Monday, August 24, 2009

On Poetic Quality

How do we distinguish between good and bad poetry? There are plenty of people who will say that it’s impossible to judge – that quality is a subjective thing and that one man’s literature is another’s junk. As a book reviewer who spends many hours a week judging the quality of a range of books, many of them poetry collections, I disagree with that. Of course there are always subjective elements to any assessment, but there are also objective criteria which we can use to judge other people’s poetry and also to ensure that our own work is consistently high quality. They aren’t a guarantee. According to Martin Amis there’s only one way of judging quality, and that’s time. There’s not much you can do to ensure that your writing will survive a generation. But there are elements that you can find in other work, and strive for in your own, that will help. I’m sure that there are more, but I’ve narrowed down my list to 3 things: originality, surprise, and connection. They are intimately related to one another.


A good poem should say something in a way that has never been said before. It’s hard, I know, to write original verse about love, hate, or the ocean! But that’s the whole point of poetry – to do something entirely new with language – to break boundaries. If you can’t do this, you’re better off writing in a different form. Do you really think it’s impossible to say something new about love? How about this, from Brenda Hillman:

Early life was a looseness;
even if your preferred mode is fragment, you need syntax
to love. (Loose Sugar, Wesleyan, 1977)

One way in which to attempt this is to employ that old chestnut of showing rather than telling. Concrete images, sensation, detail, and above all, your own individual, resonant voice all provide unique elements that, combined, no one else can quite replicate.

Another way is to get rid of the junk: the cliché, the trite, the laboured, and go straight for the reader’s jugular. The reader needs to be brought into the poem. We need to feel the words in our own bodies, enriched by our own individual package of experiences.


I love the denouement of a great poem. That moment of shock and wonder when we feel the chair is pulled from beneath us (and no hard bump at the end). A good poem should surprise us with its novelty; it should reveal something unpredicted. How? There’s no straightforward answer to this, but masterly employing poetic devices: sensatory, auditory, emotive can help. Another good trick is to pull together elements which might, at first seem discontinuous. Call it a clever use of dichotomy if you want to employ the critic’s tongue. Pick on things that are often not poetry fodder and turn them on their head. Write about love by looking at the cosmos (that’s my trick – hands off :-), or death by looking at a newborn, or a piece of clothing dryer fluff (always makes me think of death).


It isn’t enough to use language in novel, surprising, and even powerful ways. Your work has to connect with a reader. It has to mean something. That’s the bottom line. It is sometimes difficult to toe that line between obscurity and originality. Not everyone will be coming at the poem with the same vocabulary and set of internal references. Nevertheless, there has to be some kind of overall thematic going on, and it has to have a degree of universality for a poem to be high quality. A poem so personal that it only means something to the poet isn’t high quality. Similarly, a beautifully written poem that doesn’t yield something: a question, a point, empathy, a challenge, an idea, just won’t move the reader. We’ll be locked out. Good quality poems do the opposite: they drag us in, sometimes kicking and screaming (I'm probably the only one who kicks and screams while reading poetry...).

Thursday, August 20, 2009


This is a multimedia poetry piece I created about a year ago, but this blog business makes for a nice kind of compendium, so I might actually put in some older stuff from time to time, not only to buy me a little time to actually create something new (working...working), but also to keep track since I have work all over the place. This piece contains (with permission) part of a wonderful song called Kopanitsa (Version 2), which is a traditional piece arranged by Mara Kiek, Llew Kiek, Jim Denley, and Haughton. The musicians playing are Sandy Evans, Jim Denley, Steve Elphick, Llew Kiek and Mara Kiek, aka Mara. It's from their album Don't Even Think. The words are mine and the images were done by Pete Patterson and May Lattanzio (messed about by me). Spring is definitely on the horizon here in Australia.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

In praise of the slow read, or why we need longer attention spans

Attention spans are shortening. I hear it all the time, and don’t doubt it either. People are bombarded with fast-paced moving imagery on television, in computer games, in media of all types and we scan, cram, multitask, grab a quick bite and move on. From a literary perspective, Noah Lukeman tells us that we get five pages to capture an agent or publisher’s attention, and there is evidence that the same is true for readers. If you don’t grab their interest quickly, well, there are plenty of other books out there that will, besides, we only have five minutes to devote to reading. But is this good? From the perspective of a reader, is it wise? There are some novels that will grab you from the first page and hold on until the last. Some of the more successful young adult books have developed the “cliffhanger” to the point of perfection. But just because a book is slow or languid, doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t engaging. Sometimes engagement takes time and effort, and complex meaning needs space to unfold. I find that, even on re-reading, anything by Virginia Woolf needs a reading of the entire book before the full power and meaning becomes clear. Judge too quickly and you’ll miss the big picture. The last book I read (re-read) – Life of Pi – was the same. The bigger picture required the entire space of the book. I simply was unable to judge it adequately on the first five pages. Now I’m a busy gal. I run everywhere and multitask constantly. But I’m still in favour of reading (and to be honest, writing) slowly. I don’t believe that it’s healthy to consume everything so quickly, and discard so readily. It just doesn't allow digestion to occur properly, and I mean that both literally and metaphorically. Surely there’s still value in teaching our children (and ourselves) to wait for gratification? If we don’t at least occasionally learn to wait a little we’re in danger or making judgement too soon, and allowing our desire for constant external stimulation to stop us from experiencing the beautiful in favour of the quick. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vlog on the Blog (Repulsion Thrust)

