Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poetry and the Social Gospel

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I haven't posted for a while. This is a story I was going to tell at the Canada Cuba Literary Association meeting were it funded. Have fun disagreeing with me. What with Jake Pavelka turning into an apparent sociopath and the gulf pelicans taking on BP, it is an adversarial summer.

POETRY AND THE SOCIAL GOSPEL, the captivity and liberation of language.

I knew a child who lived on the wild side and painted pictures with no borders between his phenomenal and spirit worlds. His only rule was the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

He then encountered an elementary school teacher who moonlighted as a free soul bounty hunter. She would break his spirit and prove that his indigo wisdom and difficulty decoding language was waywardness. By the end of grade one, the boy was drawing heavy lines around every character; this is the church, this is the steeple…

His God nearly drowned in conformity. In a confluent world, that child might still be riding the river, and God might resonate better than Stephen Dedalus’s “shout in the street.”

It is the river riders, those who think and learn differently, who take us beyond the boundaries of human knowledge and expectation. In these times, when the world is facing unprecedented social and environmental challenges: climate change, overpopulation, famine, the death of the ocean and the atmosphere, it is the lateral thinkers, problem solvers and risk takers, to whom possible solutions to the problems we have created will occur.

In short, every heretic poet reconfiguring words and numbers and seeing the messianic light in a punk haircut could be the new Galileo. We never know where the answers are found; and every door that is closed is a closed door.


Don’t go down, the bluesman sings
in a weary voice, to Fannin Street
while the wise child in the back seat
claps her hands to the music and
says bye bye to the rear view mirror,
since she knows she’s the one who’s
moving forward. You’ll be lost and never
found. You can never turn around.

We’ve come to the stop light. The music
stops and the radio tells us the world
is convulsing. Wise child knows more
than she can say, words like war, flood,
earthquake, and volcanic eruption.
She understands. I turn off the news
and return to the song, I wished I’d
listened to the words you said, startling
the punk kid at the bus stop who looks
up from his book and raises his hand,
two fingers, just as the sun jumps out
of a cloud and lights up his orange Mohawk.
Halo, she says as the light turns green.

In the fifty years that have followed the 1950’s, when conformity
defined the change from American isolation to American economic imperialism, we have experienced radical social transformations.

During the Cold War, the world was polarized between communism, one manifestation of the principles of the social gospel, and capitalism, Darwinian economics. America, with its adversarial history of witch-hunts, reacted by persecuting artists who challenged the status quo.

The Cuban Revolution, a reaction to American imperialism in Central America, was inspired by poetry and liberation theology, whose premise is reversal of unjust social, political and economic conditions. Fidel Castro, who has used a poet’s command of language to lead, elevated the revolutionary poet Jose Marti to the status of icon in the newly formed apparently non-theistic society.

Castro, educated by Jesuits, explains the ethic that survives the death of God, the demise of a hierarchal religious orthodoxy which has little to do with the teachings of Christ, by all accounts a political activist. Indeed, the meaning of Messiah in Hebrew is “leader of the people.”

In My Life, his autobiographical interviews with Ignacio Ramonet, Castro described Marti’s “profound humanism,” a philosophy expressed in “arroyos,” rivers of words based on Christian ethics. “With the teachings of Christ, “he says, “you can formulate a radical socialist program, whether you are a believer or not.”

This is one interpretation. There are others. Literal interpretation of the Bible is unquestioning acceptance of the premises of historical poets from the Judaic culture where religious axioms are constantly challenged in critical discourse.

George Bush stood on an inflexible steel platform of Christian evangelism to win the American presidency and then used it as a weapon to cudgel belief systems in the so-called axis of evil that did not fit his narrow definition of goodness.

Cuba, whose humanitarian outreach, medical swat teams sent all over the world in times of crisis even extended to victims of 9/11, was judged by the Strangelove constituency to be in that axis.

The last time I was in Cuba, I gave some of my books to the National Library. I was told that the convalescent Castro was looking forward to reading my book about Al Purdy. The two men who’d met during the Sixties had music, essential to the polyphonic poet, and a Judeo-Christian ethic in common.

Purdy, the son of an evangelical widow, left home, but he still saw
the world through a window framed by her belief system.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s self–description, “…not from the standpoint of religion but from the standpoint of social vision, I declare that I am a Christian” describes the moral structure that informed Purdy’s world view. In “Hombre” the poet wrote:

Guevera is dead now and whether the world
is any closer to freedom because
of Che’s enormous dream is not to be known

“Shoeshine Boys on the Avenida Juarez” is Purdy’s contemporary parable of the loaves and fishes.

In the meantime I get my shoes shined
(pay 1 peso and 30 centavos-9 ½ cents).
Then I get my shoes shined again
by the next “boy” on the Avenida Juarez.
And the first boy is kinda mad.
He thinks I think he didn’t do a good job.
The third shoeshine boy is middle aged,
with fat cheeks and a moustache.
He seems to think I am very funny.
His moustache quivers and he laughs at me.
Looking back I see the first and second boys
think I am nuts too; but they grin.
And when I get my twentieth shine,
far away down the Avenida Juarez
past Alameda park all the way to Sanborn’s
House of Tiles, I see the brown shoeshine
boys grinning. But my face is serious
for I’ve badly needed all twenty shines.

