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George Elliott Clarke’s poet laureate term sparks dialogue on poetry’s public value

Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke, is photographed in his Toronto home on Jan. 6, 2016.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Don't get George Elliott Clarke started.

Or do.

Just be warned: He's a poet, called to a word-weighing vocation, but a verbose poet. Speech pours from him where it trickles from his colleagues. He talks like a canister of seltzer with the trigger pulled.

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Give the man a topic – about poetry especially, but anything that appeared on last night's 10 o'clock news will do – and you'll find yourself hit between the eyes with a fizzy jet of compressed opinion.

So it would be a mistake, though maybe the very best kind of mistake, to ask him about a topic as bottled up and shaken as the place of poetry in popular culture.

Don't be surprised if, 15 minutes later, your coffee is getting cold and George – or, as he signs his e-mails, "George!" – has rambled through 300 years of English and American bards and their tortured relationship to hoi polloi, with a detour into the graveyard where Gregory Corso is buried at the foot of Shelley's grave.

You asked for it. Also, you should have seen it coming when he began his answer this way: "It all goes back to Plato."

His mind for the history of poetry, and his zeal for talking about it, makes the recent pseudo-scandal surrounding Mr. Clarke all the stranger. He is Canada's parliamentary poet laureate, the seventh we've had. His job is to write poems on occasions of state, promote poetry to the public and advise the parliamentary library on its collection.

In October, he told an interviewer that, since becoming laureate, he hadn't done much of the first part: that is, he hadn't written much poetry. Or much official poetry. Mr. Clarke continued to publish personal work, and wrote a poem for his investiture in March, but nothing that was pegged to the jubilees, national anniversaries and famous deaths that usually provide laureates with their subject matter.

Eyebrows were raised. The CBC wrote a story about it. On social media, poets mocked. Was old George, with winsome squint and knowing grin, living large on the taxpayer's dime? With a $20,000 honorarium, a $13,000 travel budget and tens of thousands more for programming and translation on the line, it was a fair question.

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But something seemed amiss in the picture that was vaguely suggested by Mr. Clarke's silence. An Afro-Canadian from Nova Scotia with a blazing social conscience and a lyrical style, he seemed the sort of poet laureate who would hold forth, rather than clam up, on being provided with a national pulpit.

He also recently served as poet laureate for Toronto, where he works as an English professor at the University of Toronto. No taint of sloth or evasion accrued to that gig. The idea that he was dodging official duties just didn't ring true to many who knew him.

"The weird thing is that George is one of the most politically engaged, politicized poets in the country," said the poet and critic Carmine Starnino. "Every six months, he has a new book of poetry out. He's extremely prolific."

Sure enough, Mr. Clarke had an explanation for his sudden reticence – an explanation that suggested its own kind of scandal, or tragedy. He mistakenly thought that he couldn't write ceremonial poems unless members of Parliament asked. And no one asked.

In November, Toronto MP Julie Dabrusin finally brought Mr. Clarke's work to the floor of the House with a poem she commissioned from him on Bill C-16, which proposed adding protections for gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act. ("Male is partly female, because female/ Carries male. To whit, Gender's not a jail," he wrote.)

Since then, Mr. Clarke has received many more commissions. And he has started writing poems – a torrent of them in November, including two about Remembrance Day and elegies for Leonard Cohen and Fidel Castro.

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But Ms. Dabrusin says she didn't know she could simply drop the poet laureate a line and ask for verse on demand. Many of her colleagues were equally oblivious. The oversight has raised awkward if perennial questions in Canada's poetry-writing community and on Parliament Hill about the relevance of the poet laureate.

Mr. Clarke blames his hiatus on the ambiguity of the role. "It was created and everyone said hurrah, hurrah, we're going to have poets laureate – and then it kind of went on autopilot," he said.

The position was minted in 2001, giving laureates two-year terms. The poets alternate between anglophone and francophone, and their productivity varies. Fred Wah, maybe the most famous poet to hold the title in Canada, wrote just a single official poem during his tenure – an oblique ode to Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee.

Most Canadians would probably be hard-pressed to recall that production – which Mr. Wah himself called "mediocre" – or any other emanations from the office of poet laureate, for that matter. The post has never had much profile in Canada.

"This is the heartbreaking thing," Mr. Starnino said. "In the U.K., it's a big deal – it's talked about in the newspapers, names are circulated … In Canada, who cares? To tell you the truth, I'd forgotten that George Elliott Clarke even got the job."

