Acknowledgment and respect are offered to the traditional custodians for our area, the Whadjuk Noongar clan, and their elders past, present and emerging
Best wishes to all involved in this year’s Perth Poetry Festival and may our poets and poetry long be remembered. And may the muses disquieten us enough to write great poetry. So far, we have had a wonderful fest of poetry, especially our featured festival poets; and have enjoyed workshops, book launches and readings.
Not many people know that the first poetry composed in Western Australia was by a Dinosaur. I am not referring to William Wordsworth or Lord Tennyson or even to myself. As was noted in the 2004 Marginata newsletter of the WA Writers Centre, our Australian birds, which are the feathered descendants of dinosaurs, apparently gave birdsong to all the world’s birds. So, I maintain that memorisation by repetition of notes or words in songs of birds (or humans) is a reason why poetry exists. Think of Mozart’s Papageno in ‘The Magic Flute’, whose occupation was imitating bird sounds in order to trap them. Bird trappers have been imitating birdsong for aeons. Many a Perth poet has doubtless stood in her or his or their garden imitating the calls of magpies or kookaburras, presumably hoping for recognition of shared melodic expertise. As every ad-man knows, a jingle stays in one’s head much more easily than does prose. Music and poetry are indeed twins
When I think to my first awareness of Western Australian poetry, it was really when I joined the Fellowship of Australian Writers at Tom Collins house back in the 1960s. At the time there was little recitation of poetry in public. Recognised local writers were few but were highly esteemed Australia-wide. Once a year there was a major reading event organised by the FAW with featured authors such as Randolph Stow, Mary Durack, Dorothy Hewett and many more. The event would be held in one of Perth’s theatres and much of the reading was not by the writers themselves but by Perth actors such as Nita Pannell. Contrast that with today where multiple readings occur weekly throughout the Metropolitan area and in WA country centres. Around 1980 Philip Salom instituted regular ‘Disc’ readings by WA poets in Northbridge. Our group ‘Poetry in Motion’ was set up in 1985 with the late Alan Alexander, Shane McCauley, Bryn Griffiths and me. Our aim was to try to bring back the old Australian tradition of public recitation of poetry. From shearing shed to shopping centre and elsewhere we performed, always with our folk musicians, throughout WA, overseas and even on ABC radio and television. Fortunately, the whole history of poetry reading in WA is excellently recounted in Mar Bucknell’s recent book, ‘Fifty Words for Sand’.
It’s true that before books, as we know from Australia’s indigenous history, all our finest, most precious words, could and had to be preserved orally—whole libraries of verse. How many of our poets here today have had any of their poems committed to memory by others and recited back to them? But before books, all the world’s greatest (or even least notable) poets always had to have their words ‘learned by heart’. That certainly is something to contemplate
‘Learned by heart’ is also a clue to the fact that content of a poem must be special, in other words worth writing down in this form we can call ‘poetry’. Not just our love poems either! Charles Darwin’s grandfather wrote his scientific treatises in metrical form, as was not unusual in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was not only to reflect their importance but as well seeking memorability. The blank verse of Shakespeare’s plays is, of course, in regular iambic form greatly aiding memorisation by actors. Even though George Orwell had a poor view of poetry he respected that political chants were easily memorised, eg ‘FOUR LEGS GOOD, TWO LEGS BAD’. So let us not underrate this mnemonic ingredients of poetry.
How many poets here regularly recite ‘from memory’ their own verse at readings? Unless they are slam poets? Of course, if you write so-called visual poems (where the point is the layout) a recitation can’t show that anyway.
These days, not many recite poetry from memory unless holding an IPhone in hand as a prompt. I myself have only committed to heart a dozen or so of my own poems, since I am not a natural memoriser. Not like the old bush poets who could virtually recite half of A B Paterson or Henry Lawson. Metrical form was there usually with music at the beginning of human poetry to aid memorisation. So I never compose a poem without first trying it out aloud. It’s not a bad habit. At least we should know some by heart.
But I do remember a few poems or parts of them, from my schooldays, even in other languages—
—– Stanotte ho sognato la neve,
—– soffici ammassati cristalli alla prima caduta
—– taking me back to Postalesio
—– and the shrouded white of the valley floor,
—– the Valtellina, gashing cloud-torn Alps
This one is mine own—in Italian and English of course for Gary’s benefit!
But there is much more to form in poetry than metrics. Or how would our poems rise above mere advertising jingles? Although it is thus we may remember the number of days in each month of the year. Of course, it is content.
And so to the theme of this year’s Perth Poetry Fest: The Disquieting Muse. It seems strange, perhaps, that, as in media news stories, worthy subjects of most local poems seem to range from accidents of race or birth, love or war, even to our toast falling on the buttered side. At most current poetry readings we are reminded of disquieting events. But on the other hand we do have a lot of cheery poetry. Maybe poetry should try to make us break stride, be disquieted. Pause in the midst of the commonplace. What’s so wrong with that? Better than those advertising jingles to jingle our pockets.
One other thing to remember, at this gala launch of the 2023 Perth Poetry Festival, is our rich WA heritage of past poets. Deaths of much-loved Nyungar poet Alf Taylor last month, following so soon after our loss of Andrew Burke, might prompt us to link for a moment the deceased and the living in Western Australian poetry—
Henry Clay and Elizabeth Brockman (19th Century)
Jack Davis and Fay Zwicky (20th Century)
and John Kinsell and Charmaine Papertalk Green from the 21st… to name but a few of our outstanding WA poets.
Yes, we should be proud of them, especially our current host of culturally diverse poets. So let us honour them by writing better and better poetry.
And before I draw to your attention that this talk is entirely composed in iambic pentameters, I might remind you of what the greatest British poet, John Milton, said about writing poetry: ‘Rhyme is a vain and fond thing with which a serious poet need have no commerce!’