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When poems are like prayers, speaking to us



Remember when our songs were just like prayers

Like gospel hymns that you caught in the air?

The Stable Song, Gregory Alan Isakov


There are moments in time when you could be tempted to believe that history is pivoting on an axis of disaster upon disaster. If not war in Ukraine, then cities smashed by water or turned to dust by quakes. If not one misery than another, each piled upon each other. And struggling to bloom from this pyre, hope, and hope can be a poem or a prayer.

Some people pray in church, some pray alone, some share their prayer through song, and others use poems as prayer. Each carries its own line of faith that they believe unites them with something outside themselves. This union is reached through words written and words said.

It’s a thread of survival and a thread of a soul’s songline. Fifty years ago, my first poem was published. The thrill was great. The poem considerably less so. It was part of an anthology of Hunter Valley poets, called prosaically, but certainly accurately, Hunter Valley Poets 1973. Somewhere in a box is the original sent (gratis!) to me half a century ago.

hunter valley poets 1973 (it was lower case on the cover, tres poetic cool) was accorded an entry in a newsletter of the University of Newcastle. Under the heading Local Anthology Success, it reported that the book had sold ‘500 copies in the first week of publication' (without the help of reviews, and before stocks had been placed in bookshops). It cost $1.

I was browsing recently in a secondhand book shop in Woodend in the Macedon Ranges, Victoria, and there, lonely as a cloud on a shelf with all the other once-loved books, was another copy. This is weird, I thought; how did such an obscure little book come to be a thousand kilometres from its birthplace? Was there another ex-Hunter Valley poet in my midst? I left it there. I didn’t need two.

My poem was called 'Red Cedar Wood' and, in the fashion of teenage faux profundity, it touched on life and death with the sweep of a feather dressed up as a rooster. Earnest? To paraphrase Roy and HG, too much was barely enough.

Thus was my trajectory into poetry interstellar overdrive launched? No. I did send a bunch of poems to The Newcastle Morning Herald. They declined, politely, but said when you finish sixth form write back to us and apply for a journalism cadetship. I did, and an interview and a test later, I was in. (Felicity Biggins, also a poet in the Anthology was also part of my cadet intake.) Was poetry as a career over? Yes and no.

Poets to purely pursue their art need more than faith in their art’s worth, they need patronage, or a job in the material world, for without it they find penury to be their constant companion.

Through my journalistic life the echo of poetic footfalls has been in the background. I stole that image from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. When I was 13 or 14 I was floored by his imagery (you can do that with words?)


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table…


The opening of the doors of perception fanned out in to music, especially that of Bob Dylan (I’ve been 10,000 miles in the mouth of graveyard…), and across frontiers of time and geography, such as to my personal favourites Rilke and Zbigniew Herbert. Through the decades I have kept faith with the muse, though they fade and shine. Les Murray kindly published a few of my poems in Quadrant (Show me more! he wrote to me), which was a thrill, and which I failed completely in fulfilling.

Songwriter Shane Howard once told me that the Irish see poetry as the higher art form. It is in its distillation of life both the carbon and the diamond.

It is in its rendering the voice that says have faith in the human. See what you can do.




Warwick McFadyen is an award-winning journalist. He has won two Walkley Awards and four Quill Awards. He has published several books of poetry. The latest is 21+4 Poems. His prose and poems have also appeared in Quadrant, Overland and Dissent.

Main image: (Getty images).

Topic tags: Warwick McFadyen, Poetry, National Poetry Day



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Existing comments

"See what you can do."
Here's a try:

Not mere DNA, this "capax Dei" is a stubborn thing,
defying our best intentions of indifference,
and our proneness to forgetting.

It's not mere DNA, just 'wired in':
it's more like breath, enabling
our surviving, striving, thriving -
even when attention to it strays,
our hearts, minds spirits, wills enticed,
elsewhere engaged. . .

Ignore, discard, and try to bury it
as we may,
it has an ineradicable way
of outrunning, outdoing and outlasting us.

Thanks for your invitation, Warwick.

John Kelly | 05 October 2023  

There are no moments of bliss that poetry cannot articulate. That’s saying a lot. I gazed at the Rosetta Stone and an Aztec turquoise mosaic serpent in the British Museum recently and was enthralled. Some may point to conquest of these treasures however they are similar to poetry and transcend human folly. I would be the most amazingly talented and sensitive poet in my daydreams.

Pam | 05 October 2023  

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