Poetry and innovation

‘Poetry is the artform that allies what we say with the way we say it. Language is the material of poetry, whereas the material of the novel is character and story. If a thing has been said it doesn’t need to be said again. If a thing hasn’t been said – if a poem attempts to say something new – it ought to find a new way of saying it. To find a new way to say the thing is a matter of experimentation. An experiment that succeeds – in its own terms – is an innovation. An innovation in poetry is a new way of saying a new thing through the material of language. Any canon of poetry, or any artform for that matter, ought to be a catalogue of innovations.’ (from a notebook)

Recommended: ‘California Hills in August’

Adelaide – like California, and relatively few places outside the Mediterranean – has a ‘Mediterranean climate’, characterised by dry summers and mild, wet winters. Listening to The Daily Poem’s recent episode (Spotify) about Dana Gioia’s poem ‘California Hills in August’ was a welcome reminder of the warmer months ahead of us. In particular, it reminded me of early evening walks at Brown Hill Creek and Chambers Gully. Both can be a breathless hike, especially on a hot summer day, but the view of the sun setting over the city and the gulf beyond is a just reward, and something to look forward to. You can read ‘California Hills in August’ at the Poetry Foundation website.

Recommended: Poetry in Times of Recovery

Australian Book Review has followed its 2020 podcasts Poetry for Troubled Times and More Poetry for Troubled Times with the more optimistically titled Poetry in Times of Recovery. The podcast includes Sarah Holland-Batt reading Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’, Felicity Plunkett reading Tracy K Smith’s ‘An Old Story’, Peter Goldsworthy reading Eugenio Montale’s ‘Forse un mattino’, Judith Bishop reading Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Face to Face’, and John Kinsella reading Emily Brontë’s ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’. Recently, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite poems by Zagajewski, having come late to the news of his death on 21 March. Likewise, I was late to hear of the death of American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in February. And, finally, this week brought news of the death of American poet Stephen Dunn (24 June), whose poems ‘Sweetness’ (itself a consolation in times of bereavement) and ‘Poem for People Who Are Understandably Too Busy to Read Poetry’ I return to often.

Vagabond Press 2021 titles

On the back of Vagabond Press’s extraordinary success in 2020, there are new books by Tanikawa Shuntaro, Shinkawa Kazue, LK Holt, Bella Li, John Kinsella, Eleanor Jackson and Ann Vickery going to press. Vagabond has created a gofundme page in aid of two more books of poetry going to press in 2021: Petra White’s ‘Cities’ and Dan Disney’s ‘accelerations & inertias’. I’m looking forward to reading both. You can support the publication of Petra and Dan’s books via the gofundme page, or by purchasing from Vagabond’s extensive backlist of poetry, fiction, essays, memoir and criticism from Australia, the Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

Recommended: ‘The Road Not Taken’

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by…

British poet Edward Thomas was killed in action on this day (9 April) in 1917, at Arras, France. He’s best remembered for his poems about the English countryside, the most memorable of which, to my mind, are ‘Adlestrop’ and ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. Thomas was an unlikely soldier: at the time he enlisted he was a family man aged in his late 30s, who’d been mostly indifferent to the war. His decision to enlist, and his death, are often associated with Robert Frost’s well-known poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. The friendship between Thomas and Frost is recounted in an excellent and accessible episode of Today I Found Out, which addresses a common misreading of Frost’s poem, which critic David Orr has described as ‘The Most Misread Poem in America’. The poets’ friendship, and the import of Frost’s poem to Thomas, are discussed extensively in Orr’s The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, and Matthew Hollis’ Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas. Click here for the Today I Found Out episode, entitled ‘The Almost Universally Misinterpreted Poem ‘The Road Not Taken’ and the Fascinating Story Behind It’ (via YouTube).

