Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Social Affairs, Science and Technology
Issue 10 - Evidence
OTTAWA, Wednesday, March 29, 2000
The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, to which was referred Bill S-5, to amend the Parliament of Canada Act (Parliamentary Poet Laureate), met this day at 3:41 p.m. to give consideration to the said bill.
Senator Michael Kirby (Chairman) in the Chair.
The Chairman: We are here today to consider Bill S-5, which is Senator Grafstein's bill to establish a poet laureate for Canada.
Hon. Jerahmiel S. Grafstein: Honourable senators, it is a privilege to appear before you. This is the second time in my life that I have appeared as a witness before a Senate committee. The first time was over two decades ago, when I appeared before Senator Davey's committee on the media. Today marks the second time, which is the first time I am appearing in my capacity as a senator as well as the proposer of this bill. I thank you for the privilege of attending here before you.
The motivation for this bill - the digital era of media convergence is upon us, pushing us, crowding us and, some say, crushing us. We witness electronic perceptions easily morphed into virtually reality. By zapping or clicking endless images, messages are seamlessly reorganized and transformed. 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 by this digital age. 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 this 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 more poetry -- 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. Some spontaneous readings are called "poetry slams," and I ask myself why.
Poetry works to boil ideas to their essence. It steps back and reorients 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 almost like competing entities of truth.
Some observers complain that virtual reality is springing out of control, magnifying otherwise inert forces and nascent feelings of dislocation, isolation and alienation in our society. Just think, honourable senators, of the games children play today.
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, honourable senators, 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.
As 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, so fragmented, so disparate and so 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 vices, fresh breathing room, more thinking time, different rhythms.
Poetry and poets can give us space, give us pause to analyze our society and our own work in slower motion. Now some scoff at poetry, demeaning its rich record of history. Some argue that poetry has simply no place associated with political power. Associating with 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.
For over a century, those three miserable "isms," -- communism, fascism and nazism -- all organized to harness the poet's art to the uses of state power; yet our Parliament was created precisely as a popular check on state power. Hence, the model that informs this modest millennium recommendation is that the cabinet, the executive of state power, would have no hand in the selection of the poet laureate. The process proposed here is quite simple. The leaders of our major cultural institutions, the Library of Parliament, the National Archives, the National Library, the Canada Council and the Official Languages Commissioner would biannually propose nominees. Poets, their societies, writers and the public alike would be encouraged to lobby for these selections. Three people would be nominated, and from these, the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Speaker of the Senate would take a decision. The poet laureate would serve for only two years, with minimalist responsibilities. He or she would act freely as a catalyst to bring poetry to the heart of the public dialogue, to heighten public awareness.
Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate consultant of the United States, pointed out that the great English poet, William Blake, was quoted more often in the British House of Commons than any other source. The power of poetry is potent. Everything we do here is based on words. Words are the only business of parliamentarians. Some argue Parliament that works in a cocoon, immune to the realities of life since Parliament can deal mostly in laws that please the largest numbers. The poet laureate can place a mirror before Canadians that refracts different images of life. He can parse our common lexicon in different ways. We need diversity of thought to create a unity of dreams and a unity of visions. Poetry might even add some greater sense and sensibility to the word factory of Canada -- to our Parliament. Poetry might bring fresh realities, new light, to the very heart of the Canadian soul, wherever it may reside.
Honourable senators, for your careful deliberations, I propose this bill, this most modest millennium idea, for consideration and, I hope, for positive commendation by this committee.
Senator Carstairs: Senator Grafstein, you have fallen, unfortunately, I think, into a trap, a trap that I keep hearing from so many people, that somehow or other our children are illiterate. I take great exception to that. I think children are more literate today, in so many areas, than they have ever been in their history. When I was in school, I was asked to memorize poetry. Nobody asked me to write it. Children in grade 1 are asked to write Haiku, and taught how to do. In grade 5, they are asked to write sonnets. This is a very creative period in our time. I do not think it deserves the kind of negativism in your statement.
What you are your comments?
Senator Grafstein: The words I used were "grammatically illiterate" and "culturally ignorant." I was focused on a different proposition, that there are two streams of history. One is the poetic stream of history and the other is the prose stream of history. The things that I remember best of history are the poems we were taught to memorize.
