themselves, from the mid-1970s to the present, constitutes an accurate if slightly accidental record of what happens when you try to live a thoughtful life in Northern B.C.. Someday,  if there’s any justice, this record will be treasured as an alternate history to that of the blind boosterism that characterizes the public record of northern aspirations. Both McKinnon and Harris have retired from teaching—Harris in 2006, McKinnon a year later.  But the interest in poetry and the unfiltered way it perceives the world has become permanent amongst the people they taught, and a legacy—or, as the administrators see it, an attitude problem—that several of those who were their contemporaries and those who have succeeded them have been infected with.

Not long after his arrival in the city, McKinnon started inviting poets from all over B.C. and the rest of Canada to Prince George. An astonishing number accepted his invitations, and the result was a series of highly memorable cultural events few cities the size of Prince George have enjoyed. It culminated in a poetry conference in 1980 that had Robert Creeley, George Bowering and Robin Blaser headlining, practically every poet working in B.C. at the time playing second fiddle, and a surprisingly large cross-section of local citizens, only some of them students, enthusiastically participating. The conference created a ferment that reverberates to this day. The list of poets who came to Prince George at McKinnon’s invitation included Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje,  Al Purdy, Earle Birney, George Stanley, P.K. Page, George Bowering, Sid Marty, Sharon Thesen, Michael Turner, Robert Creeley, Lissa Wolsak, Robert Harlow, Pierre Coupey,  Patrick Lane, Robert Harlow,  bp nichol, and Robin Blaser, along with dozens of other major and minor figures in Canadian poetry.

The list of local people drawn into poetry by the McKinnon-Harris “machine” is less famous, but no less impressive for its range within the local community. They included, in the early days, the wonderful ecologist/poet Alice Wolcuk, local realtor /poet Barb Munk, who came from a local pioneer family, Bill Bailey, Harvey Chometsky, Shirley Weese, Meryl Duprey, John Oscroft, Randy Kennedy, Sharon Stevenson, Larry Calvert, and Maureen Morton. From the mid-1980s through to McKinnon’s retirement from the college, the local presences were (in no particular order) Paul Shuttleworth (via Mackenzie and San Francisco), Lee MacKenzie, Virginia Marsolais, Richard Kaulback, Ken Belford, Bob Atkinson, Paul Strickland, Stan Shaffer, Bev King, Donna Kane and Vivien Lougheed, whose recent head-crackingly clear expose of the dinosaur bones industry, Sidetracked: The Struggle for BC’s Fossils might actually help to resolve the unproductive conflict between amateurs and professional fossil hunters in the North.

The current front-line generation of poets and prosewriters, (with many of the longtime players still around and active, including Harris and McKinnon), seem to be Matt Partyka, Alex Buck, Graham Pearce, Arianwen Goronwy-Roberts, Greg Lainsbury and Andy Johnson, all of whom possess both the sense of humour and the attitude problem that have become a local tradition.

McKinnon’s poetic and intellectual base was lodged in what’s come to be known as “The New American Poetry”, named after Donald Allen’s 1960 counter-culture anthology that brought focus to a generation of dissident American poets like Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Most of the poets of New American Poetry were male, many of them were gay, and nearly all were culturally and socially—and intellectually—disaffected from the finely-crafted “feelings” that had come to characterize English language poetry, and, not incidentally, middle class values as they were practiced in the 1950s and 1960s. The New American Poetry, as a cosmopolitan social and artistic movement, was located originally in major American centres like Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. But within a few year of the anthology’s publication, Vancouver, B.C. had become a major nexus, largely due to the presence of Warren Tallman at U.B.C., and after Robin Blaser’s immigration to Canada in 1966, Simon Fraser University. McKinnon, and nearly ever other writer on the Canadian west coast caught it there, and through George Bowering, who returned to B.C. in 1969 after several years teaching at Sir George Williams in Montreal.

Everyone involved with the New American Poetry has shared two things, whether they were the original poets in Allen’s anthology or the several generations of poets and writers since, including a fairly sizable group living in, or passing through, Prince George, B.C.. One of those things is a sense, often more pervasive than directly articulated, that there is something wrong with the mainstream—wherever they encounter it. It has been an apprehension of civic and artistic misrule powerful enough that the poets are permanently in search of the smoke pipe that those in authority are either waving around to obscure the human and environmental damage being inflicted—or have shoved, as the saying goes, in their sensory orifices to keep them dazed at the thought that they’re in the control room. At the root of this “apprehension” is the cosmopolitan sense that the local and the global are intimately connected, and that there is no excuse for the global predations that have diminished local autonomies and civic imagination.

