Category Archives: Poetry

Is poetry in decline?

A century ago poetry was a prominent part of mainstream popular culture – widely published, read, memorised, recited, and discussed. Even forty years ago many newspapers and magazines (not just of a literary kind) were still publishing large amounts of poetry. It was also broadcast frequently on radio programs.

How many people in Australia now read poems? According to a report published this year, based on a survey by Macquarie University researchers in partnership with the Australia Council, 9.2% of respondents (evenly distributed across the country and across age groups) ‘enjoy reading poetry these days.’ However, that figure includes those who read poems to children, so the proportion of adults choosing this genre for their own personal enjoyment is likely to be much smaller.

Another recent Australia Council report, drawn from its latest National Arts Participation Survey, found that a surprisingly high 14% say they are are readers of poetry – though details about the reliability of this piece of research (e.g. sampling method and size) are not clear.

At any rate there’s undoubtedly an accelerating decline in the reading of poems. The trend in Australia is probably much the same as in the USA, where the percentage who had read poetry at least once in the previous year fell from 17% in 1992 to 6.7% in 2012. It’s now about half as popular as knitting. Those stats come from an American Census Bureau survey, summarised in an article in the Washington Post which also remarks that the volume of poetry-related Google searches was five times higher a decade ago than it is now.

What’s behind poetry’s decline? Has it simply moved into other genres – into pop music lyrics, or into the shapely rhythms and imagery of some prose work? Many novels contain passages in which the language has an unforgettable poetic quality: think of the opening sentence of Hartley’s The Go-Between or the final sentence of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (Reviewers have described my own fiction as ‘poetic,’ and I’ve applied the term to Jim Crace’s Harvest.)

Have readers have moved away from poetry because it seems ‘ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn’ – to quote an American critic who finds little to admire in the work of celebrated contemporary poets?

Or is poetry simply adapting to new publication arrangements? While the once-familiar single-author slim volume of poems is a threatened species (some longtime leading poetry publishers like Salt in the UK have abandoned it, and some booksellers won’t stock it), optimists such as Billy Mills point to the current viability of ‘a mix of online, performance and print, with each supporting the other in a new model of publishing’ – where cheaply produced collections are sold mainly online or at performance events sponsored by small groups.

An example that has just come to hand is the anthology Ear to Earth, published by Central Coast Poets and containing selected entries from this year’s Henry Kendall Poetry Award competition.

The judge was Jean Kent, a distinguished writer, who says in her foreword to the book that, in choosing winners, she looked first for poems ‘that would immediately delight and surprise’ her. ‘Sometimes,’ she continues, ‘this happened because the voice of the poet was both assured and beguiling, but if a poem was to remain strong in its impact through many readings – which is what judging entails – the poems needed to have a high level of craft as well as a genuinely individual voice. All of the poems I’ve chosen for prizes or commendations have this mysterious magic: they have important things to say, and they do so in language that is memorable.’

Nearly 400 poems were submitted, so I’m happy that mine was given a special commendation. In her remarks on it, the judge mentioned ‘its powerful image of an osprey’ and the way the poem’s ‘firm, unflinching voice…memorably captures the raw pain of grief.’ (Close readers of my novels may have noticed that an osprey appears in each of them.) Here’s the poem:

Ian Reid | So Long

1.

Things that hook their talons in memory’s gut
after deep-diving down a shaft of years
are not like a standard relic or mere leftover

such as his musty coat, his yellowing silk scarf,
those books all foxed and boxed, the dry fountain pen,
his fading letters in a hand as firm as ever.

Reminders are random now, like this one,
startling, obliquely barbed: away up there
on a high roof ridge, scanning the marble river,

an osprey crouches. Its white-hooded head
could be a cowl – an executioner’s
or even a victim’s. Raptors know how to sever

a lifeline suddenly, plummeting to snatch
the quarry hidden under a samite surface,
slice it apart and savour every sliver.

2.

As far as I know
my father doesn’t know
that he’s long dead.

Though his deadness now
is the main thing known about him,
these days only a few are left who know it.

I do. My sisters do. That’s about it.
After so long, others who used to know
have – or have been – forgotten.

His death was quick
as the stoop of an osprey
but his deadness goes on, long and slow,

travelling with me farther along the track
towards my own unknowing.
So long Dad, so long.