Throwback: Writers’ Week podcast

This week the literary folk have reclaimed the sunny, grassy environs of Adelaide’s Pioneer Women’s Garden for this year’s Writers’ Week. Five years ago more or less to the day (29 February 2016), Peter Goldsworthy presented a feature session on South Australian poetry, with readings by Aidan Coleman, Jelena Dinic, Jill Jones, Kate Llewellyn, and me. The podcast is still available on Soundcloud: Peter’s introduction (0:17), Aidan (2:40), Jelena (17:06), Jill (28:48), Kate (40:50), and me (53:12). Click here for the PODCAST.

Vagabond Press 2021 survival fund

Vagabond Press has had an extraordinary 2020, with Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics winning the 2020 John Bray Poetry Award, Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness winning the 2020 Kenneth Slessor Award, and my book Carte Blanche winning the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award. Not to mention the acclaim garnered by the recent books by Melinda Bufton, a.j. carruthers, Toby Fitch, LK Holt, and Jessica L. Wilkinson. For 20 years Vagabond has published established and emerging poets from Australia, the Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Like many small literary presses, it faces an uncertain future, and has launched a gofundme page to aid its survival. In particular, the campaign will support the publication of three new titles, presenting work by LK Holt, Tanikawa Shuntaro, and Shinkawa Kazue. You can support Vagabond via its gofundme page, or by purchasing from its extensive backlist of poetry, fiction, essays, memoir, and criticism.

Book launches in the time of COVID, part IV

It was so enjoyable to ‘attend’ the launch of Benjamin Dodds’ second book of poems Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, via Zoom this evening. The book was launched by Stuart Barnes, with readings by Ben, and Judith Beveridge. It’s become a small concession of the Covid year to be able to attend these launches from faraway Adelaide. And, in this case, it meant I had the chance to hear some of the poems in Ben’s own voice, to hear Stuart’s launch speech, and to get a sense of the rapport between Ben and Stuart, whose bodies of work I’ve been reading for some time. I really enjoyed Ben’s first book Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014). I’m glad he hasn’t kept us waiting too long for this second book, but also that Airplane Baby Banana Blanket draws us into new and worthwhile territory. I hope the book finds the wide readership and acclaim it deserves. For those wanting a foretaste of the book, there’s a recent ABC Radio National interview with Ben – Lucy’s Story: the chimp, the poet, and the interspecies experiment that went weird – describing the bizarre-yet-true story of Lucy, a chimpanzee raised by psychotherapist Dr Maurice Temerlin, which is at the heart of the book. Congratulations to Ben: Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is available from Recent Work Press.

‘October, the cruellest month…’

‘April is the cruellest month…’, the opening line of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is one of the most famous phrases in Twentieth Century poetry. It’s famous enough that it often escapes poetry’s sequestered colonnades and turns up in the popular culture. But for those of us in the southern hemisphere, the phenomenon Eliot was referring to is something we experience in October (‘if at all’) as a sort of seasonal affectivity, a dark irony rooted in the burgeoning Spring. (There’s a similar seasonal reversal required for Ted Hughes’ ‘October Dawn’, another poem I’ve had a long attachment to (it’s mastery of half-rhyme), though it’s hard to find a correlative for Hughes’ ‘premonition of ice’ in the Australian autumn or winter.) Michael Austin reflects on Eliot’s phrase, particularly in a time of pandemic, in a blog post from April this year, entitled: ‘Why is April ‘the Cruelest Month’? TS Eliot’s Masterpiece of Pandemic Poetry.’ Austin writes: ‘Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and his wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery.’ He goes on: ‘In the Waste Land, nothing can be crueler than hope, since it can only lead to disappointment […] The more I have read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more I have realized just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe. To hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and disbelief. It’s a timely thought for those of us in our own ‘cruellest month’, as the beginning of the southern Spring this year coincides with the lifting of Australia’s most stringent lockdown. The attached video footage captures some essence of an October evening in Adelaide, a welcome relief after a particularly subdued winter. Look at all that glorious cruelty.