KERRY CUE ON POPULAR POETRY
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.