When it comes to history in this country, the common heritage and values, I doubt if one could make the argument that we are doing a good job in our schools. I say that because, when you ask children who are in public or private school, secular or non-secular school, who is the prime minister, what is the nature of Parliament, what is the nature of senators, they can tell you about Clinton and Gore but they cannot tell you about Chrétien and Manning.
Therefore, I agree with you. I did not mean to suggest that children are illiterate; I said "grammatically illiterate," which I still contend they are, to a greater extent than we were. There is an absence of an understanding of the cultural things that bind us together.
I hope, Senator Carstairs, that that modest argument will not deter you from supporting this bill.
Senator Carstairs: My second question is related to a submission that we will hear a little later, a submission that, in my opinion, is of great significance. That is, the Library of Parliament in a brief submitted to us argues, very effectively, that if we are to move to a poet laureate we should in fact have two, one in both official languages, or at least a poet who could write poetry in both official languages. I am not sure that that is possible. I personally would be happier with two rather than one.
What would be your reaction to such an amendment?
Senator Grafstein: You touch on a very important and central point. I have given this issue more thought than the rest. I concluded, after consulting, that what we were looking for in a parliamentary poet laureate was absolutely the best poet in Canada. We have, in this country, a grand tradition of translation. In a way, we demean both official languages if we were to conclude that we needed to have two where one would do. I do not think that that person necessarily must be bilingual. We are able to have strong, creative and intelligent translation.
Unlike in England, I proposed that we have a short term for a parliamentary poet laureate. A new person would be selected every two years. We do not have two prime ministers. We do not have two Governors General. We have one to represent the common values. Our power to be able to listen to that person in his or her original tongue or through translations would suffice.
One of the greatest poets of the century is Rilke. You should read a book by Rainer Maria Rilke, entitled Letters to a Young Poet. It is a book that I would urge every parliamentarian to read. It will improve his or her diction.
There is also a recent book, called Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problem of Translation, written by a great literary critic in the United States called William H. Gass. He deals fundamentally with the issue we are discussing. The argument he makes is that it is important to listen to the voice of a poet in that person's language. I would prefer to have a superb francophone, who is a great poet, or an aboriginal, or somebody who speaks Chinese, writing in their language, and select that person as opposed to dealing with the question of trying to accumulate the creative talents into one person. I do not think the idea of official bilingualism would be hurt by this process. In fact, I think it would be enhanced.
Therefore, I do not agree with those who say we need two poets laureate. We have one Canada, one country. I think the ability to alternate quickly would give every region, every sector, part and language in this country an opportunity to have their voice heard.
Senator LeBreton: At the end of your submission, you said: "The power of poetry is potent." How can poetry be translated? It is written in the language it is written in. How would the power of poetry be potent if we were dealing with a translation, because then does it not lose its potency?
Senator Grafstein: That is part of the argument that Gass makes. Rilke has been translated into many languages. What Gass does is take five or six English translations of Rilke from the German and parse them, and indicates how they have lost their essence in moving from one language to the other. You can get a feeling of poetry in a different language, but you cannot get the inner essence of that language. I argue for excellence of thought and excellence of expression. I do not think that hinders the alternate's proposition. In the course of a decade, we will have, if it works properly, practically every region, every language and every group represented, because that person will represent the best of Canada. I do not see it as two warring ideas.
Senator Roche: To have a poet laureate is a step forward in our civilization, and I congratulate Senator Grafstein for bringing forward this bill. Senator Grafstein has given us a rationale for this, that the poet laureate, in the poem, goes to the heart of the dialogue, that the very essence of our society, in passing through these various moments, is caught by the sheer eloquence of the word. That was probably true 100 years ago, for indeed the idea of the poet laureate comes out of the age of the word; but we now live in a society of visual images.
I put it to Senator Grafstein: What is your opinion of the picture of the globe that was sent back by the astronauts from space? We see a beautiful blue globe, spinning in space, shimmering. The unity of the whole world is seen in that one photograph of earth. We are the first peoples to be able to see ourselves as a whole. The magnificence of that photograph is but one example of how the heart of the dialogue and the heart of the moment can also be captured visually in a photograph as well as in a poem.
Therefore, if we are to have a poet laureate, what about a photographer laureate? In that way, we would be able to recognize the transition to the visual age in which we live in, which complements the age of the word?
Senator Grafstein: I have no objection to having a photographic laureate. I could give you the biblical version of my position -- we all know it very well: "In the beginning was the Word." In the beginning, they did not say, "In the beginning was the picture of the word." They said: "In the beginning was the Word."
