It’s something said with a particular zeal these days. Poetry is a dying art form; poetry is irrelevant, inaccessible, nonsense, doggerel. It’s a notion smugly crowed by been-there-done-that arts journalists, by HSC students and their parents and, if you’re an Arts student, that dickhead not-so-mature-age student in your tute last semester. Perhaps I wouldn’t blame you for associating the word poetry with being dragged through the driest of verse in school by a teacher who probably hated it more than you did. But to do so neglects the question of what we mean by poetry when we claim that, as a society, we have outgrown an art form that predates literacy itself.
WH Auden once declared that poetry is simply ‘memorable speech’. We have used poetry from the beginning of human history to transmit stories, impressions, and states of mind that we have not been able to communicate by any other means. Poets play with words, twisting and knocking strange phrases together in the hope that the final composition will succeed where ordinary language fails, that it will say for the first time what is really meant, felt, and understood so that the reader might in turn find herself treading emotional and intellectual ground that had previously gone unarticulated and unexplored. Claim what we may about the decline of poetry in contemporary society, poetry is, to some extent, everywhere. Rap and hip-hop, genres that rely heavily on ‘memorable speech’, still enjoy enormous popularity, and most of us, if asked, would have no difficulty recalling song lyrics that have edged under our skin and stayed with us for years. Entire movements and eras in the 20th century have been summed up by single phrases potent enough to go down in history: ‘the media is the message’, ‘the personal is political’, ‘let them eat cake.’ Poetry itself may not be everywhere in a strict sense, but the spirit of poetry is present when we invent new language for new ideas, memorable phrases for memorable times, and when we make of a few words something greater than the sum of their literal definitions.
So if there’s a little bit of poetry everywhere, perhaps its time to consider letting it into our lives again. In the words of Charles Bukowski (questionable figure, brilliant poet), ‘poetry is what happens when nothing else can.’ A great poem can connect us at the best of times, giving us words where our own language fails. At the worst of times, times of loss, illness or heartbreak, a sad and beautiful poem can act as a companion, showing us that the suffering of being human is something that we all share. In showing us that these moments have their own beauty worth writing about, poetry elevates us. If you have seen the film Wit, recall Emma Thompson’s character reciting ‘Death Be Not Proud’ to herself as she succumbs to terminal cancer, drawing on the reflections of John Donne to guide her through her final months. The right lines, written or recalled, can bring gravity to a beautiful moment, or beauty to a grave moment. Poetry is for the days we hope to remember. It is also for the days we simply hope to survive.
Whether or not you’re convinced, poetry has seen an undeniable resurgence in recent years, as we return to an understanding of poetry as an oral tradition and an aural experience. In Sydney, new spoken word nights seem to be popping up every month, most recently in Bankstown and Parramatta, where this accessible art form has given voice to a new generation of young poets. Like any other form of expression, poetry will continue to change. What it won’t do, however, is disappear. So you may as well make friends with it.