Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

A Parliamentary Poet Laureate

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

A Parliamentary Poet Laureate

Article excerpt

On December 18, 2001 legislation to create the office of Parliamentary Poet Laureate was given Royal Assent. The idea originated in a Senate Bill introduced in November 1999 and re-introduced in January 2001. The following article, by the sponsor of the Bill, is taken from testimony before the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs on March 29, 2000.

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The motivation for this bill is the digital era of media convergence which is pushing some say, crushing us. Senses are swamped by the warp and the woof of this unreal world. Our shared heritage, the canons of the word, are almost drowned out. We fear our children are becoming grammatically illiterate, and worse, culturally ignorant. Just as Parliament is predisposed as a check on state powers, so poetry can provide a reality check on the confusing image chaos and information fog rampant in our civic society.

In a collectivizing age, we need many more platforms for stronger individual voices. As a modest counterweight to this digital tidal wave, I would argue that we need poetry more than ever before. From this worrying, spinning society, a virtual cycle has suddenly emerged, a surprising revival, a renewed interest in poetry and poetry readings

Poetry boils ideas to their essence. It steps back and re-orients virtual reality. Poetry exposes the individual aesthetic. It helps us look inwards to ourselves and beyond our situation more clearly. At times, poetry and virtual reality are like competing entities of truth.

The speed of digital change seems, in itself, disorienting. In turn, malaise, ruthlessness and apathy eat away and displace a country's nurturing common dreams and shared values as societal anchors. Violence erupts when common values we share fragment, erode or implode too quickly. Poetry can ease and soften the impact of these forces of distortion, so overloaded as they are with floods of information that make our modern life so confusing and disorienting. Sometimes one speech can become a prose poem that binds a country and its people together, armed only with the simple phrase or a thoughtful metaphor.

The parliamentary tradition of a poet laureate goes back 400 years. The first one was Ben Johnson, in 17th century England. There is a long and honourable tradition of having a national poet laureate. This applies in the United States since the mid-1930s.

Robert Pinsky, the American poet laureate argues, that in its proper place poetry may bring "harmony from disharmony, understanding from confusion." Poetry and the written word can help us refocus. In this 24 x 7 world, time is the essence. Poetry can freeze experience and then defrost, with a word, a phrase, a line, a paragraph, a verse, a poem, a metaphor.

Walt Whitman argued that the United States was so immense, fragmented, disparate and divided that, if it could only be held together by one thing, it would be by poetry. Untutored forces can work in an unintended way, without our assent, to press us together in crushing conformity. Our society needs other visions, alternate voices, fresh breathing room, more thinking time, different rhythms.

Now some scoff at poetry. Some argue that poetry has simply no place associated with political power. Parliament can only taint poetry, they say. Poets would be held in bondage by the poet's association with Parliament. There is some force to this argument.

But if you think back, what do you remember about political history? I remember Abraham Lincoln: "A house divided cannot stand alone." That was in a way a poetic metaphor. We remember history through pictures, but we remember history equally strongly through simple phrases or metaphors. Pierre Trudeau's line about the state having no business in the bedrooms of the nation. That was a brilliant piece of poetry. It was prose that reached the heights of poetry.

We need more of that. We need leaders who help us to understand what is happening around us. …

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