War, Representation and the Potential of Poetry: The Fighting Words of George Elliott Clarke and Gary Geddes

Green College Staff

As the hustle and bustle of September 2022 began to give way to October, Canadian poets George Elliott Clarke and Gary Geddes joined the Green College community in a discussion of anti-war poetry and its pressing relevance today.

It’s not every day that someone can claim an earlier association with Green College than Principal Mark Vessey, but that was the case when Gary Geddes entered the Coach House to co-host “Fighting Words: A Cure for War Fever.” Geddes had been a Green College Poet in Residence in the first decade of the millennium. So when he, alongside his friend and fellow poet, George Elliott Clarke, the former Poet Laureate of Toronto, Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate and Professor of English at the University of Toronto set out on a tour discussing anti-war poetry and giving readings of their own works, the College seemed an easy choice for a stop in the BC leg of the journey.

It was a lively scene before the talk began as local poets and poetry lovers joined a group of Green College Resident Members and Society Members in attendance. Some took the chance to discuss poetry with the presenters, while others filtered in greeting old acquaintances. Still others took the chance to add to their poetry collections. On the right as one entered was a table covered with copies of Gary Geddes and George Elliott Clarke’s books of poetry available for sale. It attracted a great deal of interest, drawing a glance from each entering patron.

There was an immediate contrast in the books. George Elliott Clarke’s are voluminous works—perhaps for the sake of the practicality of carrying them, there were only a few on the table. They are simply designed. The books are one colour with Clarke’s name on the front followed by the title, Canticles, and a Roman numeral indicating whether this is book I or II of a planned six book epic. Slightly smaller beneath that is a year, again in Roman numerals, indicating the year of publication. Gary Geddes’ books, on the other hand, are smaller, concerning themselves with a deliberately focussed scope. The covers feature the title, either 2017’s Medicine Unbundled, 2021’s The Ventriloquist or 2022’s intriguing The Oysters I Bring to Banquets, and each with striking imagery on the cover. The books were the first indication that the audience would be seeing two very different poets, each highly decorated for their unique approaches to the craft. They had been “making and remaking Canadian poetry for the last 30-40 years,” as Mark Vessey put it in his introduction, and together they stood at the front of the Coach House united in their talent and anti-war vision.

George Elliott Clarke took the stage first and quickly made attendees cognizant of the precariousness of peace in our time, noting that their tour began just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He reminded listeners, also, of the sense of dread that had pervaded the previous year, with the threat of an imminent war with China hanging heavy in the air. Against these more recent events, he indicated towards the West, Europe and its satellite States, and the degrees to which they would go to in order to maintain hundreds of years of European hegemony in the world. One need look no further than the foundation of Canada through the British North America Act—which explicitly declares its purpose as being for the protection of the British Empire—to find this imperialist legacy, he argued. And it is this drive for Empire-building and Empire-maintaining, Clarke observed, that is one of the great threats to human life. 

After this timely reminder, Clarke launched into the topic of poetry in general, anti-war poetry more specifically, and in the particulars of his own work. Anti-war poetry, he stated, is “a representation of the dangers of wars in this moment,” as well as the suffering inflicted as a result of these conflicts, which, he argued, are intricately tied up in imperial projects. Canticles was the work he presented on the day, a multi-volume saga, he explained, which was written to discuss slavery, the history of slaves, and the rewriting of scripture in African literature. In it, he traces a history from slavery to the formation of the African Baptist Church in his native Nova Scotia. Canticles tells the story of the suffering inflicted by a multi-century and on-going imperial project, while giving voice to a community that has persisted against imperialism.

Clarke’s first reading from Canticles imagines that the Romanian-born, German-language poet Paul Celan has translated “The Fire Sermon,” the third part of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Clarke’s ability to play with sounds is immediately clear, with s’s hissing in the opening and throughout the poem alongside hard consonants following sharp a’s. Clarke’s reading added greatly to the poetry. He delivered the lines with an intensity of emotion, be it joy, anger, or something else that matched closely the intensity of his language. Asked about his presentation style in the question period, he said he had tried to give a reading once “like Margaret Atwood,” very calm and reserved, only for an audience member to tell him to leave the stage. He resolved to bring more of himself and his energy to the stage at his next reading, and received a wholly reversed reception. It is a lesson that has stuck with him ever since.

Gary Geddes then took the stage. Recalling his Green College days, he told the audience of how following a reading, a Green College Resident Member asked if they could turn his poetry into choir music. It was not something he expected could be done, and the result of this interdisciplinary undertaking surprised him. Geddes then turned his attention to poetry. Following Clarke’s emotional intensity, his style was far more serene. He described his process as “emotion recollected in tranquillity” and spoke of its therapeutic value. He often writes of tragic events such as massacres and needless death in war. He does so, he told the audience, “to give shape to the events” and “to get the albatross off his back.” The emotional force of these horrific events is the impetus—“Poetry is the past that breaks out in our heart,” he said—and poetry gives them a representation that, to go back to Clarke’s words, foretells of the dangers of war.

