"The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude."
-George Orwell, Why I Write, 1946 essay.
"We were so easy to deceive /
We were so easy to control /
We didn't even know there is
-Leonard Cohen, There Is A War.
In the proud tradition of dissent in world literature, from Voltaire to Vidal, where does Canadian poetry fit in? Especially right now, with the wrenching of Canadian military policy from peacekeeping to waging war? It would seem we are busily crafting a safe and comfortable silence for ourselves-what Pablo Neruda called "the silence that says nothing" (Songs of Protest: North American Friend). Neruda wrote those words in direct response to literary critics who derided his polemical poetry: "Why doesn't your poetry / speak to us of dreams and leaves /of the great volcanoes of your native land?" (I Am Explaining a Few Things)
Once again, as when he witnessed Franco's thugs bomb innocent civilians in Spain, Neruda was forced to respond to the CIA-backed overthrow of the Allende government that shattered Chile. He could not, would not abandon the moral obligation to speak out: "I exist not if I do not attend to the pain I of those who suffer: they are my pains." (Songs of Protest: So Is My Life)
Neruda next tackled those who shirked their social conscience: "dissolute poets who have lost / Whitman's faith in the human race.../ my only rebuke against you / is for the silence that says nothing." (Songs of Protest: North American Friend)
Perhaps this is one of the pitfalls of Canada's governmentsubsidized literary system: its tendency to create selfcensorship. There are of course some commendable exceptions: the anthology The Common Sky-Canadian Writers Against the War published by Three Squares Press; Penumbra Press's Waging Peace; and the well-crafted online chapbook 200 Poets Against the War, compiled in 2003 by Todd Swift in response to the American invasion of Iraq. Still, why does it take ad hoc efforts like these to marshal the literary forces of conscience? Where are Canadian literature's most venerable presses?
The dominant trend of North American literature in general, and Canadian poetry in particular these days, is either shamelessly self-referential or subtle to the point of featurelessness. Whether that "self" is the individual, that individual's culture of origin, or the larger self of the manmade world, it's what I call "sophisticated navel-gazing." In the foreword to my collection, The Charlatans of Paradise, I wrote: "In the trajectory toward the universal, contemplation of the self is only going halfway."
Obviously, being humans, we have a need to examine what it means to be human. That's only natural, and necessary. But there's an odd double standard at work here. On one hand, literary critics disparage what they call "confessional" writing. On the other, much of the work by our most renowned writers is precisely that, well disguised by adept literary technique. Isn't speaking through a poetic "voice"- however remote from the self-confessional, fully intimate, when stripped of its mask?
It's natural for a younger poet to be self-absorbed, as part of the natural development toward maturity. One must first explore the self in order to have some ground from which to examine the wider world on a secure footing. But when the reigning literary orthodoxy institutionalizes the self-absorbed to the exclusion of all else, we have a problem. Patrick Lane makes an interesting observation in this regard: "The search through the 'interior self for valid expression of art today reminds me of Chinese poetry during a thousand years of totalitarian dictatorship by the elite."
And then there's the creative writing axiom about not "intruding" into the poem with authorial presence. This strikes me as the same fallacy as the notion of journalistic and historical …