The poets are fighting again. They are always fighting.
To an outsider, Canadian poetry can sometimes look like a series of positions rather than an artistic oeuvre; the poets must spend at least as much time composing statements, manifestos, accusations, moral positions, in which other poets are frequently excoriated for moral crimes, as they do writing poems. It's a giant debating society. With teams.
The most recent debate to erupt is over the morality of Canadian poetry's biggest prize, the Griffin, an annual award given to Canadian and to foreign poets. The winner of each prize gets $65,000, each finalist gets $10,000. Like all literary prizes, it has been criticized before simply for being a prize: many argue that literary prizes themselves foster an impression of literary merit as somehow measurable and competitive.
Now, following a long article by a poet and critic named Michael Lista, published on the media watchdog site Canadaland, an argument has erupted over the source of the funds for the prize. It has never been a secret that the prize's benefactor, Scott Griffin, owns a company that makes parts that are used in military vehicles. Lista is drawing new attention to this fact, especially to the production of shock absorbers.
Griffin's shock absorbers are sold to another company that makes armoured vehicles and those vehicles are sold to the Saudi Arabian government. Lista, and now many others, argue that this connection to a regime that oppresses human rights – and particularly those of writers, as the recent case of flogged journalist Raif Badawi shows – turns participation in the prize into complicity with an oppressive regime.
Arguments have raged on blogs and social media among those who think it's not such a big deal (the likes of Margaret Atwood) or who point out that anyone with a mutual fund probably has some connection to a large corporation with indirect ties somewhere down the line to something unsavoury (Lista himself notes that there are 500 other subcontractors contributing to these armoured cars), and those who are taking a purist stance and demanding a boycott (the latter seem, judging by my own feeds, to be in the majority, but they might just be the loudest).
Judging from the amazing claims that many of these writers are publicly making about how they do their best to avoid coming close to evil in the world – they don't own mutual funds, they don't own a car, they don't shop at Amazon or Wal-Mart, they would never participate in something as corrupt as a prize competition anyway – poets are the most morally finely-tuned people I have ever met. They live in a state of perfect ethical purity, or strive to.
The fervour can be a bit puzzling to a guy such as me who writes primarily about lying and drinking, and I wonder whether being a poet is necessarily linked to being a social justice activist, but perhaps my apolitical nature is precise evidence of why I will never be a good poet.
Another recent poetry controversy, based in the United States, was also about moral issues and had a tangential Canadian connection. You can read about it in the Oct. 5 issue of The New Yorker: it concerned the "conceptual" or avant-gardist poet Kenneth Goldsmith, a lightning rod for strong praise and intense dislikes.
After the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Goldsmith gave a public reading of a "found" poem, something he likes to do, that consisted solely of Brown's autopsy report. He intended it as a sober protest poem, but the audience was offended.
Critics soon denounced Goldsmith as a white man exploiting, and perhaps appropriating, the suffering of a less privileged person; he was even said to be abusing or desecrating Brown's body himself. Conceptual poetry itself was then held up to be privileged, powerful and overly white. This particular controversy is one of several recent other ones in the United States involving questions of race and privilege in poetry.
In the New Yorker article summarizing the scandal, two Canadian experimental poets, friends and fellow-travellers of Goldsmith, are quoted at length. They are Darren Wershler and Christian Bok, both well-known here; Bok is best known as the author of the best-selling book Eunoia and as a former Griffin Prize winner.
They are only quoted talking about what their kind of poetry does; they do not weigh in on whether Goldsmith's performance was offensive. Bok would no doubt much rather be talking about his new book and science project – The Xenotext – which is unlikely to offend anyone for political or moral reasons, as it hardly concerns human beings at all. It's about the genetic engineering of microscopic bacteria, a project that has led to the bacteria writing poems themselves.
To explain it will require another column, and I cannot review it as Bok is a close friend of mine, but I can tell you what it is like to be around him when he talks about poetry and science.
Bok is a showman and likes to make grandiose claims for the value of his experiments: if he succeeds in implanting these poems into unkillable bacteria, as he plans to do, making them immortal even in the face of global nuclear annihilation, he likes to say that he will be the most famous poet in history. He likens his work to scientific progress. He has put the chimp in orbit, he says, and he promises to put the chimp on the moon.
That analogy is troubling to some, as it presumes that there can be progress in art. There will always be opposition to formal experimentation to start with, so this kind of provocation tends to raise the hackles of those in other schools or camps. Confidence, ego and flamboyance are usually not sympathy-generating in poetry circles; this combination of attributes seems to have in part led to Goldsmith's reputational downfall.
Still, it is amazing and exhilarating to be around these elegant theoretical, aesthetic and scientific discussions, and exciting, really, that so much seems to be riding on poetry these days, that poetry – even poetry as apolitical as this – is seen to have a moral and political weight in a society going through convulsive questioning. It's astounding that all this obscure abstraction is seen to have both a moral component and a societal power.
This is why the poets fight; they think it's really important. And that's why we watch their fights with interest.