Parliament's poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, gets rock star treatment

Parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke is nearing the end of his tenure, but before he goes U2 are going to use two of his poems to help kick off their global The Joshua Tree At Thirty tour in Vancouver.

Parliament is looking for a new parliamentary poet laureate as George Elliott Clarke's term nears its end

George Elliott Clarke, Parliamentary Poet Laureate, discusses U2 using two of his poems in their upcoming tour 8:07

The parliamentary poet laureate may be an obscure figure to some in Canada, crafting poems about the houses of government and the issues that impact their running. 

But the current holder of that position, George Elliott Clarke, is an accomplished poet, with a lauded body of work, who is about to leap from Parliament Hill to concert stages worldwide. U2 has selected two of his poems to scroll across screens as concertgoers enter venues on their The Joshua Tree At Thirty tour. 

"I believe that the purpose of the slow scrolling of the words from these poems is to encourage the attendees to reflect on the social political context in which culture happens, in which art, poetry and music get made," Clarke told CBC News Network's Power & Politics host Rosemary Barton.

Clarke, Canada's seventh poet laureate and a winner of the Governor General 's Literary Award for Poetry,  says he was a fan of the band while in university, in part, because of the group's humanitarian work, which he says is "extremely important."

"I always appreciated the social conscience of the lyrics and also the stance that the band has taken on various global issues of great import," he said.

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

Clarke was appointed to his position in January 2016. The parliamentary poet's website lists 13 poems he has written since then, ranging from distinctly parliamentary poems such as one honouring a past parliamentary poet laureate or another celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to a December 2016 poem about the Senate:

Invention is craft; Improvement is art:

Honourable Senators, act this part.

"Sober second thought" isn't partisan,

But, constitutionally, what is Canadian.

He's also written about the death of Fidel Castro, carefully skirting the good and bad with lines like: "Farewell, farewell, 'maximum leader.' Hello, hello, free Cuban people."

Clarke told Barton that his inspiration for Ain't You Scared of the Sacred?: A spiritual, a poem written after the Quebec City mosque shooting, was a need to respond spiritually to an act of violence associated with faith.

"I think that what the poem calls for is humility, simple humility, on the part of all believers of whatever faith," Clarke said. "I don't think anyone should feel they are so imbued with the divine that they can impose their beliefs on others. I just think that's fundamentally inhuman, not to mention, probably, extremely bad theology."

The Quebec mosque shooting is not strictly a parliamentary theme, at least not in the same way a poem about the Senate might be. But the incident in Quebec certainly gripped Parliament in its aftermath, and Clarke's verse delves into the emotions of the event.

Best be scared of the Sacred!
Best be scared of the Sacred!
Divinity knows you naked.
Tremble or your
house breaketh.

Believers can't live forever;
And evil-doers gonna die.
Folks with religious Fever,
Burn hot with Hypocrisy.

Clarke's term is nearing its end and since he is an anglophone the next parliamentary poet laureate will be francophone.

Anyone wanting to fill Clarke's quill must have made significant contributions to the literary community in Canada, possess literary excellence, be able to travel through Canada to promote poetry and be available to participate in parliamentary events.

Anyone who wants to nominate someone can do so on the parliamentary poet laureate's website but be forewarned: the job only pays an annual stipend of $20,000, with an additional $13,000 for travel expenses.