Wednesday, July 11, 2007

poetry with a social conscience

I love F. R. Scott. He's such a delightfully cranky old man. He reminds me of the kind of writing in those old C. C. F. pamphlets from the early days of the party -- such hope for change, such excitement, and such powerful optimism. It's sad to think that we don't really have that same level of hopeful excitement in our political futures anymore.

This is a short one (there's only about twenty pages of poems in the assigned collection), but there will be a second entry later today on some other poems from the same collection (these ones by A. J. M. Smith.

Selected Poems from Poets Between the Wars
by F. R. Scott, edited by Milton Wilson

Efficiency: 1935

The efficiency of the capitalist system
Is rightly admired by important people.
Our huge steel mills
Operating at 25% capacity
Are the last word in organization.
The new grain elevators
Stored with superfluous wheat
Can load a grain-boat in two hours.
Marvelous card-sorting machines
Make it easy to keep track of the unemployed.
There is not one unnecessary worker
In these textile plants
That require a 75% tariff protection.
And when our closed shoe-factories re-open
They will produce more footwear that we can possibly buy.
So don't let us start experimenting with socialism
Which everyone knows means inefficiency and waste.

I think F. R. Scott is one of my favourite Canadian poets of all time, specifically because he marks for me the break in Canadian literature between the celebratory nation-building poetry of the confederation-era poets and the social consciousness of the modernists. F. R. Scott is very clear in his social mandate, but he also explores the Canadian landscape and is aware of the importance of building a literary and cultural legacy. But as you can see from the above poem, Scott's focus first and foremost was to push for and encourage social progress in Canada. Occasionally cynical and sarcastic, this drive carries through so much of Scott's work that the ultimate effect is one of hopeful excitement at the potential for change in such a young country as Canada.

Scott places the blame for failure to progress socially in Canada at the hands of politicians, seeing them as being either too bound to England, too concerned with their own finances, or too devoted to the goal of political longevity. In his "Ode to a Politician" he writes:
At school he learns the three Canadian things:
Obedience, loyalty and love of Kings.

To serve a country other than his own
Becomes for him the highest duty known,

To keep antiquity alive forever
The proper object of his young endeavour.
Young people, Scott suggests, go to school not to learn about the history of their own country, but instead to learn deference to England and to the social orders England constructed in Canada. To devote one's life to the protection of ancient ideals means that forward progress (especially the social progress Scott is interested in) is basically impossible. Likewise, he condemns the control of political structures by the wealthy in the same poem, pointing out that those who are successful in business rise to political power, and then try to run a country like a business. For Scott, this is and essentially flawed point-of-view, because it denies humanity. Indeed, the politician in "Ode to a Politician" comes to the conclusion that he should have done more for the poor, but it comes too late in his career and he can't make the difference he finally realizes he should have striven for: "Some glimmering concept of a juster state / Begins to trouble him -- but just too late." In the end, he becomes a British peer... he has sold out Canada to achieve abroad, an issue which troubled Scott.

Humanism is important to Scott. He writes in his poem "Eden" that Adam and Eve didn't fall from the Garden, but instead they chose wisdom over ignorance. This is positive to Scott because he values human possibility and doesn't believe anyone should willingly choose perfect ignorance over real wisdom and experience. He describes the so-called fall as Adam and Eve having "conquered the power of choice." Also, Eve is held up as the more active of the two. She seeks out the knowledge in the first place, and after the expulsion she tells Adam, "If we keep using this knowledge / I think we'll be back." Man can recreate Eden on earth; for Scott, the first step is social awareness and justice for all.

Scott is also concerned with other social issues, like racism and exploitation in Canada. Scott responds to the famous E. J. Pratt poem "The Last Spike" by asking,
Where are the coolies in your poem, Ned?
Where are the thousands from China who swung their picks with bare hands at forty below?

Between the first and the million other spikes they drove, and the dressed-up act of Donald Smith, who has sung their story?

Did they fare so well in the land they helped to unite? Did they get one of the 25,000,000 CPR acres?
Is all Canada has to say to them written in the Chinese Immigration Act?
This is an awareness, a challenge, and a conscience far ahead of its political time (consider that the apology for the Head Tax didn't come until 2006!).

More to come later today... Now I'm off to the gym!

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