Monday, March 28, 2016

Monday Forum - has poetry lost its centrality?

In the high  cool country,
Having come down from the clouds,
Down a tilting road
Into a distant valley,
You drive without haste. Your windscreen parts the forest,
Swaying and glancing, and jammed midday brilliance
Crouches in clearings...
Then you come across them,
The sawmill towns, bare hamlets built of boards
With perhaps a store,
And perhaps a bridge beyond, 
And a little sidelong creek alive with pebbles 
Les Murray "Driving Through Sawmill Towns"
My mind was a complete blank this morning thinking of Monday Forum topics. I suppose that we could have another as you will, we do that anyway, but I also like to put up something as a departure point.

This is not necessarily the best of Australian poet Les Murray's poems, although it comes first in a book entitled The best 100 poems of Les Murray  (Black Inc 2014). However, it certainly appeals to me because it is a New England poem. I come from that high cool country, the country immortalised by another New England poet, Judith Wright, in South of My Days.. I knew those sawmill towns, although most have now gone.

In Cultural Amnesia, Clive James argues that a knowledge of poetry is central to good writing. He goes further, asserting that the absorption of poetry, its remembrance, provides part of the glue that gives Western intellectual life its continuity over time and between countries. To both James and Murray, they were at Sydney University at the same time, part of poetry's strength lies in the form and sound of words. Poetry is meant to be sounded, both concepts and lines become stuck in memory.

Poetry has been in sad decline. To go into a bookshop as I did Saturday and find a section devoted to poetry is quite unusual. I think that both James and Murray would argue in part that that decline is connected with the way in which poets have lost sight of the importance of sound in their pursuit of new forms. For my part, I would be inclined to argue that all forms of writing are losing their centrality in a world in which the visual has replaced the oral.

I wondered what you thought. Do you still read poetry? Are there particular poets that you really like, particular lines that stand out in your mind?

As always, go in whatever direction you want. I know that you will!    


2 tanners said...

I don't read poetry anymore, unless you include re-reading the occasional Shakespearian play, and I gave up on modern poetry first. I often disagree with Clive James, but he absolutely nailed it - if poetry has no relation to sound, if it cannot be meaningfully read aloud, then it loses the power of sound. And that is that, in my book. If you have to put in hours of work to figure out what a word artist is saying in words, the answer may be "I'm not a very good poet".

The Les Murray poem is not profound, no abstruse Latin or Greek references, no pointless deletions of punctuation, just a clear solid picture of a memory of his. Which, although I haven't shared all of the experience, very clearly communicates itself to me and even a fragment of why he wrote it.

Jim Belshaw said...

I do not pretend to any expertise, 2t, but its seems to me that in the desire to try new forms or even reject forms, some poetry became unreadable because it could not be properly sounded. However, there is another question. The apparent decline of poetry in at least Western countries has affected all poetry. Your "I don't read poetry anymore" captures it, although you allow Shakespeare.

Why has this happened?

Anonymous said...

Presumes poetry had a 'centrality' at some point. Stated but not proved.

And said to be in decline. Again stated, not proved.

It is not to my taste, but I'd suggest the current prominence of rap puts the lie to any sort of decline - particularly as tanners says it needs to be 'spoken'.

But as to dis/proof of 'centrality' - can't help you there. Not something I had considered as 'central' in any profound way - so, minus one kpi.


Anonymous said...

Or do you mean the "I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he; I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three; Half a league half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred; Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee" sort of profundity?

If so, maybe I agree :)


ps who rhymes 'onward' with 'hundred' - and I always got lost deciding if it should be 'who' not 'whom'

Anonymous said...

Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
“Rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white
Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers
Foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

The bolded bits are words I've pondered for many hours.

* Dylan - Bob, not Thomas.


2 tanners said...


I do not make a claim about centrality (I know Jim did), just a man at the pub opinion, representativeness yet to be determined. I agree with your point about rap, which can be extended to a lot of music which has spoken words in what we used to call the guitar break but is now 'the breakdown'.