The second thing all of these poets share, particularly those in Northern B.C. where the global screwup is an oppressively plain presence in everyone’s lives, is a sense that what is amiss can’t effectively be countered with righteousness or ideology, and that the most effective instrument of struggle is an open-minded phenomenology fuelled by focusing on local particularities and being willing to laugh and otherwise be and act irreverently . Call the willingness to laugh “gallows humour” if you like, but there is thus an extremely acute sense of irony at work, even when—maybe particularly when—levity is deemed inappropriate by the supervisors of both the economy and the culture. It’s worth noting that the current generation of McKinnon/Harris-influenced Zeitgeist-hostile writers and poets seem to be centred around the College of New Caledonia where McKinnon and Harris taught, now around Graham Pearce, an iconoclaustic live-wire who is an instructor at the College. For the past few years Pearce has been running a carefully irreverent reading series in the city called Postnorth, teaching creative writing and English to an enthusiastic (judging from the uniformly glowing student evaluations he gets) new generation of students trying to pierce the fog that passes for public discourse in the North: business boosterism, hand-wringing about dead pine trees, and cockeyed industrial development schemes (none of which are likely to work any better than the notorious and short-lived chopstick factory that was the main accomplishment of the administrators in McKinnon and Harris’ era).

Yet life in the North has changed since the 1970s, and one of the positive changes has been the opening of a university in Prince George: The University of Northern B.C.  It is a genuine, degree-granting institution with a good library, logical local specialties in boreal forestry and aboriginal issues, and a medical school. But like all contemporary universities, UNBC’s faculty has its share of the generation of humourless academic entrepreneurs who call themselves post-modernists and post-structuralists.  These are narrowly-trained people for whom history is a relic of European intellectual chauvinisms of one sort or another, and Western society itself a binary of oppressors and victims they see themselves as personally charged with delivering overdue rewards to.  Like the discourse at most universities today, theirs is crudded with a personal rights-obsessed self esteem-seeking censoriousness, over-determined by discredited Marxist intellectual methodologies and by an unadmitted moral certainty that imposes cultural relativism on everything but the owner/operators’ often-neurotic fixations, along with self esteem-building and correct consciousness-building programs for those they claim, Bolshevik-style, to represent.

These neo-Bolshevist academics are people so certain that they’re right about everything that they are prepared to rearrange the lives and behaviors of the living without their consent and to revise the testimonies of the dead to secure moral and intellectual comfort for themselves and the people they have arrogated the right to supervise.

Please note that this malaise is no more virulent at UNBC than at other universities, and that it has largely supplanted the Liberal Arts vision of the university as a place where students are there, while they receive specialist training of various sorts, to acquire the cognitive tools of competent democratic citizenship. The infection, in fact, may well be less pervasive and extreme at UNBC given that northern B.C. has always had a way of imposing common sense and punitive practical realities on extremisms of any kind. Nor is the description of these people I’ve offered one that they would acknowledge or even recognize. Moral sincerity is a camouflage that confuses both its wearers and those they seek to confuse—or ambush—with the unstable mix of ideology and radical morality sincerity inevitably seems to result in.  These princes and princesses of academia have neither the self-awareness to recognize their intentions, nor do they have any detectable sense of humour with which to process such recognitions.

In their defense, the moral goals they pursue are worthwhile. They believe men and women should be treated equally, that systemic social, political and psychological injustices should be corrected, that racial and class distinctions are odious, and that we should stop tearing the planet apart if we want to continue to live on it. Exactly what John Harris, Barry McKinnon, Graham Pearce and a lot of other people in Prince George believe, in other words.

But in action, these  academics are practicing a latter-day strain of Bolshevism—which is the presumption that virtue of purpose can confer on the virtuous the right to represent or constrain others without their consent, and that the end justifies the means. I’m not suggesting that their Bolshevism is identical to the Soviet strain that eventually resulted in about 40 million people being starved to death, worked to death in Siberia, or shot in the neck by the several generations of Soviet secret police. It isn’t. But the moral certainty is similar, and the situational tactics share a similar crudeness, censoriousness and inflexibility. The leadership of the censorious side of the Prince George poetry war seems to reside in two academically ambitious people.

