Freedom to Read, 2006
this originally commissioned by the Ottawa United Unitarian Fellowship, & was read to them as a lecture on Sunday February 26, 2006
In January of this year, self-professed prophet and Montreal poet Irving Layton died, reminding admirers and journalists alike of his influence, including part of a poem he wrote in the 1950s since quoted ad nauseum, that begins:
Whatever else poetry is freedom.
Forget the rhetoric, the trick of lying
All poets pick up sooner or later. From the river,
Rising like the thin voice of grey castratos—the mist;
Poplars and pines grow straight but oaks are gnarled;
Old codgers must speak of death, boys break windows;
Women lie honestly by their men at last.
Given the amount of writing happening in Canadian literature since, it seems a long way back to look for a reference to freedom.
"Always treat language like a dangerous tool," wrote the American poet Anselm Hollo.
We all remember that scene from the movie Braveheart, where the historically-inaccurate William Wallace played by Mel Gibson calls for freedom, even as his insides are torn out.
I saw an interview recently with a documentary film-maker who had produced a film about the recent war in Irac; the crew wandered around the United States asking those who agreed with the war what exactly they thought the war was about, and almost everyone said "freedom." With their follow-up question, they discovered that almost no one agreed as to what that word actually meant. Has it become so large, so all-encompassing, that the concept of "freedom" has lost its nuance, becoming hard and heavy-handed?
Coming back to Canadian writing, and the separations between Irving Layton and many of the writers that have followed him, the main difference between Modernism and Post-Modernism, in my mind, is that Modernist artists created materials separated from the world, that they thought could directly influence, and even improve, the world around them, as Post-Modernism existed to break the fourth wall, and include the eye of the watcher, the listener, and reader as a direct part of the creation of a particular work; art not separated from the world, and fused with self-awareness and irony. What is this freedom you speak of. The freedom to read seems almost outdated; the issue now, making sure that people have the freedom to read more interesting things.
In her essay "Thinking and Poetry," American poet Alice Notley wrote:
I thought we all wanted to think and speak for ourselves; I didn't think we should be in agreement. But now I believe that the world is full of subscription to the thought of others, and that originality and quality of thought and expression do not win and worse will not necessarily win in the future, which used to be the "real time" of the best poetry being written presently. The world, both the big orthodox world and the small avant-gardeish world, desires conformity of thought and style. And whatever mechanism preserved much of the best for use in the future is breaking down under the pressure of the existence of so much stuff, text, "thought," "communication"; whatever is different or presently unappreciated may be smothered. Who will find it? Who at this point "knows" anything, reading so much? I see a world of literary and poetic hacks, become that under increasing careerist and businesslike pressure to "sound right." We shouldn’t all use the same kinds of words in our poems and our thinking, shouldn’t produce quite so much, we should be puzzling a little more over each conclusion or line that we write. But the buzz of the dialogues already in process, the terms and styles, are so seductive it's tempting to replicate: everybody will like you and what else counts but a group of like-"minded" people, what else does reality consist of except such a group and its enemies? (pp 158-9)
More recently, in a review of Vancouver poet Jeff Derksen's Transnational Muscle Cars, Vancouver poet and critic Donato Mancini wrote:
Traditionally, lyric poets have drawn on the rhetorical concept of "freedom," while formally radical poets are more likely to think in terms of empowerment and to consider how ideology shapes language and users. As Bruce Andrews states,
Ideology & Discourse form a Machinery, an Apparatus with regular rules; a collective reference system made up of social practices which form a body or social structure of meaning, an empowered configuration of forces with its own impositions. Pointing outward, poetry can work or serve as an explanation inside this body of constraints & directives: by deviating from constraints by refashioning the directives.
We all have freedom to read the same things. There is freedom, and then there is freedom. The freedom to do nothing.
PEN is famous around the world for promoting cultural freedom, and protecting both writers and writings, as PEN Canada hosts writers from other countries in danger for what they have said or published. According to their website, the mission statement for PEN Canada reads "PEN Canada is an independent, non-profit organization that is committed to defending freedom of opinion and the peaceable expression of such opinion, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It campaigns on behalf of writers around the world persecuted for their thoughts. In Canada, it supports the right of freedom of expression as enshrined in Section 2 (b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."
The most famous example of a writer in exile in recent memory has to be Salman Rushdie, as the publication of his novel The Satantic Verses in September 1988 caused almost immediate controversy in the Islamic world, due to its irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Within weeks, the book had been banned in India, South Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a public book burning held in England the following January. A month later, a fatwa requiring Rushdie's execution was proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran, calling the book "blasphemous against Islam," causing the author to go into hiding, even as he was held up as a paragon of free speech by PEN International, various governments, and the rock band U2. The whole notion of free speech allows anyone with an alternate or dissenting opinion to voice it without fear of reprisal. After a long campaign through PEN, the British Parliament in February of this year passed an amendment to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, to quote Rushdie in The British Independent (February 12, 2006), "to strengthen its protection of free expression and to remove the offences of insult, abuse and recklessness, [and] represented a triumph of democratic freedoms over political opportunism." "[I]n a country without a written constitution," Rushdie continues, "the amended Racial and Religious Hatred Act now provides a legally binding expression of British freedom of speech that is extremely broad and deep. Unless an intent to provoke hatred can be proved, British citizens now have the statutory right to express their views, no matter how offensive those views may be to others. The so-called 'right not to be offended', which never really existed, has been abolished by law. Britain may, half-accidentally, have acquired something very like a First Amendment of its own: an unlooked-for development that may yet prove to [be] the most valuable single thing to emerge from this long and at times bitter struggle."
