Does poetry make things happen in 2018?

WB Yeats on poetryI was thinking about how little poets seem to matter to modern political administrations. Maybe to modern society as a whole. Their light has, it seems, been waning for several decades as our collective attention shifts.

I was thinking about what an odd, awkward fit it would be for a poet to be invited to today’s anti-literacy White House. Would he or she have to start each conversation with the question “Have you read…” dreading the answer would be a blank stare, a silent shake of the head and the turning of eyes to smartphones and TVs blaring Faux News.

I was thinking of how John Kennedy asked Robert Frost to read a poem at his 1961 inauguration. Poetry still mattered then. Of how Carter, Clinton and Obama also invited poets to read at their inaugurations. Poetry seemed to fade after Kennedy, possibly because the Vietnam War invited more protest than introspection. Possibly because his death cut down many muses, as well. Possibly because we turned increasingly to TV and then the internet as our source of inspiration, not books. A 2015 CNN article noted:

The cult of people who buy books of poetry in the U.S. is almost certainly dwarfed by the 20 million or so viewers who watch a single episode of “Game of Thrones.”

A mere five poets were invited to attend and read at presidential inaugurations in more than 50 years. The CNN article noted:

Many Americans’ exposure to poetry today is limited to inspirational snippets on fridge magnets or a few verses recited every four years when a poet is trotted out at a presidential inauguration.

But that’s only true for Democratic presidents. Republicans shy from poets. At the Trump inauguration? None: just a handful of wannabe celebrities, some sycophants and has-beens. No poets, no authors, no reading, no evidence of culture deeper than the superficial. Not even as good as a single episode of America’s Got Talent.

Thus is the new world of politics: reduced to a small screen and a handful of words. No deep insight, no big reads. Is poetry disappearing from our lives? Sublimating to texting, Twitter, Instagram and such platforms that require little to no thought, but demand instant response and mindless reaction?
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Blue bin blues

Blue binEvery Monday it’s the same thing. I walk my dog along local streets, past the blue bins put out on the curb by residents, bins stuffed with content meant for recycling. Two bins are provided to every household: one for recyclable plastics and glass, the other for paper and cardboard. And to remind people which is which, one is clearly marked on the outside, and the county sends around an annual calendar, with reminders on how to sort your materials. Plus, the county advertises in local media about recycling and has a website all about it.

And yet every Monday, I see the same thing: bin after bin of mixed content, and bins with non-recyclable trash in them. (NB: in some areas, the second bin is grey to indicate paper and cardboard, but not every municipality has adopted this and in those that have, some residents still put the wrong things in them).

And that annoys me. I’m a taxpayer and I gladly pay for the recycling service. but I also have to pay for the extra staff time and facilities required to sort the material that arrives unsorted. There is no good reason for that or for the extra costs these people are placing on those of us who strive to do the right thing. It’s not someone else’s responsibility to sort their garbage.

For decades, we’ve seen print ads, books, newspaper flyers, calendars, and direct mail campaigns; we’ve heard radio shows, we’ve seen TV programs and ads about recycling. Recycling is taught in elementary schools. It’s front page news. Thousands of articles and editorials online discuss recycling and what goes into each blue bin. So unless you’re a new immigrant recently arrived from a country without modern waste disposal, no one in Ontario can claim not to know the rules or know where to look them up.

But there they are: bins full chock full of unsorted refuse. I don’t know if this is because these residents are ignorant of the rules, or can’t be bothered to read them, if they aren’t bright enough to understand them, or if they’re simply too lazy to care. Maybe they’re all just millennials too busy on their cellphones to pay attention. I don’t know. But the irresponsibility of it all bothers me.

And it’s costing all of us money. In a town already overtaxed (this council has raised our taxes three times in three years already!), we simply can’t afford for people to be so irresponsible.
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Who ya gonna call?

This song keeps running through my head:

If there’s something strange in you neighborhood
Who you gonna call? (your councillor)
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call? (your councillor)
With apologies to Ray Parker, composer of the Ghostbusters theme song.

More than three years after I left council, I still get calls from residents, still get stopped in grocery stores or when I’m walking my dog, dragged into conversations with residents unhappy with local politics and how they’ve been treated by this council. Specifically by members of The Block Seven.

I get asked about snowplowing, about why we don’t have more stop signs, about off-leash dog parks, about tree planting, about our utility bills, taxes, sidewalks, the BIA and pretty much everything else. I think I’ve been approached by more residents and town staff to discuss local issues these past three years than I was ever approached when I was actually on council.

I listen politely, remind them I am not on council and cannot do much as a private citizen, then I always ask, “Have you contacted someone on council about it?” And every time I get one or more of the following responses:

  • I tried, but they wouldn’t listen.
  • They won’t answer their phone (or email).
  • They brushed me off.
  • They wouldn’t give me a straight answer.
  • I don’t trust them.
  • They never returned my calls (or emails).
  • I tried but they couldn’t understand my problem.
  • They told me to speak to someone else on council.
  • They told me to call someone on staff.
  • After what they did to our hospital, I don’t want to speak to any of them again.
  • I did but they’re as thick as a brick.
  • They talked down to me.
  • I did and they promised to look into it but never got back to me.
  • I did and they promised to look into it but nothing ever got done.
  • And so on.

