‘Nobody reads poetry anymore…’

PS Cottier delves into a year of all
and only poetry, in this hilarious
and insightful exploration of poetry,
how it’s used, and who’s reading it.

So said the woman at the party, after I identified myself as a poet.  Gobsmackingly, jawdroppingly, facepalmingly rude, of course.  But is it true?

The simple answer is no.  There is a myriad of small publishers of poetry, from Pitt Street Poets, to Giramondo, to Ginninderra Press, to Blemish Books, to Interactive Press, here in Oz.  There are the many American producers of full length works and chapbooks.  They even publish it still in the United Kingdom, or so I’ve heard.

On-line we see so many poetry blogs.  Anyone can now have their maudlin drivel put before the public.  Some are laughable; like being trapped in the Hallmark factory for eternity, but with spelling that would never pass the rigorous checking of the meticulous card producer.  The worst also display a crudity of thought which would make a zombie weep.

But there are also excellent poetry sites.  Take thee to the Tuesday Poem site next Tuesday; hatched in New Zealand, but with a few members from other countries too.  (OK, I’m a member, so I’m biased.)

And there are the print journals and ejournals, either totally devoted to Poesie, or letting her sneak in, though the back door, like a once-was-goddess reduced to street prostitution, her robes stained with her vile and furtive exertions.

Someone must be reading all those poetic words.

Then there are all the slams (for the youngish, loudish folk), and bush poetry (for the bearded ones of all genders), where poetry is performed.

But that is not how my brain worked, when the woman said nobody reads poetry anymore.  I did not run through all the poetry outlets (what a hideous term) and reason with her. No, I thought ‘Fuck you woman.  I’ll be as much of a nobody as I can, then.

On that very night, as the wind howled through the eaves like a sympathetic cliché, and the wine flowed like a more liquid one (more of that later) I vowed to read poetry for a year.  Only poetry.  No prose.

No fiction.

No history.

No biography.

No (snigger) economics.  (Not that I ever read that.  There are limits to masochism.)

So 2013 is My Year of Living Poetically.  It began with a bit of a drought, down at the south coast in early January.  Finding actual poetry books on paper is a tad difficult in the country.  (I don’t know, maybe Bunyah is different.  I have never been to Bunyah, where the books may breed like rabid sheep, for all I know.)

I have not purchased a Kindle.  I think it’s just the name; it reminds me too much of Ray Bradbury’s ever-more-relevant Fahrenheit 451, and the firemen burning books.  But I did use my iPad to delve into the Australian Poetry Library (30% women, but that’s the economy of publication…God, next I’ll be doing a graph).  Also the British and American equivalents.

Emily Dickinson.  Edna Saint Vincent Millay.  My old mate Dorothy Parker, who would have got on splendidly with my other old mate George (Lord Byron), if he wasn’t so very dead before she was born.  Narrative fixes can be obtained from George, and also from such as Milton.  Though if you don’t know the plot of Paradise Lost before opening the book, your education has been just a tad lacking.

And now I must admit, like an alcoholic sneaking sips from her flask, there have been snippets of prose insinuating their way into my life.  A friend asked me to read a novella manuscript, and I couldn’t say no.  The news must still be read, unless one wishes to become the sort of poet who only deals in sunsets, love and roses.  And the news is mysteriously still presented in prose, not rhyming couplets.  Imagine, for a second, the news recast to rhyme:

Gillard has chosen September 14;

wedged between footy we’ll have to come clean.

Do we want the Mad Monk, aka Tony Abbott?

Or just stick with Labor (it’s becoming a habit).

The more observant will instantly have noted that reading so much great poetry does not automatically result in the ability to create it oneself.  I could read Byron all day and night and never produce a couplet like his.

But to drink deep at the frothy fountain of champagney/sparkling winey poetic genius is no bad thing.  Poetry puts language at her centre; every word counts.  (That first sentence to this paragraph was an example of how not to write.  Honestly.)  In good poetry, there is generally none of the slopping around as one finds in even the best novel.  Some novels are entirely slop.

Byron’s lovely poem describes a woman, but it could also, in some lights, be poetry itself that he is thinking about:

She Walks in Beauty

She walks in beauty like the night

of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

meets in her aspect and her eyes:

Thus mellow’d to that tender light

which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

had half impair’d the nameless grace

which waves in every raven tress,

or softly lightens o’er her face –

where thoughts serenely sweet express

how pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

so soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

the smiles that win, the tints that glow,

but tells in days of goodness spent,

a mind at peace with all below,

a heart whose love is innocent.

