On the health advantages of poetry;
why it’s easier to write than jog.
I’ve returned to writing poetry recently. It seems a natural thing for me to do at this point because my life has changed so dramatically and in such a relatively short space of time that it commands some kind of marking of the events surrounding the changes and the resultant fallout. When Georgia asked me to write for her, she suggested poetry as a topic and, I must admit, under her question of ‘why poetry’ it was the first time I had asked myself the question. All I can say is that it feels like a friend returning after a long absence; a comfort amidst the often-calamitous melee that surrounds me currently.
I’ve always written poetry, and kept some early attempts from the age of 17 or 18 when I wrote about love, death, God and other melancholy contemplations of a delusional teenager. I think I’ve always sought the melodramatic and it has sought me back bringing with it lots of delicious material to write poetry about. It remains a happy and comfortable partnership but undertaken alone and without the benefit of a parachute. I blame Mrs. Gouldie and her elocution lessons in Rose Cottage at Santa Sabina and the absence of an interest in fashion or sport.
I’ve come up with some explanations for my interest in poetry. It’s not just writing my own poetry that captures my attention, I am as happy reading a book of poetry as I am reading prose. Mind you, I do have a preference for styles of prose that have the same characteristics as verse; poetic verging on the flowery (Dickinson, Dumas, Bronte sisters); dialectic, especially when you can hear the Irish and Scottish brogues – Maeve Binchy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Ann Shaffer (Potato Peel Pie Society – a Gernsey story), Lilly Prior (La Cucina – poetic Italian); snappy, Peter Corris’s Cliff Hardy novels, contemporary Australians like Tim Winton who captures the Australian character and landscape so poetically and Helen Garner who takes us deep into the melancholy psyche of its inhabitants; and more and more often, well written hip-hop.
I think the attraction of poetry over prose for me though is two-fold; the capacity words have in poetry to so closely express and emote feelings, as music does, and their flexibility in being ordered, twisted and turned to form a pattern, like a jigsaw, where there is a place for everything and there is a best fit for everything in its place. Poetry is a truly liberating way to use words because, unlike prose, you can focus more particularly on the parts of the whole; on each word, its syllable and phoneme, its rhythm and resonance, like the first taste followed by the aftertaste of wine. I look for words to use that ‘roll off the tongue’ (‘Roll your r’s my dears’) and shape visual responses. You can write poetry without necessarily bothering too much about the whole, because while it is an added bonus to have a message or conclusion contained in a poem, it’s not absolutely essential and most times there are multiple messages and conclusions to be gained. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink, Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink); The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Half a league half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred) and other classics with ideas and images in every stanza that lodge firmly in memory to be drawn upon when illustrative of an emotion or occurrence. You can take one stanza from an A A Milne poem that explains itself without the rest;
James James Robertson Robertson Wetherby George Dupree
Took great care of his mother though he was only three
James James Robertson Robertson said to his mother, said he
‘You must never go down to the end of town unless you go down with me.
You really don’t need anything else do you. When it’s titled ‘Disobedience’ you can quite easily tell where this poem is going, can’t you.
I think it’s why we can often recite one or two verses of a poem but not all of it; why we remember the first stanza of the Australian anthem but not the rest. Sometimes, you can say it all in one or two lines. Ogden Nash had this down to a fine art; just one line of any of his poems is often sufficient;
If called by a panther, don’t anther.
Writing poetry is my therapy. It gives me a sense of order and control where I am bereft of it in my wider life. One can paint pictures with so few words and there is such an enormous palette to choose from with the English language. One can mix words up much like a pudding full of rich ingredients that, when it comes out of the oven, assaults one’s every sense. One can, intentionally, be brief and still capture the point. With poetry, you can start immediately with one, four line stanza and the process suggests the next stanza and the next. You often don’t know what the end of the poem will reveal until you get there, and then you can trace the end back to its source to discover the clues that lead to the end. The words themselves dictate the weft and the warp of the poem and suggest the ideas that the poem might give birth to.
And then, of course, when one’s day is spent writing with the full swing of logic and rationale in train, ‘plain English’ exercises designed to explain the inexplicable, tumbling back into poetry is such a relief, such a wonderful indulgence. No expensive equipment required, a pen and piece of paper, no electricity necessary, no connection to the web. Mind you, I am happy to use any new technology to spread the joy, explaining my predilection for assaulting my family with rhyming poems about the train journeys to and from work sent by text on my mobile phone. I call them Text-a-poems. They must know by now that I am self-medicating with poetry, surely.
It seems to me that I can spend as much time working on a poem as a piece of prose, or indeed a lengthy and complicated technical report, particularly if I intend trying to get it published. I don’t expect to have anything published though, that way I won’t be disappointed when it’s not. This is a humble Catholic trait of mine to protect me from the very hard-edged world of unappreciative critics that I inhabit. A recent example is a poem I submitted to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in the ‘Poems on Pillows’ competition where seven poems were selected to be placed on the pillows of two hotels in Sydney – one on each night of the Festival week. Mine was not chosen, with no explanation for why it was not good enough. You be the judge!
Sweet Dreams, Vittoria Lo Schiavo*
This is where your new dreams lie
Waiting for your coming night
Thoughts that stir your drifting sleep
Memories of the longing heart
Plans that make tomorrow.
Slumber till the dawn awakes
Shines its light on night’s dim shadows
Takes your gaze to harbour waters
Touches streets and buildings golden
Keeps a little of you here.
So there – it’s published. I’ll now move on to working on my poem for The Blake Prize, and if that’s not selected either, then I’ll write another article for Georgia that manages to weave that in to the prose too.
Notwithstanding the possibility that my poems will never be selected for anything, poetry is the most ready means for me to lift my head above the great, grey and weighty dross of the everyday and ponder a brighter pattern of life closer to my liking. Certainly, ordering and matching the words in a poem, no matter how arduous, is a more intellectual approach to gaining a sense of order than colour coding a spreadsheet. It is my ultimate delusion of order among the chaos, my panacea for tranquil contemplation, my Prozac for peace and quiet.
Let them eat poetry.
Written by Victoria Keighery
*The name I used to publish my first poem, Ode to Death, in Honi Soit (University of Sydney Union Mag) in 1968 pkf my brother Marco who was editor at the time. Well – I was only 18 and working as a bank clerk!