We communicate by words. Yes, we do communicate by pictures; however, our mental processes originate with words. We are being overloaded with images, and they are confusing. If a person sits at home and watches television, that person can zap together some asymmetrical view of life that has nothing to do with life. I call it virtual reality, but it is unreal.
You can examine history through words. Read Samuel Johnson's Lives of The Poets and then read Thomas Carlyle's works on history. In my opinion, you will get a better grasp of what went on in society by reading Samuel Johnson's Lives of The Poets than by reading the historians, Carlyle being an example. They have a sense of boiling things down to their essence.
So, yes, photography is important and, yes, we live in a digital and photographic world, and nothing will stop that. We need a modest counterweight to give platforms to the written word. We are not on opposite poles here. You have simply said that we need both. The problem for me -- as I am sure it is for many of us -- is that the word is being drowned out by false images. Truth is sometimes drowned out by images that distort reality.
What is wrong with elevating or giving a platform to the spoken and written word? Is it not a modest counterweight to everything that is going on in the world? Is it not in some ways more helpful? It is a philosophical issue as well as a technological issue.
Senator Roche: I took the core of your answer to my question to be that the poet laureate would contribute to saving society from the overload of confusing images that bombard us. Do you see a poet laureate being able to cut through the mirage of images that defines our era?
Senator Grafstein: Let me put it in political terms. 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. Kennedy's line, Pierre Trudeau's line about the state having no business in the bedrooms of the nation -- which holds as true today. 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. Poets help. Robert Frost certainly helped Kennedy to understand what was happening. A poet laureate would help us in Parliament to have a better understanding of what we do.
What do we do? We are not in the picture business. We are in the words business. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to words. We have sat in Parliament. I have watched the other House. I am trying to find one great speech a year on the other side, and it is hard to find.
Senator Roche: I hope you are able to find more than one in the Senate.
Senator Grafstein: Yes, and yours, Senator Roche, are among those that reach eloquent heights.
Senator Roche: Thank you.
Senator Callbeck: In the roles and responsibilities section, clause 5 says:
The Parliamentary Poet Laureate shall:
(a) write poetry, especially for use in Parliament on occasions of state;
Will the poet laureate be directed to write certain poems or will it be left up to the poet laureate?
Senator Grafstein: It will be left up to the poet laureate. The poet laureate has a duty, and that duty is to write poetry for occasions of state, if he or she so chooses. I put these provisions in, but I have also indicated in my submission, both in the House and here, that I expect the poet laureate to have minimalist responsibilities. He or she should choose what he or she wishes to do. I am hopeful that that includes writing poetry for use in Parliament on state occasions. However, my requirement, if this bill should succeed, is to allow the poet laureate to do what he or she chooses to do to advance poetry, to give that person a platform in Parliament. The duties of the poet laureate would be minimalist -- for example, sponsor poetry readings, give advice, perform such related duties as requested by the Speaker or the parliamentarian.
The Library of Congress in the United States has annual poetry readings, and they are widely attended. Some of them are quite magnificent. One of the things that Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate of the United States, did was to foster a millennium project, where a hundred Americans would read their favourite poem. It will go into the National Archives. It is a simple, costless exercise, one that will be a magnificent record of the United States in the year 2000; a record about what a group of 100 Americans believe is their inner vision of what is occurring around them.
Therefore, in answer to your question, "shall" means to me, yes, shall write poetry for Parliament on state occasions, but the choice of those occasions, the length of that or the duties are solely at the behest of the poet laureate.
Senator Callbeck: Also in that clause, if you go down to subclause 5(e) -- I do not know where subclause (d) is; it seems to go from (c) to (e) -- it says:
perform such other related duties as are requested by either Speaker or the Parliamentary Librarian.
Will this person be responsible or accountable to those three people?
Senator Grafstein: I tried to blend, as the parliamentary memorandum suggests, several ideas. First of all, the two Speakers in effect make the selection. They are our senior representatives of Parliament. I placed the poet laureate with the Library of Parliament because the Americans have done that and it seems to work well. There would be space there. The poet laureate would be close to books, close to the poetic collection. It is an easy way of dealing with the issue. The Library of Parliament is within the confines of Parliament. It would be nice to have the poet laureate around.
There are no specific duties sketched out here. I hope the duties will be minimalist. I hope each poet laureate will decide what he or she chooses to take as a priority.