One is an American-born UNBC English professor named Robert Budde, a rotund vegetarian who arrived in Prince George shortly after UNBC opened. He’s published four volumes of verse, three volumes of fiction, and has several anthologies to his editorial CV, one a selection of Al Purdy’s verse that I’ll examine in more detail later. The volume of Budde’s verse I’m most familiar with is Finding Fort George, a somewhat odd quest given that the 19th century Fort is long gone and wasn’t much to look at while it was there. Budde seemed to be more intent on discovering Barry McKinnon in various postures (a “gunslinger”, etc.)  few would recognize as typical of the notoriously unassuming McKinnon. Budde’s website, robbudde.weebly.com indicates he has four university degrees, including a English PhD from the University of Calgary for which he submitted, as his thesis, a novel titled Misshapen, which was written under the supervision of Aritha Van Herk, a close associate of the censoriously protestant patriarch of CanLit, Rudy Wiebe, and herself the author of the somewhat dubiously famous novel Judith. Eva Tihanyi, in Books in Canada, described Misshapen this way: there is a forced quality to the whole book, as if it had been cobbled together with great effort and under some duress. Its short chapters—many only a page long—suggest the self-consciousness of writing exercises. Budde also wrote a volume of verse for his MA under Dennis Cooley at the University of Manitoba, although his CV states that his PhD candidacy had course work in “Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, American Women Poets, Feminist and Postcolonial Theory”.

I’ve always found Budde pleasant to deal with and his writing relatively easy to follow, even though I have as little idea what Postcolonial means as Prince George city council does, and almost certainly will disagree with him over how to define the empire we are, in his vocabulary, the escaped natives from—not to mention my doubts about any sort of teleological theory as a means of apprehending human reality. I must admit to also having a few doubts about how a guy intent on teaching Canadians in Northern B.C. how to write would deploy an expertise in American Women Poets or Feminist Theory, but I’m sure I must be missing something on that.

The other major  leader of the Bolshevik faction a woman named Si Transken, which I’m told is, in true Bolshevik tradition, a non du guerre. Her entry in the UNBC faculty website is rather difficult to make heads or tails of. It offers, somewhat curiously in a publish-or-perish environment, no trackable account of her publications, and very little about her educational background, which I had to trace through a second UNBC website. It does have three photographs of her, one of them an attractive colour photo nearly as large the space given to text. Part of the accompanying text is a rather strange note about someone that she’s attracted to, a sentence that defines heterosexuality uncategorically as a form of oppression, and the following somewhat opaque description of, I think, her goals as an educator: “Together with her clients she attempts to fully reclaim women’s hope, creativity, vision, and empowerment. When Si facilitates workshops on women’s issues she likes to leave them laughing, coloring, drawing, singing, playing because they already know how to suffer.”  Again, I must be missing something. Aren’t wanting to leave people “laughing, coloring, drawing, singing, playing” generally the educational goals at a daycare centre?

Trying to get hold of Transken’s poetry is tricky, although I’m told that she regularly distributes it at poetry readings and consciousness-raising workshops under titles like “Our Group Poem About Dicks”.  She appears to be mainly an editor of anthologies, but the only one I could actually locate on Amazon.com is from a  publisher called PressForward, whose website seems to be offering academic self-publishing facilities from a residential address that Googlemaps locates on a gravel road about 15 kilometres west of Prince George, and Canada 411 has listed to someone named Mark Maillot. The only other solid pieces of information I have on Ms. Transken is that she’s an associate professor in the university’s social work program, has shown paintings of her vagina at group poetry readings at UNBC, and that she is recently married to Ken Belford, who has been, over the years, the other widely acclaimed poet Northern B.C. has produced aside from McKinnon. A peer review of Belford’s latest book of poems can be found on this website, here.

 

Let’s go back to one of Rob Budde’s works, which is a selection of Al Purdy’s poems he edited in 2006 for Wilfred Laurier Press University Press in Waterloo, Ontario. In that selection, Budde went out of his way to select certain poems of Purdy’s—and to exclude others. Here’s his explanation for the way he selected them: I find some of Purdy’s poems – “offensive” in the sense that they have the potential to cause harm and to misrepresent.  They contain, in short, racist and sexist elements.  This is not surprising coming out of the 1960’s in Canada, but it is something that requires comment.  I have chosen not to include many poems that are considered Purdy’s best because of these racist and sexist elements…[Frank]Davey cites “The Cariboo Horses” as an example of Purdy’s tendency toward damaging images.  It is the title poem of Purdy’s Governor General Award winning book and is often anthologized.  It is a brilliant poem in many ways, but an entire stanza is devoted to comparing “Beaver or Carrier women maybe / or Blackfoot squaws” (as if the distinction didn’t matter) to horses.  Davey rightly describes the representation of Aboriginal women in the poem as “as extreme and lamentable as any in our literature”. Purdy’s sexism is clearest perhaps in his “Song of the Impermanent Husband” which addresses a “maddening bitch”  without much self-awareness.  There are other examples, but that is not what this introduction is for.  I think readers and students should look into this systemic racism and sexism in some of Purdy’s work because it is indicative of prevailing thought that still exists in contemporary writing and needs revision.

