The News: That Stays News
Bowling, Tim, Queen's Quarterly
If you imagine the spirit of John Keats sweating over an assembly line at Ford in the early 1950s, you'll have some idea of the marriage Philip Levine effects between sound, sense, and subject. But instead of odes for nightingales, he more often pens paeans to murdered heroes of the Spanish Civil War, unemployed black men named Thomas Jefferson, blind jazz musicians, and single mothers working the night shift. He is, to be concise, a patriot of the most troublesome kind to government, one who actually believes in the tarnished ideals of the republic.
AROUND 380 BC, Plato famously banned poets from his ideal republic. Two thousand or so years later, Percy Bysshe Shelley labelled poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Closer to our own time, William Carlos Williams wrote that "it is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there."
Why should I be standing at the intersection of Bank Street and Laurier Avenue in Ottawa on a grey March morning, with thoughts of Plato, Shelley, and Williams running through my mind? True, I had just visited a used bookstore where I had spent a happy hour before the poetry shelves. Also true, I am a widely published poet who had travelled the day before from Edmonton to the nation's capital to participate in Versefest, Ottawa's annual poetry festival. But those facts were incidental.
The main reason for my perplexity and my conjuring up of famous ideas regarding the place of poetry in the "real" (i.e., the political) world involved the police roadblock that halted my innocent ambulatory progress towards the Parliament Buildings. What could this be, I wondered--a holdup at a convenience store? A bureaucrat who'd finally had too much bureaucracy standing out on a ledge? As my fellow pedestrians congregated lemming-like at the four corners, a half-dozen sleek, black limousines sped by, windows tinted black, tiny flags on the hoods. Suddenly I felt the way poets often feel in the presence of official power: shocked, irritated, depressed, bemused, and, finally, helpless. Here, in the most tangible form, was the real world.
The police officer who stood a few feet in front of me, his mustache thick as Stalin's, his gloved hand raised and extended as if to stop us from throwing ourselves at the limousines in suicidal protest, seemed at once bored and ennobled by his duty. Political power is ordinary, his manner suggested, but it's power and I'm part of it. And I could just imagine the scorn in his face if he'd read the poetry in my thoughts. Now I began to feel like a seventeenth-century Japanese poet from the provinces who finds himself at the Emperor's gates. And my response was the same. To fall back on the poems. Basho wrote,
Even in Kyoto hearing the cuckoo's cry I long for Kyoto.
And for me?
Even in Ottawa watching the limousines I long for Ottawa.
No, it wouldn't do. A Canadian poet in the Canadian capital has no business longing for anything except a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. The relationship of poetry to official power in our country has never been more distant. But a poet's life is filled with irony and paradox. As I watched the last of the limousines--perhaps the very one in which sat the Israeli and Canadian prime ministers--vanish in the skyscraper shadows, I unclenched my fists and let out a long breath. After all, that kind of power, of banks and prisons, flags and mints, works against the kind of power a poet seeks, which is to submit the ego to the glories of everyday experience and the felicities of language.
Ah, but the real reason for my trip to Ottawa did very much involve the relationship between poetry and politics. For I had travelled across my own country in order to meet the current United States poet laureate, a man with whom I had corresponded for fifteen years and never met, a man whose sudden link to American nationhood was as surprising as it was revealing of the ways in which power seeks to bend poetry to its own purposes. …