Senator Gill: You do not have any preference for poet, French or English, it does not matter?
Senator Grafstein: No.
Senator Gill: Why would we have a poet laureate and not a painter, musician or someone who is very sensitive to the various facets of life around us, whether we are talking about suffering or joy. I imagine that artists in general have an ability to express things and feel things that the rest of us are more or less oblivious to.
Why a poet? I consider poets to be on the same plane as other artists. Poetry knows how to express things with words and harmony.
Senator Grafstein: There is a parliamentary tradition about a poet laureate in England. It goes back 400 years. The first one was Ben Jonson, in the 17th century. There is a long and honourable tradition of having a national poet laureate. This same situation applies in the United States since the mid-1930s. There have been dozens of them. Their term there is one year, although some of them have been renewed several times.
For us in Parliament, we do not work in paint. We do not work in music. We work in words. I thought it would be important to have somebody who could help us better express or point us in the direction of a better expression of our ideas. I have no objection to a musician laureate or a painter laureate, but the business of Parliament at this moment and always has been "parole" -- to speak. Nevertheless, if we decided to have a national photographer, a national musician, a painter, I would have no objection.
However, at the heart of what we express, we start with words. That idea is fundamental. We think in words, we debate in words. Parliament is a word factory. So I would start with a poet laureate. However, I am not in any way diminishing what you have to say about other choices or responses. They may be good ideas, as well. As a matter of fact, if you intend to propose that in legislation, I will give it serious consideration.
Senator Gill: On another point, we have had fantastic discussions in the past few weeks on topical issues such as the referendum clarity bill and the Nisga'a bill, etc. How could this poet translate the image that Canada should project and take into account the diversity created by francophones, anglophones, First Nations people and others? How could we find somebody with whom francophones, anglophones and Aboriginal people would feel comfortable and of whom we could all be proud in the same way that we could be proud of our institutions if they were able to meet the needs of all citizens in an equivalent way? Could the poet laureate improve what we are doing in this country? Would he be able to reinvent a country in which our young people, whatever their background, could recognize and feel good about themselves? That may be a lot to ask of a poet. Could this person bring out emotions in us to help us become patriotic Canadians the way Americans are patriotic, regardless of whether our origins are French, English or Aboriginal?
Senator Grafstein: I do not expect that any one person can encapsulate all the dreams, all the visions and all the issues of unity in one poem or one poet. That is an impossibility. That is not the purpose of poetry. The purpose of poetry is to listen to the words of a poet through their singular vision of how they look at the country. I would assume that what we want are many different images of the country, expressed through the eyes and words of different poets. I do not think one poet represents all of Canada because there are too many diverse impulses in the country.
What I foresee is a series of poet laureates who will speak from their view. It is an individual art. Poetry, like painting, is not a collaborative art. Therefore, we would hear one voice, one at a time, in various phases, to give us their vision of the world.
I thought you were leading to another problem, that being, how do we reinvent the country? There is a huge controversy in England right now with the appointment of the last poet laureate. His name is Andrew Motion. He is a republican. In England, the government made the appointment a 10-year term. The poet laureate in England is a member of the Royal household; he is paid from the Royal purse. The English poet laureate is given a stipend, and he is given a case of claret on his appointment. Because this recent appointment is a republican, there is a controversy in the country as to whether Mr. Motion was the appropriate selection. How can a republican be a member of Her Majesty's household? However, having thought the issue through, they decided that they need different and alternate voices, which may help royalty become more relevant. Having a republican in the very bosom of Her Majesty's household is one such alternate voice.
Leadership depends on individual voices, leading. Poetry, to me, is a bard in advance, a poet who marches a little ahead of our time, showing us where we have come from and where we should be going. We need different voices. I do not opt for unity of spirit. You and I have common views, but they are different. I look for a civic dialogue. I am hopeful that, by listening to a person's metaphors, I may become more persuaded about their viewpoint. I do not believe in singularity. I believe in diversity.
Senator Keon: I have no questions to ask you, Senator Grafstein. I simply wish to tell you that I think this is an elegant idea. I like your concept of maximum intellectual freedom. One cannot compare poetry and science because they are totally different, and they should be. The great strides that were made in science after the World War II were largely due to the tremendous intellectual freedom given to scientists in the vacuum that was left by the war. Scientists were free to pursue their dreams. I would simply like simply reinforce your concept of the selection of an outstanding poet, from wherever and from whatever background. I am hopeful that he or she will be given the intellectual freedom to express his or her ideas.