Budde’s bowdlerized selection from Purdy’s opus, coming as it does from an academic university press, is presumably meant to be a teaching text aimed at student readers. The selection, instead of presenting Purdy, a poet who captured the vernacular language and common values of his era more precisely than any writer in Canada, as an historical figure in a specific context, simply removes whatever poems that contain language that offends the editor’s sensibility, and condemns Purdy for not sharing the editor’s values and moral vocabulary as if it was Purdy’s duty, in the 1960s and 1970s when most of his great poems were written, to figure out what Rob Budde was going to find morally comforting in 2006. The anthology therefore fails not just as a representation of Purdy’s intelligence and poetic range, it fails as a teaching vehicle. If Budde, as the selecting editor, wanted to show that Purdy had some ideas that were acceptable in his time but have since fallen out of fashion, he should have provided evidence for it in the form of the texts of the offending poems—and then argued for his moral vocabulary over Purdy’s with his students. But, see, this is not how academic Bolshevism operates. It is so certain of his moral correctness, it can remake Al Purdy in its own image (or that of the book’s editor) and—I don’t think this is incidental—find Purdy comparatively less correct than Budde.

This is a kind of intellectual thuggery worthy of—you guessed it—the Soviet revisions of history during the Stalin era, when politicians and writers were routinely removed from the Bolshevik canon whenever they were found to be out of synch with the capriciously-altering correct party line. The only difference is that in Stalin’s Soviet Union, anyone removed from the canon was nearly always shot in the back of the neck or invited to walk to Siberia in the middle of winter after being given 30 minutes to gather food and clothing for the trip. One wonders what we’d have gotten had Budde been asked to select the poems of Allen Ginsberg, or the prose of Raymond Carver, where “the potential to cause harm and to misrepresent” might appear in every second line.

A couple of weeks ago, this website published an explanation by Graham Pearce of his Postnorth reading series and why he’d felt compelled to mount the series. You can find it at www.dooneyscafe.com/archives/3003. As part of his defense of the series he offered the following description of an encounter with Budde: “… I attended a reading at the Prince George Public Library dedicated to landscape poetry featuring Dr. Rob Budde.” Pearce writes. “After the reading, we were stuck with the image of Budde wearing a heavy poncho weaved by his father that he explained “represented” the prairies. Sigh. It also said, “I’m so much more sensitive than you are.”  I left the reading feeling like the prairie-poncho was a sign of what was absent at this and most other recent readings: risk. The poncho was also a sign of the political situation poetry had found itself in: the father weaved a poncho for his son/ said poncho represents childhood and father/ said father is a weaver and son is a poet/ no harm done here. …I believe there is room for landscape poetry and its prairie ponchos; equally, I believe there is room for a measured response.”

Now, Pearce was clearly needling Budde here—rather gently, to my mind. I’d have been on about the poncho-weaving traditions of Minnesota, asking where the sombrero and the Clint Eastwood cigarillo was, or wondering aloud about how useful a poncho might be in snowstorm. Pearce, instead, is trying to make a couple of serious points about how poems are constructed, and tacitly opining that a full and uncensored range of materials and modes of expression is particularly crucial to meaningful poetic communication. He’s also acutely aware that most poetry readings are among the dullest cultural events in our civilization, particularly those deploying poetry-as-self-declamation-and-therapy, where most of the listeners in the room can reduce the poems performed to a single line: “I’m so sensitive I can’t stand it.”  The reality is that most audiences can’t stand it either, which is why so many people fall asleep during poetry readings. A morally-earnest poetry of wound-healing self-legitimation may have therapeutic value, but it also has the intellectual rigor and entertainment value of an AA meeting.

I suppose it’s also true that a large portion of what is usually called “language poetry” has similar problems. I once witnessed Steve McCaffery read a poem that featured the first syllable of every name in the Invermere, B.C. telephone book. It was fairly amusing until about the letter C, but McCaffery went through the whole alphabet. But the end of it, seven of the eighteen victims in the audience were unconscious, most the rest were close and I was muttering to myself about never going to another poetry reading. A year later I put my money where my mouth was: I stopped publishing poetry. I’ve given a single reading of my poetry in the 28 years since then, even though I haven’t stopped applying the skills I learned from it in other kinds of writing. I think what Pearce is getting at is that poetry is supposed to have responsibilities. One of them is to present a world other people can see, feel, hear and otherwise relate to—which is to say, not quite the enterprise of securing an hermetic inner reality with one’s own language. The second is be enough public fun that the people listening are not rendered comatose.

