Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Poetry's Decline and the Sound of Words

I have been re-reading some of Judith Wright's earlier poems. For the benefit of my international readers, Judith Wright is one of Australia's greatest poets.

I wanted to re-read Judith's work because she comes from New England and I was looking for new ways to present the New England experience. But I also love the sound of her words. "Voice from the hills and the river drunken with rain" (Trapped Dingo) just sounds good, as does "South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country" (South of My Days).

Coincidentally, at the same time I started listening to a poetry reading on ABC while driving. I switched stations. The words jarred.

When I was growing up, poetry was a natural part of life. Today, poetry seems to have been relegated to a small literary ghetto. I think that this is partly due to changes in life style, including the proliferation of audio and visual media crowding out personal time. But I also think that it's due in part to changes in poetry itself.

Reading poetry is an interaction between the reader and the poet's words. The poet's intent is a matter for the poet, perhaps a subject of literary study. To the reader, the value of the poem lies in that reader's personal response to the poem.

We may love the poem because - like the poems of Banjo Patterson - it tells a story or makes us laugh. We may love the poem because of the sound and rhythm of the words. We may love the poem because it tells us something about ourselves or our world. The reasons vary.

When I look at the reasons why I stopped reading poetry it's partly a matter of crowded life style. I also find that too many of the topics selected now do not resonate with me. Most of all, I find that I do not like the flow of words.

I am not saying that all poetry must have the old formal structures. I am saying that, for me at least, sound and rhythm are central to my side of the poetry experience.

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