George Elliot Clarke is Canada’s poet Laureate.
I do not think that I would want to be a poet laureate. Poet laureates get no respect. The pay is bad, too. Only 20,000 dollars per annum.
Worse, our parliamentarians who choose the poet laureate do not really care either. They didn’t even ask George Clarke for a poem to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday, though telling him what to write about is part of an MP’s job.
It is also hard to be a poet laureate because you have to write nice about silly events. There is not much artistic gravitas in that. For example, Andrew Motion, a recent British poet Laureate, was asked to write a poem about Lady Camilla Bowles’ and Prince Charles’ wedding. Well, you tell me. What rhymes with Camilla? Vanilla, flotilla, gorilla, Godzilla? This is difficult, silly stuff. So, a bit of doggerel was once written about poet laureate’s that went like this:
In merry old England, it once was a rule
The King had his Poet, and also his fool
But now we’re so frugal, I’d have you know it
That the laureate can serve both for Poet and for Fool.
Still, some distinguished poets gave it a try. For example, one of the greatest English poets of the last century was Ted Hughes. Still, Hughes didn’t really shine. As poet laureate, he was asked to write about Prince Andrew’s wedding to Lady Sarah Ferguson. Here is what he came up with.
A helicopter snatched you up.
The pilot, it was me.
The marriage, as you know, ended in divorce.
As a preacher, I have learned that having to make nice is also the enemy of a good sermon. There isn’t much drama in “nice.” So, this morning, I’m faced with a conundrum. I set myself the goal of writing a patriotic sermon about Canada, my nation—not right or wrong—but Canada, my nation, right! A “make nice” sermon! For this Sunday, just before Canada’s 150th anniversary, I chose to write a sermon that dimly echoes the language of Psalm 96, a sermon about the roaring Pacific Ocean, about how the aurora borealis is glad, about how the trees in our woods sing for joy on account of Canada’s righteousness and truth, blessings and beauty. This Sunday, no thundering Jeremiads. No demand that the congregation repent. No prophetic warnings about war in Syria or Iraq. No stern lectures about racism or fidelity. No, this Sunday, I want to preach a sermon about Canada the good. I want to be a Preacher Laureate. And yet, I don’t want, like most Poet Laureates, to be silly or ignored.
What can I say?
I suppose a great poet, an Irving Layton or Margaret Atwood—like a Group of Seven Artist—a really great poet could briefly pry our attention away from the regular stuff poets plumb, like the despicable and immoral, away from cataclysm, impossible love, or disaster long enough to focus our attention, however briefly, on the wonder of the everyday blessings we Canadians usually take for granted.
Blessings like the safe neighbourhoods to walk in, blessings like being able to find an emergency dentist even on a long weekend, or the trails along Lake Ontario. Perhaps the best Canadian poet could pry our attention away from everything about Canada that has to be fixed or rightly condemned and could instead help us see Canada for what it really is, but is also too often ignored.
We have street lights that work. I’ve visited many places where they never do, like Haiti or Honduras. We have roads that are repaired, even while the inconvenience of construction irritates us. I’ve driven roads in Nigeria that can swallow cars whole. We have food on grocery store shelves. I’ve seen people lined up all the way around the block to get into a butcher shop that had only chicken neck bones and sinew for sale because I bought all the chicken thighs and breasts.
A masterful Canadian poet would be one who really could help us see black and white and First Nations people working together in a bank office as a historically significant and precious development, even if also only a beginning, and even if that seems, well, sort of boring. Such a poet would help us see the luxury, by world standards at least, of being able to afford mosquito repellant or coffee that comes a cup at a time from a brew machine.
Well, and just forget poets. What if, when we woke up, and faced all the regular struggles people in Toronto face: too long a commute, or lake levels so high that we can’t get our yacht safely moored at the dock; regular struggles like the occasional slightly-below-average teacher for our kids; what if we woke up and faced all the regular struggles people in Toronto face but we also saw with a divine second sight the wonder of ruling authorities that we generally don’t mind being subject to, the confidence we have in banking and sewage systems, enough natural resources to keep the world’s industries humming. What we could see with our spiritual eyes the leisure we have to read a good book, never mind the money to buy one; to see the wonder of hospitals that see you after just six or eight hours of waiting. I’ve visited hospitals where people camp for three or four days in the hallway to merely to book an appointment with the doctor the next day.
