Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Poetry's Decline Revisited

Ninglun (Neil) had a rather nice response to my post on Poetry's Decline and the Sound of Words. He knows far more about poetry than I do, but his response triggered more thoughts.

I have just put up a first post on the New England Australia blog using one of Judith Wright's poems, Bora Ring, as a device to look at one aspect of Aboriginal life in New England. This is a wonderfully evocative poem, but also one written from a very European perspective. Over the next week or so I will follow up with a few more posts using the same approach.

In my post on Poetry's Decline, I said in part: reading (I could also have added listening to) 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.

To me, this dichotomy between reader/listener and poet is critical because there are two very different creative processes at work. To the poet, writing is the creative process. But once the poem is finished, the poet leaves and a second creative process comes into play as the reader/ listener takes the poem and attaches his/her meaning to it.

In pre-literate societies poetry was oral, designed to be heard, directly transferred from speaker to listeners. Language - sounds - were critical to this process. As writing emerged and poems came to be written down, poet and audience came increasingly to be separated in space and time. However, language remained critical.

I am normally a fast and silent reader, silent in that I do not sound the words in my head. Indeed, one of the key aims of most speed reading courses is to stop participants vocalising. I cannot follow my normal approach when I read poetry. If I like the poem I have to slow and sound the words in my head. If I really like the poem, I will read the words out, trying to get the rhythm right.

In his post, Neil quoted an interview with the Australian poet Robert Gray emphasising the importance of imagery. I struggled with Gray's words at several different levels. In fact, I think that an over-emphasis on imagery may even be part of the problem.

People read or listen, perhaps in Australia used to read or listen, to poetry for a whole variety of individual reasons. In all cases we use our own imagination and our emotions to create an individual response.

I have always liked W B Yeat's The Second Coming because his wonderful words say something to me about the human condition at a deeply emotional level:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

At a different level, in my post on Australia and its people - a funny upside down land, I used Dorothea McKellar's I Love a Sunburned Country, one of most famous part remembered poems in Australia, to illustrate the process by which European Australians came to create and internalise their own view of Australia. In this case, we have a poem that remains in our memory because it speaks to us of ourselves.

The most popular mass poetry today, perhaps the only remaining mass poetry in the country, are the bush ballads. Otherwise poetry has been relegated to English Departments, literary magazines, to small publishers, to poets talking to poets and a few of the poetic faithful. The phrases and jingles that we remember come to us from advertising, not poetry. Not happy, Jan!

While I was aware of the decline in the popularity of poetry, I really did not really focus on it until I started writing on this blog about change in Australia. Now here I note Neil's comment about the continued importance of poetry in other cultures.

I suspect in those cultures, I do not know because I simply do not know enough, that poetry remains important because it still speaks to people about themselves.


Lexcen said...

Jim, there may be a decline in interest in poetry, but on blogs, it's the ideal outlet for closet poets to publish themselves. There is a plethora of poetry online but who has the time and patience to read it all?

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how little poetry is actually out there these days - I mean the stuff that will endure beyond one's circle of friends, circumstances, and period of fashion. I have often likened what has happened in poetry to what has happened in classical music. Very similar dynamics at work, of being exclusive versus inclusive, working toward appreciating something versus being spoon-fed, and the general effect of mainstream and interactive media on our sensibilities. In the end, though, as in the beginning, people will still be constructing poetry long after things like computers have become passé.

Jim Belshaw said...

Robert, you are a practising poet - Robert's site is http://www.robertpeake.com/ - whereas I am a failed poet! I simply lack the skills (talent) I need beyond a very pedestrian level.

I found that your comment linked with Lexcen's. There is a lot of poetry, but far too little that resonates with the broader audience.

Your point re classical music may be well taken. I can only speak here as an educated person whose musical skills are miles lower than his poetic skills! But I find that I just turn off with Stravinsky et al.

The music may be interesting from a technical perspective, but it does not resonate with me.