From: A.M. Klein: Complete Poems (I & 2). ed. Zailig Pollock. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990. 2.657-8.
For Camillien Houde
On the school platform, draping the folding seats,
they wait the chairman's praise and glass of water.
Upon the wall the agonized Y initials their faith.
Here all are laic; the skirted brothers have gone.
Still, their equivocal absence is felt, like a breeze
that gives curtains the sounds of surplices.
The hall is yellow with light, and jocular;
suddenly some one lets loose upon the air
the ritual bird which the crowd in snares of singing
catches and plucks, throat, wings, and little limbs.
Fall the feathers of sound, like alouette's.
The chairman, now, is charming, full of asides and wit,
building his orators, and chipping off
the heckling gargoyles popping in the hall.
(Outside, in the dark, the street is body-tall,
flowered with faces intent on the scarecrow thing
that shouts to thousands the echoing
of their own wishes.) The Orator has risen!
Worshipped and loved, their favourite visitor,
a country uncle with sunflower seeds in his pockets,
full of wonderful moods, tricks, imitative talk,
he is their idol: like themselves, not handsome,
not snobbish, not of the Grande Allée! Un homme!
Intimate, informal, he makes bear's compliments
to the ladies; is gallant; and grins;
goes for the balloon, his opposition, with pins;
jokes also on himself, speaks of himself
in the third person, slings slang, and winks with folklore;
and knows now that he has them, kith and kin.
Calmly, therefore, he begins to speak of war,
praises the virtue of being Canadien,
of being at peace, of faith, of family,
and suddenly his other voice: Where are your sons?
He is tearful, choking tears; but not he
would blame the clever English; in their place
he'd do the same; maybe.
Where are your sons?
The whole street wears one face,
shadowed and grim; and in the darkness rises
the body-odour of race.
A.M. Klein, "Political Meeting"
Political Meeting was first published in The Canadian Forum in 1946. However, this publication did not include the dedication to Camillien Houde. The dedication was included in his work The Rocking Chair and Other Poems in 1948.
Camillien Houde was a Quebec politician, a Member of Parliament, and the mayor of Montreal for four terms. In August 1940, Houde encouraged Quebec to ignore the Conscription Act, which led to his position as mayor being suspended and his arrest three days later at city hall by the RCMP. When he was released four years later, over 50,000 Montreal citizens were there to welcome him home. He was re-elected as mayor in the next election. Klein sent a copy of his anthology to Houde, and Houde ironically singled out the poem in his biography, believing it to be an honour.
The satirical poem is written in tercets, except for the final stanza, which consists of four lines. There is a lot of religious imagery throughout the poem. This theme begins in the first stanza with “the agonized Y initials their faith.” This Y could stand for Jesus’ position on the crucifix. It is beginning the poem by centralizing the figure of the Roman Catholic God juxtaposed against the “laic” people in the first line of stanza two. Klein uses a simile to describe the “skirted brothers,” stating that their absence is “like a breeze / that gives curtains the sounds of surplices.” The religious imagery continues here with the word “surplices,” a religious garment often worn by Roman Catholic priests and clergy.
Stanza four introduces some of the French influence of the poem used to show Houde’s support for the division between French and English Canadians. Klein uses the contents of the French-Canadian song “Alouette” to compose stanzas three and four. The term “alouette,” therefore, is referring to the children’s song about a lark's feathers, eyes, and beak being plucked from the bird. At the end of stanza four, the chairman is introduced. The closing line reads “The chairman, now, is charming, full of asides and wit.” The word “now” being put between two commas has emphasis, as if readers can expect this attitude to change by the end of the poem.
The end of stanza six sums up with “The Orator has risen!”, the Orator referring to Camillien Houde himself. Here continues the religious references. This is a changing over of the centralized the “worshipped and loved” figure from Jesus to the Orator. Just as Jesus rose from the dead, this Orator rises as well. Stanza seven creates him into this beloved figure of the people but allows readers to see that Klein may question Houde as he is “full of wonderful moods, tricks, imitative talk.”
Stanza eight begins with “he is their idol.” The “their” refers to the lay people of Montreal who were mentioned at the beginning of the poem. Like humans are supposed to be made in the image of God, these people see themselves in this idol. He is not more handsome then them or rude, and despite his higher position in society, he does not act like he is different from any of them. Stanzas nine and ten are used to support his personable and humble attitude and show that the people love him. He knows how to charm them, how to come off as one of them, and through these techniques, he gains their trust and support.
