July 7, 2012
Dear Chris & Chase,
Below is a draft of my definition of People's poetry.
What do you think?
. . . James, Norma, & Rocky
by James Deahl
Although its roots lie deep in the Confederation Period (1880-1899), people’s literature as we know it today, both in poetry and in fiction, has been the central literary tradition in Canada since the mid-1920s when Frederick Philip Grove published his first Canadian novel, Settlers of the Marsh, in 1925. Grove’s poetic counterpart was Dorothy Livesay, who published her first collection, Green Pitcher, in 1928 and whose Day and Night (Governor General’s Award for Poetry, 1944) would set a standard for People’s Poetry that would be followed by Milton Acorn, George Bowering, and Ted Plantos, among others.
People’s Poetry is founded on two concepts: 1. That progress can be seen in the human universe — in terms of what might be called “social physics”, this means that society moves from disorder to order (thus, society improves, becomes more fair and less governed by social Darwinism); and 2. That humanity is perfectible within history. That is, humans play a (if not the) major role in their personal and collective salvation from the flaws of human nature.
From these two principles it follows that: People’s Poetry promotes peace, equality, and human goodness; People’s Poetry opposes racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination; People’s Poetry opposes classism and class systems. It is, in short, art made for the people, not the elite. People’s Poetry works to preserve and enrich our natural and human environment.
In practice, People’s Poetry tends to: be committed to Modernist concepts while retaining key Romantic ideals; support Socialist / Social-Democratic political movements; oppose large-scale capitalism and its attendant “business culture”; encourage all people to participate in building their culture.
From the days when Grove and Livesay were writing and publishing their early books, realism joined with idealism has been the hallmark feature of people’s literature in Canada. This sets it apart from Post-modern, Imagist, and Confessional poetries, which also are present in our contemporary literature. Leading People’s Poets today include John B. Lee, Robert Priest, Ronnie R. Brown, and Chris Faiers.
Note: People’s Poetry is a term generally used only in Canada. In the United States this type of writing is usually referred to as Populist Poetry, and in Britain as Public Poetry.
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late July 7- early July 8th, 2012
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to read & discuss your draft definition of (Canadian) People's Poetry. We were both fortunate to have the definitive Canadian People's Poet, Milt, as a comrade (in the Canadian Liberation Movement: CLM), as a friend (and roommate), and as a poetry mentor.
Knowing Milt so well, perhaps it's easier to define what a People's poet is, and that basically everything a People's Poet writes then becomes some aspect of People's Poetry. Some poets may write a People's poem from time to time, but not necessarily be considered representative People's Poets. Likewise, a true PP, like Milt, wrote lots of poems which, if read individually, wouldn't necessarily be obvious examples of People's Poetry, but which did form parts of his development, or explored aspects of his broadest world view.
I believe you pretty well nailed the development of People's Poetry and most of its primary features, but for the above reason I intuit that it's more practical to apply a definition to poets, rather than to the individual poems they create.
peace & poetry power!
Chris ... and Chase wrffffffffffffffffffffffff! (hi Rocky)
p.s. Another poet I consider a prime exemplar of PP is bill bissett. Like Milt, bill has encouraged progressive poetry through a broad range of activities, such as founding & operating blewointmentpress, doing countless tours across Canada (and Europe), mentoring and encouraging other poets, and constantly exploring and expanding our knowledge & practice of poetry, consciousness and social progress.
p.p.s. I'd like to post this discussion on my blog - I'm sure it would stimulate some feedback & perhaps even some controversy. OK with you?
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July 8, 2012
You are quite correct in the observation you made yesterday. There is People’s Poetry as a literary movement, then there are individual People’s Poems, and finally there are People’s Poets.
A true People’s Poet is one who writes People’s Poetry most of the time: Acorn, Livesay, Souster, bissett, etc. There are not many of those still around.
Then there are those who start writing People’s Poetry before moving on to another type of poetry, but who always acknowledge their roots in People’s Poetry. George Bowering comes to mind. (He has always acknowledged his great debt to the poetry of Acorn, Livesay, and Purdy.) And so does Irving Layton.
And there are individual People’s Poems such as my “On The Line”, “The Great Lakes Shipping Strike”, and “Hiorra”.
What we see today are a great many Canadian poets (actually the majority) who have come out of the People’s Poetry Movement, but who seldom write a true People’s Poem today. Souster and bissett are among our few living poets who have devoted their lives to writing for The People. But Souster is 91 years old. bissett is 72.
