Canadian politics needs…more poetry?

There’s been a serious degradation in political speech in recent years, says parliamentary poet laureate

Perhaps it’s a lack of poetry.

George Elliott Clarke is Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate. He’s the seventh poet to serve in the role, which was established in 2001, and he’s proven to be a passionate advocate for the role of poetry in Canada’s public institutions.

“I believe that poetry belongs on the floor of the Senate and the floor of the House of Commons,” he declared during a recent visit to St. John’s, where he did a reading hosted by Memorial University’s English Department. “I think there’s been a lack of presence in the culture, in the political culture, for poets and poetry.”

Clarke says there’s been a decline in political speech in recent years. Politicians have sacrificed meaningful oratory for political point-scoring and sound-bites, he says.

“It’s easier to attack someone of any political stripe for some kind of imagined infraction – as opposed to actually dealing with substantive policy differences and issues – if you lack a grounding in rhetoric, if you lack a grounding in oratory and the ability to marshall facts in a compelling fashion to put forward a policy perspective,” he says.

“There has been a degradation in our discourse since the 1960s. The last prime minister who spontaneously recited poetry in the House of Commons was Pierre Elliott Trudeau.”

As an example of the lost art of poetry in political speech, Clarke notes that when one of his poems was first delivered in Parliament, it sparked a crisis among Hansard officers, who didn’t know how to present a poem in the official record of parliamentary proceedings.

Trudeau’s legacy however is a double-edged one, says Clarke. While the elder Trudeau had a strong grounding in the arts and used it prolifically, he may also have been responsible for turning Canadian politics away from its humanistic background.

Clarke visited community radio station CHMR-FM during a recent trip to St. John’s (photo by Hans Rollmann)

“[Trudeau] certainly had a strong interest and knowledge in [poets’] words and deployed their words. He would often challenge reporters to name the source of a quotation. But…Pierre Trudeau might also be partially responsible for the decline in the use of poetry in the House of Commons. It was his government that pivoted Canadian prime ministers and the attendant bureaucracy away from the emphasis on humanism as the essential background for political involvement towards political science, economics, sociology, and law of course—especially law—as the sine qua non for any kind of political engagement. Business backgrounds, and so on.”

The shift away from the arts and humanities as a driving force in political discourse has been echoed in the professional backgrounds of politicians in recent decades, says Clarke.

“The members of Parliament that we used to have, leading up to the 1960s, had a broad range of backgrounds. They weren’t only coming from law, they weren’t only coming from degrees or expertise in economics and political science and sociology and statistics and so forth, but from backgrounds in the humanities – English literature, French literature, theology, history, and so on. And I think that’s had an unfortunate impact…on the ability of our members of Parliament to look at particular policies or issues in a holistic fashion, bringing in the humanist and humanitarian aspect of various policy discourses. And that may have led to an Americanization [of Canadian politics], because when you look at the United States—with the brief exception of Barack Obama—there’s also a pretty obvious lack of poetry in the civil discourse.

“I do think that if folks were better educated in a humanist vein, in terms of having a background knowledge in literature while at the same time offering themselves for the great charity of public service…if they also had that humanist background and were unafraid to bring it to the fore, I think we’d all be so better off, so much richer culturally.”

The need for poetry in public discourse

What would Canadian politics look like, if politicians had a stronger grounding in poetry? How would public debates, speeches, and media events play out differently?

“We’d have far better debates, and far more colourfully worded debates,” declares Clarke emphatically. “Without necessarily getting into ad hominem attacks, and especially avoiding over-abstraction. And not just over-abstraction, but over-reductively-worded debate points.”

Without quibbling over datasets and challenging each others’ facts, says Clarke, politicians might try to persuade voters, and each other, through the construction of compelling arguments instead. They would cease to rely on partisan interpretations of data and instead try “to compel a majority of Canadians to accept a particular viewpoint because of the fact that it has been put so rhetorically brilliantly and memorably and poetically.”

“Why don’t we have memorable speeches on any number of policy questions?” he asks. “I believe that up until the 1960s we did have those kinds of debates.”

“Why don’t we have memorable speeches on any number of policy questions?”- George Elliott Clarke

While politics used to produce stirring, eloquent speeches that were studied and even recited by students, political speech no longer inspires, says Clarke. With a few notable exceptions—he cites a couple of speeches made during the debates over free trade and the repatriation of the constitution—political speeches are poorly written and delivered, he says. Instead of developing arguments based on reason or passion, politicians cite uninspiring statistics as their rationale for the policies they pursue.

“I do think that has something to do with the turn of government, especially federal, toward something called rationalization, which has had the impact of driving out the humanist, driving out the humanitarian, and emphasizing economic considerations over everything else, and basing policy judgements on economic arguments as opposed to humanist arguments.”

Clarke sees potential for change in some of the emerging discussions happening in Canada. He points to the inspiring and passionate work of Indigenous activists who have struggled to raise awareness about the plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Struggles like this, he notes, cannot and should not be reduced to statistics. He says experiences of marginalization, oppression and exploitation must not only be expressed in numbers, but must be put into words.

“Beyond policy, it’s simply a matter of justice and humanitarianism that really demands some kind of intervention that is spirited and spiritual. It’s not just a matter of looking at the agony and terror that has been inflicted on too many Indigenous people in this country, but at the same time putting that experience in words and maybe even in songs that touch everyone.”