Anyone paying attention to any part of the reaction to Rushdie's infamous novel shouldn’t have been surprised with the violent reactions to the Danish cartoon lampooning Mohammad as a terrorist; the only difference is, more people are likely to look at a cartoon than to read a book, making the public response larger, and that much more deadly. It seems interesting that more Christian countries in the west, initially, have been more willing to forgive, or even ignore, the implications of mocking the prophet of Islam then they were for Irish singer/songwriter Sinead O'Connor, when she famously performed on Saturday Night Live and tore a photograph of Pope John Paul II, for what she considered his crimes against women. Now, when NBC repeats the episode, the offending tear has simply been edited out, moving the footage straight from the end of her song to the singer standing on stage, post-tear, to added applause, instead of shocked silence. On the other side, when televangelist Pat Robertson publicly called for the assassination of a world leader a few months ago during his regular broadcast, he didn’t appear to suffer any real repercussions. It's one thing to allow freedom of speech for dialogue, and even mockery, but it seems astounding that Robertson wasn't censured for his remarks.
In the late 1990s, Toronto poet Steve McCaffery started working on translations of Matsuo Basho's famous seventeenth-century haiku:
As McCaffery wrote in the notes at the back of book two of his selected poems:
A minor tradition of translating this poem (by Dick Higgins, bpNichol and Derek Beaulieu among others) was inaugurated by Dom Sylvester Houédard's notorious rendition as:
plop (p 375)
Following that, McCaffery's translation included in the collection (which I, as a lapsed member of the Presbyterian Free Church, very much appreciate) is as follows:
The Presbyterian Basho
Not a frog nor a poet
nor a stone if of simpleness, yea I say
thrown into the pond of sin's round circle
but rather the complex martyrdom
of wounds by words
and the smoothing of the skin thereof into a bufic form.
Yea, and the webbed toes of satan
fanneth out to him into the bullfrog of our vanities
which jumpeth horizontally
then up then down across that very way thereof
into the sin of literature.
And a simple frog it was we crucified
i say unto you that day
in the province of Basho yea and verily.
And the stone it fell into the lake of wrath
and the lake it fell into the stone of redemption
and it came to pass that the frog reappeareth
and round about it grew to show
how that the circumference hath disappeared
like to a stone astonished
and the frog inside its pond.
And the Lord counteth of the circles
once and all and saw that they were good.
Here endeth the haiku. (p 192)
Shortly after Toronto writer Lynn Crosbie published her novel Paul's Case in 1998, based on convicted sex-killer Paul Bernardo, she was invited to participate as part of a PEN Canada fundraiser. During the performance of her text, half the audience left in disgust; is this how a PEN Canada audience supports freedom of speech? In so many ways, Crosbie was the perfect choice for the event; is promoting and securing freedom to read only something worth supporting if it's writing that makes someone else uncomfortable? Crosbie's works since have included a novel about Dorothy Stratten, the Vancouver-born Playmate killed by her jealous boyfriend, and a poetry collection called Missing Children; on first glance, Crosbie's work might appear otherwise, but her writing has never come across as any sort of gloss or glorification, but instead a thoughtful dialogue with darker subject matter usually not covered in other more polite parts of Canadian literature and culture. As Doug Saunders wrote about the PEN Canada incident in The Globe and Mail (Monday, May 3, 1999):
And this seems a vital test to our commitment. It is easy to express support for freedom of expression when you're talking about faraway communities and distant events. But the real test occurs when the writer's tools cause offence closer to home. Disturbing works based on real-life events can be treated as serious literature when viewed from afar — the way Canadians view Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and how foreigners will view Crosbie's book. But to people who live in the communities they portray, such books can evoke the alarming whiff of burial plots being desecrated.
That was precisely the point behind the reading. It offended us — much as the Iranain officials who tortured Sarkoohi and censured Rushdie felt offended. Much as Saro-Wiwa's Nigerian killers felt offended. That is the mandate of PEN: To support authors who deeply offend people. PEN argues that the people who are offended should not interfere with those writers.(np)
I would argue that such considerations of "freedom of expression" aren't as simple as that, and I certainly can't imagine asking someone to read or perform at any event unless the work itself had merit, which is something often overlooked when it comes to Crosbie's novel; it was an extremely good piece of writing. Given all the controversy that came up around it, that is often the first thing to be ignored. And Crosbie's PEN Canada experience seems particularly relevant recently, given the lawsuits and protests that tried to prevent the Canadian release of the film Karla. I've read reviews that claim that it isn't a great film, but it isn't a bad film either; I've heard the same said of House of Wax starring Paris Hilton, but I don't feel the need to see that either.