Actually, Norma can be viewed as a People’s Poet in that she was inspired to write poetry at all (and she had already turned 40 at the time) by first reading Souster and a bit later by reading Layton’s A Red Carpet for the Sun (he was still writing P.P. at that time). She still writes for The People. But my sweetheart will turn 84 in less than two months.
It is perhaps not good that our People’s Poets are all Senior Citizens, but I simply do not see younger poets who devote themselves to the Canadian people and to the struggles of their people like Livesay and Acorn did.
Nonetheless, all the time I meet younger poets (by that I mean poets in their 40s) who admire Purdy or Livesay or Acorn or bissett.
A bit odd. What do you think, old Buddy?
. . . James
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Yes, I like your clarification of three distinct aspects of People's Poetry: as a literary movement, individual poems, and then People's Poets. I find the distinctions very helpful and astute.
And something else you relate which I hadn't thought of is that some are People's Poets for the earlier part of their literary life (career is so inaccurate in Canada!), and then they go on to other things, while some poets develop into People's Poets later in life (like Norma, and perhaps Robert Priest).
Another issue is the quality of the poetry. There are many political activists who write People's Poetry, but most of them are more committed to their activism than to their poetry. And so the poetry suffers. On last night's walk along the river with Chase, I mused that if Milt had been a 'better' progressive activist, if he had been capable of organizing Canadian unions, say, then his attention might have been focused there and we would have lost our best national poet.
I'm also biased towards considering non-academic and blue collar poets as more likely candidates for being People's Poets. I'm thinking of Martin Durkin, the young prole who closes the Purdy tribute anthology, AND LEFT A PLACE TO STAND ON. Of course Purdy, and MIlt, and even Ray Souster all worked at prosaic day jobs - they had to earn their bread and butter among the people, not sheltered in ivory towers, and their poetry reflects this.
And there is an 'outsider' element to People's Poetry. All the best PP have been outsiders - thinking esp. of bill bissett here - there is an almost shamanistic pattern in the lives of our best People's Poets - a separation from the tribe, and then a rejoining, with the means of communicating the new experiences gained during the separations necessary for tribal growth being the poetry.
And yes, it's sad, but completely understandable that there are so few younger dedicated People's Poets. It isn't any sort of career by the standards of our capitalist and materialistic society. So the young poets become profs, or journalists, or give up on poetry and literature completely as a primary lifelong activity. As I've said in a few emails, I've recently been hanging out with poet/novelist/raconteur/hipster Jim Christy. He's now 67, and still hard scrabbling for paying literary and artistic gigs. I've joked that he should receive some sort of lifetime guaranteed income - Canada Council? Ontario Arts Council? some private foundation?
Maybe that's part of the test of the mettle of Canada's People's Poets - surviving in a culture which needs your work so desperately, but which will consciously neglect you to the point of leaving you bedridden in your own excrement in a flophouse (Milt at the Waverley Hotel). With examples like this, no wonder so few are genuinely following the path Milt trail blazed.
peace & poetry power!
Chris and Chase ... wrffffffffffffffffffffff! (glad my dog ESP was working last night!)
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Conrad DiDiodato has left a new comment on your post "Deahl/Faiers discussions on People's Poetry":
Great discussion, guys
I'd just like to add that (imo) the real American exponent of the People's Poetry movement ideal in Canada was probably Cid Corman. He worked tirelessly all his life (mostly from Kyoto Japan) to publish, support and encourage mostly non-mainstream, non-academic poets. There was once a Corman-Souster relationship that resulted in Souster's inclusion in some issues of Corman's "Origin" literary mag.
But certainly Milt Acorn is the quintessential people's poet: and particularly for the reasons that made him also(from what people who knew him have told me) instantly likeable as a person: I guess it's true to the say the people's poet emphasizes the person of the poet over any fake ('illustrated')personas or methodologies. The poem is the person, the poem being always the indelible imprint of the person.
I'd like one day soon to continue this vital discussion at my site.
A good day to you both!
Posted by Conrad DiDiodato to Riffs & Ripples from ZenRiver Gardens at 8 July 2012 09:57
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July 8, 2012 - part 2
I have long noted that the poets who enjoy what I call “comfortable money” are almost all professors with their Ph.Ds. Then there are a great many poets who have a much lower income than the average Canadian. (I worked at wage-slavery from the age or 21 until I was 61 — four decades. In only one of those years did I have an annual much income above the official “poverty line”, otherwise known as the “low income cut-off” to government folk. Some years I earned only half of a poverty line income!)