Senator Callbeck: Let us assume that we had a poet laureate the last 10 years: On what occasions of state would you have liked to see a poet laureate write a poem?
Senator Grafstein: I would certainly be interested in what a poet would have had to say about the referendum, about the appointment of our last Governor General, about the boat people, about the language bill in Quebec. I would be interested in what he would have to say about the far right in this country, about choice and freedom, which sometimes is being crushed for a lot of different reasons. The poet can choose almost any topic of public or private concern and give us a better insight into ourselves. Read any poet that you love, and you will conclude that that poet allows you to see yourself a little bit more clearly.
I have done some homework on this. A number of our leading parliamentarians were poets. Jacques Cartier was a published poet. He was the discoverer, we think, of Canada. D'Arcy McGee wrote a collection of poetry in 1858. Joseph Howe wrote a poem in 1832, which would be of interest to you, Senator Callbeck, called "Acadia". One of my favourite poems is by Walt Whitman; it is called "By Blue Lake Ontario." It is a magnificent poem about freedom of choice, and so on.
I have purposely refrained from quoting poetry here because I do not want to elevate myself to anything other than a reader.
The one thing I recognize about poetry is that to be a great poet you need a great audience. I hope that if we are successful with this bill, with your help, we will create great audiences for Canadian poets. There are more published poets in Canada per capita than in any other place in the Western World, yet they are unread. They get published, but not very many people read them. I am hopeful that this will be an impetus for the publication of more and other poetry.
The Chairman: I hesitate to question whether "By Lake Ontario Blue" would be appropriate today -- given the colour of Lake Ontario.
Senator Roche: What is your favourite poem?
Senator Grafstein: My favourite poetry are the Psalms.
The Chairman: Thank you very much, Senator Grafstein.
We will now hear from a panel of witnesses, and our main focus with this panel will be clause 2 of Bill S-5. I believe honourable senators have received a brief by the parliamentary librarian.
In clause 2, the Commissioner of Official Languages for Canada and the Chair of the Canada Council, along with the three gentlemen who are now before us as witnesses, comprise the committee of five that this bill proposes shall recommend a short list. That list will be given to the Speaker of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Unfortunately, the Chair of the Canada Council and the Official Languages Commissioner could not be here today, but they did notify us that they would be sending a letter very shortly with respect to their comments on this bill. Ultimately, we will have heard from each of the five positions outlined in clause 2 of the bill.
Mr. Richard Paré, Parliamentary Librarian, Library of Parliament: I am honoured and pleased to have been asked to attend before this committee. We have circulated a short brief.
Of course, it is not the role of the Library of Parliament to make the case for this bill; nor could we do it better than Senator Grafstein. Our role at the library is to serve Parliament and to provide service to the House and Senate. We are coming from a different angle with respect to this bill.
We note that the bill itself proposes the appointment of one parliamentary poet laureate where we have two official languages, and Senator Carstairs raised the issue. We also note that the bill does not mention any stipend or remuneration for the parliamentary poet laureate. However, we understand that this matter could be addressed by the committee and that it would be the responsibility, eventually, of the two Speakers and/or the parliamentary librarian to address that.
What is interesting is for the poet laureate, being with the library, is that we already have the mandate to disseminate information on the Parliamentary Internet site. We also answer responses to inquiries coming from the public. We also provide visitors and educators with special information and documentation. In that sense, we publish booklets about Parliament. As you are aware, we also run programs such as the Teacher's Institute on Canadian Parliamentary Democracy. The fifth program is coming up this fall. We also have some other programs, like the Centre Block Theatre. We believe that the parliamentary poet laureate could benefit from the library collections. In addition, the Parliamentary Internet could, in turn, be used by the parliamentary poet laureate to reach out to Canadians of all ages. We have the mechanism to allow this poet to reach out to the population.
If this bill were adopted, I would certainly ask for the support and cooperation of my two colleagues at the National Library and the National Archives to give the poet laureate access to their collections.
The only thing I will say with respect to the bill itself is that we believe that it is in line with the general direction given in the last Throne Speech, which indicated that across this country Canada's culture comes alive through all writers, singers and performers. The government's mission is to bring Canadian culture into the digital age. The Library of Parliament can support that with this project.
In conclusion, if the bill is adopted, the Library of Parliament will be happy to administer this new activity.
