Sunday, 8 February 2015

Perspectives on History and/or Society

When different people describe the same event, we usually get many different stories about "what happened." The same holds true for the writing of history, of course - as well as for the analysis of social and/or political situations.

Please choose one or two poems that deal with Canadian history or society and discuss the historical/ political/ social events in question - as well as the perspective(s) from which these events are described.

If you like, please comment also on the truth of poetry (and fiction) in comparison to the "truth" you find in history books and media reports.

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    This is an abridged performance of "Sunshine" by Vancouver poet Bud Osborn. Osborn was a former heroin addict who overcame his addiction and went on to become an activist in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. This poem, like much of his work, deals with societal issues such as addiction, poverty, homelessness, and abuse. Osborn contrasts the beauty and purity of the sunshine in the city against the horrific realities of life on the streets of the DTES. This poem comes from a deeply personal place for the author, as an advocate of safe injection and anti-gentrification. The issues mentioned affect those for whom he advocates; issues that directly affect a population of which he used to be a direct part. Further, the piece criticizes a perceived lack of communication between governmental groups and committees pertaining to aid in the DTES, and the residents of the DTES themselves.

  2. The poem “the Anxious Dead” written by John McCrae remembers the sacrifice and death of soldiers during World War One. Most notable for his composition of “In Flanders Fields”, McCrae writes about those who died with the introduction of large-scale warfare. With high casualties as a result of trench warfare, it is without a doubt that McCrae as both a doctor and artilleryman witnessed, and tried to save the lives of many people.

    The language and tone of the poem is on the whole, commemorates and is reflective. With his use of euphemism that perhaps hints at his own Christian beliefs, McCrae substitutes the word “death” with “sleep”. He bids readers to never forget the soldiers’ sacrifices, for they had “fought their fight in time of bitter fear, and died not knowing how the day had gone”.

    Perhaps the difference between how history and this poem presents war is perhaps its subjective tone. Specifically, the lines “that we will onward till we win or fall” stick out to me. I suppose that this line could be interpreted twofold: either McCrae promises the lost lives that he will remember them until death, or that he will continue fighting for the causes which they have died for. Whichever way one interprets this line, I believe that this promise to endure is touching and full of affection.

    A lot of history focuses around the political circumstances and statistics around such events. Often, there is a tendency to identify and understand the event more if one were to read firsthand accounts. Though understandably this is not an account of the war itself, I believe that this poem accurately captures the feelings that come to a soldier during war.


  3. In regards to truth, the biggest difference is that the truth found in textbooks or the news is clinical; it is often more about statistics and factual observations from a distance, and none of the personal emotion that comes out in fiction or poetry. Even when the news attempts to be "emotional" by being sensational, it is superficial. Understandably, this is done to keep bias out... even though there really isn't such a thing as an unbiased history book or news account, or at least very few of them. As for fiction and poetry, they may also contain numbers and the characters can certainly be observing from an outsider's perspective, but one is still usually privy to their thoughts, opinions and feelings regarding the truth. Therefore, the truth in literature is more "raw" and brings the reader closer because they become involved by feeling more intimate or empathetic, and in many cases experiences the events for themselves through the eyes of the character(s). Both are still truth, but one is of a more personal, human nature, and as such can sometimes feel more "real" to the reader.

  4. Wilfred Owen's war poem "Dulce et Decorum est" is very fitting on this topic. While the rest of Europe and was embroiled in war, eventually dragging Canada into the war as well due to Britain's involvement, media, government, and the like filled the streets with pro-war propaganda, glorifying the savage violence and so-called glory in order to recruit young men and boys. When Wilfred was recruited, he experienced the horrors of war first hand and was appalled by the stark discrepancy between recruitment propaganda and the realities of the battlefield.

    "Dulce et Decorum est"
    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
    Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    In a similar way, Canadian media also does not always tell the truth. Due to large scale capitalism, most Canadian media outlets such as newspapers and tv broadcasts are monopolized by approximately 5 big companies, including Bell and Shaw media. The CRCT also imposes restrictions on these media outlets in order to prevent complete monopolization. And yet censorship and biases remain where it is easy to tell as long as you know where to look. This comment seems to be becoming increasingly cynical, yet this isn't only a Canadian problem. In any form of media, there will always be some form of bias, it is only a matter of degree.