The closing line in stanza ten sets up the final three stanzas of the poem where there is a shift in the tone of the poem as well as the tone of the Orator as he begins to “speak of war.” Klein points out Houde’s division between French and English as the Orator uses the French word “Canadien” to address his audience. He asks the audience “Where are your sons?”, preying on the emotions of his audience. To gain their support against conscription, he must strike both fear and anxiety within his supporters.
The final stanza of the poem repeats this line “Where are your sons?” It is then followed with an indentation in the second line. Klein seems to purposely leave this space here, as Houde would in his speech. This space leaves room for questioning for his audience, or to impose the idea that something is missing, like their sons if they are sent off to war. “The whole street wears one face” creates the notion that all of the audience is feeling the same thing, as were Houde’s intentions. The final line of the poem seems to hold the most depth within it. Before this he points to the significance of the divide between them and the English, separating themselves from them completely. He then unifies the French in saying they have one face and bringing in the “body-odour of race.” Mariam Waddington argues that this final line “is about race-hatred everywhere which here takes on a sudden biological concreteness. One doesn’t just feel race hatred in the air, one actually smells it; it assaults and penetrates the bodies of the spectators and changes them” (95). The spectators become unified as a single race of French Canadians under their charming leader.
Can Lit Poem "Political Meeting" by A. M. Klein
A. M. Klein’s poem "Political Meeting" is the next Canadian poem I chose to analyse. This poem was written for Camillien Houde, who was a former Mayor of Montreal, and a Member of Parliament representing Quebec. This poem discusses Canadian history and is a poem worth reading.
This poem contains a great deal of religious imagery. In the first stanza the religious theme appears with “the agonized Y initials their faith.” (line 3) representing the position of Jesus on the crucifix. The poem begins by contrasting the Roman Catholic beliefs with the “laic” people in the first stanza. The second stanza uses the word “equivocal” to describe the priests, thereby, leading the reader to believe that the priests are Jesuit priests. Klein uses a simile to describe “the skirted brothers…like a breeze that gives curtains the sound of surplices.” (line 5 and 6). The word “surplices” (line 6) means a loose white linen vestment, and these are worn by priests. Klein also uses alliteration “sound of surplices” to create a swishing sound.
The third and fourth stanzas are about the song “Alouette”. I think that most Canadian children have sang this song in school, especially in French class. However, I expect that very few people actually know what they are singing about? The song describes how someone “catches and plucks, throat, wings, and little limbs.” (line 11) off of a bird. So, why is this song in the middle of “Political Meeting”? Well, this song is a French Canadian song, and “someone lets loose” (line 8) and begins singing the song during the meeting, so everyone joins in.
In stanzas six through to ten, the reader is introduced to the “worshipped and loved” (line 19) Orator. The Orator refers to Camillien Houde, who is described in the poem as “a country uncle” (line 20) who carries “sunflower seeds in his pockets” (line20). The Orator can relate to the people because he is “like themselves, not handsome, not snobbish” (line 22 and 23). Continuing the religious theme Klein states that the people of Montreal view the Orator as “their idol” (line 22). Klein describes the Orator as a man who is loved by the people and is one of the people. The Orator “slings slang” (line 28) or speaks like the people do, and Klein uses alliteration once again to emphasize his point.
At the end of the tenth stanza the Orator “begins to speak of war” (line 30). Klein suggests that the Orator is speaking to, and as a French Canadian by using the word “Canadien” (line 31). Then the question “Where are your sons?” is asked in both lines 33 and 37. This question refers to the conscription of French Canadians to fight in the Canadian army.
In the twelfth stanza Klein distinguishes between French and English. Then in the final stanza he unites the French by saying the French are “one face” (line 38). In the final line of this poem Klein writes “the body-odour of race” (line 40) which paints a very vivid image in the readers mind and highlights the idea of a strong sense of racism.
“Political Meeting” by A. M. Klein is definitely an AP worthy poem because it contains numerous amounts of figurative language, allusions, and history. I hope that this blog post has helped you to understand this poem a little more.