“Finding Your Voice” as a Writer?

In school classrooms and creative writing courses, apprentice writers are often told they should aim for a distinctive style that expresses their own unique view of the world. Be true to yourself (so the advice goes) and you’ll discover your real “voice.”

I don’t quite agree with that. I’d say you should be cautious about the notion of “finding your voice” as a writer. Yes, to be sure, mature writers have usually managed to develop a recognisable tone or style – a particular way of writing that becomes familiar to readers of their work; but on the other hand, this can take quite a while to emerge. And besides, many writers succeed in more than one genre. Some move from poetry to fiction, for example (as I’ve done). Some write for both the stage and the page, or for young readers and also for adults, and so on. Different voices, different authorial selves.

This was the theme of a workshop I conducted last weekend at the Toodyay Public Library as part of the Avon Valley Literary Festival. My session was titled “Finding Your Voice as a Writer: Poetry or Prose?” – but I began by saying that it was a somewhat misleading label, not to be taken at face value.

P1010702 (1)

A writer rests his voice while his workshoppers labour over a task.
[Photo by Amanda Curtin]

The writing exercises I asked my group to undertake were intended to suggest that there isn’t just one single unique voice a writer ought to use. Several voices are available. The idea that being “true to yourself” as a writer requires you to fix definitively and permanently on one form of expression, and one only, can be quite unhelpful. In any case, even if you’re destined to succeed in just one kind of writing, there’s no simple test for determining whether your true eventual vocation is to become a poet, a novelist, an essayist, a biographer, a playwright, a specialist in short fiction or something else.

Perhaps an experienced author and mentor could help you work out whether a particular form or genre suits your talents best – but it would take much more than a single session to do this. All that a workshop like the one I conducted in Toodyay can do is encourage participants to explore together a few things that may be worth keeping in mind while gradually developing (over a longer period) a sense of their potential literary direction or directions. A variety of simple writing exercises should help to loosen up the creative muscles and make the act of writing a bit more supple and flexible.

“Poetry or prose?” Well, that’s also a misleading question, a false antithesis. Poetry and prose are certainly not opposites, and sometimes they may overlap. The contrasting categories are actually prose and verse. This isn’t a mere academic quibble; it’s basic and important. In verse, lines don’t go as far as the margins; in prose they do. Poetry is able to inhabit either verse or prose. You can have prose that is poetic, and verse that isn’t. Consider this:

I put my hat upon my head
And walked along the street.
My hands were in my pockets.
My shoes were on my feet.

That’s verse – but far from poetic. It’s in every sense pedestrian, a silly little jingle that strings together dull statements devoid of memorable images or ideas. The lines are rhythmically regular and there’s a pattern of rhymes – but such things don’t create poetry.

In contrast, some prose can have all the vital qualities poetry – startling and nuanced imagery, unforgettable turns of phrase, haunting rhythms, a compressed blend of thought and feeling… I quoted an example from Andrew Greig’s book The Loch of the Green Corrie in an earlier blog post on poetry and prose.

Nevertheless, poetry more often inhabits verse. Why? Think about the word “verse”: it comes from the Latin for a line, a row, a ploughed furrow. It’s connected to the verb meaning to turn. So on the written page, because verse keeps turning back abruptly to start another line – to plough another furrow of words – those line breaks produce pauses, slowing a reader down. They give emphasis to rhythmic patterns of words. They highlight visual features of the phrasing – images and figures of speech. They direct our attention (often in small, subtle ways) to qualities that are inherent in the language but are more likely to be overlooked or underdeveloped in the continuous flow of prose.

“Finding Your Voice as a Writer: Poetry or Prose?” – the question is slightly malformed. It’s better to think about the potential of plural voices, about the specific features of verse forms that are especially hospitable to poetry, but also about the ways in which prose can sometimes achieve most of the qualities of a poem.

Poetry, prose and a Scottish loch

‘Why do you seldom write poems these days?’ It’s a question I sometimes get from readers who know that my last book of verse came out years ago. Well, I haven’t abandoned that genre but the focus of my writing-for-publication, which once used to be on poetry, has indeed been on prose fiction for some while now. Why this shift?

