Coteau Books in the Schools: Batoche
by Kim Morrissey ISBN 0-919926-91
from "The Art of Rebellion"
an essay by Kim Morrissey
first published in Prairie Fire
Vol/ V1 No.4.
Of course, poets are not simply reading other poets about Batoche; they are also re-fashioning historical material. The most accessible "found poem" is Riel's Address to the Jury (July 31 1885), which has been used by John Robert Colombo and Raymond Souster. As one can see by comparing the various versions, there is more to a "found poem" than simply transposing the words from one form to another. Riel's Address begins:
"Your Honors, gentlemen of the jury: It would be easy for me to-day to play insanity, because the circumstances are such as to excite any man, and under the natural excitement of what is taking place to-day (I cannot speak English very well, but am to do so, because most of those here speak English), under the excitement which my trial causes me would justify me not to appear as usual, but with my mind out of its ordinary condition. I hope with the help of God I will maintain calmness and decorum as suits this honorable court, this honorable jury.
You have seen by the papers in the hands of the Crown that I am naturally inclined to think of God at the beginning of my actions - if I do- I wish you won't take it as a mark of insanity, that you won't take it as part of a play of insanity. Oh, my God, help me through Thy grace ..... "
Souster skips the prayer, but has changed only two words in the opening paragraph. His line breaks come at natural pauses in the prose rhythm, and he has signaled the deletion of the prayer by four dots.
Your Honors, Gentlemen of the Jury
it would be easy for me to-day to play insanity,
because the circumstances are such as to excite any man
and under the natural excitement of what is taking place to-day
(I cannot speak English very well,
but I am to do so
because most of those here speak English),
under the excitement which my trial causes me
would justify me not to appear as usual,
but with my mind out of its ordinary condition.
I hope, with the help of God,
I will maintain calmness and decorum
as suits the Honorable Court, this Honorable Jury....
(Raymond Souster, "Found Poem: Louis Riel Addresses the Jury" in Extra innings (Ottawa: Oberon 1977))
Colombo skips the language question, and emphasizes the prayer:
"Your Honors, Gentlemen of the jury: You have seen
that I am naturally inclined to think of God
at the beginning of my actions. If I do it now,
I wish you won't take it as a mark of insanity,
that you won't take it as part of a play of insanity.
Oh, my God, help me through thy grace"
(John Robert Colombo, "The Last Words of Louis Riel" in Abracadabra (Toronto:McClelland and Stewart, 1967)
Clearly, the interesting thing about found poems is what the poet decides to leave out, and often what the poet leaves out is partly determined by historical context. In 1967, our centennial year, Louis Riel was seen as a mystic, a religious prophet, which may explain Colombo's emphasis on prayer. By 1977, Canada had become less politically naive, and the mythology of Riel had shifted from his mysticism to his role as political leader. Souster is also working with the creative assumption that Riel is a poet (which may be why Souster is reluctant, in the opening stanza, to do much more than naturally break the lines according to Riel's punctuation, while Colombo assumes he can break the line where he wishes).
Theoretically, every generation could produce a different "found poem," reflecting the changing concerns of Canadians. For example, should bilingualism in the Courts be revoked, and the literary conventions of ambiguous line breaks remain, presumably the natural place to begin would be:
Gentlemen of the Jury:
I cannot speak
English well, but am trying
because most here
When I came to the Northwest
I found the Indians suffering
I found the half-breeds
eating the rotten pork
of the Hudson Bay Company
and the whites
We have made petitions I
have made petitions
We have taken time; we have tried
And I have done my duty.
My words are
(Kim Morrissey, "Address to the Jury" in Batoche (Regina: Coteau 1989)
Even this short poem makes several assumptions: that the reader knows about Riel, regards Riel as a leader, assumes the Hudson Bay Company is a villain, and assumes that an English-based colonial culture is unjust. Should any of these assumptions cease to be shared, or be proved false, the poem will lose its emotional subtext.