Well, it’s not true of everyone at the table, of course. Only The Block. Seems many residents find The Block uncommunicative, impolite and inept. Not a surprise, given their love of secrecy and deception, and dislike of learning and reading. Of course, no one ever claimed we elected the best, just that we elected a clique of self-serving people with private agendas and vendettas. But I’ve said that before. But that’s not where I was going. This post is about how to elect people you can speak with, by improving our election process.

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Raw water: the New Age death wish

Drinking from a stream: stupid ideaWould you willingly expose yourself to cholera? While treatable, this highly infectious disease causes great physical distress and suffering to its victims, and is even fatal to some. Most readers have never experienced it because it’s rather a rarity in developed nations, those that have the benefit of modern water and wastewater treatment systems. That’s thanks to decades of stringent and effective health and safety standards and constantly improving treatment systems.

But for some, it seems, those systems are a terrible burden; a worrisome threat to their natural state. The very notion of clean, hygienic water bereft of bacteria and pollutants threatens their peace of mind. They demand to be fed unfiltered water, bravely willing to accept the threat of travellers’ diarrhea, Giardia, Cryptosporidium (from cattle feces), dysentery, Salmonella, Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (E. coli, found throughout the natural environment), Typhoid Fever, Cholera, Hepatitus A, Hepatitus E, Campylobacter (from bird guano), Norovirus, Shigella and other infections and parasites.

It’s better, these New Age adventurers believe, to risk illness, pain, paralysis and even death than drink water from a municipal tap that might have come into contact with chlorine or fluoride. The taint of civilization, of modernity, or – gasp! – chemicals shall not pass their lips. Seriously: this is truly one of the most bizarre, stupid, and dangerous, wingnut fads to emerge.

“Raw” water – or as The Verge more appropriately called it, “raw diarrhea” – is the latest craze among those obsessed with the internet-driven fads-du-jour.

These are the same people who worship the Queen of Pseudoscience Fads, Vani Hara aka The Food Babe. These are the warriors who spent thousands more to buy free-range chicken, organic avocados, tomatoes, corn, and kale, then crusade against GMOs (oh, the irony, the irony…). These are the folks who refuse to get their children vaccinated because they think having children suffer and possibly die from diseases like rubella, smallpox, polio and whooping cough is more natural than having them artificially healthy through medicine. These are the people who crusaded against the ubiquitous chemical, dihydrogen monoxide in foods (insert laugh track).

I doubt one of them knows how municipal water is treated, how the infrastructure or facilities work, what technologies have evolved or changed, and how many millions of technicians, scientists and engineers work every day to improve our water systems. I doubt one of them actually knows the science or history behind chlorine or fluoride. To New Agers, science is a dark art: scary, mystical, untrustworthy.
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The House on the Borderland

House on the Borderland “But for a few touches of commonplace sentimentality [it] would be a classic of the first water.” So said H. P. Lovecraft of the 1908 novel, The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson. But, Lovecraft admitted, the book was also a major influence on his own, later work. And for good reason: it created the ‘unknown horror’ effect that Lovecraft (and later writers) exploited so well.

House on the Borderland is a seminal work in its genre and, despite its age, deserves not to be forgotten by modern readers. Here’s a passage from the book:

And then, as I peered, curiously, a new terror came to me; for away up among the dim peaks to my right, I had descried a vast shape of blackness, giantlike. It grew upon my sight. It had an enormous equine head, with gigantic ears, and seemed to peer steadfastly down into the arena. There was that about the pose that gave me the impression of an eternal watchfulness—of having warded that dismal place, through unknown eternities. Slowly, the monster became plainer to me; and then, suddenly, my gaze sprang from it to something further off and higher among the crags. For a long minute, I gazed, fearfully. I was strangely conscious of something not altogether unfamiliar—as though something stirred in the back of my mind. The thing was black, and had four grotesque arms. The features showed indistinctly, ’round the neck, I made out several light-colored objects. Slowly, the details came to me, and I realized, coldly, that they were skulls. Further down the body was another circling belt, showing less dark against the black trunk. Then, even as I puzzled to know what the thing was, a memory slid into my mind, and straightway, I knew that I was looking at a monstrous representation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of death.

You can read or download a copy at It’s not very long – just over 50,000 words, and is a fairly quick read.

Hodgson – whose 140th birthday was celebrated by fans last November (the 100th anniversary of his death is in April, 2018) – was prolific in his lifetime, but is an almost-forgotten figure these days. Only two of his novels – the other being The Night Land (1912) – got any significant attention or popular reprints for many decades after his death. Thanks to the internet, digital files and the magic of on-demand publishing, a lot of his work is available online; five of his novels are now downloadable from Gutenberg. And this slowly growing popularity has seen a few publishers reprinting many (maybe even all) of his works.

While still in the shadows compared to other writers, he is read today by fans of classic horror and early scifi. But he’s not anywhere near a popular writer. In part that may be because better, subsequent writers like Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs captured (and continue to capture) the public’s imagination. Plus, they wrote about the modern, post-war world: with radio, cars, telephones, movies, steamships and the like. They are easier, I suspect, for modern readers to comprehend than those from the Edwardian era.
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