Recommended: Paul Kelly talks words and music

Paul Kelly Albums

Sarah Kanowski’s conversation with musician Paul Kelly, for ABC Radio National, is an engaging encounter with one of Australia’s most highly regarded songwriters. Of particular interest are Kelly’s comments about the craft of writing songs based on poems, which has become a central aspect of his songwriting.

I think, for example, of Seven Sonnets and a Song (2016), an album which comprises six songs based on Shakespeare’s sonnets, one based on the Clown’s Song from Twelfth Night, and one based on a poem by Sir Philip Sidney. Then there’re the songs of Spring and Fall (2012), Nature (2018), and Thirteen Ways to Look at Birds (2019), which draw on the poems of Emily Dickinson, John Donne, Thomas Hardy, Miroslav Holub, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Richard Wilbur, and WB Yeats – and, closer to home, Denis Glover, Gwen Harwood, AD Hope, and Judith Wright. Most recently, Penguin Books has published Love is Strong as Death (2019), an anthology of poems chosen by Kelly. It’s evidence of his wide-ranging and abiding engagement with poetry.

Based on Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 73’

Kelly’s comments about discovering poetry during his high school years particularly resonated with me, as I attended the same high school, albeit a few decades later. It was in the same classrooms that I found my own interest in the poetry of Keats, Hopkins, Harwood, Wright, and others. Until only a few decades ago, I suspect that much of Adelaide had no more than two or three degrees of separation from Kelly and his family. Though it’s matured into an elegant and cosmopolitan mid-sized city, Adelaide still has about it some of the charm (for better and/or worse) of a big country-town. I certainly grew up with family members who knew Kelly’s siblings or were at school with Kelly himself. Naturally, his music seeped in through the seams of my childhood and adolescence.

Based on Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mushrooms’

In the course of the conversation, Kelly also talks about (among other things) the influence of Shakespeare and the King James Bible on his work, his affection for the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (‘conversational and warm’), and his memory of sharing his earliest poems with family members (‘kind of shy and proud … at the same time’). He’s sanguine about poetry’s place in our modern world (it’s ‘on the march’). It’s a hospitable conversation about poetry, borne out of Kelly’s generous regard for it. The conversation ends with Kelly playing his song ‘Barn Owl’, based on Gwen Harwood’s poem of the same name, and ‘Pied Beauty’, based on the poem by Hopkins.

The permutations of poetry

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Spare a thought for the poets.

When your favourite band records their latest 12 track album, there are 479,001,600 ways they can arrange the songs on the album.

When a poet writes an average-sized book of 70 poems, there are 11,978,571,669,969,891,796,072,783,721,689,098,736,458,938,142,546,425,857,555,362,864,628,009,582,789,845,319,680,000,000,000,000,000 ways they can arrange the poems. And, even if they arrange them well, it’ll be something that’s scarcely noticed.

Every book of poems I’ve had a hand in editing has gone through a tried and tested process. The poems are printed, then laid out on a large floor for painstaking arrangement and rearrangement. It’s an arcane task that’s part intuition, and part logic. Its aim is to find a compelling order and a natural balance for the poems’ themes, images, vocabulary, etcetera.

But, anyway, that’s the maths.

New poem in ‘The Sky Falls Down’

Thom Sullivan Cut

I’m delighted to have my poem ‘Cut’ published in the newly released The Sky Falls Down: An Anthology of LossThe anthology includes work by 89 writers – both poetry and prose – including poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Adrienne Eberhard, Quinn Eades, Lucy Dougan, Kevin Gillam, Alex Skovron, and fellow South Australian poet Jules Leigh Koch. Editors Terry Whitebeach and Gina Mercer have been at work on the anthology since at least 2014, and it’s recently found its way into the world. The Sky Falls Down (308pp) is available from Ginninderra Press

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).

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.