Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke (MA’89, LLD’99) honours—and challenges—Dalhousie in his latest creative offering, penned to mark the university’s 200th anniversary.
George Elliott Clarke is a man of many words. That’s the sort of trite platitude Clarke would probably eschew in his own work—or perhaps deploy with a healthy sense of irony. After all, you don’t become one of Canada’s most beloved poets and authors by going with the most obvious words available to you.
But, to shamelessly co-opt another turn-of-phrase: if the cliché fits, wear it. One-to-one, Clarke is a generous conversationalist, answering seemingly simple questions with insightful, detailed responses fusing personal experience with broader perspectives. His voice, crackling with enthusiasm, leaps tones and timbres, boundless in its delight for the spoken word. In his bountiful works, spanning genres and media, he has brought the African Canadian experience to life—in particular, those of the Black Canadian communities of the Maritimes he calls “Africadia”—in a way few, if any, other authors can claim.
And most recently, as Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate, Clarke turned his talents towards the events and occasions of the nation, large and small alike. Over the past two years, he’s written dozens of poems about the passing of public figures (Stuart McLean, Leonard Cohen), major anniversaries (the Halifax Explosion, the proclamation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and even government business (forthcoming marijuana legislation).
“I’ve always believed in the public presence of poetry,” says Clarke, as he reflects on his wide-ranging work. “I’m happy to publish my work wherever it can be published, but I’ve also been involved with theatre, opera, screenplays—and I’ve tried to infuse those other genres with poetry as well.”
It’s in that spirit of public poetry that, just over a year ago, Clarke agreed to take on another commission of note: penning a commemorative poem to mark Dalhousie University’s 200th anniversary.
“I was thrilled and excited by the honour,” he says. “And I also felt it would be a serious challenge… I felt I was taking on a weighty responsibility as an artist in trying to write something that would do justice to the history of the institution, and also allow me to understand better, for myself, what difference Dalhousie has made.”
Clarke’s poem is a powerful reflection on Dal’s legacy.
The resulting work, The Story of Dalhousie; Or, The University as Insurgency, is no small tribute. Spanning 34 pages when printed, with 25 divisions and nearly 4,500 words, the poem is a sprawling account of the university, its history and its legacy—not unlike The Lives of Dalhousie, books by Dal historian P. B. Waite that served as Clarke’s primary research texts. And just like Waite’s two volumes of university history, the poem is surprisingly intimate, breathing intense spirit into small moments and details.
“It’s a remarkable work,” says Dalhousie President Richard Florizone. “George’s poem captures beautifully the scope of who we have been, are and can become as a university. In its artful, graceful telling of our history, it echoes the themes of inclusion, community engagement and regional contribution that define our university through to this day. I think George’s work will reverberate in great ways we cannot yet imagine.”
One of those reverberations will echo through the halls of the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in early February (just as this issue of the magazine makes its way to readers). The poem will serve as a guiding text at the Bicentennial Launch on February 6—200 years to the day that Lord Bathurst approved Lord Dalhousie’s request to create a new college in Nova Scotia. Clarke and others will read excerpts from the poem as part of a broader reflection on Dal’s past, present and future to help kick off the university’s anniversary year.
For Clarke, born in Windsor, NS but raised in Halifax, the event and the poem represent a homecoming of sorts, an opportunity to reflect on the university and city that have played such a key role in his own personal and artistic journey.
Clarke’s most obvious links to Dal are as an alumnus: earning his Master of Arts in English in 1989, receiving an honorary degree 10 years after that and, last year, being presented with the Dalhousie Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. (See “DAA Award Winners,” Fall 2017 issue, p. 28.)
But Clarke traces his Dal experience back even further: visiting the Dalhousie Dental Clinic as a child to get teeth filled or extracted; having future NDP leader Alexa McDonough, a Dal alum and Maritime School of Social Work faculty member, as his teacher in a kid-start program at Cornwallis Street United Baptist Church; gathering on campus with different youth groups, ones that met in spaces like the Arts Centre and the Student Union Building, to discuss theatre, poetry, shared experiences as Black youth.
“So from my earliest days, I had a connection to Dalhousie—an important formative connection,” says Clarke.
Years later, after completing his BA at the University of Waterloo, Clarke returned to Halifax and Dalhousie for his master’s degree. By this point, the poetry bug had bit him hard. He published work in the Dalhousie Gazette, including an early poem about Weymouth Falls, the African Nova Scotian village that would inspire his 1990 book-length poem Wylah Falls. And he enrolled in what he considers the most influential course he’s ever taken. He remembers the title verbatim (“Tradition and Experimentation in Modern Poetry, 1880-1920”) and that it was identified in the Academic Calendar as “a good course for poets.” The instructor, John Fraser became more than just a teacher and mentor to Clarke—he became a lifelong friend.
“He’s also given me a lot of editing assistance over the years with my novels and my poetry,” says Clarke. “I’ve been blessed by receiving some awards and prizes and good reviews every now and then, but one of the best reviews for me, still, is when John Fraser writes me an email or letter and says ‘That is a very good poem.’”
