ATLANTIC VOICE

How a library card launched George Elliott Clarke's literary career

When Canada's former parliamentary poet laureate was eight, his mother took him to the newly opened public library in Halifax's north end. He was handed a library card, opening him up to the world of Shakespeare, Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes.

Early introduction to great writers helped shape former parliamentary poet laureate's views of the world

George Elliott Clarke speaks in February about how an early love of books helped shape his career. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

It's a vivid memory for George Elliott Clarke.

When Canada's former parliamentary poet laureate was eight, his mother took him to the newly opened public library in Halifax's north end one Saturday. He remembers sitting on the orange hassocks in the children's section, while she filled out some forms.

"And there is was: A plastic card with an image of the main library on the front. … I remember feeling very proud I had this library card," Clarke said in a recent interview.

"That card actually represented to me an entry into an adult world; a world of sophistication in terms of reading."

Clarke said he first "ransacked" the children's section, reading nearly all the books — some of them twice.

The librarian, Ms. Adelia Amyoony, took notice and gave Clarke special permission to check out some items from the adult section by the time he was 10.

'Magic kingdom of knowledge'

It was then, Clarke said, he was able to enter the world of Shakespeare, John Milton and Ezra Pound, as well as African-American poets like Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks. 

"I'm allowed to go into this magic kingdom of knowledge and information and retrieve it and be able to write my school projects and essays," he said. "And begin to do really outlandish things."

He wrote a 500-page science report on how to build an atomic bomb.  

"Folks, everybody is safe," Clarke said with a booming laugh. "I don't remember how to do it." 

By his teens, Clarke started to write poetry in the hopes of some day becoming a songwriter. He began checking out the library's albums, listening to such artists as Elton John, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, learning skills that would help shape his skills as a poet and storyteller.

George Elliott Clarke, shown at the Halifax Central Library in February, says his early introduction to books opened up a "magic kingdom of knowledge." (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The library was such a supportive place, Clarke said, it was almost like an extended family.

"The late Terry Symonds was a youth worker there, a community worker there. And I would come in and I had my afro and it was all wild — all out here," he said, waving his hands above his head. "And Terry would say, 'George, come over here. I've got my clippers in the car. You are going to come downstairs here in the library and I am going to cut your hair.'" 

Clarke reached another pivotal point in his life when he "fell into the orbit" of lawyer and civil rights activist Burnley (Rocky) Jones, his then-wife Joan Jones, and poet/playwright Walter Borden.

"Those three adult individuals gave me a very solid education in radicalism, in the real histories of Nova Scotia and Canada, and, of course, black histories in the so-called new world," he said. "Access to their library and their books and their albums."

He brings his lifelong love of language to the world stage, and most recently wrapped up his tenure as Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate. The CBC's Amy Smith sat down with George Elliott Clarke recently to talk about everything from the power of library card, the importance of poetry in contemporary society, the wisdom of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Plato and Clarke’s career as a self -described agitator-documenter. Here’s Amy Smith’s conversation with poet George Elliott Clarke at the Halifax Central Library. 26:10

While he spent a lot of time at the Jones family home, he missed a visit in April 1978 by American singer and social activist Harry Belafonte. That Sunday, Clarke had gone to see Belafonte perform at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium and had a chance to meet him after the show.

"I was supposed to go up to the house afterwards and sit down with everybody. They had like a dozen folks, more than a dozen folks, sitting in a circle, eating curry and listening to Harry Belafonte. Only Rocky and Joan Jones could have pulled that off," he said.

"I decided I was in a bit of a funk so I decided I was going to sit at home and write poetry on Maynard Street. So I missed out on that moment. I was kicking myself then and I saw the photographs and how groovy everything was and how funky everything was."

A dangerous intellectual

Clarke would have to wait a few more decades, but he would get his own rock star moment in 2017. That's when the band U2 reached out to him, asking to use two of his poems on their tour: Kaddish for Leonard Cohen, written after Cohen's passing, and Ain't You Scared of the Sacred?: A Spiritual, written in response to the Quebec City mosque shooting.

Governor General Adrienne Clarkson presents the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry to George Elliott Clarke during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in 2001. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Clarke, who wrapped up his two-year term in December, believes Canada's parliamentary poet laureate should always be called upon to read a poem on what he calls the country's three "linchpin" days: Flag Day, Canada Day and  Remembrance Day.

"It's the first responders, it's the military, it's the police, it's the firemen and [you] can not leave out, ordinary citizens, who always step up … these are the folks who need to be represented and spoken on behalf of. And that's the job of the poets laureate. That's our job."

So what's next for Clarke? He plans to continuing to work on his epic poem Canticles II, which consists of rewrites of scripture.

Clarke calls poets the most dangerous intellectuals.

"Language that decorates emotion, that is powerful. Language that ornaments emotion makes that Valentine's Day card that much more exquisite. Or makes that elegy that much more affecting because it's not just now the sorrow — it's the sorrow that's been embroidered with language that may be memorable."

About the Author

Amy Smith

Host

After spending more than a decade as a reporter covering the Nova Scotia legislature, Amy Smith joined CBC News in 2009 as a host for the supper hour and 11 p.m. news. She is also one of the hosts of the CBC show At The Table.