Mr. Ian Wilson, National Archivist, National Archives of Canada: Since the establishment of the National Archives in 1872, the National Archives with the National Library and the Library of Parliament has been preserving the literary heritage of this country, and that includes the papers of many Canadian poets, the records of The League of Canadian poets, and the records of the Canadian Writers' Association. We do this because we believe that, with the records we have of Parliament, of prime ministers, of senators and of many other statesmen in this country, our literature and our poetry is vital to our well-being as a nation. It is integral to our cultural landscape. It is a central dimension of our intellectual framework. At its best, poetry can be an expression of our dreams and ambitions of our nations.
Thomas D'Arcy McGee published a book of poetry in 1858. In the introduction to that book, a decade before Confederation, he commented that "we shall one day be a great northern nation and develop within ourselves that best fruit of nationality, a new and lasting literature".
I would note, as well, that several of the group that was known as the Confederation Poets were actually employed within the government and were allowed to continue to do their work as poets -- Archibald Lampman, working in the Post Office, William Wilfrid Campbell, who was working at the National Archives, and Duncan Campbell Scott, who had a distinguished career as a poet and eventually Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs. They were supported by the state and encouraged to pursue their art and craft.
I would note as well that, in the mid-1930s, Dr. Lorne Pierce, a distinguished publisher, head of the Ryerson Press, who encouraged a whole generation of Canadian writers and poets, commented that "Canada was not discovered until our poets found it, nor was this land explored until our poets made it known." Our poets express and provide for this land a vision, some understanding and self-knowledge, as we face the challenges of the future.
In terms of this specific proposal, the appointment of a poet laureate, the process of choosing a poet laureate, could be turned into an exciting opportunity to promote public awareness of poetry, to develop appreciation of our poetry, and to establish links with those who are interested in improving illiteracy. It would be a great opportunity to highlight and showcase our poets and their contributions to our national life.
From my point of view, as national archivist, both I and my successors would be pleased to have some role in helping select and nominate a candidate for consideration by the Speakers of the two Houses.
Mr. Roch Carrier, National Librarian, National Library of Canada: It is an honour and a great pleasure for me to be here with you this afternoon.
A long time ago, when I was a young poet, I remember getting together with other unpublished and unread poets, and we would talk about those great countries that supported their poets, France, England. In England, they had a poet laureate. We were dreaming about that. Therefore, I just cannot believe that this afternoon I am with you talking about the possibility of having a poet laureate in Canada.
This country has hundreds of poets, poets that are writing good poetry, poetry that is being read all over the world. It would be wonderful if Ottawa gave them some recognition, in the person of a national poet laureate.
Poetry Day was March 21. UNESCO, the Canada Council of the Arts and National Library of Canada got together to declare World Poetry Day. It was an important event, and I believe that those three players at least should be involved in what is coming for the future. On that day, the National Library of Canada announced the Canadian Poetry Archive on its Internet site. That site will feature the poetry of 100 early Canadian poets. Some of those poems will be recorded so that those who are visually impaired will be able to hear the poetry.
In that context, the business of selling poetry books has been quite good for the past 10 years. Sales of English-language poetry books have increased by 37 per cent. There is certainly some interest in poetry.
What is poetry? Senator Grafstein spoke well about that. To me, poetry is an instant, and in that instant you have the past, the present, and the future. If you read Canadian poetry or Quebec poetry of 20 years ago, you will be able to identify lines of development. Reading poetry is a great way to know the future. Hence, a little bit of poetry in Parliament could be quite interesting.
I was taught how to read statistics and balance sheets. However, when I visit a country, I read the poetry of that country and it provides information that neither statistics nor essays can give me. It is an important instrument for knowledge. In Parliament, there are speechwriters. Why not a poet laureate? It is a step above. It is the next level.
If Bill S-5 passes, the National Library of Canada will be there. What can we offer to the poet laureate? Certainly, the best collection of Canadian poetry in Canada. We have an important collection of archives. The National Library of Canada would offer a safe place to depose his or her manuscripts. We could also provide some space on our Web site for what is being written. We could provide a place to work, because a poet needs a chair and table. We will support, as much as possible, your decision, if it moves in the sense that I hope it will.
There are other issues in the bill, but they have been addressed by Senator Grafstein.
I do not believe that any poet in Quebec is going to be champing at the bit to become the poète officiel. You really need to find a different translation. The Chair of the Canada Council may agree with me. You would have to ask him.
