In a land of sweeping plains, poetry is hardly thriving
September 5, 2011
John Tranter just won The Age Poetry Book of the Year award.
Verse has slipped off the public radar and we are the poorer for it.
Here’s a challenge: name two Australian poets. Better still, quote a few lines of their verse. No? Strike out on both counts? You won’t be in the minority. Which is a pity because today is the start of National Poetry Week.
That’s right, a whole week in which poetry will dominate the headlines, poets will be feted in their communities, thousands will buy poetry books, and queues will form outside poetry-reading venues. Not.
Sadly, it won’t happen. Poetry has been driven underground, largely ignored in this switched-on, Wi-Fi world. It’s not part of dinner-table conversation, and the latest verses from a wordsmith are not on the lips of the general public.
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Instead, poetry survives quietly in writers’ groups, the back rooms of a few pubs, and the pages of slim volumes produced by small, specialist publishers. Although the grey nomads wintering in caravan parks up north flock to hugely popular performances of traditional poetry presented by a wandering band of bush poets. But that’s the exception. Overall, despite the emergence of the verbal fireworks display known as the poetry slam, verse isn’t thriving.
John Tranter, who has just won The Age Poetry Book of the Year award, described the poetry scene thus: ”Poetry has been with us, like prostitution, since the beginning of time and it’s never been a very good choice of career.”
We might wonder about the financial implications of this comparison, but in terms of public recognition it hasn’t always been the case. C.J. Dennis, Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were well known in their day, and their poetry was often committed to memory and passed on by word of mouth. In fact, I’d bet that those of you who were able to quote some poetry drew from their work, or perhaps from the second verse of Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country:
A land of sweeping plains.
But that oral tradition is disappearing, and most who could complete the next couple of lines would probably come from those over the age of 60, dredging up memories from long-ago schooldays.
However, what if the challenge had been to name two Australian poets from the past 50 years and quote their verse? Would Tranter’s name have come to mind? Or Les Murray, Bruce Dawe, Dorothy Porter, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Judith Wright, Peter Goldsworthy, Alex Skovron . . . or any one of dozens of others? Not likely.
Why has poetry slipped so far off the public radar? One of the most popular theories is that poetry is destroying itself with pretentious, incomprehensible verbiage.
Poet and critic Ian McFarlane, writing in the February 2010 edition of The Australian Literary Review, commented that ”poetry today is unread because much of it is unreadable”. He expanded on that with this observation: ”Using metaphor and allusion to turn the screws on language to summon up a sense beyond the reach of dictionary definition has poetic validity; pushing a barrow of arcane bric-a-brac cloaked in wilfully suffocating obscurity does not.”
I know what he means. Ploughing through a few acres of verse only to end up asking ”What the hell was that all about?” is not a rewarding experience. Poets have a responsibility to communicate. Yoking together obscure references to impress a few peers is not the future of poetry. It’s reasonable to argue that reading poetry should require analytical effort, but when words are tossed onto the page in such a way that they defy comprehension then it’s small wonder that interest vanishes.
Some blame generations of teachers for being afraid of verse, while others decry the trivialisation of poetry via such things as online poetry generators. All of these suggestions have some validity, probably operating in combination, and it has to be said that we are the poorer for it.
Good poetry can be a still, small voice in a complex world, a reminder that someone has seen into the very heart of an emotion or experience and translated it into words that, even if only for an instant, make us pause and think. Surely that moment is worth preserving.
So read a poem. Buy a poetry book. Australia has a great history of poetry. Let’s try to give it a future.
David Campbell is a Melbourne writer and poet.