Reading: February-March 2019

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A few of the books I’ve enjoyed reading, or returning to, in February and March 2019:

  • Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family: Book I of the six My Struggle (Min Kamp) novels (autobiographical novel: Vintage, 2009).
  • Ada Limón’s The Carrying: A follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed Bright Dead Things (poetry: Corsair, 2018).
  • JL Carr’s A Month in the Country: Published by Penguin as a ‘Classic’, and the source of a 1987 film starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, in their third and second film roles respectively (short novel: Penguin, 1980).
  • WS Merwin’s Garden Time (poetry: Copper Canyon, 2016).
  • Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (poetry: Grove, 1957).
  • Alejandra Pizarnik’s The Galloping Hour: French Poems: Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander’s translations of the French poems of Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, who died in 1972 (poetry: New Directions, 2018).
  • Forrest Gander’s Be With (poetry: New Directions, 2018).
  • WS Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius (poetry: Bloodaxe, 2009).
  • Ron Rash’s Poems: New and Selected (poetry: Ecco, 2016).
  • David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention: An extended study of John Donne’s poem ‘Death, Be Not Proud’, which argues for the possibility of poetry as a kind of ‘inception’ (criticism: University of Chicago, 2016).

We’re wired to read meaning…

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As human beings, we’re wired to read meaning into words, no matter how apparently random they are. Because we know, intuitively, that we’ve never encountered words that haven’t been produced by some sort of intelligence. Words compel us to assume an originating intelligence: a speaker, a voice or a perspective from which they’re written or spoken.

Our willingness, at times, to dismiss a poem or poetry as meaningless or nonsense therefore cuts against the grain of one of our deepest intuitions. Some poems are hard work for readers, though they’re rarely – and perhaps never – meaningless. And some poems are written deliberately for us to piece together or supply a meaning ourselves. A poem that’s hard work for us can be satisfying, provided it rewards us at some level for our effort and attention.

As TS Eliot wrote: ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’, and as Simone Weil wrote: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’, even for us as readers.

100 days: an idea worth spreading

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When I speak to school students about poetry, I often tell them about an exercise or challenge I’ve used to help me write. The idea of 30 or 100-day projects began for me with a TEDx Auckland talk, called Inspiration Wherever You Are, The 100 Days Project, by New Zealand graphic designer Emma Rogan:

As Emma Rogan explains in her talk, it’s an idea she’s adapted from Michael Beirut, a graphic designer and design critic at the Yale School of Art. Each year he asks his students to undertake a project where they repeat one simple creative exercise of their choice every day for 100 days.

I’ve used the practice for periods of 100 days, or 30 days, and it’s the latter I usually recommend to students. For example, in the past, my daily exercise was as simple as writing a 12 line draft of a poem, perhaps about something that made an impression on me that day.

As I explain to students, the results are very imperfect, but the practice helps you develop creative discipline, encourages you to be attentive to ideas that arise in your day-to-day life, and generates creative work you can return to later to edit or rework.

I emphasise that it’s not an idea designed by or for poets, and can work just as well for aspiring novelists, short story writers, graphic designers, photographers, painters, songwriters, game designers, choreographers, actors, and so on. It’s a great idea, and one worth spreading.

Reading: January 2019

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A few of the books I enjoyed reading, or rereading, in January 2019:

  • Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World: a selection of Cavalli’s poems from 1974’s My Poems Won’t Change the World through to 2006’s Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, edited by Gini Alhadeff, with translations from the Italian by Alhadeff, Jorie Graham, Kenneth Koch, Susan Stewart, and Mark Strand (poetry: Penguin, 2007).
  • Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán): translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh (poetry: New Directions, 1972).
  • Autumn Royal’s She Woke and Rose (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
  • Clare Nashar’s Lake (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
  • John G. Trapani Jr’s Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain (philosophy: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
  • Albert Camus’ Selected Essays and Notebooks (essays: Penguin Books, 1970).
  • Franz Wright’s Earlier Poems: a selection of Wright’s poems from 1982’s The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes through to 1995’s Rorschach Test (poetry: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).

Putting poetry in motion

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A few practical ideas for getting (a little more) poetry into day-to-day life:

  • Keep a book of poems on your bedside table. Reading a poem or two at bedtime is a vastly better prospect than falling asleep halfway through the next chapter of that novel you’re reading. A poem or two is a perfect nightcap for those who sleep alone; for those who don’t sleep alone, there’s Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán), a collection of the 20th century’s most ecstatic and passionate love poems.
  • Keep a book of poems on your coffee table, or wherever it is you sit down to drink your cup of daily grind. Poetry is a perfect companion for good coffee, good food, good wine and good company, even if ‘company’ means a few quiet moments by yourself.
  • Print out a favourite poem and put it on your fridge.
  • Carry a small book of poems with you. You’ve got a spare minute or two? Your lunch date is running late? Why pull out your phone, when you can flip open a book of poems instead?
  • Use poems as part of your mindfulness practice. Read a poem. Be attentive to the words: their meanings, their sounds, their feel in your mouth, the rhythm of your breath, the resonances or reminiscences, the textures of the book or page… Choose a word or phrase that speaks to you. Carry that word or phrase with you during your day.
  • Write a few lines from your favourite poem or song on a bookmark.
  • Read a poem to your kids at bedtime. Anyone for Dr Seuss? All those nursery rhymes you remember from your childhood? They’re all poems.
  • Sign up for Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day. We’re all busy people: why not have poems sent straight to your device of choice? The Poetry Foundation site has a wealth of resources, including poems for children and teens, audio poems, information about poets and schools of poetry, collections of poems by theme, and guides for poetry newcomers.
  • If you’re keen on Australian poetry, try the Australian Poetry Library. The poems can be browsed for free. The site also enables you to save poems to a personal selection, which you can download or email for a small copyright fee. The poems are searchable by title, author, theme and form. Looking for somewhere to start? Try the poems of David Malouf, Judith Beveridge or Thomas W. Shapcott.

If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start

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If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start, try getting hold of an anthology of contemporary poetry from your local library or bookshop.

What is a poetry anthology? It’s a book that includes poems by a variety of poets, rather than just one poet. Anthologies often have a particular theme (e.g. Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse), or focus on a particular place and/or time (e.g. The Best American Poetry 2018, or The Forward Book of Poetry 2019), or present a survey of poetry over time (e.g. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which includes poems in English from the 7th century to the present, or Australian Poetry Since 1788, or Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry).

Why an anthology? Because an anthology includes poems by a variety of poets, though usually only one or two poems by each. This helps you get acquainted with a range of poems, in a range of styles, with a range of themes, and by a range of poets. It increases the likelihood you’ll come across poems you enjoy. As you read the anthology, trust your judgment on which poems you like or dislike, enjoy or don’t enjoy, are engaged by or not engaged by. Follow up on the poems you like best: see if you can find more poems by those poets online, or try getting hold of a book of poems specifically by that poet.

Why contemporary poetry? Because contemporary poetry, meaning poetry from the 20th and 21st centuries, generally uses words and syntax that are familiar to us – in contrast to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, for example, which reads: ‘And for a woman wert thou first created, / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting.’ There’s a good argument for reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, but if you’re new to poetry, why not start with something closer to home, in terms of what a poem describes and the way it uses language to describe it.

Poetry is a very old technology

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[From an address to high-school students and their families, September 2018.]

Poetry is a very old technology. In all likelihood, it has been part of the human experience almost as long as fire and stone, and just as long as many activities that scientists look to to set us apart as a species: cave painting, making bone tools, using pigments and jewellery, building hearths, and burying the dead.

Poetry has always touched lightly on the world. As a spoken artform to begin with, it has left us no definite traces of its earliest origins, though in all probability it is older than pottery, and older than the wheel. It has a place with fire, stone, ochre, song, music, story, ritual and mythology as an element of what it means to be human, as an essential part of who we are.

Poetry is an ancient technology, but it is also a relentlessly new one. And so we find it flourishing still in an age of popular songs, poetry slams, podcasts, e-books, YouTube clips, Twitter feeds, and Instagram posts – all of which have exponentially increased its ability to reach into our lives, and the capacity of young writers to find an audience for their work.