Most people today never read a poem. Though I do read plenty of contemporary poetry myself, I’m seldom persuaded to linger over it. What I look for but don’t often find is something worth more than passing attention. I want to be stopped in my tracks by a phrase or a line or (if I’m really lucky) by a whole poem that deserves to be read again, remembered and revisited. Too many of them lack this arresting quality.
But why bother to read poetry at all, let alone write it (as I also do)? Here’s my answer: it’s worth doing because poetry, at its best, deploys words with a startling impact that peels away from our perceptions what Coleridge called a “film of familiarity”. This eye-opening quality lets us see some aspect of experience more clearly. I’ll mention examples below.
Everyday language is too tired to make much of an impression on us. We’re surrounded by worn-out words, facile clichés, jaded expressions. While it’s not surprising that daily conversation hardly ever includes anything strikingly fresh and memorable, the written word should be chosen with more care — but most of what journalists write is instantly forgettable, and any statements emanating from politicians or business leaders (not to mention ‘celebrity influencers’) are almost always stuffed with stale platitudes.
Instead of inflicting on us the weary comparisons and dreary metaphors that riddle ordinary communication, a successful poem can jolt us alert with ingeniously crafted turns of phrase. Being (normally) segmented into lines, it has the potential to disrupt our usual habit of hasty reading, so we’re encouraged to pause and reflect. Poetry can devise inventive images and haunting rhythms that cause us to sit up and take notice.
Plucking phrases out of their context won’t give a full picture but may indicate the kind of thing I have in mind.
Here, then, are a few quotations from an excellent little book just published under the imprint of Recent Work Press. It’s by prize-winning Sydney-based poet Denise O’Hagan and its title is Anamnesis. As a footnote tells us, this ancient Greek word signifies “a calling to mind of past events, or recollection.”
In one of her most memorable pieces in this book, O’Hagan sustains a single perfectly controlled sentence through half a dozen three-line stanzas, each of which begins “If I could …” — like this, for instance:
If I could impart to you a tiny fraction
Of the shimmering strength of a single strand of spiderweb
Bobbled with dew, swaying in the early morning light
There’s descriptive precision in those lines, transmitting beautifully to a reader’s imagination what the speaker wishes she “could impart” — yet the poem’s point goes well beyond its portrayal of delicate details in the external world, and beyond a general sentiment of wanting to find words that would do justice to certain objects or scenes. What it gradually reveals is that every stanza’s heartfelt “If I could” is addressed to a particular individual who faces specific physical challenges, tenderly evoked, which the speaker would dearly love to alleviate — if she could.
Although any poem that deserves a reader’s close attention will normally contain vivid imagery, those visual or figurative elements are only part of what makes it memorable. It will also contain a patterning of sounds. This may include traditional auditory features such as rhyme and metre but in contemporary writing it’s likely to be a less obviously melodious kind of musicality, less insistently regular and more subtle. Here is how another poem by O’Hagan begins — it’s not dramatic in itself, just quietly conversational (like the voice in many of her poems), but has a steady rhythm that lays a foundation for what turns into a reminiscence about glimpses of love among the ruins of a former Roman city:
I tread the wide slabbed stone street, lined
With pines …
Through its sequence of monosyllabic words, this simple opening conveys a sense of measured footsteps pacing over the solid paving of an ancient yet durable pathway. So it’s genuinely pedestrian — not in the plodding sense, but in taking us with the speaker on an unhurried walk that will lead us back in time.
As a reader, I don’t like to be shouted at. The poetry of whispers is generally more to my taste, and that’s what I find in Denise O’Hagan’s writing. It often has the quality of murmurous meditations on seemingly small incidents, gently drawing out their significance. From the same book, I’ll give one further example: a fine understated poem called “Love was almond-shaped.” It recalls a cherished moment when a mother once showed a child how to split open almond shells —
… Holding both my hands in one of hers,
Steadying my palm, spanning my fingers
Across the stern metal jowls of the nutcracker …
The poem shapes other images succinctly around that central one of the small hands supported by a larger maternal clasp to help the child with mastering a skill and obtaining nourishment. Something so slight that it might ordinarily pass without notice has been lifted up, brought into the light and infused with warmth by the poet’s skilful choice of language.
I quoted earlier the phrase “film of familiarity.” It was coined two centuries ago by Samuel T. Coleridge, who remarked that the poetry of his friend Wordsworth achieved its singular power …
… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which (in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude) we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
In the poetry I value most, the shaping of words can reveal those little unspectacular “wonders” that heedless hearts would otherwise ignore.