The poet on the hill? I'll go for it. I will.
This was my opening monologue guest-hosting The Arena on Jan. 13: Some people collect stamps. Others join chess clubs. Me, I read political press releases. But I’m not just a weirdo lucky enough to get paid to indulge his unaccountable hobbies. They really are highly informative.
You don’t take them at face value, of course. But as with Soviet rhetoric back in the day, even mundane details let the connoisseur discern much about politicians’ thought patterns and unexamined assumptions.
For instance, here’s a real beaut from last month: the House and Senate Speakers announcing the appointment of Canada’s 5th Parliamentary Poet Laureate since the post was created in 2001.
Bet you can’t name one. This is a silly job. But through this press release you can discover not only that our parliamentarians think it important to have a poet laureate and proclaim him to an indifferent nation, they think it worth a $20,000 stipend, up to $13,000 a year for travel to places keen to hear his verse, and “a budget for programming, administrative expenses and translation/adaptation of works into Canada’s second official language.”
What sort of works? I figured you wouldn’t know either. But the Parliamentary Poet Laureate web site says “the Parliamentary Poet Laureate may:
* write poetry, especially for use in Parliament on important occasions * sponsor poetry readings * advise the Parliamentary Librarian regarding the Library’s collection and acquisitions to enrich its cultural materials, and, * perform other related duties at the request of the Speaker of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Commons, or the Parliamentary Librarian”
Wait a minute. Are you seriously telling me Parliament uses poetry on important occasions? Can you name one such poem, or occasion? And what’s a related duty? Mock a ministerial gaffe in doggerel?
I’m not just being cynical here. I’m also self-interested. As a government press release garburator I keep seeing people I never heard of appointed to boards and commissions I never heard of, like the new “Co-Chair of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program Selection Board.” If I don’t figure out what I’m doing wrong, I could end up the last person in the country without a government sinecure.
Indeed, I just got passed over for a Senate job… again. But hope springs eternal, and … hey, that’s a line from a poem. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree.
OK, admittedly it’s from “Casey at the Bat”. But I’m also a devotee of Theodore Geisel’s oeuvre and could once recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee” so fast people couldn’t clear the room before we hit Lake LaBarge.
So forget the Merchant Seamen Compensation Board. How do I qualify as next official green and red chamber poetaster (a fancy poet-type word meaning “bad poet”)?
Well, that press release quotes the Senate Speaker: “As a distinguished poet, editor, and teacher Fred Wah is known across Canada for his interest in a range of subjects. Mr. Wah brings forth a collaborative approach and unique perspective to his work inspiring younger poets, students and others both nationally and internationally with his reflections on Canadian culture.”
Hmnnnn. I’m not exactly known for my collaborative approach or inspiring younger poets. But I’m probably as “known across Canada” as Fred Wah, I’m interested in a range of subjects and my perspectives have been called unique … or was “weird” the exact term? Meanwhile the House Speaker said Wah “has done much to encourage and promote the importance of literature, culture and language within Canadian society.” Fine. I yield to no one in promoting the importance of language within our society. How would we talk without it? (And as an editor I could make short work of that bafflegab.)
I still think I’d make a great Senator. For starters, it’s an unelected body and I’m clearly unelectable. Plus I can sit through committee hearings without turning into something Andy Sirkis would play with the aid of digital animation. But never mind. Parliamentary poet laureate sounds good too.
Now lend an ear, and Parliament I’ll gladly show to you Where QP sees our MPs howl like monkeys in a zoo At other times, on matters grave, their rhetoric doth soar O’er empty seats, green row upon row, their colleagues out the door
So bray and preen and fudge your facts and lose the next election But soft, good sir, the poet comes to banish your dejection In verse that’s known across the land I’ll write your epitaph A statesmen then you’ll surely be, and nobody will laugh
I’ll call you wise, to your surprise, and noble and foresighted They’ll raise a statue when I’m done with which you’ll be delighted In marble they will carve your form, or cast your bust in brass While solemn words upon the plinth deny you were an ass.