A CIA man lurks twenty feet behind him, but that only feeds the poet’s antithetical enthusiasm for benevolent micro-business.

That enthusiasm needs to be resurrected, like the metaphorical Easter bunny with his baskets of fertilized eggs, if we are to survive our excesses.

Poet and theologian Tim Lilburn remembers the Purdy times “shaped by social activism that grew out of liberation theology. In the Sixties and Seventies the spirit of the social gospel was dominant, and even if people weren’t reading liberation theology and engaging in social action they were caught up in the spirit.”

But the times they were a changing.

“There will never be another like him” they say about Purdy and it is too easy to assume that it is the land that has changed. What they really mean is that the poet is not a man for our time, when his free-wheeling, affirmative lyricism would be eschewed by the critics who clog our cyber system with divisive commentary.

Once again, despite the apparent expansion of freedom in pornography and violence, we find ourselves in an age of conformity, the worst possible condition for poetry. Ideas are in retreat, because risk is apparently too costly for the career-oriented, college-educated poet.

If liberation of the human spirit to create solutions to the moral dilemmas that face us depends on the movement from fear to freedom, poets are currently facing their greatest challenge. The Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Ratzinger, did everything possible to shut down the liberation movement, while at the same time covering up for the perverts that “suffered little children to come unto them” and supporting regimes that contradict the egalitarian teachings of the real Jesus of Nazareth.

Breaking every commandment, Christian Americans water-boarded Muslims and even the most moderate political candidate, a lawyer, talked about finding and killing Osama Bin Laden instead of bringing him to justice. It’s hard to believe this purportedly messianic politician forgot to rhyme at that critical moment. I can’t imagine Canadians letting our uber-conservative Prime Minister, get away with a comment like that.

Was the real Barack Obama locked in a backroom with duct tape over his mouth? I hope so. Liberation is not a one time thing, but a daily necessity as we are reminded of our responsibility to the universe.

When I was a child in school a teacher scotch-taped my mouth to keep me from speaking out. Recently, when I was instructed that a poet should not be “political,” I reprised the pain and exhilaration of being taped and freeing myself. One corporate bully, who had recently objected to my reading a poem about a child who fell during a foot race at the Special Olympics and was helped to the finish line by his running mates, actually assaulted me, knocking a drink out of my hand during the intermission in Cosi fan tutte.

Cosi fan tutte indeed. The irony would not be lost on Mozart, who was, sadly, a deeper thinker than Bin Laden’s metaphorical hunter or the corporate bully.

Tape off, I will have the last word.


Our mothers said we could kiss it better,
and we believed them. In the time before
fear or duck and cover on television, we
kissed our wounded knees; we kissed
the sap flowing from trees broken by
lightning; we kissed sparrows that
flew into windows and fell down dead
in the grass. We kissed the sky when
angel dresses started coming undone.

We are the generation that kissed the thawing
tundra, defrosted segregated ice cream counters,
ripped our lips on melting glaciers and tore
our tongues on a frozen highway of tears.

We learned how to pray, repeating words
spoken by an invalid genius who lined
up his lead soldiers, good versus evil,
and wrote books read in sickrooms all
over the world, the word in/valid meaning
not valid, since we are all sickened when-
ever a name is written in the archives of
terrible sadness. That was the moment we
became poets and nothing, not teachers
who scotch-taped our mouths shut or bad
fairies, was going to stop us from doing
what we could to kiss the world better.

If poetry is not political, divine dialogue, then what reason has it for being? It is not currency. We can’t eat it, although we can wipe our asses with it, a righteous ending for a lot of the soulless narcissism that currently appears in the guise of poetry.

There is always hope that some day we will awake from the nightmare of history; the dialectic keeps moving. A tremendous social momentum may bring us back to the moment Moses read the Commandments which are the precepts of righteous action.

I will leave you with words by John B. Lee, who wrote in the Afterward to Sweet Cuba, an anthology of Cuban Poetry from Hidden Brook Press:

“I want the poem to have the transformative power of prayer. Most people think of prayer as the importuning of God. I think of it as an appeal from the inner world of the individual to the outer world of the universe to make a connection whereby the iteration of the best words in the best order presents the possibility of grace, the covenant between the self and the universe, the vanishing into the thing where the soul makes contact through the mind, the body, the heart with the enthralling and all–containing spirit of things. Existence without alienation. What the authors of the Bible meant when they spoke of the covenant between God and man for which the rainbow is a metaphor.”

Amen to that.

Linda Rogers

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Linda Rogers

Linda Rogers is the author of the novels Say My Name (Ekstasis Editions, 2000), Friday Water (Cormorant Books, 2003) and The Empress Letters (Cormorant Books, 2007). She has also published several collections of poetry, including Love in the Rainforest (Exile Editions, 1996), Heaven Cake (Sono Nis Press, 1997), The Saning (Sono Nis Press, 1999) and The Bursting Test (Guernica Editions, 2002).

Go to Linda Rogers’s Author Page