At last week’s Creative Writing Showcase, South Australian poet and Tabor Adelaide lecturer, Aidan Coleman, reminded us again of the vitality and appeal of the written word and creative imagination, as he shared from his Rough Notes on the Importance of Poetry…
I thought I’d open by reading you a poem by the Polish poet, and Nobel laurete, Wisława Szymborska:
For me this poem captures much of the delight of writing. Poetry offers the pleasure of creating a small world where you are in complete control. Here Szymborska decides whether her deer will drink from cool streams or bound into the woods. She decides whether the hunters will fire their guns and she can also, if she decides to, stop the bullets in mid air – Matrix-like. She can even choose to stop time all together, as she puts it: ‘The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say’.
Szymborska has all the power of a God over her little created world and, although she is mortal, she relishes the prospect of her poem surviving time – the possibility that it may one day wash up on some foreign shore, like a message in a bottle.
As Christians we believe we are made in God’s image. Leaving aside the theological arguments on whether we can be creators or sub-creators, being made in God’s image simply means, as Dorothy Sayers puts it, that we have “the desire and the ability to make things”. Adam, who worked with his hands, is also the first namer, and therefore the first poet.
Poetry, unlike the mass media, offers a place where strangeness and individuality are celebrated. Ezra Pound advised poets to ‘make it new’; he might just as well have said to ‘make it strange’ because poetry makes us feel both strange at home and at home with strangeness.
WH Auden describes art as: ‘our chief means of breaking bread with the dead’. When you write poems you are conversing with other poets who have written before you, some of them living, others deceased, and it is in reading others that you are able to find a modern and original voice.
The first poems I wrote, were heavily influenced by the poets I studied at school: TS Eliot, Hopkins and the Romantics. They were crammed with a sort-of all you-can-eat buffet of poetic devices; they were bogged down in archaic language and, worst of all, they favoured abstract concepts over the contrete details of personal experience.
What changed this for me was living near a cheap bookstore in my uni days. I got into the habit of buying and reading Australian poetry. In these pages I discovered Australian landscapes and cityscapes. Many of the poets I read were South Australian, and they were describing the world around me. I was excited by the way these poets transformed the ordinary world; the way they made this world mysterious; the way they made me look again. Suddenly the industrial badlands along the Gawler Central train line presented me with potential material for poetry. Everything was charged with a new significance.
The act of writing poetry offers the opportunity to think originally. When you invent a strange simile or metaphor, it is possible that no one before you has ever made this connection. In the sciences or humanities, this sort of achievement can take years of study – often at PhD level. But with poetry it can come to you in a single thrilling moment. In poetry you can create something that is uniquely you.
When we read a great poem it strikes us as irresistible, and we will come to internalise it – perhaps even to memorise it – we will come to make it our own.
We encounter this idea of internalising literature in Ezekiel:
Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth.
We revisit the same idea with a twist in the book of Revelation.
The psalmist exclaims:
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
This blurring of the senses, theorists call synaesthesia. It’s a rather ugly and technical name but it captures the heightened sense with which we experience great poetry.
The American poet Mark Strand revives the idea of edible literature, in the three-line poem I’d like to finish with: