Contribution to A Matter of Poetry: Why and How Does Poetry Matter?
edited by Kate Fagan, Meanjin, Volume 60, No 2, 2001
Poetry is the only art form that is constantly asked to assess its relevance. Perhaps this continual re-assessment functions, partly, to keep poetry in view. Poetry is an elite art form, not in the sense of being elevated or superior but in that it is practised and read by so few. Serious reading is always limited to a small elite; meaning, literally, a group of people reading outside the predictability and restrictions of mainstream or current market offerings.
Poetry is a specialised genre. It’s not essential and always deep, it’s arbitrary and contingent. Poetry can’t answer questions any better than anything else – it’s as significant or not as any other medium but probably more like philosophy in its function and more like advertising, music videos, jazz and musical composition in its form .
Poetry is exceptionally well-suited to the electronic information age – it’s condensed and intense and can be read alongside or in-between other activities. The videation of everyday culture has occurred via internet, remote-control media, video playstations, dvd and other forms of digitisation. This videation interrupts and rearranges homogeneous, cohesive self-sufficiencies and alters expectations of reading pleasures and communication in general. Concentration spans, memory function and perception have probably changed as a result of these faster, virtual modes of receptivity and methods of archiving. The medium of poetry, although text-based, runs parallel to these forms.
Is poetry writing a viable paid occupation ? The short answer is “no”. It can be appropriate to describe it as a ‘vocation’. In my own case it’s probably more of a nagging compulsion to write, a kind of language-irritant, and an interest in writing processes that keeps me making poems. Poets living in Australia need a day job. As everyone knows, there are really only a few poets here who are able to live from their reputations and activities associated with their poetry, not necessarily from sales of their books alone.
Economic factors create the repetitious mass of writing that floods the publishing market. Most of it is as unnecessary as poetry but most of it is produced by writers who seem to be or perhaps even prefer to be unaware of movements in poetics and linguistics. A resistance to innovation, theoretical practice and imaginative language-play demonstrates a lack of regard for the development of literary culture. This kind of literary production is supported by the desire of most people for a comfortable life. An unsurprising desire that leads to a tendency to believe or, at least, not to challenge the utterances and pronouncements of well-known speakers on raised platforms.
An example of this could be the response to David Malouf’s call, earlier this year for a return to rote-learning of poems in schools to “instil a sense of the lyric” in young people as a means to elevating poetry’s status in Australian culture.* This, as far as I could deduce, was received by David Malouf’s audience as a good idea. Does poetry want this kind of nostalgic solution ? How useful is rote-learned poetry to countering the addiction to harmony and a lazy-minded fear of contradiction that lowers expectations of what writing might provide? Not much use at all – in fact, rote-learning could reinforce any resistance to thinking or thinking through complex or contentious discourse and concepts. There’s no point in taking a stance against learning poetry by heart but to see it as a mode of salvation for contemporary poetry is absurd. Sometimes poetry has to defend itself from its defenders. The kind of poetry I’m interested in couldn’t be memorised and chanted by rote as it’s never actually so rhythmically and formally resolved. To be fair, David Malouf acknowledged this by reckoning that pop music has “sidelined” formal poetry and so a freer, more experimental or situational poetry prevails.
Alongside the effect of the production of marketable writing for a comfy audience, the academy, rather than pop music, has done quite a bit to push poetry off to the side. Without wanting to denigrate the efforts of those scholars and teachers who are engaged in poetic studies and taking the budgetary pressures on the arts in universities into account, currently, cultural studies is the subject in humanities and the study of poetry has suffered from this development.
Perhaps poetry’s status can be recovered. Poetry should resist becoming High Art just because of its small audience and singularity as an art form and, instead, should aspire towards finding or making a fresh niche in popular culture using existing media – both electronic and printed. Possibly, a place similar to that occupied by sound, video and installation art in galleries.
An inspirational example of a recovery can be taken from a recent period of social transition. Although this period has passed it is worth remembering that Australian women poets were located on the periphery of the writing scene until the re-emergence of feminism in the late 1960’s caused them to take action and shift that location. The resulting explosive feminist events of the 1970’s altered the Australian writing and publishing scene irrevocably and positively.
Women writers worked to overcome difficulties encountered in achieving book publication, anthology and public reading representation, reviewing, criticising, editing and teaching in the late 1970’s. These achievements, maintained through to the early 1990’s, are no longer secure because of a decline in literary publishing in general. In the face of this, poets need, somehow, to be savvy about audience and to think about ways of continuing to write, publish and perform readings without descending to a lowest common denominator (justified by citing ‘accessibility’ or something similarly folksy).In short, to celebrate and maintain the liberation that accompanies producing writing at a tangent to mainstream demands. At the moment in Australia, considering the small size of an audience for literary arts, the existing magazines are an essential venue and independent press activity is the mainstay of contemporary poetry.
am wary of my own tendency to ascribe social and political significance to poetic practice. Complementing a desire for political effect is the knowledge that if you want to change things in the world you probably can’t expect to do it by writing poetry. But there exists a use for poetry that others are far better at and have more reason to engage in than myself. Topical poets who are able to record or comment on such things as appalling wars that Australians receive as news items, environmental degradation, corporatisation and its venality and so on. And, most importantly, the genre of indigenous writing and its need to tell, to propagandise, to record historical misdemeanours in order to achieve positive discrimination – writing in which social and historical exigencies necessarily outweigh any rarefied attention to poetic technique.