“I think of the civil rights movement…moments that demanded dynamic, public poetry and song.”

Province of the orator: NL and Quebec

During his tenure as Parliamentary Poet Laureate, Clarke has made it his mission to visit every Canadian province and territory; to his knowledge he’s the first poet in this role to do so. He’s made it to all of them except for Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, and he has his flights to those locales booked for later this year.

During his travels, he’s noticed that the power of oratory lingers in some provinces more than others. Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec, are two that stand out to him.

“These two provinces in particular do have very vibrant and political cultures in terms of rhetoric and oratory…different premiers did have a very colourful way of speaking, which cut through all the bafflegab which is deliberately there to obfuscate and encloud the issues, and demonize others. I appreciate the ability of some Newfoundland members of Parliament and premiers, and some Quebecois members of Parliament and premiers, to be able to reach the people and reach the masses through very dynamic and colourful speech, and try to move people toward accepting one particular point of view or another.

“That’s what democratic politics should be all about without having to resort to reductive analyses and zero-sum nickel-and-dime economic analyses and personal attacks.”

Poetry on trans rights, marijuana, Gord Downie, and more

As parliamentary poet laureate, Clarke has produced poems on a range of topics. Sometimes they’re requested by sitting members of Parliament, to honour or commemorate notable events and people in their ridings. Sometimes they’re requested by government agencies or departments. And sometimes they’re the product of Clarke’s own poetic inspiration, responding to national issues or ongoing legislation.

His first request came from Liberal MP Julie Dabrusin, who requested a poem to accompany a private members’ bill regarding trans rights that she was bringing forward.

“I had a lot of fun writing that poem because I had to deal with pronouns, and make interesting poetic, pseudo-political—but really apolitical—points about pronouns,” he recalls.

Since then he’s received requests for poems from parliamentarians on topics ranging from autism to Viola Desmond; from senate reform to National Women’s Month. Most recently, he received a request from the Canadian Coast Guard, who wanted a poem addressing Indigenous access to waterways.

“It hasn’t let up…I’m going to be rushing to try to complete the requests that have been made of me,” he laughs. He also notes that the intense demand for his services—once people were made aware of them—reflects the deep-seated desire many Canadians have to bring poetry back into public discourse.

All of Clarke’s poems produced during his tenure are accessible via his office’s website. They include tributes to recently deceased prominent figures—Leonard Cohen, Fidel Castro, Gord Downie, and more—as well as poems written on tragedies such as the Quebec City mosque shootings and the Lac Megantic disaster. There’s even a poem about marijuana legalization. In an appropriate nod to Clarke’s efforts to popularize poetry, rock band U2 integrated two of his poems into their live tour stage show.

For Canada 150 celebrations, Clarke produced a poem titled ‘Anthem for Liberty’s Champions.’ It highlighted the role of ‘unsung heroes’ in the country’s recent history—characters like Louis Riel, suffragette Therese Casgrain, labour activist Madeleine Parent, civil rights hero Viola Desmond, reproductive rights activist Henry Morgentaler.

“Yes, there is a public place for poetry in our political institutions” – George Elliott Clarke

“The purpose of the poem, was to remind us all that there’s still a place for anyone that wants to champion liberty, civil liberties, human rights in Canada right now. There’s still lots of work to be done…I wanted to avoid naming politicians because if you’re a politician, you have a duty to struggle for civil liberties and human rights. That’s your job! If you’re not there to do that, you shouldn’t be there.

“Those politicians who have championed human rights may have received some recognition…so I didn’t feel it was necessary to name them in this poem. I was really interested in ordinary people…righteous folks, who decided that whatever their calling, they had a function in terms of trying to improve the lot of their fellow and sister citizens. And they set the example…I wanted to focus on the unsung champions of liberty to encourage all of us, whether we’re sung or not, to take up the struggle.”

His response to a request for a poem about Senate reform illustrates some of the challenges involved in his poetic process.

“Even though the request was coming from the government, I did not want to write a poem that was partisan,” he explains. “So I wrote a poem that dealt simply with the fact that change happens. Change happens, folks. And maybe change will happen with the Senate…the poem was on the possibility of change.”

He also made sure that the poem rhymed, to render it more accessible—and memorable—to the politicians who would be delivering it.

“Anybody who’s been to kindergarten knows how to recite a rhyme. So very well-respected, prestigious, members of Parliament who have no experience in reciting poetry will not have any difficulty in reciting a rhyme.”

Parliamentary poets laureate are appointed for two-year terms, and Clarke’s is coming to a close this year. The new poet—who has yet to be named—will be Francophone, as the position alternates between Canada’s official languages. But Clarke, who originally hails from Nova Scotia and previously served as City of Toronto poet laureate for three years, hopes his successors will continue championing the role of poetry in public politics.

“Yes, there is a public place for poetry in our political institutions…I think that Hansard should be full of poetry spoken in the House of Commons and in the Senate. Full of it. All the time. And Canadian poets, and Canadian poems should be voiced! There should be a national poetry day, and on that day members of Parliament and senators when they make their statements before question period, should read a poem, from their constituency.

“I’m really glad, as a Canadian poet, to be…one of the first [poets] in a long time to bring poetry back into these democratic houses of the people.”

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