Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

an archive

Poetry’s Decline?

Maybe, maybe not. Jim Belshaw and I share a love for Judith Wright’s poetry. My mother, who “competed” with Judith Wright in the 1920’s children’s pages of the Sydney Mail, did not share my enthusiasm for her work. An earlier generation of Australian poetry was more to her taste.

I did my bit for Australian poetry at one stage. I met a few poets at that time, and explored even more. I do genuinely enjoy the work of Robert Gray, determinedly against the cultural grain as he may be in some ways.

Journey: the North Coast

Next thing, I wake up in a swaying bunk,
as though on board a clipper
lying in the sea,
and it’s the train, that booms and cracks,
it tears the wind apart.
Now the man’s gone
who had the bunk below me. I swing out,
cover his bed and rattle up the sash —
there’s sunlight rotating
off the drab carpet. And the water sways
solidly in its silver basin, so cold
it joins together through my hand.
I see from where I’m bent
one of those bright crockery days
that belong to so much I remember.
The train’s shadow, like a birds,
flees on the blue and silver paddocks,
over fences that look split from stone,
and banks of fern,
a red clay bank, full of roots,
over a dark creek, with logs and leaves suspended,
and blackened tree trunks.
Down these slopes move, as a nude descends a staircase,
slender white gum trees,
and now the country bursts open on the sea –
across a calico beach, unfurling;
strewn with flakes of light
that make the whole compartment whirl.
Shuttering shadows. I rise into the mirror
rested. I’ll leave my hair
ruffled a bit that way – fold the pyjamas,
stow the book and wash bag. Everything done,
press down the latches into the case,
that for twelve months I’ve watched standing out
of a morning, above the wardrobe
in a furnished room.

That’s one of his earlier poems. The more you look at that — it’s about travelling on a train from Sydney to Coff’s Harbour/Port Macquarie — the more accurate one finds the aural and visual images. See In Dialogue with Robert Gray:

LM: At that time, and as you moved through your career, what sense of the Australian poetry scene did you have? Did you find yourself in a particular corner of it or–what is your sense of the Australian poetry scene?

RG: I think it’s a Darwinian swamp, in which they eat each other, and I think this is because of something that has saved me – not knowing, not being qualified, not having taken school seriously, not having any qualifications, I was saved by the, um, [Australian] Literature Board, you know, I started to win prizes and grants. And, um, I thought I’d probably go through life getting grants, which was another miscalculation on my part. But…when there are dirty large grants, …fifty thousand dollar grants going, it makes people very competitive, and therefore sours the whole scene…. There’s all sorts of ways of denigrating other poets and promoting your own work for the sake of advancement, you know, career and money and publication. So…that’s why I say it’s like a Darwinian swamp.

LM: It doesn’t sound like a very comfortable place to be.

RG: No, I keep quite away from it if I can.

LM: Do you? So that sense of being a lonely craftsman–

RG: Oh, it must be a lonely craft. It’s not social–many people treat it as a social scene and an avant-garde chic sort of scene, you know–not for me. I’m just interested in the writing…

RG: I have no sympathy with the French theorists at all. I think it’s absolutely faddish nonsense what they talk about.

LM: Why do you think that?

RG: I think language isn’t the fundamental, isn’t the way we fundamentally think or approach the world. The fundamental language of human beings is imagery. We think in images. The language we dream in is images. It’s not words; it’s images. That’s where the emotions lie, in images. They’re embodied and preserved as memories and imagery. And my treatment of an image is transparent. …I don’t write with words, I write with images. And, by images, I also mean sounds, because the sound is an image, you know. When I say, in a poem there’s an image–which is the horse’s lumpy hooves clump on the planks–and you’re seeing the horse’s lumpy hooves clump on the planks, you hear it, and hearing makes you see. Makes you see it all the more intensely. You actually see through the ear. And in poetry, poetry is that sort of writing that makes you see through the ear as well as through the image, you know. And you see through the texture of the language. The texture of the crisp lines about the secret ministry of frost in Coleridge–which sounds like walking on the creeping frost, crisp frost, you know. Everything goes to enliven the senses in poetry. And so…when I’m writing, it’s not the language that’s important, it’s the imagery…

Perhaps I’ll come back to Australian poetry later. There is a lot of interesting work out there, but it is true to say it is no longer a mainstream thing in our culture. And yet the impulse is certainly there, and it is amazing how many people actually write poetry, especially young people. Then too much of the poetic impulse finds its way into film and all kinds of music…

Worth exploring, though Robert Gray may not gush with enthusiasm over it, is Jacket Magazine (John Tranter), one of the most generous free sites around.

Many of our non-Anglo cultures put a very high value on poetry too: the Chinese and the Vietnamese come to mind, not to mention some of those people of Middle Eastern appearance that worry us so much at times. I think especially of some Iranians, Turks and Iraqis I have spoken with on the subject.

31 January 2006

Jim Belshaw has responded with Poetry’s Decline Revisited. I ATTEMPTED to comment thus on TWO browsers:

Lexcen is right about the amount of poetry online, an interesting phenomenon in itself which suggests perhaps that the impulse to find expression through this art is far from dead. Way back when I was editing a poetry magazine we were overwhelmed by manuscripts! We found that there were far more people writing and wanting to be published than there were buying! Probably still true.

Jim, Robert Gray is a very conservative poet. A paradox of his work is that despite his commitment to precise imagery he is a total stickler for language in practice, as those images also require absolute precision in vocabulary, sentence structure, lining, rhythm, and so on. Successive editions of his work show he is constantly tweaking his poems, usually for the better. His poem “Diptych” is well worth seeking out as it says so much about parents and children and Australian values … among other things.

# Attempt 6! (Hopeless! This does not happen on WordPress!)

I am sure Jim will read it here anyway. Lexcen had said:

Jim, there may be a decline in interest in poetry, but on blogs, it’s the ideal outlet for closet poets to publish themselves. There is a plethora of poetry online but who has the time and patience to read it all?

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