It’s not often that a poet’s words resonate with so many people. This week, the Times Colonist published a convocation speech. It was given by North Saanich poet Patrick Lane at the University of Victoria. Lane delivered it when he received an honorary doctorate of letters from UVic last month.
Up to Friday afternoon, his speech — An Open Letter to All the Wild Creatures of the Earth — had charted more than 13,000 views on our website, timescolonist.com.
Certainly it’s not up there with such viral blockbusters as YouTube’s Charlie Bit My Finger (621 million-plus views) or the Trololo Sing Along (21 million- plus). But Lane’s high viewership on the Times Colonist site does rival breaking news stories. As such, it’s a remarkable feat. Many hits came via Facebook, where Lane’s piece was shared by enthusiastic readers.
So what’s all the fuss about? Why would people be excited about a convocation speech written by a 74-year-old?
Lane is as surprised as anyone. “I have no idea why it’s happening. I don’t know,” he said. “It’s obviously struck a chord in the community. I think partly because it’s hopeful.”
It’s a remarkable piece of writing. In the piece, primarily aimed at the young people in the audience, Lane starts by telling the true story of being a 10-year-old boy sitting on an “old, half-blind, grey horse.” The boy watches as hunters kill a cougar trapped in a tree. Ecstatic at their success, the hunters raise their rifles and fire into the sky.
Lane wrote: “You know now they shot at the sun because they wanted to bring a darkness into the world. Knowing that has changed you forever.”
This tale introduces the main theme of the speech. Lane believes his generation has blindly plundered the world’s resources, leaving precious little for young people.
But being a writer, he doesn’t say that. He puts it like this: “We began to eat the world. We devoured the oceans and we devoured the land. We drank the lakes and the seas and we ate the mountains and plains. We ate and ate until there was almost nothing left for you or for your children to come.”
These lines could come from a children’s fable. Lane’s language is simple, almost biblical. He doesn’t write in abstractions or use jargon. He offers powerful, concrete images to capture the listener’s (or the reader’s) imagination.
A Governor General’s Award-winning poet, Lane is one of Canada’s best writers. That’s not hyperbole, it’s the truth. He has no formal education beyond high school. Born into a blue-collar family, Lane is an autodidact who for years lived a rough-and-tumble life. As a young man Lane drove trucks, toiled in a sawmill, worked as a chokerman. He survived car wrecks and drunken leaps off cliffs. He once said, over a lifetime, he’d “broken most of the bones in my body.”
When The Collected Poems of Patrick Lane — a life-spanning collection — was recently published, Lane told me his main preoccupation is writing about ordinary men and women struggling to exist in a society that’s intolerant and savage.
Lane says inspiration for An Open Letter to All the Wild Creatures of the Earth came from attending Speak to the Wild, an environmental conference that took place near Wells Gray Provincial Park, north of Kamloops. Writers, artists, lawyers, scientists and activists discussed topics such as the near-extinction of the mountain caribou. Many participants were young men and women.
He drove to the conference feeling a bit “hopeless” about the state of the environment. “When I left the conference, I left feeling a certain amount of hope.”
Afterward, Lane wondered what he, a poet in his eighth decade, could do to help the cause. When he was invited to speak at UVic, he saw his chance. Still, Lane doubted himself. He’d be addressing a generation raised on Facebook and iPhones. At their age, he was prowling the wilds surrounding Avola, a forestry town in the North Thompson Valley.
Then the poet remembered something he’d seen. “For whatever reason, I just started writing about a cougar. That 10-year-old boy sitting on a horse, watching this cougar being killed.”
It’s a bleak story. Nonetheless, Lane is hopeful that those who inherit the planet will do a better job of taking care of it. “I was telling those kids [at the convocation] ‘it’s your turn. It’s your story. How do you want the story to end?’ ”
To read Lane’s address, go to timescolonist.com/patricklane.