Friday, November 6, 2009

Hear us roar...

"Ottawa has, in a single stroke, re-ignited questions about poetry’s lack of broad appeal, while raising, subliminally, the equally recalcitrant question about its legitimacy as art."

Okay, I know I've been putting it off and that most people are likely sick of the subject by now. Like many of you I sent off a letter to the Honourable James Moore, Minister Responsible for Blah Blah Blah, expressing concern about his threat to end funding under the Publications Assistance and Canada Magazine Fund. Six weeks later I get a form letter expressing his government’s “pleasure” in supporting Canadian reading choices and its admiration for the important role that “specialized” publications play in meeting those choices. Never mind that by definition “specialized” excludes the broader mainstream, the redoubtable Mr. Moore then proposes cutting funding to magazines with a circulation of fewer than 5,000.

In his wisdom the Minister proposes instead something called a "Business Innovation component" to help, he says “smaller magazines pursue innovative business ideas (read `sink or swim'), build their audiences (`Okay, we really were just kidding about specialized publications') and explore digital opportunities (`How about Twitter? surely you can squeeze a simple Haiku into 140 characters')”. Sure, a new program, then. But will this new program, I asked, help fund the publication and distribution of these specialized (read smaller) magazines you so cherish. I’ve yet to receive a second response.

Again, you’ve heard the arguments. An enormous disservice is about to be done to Canadian culture by stripping away our capacity to publicize and ingest the best that our writers and poets have to offer. But nearly as worse is the disservice being done to the discourse about poetry in Canada: at a time when we’d almost put to rest those ancient concerns about broadening the readership of poetry, Ottawa has, in a single stroke, re-ignited questions about poetry’s lack of broad appeal, while raising, subliminally, the equally recalcitrant question about its legitimacy as art.

My hope is that we will resist the temptation to turn back the clock; that instead of worrying about how few people are reading poetry, instead of launching quaint programs tying poetry to Valentine’s Day or the Winter Solstice to get more people thinking about reading poetry, we content ourselves with providing the best product for the people who already read poetry, small in number though we may be. That includes the poems poets write and the publications designed to draw our attention to the poems that poets write. And yes, it includes demanding of Ottawa that it actively support the reading choices we make – not as an individual right, but as the right of a country to grow and sustain its own rich, diverse culture.

I can do no better than give W.H. Auden the last word:

After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status-trophy for rising executives,
cannot be `done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune.

- From “The Cave of Making”


Anonymous said...

What are the hard numbers on readership?

Aren't there more readers of poetry? The literate public was smaller a century or two ago. More of that public read poetry, so the percentage of literate people reading poetry was high. Now almost everyone is functionally literate, but few read poetry. That might mean the precentage of the literate public reading poetry is small. The number of people reading poems might be higher than ever.

Not everyone likes to ride horses, but most who do like it very much.


David Kosub said...

That's undoubtedly true, Garth, though I'm guessing equestrians spend a lot less time worrying about getting more members into their clubs.

I'm not even suggesting that we stop trying to interest more people in reading poetry, just that it shouldn't dominate every public forum on the conditions of modern poetry.

And BTW I like your poetry very much (but I think you knew that). Keep up the good work.



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