Something Else 8 September – Australian Poetry Week

It’s Australian Poetry Week! So Justine has some thoughts on poetry, some poems she has found (by other people, in second-hand shops) and some events to highlight.

I will post up some of the things I talked about today in the next couple of days. In the meantime, if you have things you want to say, feel free to leave a comment.

Apologies on the delay with the podcast last week. Last week and this week’s podcast will be up on Saturday.

Update: The interview with Astrid Lorange is now podcasted, however we experienced some technical difficulties with last week’s program and are working on retrieving the file now.

You can subscribe to our podcast by copying and pasting this feed into iTunes: http://www.cpod.org.au/feed.php?id=308

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Edited transcript of show from 8 September 2011

You are listening to Eastside 89.7fm, this is Something Else, your weekly guide to alternative arts. I am Justine Poon.

As a lawyer in training, I have to admit I am naturally drawn to conflict within Australian poetry because firstly, it is interesting to read highly articulate sledging matches and secondly it gives everyone an opportunity to sharpen their own positions on the matter through argument. This being Australian poetry week, naysayers have predictably come out of the woodworks to decry the state of Australian poetry, pointing generally to its lack of verse and interest to anyone outside a rarefied circle of elites.

On Monday’s issue of The Age, Melbourne writer David Campbell decried the absence of popular engagement with poetry, longing for a past in which people could readily recite a few lines of Henry Lawson or Dorothy McKellar and pointing out that the general public would struggle to do so for many of our contemporary poets. His argument then jumps back a year to 2010, when Ian McFarlane in the Australian Literary Review commented that ”poetry today is unread because much of it is unreadable”, going on to criticise much modern poetry for being arcane and deliberately obscure.

On a similar page to Campbell and McFarlane but firing arrows at a different group of poets was Christopher Bantick who a couple of months earlier reacted with shock at slam poet Emily Zooey Baker’s suggestion that we have Masterchef-style competitions for poetry. This article was also in the Age, which is starting to make me think that Sydney needs to do some catching up on this debate.

Conflict in Australian poetry is definitely not new and can be traced back to that most magnificent of stories about writing, the Ern Malley hoax. In 1944 James McAuley and Harold Stewart created the character of Ern Malley, an undiscovered Australian genius whose sister had discovered a manuscript of poems after his death, composing what they perceived to be deliberately bad poems in order to lampoon Angry Penguins, a magazine dedicated to experimental, modernist writing, edited by Max Harris. Max Harris ended up being sued for obscenity, the magazine shut down but the tantalising figure of Ern Malley still beckons, having become somewhat of a national myth in its own right, asides from the original bickerings that created him, perhaps pointing to a love of irony and deceit and indeed a love of thinking about poetry in our national character.

There are whole books and essays dedicated to this issue and for a canvassing of these we can do no better than to read Australian Literary Review poetry editor Jaya Savige’s article in response to these critics last year.

My far less informed opinion is this: it seems a funny way to go about reinvigorating a public love of poetry by saying that people must read this and not that and saying that poets need to stop engaging with the form that they clearly like best, whether it is in the performative bombast of slam, the experimental reworkings of language in postmodern poetry or the great tradition of bush ballads that we have in this country. This particular form of poetry debate seems to be some sort of misguided fight for a poetry audience that is imagined as restricted and limited – “if more people are reading that style, then less are reading this style”. It is never very specific about which poems are the objectionable ones in the author’s mind, appealing instead to a general sentiment against both high and low culture, usually to protect a conservative tradition that is probably not being threatened at all.

Instead of disseminating a greater interest in poetry, these kinds of arguments are analogous to gossip at best – vague, insubstantial attacks on the assumed backgrounds of one’s opponents – and mirroring current political rhetoric at worst – if you are not with us then you must be against us. If you like that other kind of poetry, then you must be actively stopping people from enjoying what I consider to be the good kind of poetry, because obviously people can’t be expected to realise that there are many kinds of poetry. This is the kind of discourse that turns people off poetry because it only talks about what we shouldn’t like about poetry.

If you give people the freedom to choose to read whatever they wish, the mind is bowerbird-lie in its attraction to eclectic interests that might not seem to fit together neatly. Many people are capable of appreciating Banjo Patterson, T.S. Eliot, Gwen Harwood and John Tranter etc etc etc, but you must give people the choice, instead of attempting to limit choice from above. Time to stop worrying and love some goddamn poetry.

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On a related note, Charles Berstein wrote this wonderful essay, arguing against National Poetry Month in the US (and wanting an International Anti-Poetry Month straight afterwards).

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