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Have readers have moved away from poetry because it seems ‘ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn’ – to quote an American critic who finds little to admire in the work of celebrated contemporary poets?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