George Elliott Clarke: A Passsion for Language and Life

W.H. Auden once observed that “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.”

Auden’s quote is a most fitting description of African-Canadian poet George Elliott Clarke who recently regaled my wife and I, three of our daughters and about 100 alumni and faculty during a poetry reading as part of the University of Waterloo English Department’s 50th Anniversary celebration.

A recipient of a Governor General’s Award for poetry, three honorary doctorates, a Doctor of Laws degree, two Doctor of Letters degrees and numerous other awards, Dr. Clarke reminded me of why I am in love with the English language – especially poetry.

Clarke’s poems, plays and opera stand alone as living testaments to his ‘Africadian’ roots, an amalgam born of the African diaspora – African, American, Canadian, Nova Scotian.

Through the magic and visceral beauty and cadence of his own voice, the spiritual, biblical and sensual imagery in his poems spring to life, resonating and reverberating like rain on a dry tin roof:

That May, freight chimed zylophone tracks that rang
To Montréal. I scribbled postcard odes,
Painted le fleuve Saint-Laurent come la Seine —
Sad watercolours for Negro exiles
In France, and drempt Paris white with lepers,
Soft cripples who finger pawns under elms,
Drink blurry into young debaucery,
Their glasses clear with Cointreau, rain and tears.

Whylah Falls (1990)

Clarke does not just read excerpts from his poems. Poem after poem, verse after verse, (from his verse and verse play collections) he BREATHES LIFE into each word and BLASTS it off the printed page with an oratorical passion that resonates in the ear and stirs the mind’s eye, heart, soul and blood of the listener.

His remarkable ability to make one truly FEEL the spoken word in their guts and bones reminds us all of the sad reality that the spoken word, especially spoken poetry and all its nuances, is in serious danger of being drowned out amid a cacophony of sterile, monotone twenty-first century digital noise.

I must admit I had no idea that George Elliott Clarke (who once boarded with my mother and I in the early 1980’s while an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo), would become the literary giant he is today.

I do know that we were blessed to have had him join us during his life journey for that brief time, when, many miles from his Nova Scotian home, he found his ‘inner voice’. Since then, thank God, he has never stopped singing and reminding us that he is passionately in love with language.

Photo: University of Athabasca