The case for publishing poetry


WordsworthThe chattering classes of Great Britain are, well, chattering. Not to mention buzzing apoplectically. The reason? After Andrew Motion came to the end of his seven-year tenure, Carol Ann Duffy was named the new Poet Laureate.

But many people, including some poets themselves, thought that the post should be scrapped altogether. These same people think that the Laureate, whose salary is a butt of sack, automatically becomes tethered to the Establishment and its demands: the job, after all, is to write poems of celebration for State occasions.

Such prescription is often irksome: Motion's first collection in seven years will appear next month, and he confesses to being 'rattled' by what was almost writer's block.

The accepted wisdom is that people do not read poetry any more, that they no longer listen to it, and that publishers everywhere have axed their poetry lists. But in big cities you can go to a poetry reading every night of the week if you feel inclined, while heroic small presses and prominent literary journals still give shelf-room and online space to poetry.

As well, in this literate age, you may not have read a poem in a decade or more, but some poetry will always be part of you.

Then again, Australian poetry sells very well when the small population is taken into account, and Les Murray is up there with international giants like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott.

Poetry is as ancient an art form as dancing: one has only to think of the compelling rhythms of Hiawatha and the repetition of 'We'll all be rooned, said Hanrahan' to understand that this is so.

Yet even poets are hard put to it to say what a poem is exactly. Wordsworth (pictured) famously opined that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. The word itself takes its origin from the Latin and Greek to make, and as tranquillity is vital, so is craftsmanship.

Yet although one can learn the techniques, mere obedience to rules does not necessarily produce a poem, for there is an essential magic to poetry that makes it quite different from prose. As Sylvia Plath remarked, poetry is a tyranny in which the poet has 'to burn away the peripherals'.

Thomas Mann believed the artist's highest joy is thought that can merge wholly into feeling, feeling that can merge wholly into thought. To achieve their own particular joy, poets have to add stringent discipline and mastery of form.

In this increasingly secular age, poetry can be said to have a new function as an alternative or complement to religion. Les Murray, for example, describes himself as a poet who is religious rather than a religious poet, and celebrates a sense of wonder and mystery.

I am, alas, not a poet, but my own case is one in point: raised in childhood and adolescence by Nonconformists of various stripes, and long the mother of three Greek Orthodox sons, I now style myself, when asked, as a Wordsworthian Pantheist.

Wordsworth's claim that 'the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears' certainly holds good for me, especially in the Greek spring, when, as it happens, very few flowers can actually be described as mean.

A good poem lingers in the mind, and the best ones mark the soul and memory indelibly. But as well as words, poems provide gaps, spaces and silences in an increasingly complicated and cacophonous world. Poems invite meditation and contemplation, while fusing the sensual with the spiritual, as in the truly marvellous work of John Donne; they are an integral part of civilisation.

Supremely talented British journalist A. A. Gill says that words are obviously his tools of trade, but that, despite attempts, he is not a poet. He professes himself horrified by the notion of abolishing the post of Poet Laureate, for, he maintains, we carry scraps of poetry with us until the very end.

He does not actually say so, but he seems to argue that the Poet Laureate can be considered an emblematic or iconic figure. What he does say is that poetry 'maintains a connection with the lyrical beat at the heart of the tribe'.

Which is the reason so many readers look forward to Tuesdays on Eureka Street.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, poetry, Les Murray, Wordsworth, Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, Carol Ann Duffy



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Is one allowed a plug on this site, brought to mind by Gillian's comment on "every night of the week?" Because it's not just the big cities. For anyone in the vicinity, Galong monastery (near Yass NSW) is the venue for a weekend of poetry this coming weekend.

Published poet Lizz Murphy will speak on Seamus Heaney; Michael Dwyer's subject will be John O'Brien; the writer of this letter will speak on "Yeats, the poet in love and war."

Details can be obtained from Conor Bradley on (02) 6254 4896 or

You don't have to be Irish to love poetry, but it does help.

Frank O'Shea | 20 May 2009  

Thank you, Gillian for a very interesting article.I am grateful also to Eureka Street for publishing different kinds of poetry, from time to time.

Maryrose Dennehy | 20 May 2009  

When I was a schoolboy in the 1950s I was fortunate to have an English teacher who called himself 'a minor poet'. He described poetry as 'what poets write'. This led my class to divide poets into major and minor: and poetry into good and bad; poems that worked for us and poems that didn't.

Over the past fifty years I have read much poetry, not only in English but also in Latin, Greek, French, Italian and German. I now describe poetry as an attempt by the author/writer/creator to convey thought and feeling through an arrangement of words that tries to maximise the impact of the meaning, the sound and the music of those words. A good poem for me is one that succeeds at this task. I know this marks me as an aesthetic relativist. But I don't mind. It keeps me buying books of poetry. And it gives me the pleasure of saying of a Seamus Heaney sonnet - "I wish I had written that". or of some Roger McGough doggerel - "Why did he have to tell that story in verse?"

This brings me to the office of Poet Laureate. It ought to be abolished. Demanding poems (commemorative verse) on demand goes against the freedom of spirit that drives a poet to write poems in the first place. Oscar Wilde in Reading Gaol was more free than Andrew Motion during his seven year sentence as England's Poet Laureate.

Uncle Pat | 20 May 2009  

Gillian Thanks. Yes, viva Eureka Street's poetry. I'll tell you a story. Years ago I met my neighbour at the fence. He had just learned that I was an English teacher and he wanted to tell me how big a part the poetry he had learned off by heart in school was playing in his life. (If I have a regret it's that I didn't give my students enough memorising of poetry to do.) My neighbour said,"I'm an old man now, and I don't sleep very well. Do you know what I do as I lie there? I say over to myself the poems we learned at school," and he said it with a pleasure and a gratitude that have made me tell the story to many students and friends.

Joe Castley | 20 May 2009  

Great article Gillian! I think we need a Poet Laureate in England (even establish one in Australia!). They are ambassadors for poetry and no matter how hard the job is, the office keeps poetry alive (at least) in the minds of the state.

I am a poet and recently wrote a poem for a family member who just died. I was able to celebrate in the poem, all her life's activities and her dedication to Rotary towards the end of her life. Poetry can do this. You cannot write an essay or letter to the dearly departed in 20 lines. We need this genre because of its emotive essence.

Evangelyne & other poems - out now!

Helen Hagemann | 22 May 2009  

Thanks for this Gillian, and yes, Eureka Street is a valuable resource for the 21st century reader of poetry.

Les Wicks | 22 May 2009  

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