By any objective measure—limited only, perhaps, by his own polite modesty—Clarke has written many “very good” poems. Among the awards and honours he’s received over the course of his career thus far are the Portia White Prize for Artistic Achievement (1998), the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry (2001), the National Magazine Gold Medal for Poetry (2001), the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award (2004), the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship Prize (2005) and appointment to the Orders of Nova Scotia (2006) and Canada (2008).
His most recent work, aside from his parliamentary duties, might be his most daunting yet: a massive three-part project called “Canticles.” The epic poem’s first part, “Canticles I”—years in the making and released in two volumes in November 2016 and April 2017—is 916 pages of poetry critiquing the transatlantic slave trade and European and American imperialism. He’s currently working on “Canticles II,” which will reframe Biblical scripture and other religious texts in a sort of folk theology informed by the African slave perspective. (He expects it be complete by 2021.)
“What I tried to do in putting together ‘Canticles I’ was to digest swaths of history and boil down historical narratives into what I consider to be the most salient, illuminating moments,” says Clarke. “And that’s what I tried to bring to the story of Dalhousie as well.”
An epic poem is a lengthy, narrative piece—think “Beowulf,” Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad,” or Virgil’s “Aeneid.” It’s a form well suited to a large, unfolding story, or to chronicling the heroic achievements or tragic plights of larger-than-life characters. But what do you do when your protagonist is a 200-year-old institution of higher learning?
Clarke considered many different formats when tasked with writing a poem for Dal’s anniversary year, but his reading of Waite’s histories, his experience writing “Canticles” and his own admittedly Aristotelian views on the format’s superiority drew him towards epic poetry.
“I was trying to take up what the poet Ezra Pound would call ‘luminous details,’” says Clarke. “I was looking for details that spoke to me, both as a poet and as a Dalhousie graduate.”
The poem begins in 1818, with Lord Dalhousie using war bounty to establish a non-sectarian college in Halifax. What follows is an account that covers many of the formative and most well-known events in Dal’s history—George Munro’s university-saving donation, the Halifax Explosion and two World Wars, the 1960s campus expansion—but which also has its share of quirky asides, like contrasting Dal’s first campus with its next-door brewery (“proffering ale for every ailment / and profs on tap”) or capturing the sentiments of the Jazz Age (“upsy-daisy, dipsy-doodle cavorting”).
“I wanted to be a little irreverent,” says Clarke. “I have a lot of reverence for Dalhousie, and I think it comes through in the poem, but you know, I’m a 21st century guy and a Dalhousie graduate, so I’m allowed to be a bit irreverent, I think.”
The poem doesn’t pull its punches, either. In one section, Clarke calls out how the research of Dal’s faculties in urban planning and social work was used to justify the expulsion of Africville. He contrasts the protesters who occupied President Henry Hicks’ office in 1970 with the work of Burnley “Rocky” Jones and others to create the Transition Year Program (TYP) and the Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Law Initiative, questioning which was truly the more “radical” approach.
This lens—one that brings the relationship between race and the academy into focus—might be Clarke’s greatest contribution to a consideration of Dal’s history.
“Waite’s history is brilliant and fantastic, but he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about when the first Black student showed up, for example. And he gives just a passing referenced to TYP which, to me, is a major innovation in Canadian universities. So those are areas where I wanted to go outside his work to find some instances, some luminous details, to frame as part of Dal’s overall history.”
The poem closes with a personal reflection in which Clarke writes in his own voice, sharing some of his formative Dal experiences and bringing his core thesis full-circle: that, from its very origins as a non-sectarian college besieged and stymied by sectarian adversaries, Dalhousie has been an “insurgent” institution, pushing knowledge forward and challenging its region, its province, its country.
“I was looking for details that spoke to me.”
“I think a good university is an insurgent complex, full of people who are brought together to think profoundly and argue vigorously about options for understanding whatever it is they pursue,” Clarke explains. “I think Dalhousie has been an extremely important complex of potential catalysts and improvisers for many different avenues of progress and change—the vast majority of them, for the better.
“If I can mix metaphors here, Dalhousie has been a lynchpin catalyst for change, for progress and for development across a whole slew of disciplines and schools… it has been the lodestone touchstone for promoting various avenues of development.”
“Lodestone touchstone”—the sort of phrase only someone with Clarke’s joyful sense of wordplay would come up with. In bringing his talents to bear for his alma mater, he’s provided the university with a thoughtful, powerful reflection on what it means to have a 200-year legacy, and the lessons that legacy offers for the centuries to come.
“It’s a work I’m very proud of,” say Clarke. “And it’s one I hope people enjoy.”
Excerpt from The Story of Dalhousie;
Or, The University as Insurgency
To read “The Story of Dalhousie; Or, The University as Insurgency” in full and to watch a video of George Elliott Clarke performing the piece, visit dal.ca/200poem.