An act of civil disobedience begins in Allan Gardens. The speaker, a burly fellow with a face that might've been carved by a woodcutter's axe from a particularly grainy tree stump, calls out, "I shout love in a land muttering slack damnation / as I would in a blizzard's blow."
He is quickly ticketed and fined by police for the crime of speaking without a permit in a public park. He refuses to stop his reading, and the small crowd refuses to stop listening or disperse. They are occupying the park.
Sounds familiar, right? But it happened 50 years ago this summer. The speaker was iconic Canadian poet Milton Acorn, just then becoming famous for his Marxism-informed free verse and delicate lyrics that would lead to his being named "the people's poet" by his peers Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Joe Rosenblatt and more in a legendary ceremony at Grossman's Tavern.
All of which explains why on Thursday, July 12, 2012, a group of poets returned to the scene of the crime to take the park, mark the anniversary and toast the publishing of Mosaic Press's new Acorn collection, In A Springtime Instant.
They gathered in front of the statue of Robbie Burns, where the original readings took place, to recite Acorn's work. The group of 20, of course, was nothing like the thousands who attended his resistance readings in 1962.
Back then, despite mounting fines, Acorn continued Sunday after Sunday, drawing ever larger crowds and ever more media. Other poets joined in, and the protest was soon being covered coast to coast. Inevitably, stung by the bad publicity and the unstoppable poetry, the city of Toronto changed its bylaw.
I knew none of this when I used to visit him more than a decade later, in the late 70s, in the cigar reek of his Hotel Waverly room at College and Spadina. Rather than brag about old achievements, he preferred to spend his time reciting first drafts of brand new poems to any young poet bold enough to drop by.
A clearly tormented man, Acorn, who railed against war and inequality and would have loved Occupy, was sometimes inarticulate with rage. He told me once, in one of his moments of clarity and connection, about the sonic impact of a shell blast he experienced aboard a ship in the Second World War, an injury that affected his brain health ever after and no doubt contributed to his early demise in his hometown of Charlottetown in 1986, aged 63.
Astonishingly, on July 12, two weeks ago, police once again converged at our poetry happening in Allan Gardens. Those reading from Acorn's book hadn't got more than three poems into the oeuvre before they were interrupted.
It seems a couple of Allan Garden regulars and a resident of nearby Seaton House got into a violent altercation involving some head-kicking, bottle-heaving and a bit of sitting in the middle of Sherbourne traffic while bleeding.
This had nothing to do with the poetry, but the poets wound up being referees, peacekeepers and ambulance scouts as the fight broke out again and again.
Eventually, quite a number of police arrived, though unlike half a century ago, it was the poets themselves who summoned them. Not exactly civil disobedience, but as poet Kent Bowman put it, "I think Milton would have been pleased with the outcome and the chaos." Probably.
As Acorn said: "I shout love even though it might deafen you / and never say that love's a mild thing / for it's hard, a violation / of all laws for the shrinking of people." Thanks, Milton. Message received.