JOHN KINSELLA ON THRIVING POETRY
RUMOURS of the death of poetry have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, poetry is alive and well and thriving all around us if we care to look and listen.
If one accepts song lyrics are poetry — and I do — then most of us listen to poetry every day. To some people, however, the moment we place words to music they apparently become something other than poetry. This can be in many contexts, ranging from religious and spiritual chants through to opera and pop music. Yet it seems an absurd distinction, especially allowing that poetry written without the intention of being sung, or without the intention of musical accompaniment, might be set to music.
The French lyrical poet Paul Verlaine wrote with a song-like resonance; some of his poems were set to music by Debussy. And we should be aware of the origins in song of medieval European poetry forms such as the ballad, virelai, and lai. Traditional folk ballads were transcribed from oral sources. And poems that invoke song traditions, such as Yeats’s The Song of Wandering Aengus , suggest an inherent music ( Yeats’s poetry is always considered ‘‘ musical’’). The music of the words invokes a literal musicality.
Across the world we see similar poetic trajectories in terms of poetry and music. Often this is to do with the sacred. Cambodian pathya vat meter, for example, is at the core of a poetry based in recitation akin to singing.
Whether it’s the Occitan troubadour accompanying himself, going from feudal court to feudal court singing songs of courtly love, or the contemporary pop band using refrain, repetition and rhyme to knock out the three-minute pop song, music and words have always been the substance of poetry. We might even argue that the three-minute pop song is a poetic form specific in itself.
One Australian poet-songwriter who wrote and composed across boundaries was Dave McComb of the Triffids, a superb lyricist as well as a fascinating on-the-page poet. His sense of musicality informed every line he wrote for the page, and his sense of the poem itself gave a metaphoric depth to his lyrics.
Murri poet Lionel Fogarty, one of Australia’s greatest on-the-page poets and most impelling performers, delivers his poems as living texts, acts of resistance and affirmation of his indigenous culture. His brilliance, like that of many other indigenous Australian poets and songwriters, creates an undeniable connection with tradition in the context of renewal, affirmation, and also protest.
The distinction between performance poetry and poetry of the page is so often false, and can blind poetry-lovers to the breadth of poetic work going on out there. The spoken-word approach opens the doors of the theatre; one might have lines of poetry that are spoken but accompanied
MY life-long love affair with perfume began at the age of 14 when I babysat for a couple who were attending a ball. The woman of the house opened the door dressed in a black shot taffeta ballgown, creamy pearls at her throat, and enveloped in a cloud of an exquisite fragrance that I later discovered was Bond Street by Yardley.
She was the epitome of what I aspired to become. When I began work as a typist for the commonwealth government, I started saving for what was to be a journey through perfume for the next 50 years ( and still going strong).
Most of my friends smoked, so I decided to put the equivalent of the money they spent on cigarettes into a jar. Whenever I had saved £ 3, I would head off to the perfumery section of Charles Birks Adelaide department store ( bought by David Jones in 1954). Of course my very first purchase was Bond Street. And then I discovered Chanel No 5.
By 18, I had moved on to Christian Dior’s Miss Dior, and for my first ball I wore L’Interdit by Givenchy, a very chic perfume supposedly created for Audrey Hepburn. By the time I was in my 20s and had advanced to become a personal assistant, it was soft, floral scent by music or even performance. This also segues into the genre of slam poetry, a frequently activist form that has revivified poets and poetry performance around the world.
What about advertising jingles ( read and heard)? What about found poems, pieces of text in, say, newspapers, that we can read as poems if we choose to accept them as poems, even where the author’s intention was not in the least poetic? Poetry is a wide field. A field of the page. A field of hearing and experiencing. What about visual artists who include poetic text in their works, such as Australian surrealist painter James Gleeson, also a poet, who wove text and image together in drawings such as 1939’ s The Often Awake Monument ? You can hear the visual.
