Lest We Forget

Remembrance Day is a time of reflection. Every November 11 at 10:50 a.m., my family and I honour the day by sharing passages of poetry written by war poets. We then, at 11:00 a.m., observe a moment of silence. Last year we also went to Lunchbox Theatre in Calgary and watched the musical, In Flanders Field, based on the poet John McCrae's life. It was a moving production which left none of us with a dry eye. This year, we will repeat the observance and watch Lunchbox Theatre's play on World War II, entitled Jake's Gift

I have already decided which poems, I will present tomorrow and among them are three poems which exemplify the war poetry genre. The first poem is written by the World War One British poet, Wilfred Owen, entitled Dulce Et Decorum Est,  which refers to the words of Horace: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The phrase translates to "it is sweet to die for one's country." Wilfred Owen uses the phrase in a stunning description of death by gas where he warns against teaching young children "ardent for some desperate glory" the old lie as expressed in the phrase. Owen, a friend of another famous British poet Siegfried Sasson, died only 7 days before the Armistice was announced.

The second poet, Keith Douglas, served for Britain in World War II in the Middle East and in North Africa. He was shipped back to England in time to participate in the Normandy invasion of D-Day where he died. There are two of his poems I will read: Vergissmeinnicht (Forget-me-not) and How To Kill. His poetry holds deadly visceral energy yet lands softly as he declaims that "A shadow is a man when the mosquito death approaches."

Finally, I will read a poem written by the Canadian poet, rights advocate, and previous Dean of McGill Law School - F. R. Scott. I have discussed Scott in my previous posting, which can be read here. His poem, entitled Lest We Forget  was written in contemplation of World War II, with the death of his brother during World War One in mind. It has a more cynical tone as he suggests:

And many a brave Canadian youth

Will shed his blood on foreign shores,

And die for Democracy, Freedom, and Truth,

With his body full of Canadian ores,

Canadian nickel, lead and scrap,

Sold to the German, sold to the Jap,

With Capital watching the tickers.

 We shall not forget this Remembrance Day.

Poetic Justice?

Does poetry have a place in the courtroom? An Ottawa Crown thinks so. In an attempt to convince a judge to convict an accused of an impaired driving charge, the Crown set his submissions to rhyme. Although the judge convicted the accused, she did not mention the use of the unusual literary device. My advice to the Crown: don’t quit your day job.

Poetry and the law are no strangers. Many eminent poets have also been trained in the law such as the American, Wallace Stevens and the Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca. In Canada, F. R. Scott was a legal scholar who also waxed poetic. He held the position of the McGill Dean of Law in 1961 and was a well-respected constitutional/human rights litigator. Indeed, he was a vocal proponent against the Quebec anti-communist statutes known as the “Padlock Laws.” His poems are beautiful. They are insightful reflections of a proud Canadian and are well worth reading.

But does poetry, for it’s own sake, have a place in the legal arena? It depends on the use. In the Emkeit case, the Crown read an inadmissible and inflammatory poem to the jury on a murder trial. Although the majority of the SCC did not overturn the conviction, the strongly worded dissent by Hall, Spence, and Laskin JJ. suggest they were not amused by the “so-called poem.”

On the other hand, in light of the contextual approach used by the SCC in Charter cases, poetry and other literary material may have a place in elucidating and interpreting Charter rights and values.

For those interested in further reading, there are suggestions at the Law and Literature blog from April.