Postnorth’s readings have, I understand, drawn substantial audiences from the beginning, and Pearce got mostly positive responses to his Dooney’s article from readers in Prince George and elsewhere. He also got one very strange response, not from Rob Budde, but from a graduate student Budde is unusually close to. The note said that the sender would be formulating some sort of official complaint against Pearce on the grounds that Pearce is guilty of bullying Budde, which the note defined as “making fun of people for what they wear,” adding that the complainant no longer felt safe or secure around Pearce as a result. I’ve had to piece this together from memory, because Pearce didn’t reveal either the name of the complainant and didn’t think it was ethical to forward me the note. He did mention, with some chagrin, that the note contained four fairly egregious spelling errors, including misspelling “academic” as “acedemic”. I thought bullying was an issue among elementary school and high school students. If it is now being charged in the midst of university level discourse by adults of consenting age, the future of that discourse isn’t very promising: Everyone with a non-conforming opinion will sooner or later be accused of “hurtful bullying” and placed before a tribunal.

How Bolshevist! Absurd as it sounds, this sort of thing, along with an apparently irresistible urge to supervise the language, thought and actions of those around them appears to be normal practice for the Bolshevik side of the poetry war, as is boycotting any poetry reading—or person—they think might have the potential to cause harm and to misrepresent. And if this degree of intellectual fundamentalism is sweeping the Western world, as it seems to be doing, most of our democratic institutions are in jeopardy, not just our artistic freedom. Though I confess to having had a lot of fun in this essay making merry with the absurdities of the situation, I don’t think what these people are doing is ultimately very funny. It scares the hell out of me.

So let me be serious for a moment, and tell you what I think poetry is about, and what conditions its composition and dissemination require. In Thinking the Twentieth Century, which is the remarkable record of a series of conversations historian Timothy Snyder conducted with Tony Judt while Judt was dying of ALS in 2009, I found the following exchange between the two men. Judt was the author (among a number of remarkable books) of Postwar, which is generally regarded as the best and most complete history of Europe from 1945 to the margins of the present, and Snyder is the author of Bloodlands, which offers readers, for the first time, a competent account of what went on in Byelorussia, the Ukraine and Poland between 1937 and 1945—arguably the darkest years and the darkest location of the 20th century.

The exchange begins with Snyder: “History’s fundamental ethical responsibility” he says, “is  reminding people that things actually happened, deeds and suffering were real, people lived thusly and their lives ended in such and not other ways. And whether those people were in Alabama in the 1950s or Poland in the 1940s, the underlying moral reality of those experiences is of the same quality as our experiences, or is at least intelligible to us, and therefore real in some irreducible way.” “This rather obvious job description” Judt answers, “is actually quite crucial. The cultural and political current flows in the other direction: to efface past events—or exploit them for unrelated purposes. It’s our job to get it right: again and again and again. The task is Sisyphean: the distortions keep changing and so the emphasis in the corrective is constantly in flux. …we have a second responsibility. We are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest.”

If you remove the word “historian” and substitute “poet”, you have the way I see the intellectual and citizenly responsibilities of poetry. The difference is that poets have an additional responsibility, one that rests in the realm of language rather than factual events. We’re supposed to act as the janitors of language and human perception, charged with enabling both fact and intelligible nuance. And we’re supposed to, I think Graham Pearce would add, enable stories that don’t put people to sleep.  None of these goals can be accomplished while we’re neck deep in moral prescriptions and proscriptions, nor can they be accomplished if our main goal is to stroke ourselves and our supervisors’ prejudices, or somehow articulate while we’ve got our heads jammed up our emotional behinds. We simply can’t move fast enough to apprehend human and natural reality in those restricting postures. In particular, poetry and moral supervision are natural enemies, and should be recognized as such. I don’t think this is something that can be compromised, despite the comforts of moral certainty, which are also the enemies of poetry.

That’s why I’m behind Barry McKinnon, John Harris, Graham Pearce and whoever else is on their side of the war.  I don’t think they’re winning, and everyone—and I don’t just mean everyone in Prince George who writes poetry—is going to be in trouble if they lose.

 

  5084 words  April 4, 2012

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Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.