THE FO­RUM

JOHN KIN­SELLA ON THRIV­ING PO­ETRY

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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?’’

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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