Senator Gill: It is not poetic?
Mr.Carrier: People will be running the other way if we keep the title as poète officiel.
Of course, it is impossible to translate poetry. However, in Canada we have developed a unique savoir faire in translating poetry; for example, Dr. Scott's translation of Anne Hébert. We not only have competent, but very inspired translators. We are doing a great job in that work, so I do not see a major problem.
Of course, a poet cannot live on poetry alone. We must address the issue of remuneration. We have good friends at the Canada Council, and there are already some programs moving in that direction. We must address the issue of who will be the owner of the poet's work. It is something that we must address, especially in light of Web site issues.
Overall, however, I believe that the role of this poet, what is called in the bill "other duties," should include promoting. Finally, we can also offer for readings the best medium-sized theatre in Ottawa. It will be available for poetry readings.
Honourable senators, the National Library of Canada strongly supports this bill.
The Chairman: I would like to get back to the question about whether there should be one or two poet laureates. I notice that Mr. Paré, in his remarks, slid carefully over the issue by making the statement: "We note that the bill itself proposes the appointment of one parliamentary poet laureate where we have two official languages." You leave that issue hanging there, which I assume is because you did not want to take a stand on it.
However, it is important for us to understand where each of you, as individuals -- and not necessarily in your role as, say, parliamentary librarian -- stand on the question of whether there should be two poet laureates at one time, or whether the tradition should be one of alternating every two years between poets of the two official languages. How shall be handle that problem?
Mr. Paré: If only one parliamentary poet laureate is to be appointed, the committee should look into it and establish certain guidelines. If the bill is adopted, the legislation will be in force for many years. There need to be guidelines established. If the decision is to appoint two poet laureates, there would need to be guidelines with respect to those appointments.
We know that, in other appointments, sometimes there is an alternate. Perhaps this alternative might be considered by the committee. I cannot presume the work of the committee. The committee will look at different options and arrive at a satisfactory decision.
With respect to what Mr. Carrier said about our translation capacity, I totally agree with his comments on that. We have inspired translators.
The Chairman: I am not surprised that, if it can be done, Canadians can do it; I am just surprised that it can be done at all.
Mr. Carrier, where are you on the question of one or two, simultaneously or alternating?
Mr. Carrier: Based on my personal experience, Canada is a huge country still to be discovered. I used to say that if we are united, we are united very often by our ignorance about one another. In that frame, again, based on my experience, there is a great opportunity for a poet belonging to one culture to be exposed to another culture and to different cultures.
I do not see this poet laureate as being tied to Parliament. I would like this poet to explore the reality of Canada. It will be fascinating for a poet of one culture to speak about the experience of being exposed to another culture. For that reason, I see only one at a time.
Mr. Wilson: Ideas on this subject have been expressed very well. There are two languages, but there are many cultures. We will need to reflect that in the appointments of the poet laureates. There will be interest certainly amongst our aboriginal peoples wanting to work in their languages as well.
It is my hope that the committee that is involved in the selection will factor that in. In a given time and in a given way, we do seem to make it work. I would support the approach of one individual at a time, but sensitive to the many needs and requirements of Canada.
Senator Callbeck: The bill says that the Speakers of the Senate and the House of Commons will select from three names given to them by a committee. What are your thoughts on the selection committee? Do you feel there should be any other representatives on that committee?
Mr. Paré: You have very good representation on that committee for the selection of such a parliamentary poet. I do not have any special comments. There could be others, but I do not know who they would be. There is good representation, and I believe the committee can do the work.
Mr. Carrier: I would suggest you seek advice from the Canada Council for the Arts on that issue, because they have a lot of experience in establishing selection committees in the arts. Perhaps it would be interesting to seek their advice.
The Chairman: Thank you for attending here today.
Our last witness is Professor Roger Nash. Professor Nash is a professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury. A few of your suggestions, Mr. Nash, relate to implementing the bill. What should the selection process be? Should it be the way it is described here, or should there be modification?
Mr. Roger Nash, President, League of Canadian Poets: I am honoured to be speaking to you. You already have poets in place in the Senate. That is obvious by listening to the proposal of this bill and some of the other speakers here.