My reasons relate to two different factors. One of them is mentioned by Richard King in a recent review of a volume of poems. The pace of life now, he remarks, is increasingly at odds with the slow reading that poetry demands: ‘Assailed from all sides by trivia, we’ve lost the habit of the sustained contemplation needed to engage with this most challenging of art forms.’ So hardly anyone who writes poetry today could realistically expect more than a handful of readers. Twenty years ago it was possible to reach a larger audience.

The other factor is simply that I’ve become more and more absorbed in the capacity of narrative to give meaning to experience. For me, this brief remark sums up the matter neatly:

After a certain point, life presents itself not so much as a mosaic of lyric moments as the unfolding of one thing after another, that is to say a story.

Greig - Green Corrie

I’m quoting that sentence from Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie, which is in part a memoir of Scottish writer Norman MacCaig, ‘a recognised master of melancholy’, as Billy Connolly calls him. MacCaig, a poet through and through, disdained other literary genres. ‘Not writing prose, I hope, Mr Greig?’ he would say in stern admonition. Unlike MacCaig (but like me), Andrew Greig has produced fiction and non-fiction as well as volumes of poetry. And in this winsome book the genres pleasantly converge.

There’s a narrative thread, certainly: the author makes his way with a couple of friends to a remote hill district in north-west Scotland in search of an elusive loch, where eventually they do some quiet fishing to fulfil MacCaig’s dying request. But that quest is a very loose thread, and the book picks up several others in its ruminative meander through landscape descriptions, personal memories and candid self-disclosures, anecdotes about mountaineering, digressions into highland history and geological prehistory, and moving reflections on love and friendship and writing.

It also incorporates poetry in two ways. Poems are quoted (sometimes discussed, too) at intervals in the course of the book – most of them MacCaig’s. And in addition to that, from time to time Andrew Greig’s prose becomes so eloquent, so evocative, so memorable in its rhythms and images, that it attains a poetic quality – reminding readers that poetry, though it usually takes the form of verse because line breaks intensify the patterning of sound and meaning, can sometimes inhabit prose as well. As Coleridge remarked a couple of centuries ago, poetry is just the best words in their best order.

There are passages throughout Greig’s book that are powerfully poetic. Here’s one example, chosen almost at random. I’m not a fisherman but these sentences convey an intimate impression of what it would be like to stand at the edge of a secluded highland loch with a fishing rod in my hand:

Through many hours as the sun came and went and wind blew across water and moorland, there was no companion, no human voice. But two hinds raised sleek heads by the loch shore as I approached, jumped up and scuttled away. In the gravel their elegant prints shone even as they filled in. A flight of mallards went by in Fifties suburban hallway formation. A buzzard croaked in circles until another responded across the hill; they drifted towards each other then were gone. A little fish jumped, a silvery apostrophe marking its possession of the moment.

There was sun on neck and cold hands; wheezing of wind over land; russet-tipped grasses rose through heather and bent in the breeze. Numb fingers cut the line, tied on fresh lures. Water glittered, went dark, shifted to blue, platinum, lead, was clear and brown in the shallows. It clucked, clicked, bobbled on the small stones. Thoughts came and went, clouds opened up, slid back, re-formed. The scrawny mountain held its ground.

Greig’s writing in At the Loch of the Green Corrie is thoroughly Scottish. My own directly traceable ancestry isn’t from that country but my father, whose paternal line came from the ‘Ulster Scots’ of Northern Ireland, regarded Scotland as a kind of imaginary home. Tartan accessories were often worn in my family (there’s a goofy photo of me, aged about 4, adorned with a tiny tartan tie); sentimental highland songs were heard around the house; and my uncle played the bagpipes. I learnt much less about a genuinely Scottish view of life from those lineal affectations than from the poetic prose of At the Loch of the Green Corrie.

 

What do spring and poetry have in common?

That question isn’t the start of a joke or a riddle. It just came to mind idly a few days ago when I was wandering in Wireless Hill Park, admiring the wildflowers, and in a momentary hallucination it seemed to me that a clump of kangaroo paws embodied a flock of florid, scrawny parrots. It was as if they’d materialised from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that ancient mythological poem in which rain-soaked mushrooms can turn abruptly into humans,  humans into birds or trees, and so on.