While it must be acknowledged that some People’s Poets did teach university, by far the majority of our People’s Poets did not. Some I know worked as dishwashers, taxi drivers, loggers, bookshop clerks, and hospital orderlies. (I was a “professional” dishwasher myself on three occasions.) Very few People’s Poets ever earned $100,000 per year.
A comfortable income is more likely to be found among the writers of other types of poetry.
What do these facts mean? Hell if I know. All I do know is that when I was a student at West Virginia Wesleyan I had to decide on an academic career or poetry. I was certain I could not pursue both. (Here I speak only for myself since I cannot speak for any other person.) Thus, at age 66 I am poor but happy, and I have written a few books that are, at least in my opinion, pretty good.
I must add here that some professor/poets I have known (once upon a time I was a member of the inner circle of the League of Canadian Poets) turned out to be decent people. And I must also add that a few People’s Poets turned out to be complete jerks. In short: bad people can write good poetry and good people can write bad poetry.
Again, these are simply facts. Make of them what you will.
. . . James
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Conrad DiDiodato has left a new comment on your post "Deahl/Faiers & DiDiodato discussions on People's P...":
the academic is generally unfavourable to the people's poet (as I've discovered) for two reasons: 1. academics don't write or don't encourage anyone to write til they've been vetted and approved by the right'committees' or 'review boards' and then university presses who round out the process (I ask you, Who would ever have published Silliman's monstrosity of book of poems titled "the Alphabet" if not the Alabama Press to which, of course, Silliman is attached via his 'review board' friends Bernstein and Lazer?)I've always maintained that the academics and, in Canada, the arts funding regime, have virtually monopolized publication in the arts.
2. academics who happen to teach writing, working in cahoots with the academic publishing industry, create instant ready-made audiences (in the form of their own classes)for their own published goods. Academics can't publish under any other more normal conditions--let's face it, who's going to read an academic's dull droning prose if they don't have to?-- It's for this reason I detest Kootenay-style writing regimes since academics posing as litterateurs create a need for the services only they can provide (It's sort of like the iPhone user's addiction to Apps: without them the addiction to instant texting and networking can't be fed).
I also maintain that the academics are directly responsible for the terrible state of poetry in Canada. This conclusion follows directly from the above-mentioned two observations re: academic presses. If the public isn't the final arbiter of taste, and the academic has free rein to do whatever they wish in their classes,the type of poetry that 'sells' and will be published in mainstream mags will always tend to be wildly experimental, elitist and anti-communal.
Posted by Conrad DiDiodato to Riffs & Ripples from ZenRiver Gardens at 8 July 2012 16:57
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July 11, 2012
Dear Chris and Chase,
Thank you for sending the Umbrella. Nice piece on AcornFest.
Have you seen the Jeff Seffinga definition of People’s Poetry? If not, here it is:
"Milton Acorn's poetry defines the People's Poetry Tradition. Subtle in his emotions, his power and directness come from the images drawn from everyday island life. Dedicated to the class struggle, Acorn peopled his poems with working men and women of the visage of Canada, and paid unceasing tribute to their suffering, their humble crafts and their utter reliability. With an authentic working-class voice, Acorn's poetry reflects the uncanny ability to replicate the nuance and cadence of everyday speech so that the delicacy of his imagery is also fraught with the wrath of hardship."
. . . James
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Thoughts from an Omnigothic Neofuturist poet :
I suppose as an Omnigothic Neofuturtist and not a People’s Poet, I would trace the resonances of my words perhaps at times in historical line with:
William Langdon “Peirs Ploughman” (1550) … Langdon is a name given to this author by academics… he records his name in Peirs as “my name is Longe Wille”
Henry Alline “Hymns and Spiritual Songs” (1786)
Onesemus Larwill “An address” (Montreal 1834)
Pauline Johnson “White Wampum” (1895)
Thaddeus A Brown “The White Plague and Other Poems” (1909)
Valdimir Mayakovsky “How to make verse.” (1926)
Lu Hsun (Xun) “Wild Grass” (1931)
Milton Acorn “I’ve Tasted My Blood” (1969)
Jane Jorden “I Smoke Black Russian Cigarettes with Turkish Papers” (1974)
Chris Faiers “Dominion Day in Jail” (1978)…. A resonance perhaps not in line with but along side with…
But theses are resonances of language which is a human river… I believe “poetry” to be rooted in place… so for me… increasingly… this five-acres, on this little lake…. A path of seasons…
And one thing I learned from Acorn is that if people bestow a mantle upon you… you wear it….
The Raven King
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