Be strong O paddle! Be brave canoe! The reckless waves you must plunge into!
That’s a line from a poem by Emily Pauline Johnson called The Song my Paddle Sings. At their most recent concert featuring Canadian composers, the Winnipeg Singers performed a musical version of the poem. Listening to them brought back lots of memories for me.
My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Toews, made me memorize the poem The Song My Paddle Sings and I recited it during a parents day performance. I still remember every line of the poem that tells the story of a sailor going from calm waters to churning rapids and back again.
Emily Pauline Johnson was a Mohawk poet who became famous as a touring artist. She went across North America reciting her poetry. Her father was a First Nations chief and her mother an Englishwoman so Emily grew up influenced by two different cultures. Her aboriginal name was Tekahionwake.
I used to do a unit of Emily Pauline Johnson poems with my grade eleven English classes. Although The Song My Paddle Sings is about a nature experience Emily did not shy away from writing about controversial issues as she did in her poem A Cry From An Indian Wife where she looks at who really owns Canadian land.
Emily was featured on a Canadian stamp in 1961 and was one of the Canadians under consideration for the first woman to be featured on a bank-note in 2018. She wasn’t chosen but her poetry lives on in people’s minds and hearts and also in music like the beautiful piece I heard at the Winnipeg Singers concert.