It struck me that springtime shares something fundamental with poetry: both are processes of transmutation. Just as spawn can metamorphose into tadpoles and then into frogs,  or naiads into dragonflies, or bulbs into irises, so too a poem can draw imagery from the physical world and render it into figurative language.

200px-Kangaroo_paws_darling_rangeFROM BIRD TO PLANT

Season of sudden metamorphoses –

it’s on again! So many things

shape-shifting, switching, swift to change.

No transformed creatures more bizarre than these:

kangaroopaw

a crowd of mutant crested cockatoos,

their bodies thinned to skinny stalks,

their heads a splash of gaudy pigments,

faces all flushed, with startling green hairdos.

 

This is also a season for pairing up, a time when previously flighty individuals are more liable to become a twosome, like the couple of nest-building honeyeaters outside my window right now, or the ‘lover and his lass’ in the springtime song from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And poetry, in its own way, performs a kind of matching and mating as well: it brings objects, perceptions, feelings, images and sounds into new conjunctions. I wrote the following poem about this several years ago. I think of it as a sonnet, though it doesn’t follow a traditional rhyming pattern and the symmetrical balance of its two stanzas differs from the usual octet/sestet sequence.

SEPTEMBER WEDDING

First light cracks. Before the sun can touch

the upper surfaces, a ticking starts

in the green blood of hidden green canals

as plaited fibres wake to creak and flex.

Networking messages are on the move

toward the air front. Leaves get ready to lift

and face the great gold magnet. Let it roll!

 

The watchers feel bliss flutter, billow out –

a self-unfurling sudden as the spill

of buds from branches on a time-lapse film.

Spring’s things go bright with flagwag. Twigs perk up,

stretching akimbo. Seasonal semaphore

sends warm regards. This couple will turn over

leaves that seem new enough to live forever.

 

Alfred and the Phone-Boxes

red-phone-box-112798061589jdk

[Source of image here]

It can be gratifying to discover that some little thing one wrote long ago continues to be read. An unexpected message popped up recently on the Other Activities page of this website: a query from a Year 10 student who says she has enjoyed studying in her English class a poem called ‘Alfred and the Phone-Boxes’ and wanted confirmation that I’m the author. Indeed I am.

I guess she probably encountered it in an anthology of verse called Pattern and Voice, ed. John and Dorothy Colmer. Compiled for upper secondary students and first published by Macmillan back in 1981, that anthology includes several poems from an early (long-out-of-print) book of mine called Undercover Agent, which concluded with a group of light-hearted pieces about someone named Alfred.

Alfred burns the cakes

King Alfred burns the cakes
[Source details here]

This imaginary figure comprises a bundle of contradictory moods and delusory dreams. At times, with a nod to a certain Anglo-Saxon king, he is ‘Alfred the  Glum, blackener of cakes’;  at times he becomes fretful and dejected, needing therapeutic support from a companion named Grace; at times he harbours wistful aspirations to an heroic role, with anticlimactic outcomes.

Several strands of memory came together in the process of writing ‘Alfred and the Phone-Boxes.’ Its origin, which became the end of the poem, was that I did once see one of those old red telephone boxes rise up suddenly into the air – and it took me a few moments to grasp the fact that it was actually being lifted by a crane, I suppose to retire it from its function in an outdated system of public-access communication.

Alfred-1

Batman’s butler – tempted to impress a female friend [Source details here]

Attached to that bizarre image of a levitating phone-box was the character of Alfred himself. As a boy I’d feasted on superhero comics in which Clark Kent could turn into The Man of Steel (having found an unoccupied phone-box where he could don his resplendent costume) and Bruce Wayne could turn into Batman (after selecting a freshly laundered outfit of hood, cape and accessories from his wardrobe in the Batcave). I’d wondered what yearnings might pass through the mind of Batman’s uncharismatic butler Alfred.

And somehow entering the phantasmagoric scene were mixed memories of my own grandfather, a strangely erratic and obstructive man who was good with his hands (he built big stone walls and created a luxuriant vegetable garden) but became a bit demented and did a few seriously crazy things.

Although I take more pride in a number of my other verse compositions, the fact that poems about Alfred have been reprinted in three or four anthologies suggests they have some appeal. Anyway, here’s the one I’ve been discussing:

Alfred & the phone-boxes