The laureate tradition dates back centuries in Britain, and great poets such as William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, and Ted Hughes have given the role a sheen of credibility in that country.

Even so, the idea of a ceremonial poet has always seemed fraught, if not faintly ridiculous, to many in the profession. Philip Larkin quipped that he had nightmares about being appointed, and later rejected the post when it was offered.

Some fear that the obscurity of Canadian laureates stems not only from tensions inherent in the job, but from a deeper suspicion of poetry in general.

Mr. Wah largely avoided the creative trade-offs of writing occasional verse by focusing on the promotion, rather than the creation, of poetry. In his travels to give lectures and readings, he found that Canadians were broadly interested in verse, but also intimidated by its perceived difficulty. "A lot of people are afraid of poetry," he said in an interview. "I think that comes perhaps from an educational system that poses poetry as a kind of cryptic puzzle that has to be solved."

The subject of poetry's relationship to the reading public has galvanized and divided poets for centuries. L'affaire Clarke merely came at a time when the old debate had been given new life – both by Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize, which divided poets on whether a songwriter should count among their ranks, and a small book by the poet and novelist Ben Lerner with the self-explanatory title The Hatred of Poetry. Naturally, Mr. Clarke has thoughts on the subject. He writes "accessible" poetry and evangelizes for the same. When he was a teen, he had a regimen of writing four songs a day, and fell in love with the idea that "anything can be poetry."

Elton John and his lyricist Bernie Taupin were early influences. Soon he graduated to the great singer-songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. "It's high time that songwriting was acknowledged as an art form," he says.

In Mr. Clarke's conception of poetic history, the art ticks back and before between popular and elitist phases with a metronomic regularity. Today, the needle has swung too far away from accessibility, he says.

"I'm a poet whose poetry has been recited at weddings – and I'm happy to put that on my CV," he says. "It can be very witty, very inventive, very learned, but it's also accessible… It's really too bad that poets, not all poets, but some, in the name of being ultra-avant garde, have looked askance at these types of poetry."

As laureate, he says he feels a responsibility "to represent a kind of vox populi" – and in that way, he might seem to have much in common with the members of Parliament who shunned his services for the better part of a year. In the end, it was perhaps the scale of his ambition for the role that made his neglect by the people's representatives sting. Mr. Clarke was always keen to write poems. Parliament seemed less keen to hear them.

For Mr. Starnino, the episode has resonance beyond itself.

"George's complaint about his plight is a near perfect mirror of the plight a lot of contemporary poets find themselves in," he said. "'Why is no one paying attention to me?'"

Elegy for Leonard Cohen

(à la manière d'Allen Ginsberg)

This terrible, irritable dawn–

This morning of Mourning–

His obituary crowbars apart

Prophecy and Nostalgia…

Always native to Heaven,

Minting gleaming melodies,

Freeing a nailed-down Christ,

Obeying the mating-calls

Of mandolins and guitars, he

Never abstained from Liberty,

Never lost the Intelligence

Of Dylan-dark sunglasses

And light making masterpieces

Of shambles, or lighting up

Cages where lovers loll,

Lousy with tears and sighs…

Poet of Everything,

He transcended conclaves

Of critics, the murders

Of poets, all those copycats–

Sordid franchisees of blues–

Every presidency serving up

Immaculate Corruption, the stale,

white bread circulated with grease…

His insatiable suitcase,

Portaging Gog and Magog

(In eastern Quebec), Hydra,

Rue Main, Manhattan, Havana,

Pursued the ghosts of Glory–

Parliaments of movie screens–

Fiestas of butterflies, and secret

Eros, Eros, everywhere…

After auditing the News,

I suffered the insomnia

Of steel nails, heads battered

Until drowsy, woozy in wood.

Eternity expires as eyes close–

Or we succumb to sobbing…

But the honest poet voids

The dirty mind of Grief,

Knows the poet's grave

Is his deathless poems–

Dark, remorseless Beauty–

Light that scalpels eyes open.

George Elliott Clarke, parliamentary poet laureate

11 Nov., 2016

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About the Author

Eric Andrew-Gee has covered national news for the Globe and Mail since 2015. He previously worked at the Toronto Star, where he was a reporter, and Maisonneuve Magazine, where he was an editor. Eric won the 2015 Goff Penny Award for Canada’s top newspaper journalist under 25. His work has also been nominated for two National Magazine Awards. More

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