Delivered by Rose van Son, Patron, Perth Poetry Festival 2022, Rooftop Concourse, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 30thSeptember, 2022.
I would like to acknowledge the Whadjuk Noongar people of this beautiful land on which we stand, and pay my respects to their elders past, present, and emerging and to recognize their strength and resilience.
As Patron of the Perth Poetry Festival 2022, I am delighted to welcome you. I am honoured to have been invited to deliver the Keynote address at this amazing Festival, a Festival I have enjoyed for many years, in friendship with the brilliant Perth writing community.
I have always been passionate about poetry, its words and sounds, its nuances, its differences, how words are propelled to make meaning. Word choice is critical to story – for what is a poem if not a story – an underlying thread, hiding between the lines or stanzas, or within the words themselves?
The poem is an extension of the poet, a life experience, a story retold in some way, an association, an issue that resonates with the poet. If we ask, ‘what is poetry,’ we would have more than 100 different possibilities. For poetry is not simply words on a page: it is history, philosophy, nature, love. It is endurance, resilience; it is hope in an uncertain world.
Poetry comes from within: an expression of self, a belief, a point of view. Poetry, as an art form, is an exploratory medium for writers of all ages and walks of life and diverse backgrounds to express their hopes, dreams, and fears, to give voice to injustices.
More importantly, poetry is a coming together of community, just as we are coming together here: lovers of words, music, sound, expression; those seeking complexity or clarity, similarities or differences. For poetry, with its diverse voices and cultures, is a leveller for poets of all ages, to mentor, question, inspire, aspire.
I extend a warm welcome to all our featured poetry guests, international, national and local. How lucky we are to hear and embrace these stunning voices in Perth, Western Australia, during this amazing 2022 Festival.
Let me tell you a story of two friends, collaborators you could say, each encouraging and inspiring the other to write the best that they can.
So, American Robert Frost and Anglo-Welsh, Edward Thomas, were friends: Robert Frost, not yet famous in 1913, had published only 18 poems in ‘North of Boston’ around that time. Like any two friends, Frost and Thomas, talked as they walked over the beautiful English countryside, the hedgerows, the stiles, for their passion was words.
For Thomas, cadence was the most important thing in writing: the sounds, the rhythms, how words fit together in ordinary and every-day language: his love for nature, clearly drawn. But for Frost, poetry was an exploration, a discovery: he wrote to find out what he didn’t already know: he considered the last lines of the poem were the all encompassing find, as much a surprise to the writer as to the reader.
It was Edward Thomas’ determination and love of words that kept him focused on his writing during his lifetime. An essayist and literary critic, Thomas was impassioned by language: his essays sonorous, harmonious.
As mentor and confidant, Frost suggested that Thomas write poetry rather than critique it; to look at his essays and see if he could find poetry in them. Frost encouraged Thomas to write poetry itself: its beauty, its nature, its transcendence.
Certainly Thomas had so much to write about: his knowledge of and immersion in nature, his thoughts, his misgivings.
For Thomas, and for many of us who write, poetry is therapy, meditation, a reflection on our reading and on ourselves. Poetry is essential to mental well-being.
Thomas finally wrote poetry: 140 poems in two years, only a handful published before his death at age 39 at the Battle of Arras, France, Easter Monday, 1917.
American Pulitzer prize-winning poet, W.S. Merwin says, ‘Wisdom comes not from learning but from the imagination, that vast, unexplored territory where the mind receives messages from the unknown. It is the poet’s work to walk that terrain, visit those half hidden headwaters and return with a poem to remind us.’
So, if wisdom comes from the imagination, as Merwin believes, that unexplored territory where the mind receives messages, do messages simply ‘drop in’ to the forefront of the mind and become words on the page? Spontaneous, so that poets suddenly find themselves grappling with emotions for which they are ill-prepared.
Certainly, writers and readers are, at times, not prepared for the fallout, for the shock that poetry unravels within us.
Poems of the everyday, take on the spiritual, propel us into a new location, a new perspective, so we can see again, what we thought we already knew.
To take the everyday, a moment captured, a cloak thrown over the shoulders, the poet captures the swing, the folds, the light and shadow which both hide and reveal a deeper understanding.
So what is poetry? Was that the question?
For me, poetry has always been about perception, and depending on where you are standing, poet or reader, the view is vastly different, the shadows fall at varying angles: sometimes soft, sometimes sharp. This is how we become ourselves.