That’s George at his most romantic, in the more familiar sense of the word, and I also very much like him at his most sarcastic.  Too many bad poems (and that one above is very very good) dwell on love.  But what strikes me most is how even more of the worst poems deal in abstractions.  Byron’s does too, along with more specific details, and it takes a very skilled brain to write good poetry using abstract thought.

I’ve only been reading only poetry for a month or so, and I have already felt overwhelmed at times at how good some poets have been.  At how good some writing today are.  But it has reinvigorated my commitment to the art form.  Language is something we all have in common; that is why it is often used so lazily, with as much thought as breathing.

And that is why the sudden revelation of words, showing things and themselves in a new way is so very important.  It’s a miracle that the same words we use to write a shopping list can show the world in a different way. That may be a quirky, itchy, uncomfortable, smelly way, as well as a simply beautiful way.  Political poetry has its place (good political poetry, not my scratch, chase-a-rhyme-just-for-fun, doggerel above).  Poetry can be found in all sorts of places.  I am writing a poem made up from snippets of actual conversation cut from assiduous eavesdropping, sewn together and edged a little, and buttoned with purple pearls, which will, I hope, give a sideways look into Canberra’s concerns and fixations.  We can’t all walk in beauty like the night, but we can, perhaps, be one of the tints that glow on poetry’s cheek.

Poetry can make us blush, if it’s good enough.  Reading more of it may just help elevate our own efforts, if not to Stratford-upon-Avon, then at least to Avon lady.



Image by Bryna Bamberry


9 thoughts on “‘Nobody reads poetry anymore…’

  1. I started writing poetry again this year, never having fully recovered from the drama teacher’s hack-job on my war poetry for the end of year school finale – I’m an artiste 😀

    I am finding that I am having to train myself to read poetry, to say it out loud, to hear rather than just read, to get an appreciation for it.

    I wonder if in this fast information world we train ourselves to read for information rather than enjoying the words and their sounds. I was also wondering if there is an online poetry publication that presents audio versions of poetry as well as the written form.

    I might also add that I really do appreciate metered traditional poetry more so than free verse.

  2. A few suggestions:

    1. Attend local poetry readings and slams. The difference tends to be that the reading is literally that, from the page, whereas the slam is more of a performance. The competition is overt in slams. There won’t be much traditional poetry, at either, though. Bush poetry provides exposure to the ballad, but that is not what you are after, it seems.

    2. If you simply search for poetry readings on YouTube, you will get everything from gems such as T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath reading their own work, to the sort of thing I was mentioning about maudlin blogs with added pictorial horror. I do find some of the images provided even with good readings distracting, sometimes, too. But you don’t have to watch.

    3. The Australian Poetry Library contains limited readings. (Just Google it.) American and English equivalents provide more.

    4. Individual poets’ blogs providing readings are what I can help you with least.

    Put that teacher behind you.

    • I am somewhat limited, living an hour away from dedicated poetry readings. I do have a good writers group though.

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  4. The “anymore” stands out most. In the long evolution of poetry, reading is a recent mutation. To write poetry is one thing — a sort of necessary mnemonic we might say — but who cares if it’s read or heard? See the written and spoken poetry in Stephen Colbert (or in Kath and Kim for that matter).

    In fact, one’s occupation as a poet has nothing to do with being read. Imagine if Notorious B.I.G. was at your party, and having introduced himself as “a poet” (his rightful title, if you ask me), someone responded with “okay, so who reads you?”

    “Nobody,” he would have responded; and then, “but a million people know my rhymes; oh, and would you like to take a drive in one of my BMWs?”

    Honestly, what good modern work of fiction or non-fiction lacks poetry? Poetry, rhyme, rhythm, metaphor — these are as fundamental to language as physical pleasure to our loins. To not read and hear poetry would be like taking a vow of abstinence. Easy to declare; rarely kept for very long.

  5. I mentioned spoken and performed poetry, but I do picture an ideal poetry reader sitting in his or her armchair (vegan Chesterfield) sipping his or her brandy or absinthe and reading amusing poems about Tony Abbott or cockatoos, perhaps with a wench or pretty boy dispensing the same. (The drinks, not the poems.) I don’t write for them, but I’m glad such people exist, at least theoretically.

    And there is a particular beauty to poetry, as opposed to fiction or non-fiction. I’m not so sure about that fundamental thing, although some very good prose does a very good impression of poetry. So good that, for a moment, that they may become indistinguishable. And then comes too much narrative, like a TGV, or a painstakingly well-developed character, like a tedious ticket-seller.

    If I keep this up I’ll be elected Secretary of the Poets Licensing Department by a constituency of one.

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