I used to joke that Freedom to Read Week in Canada could easily be called Freedom Not to Read Week, since so much of the promotion of Canadian Literature throughout the 1980s and 90s gave that "but its good for you" feeling, which is usually only given to cod liver oil and immunization shots. We have the benefit of living in one of the few western countries that didn't live through a civil war, didn’t annex a neighbour for more land (but for the natives, of course), hasn't lined up any of our political leaders or artists to be shot, and freedom of expression actually means something most of the time. The freedom that most poets have in Canada is the freedom that comes from a certain degree of lack of attention, which is quite freeing; I've always imagined that I could do whatever I wanted to, simply because no one was really paying that close attention. It even helps helps to live in a the capital, where local books are almost completely ignored by the media, and the City of Ottawa is responsible for some of the lowest arts funding in the country.
No one is looking, no one is watching.
By itself the word "freedom" has become so large that it no longer means anything; what does it mean? The freedom to do what we please, or the freedom to be protected from others doing as they please to us? Is the word itself part of an outdated mode of thinking, even a modernist holdover in a world increasingly post-modern?
In her book, The New Poetics In Canada and Quebec: From Concretism to Post-Modernism, author and academic Carline Bayard quotes, as she calls, "Yuri Lotman's thoughtful comments on the function of rejection from the social and cultural fabric: 'The elements that a culture rejects from its own description as extra-systematic will be seen to be essential to that culture as the source of its future development.'" (p 113). The inference is that she quoted the passage to refer to more radical forms of writing, but can this quote be applied more generally?
In Canada, what does writing have to do with freedom? The whole point of freedom to read is to allow an alternate point of view, ranging from open dialogue to outright dissent. There are things said by David Letterman about the current American president that one hundred years ago, would have been considered outright treason; the emperor has no clothes. In a recent interview on Bravo with Toronto novelist and critic Ray Robertson, he said that fiction writers spend their days turning the chaos of the world into order, and suggested that in a world increasingly nonsensical and chaotic, writing fiction becomes the only sane response.
When Chapters bookstore first entered the market, many writers of poetry and fiction were hesitant to point out the problems, afraid of bookstore censure; when you consider that Chapters/Indigo is perhaps the largest distributor of books in the country, you can probably see why, and for all that the box store mentality has done for books in general, it has done serious damage not only to Canadian publishers, but to Canadian authors as well. Chapters may order three copies of any poetry collection in their system per store country-wide, providing a wider distribution of books, but they rarely re-order, something that was an essential part of the local independent bookseller that the chain has worked so hard to remove; it's one thing to kill the bookstores willing to carry and promote the books that don’t necessary sell, but another thing entirely to not then take up that mantle, instead selling housewares, coffee and candles. Art doesn’t survive well in any consideration of "sales figures" and "marketing," or the stories I've heard of publishers asked to pay five thousand dollars for their share of marketing after one of their titles is chosen as one of "Heather's Picks." It shouldn't have to cost money to get your book face out at the end of an aisle, or on a table. Literacy they may have helped considerably, but not necessarily any kind of "freedom." In the days following 9-11, the notion of freedom reigned in the matters of any comments not 100% pro-American, including bans on the Dixie Chicks; Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher lost his job for questioning American innocence in foreign policy. Freedom, I suppose, but only if you tow the party line; when old Henry Ford told consumers that they could have the Model A in any colour they wished, as long as it was black. Like the Roman Peace, the Pax Romani.
During an episode of Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, when a Church leader told musician Marilyn Manson that rock music was responsible for the self-destructive actions of misguided teens, Manson responded by saying it would be the equivalent of blaming Hootie & the Blowfish for his life being boring.
A more open dialogue forces us to think more critically, and can often give power systems less power over our lives, as when King James commissioned some of the first English translations of the Bible from Latin, so the general public could have access to the material. Imagine the power lost by the Catholic Church when it could no longer proclaim from the pulpit that "the Bible says do this, and do that; but I can't show you where."
The underlying consideration of Freedom to Read seems that, in the end, we all have to be responsible for our own lives, and sometimes that can be the most terrifying censure of all.
Andrews, Bruce. "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Practice." The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York NY: Roof Books.
Bayard, Caroline. The New Poetics In Canada and Quebec: From Concretism to Post-Modernism. Toronto ON: University of Toronto Press, 1989.
Hollo, Anselm. "At Evenfall," Corvus. Minneapolis MN: Coffee House Press, 1995.
Layton, Irving. The Collected Poems of Irving Layton. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1971.
Mancini, Donato. "We Were Signifying like Crazy! Jeff Derksen's Relational Poetics and Hyper-referencial Humour." West Coast Line 46 (Volume 39, No. 1). Vancouver BC: West Coast Line, 2005.
McCaffery, Steve. Seven Pages Missing Volume Two: Previously Uncollected Texts 1968-2000. Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2002.
Notley, Alice. "Thinking and Poetry," Coming After: Essays on Poetry. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.