T.S. Eliot said ‘poetry isn’t an expression of emotion and personality, it’s an escape from it.‘
In our fast-paced culture people need to escape; we need solitude to slow down, recover and reflect. Poetry is recuperative; it’s the antidote to modern living but the irony is when we’re in a state of sensory over-stimulation, appreciating poetry is difficult.
Why is poetry considered a dying art and why is it so inaccessible?
It is one of the hardest art forms to write or read. Its value lies in its resistance to degrade language. It is the antithesis of the generic information, news and social media most people consume.
I spoke to Judith Beveridge, one of Australia’s most highly acclaimed poets, to get her view on why poetry is good for you. Judith is the author of four award-winning books of poetry and is the poetry editor of Meanjin. She appeared at Sydney Writers’ Festival at the Poetry and Music Salon to discuss: ‘Do Poets Tell the Truth’ and Real Worlds/Imagined Worlds.
Who is your favourite poet?
“I have many favourite poets, but my top ones would be Charles Wright, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Alice Oswald, Derek Walcott, Philip Levine, Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds. Amongst Australian poets, Robert Gray, Robert Adamson, Les Murray, Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, Anthony Lawrence, Stephen Edgar, Jordie Albiston, Bronwyn Lea, Sarah Holland-Batt, Philip Hodgins.”
Who or where do you gain inspiration from when writing poetry?
“For me writing poetry is less about inspiration and more about being disciplined and working hard, but I do find that reading other poets often puts me in the right mood for writing. If the work is good, I feel moved or energized to have a go at a poem myself. I also find that nature is an enormous source of beauty.”
Do your poems tend to be autobiographical? If the subject is fictive is there a truth in them?
“Most of my poems are not directly autobiographical. I’m one of those writers who like to explore material which is not familiar. If I know too much about a subject, I don’t want to write about it. The fun for me is entering other worlds not directly linked to my own experience and trying to imagine what those situations might be like. Jean Cocteau has said that the poet is a liar who always speaks the truth. I remember when I was in my early twenties reading an interview by the American poet, James Dickey, who I greatly admired, and he said, “I think I really began to develop as a poet…. when I saw the creative possibilities of the lie.” He says “I was constrained by fact. I thought if I put into a poem something I hadn’t actually experienced or seen, it was in essence lying or cheating and was therefore immoral. When I kicked that straw dummy down the stairs, I began to write stuff that satisfied me.” When I read this by Dickey I felt enormously liberated. I realised my main allegiance needed to be to the poem, not to the ego or poetic “sensation” and that a poem could be made to be much better by fabrication and invention. So early on in my writing life I acquired the notion that poems can be fictions or imaginative constructs. I do try to make my poems feel emotionally true. It’s hard to fake emotions in poetry, so I aim to get my characters, voices and personas as authentic as possible.”
Is the purpose of poetry as a work of art to convey beauty and pleasure? Or does it have other purposes?
“Poetry has many purposes and many people come to poetry for different reasons. For me, poetry has always been the most powerful and effective form for addressing and exploring deep spiritual questions. Partly this is because poetry is connected so intimately with the breath. Poets know that the breath can act as an interpreting spirit, something which will help move, uplift and carry lived experience into rhythms and tones which allow both writer and reader to feel as if they are in communion and intense dialogue with the world around them. Poetry as an art form employs repeating structures of sound, image and rhythm, and this patterned approach enables both writer and reader to access knowledge in non-discursive ways. Patterns can lead to insights and revelations, which may not be attained or reached through logical or rational methods alone.”
Why do you think poetry has lost its popularity?
“There are many reasons why poetry is not widely read. It is still very popular amongst a certain number of people. You usually find that while poetry does not have a large readership, those who do read it are intensely passionate about it.
Today there are so many activities competing for people’s time and attention. Poetry is a serious, high art and requires a level of attention and attunement that some people find hard to give. The best serious poetry expects that its readers will be, as the American poet James Wright so deftly put it, “intelligent readers of goodwill”.
The popular arts, because they are produced more quickly and have an economic basis to their rationale, do not usually hold such respectful expectations about their audiences. The popular arts do not aim towards sophistication or complexity and lack the intensity of purpose that good poems have. What we are required to bring to the reading of poetry, and also the writing of it, are many of the qualities that tend to be eroded, dismissed and marginalised by mass media culture and the demands of a consumer-driven economy, based mostly on greed.
We don’t value stillness, or endeavours which promote self-reflection, or the art of careful discrimination. We don’t value complexity and as a society we don’t value our language. Many people will say that they just don’t know how to enter a poem. It eludes them, befuddles them. In our culture, the poetic voice has lost much of its authority. In the past, poetry was more community-centred. It functioned to draw people together; it was directed towards the making of community. It is certainly more difficult for poets to reach an audience in our culture than it was in traditional cultures in which poetry was a vehicle for transmitting the stories, beliefs and values of a people.”
Is poetry still popular anywhere else in the world i.e. where art is more highly valued?
“There are many places in the world where poetry is highly valued. Some years ago I went to a poetry festival in Medellin in Colombia. On opening night there were 15,000 people in the audience. These were just the local people and they were manly young people. Throughout the festival, each event was packed with interested listeners. It seems that poetry is least popular in rich, Westernised cultures where money and power are dominant values.”
It could be said that poetry is no longer relevant/accessible to the way people communicate now – fast, imprecise, ordinary language of blogs, twitter etc.
Do you agree and do you think poetry will ever enjoy a revival in popularity?
“The value of poetry is that it is all the things that the marketplace is not. Its value is in its resistance, in not playing the obfuscating, euphemistic, mincing roles of a degraded language. If you want to obfuscate, misrepresent and reduce people’s awareness then you avoid the language of poetry – you avoid specific concrete forms of expression. We know this to be one of the most sinister manifestations of the language of politics, and the obvious examples are all the sickening euphemisms used war-time propaganda.A poem, no matter how difficult its overall approach, needs to be precise and clear: the words need to be exact, the images need to be discovered and apprehended not just approximated, the thinking can’t be vague, the emotions can’t be blurry, the insights can’t be lazy. Fast, imprecise, ordinary language has always been with us, it’s just that technology has allowed it to spread to an extraordinary degree. I think poetry will always be with us and there will always be an audience for poetry.
It may be that people become sick and tired of blogs and all the internet noise and turn back to poetry for nourishment and rejuvenation. I hope so anyway.”