When publishers ( and their poets) speak of a decline in poetry, they largely mean in the number of books bought. Poetry has never been a sure publishing bet, and for every Lord Tennyson flogging his thousands of copies, there is the self-published or indeed mainstream published poet who sells no more than a handful.
The world wide web has changed the playing field considerably. Even heavily copyrightprotected authors are easy to get hold of cost-free on the web. Policing reproductions on blogs and Madame Rochas. At 25 I switched to Rochas’ fruitier Femme fragrance and Jean d’Albret’s floral Ecusson.
Along the way, most of the make-up houses were bringing out their own perfumes, among them Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass, Helena Rubinstein’s White Magnolia, Youth Dew by Estee Lauder and Charlie, the Revlon blockbuster. And who could forget Tweed, sold to young working women in their millions.
By the time I was 30 and getting married, my perfume of choice was Lanvin’s Arpege. At 40 I discovered Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium, a very rich and sexy fragrance, and by 50 I’d settled on Nina by Nina Ricci. Between 50 and 60 I flirted with Jean Patou’s Sublime, Van Cleef & Arpels’ private webpages has got beyond even the most persistent copyright police. People have been able to publish their own work at will, and to seek to develop audiences for their work by sharing links and letting others know about it.
Some lament this availability, but I celebrate it. Poetry is about exchange, not exclusion. And the idea of poetry as permanent and iconic is uninteresting to me. Putting together an anthology of other people’s work ( for example), is a process of redressing rather than affirming. Every new anthology should redo some aspect, however large or small, of how poems have been collected together before.
It would be great to include song lyrics in a ‘‘ conventional’’ anthology of poetry, but, ironically, it’s copyright that thwarts the idea. Song lyrics are mindlessly and greedily protected by music companies.
To cite even one line of a song lyric from a contemporary rock band whose sales matter enough to the companies that own them ( and I mean own them) can run into many hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Most of the musicians and songwriters I know are appalled by this. Many of them also consider themselves poets.
Maybe industry, necessity, and being enslaved to record companies dictate these differences in some ways at least. Some well-known musiciansongwriters such as Ani di Franco have retained control over their material and broken down these commercial barriers.
At least part of the perception of poetry’s minor status in popular culture is to do with artificially imposed divisions. The kids who want to write emo-like song lyrics — or any other kind, for that matter — think of themselves, I am sure, as poets just as much as musicians or songwriters. And I agree. These divisions are often made by poets who want to retain a specialised space for themselves.
But really it’s what we perceive as the point of poetry that’s in question. If poetry is merely entertainment and pleasure for the receiver, while inevitably so much more for the creator ( one’s heart and soul, one’s lifeblood), then it will always be undervalued.
I believe poetry can alter our perceptions by offering a sidelong or alternative look at the familiar. Even when threatened by commercialism, the poetic impulse ( and language itself) compels our attention, compels us to reconsider our views of the world and each other. John Kinsella is the author of more than 40 books of poetry, most recently Divine Comedy: Journeys Through a Regional Geography ( UQP). He is also editor of The Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry. First and Paloma Picasso ( by Paloma Picasso).
Now I’m in my 60s and wear Versace’s Medusa in the daytime ( a soft floral) and Estee Lauder’s Sensuous for evening ( a spicy floral oriental).
I cannot imagine a life without perfume. On innumerable occasions a whiff of fragrance in a store or in the street transports me back to the time I was wearing it and to memories of those occasions and the people I was with.
I’ve always loved smells: warm bread, cinnamon and baked apples, nutmeg on baked rice, roast lamb in the oven, rain hitting asphalt on a hot day, the perfume you discover burrowing your face in a baby’s warm neck; all lovely things that catch your breath.
Life is good and I am sure that by the time I reach 70 there will be more scents to add to my collection of memories and the sheer, neverfading pleasure I get out of someone stopping me to say: ‘‘ Ooh, you smell lovely. What are you wearing?’’
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