If Geddes is concerned with giving a voice to the victims of war and representing the horrors of atrocities, it is fitting that the first poem he read from was from The Ventriloquist. It is a retelling of a hospital massacre from the perspective of a Canadian soldier that took place in a veteran’s hospital in Hong Kong during the Second World War. The narrative poem was inspired by Geddes’ conversations with some of the survivors. The words are poetically arranged and measured, but the emotional force of the collision of sounds takes a backseat to the emotional force of the events. Geddes’ personality likewise came through in his reading. He was more reserved, reading carefully at a peaceful cadence that seemed to highlight the horror of the events, in the listing of their details. Just as Clarke is himself in energetic, emotional readings, this is Gary Geddes bringing himself forward and, like Clarke, it has a piercing emotional impact on the listener.

Geddes had tried writing with anger before, he told the audience. It was for a poem on the Kent State massacre. He said he tried writing from a place of anger for six years before throwing away all of his notes and writing a poem that tells the story of a victim. This was the next poem he read to the audience in the Coach House. It tells the story of a young woman, a language tutor, not overly political, who joined the protests at Kent State almost by accident. A soldier is depicted as a suitor, lowering to one knee, only to propose with a bullet. The poem ends with the question of who will help her language student, Billy, with his work. Upon retaking the stage, Clarke described the poetm as “terrifyingly empathetic.” The victims are human beings, he urged us to remember, while noting that those in power so often refuse to acknowledge that simple fact.

Clarke continued by returning to slavery, the central subject of Canticles. He asked the audience why those responsible for the atrocities of slavery were never held responsible, why there have been no reparations, why the acknowledgments from those in power have not appeared. “People have always had to liberate themselves,” he said.

Clarke’s next poem tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a Canadian slave, who fled Montreal with her white lover, Claude Thibault. Separated from him, she was accused of starting a fire to cover her escape. She was arrested, hanged, burned, and her ashes were thrown in the river. Thibault disappeared shortly thereafter. While her actual responsibility for the fires is seen as inconclusive by historians, Clarke’s poem imagines her confession, not as to her responsibility for the crime but of what she has endured in her life as a slave. It is another emotionally fraught poem full of sharpness, collision and hissing s’s. Upon retaking the stage, Geddes praised the work for its “high octane vocabulary and passion.”

Geddes’ finals readings are two elegies from his 2022 release, The Oysters I Bring to Banquets. The first is for John Asfour, a late poet and friend of Geddes, who lost his eyesight at the age of twelve in Lebanon when a bomb exploded in his face. The second is for Eavan Boland, an Irish poet and another friend of Geddes, who, he told us, struggled against the dominantly male literati for years. Both are touching, meditative reflections on his two late friends.

Clarke, in turn, finished the reading with a lighter poem, beaming throughout his recitation of a “Discourse on Pleasure,” imagined to have been written by Alexander Pushkin. It is a joyous, sometimes comical poem masterfully read that builds until the climactic repetition of the line, “the epics, the georgics, the wine and kisses, each night, the climax, each night,” which Clarke called out in an infectious, almost hypnotic fashion. Afterwards, Geddes wittily remarked, “Now we have a new sense of what georgics are.”

It was a perhaps needed light note to end an emotional presentation by two uniquely talented poets who, nevertheless, share a desire to give voice to the human beings who fall victim to war and injustice. They left the audience with two poignant quotations: the first from the German-American philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, “the poems and songs of liberation are always too early or too late”; the second from the Modernist poet, Ezra Pound, “poets are the antennae of the race.”

The 4th Poet Laureate of Toronto (2012-15) and the 7th Parliamentary/Canadian Poet Laureate (2016-17), George Elliott Clarke was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1960. A professor of English at the University of Toronto, Clarke has also taught at Duke, McGill, UBC and Harvard. His recognitions include the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre Fellowship (US), the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellows Prize, the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, the National Magazine Gold Award for Poetry, the Premiul Poesis (Romania), the Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry (US), and International Fellow Poet of the Year, Encyclopedic Poetry School [2019] (China). His acclaimed titles include Whylah Falls (1990, translated into Chinese), Beatrice Chancy (1999, translated into Italian), Execution Poems (2001), Blues and Bliss (selected poems, 2009), I & I (2008), Illicit Sonnets (UK, 2013), Traverse (2015), and Canticles II (MMXX) (2020).

Gary Geddes has written and edited over fifty books of poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, criticism, translation and anthologies, and won a dozen national and international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas Region), the National Magazine Gold Award, the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence and the Gabriela Mistral Prize from the government of Chile, awarded simultaneously to Octavio Paz, Vaclav Havel, Ernesto Cardenal, Rafael Alberti and Mario Benedetti. He taught Creative Writing at Concordia University and has served as Writer in Residence at Green College, UBC and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and as Distinguished Professor of Canadian Cutlure at Western Washington University in Bellingham. His latest works are The Resumption of PlayMedicine Unbundled: A Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health CareThe Ventriloquist: Poetic Narratives from the Womb of War, and The Oysters I Bring to Banquets. He lives on Thetis Island, BC.

Post by: Noah Stevens, Green College Resident Member