This is ‘how perceptibly we become ourselves, writes poet Charles Wright…
‘take off your travelling clothes and / lay down your luggage, / Pilgrim shed your nakedness.’ (from, Not everyone can see the truth, but he can be it)
When we write, we lay ourselves bare; send ourselves naked into the world, for we can no longer hold back what we have written. We all have journeys to follow and we deal with these journeys as best we can: no two journeys, no two pilgrims are the same.
There is the dark and there is the light; how the light illuminates the dark, how the dark contours the light, allows us to transcend time and place.
American poet Wallace Stevens’ poem thirteen ways of looking at a Blackbird arrests you in its form and delivery. For what is poetry if it cannot be delivered in and from the body; what is poetry if you cannot hear the flapping of wings?
Poetry was there during the Great War and again in World War II. It was there for former Prime Minister John Curtin to help him through the difficult times.
Poetry was there during my mother’s journey from the Old World to the New:
fresh-faced, excited, wanting, fearful.
Poetry harbours adventure, misadventure, mindfulness, love, loss. And everything in-between.
For a poem is a story of history, tradition, seasons, music. Poets dip into crevices and are blinded by what they see – the transparency of leaves, the folds of the paperbark. A poem leads and the poet follows.
Verses are not as people imagine, simply feelings; they are experiences. (Rainer Maria Rilke)
Daniel Barenboim, a pianist and conductor, born in Argentina, says musical expression comes from linkage – the Italian legato, literally meaning ‘bound’, each note is in relation to the preceding note and the note that comes after. In this way, we make music.
In this way too, we make poetry: syllables, words joined together, one note after the other, often simple notes but important in the order they appear, their metaphorical significance, juxtaposed to expose beauty. Poetry and music are one. To find the crack where the light comes in: who doesn’t love Leonard Cohen’s work?
So what sustenance does poetry give to writers and readers? Why do we have these amazing Festivals, seminars, readings, open mic, if not to lift the spirits or hold the breath? Poetry is a longing, for what we know, for what we have left behind. Poetry is recognition of the past, a premonition for the future, a meditation or understanding for the present.
Louise Gluck – 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, frames nature, desire, loss, death…. In the last stanza of Midsummer she writes:
‘The summer night glowed; in the field, fireflies were glinting.
And for those who understood such things, the stars were sending messages:
You will leave the village where you were born
and in another country you’ll become very rich, very powerful,
but always you will mourn something you left behind, even though
you can’t say what it was,
and eventually you will return to seek it.’
It is important to encourage people from all cultural backgrounds to tell their stories through poetry: the lives they have travelled; experienced. Sometimes, the story is painful to share. But healing, joy and understanding can begin in the sharing of that journey. And for the audience, such a rich experience to be had. It takes courage to share your poetry; it takes courage to read your works to largely unknown faces.
So, why do we say poetry is beautiful, even when it is about war, tragedy, loss? Why do we look to poetry for meditation, for consolation?
Poetry thrives on the particulars of life – William Carlos Williams. The detail we often miss, sometimes in simple words, sometimes enveloped in metaphor, Poems tell us what we are afraid to say, to hear…
Thank God for our poets…who help us find the words our own tongues feel too swollen to speak…! Margaret Renkl writes in an August issue of the New York Times.
I would like to read an excerpt of a poem by Iraqi poet Khalid Kaki, now residing in Spain, translated by Sydney poet and translator, Zeina Issa (Mascara Literary Review 2013)
A Belated Message from ‘Halabja’
“The children, the mules
and the dragonflies
fell asleep exhausted,
In the shade of the village’s clay walls,
they will not wake up again
nor will the sunflowers
bowing their heads after the last sunset..
The women villagers
the harvesters of wheat
the carriers of water from the spring
the milkers of the morning’s first drop
they shall stop
at this border in life
despite the faithful sun
promising them much more.
The singing voice of the pupils
spreading across the mountain’s map
hurried towards the ringing bell of death
thinking it was time for class…’’
John Burnside’s poem, Apostasy, published in the London Review of Books, begins.
‘At one time,
When there might have been a God,
And nobody saying a word
Till the day is done,
The backroads leading
everywhere but home,
pilgrim again, beyond all destination.
So we return to where we began: pilgrims, naked, looking for home.
Once a poem is published, voiced, it folds itself into the rhythms of the earth. Perhaps the most difficult thing is to let the poem go, to allow it to make its own way, find itself in the catechism of a day.
We are here to celebrate poetry in all its forms: the poets who speak for us when we cannot find the words, the poets who imagine a new world, cleaner, brighter, sharper, and the poets who remind us of what has been lost, found.
We are here on Whadjuk Noongar country to celebrate community, diversity and inclusivity.
It is my honour and pleasure to launch the 2022 Perth Poetry Festival – enjoy the friendships, the diversity it brings, the words.