THE FO­RUM

KERRY CUE ON POP­U­LAR PO­ETRY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

POETS of Aus­tralia, you are let­ting us, the pub­lic, down. You can, of course, write what­ever you bloody well choose to in your po­ems, with or without full stops, cap­i­tal let­ters or verbs. You can take your in­spi­ra­tion from Keats, kestrels and cathe­drals or ex­pose your post­mod­ernist angst with some po­etic self­flag­el­la­tion. No prob­lem. I’m not here to tell you what to write. I am here to tell you what we, the pub­lic, need with re­gards to po­etry. You must have no­ticed. We ac­tu­ally do need po­etry in our lives.

We read po­etry at the great cer­e­mo­nial mo­ments in life such as wed­dings or funer­als. The sad truth, how­ever, is that most of the poets we choose to read out loud at so­cial gath­er­ings are dead. Khalil Gi­bran kicked the bucket, metaphor­i­cally speak­ing, more than 75 years ago; while the Sufi poet Rumi has been dead for cen­turies. More­over, when cou­ples choose po­etry for their wed­dings they of­ten turn their backs on con­tem­po­rary poets and call on the likes of an Apache poem writ­ten, pos­si­bly, by a name­less Hol­ly­wood scriptwriter for a B-grade west­ern. What’s go­ing on?

Some of you would in­sist that po­etry is not a ser­vice in­dus­try. Too true. Yet de­spite the sweat and labour you put into your word­smithing, few want to read what you write. You are pro­duc­ing a one-legged ta­ble. There are those who would ap­pre­ci­ate the mag­nif­i­cence of your crafts­man­ship but few know what to do with it. As a con­se­quence pub­lish­ers have lost in­ter­est in print­ing po­etry — you try and sell a one-legged ta­ble — and those few news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines that pub­lish po­etry stow it in small spa­ces in tight cor­ners.

More­over, many poets who write for mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers seem to have no idea that a poem is pub­lished in such a jour­nal for the pur­pose of be­ing read by the pub­lic. Some po­ems seem to have been slung to­gether from the clues of a cryptic crossword. Oth­ers read like a sheet of news­pa­per wrap­ping it­self around your face in a strong wind. The poem ar­rives sud­denly, you strug­gle with it and be­fore you can get hold of it, it has gone. Then there are the poets, who seem to be speak­ing to some­one stand­ing be­hind you, their wor­thy thoughts fly­ing over your shoul­der to some be­spec­ta­cled aca­demic who stands there nod­ding know­ingly and tak­ing notes.

Who has the time to read a poem that has to be se­dated and strapped to a ta­ble so the mean­ing can ex­tracted like a tooth by a cold­hearted pro­fes­sor? ( Just a lit­tle trib­ute to Billy Collins.) We, the pub­lic, want im­me­di­ate ac­cess to a poem that speaks di­rectly to us.

We know this is pos­si­ble be­cause W. H. Au­den’s poem, Fu­neral Blues (‘‘ Stop all the clocks, cut off the tele­phone’’) read out at the fu­neral in the film Four Wed­dings and a Fu­neral kick-started a po­etry re­vival in Bri­tain. This is not sur­pris­ing. The poem is a raw out­cry of grief and grief is a very com­mon emo­tion. More sig­nif­i­cantly, neu­ro­science can now tell us why this poem stands like a po­etic mono­lith ris­ing above the post­mod­ern lit­er­ary fog.

Dur­ing our long walk through time, evo­lu­tion left its im­print in our brain. At the bot­tom of your skull is the rep­tile brain tick­ing over ba­sic func­tions. On top of it sits the mam­mal brain. This sur­vival brain gen­er­ates all emo­tional re­sponses.

Wrapped over th­ese chunks of evo­lu­tion is the hu­man brain, left and right. But the emo­tional brain is not con­scious. You can­not tell your­self to cheer up or stop wor­ry­ing be­cause your chatty hu­man brain is talk­ing to an an­i­mal, but you know this al­ready. You know you can­not pluck hap­pi­ness out of the air nor will away your wor­ries.

We are, how­ever, vis­ual crea­tures. You can ac­cess your emo­tional brain through pic­tures, through pic­to­rial lan­guage and Au­den was a mas­ter of this craft, pro­duc­ing ex­quis­ite and use­ful goods. Your right brain thinks in pic­tures and there­fore un­der­stands parables, myths,

Mov­ing On: You can­not harm me You are a fad­ing shadow In a thin film of mem­ory And I am strong. You can­not pull me into the past And hold me there The skin you touched I have shed Now it is dust And I am whole You can­not cut me with your lies Th­ese words echo in an empty room of past mem­o­ries I live else­where You are a scrap of pa­per Blown into my con­scious­ness by the winds of thought I pick it up and look at you I scrunch it up and throw you away And move on. Au­thor and jour­nal­ist Kerry Cue’s lat­est book is For­got­ten Wis­dom: A Search for the Lost Art of Hap­pi­ness.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiedemann

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