First, should there be one poet laureate as is proposed at present in the bill, or two? I can express my view as an individual here representing most of the League of Canadian Poets, and in a way repeating previous speakers. We are a country of great diversity, but we are one country. We have mountains and plains, but we are one country. We have two official languages, plus Cree, plus Ojibway. We have poets of worldwide reputation who are Canadian, but who are writing in Hebrew, Greek, Spanish. One of the guidelines for selecting laureates might be that, over a period of 10 years, the different languages so richly and vitally present in Canada be represented, that each have its place in the sun over time, that there be only one laureate at a time because there is one country and one prime minister.
Another point was the nature of translation in Canada. We are a world leader in many ways in very subtle translations from one language, one culture to another. I agree with the speakers who say that you cannot really translate a poem and all its inner meaning from one language to another. You create another language if you translate a French poem into English. If it is a good translation, you will have a second good poem -- it will now be in English, it will bear a family resemblance to the first poem, but it will now be at home in a second language.
The ability of our translators is one of our strengths as a culture, because translating is a way of reaching out in empathy from one language and one culture to another, not becoming identical with the other culture, but shaking hands with it. If it is a good translation, it will be an intimate handshake. It is not a black hole in space for Canada.
Previous speakers mentioned that a stipend has not been mentioned in the bill. I presume that that issue will be dealt with at the implementation stage. However, there do seem to be official tasks attached to the role of being poet laureate. It is like a national writer in residence. I would recommend that there be an appropriate stipend attached to the post.
I would recommend, on behalf of the league, too, that although literary merit should be the prime criterion for the laureate some consideration should be given to public relations skills, however you label it, the ability of a poet, not just to be a fine poet but to be an ambassador of Canada both abroad and within the country. I do not see any difficulty in both criteria being met. You can find many people who are excellent poets and very skilled in listening to other people and responding to them.
Those are the main points in the previous discussion that I wanted to comment on.
The Chairman: The stipend issue would never be in the legislation anyway. If an official position were to be created, there would be a stipend attached to it.
Second, I am a little surprised there is a clear and unanimous view of all the witnesses that, at any given time, there should be a single, not a "two-headed," poet laureate. That is helpful.
On point two of your implementation suggestion, you have a sentence that states that writer's organizations have been consulted. I would like to pick up on Mr. Carrier's comment earlier, which was that perhaps we should discuss with the Canada Council for the Arts the selection process they have used over the years for selecting literary leaders in the country. They have a lot of experience. From his point of view, they have been reasonably successful at selecting the right kind of people. Would it be your view we ought to talk to the Canada Council to receive their insight on the selection process? Have you and your colleagues been reasonably happy with the decisions they have made over the years, in terms of selecting skilled people?
Mr. Nash: My recommendation on behalf of the league was that writers, poets, perhaps through their organizations, but in some way at some level, be consulted. Most of the members are generally very pleased with the policy, the practice of Canada Council, because embedded in it is a very important value, that poets like craftsmen of any kind be judged by their peers. What makes a good bricklayer? Other bricklayers will have insights on bricklaying that a philosophy professor will not have. At some point, juries of poets pick who might be nominated for grants in the Canada Council. This is an informed and good way of doing things, much better than having some political manifesto decide who may be selected. It is a way of doing it at arm's length from political parties.
The Chairman: Senator Grafstein used the phrase "the best poet in Canada," and it did seem to me that "best" is inherently a value judgment on which an awful lot of people could disagree. What you seem to be suggesting -- which would accord with my own peer group review, having been an ex-professor myself -- is that you can determine "best" by having a group of peers in the same field develop a short list, six or ten names for discussion.
Is it your view that the members of your association would be happy if the long list -- rather than the short list referred to -- was developed by the same kind of peer review process that the Canada Council uses?
Mr. Nash: I believe so. The long list need not be developed only by consulting poets, but that poets be included in the consultation process. This process is not dissimilar from the process for government funding of scientific research: Which is the best research proposal is a value judgment, and scientists will want other scientists involved at some stage in some kind of review process to determine which scientific proposals go ahead.
The Chairman: Professor Nash, thank you for being here today.
We will have another meeting on this bill. The date has not been scheduled because we are arranging a teleconference with the Poet Laureate of the United States. It is a question of meshing his schedule with the committee schedule.
On the basis of today's evidence, although the head of the Canada Council has agreed to write us a letter, I would feel more comfortable if the head of the Canada Council would come before us and talk in some detail about the peer review process, which would lead to the development of what I called the long list a minute ago.
The committee adjourned.