Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

'Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines'.

'...when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say it how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place.'

Jeanette Winterson

A number of things have happened over the past couple of weeks that have made me re-evaluate the place of poetry (and literature) in my life. First, I read Jeanette Winterson's wonderful new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. I'm always amazed by Winterson's ability to find words for feelings I share but could never articulate. Although not strictly speaking a poet she has the sensibility of one and it was interesting to read about her early experiences of literature - The Bible, Shakespeare, Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur, T.S Eliot and the contents of the Accrington Public Library 'English Literature in Prose A-Z' section.

Other things that kept me thinking along these lines were Twitter conversations I followed about finding good poets to excite older kids on one hand and the draconian cuts to libraries (and museums/ community services) in the UK on the other. To top it all off and bring it all home we had the announcement yesterday that the new Queensland Premier had axed the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards (during The National Year of Reading no less!).

What's going on?! Has the GFC (not a real excuse in Australia) created or unleashed some form of universal, contagious mean-spiritedness? Is it arrogance or is it just a spectacular lack of imagination? When phrases like 'waste of taxpayer money' start being bandied around it becomes patently clear that there has been no real thought given to the knock-on effects such decisions set in train - disaffection and isolation within the community being something that should matter to any government. I suspect Winterson is right and that it's been a long time (if ever) since those making the decisions have done it tough. Words can be empowering just ask any rapper.

If there is an up-side to all these confronting events perhaps it's that it has forced me to re-evaluate and try and articulate why I value the place of literature in a world where things may otherwise by 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. On a micro-level it has sent me (children in tow) back to the local library to support their work and has encouraged me to revisit the poets who have inspired me in the past - T.S. Eliot, John Donne, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dorothy Porter, Gwen Harwood, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell and so many more. It has also made me realise that my poetry reading is woefully out-of-date so if you have any suggestions I'd love to hear them.

You just can't take anything for granted can you?


  1. It's lovely that you're so directly supporting books, authors and reading. I was so sad to see the Qld Premier's Literary Award get the chop ... it makes me really worry about the arts and how they are viewed.

    PS. A favourite 'modern' poet of mine is Matthew Dickman - you should be able to find some of his work around online.


    1. Thanks for letting me know about Matthew Dickman Tracey. I'll certainly look him up.

  2. I still love my shabby old copy of The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets - such a great selection. I also like Anne Michaels (author of the novel Fugitive Pieces). Another fantastic collection is The Poetry of Survival: Post-war Poets of Central and Eastern Europe (Penguin). I'm also a big fan of Anna Akhmatova.

  3. Oh, and for kids I really like The New Faber Book of Children's Poems with fantastic illustrations by Sara Fanelli. My girls also really like Lorraine Marwood's Note on The Door.

    1. Thanks for the great suggestions! I remember reading Fugitive Pieces many years ago and being so moved by it. I must admit I don't know Akhmatova's work very well even though I saw a great play about her some years ago "The Woman In The Window' - such an amazing life. She must definately go on the list. I have not been very good getting my kids started on a 'Poem Of The Week' but as tomorrow is Anzac Day I think it's a appropriate day to start. We have a lovely children's collection called 'Classic Poetry: An Illustrated Collection' with poems selected by Michael Rosen (who you directed me to on Twitter!) which I bought when I was a children's bookseller long before I had children so I'm planning to start there. I'll check out the new Faber book too.

  4. What an interesting post Caz.

    When I read the quote above the first word that came to mind was 'rap' I was really pleased you mentioned it. There are some really meaningful words being written by contemporary writers, some who are very young. When I read some of my nephew (a musician)'s lyrics I'm sometimes amazed at how profound and intuitive they are...or he is... If that's not poetry I don't know what is.

    Jeanette WInterton's been on the radio a number of times this week...I listened to her discussing her new book whilst I was ironing on Saturday morning. She sounds an interesting woman...whose still recovering from her traumatic childhood. I haven't read any of her works but remember a wonderful adaptation of 'Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit' years ago that both Ahmad and I found compelling...I'd like to return to it at sometime soon.

    Like you my poetry reading is woefully out-of-date...I still love reading Keats!

    One of my brother-in-laws writes both prose and poetry...I must ask him for some recommendations next time we talk and pass them on to you..

  5. Thanks Deb. Do let me know if your brother-in-law has any good suggestions!