Memorable speech

The following comments are not about any formal public address. Most speechmaking of that kind is totally forgettable.

No, I’m thinking of W.H. Auden’s succinct definition of poetry as “memorable speech.” I like the simplicity of this phrase because it touches on two basic truths. First, the stylistic quality of worthwhile poems lifts them above the ephemeral nature of ordinary language usage. Second, poetry is essentially vocal, having its origins in the spoken word and in song. In our culture we usually see it on the printed page or screen, but a written poem is fundamentally a score for oral performance. When it’s not read aloud, it’s at least something we should listen to inwardly.

To remark that poetry is speech is to recognise how it draws on elements already present in everyday conversation. To remark that it’s memorable is to recognise how (unlike most of our talking) it deploys those everyday elements in ways that intensify and sustain their impact. All language has rhythmic qualities, for instance; but poetry lifts them into auditory patterns that can linger in the mind.

Sometimes the auditory patterns are emphatically regular — often so in traditional high literary forms such as the Petrarchan sonnet, where metre and rhyme follow a strict scheme. But sometimes, especially in poetry of our own time, auditory patterns are less obvious; they keep closer to casual conversational phrasing. Here, for instance, is the opening of Caitlin Maling’s “The Drowned Man” from her masterly book Fish Song:

Perhaps he had a wife, three slovenly
lovely children, dreams of a down payment
on a red-brick two-by-two where the girls could share
and everyone would love the dog best.

The tone is colloquial and wry — no elevated diction, no overtly imposed structure, just the unassuming idiom you might hear in a pub or over the back fence. It evokes economically the micro-world of a family home. Yet the lines are shaped in an unobtrusively artful way. There’s that nicely timed line-break creating a crafty little pause between “slovenly” and “lovely”, adjectives whose unexpectedly apt pairing is reinforced by their assonance. And although it eschews rhyme and regular metre, this poem goes on to embody the general shape and heft of a sonnet: an octet (eight-line stanza) followed by a sestet (six-liner), marking a change of mood as the man whose snug home life we have glimpsed is then seen “splayed on Swansea beach / weed weaving through his hair.”

The coast of Western Australia and the timbre of local speech are memorably captured throughout Maling’s Fish Song. I expect that both will also be prominent at an upcoming event in Perth organised by WA Poets Inc: Love Poetry Under the Stars. I’m to be one of the featured poets, along with Miranda Aitken, Gillian Clark, Kevin Gillam, Rhian Healy, Soul Reserve and Rita Tognini. Details here.

Love Poetry Under the Stars is open to all comers; but in case you can’t attend, here’s one of the pieces I’ll be reading. (It will also appear at a later stage in my book Breaking the Surface: New and Selected Poems, to be published by Ginninderra Press.) In the voice of this poem I try to capture rhythmically the uncertain interplay of hesitation and hope that can sometimes infuse an incipiently erotic encounter between two people.

A beginning
(Okains Bay, Banks Peninsula)

Would it seem later like opening a dance, a book?

She turned with a lift of her shoulder. He shifted his feet
towards and away, until the old cave swung up
into line behind her, and then the toppling hill
and the tipsy posts of the jetty.
He sidled closer, glancing across at those eyes
past which the wind, insistent as fantasy,
kept shuffling strands of her hair. She shook her head
at what — an obliqueness of sunlight?
Was she losing her balance? Was he finding his tongue?

His foot was tapping the sand. Her smile tapped his desire.
The beach had become a floor to spin upon.
Cave, hill and jetty began to take their measure,
slow, slow, quickquick slow, her fingers keeping time
at a cool arm’s length. His gesture circled a cliché.
The sea riffled pages of pleasure.
For the moment much seemed possible, if unlikely.
Would she read him from step to step?
Would he dance her from cover to cover?

4 thoughts on “Memorable speech

  1. I enjoyed your poem poised at the moment of encounter, Ian, thank you – and wish I could hear you read it. Perhaps you and the other featured poets will be recorded?

  2. Like it Ian.
    I remember Okains Bay but not exactly as you do.
    Our family car got trapped in sinking sand as the tide came in – rescued by a friendly farmer with a tractor who pulled us out when water was lapping at the windows.
    Great times eh?

  3. And let’s not forget, Glenn, the time when you and I as teenagers hitchhiked to Okains Bay and spent a few lazy days on the sand, sleeping in a pup tent, playing beach cricket, feasting on ice-cream and bread from the local store, and somehow not being swallowed by the tide

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