I’m no poet. I’m barely an aspiring novelist. But I’m a Canadian, and what I love about the old Israelite Psalms, such as Psalm 96, is the unabashed and fulsome ways in which those ancient Israelites came back, time and again, in their worship, to the blessings that they had and how they thanked God for them while also being called to keep working for right. Such Psalms are full of gratitude, and so should we be full of gratitude on this day and every Sunday. Gratitude for our land of promise whose hills flow, if not with milk and honey, well at least with oil and gold, whose rivers—if you choose carefully—are full of salmon and beavers; gratitude for a nation whose poor have a safety net, whose First Nations are slowly but surely getting a hearing; gratitude for universities and courts and police and Timmies that are the envy of the world.
Are blessings the whole story? Of course not. Canada, like ancient Israel, has never fully lived up to its potential. But consider what the Apostle Paul said in Romans 13. He called Christians to be subject to the ruling authorities. So, when things are not to your liking in Canada, and even when they mostly are, engage our rules democratically. Vote. Volunteer. Do civic good. That’s what “being subject,” means in a democracy.
Besides the Apostle Paul, I can’t think of a better encouragement to do so than I found in a poem by our poet Laureate and patriot. George Elliott Clarke is a black man with First Nation blood whose family came here as refugees from slavery during the war of 1812. Clarke is a Duke, Harvard, McGill and UofT professor. He is one of Canada’s most celebrated and prolific writers. And with this Psalm about Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he’s made the office of Poet Laureate relevant again. Listen.
On the 35th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Because we believe in a supreme Being
And Language’s power that makes Law our king,
Canadians may explore Freedoms plural
To draft a Just Society—moral
In its decisions, charitable
In its deeds, so that everyone’s able
To flesh out a dream, live for a Vision—
In “freedom of conscience and religion,”
To worship and think as one judges wise,
To invent new techniques, or improvise
New ways of doing, or earning a wage,
New ways of living well in each language
Official, new ways of sharing problems
And solutions, thanks to our shared Freedoms....
You are free to believe and express what
You know as Right; to justify or rebut;
Free to assemble with whomever else
Seconds your perspectives; free to repulse
Contrary thought peacefully; free to vote;
Free to live in Canada, or go out
To gird the globe and return; free to roam
From province to province; keep a home
Anywhere and work anywhere: To be
Mobile is the essence of being free.
You are free to disagree with police
(So long as you don’t contradict Justice
Elemental), and not face billy clubs
Or handcuffs or fired shots or Taser stubs,
Unreasonable searches, seizures, stops:
Only suspects need be eyed by Cyclops.
You are free, if arrested, to retain
A lawyer and seek bail, and not remain
In jail, and to deserve a speedy trial
So that Innocence attains acquittal.
You are right, upon arrest, to expect
Your body’s Dignity merits Respect,
And not be threatened with Harm or Woe,
Or suffer rank, uncivilized Sorrow....
You are right to expect Equality—
Impartial non-prejudice, Civility,
No matter how you look or what you speak:
Equality Rights for all lets one be unique.
Not every group has always forever been
Free of governmental Persecution;
And so Affirmative Action’s declared
The right way past wrongs may now be repaired.
English and French are the authorized speech
In Canada—and through New Brunswick’s reach;
And English or French, where minorities,
May ask for schools in their communities.
To be Indigenous is a status
Treaties endorse, and so Indigenous
Peoples may explore privileges granted
By accords, Crown-and-First-Nations-planted,
When Canada was colonies, a realm
Of settlements upon which settlements
Were made, twixt First Peoples and governments
Monarchical. These original rights
Are guaranteed in The Charter of Rights
And Freedoms, and cannot be extinguished
Nor cancelled, nor naysaid, nor relinquished.
Happily, the Charter does recognize
This multicultural mosaic we prize,
And the absolute, pure Equality
Between male and female and every Body,
And also the power of the Parliament
To grant services to each resident,
Regardless of region, so that income
Or locale, do not determine the sum
Of Health Care, or Welfare, or Equity
Available to every polity.
What came into force, April 17, 1982,
was the People’s keen
Desire to continue to imagine
A Native-Land democracy, akin
To popular sovereignty, where all
Are equal, and Rights and Freedoms enthrall—
So long as they enable possible
Utopia and/or dreams plausible,
Notwithstanding the “Reasonable” clause
That sanctions liberties that scoff at laws.
George Elliot Clarke
Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016-17)