Now that you raise the point, I actually wonder if poetry is more prevalent now that broadcasting means you have musicians on demand, in your workplace, while riding your (iron) horse and in your home no matter how poor you are. The same is true up here, where music and TV can sometimes take first place over food.

A lot of the written stuff today, including rap, is just rubbish, but probably 'twas ever thus.

Anonymous said...

tanners, my ability to absorb words is at least equal to your own; I was agreeing with your 'needs to be spoken' thought. And I did not attribute the thought of centrality to your good self - even tho it appears at times you spend far too much time talking to men at the pub, when not ratting through sewage looking for your next fish de jour :)

Not to provoke yet another 'it depends upon your definition' non-comment from JB esq. but I also agree that if lyrics are included, the prevalence/centrality of poetry is in fact much increased since Shakespeare's first rap efforts.

Speaking of regurgitation, how were the profiteroles - or some such dishy French dish you mentioned a while back?


2 tanners said...


Facebook page: Let's ride from Sydney to Paris

Recipe's not going up, but the Vegan one successfully made chocolate mousse substituting chick pea water for egg whites. We all thought it was going to be disgusting, but it turned out really well. I don't think she'd go for custard filled profiteroles, however.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant - or, rather, c'est magnifique!


Jim Belshaw said...

Now, now, now, kvd - you had already provoked a response. It just hadn't arrived yet. If you look carefully, you will see that I attributed the centrality comment to the poets. I made an even broader suggestion - "For my part, I would be inclined to argue that all forms of writing are losing their centrality in a world in which the visual has replaced the oral."

I don't think that there is any doubt that poetry has been in sad decline whichever way you care to measure it and including new forms such as rap. The collapse in the sale of poetry books is just one measure. I don't think that I would go as far as Les Murray (The Instrument)

" Lovers of poetry may total a million people
on the whole planet. Fewer than the players of skat"

but the numbers have collapsed.

If you go back to the first days of European settlement, the desire to write poetry was wide spread, the familiarity with poetry even greater. Some of the poetry was awful, but the desire was there and all newspapers including local ones published poems. Years later in my childhood, both my brother and I could recite poems, mainly Australian. The family shelves had lots of poetry books. We were a bookish household, an extreme if you like, but not totally a-typical.

For my own part, I am a fast reader and didn't have a lot of patience for poetry's slower pace. I also wasn't especially fond of the "classic" English poets; some of their stuff seemed quite irrelevant. Worse, I found some of the poetic forms tedious, perhaps because I couldn't write worthwhile stuff using them and, in any case, didn't properly understand them. What I did learn to understand, however, was the rhythm of words. I also absorbed some of the literary tradition that formed a common bond.

These things are largely gone now. One can debate start and end points, the relative scale of decline, but the pattern is hard to argue against.

Thanks for the link 2t. Nice to see a photo of you both.

2 tanners said...

My younger son likes writing rap lyrics (no tune), so that may be poetry.

My elder brother came home from primary school one day (in the 1960's) with a survey which asked about books in the house. The options were:

a) 1 to 5
b) 6 to 10
c) 11 to 20
d) 21 to 30
e) 31 to 50
f) more than 50

My brother was stunned that anyone could select an option from a to e.

Bookish? Poetry? It all depends where you stand.

Jim Belshaw said...

Rap can definitely be poetry. I'm with your brother. Over 4000. Definitely bookish!

John Stitch said...

Bukowski said it best in his short prose "This Poet". (He doesn't like using caps)

this poet he'd been drinking 2 or 3 days and he walked out on the stage and looked at the audience and he just knew he was going to do it. there was a grand piano on stage and he walked over and lifted the lid and vomited inside the piano, then he closed the lid and gave his reading. they had to remove the strings from the piano and wash out the insides and restring it. I can understand why they never invited him back. but to pass the word to other universities that he was a poet who liked to vomit into grand pianos was unfair. they never considered the quality of his reading . I know this poet: he's just like the rest of us: he'll vomit anywhere for money.

From the book of poems, Love is a Dog From Hell

Sort of reminds me of rap.

Jim Belshaw said...

That poem does have a rap feel, John. I laughed, but that's a seriously disturbed chap!