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George Elliott Clarke delighted to be 'up there with Shakespeare'

As George Elliott Clarke's two-year tenure as Canada's parliamentary poet laureate comes to a close, he reflects on U2, the perception he did nothing and his work making it into the public record.

Canada's poet laureate reflects on the role of the artist and the perception he did nothing

George Elliot Clarke isn't worried about the death of poetry. He sees it as central to all other arts forms. (Fabiola Carletti/CBC)

George Elliott Clarke is delighted to be in the company of Shakespeare. 

His words have graced giant screens during U2 concerts. He's recited his work alongside symphonies and has done readings in remote corners of the country. 

But it's making it into the official records of the House of Commons that the poet, novelist and playwright calls the "gold standard."

Clarke, originally from Three Mile Plains, N.S., can't contain his exuberance when speaking about poetry — you can almost hear the exclamation points in his voice.

Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson presents the Governor General's Literary Award for poetry to George Elliott Clarke during a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Nov. 14, 2001. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"Anybody can win prizes, but to have your poetry recited in the House of Commons, in the Senate, and to be in Hansard forever, for as long as there's a Canada at least, wow! Amazing," he said with a laugh.  

"You are up there with Shakespeare. Because everybody is citing Shakespeare all the time. You get on the same page as Shakespeare, for crying out loud. That's pretty good."

7th parliamentary poet laureate

This weekend marks the close of the acclaimed writer's two-year tenure as Canada's seventh parliamentary poet laureate. 

Though a collaboration between members of Parliament — some known for rigid speaking notes — and poets may not be what many people expect, Clarke doesn't see it that way. 

"It's the job of the artist to ask the public to look beyond the headlines, to the philosophical and spiritual and intellectual questions that are always there lurking behind every headline, every issue," he said from an office in Ottawa.

At the 100th anniversary ceremony for the Halifax Explosion, Nova Scotian George Elliott Clarke reads his poem chronicling the dramatic moments before the Halifax Explosion. 4:15

He believes a poet's work, once published, is public. 

"In a democracy it ought to be used in the legislatures," he said. "I just want the words to be out there, because I just think that's the role of the poet, to give voice to popular notions, concerns, worries, dreams and so forth. And to have those words resonate for somebody."

This year, Clarke completed more than 30 poems commissioned by parliamentarians. He wrote about the paradise papers, Gord Downie, the Order of Nova Scotia and Winnipeg

But in his first year in the position, he published only a handful of commissioned poems.  

Clarke disputes the "unfortunate" perception he didn't do anything that year. The University of Toronto professor did publish two volumes of poetry. He said he just didn't receive requests from parliamentarians. 

The Parliament of Canada Act describes the poet laureate's role, in part, as writing poetry "especially for use in Parliament on occasions of state."

"I don't criticize anybody for this, but I don't believe that anybody really understood in the beginning the potential for this position," he said. 

"I don't think anybody really had that idea in mind when I was appointed to this position, that the poet laureate should actually write poems for Senators and members of Parliament. I changed that. Although it did take some complaint on my part to wake folks up."

30+ poems commissioned in 2nd year

Speaking up prompted a request from an MP within days and a flood in his second year. He wrote pieces to commemorate constituents, events and issues ranging from autism to the restoration of an Indigenous fishery.

Clarke admits that he wouldn't reprint all of his output in a poetry book, but he's proud of some of it. 

Though his pieces often explored political topics, he said he felt an obligation to the position to be non-partisan.  

When tasked with writing about Senate reform, he focused on writing about change. One of his favourite poems explores the "what if" of cannabis legalization: 

"If Parliament high-fives marijuana,  
Druggists will decide that grass is manna 
(Reefer potent right now—and mañana:
Good weed feeds medicinal arcana);

Developing national registry of poetry

The poet laureate position typically rotates between English writers and francophones. As he prepared to leave it, Clarke said he hoped his successor would continue his work to establish a national poetry registry, which links poems to constituencies. 

He also hopes future parliamentary poets "prod" MPs and Senators to "welcome poetry in their addresses" both inside and outside the House of Commons. 

The actual job description allows for a poet laureate to stay home and write for themselves, Clarke said, and he'd like to see it updated to reflect the responsibility he has felt to write for parliamentarians. 

"It's one way of making the art of poetry public and bestowing a public service from a public position," he said. 

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past eight years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be found on twitter @elizmcmillan.