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Tourette Syndrome

Meet five poet-zealots in the tradition of Mingus Tourette

In "The Effervescent Fuckaroo" (Issue 21), Peter Unwin chronicles the exploits of Mingus Tourette, a self-appointed poet-zealot who travels cross-Canada with the intention of saving Canadian poetry. Tourette isn't the first to take up the torch of bringing poetry directly to the people. Here, staff writer Claire Crighton profiles five other noteworthy poet-avatars from the past century.


Filippo Tommaso Marinetti


“Vehement god of a race of steel,
space-intoxicated Automobile,
stamping with anguish, champing at the bit!”

(From “To My Pegasus”)


Cars, airplanes, guns: these were the fascinations of poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Founder of the brash, avant-garde Italian Futurist movement, Marinetti burned with loathing for the quiet, bourgeois art and politics of old Europe.


The Futurists aggressively rejected the sleepy past and instead infused their poetry with the alacrity of technology and and the harsh beauty of violence. Marinetti’s most famous work, The Futurist Manifesto (1909), called for an aesthetic committed to excess, industry, and progress. Later, the destructive tenets of poetic Futurism were extended to visual arts, music, and architecture.


Rich and reckless, lyrical and turbulent, Marinetti’s poetry embodies speed and movement. In “Zang Tumb Tumb” (1913), Marinetti experiments with noise and typography to narrate the Battle of Adrianopolis. Strings of potent words (Open! Load! Fire!) leap off the page and assault the reader.


Given Marinetti’s intense nationalism, glorification of warfare, and conviction that art should be “nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice,” it is not surprising that he was drawn to Fascism. In 1918, he founded the Futurist Political Party, which was soon absorbed into Mussolini’s party. Throughout the twenties and thirties, Marinetti advocated Fascism as a means to modernizing society and invigorating the economy.


Marinetti’s death in 1944 signified the end of Futurism, but the movement went on to influence artistic styles such as Vorticism, Surrealism, and Dadaism.


Langston Hughes


“I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

(From “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”)


Langston Hughes, a key figure in the twenties’ Harlem Renaissance, fervently supported black art at a time when the mainstream largely ignored it. A prolific writer, he published scores of poems, novels, short stories, plays and children’s stories. Along with contemporaries Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and Claude McKay, Hughes worked to convince American audiences of the cultural value of the black aesthetic.


A self-declared “people’s poet,” Hughes’ verses convey a passion for black culture. Hughes championed racial consciousness and cultural nationalism in the United States. In “My People,” he writes “The night is beautiful, / So the faces of my people. / The stars are beautiful, / So the eyes of my people / Beautiful, also, is the sun. / Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.”


In 1926, Hughes called on young black artists to break free from the conventions of high culture and the black middle classes, in his essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. The “mountain” symbolizes the barrier of extreme prejudice that these artists must overcome to create original, experimental work. In the same year, Hughes teamed up with Wallace Thurman to produce Fire!!, an avant-garde magazine “devoted to younger Negro artists” that explored the largely uncharted territories of jazz and blues music, homosexuality, and black beauty.


John Giorno


is totally great,
let us celebrate
the glorious qualities
of booze,
and I had
a good time
being with you.”
(From “Just Say No to Family Values”)


“Live poet” John Giorno believed that modern aural communications systems, such as the telephone and the radio, were poetry’s ideal “venue.” While living and working in the vibrant artistic culture of 1960s Manhattan, he founded Giorno Poetry Systems (GPS), an art collective that would bring poetry to a mass audience through innovative channels.


One of the collective’s most famous projects “Dial-A-Poem,” consisted of fifteen phone lines hooked up to individual answering machines. People could call up and listen to different fragments of poetry. Through GPS, Giorno collaborated with writers such as William Burroughs and Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The poet, incidently, played the lead in Warhol’s film Sleep.


Giorno’s poetry, most of which was recorded rather than written, is jarring and sound-based. It is characterized by line breaks and repetitions of key sentences with slightly altered phrasing. The poet’s voice is dynamic, and multi-tracks of his recitations are often layered to give his work a haunting, strident quality. His poetry evokes the rhythms and slang of the New York streets, and is infused with the energy of alcohol, drugs, and sex.


Patricia Smith


“Aretha. Deep buter dipt, burnt pot liquor, twisted sugar cane,
Vaselined knock knees clacking extraordinary gospel.
hustling toward the promised land in 4/4 time, Aretha.”

(From “Asking For a Heart Attack”)


Patricia Smith is easily the master of slam poetry. She has been the driving force behind spoken word in Chicago, performing poetry as a living art and winning the U.S. National Poetry Slam time and time again.


While poetry’s “page versus stage” argument was being hotly debated in the late 1980s, Smith reconciled the two with strength and style. She created the type of fiercely charismatic performance poetry that now typifies slam; she tells stories that take place in the present, set in nightclubs, in taxis, on city street corners. She was one of the first to prove to critics that slam poetry could rise above its coarse, vulgar reputation and intellectually engage the literate public. Illinois' prestigious Carl Sandburg Award for Poetry was even awarded to Smith in recognition of her craft.



Wendy Morton


“thunder and cinnamon.
Is: walls the colour of Provence;
seagulls framed in the skylight
between clouds and the morning moon;
hoya trailing night perfume;
a level floor;
a new sink;
your hands.

(From “Love Isn’t”)


B.C. poet Wendy Morton once avoided a speeding ticket by reading a poem aloud to a cop. The incident gave birth to a nationwide project dubbed “Random Acts of Poetry.”


To Morton, dissecting and analyzing poems in schools often turn people off poetry. She believes that poems should be appreciated for their sound and artistic beauty. So, for a week every year, with dozens of other poets from across Canada and the United Kingdom, she engages in “random acts of poetry,” approaching strangers on the street, at bus stops, in libraries, and at schools to read them a poem.


Morton’s poems are unassuming in their language and imagery, quietly slipping into the reader's consciousness and mingling effortlessly with their own thoughts. Morton explores intimate and sentimental themes. She compares herself to a private investigator, maintaining that it is the poet’s job to uncover the wonder hidden beneath the ordinary.