A NATION OF WORDSMITHS © David Watts 02/05/2010
A German expatriate on the BC coast complained at the lack of industry in his adopted country: “There’s Margaret Atwood and writers but nothing solid behind it: no steel, no mass production.”
This man represents a culture that produced both: from the blacksmithing that became steel mills to opera: from the Hammermeister to Die Meistersinger. And he’s missing an important point.
Wordsmithing is serious work. It is more than putting pen to paper, or keyboarding a stream of consciousness into a computer.
It’s more than simple eloquence. Some are gifted with the ability to speak, apparently effortlessly from a larger space, to utter words of wisdom and clarity unrehearsed. This can come with rites of passage: Crowfoot’s death song, Chief Seattle’s great speech near the close of his life.
Jesus of Nazareth, Joan of Arc and some young children and elders have this gift, yet they cannot be considered wordsmiths. Others have remembered and recorded their words and, in the case of a body of teachings, systematized them and set them down.
An outstanding case of eloquence in recent times is the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill. Many were delivered without notes, in the House of Commons, and they are masterpieces.
Churchill was a wordsmith who wrote more words than he uttered to live audiences. In his auto-biography he describes the way by which he mastered the language he came to parry so deftly:
“Being in the lowest form I had an advantage over the cleverer boys. They went on to learn Latin and Greek: we were such dunces we could learn only English. We practiced continually English analysis. I was in 3rd Fourth three times as long as anyone else and had three times as much of it.”
In contrast to the volumes forged by a Churchill is the disciplined simplicity of Japanese haiku: perfect pearls that can evoke clarity in an implicit structure with a precise set of rules.
To understand and apply rules, however, does not a master or an artist make. And good wordsmiths are artists and artisans as well as technical experts.
Canada, that lies midway between Britain and Japan, oratory and haiku, and in the same latitude, has been home to many good wordsmiths including a journalist who edited Churchill’s books.
“In the middle” may be key to good wordsmithing: midway between the extremes of survival and basking in the good life, between the discipline of structure and the freedom of the creative spirit.
One of Joni Mitchell’s friends describes her creativity as “channeling …writing words and tunes she was hearing rather than making up” the way Mozart’s manuscripts show no signs of erasures.
Yet no one who has studied the compositions of either doubts that they conform to very defined rules even as they break new ground. Joni, for instance introduces new tunings for the guitar.
The range of Canada’s wordsmiths is remarkable: from academics to journalists, novelists and filmmakers, poets and songwriters.
Academics such as Northrop Frye who gave the world The Great Code and Marshal McLuhan who gave us Gutenberg Galaxies and “The Medium is the Message.”
Margaret MacMillan who gave us Paris 1919 and John Ralston Saul who gave us A Fair Country.
Popular historians like Pierre Berton who gave us The National Dream and The Arctic Grail.
Novelists and poets such as Margaret Lawrence who penned The Stone Angel and Leonard Cohen who coined the phrase “Beautiful Losers.”
Chansonniers Gilles Vigneault who gave the world “Mon pays c’est l’hiver”, Stan Rogers who gave us “Northwest Passage” and Joni Mitchell whose corpus includes “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Circle Game”—songs that stretched the language and songwriting itself.
Filmmakers like Claude Jutra who gave us A tout prendre and Mon Oncle Antoine, Réjean Ducharme’s Les bons débarras, Denis Arcand’s Jésus de Montreal and James Cameron’s Titanic that featured the work of Canadian Will James Pirie who built the ship 90 years earlier.
Each of these, in different ways and in different disciplines, mastered and shaped the language in which they worked. Our vocabulary and culture would be poorer without them.
Journalists played a key role in our culture: a role created by the importance of communications, and a place overlooked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he said to a gathering of troops: “Journalists practice freedom of the press but journalists did not create freedom of the press…”
Journalists did create freedom of the press in Canada: Joseph Howe of the Nova Scotian, who was prepared to go to jail for writing against oligarchy, and William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, whose writings fueled the 1837-38 uprisings that helped lead to responsible government.
Their successors include Réné Lévesque and David Halton, correspondents for Radio Canada/the CBC in the Second World War. Lévesque entered politics and came to found the Parti Québécois, becoming his Province’s Premier. Haltons have continued in journalism for three generations.
Adrienne Arsenault, Joe Schlesinger, Céline Gallipeau, Ian Macdonald and Jean-François Lepine are current and recent Canadian journalists of international standing, plus Michael Jean and Adrienne Clarkson, who were journalists before they became Governors General.
And this brings us to an important point. As will be apparent from their names, a number of these were not Canadian born. Some came here as children with their parents, others migrated as adults.
The same is true of writers such as Michael Ondaatje and Yann Martel Their Canadian-ness does not derive from their birth or even upbringing but the context in which they practice their craft.
So when we see a poster of authors’ pictures captioned “The world needs more Canada,” this is not a claim of superiority. The world has fine writers from many lands, contributing to our humanity.
Rather it is call for the coming together that occurs in kanata, the global village. It is a call for the sharing and export of this spirit, and representative writers and their works and words, world wide.
Canada is a Nation of Wordsmiths, of writers, producers and poets who work with words and do it well. But words alone, however well-wielded, are not enough. Behind and above them is Truth, a larger Whole to which the words point and contribute but cannot ultimately contain.
This depth of unobstructed consciousness and communication was expressed in Greek and translates into English as the phrase “In the beginning was the Word.”
Canadian talents and culture are well positioned to further this Truth that makes us Free.