Doesn’t that which we call a poem, whether or not it befits its commissioned aim, sound just as sweet?
No, at least not according to Redpath Sugar.
To mark the occasion of its 60th anniversary on Toronto’s waterfront, the 150-year-old sugar company commissioned Toronto’s poet laureate, Albert (A.F.) Moritz, to write a poem, which he was scheduled to read at Saturday’s Doors Open event at Redpath’s historic factory.
But on Thursday morning Moritz received word that his poem was dropped from the schedule.
The poem, which addresses the less savoury parts of the sugar industry’s history, was “not celebratory enough,” Moritz was told.
He said he isn’t sure what exactly about his poem the company didn’t like, but he figures it was probably the stuff about slavery and exploitation.
“The poem is about the totality of the industrial system, including the sugar production system from plantation to candy bar,” he said. “So the creation of the plantation system with the consequent destruction of the previous Indigenous ways of life and so forth. It’s not tremendously dark. It’s not a thumping social protest poem against slavery or anything like that, but it distinctly has those elements in it. So my guess is that’s what they didn’t like.”
A spokeswoman for Redpath Sugar confirmed Moritz’s poem was dropped from Saturday’s event. “It is a beautiful poem that reflects upon the history of sugar and we hope to showcase it in the context of our museum where we highlight the deep roots and traditions of the sugar industry,” Nancy Gavin wrote in an email to the Star. “However, the event this weekend is focused on celebrating Redpath’s history on Toronto’s waterfront and our contributions to the City of Toronto, which the City will recognize with a presentation.”
Gavin said Moritz was still welcome to attend Saturday’s event.
Sally Han, who manages cultural partnerships for the City of Toronto, said the city asked Moritz to write the poem on Redpath’s behalf.
“Our understanding is that the organizers of the celebration event decided that they found the tone and some of the content of the poem too dark and not in keeping with their celebrations,” Han said in a statement, describing Moritz’s poem as “an exceptionally beautiful and thoughtful work.”
Han said it’s “entirely within the prerogative” of Redpath Sugar to decide what it wants in its celebrations. “Artists have a function and role in society to remember our collective histories, to speak truth, and to celebrate human accomplishment within the larger currents of history, time and place.”
Moritz, who has written several commissioned poems, said he has never been disinvited like this before but he doesn’t feel censored. He likened the situation to a couple not wanting something read at their wedding. “It’s their event,” he said. “You can’t object to that.”
Moritz’s poem, which is titled “The Current of the Sugar,” is written in the form of a glosa, which takes four lines from an admired poem and uses them as the last lines in a new four-stanza poem. The four lines Moritz uses are from a poem written in 1858 by John Redpath, Redpath Sugar’s founder.
Moritz, who wasn’t paid for writing the poem but saw it as part of his job as poet laureate, was excited about the assignment, in part, because industry and the industrial system have long been a focus of his work.
“I thought this poem request was right up my alley,” he said. “It would bring out themes and knowledge that have been important to me as a person and my work as a poet for years.”
Although he is disappointed by Redpath Sugar’s decision, he said he is still grateful for the assignment, calling it “a kind of gift.”
“I don’t regret writing the poem at all just because Redpath doesn’t want it,” he said. “What this assignment did is evoke something in me and give me a chance to say it. It wasn’t artificial in any way.”
The Current of the Sugar, by A.F. Moritz
The lord gave us a beauteous flower
To cherish for a day,
And in the morn his angel sent
To take our flower away.
Down a shady lane through the sugar cane, the good
old song tells us, a burly bum came hiking,
singing of the land of honey. In the sun,
the canes were arrowing far above his head,
the white-shining flags, proud horsetails, each one made
of thousands of flowers, each flower with its single seed,
preparing the sugar of next year—our dower
we never earned. Given for no reason from the earth,
and beautiful. So that the cane could never be
only a grass for humans to see and devour,
wisely the lord gave us a beautiful flower.
Soon the cutters would have to come to the fields,
bent, with heavy knives felling the shade,
cutting stems into even lengths, bundling, stacking,
discarding the flowers, then in the sweat of their brows
returning from the brutal beautiful sun
in the cooler evening, the greatening dark, their children
seeming to merge into night. And in this way,
the old life in forests and on shores almost gone,
the people lived, in mighty despair could laugh and pray,
and the earth still had them to cherish for a day.
I’ve seen the sugar in port before the lading
being washed to exorcise the impure, the molasses
that otherwise would settle to wormwood tar.
We’ve seen the great bulk carrier in glassy or heavy seas,
stolidly coming. In Youngstown once in the furnace
we saw iron for her hull still only liquid fire.
Our daughters were born and died, and in our mourning
we went back to the office or the line,
to the mill, now our whole world, our blessing, our warning.
The lord saw, and sent his angel in the morning.
One day by Sugar Beach the Solina docked—
home port Nassau, under flag of the Bahamas, the heaven
of the sugar cane. Was she the angel?—Solina,
sunlight in the eastern wind, floating castle of steel.
A towering loader stabbed its green beak down her hold,
swivelled...into the factory bays poured torrents
of raw grains. The whole current of the sugar lay
there in our seeing, from sunburst panicle to marzipan rosette,
the world-stream where all will drink health every day ….