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Demerit points for bad poetry

  • 06 May 2009

Anyone who has endured brief infatuations with folks who thought they were poets has, ipso facto, suffered through poetry readings during which small quiet poets gripped lecterns like the steering wheels of vast ships, explained at incredible length the circumstances under which they committed their poems like raving sins, whispered their elephantine incoherent epic, and then, incredibly, explained at herculean length how the birds in the poem are actually symbols of revenge.

At which point many members of the audience are contemplating the latter, and imagining a world where poets actually do have to get poetic licenses that require them to swear they will not suddenly use French phrases in their poems, personify favorite body parts of lovers, or write poems in which birds represent anything but birds.

Wouldn't that be cool? A world that would require poetic administrative staff, men and women who would design and inflict licensing exams, and take poems out for test drives, and revoke privileges on grounds of obscurity (busted, Wallace Stevens!), and flag down poems that don't meet clean-language standards.

Imagine a raft of inspectors, wearing shoulder patches with Les Murray's gnomic smile, as well as a corps of poetry injectors, citizens responsible for bracing up the boring — adding a little wit and lilt to traffic signs, repairing droning political sermons, running retreats for ministers whose homilies have no heft, spicing up newsletters and manuals, and sponsoring annual switch days during which poets run cities and policemen write poems with schoolchildren.

Think of the advantages of a world with poetry inspectors and injectors: no Hallmark card ditties, no one pretending to be influenced by Rimbaud (pictured) ever again, the admirably clear and piercing Wislawa Szymborska an honored guest on television every week, a small sharp poem on the front page of every newspaper every day.

Imagine the youth of Australia competing hourly for the coolest arrow of a text-messaged poem, and Kevin Rudd opening his weekly press conference quoting Judith Wright ...

A more musical and rhythmic world, perhaps — certainly a world with more of the electric darts to the heart that great poems can be.

For poetry at its very best is the greatest of literary arts (not the greatest of arts, mind you — that would be music, or brewing beer), the one with the most power and passion in the least amount of space, the one that tries most gracefully to find the