When I started writing poetry seriously in the mid-1960s, I found myself on rather unstable ground. Whatever tradition there might have been of addressing the darker realities of contemporary life had become suspended for a more personal or confessional mode, the kind associated with Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. Much of this shift had to do with the Cold War and a resulting relativism in the arts. Criticism reflected the transition. ”Poetry makes nothing happen,” the critics would say, quoting W. H. Auden’s elegy “In Memory of W. B Yeats.” I felt as if I was pushing against the current.
I’d grown up poor and dysfunctional in Vancouver, under the protective wing of the Baptist Church, but reading Slaughterhouse-Five and Generals Die in Bed in university as well as the great anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen and Randall Jarrell made me want to speak out against iniquities and inequities. Later, I briefly taught on Texada Island, under the influence of Socialists and Communists, where I swept away any clouds of religious belief I had left. But I found a new missionary zeal: if not to save the world, at least to improve it.
As a graduate student in Toronto, I spent considerable time at protests against racism and the Vietnam War, with a keen eye on the news. I remember reading a review of the plays of Friedrich Dürrenmatt by the Toronto Star drama critic Nathan Cohen, in which he lamented the lack of serious political commentary in Canadian theatre (and writing in general). I don’t recall whether Cohen quoted Northrop Frye’s comment about there being a debilitating level of frostbite in the Canadian imagination, but that too was on my mind. Anyway, I took it all as a challenge.
In spring 1970, in front of the American consulate on University Avenue, someone tapped me on the shoulder to tell me about Kent State University, where the Ohio National Guard had just opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing four and wounding nine others. It was an event that demanded a response.
For five years, I struggled with various diatribes against U.S. foreign policy, but shouting and anger were not part of my temperament or my literary tool box. A snowstorm in Edmonton found me taking shelter at Wee Book Inn, on Whyte Avenue, where I stumbled upon a small red paperback by I. F. Stone called The Killings at Kent State. The price was right: one dollar. Stone was trying to understand why none of the perpetrators was ever brought to trial. I pored over the details he provided, including four salient points about one of the victims, Sandra Lee Scheuer: speech therapy student, very tidy, liked to roller skate, not overtly political. She’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I chucked my file of notes and, in a few hours, wrote an elegy of my own, not just for her but also for the young soldier who would have to live with what he’d done.
Much to my surprise, my poem “Sandra Lee Scheuer” created a stir. Al Purdy called it “the kind of poem most poets wait a lifetime for,” and George Woodcock declared that I was “Canada’s best political poet.” But being labelled a political poet at that time in Canada, even a good one, was not exactly a welcome endorsement. In fact, it was enough to make many dismiss me without bothering to read the work.
I eventually learned that Auden was not at all reluctant to be considered political, and nor was Yeats. In fact, Auden once said, “In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” James Baldwin had also weighed in on the subject: “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest.”
But the most useful reminder of poetry’s long-standing connection to politics came from James Scully. “Political poetry is not a contradiction in terms but an instructive redundancy,” he wrote in Line Break. “It holds social reality up to the sheep, showing poetry its own face, its condition, its grounds and horizons.” For him, the form was necessary for “problematical, restive” situations.
Such words were all I needed to pursue my own problematical and restive course, which eventually led to a book of four narrative poems about the ravages of conquest and war.