I wanted to do something new, so here is a video of me reading the title poem from my upcoming poetry collection Repulsion Thrust available in December 2009 from BeWrite Books. I've been been meaning to play around with video for some time, so this is my first shaky attempt (Bellbirds, roosters and all). My editor called this poem "Audenesque". I actually have a reference to Pound in it, but Auden will do!

Promoting Poetry: Is it a Mug's Game

An old guest blog reprint just to get the ball rolling (no pun intended). New stuff of all descriptions coming soon. Welcome!


Let me start by saying, right up front, that publishing poetry is generally not a road to riches. Most of us write poetry for reasons other than its hot selling power. Of all genres, poetry is probably the hardest to sell. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but I’ll hazard an educated guess that it’s because there’s a kind of misconception that poetry isn’t an engaging read (not suitable for the beach or an airplane), isn’t an easy read (the “highbrow fallacy”), and that it isn’t going to improve you in any way (unlike self-help books, which will cure your diseases, make you slimmer, and attract lots of good stuff to you). Don’t say I didn’t warn you. So why bother? Why not just write a diet book? Here are two reasons why poetry matters.

1. “it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

That is, as Auden said so beautifully in “In Memory of WB Yeats”, poetry connects us in ways that go deeper than any other words can. It endures, and continues to move us, in the writing and in the reading, regardless of literary trends, political activity, and its overall saleability.

2. Because “men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

That is, as William Carlos Williams said so beautifully in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, there’s an inherent power in poetry to move beyond the boundaries that divide us; to jump over the cliffs between us; and move beyond those lines of race, class, age, and above all, our innate fears, and reach a place of common humanity. Life is busy, and it’s so easy to forget to look into one another’s eyes; to talk in convenient syllables and soundbites rather than sincerely; to miss what matters under the big pile of what’s urgent. In other words, and let me say this very clearly, good poetry is important. It’s important to our inner life, and where it succeeds, it succeeds hugely, becoming lodged in our consciousnesses. Like the two poems above, which I’ve carried around in my head since I came across them as a young teen, good poetry sticks with the reader. It continues to be recited and cited and in its own beautifully viral way, changes who we are and how we see our lives and our world.

So poetry matters, and we need to keep reading and writing it, even if it isn’t an easy sell, because it will be with us long after the South Beach Diet has been forgotten. But how, as a poet, do you become “lodged?” How do you promote your poetry so others read it?

Firstly, remember that good poetry is as pleasurable to read as it is to write. If you write it, you have a responsibility to read the best work of others. You’ll be a better poet as a result and who knows, you might start a trend. If you don’t know where to start, try Dorothy Porter, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Les Murray, or Luke Davies. Those are a few of my favourites, and writers whose work is consistently beautiful, passionate, modern, relevant and accessible. Or try the classics, Williams, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Plath, Brooks. Try purchasing an anthology. Black Inc do an annual anthology of Australian poetry (Best Australian Poems 2008 was edited by Peter Rose), Scribner does one for American poetry, (Best American Poetry 2008 was edited by Charles Wright) and there are similar books for Canada and England. Or try a literary journal – there are plenty to choose from. Great poetry will inspire great poetry, even if you write nothing but prose. The perfectly chosen word is always worth reading, and emulating.

Secondly, don’t limit yourself to the printed page. Poetry isn’t sacred. It began as our earliest oral tradition and continues to be most effective delivered orally. Sing, dance, recite, move about, use props. Think Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith. You don’t even have to have a good voice– just confidence (easily feigned), and some performance acumen. Look your audience in the eye, remember they’re on your side, and connect. But just because you’re adding props, music, and chutzpah doesn’t mean you can use cliché, ineffective imagery, or be ridiculous. I once saw a poet perform his work while eating a banana. It wasn’t pretty. There’s a fine line between great work and a fun performance. Find it and walk it. Don’t forget to bring books to sell with you either, because you’ll sell more work at a live performance than anywhere else. Then you can capitalize on the buzz with websites, blogs (like this one), reviews of other poet’s work, and samples.

Finally, network. Poets should support one another. Writing poetry doesn’t need to be secretive, lonely, or tortured. We should buy, review, and talk up each others’ work (where deserved); and if you find something good, by all means, shout about it. Collaborate, coordinate, cross-promote, and above all, celebrate. Because great poetry, and by that I mean words that sear and sting and open every pore, are cause for celebration. You can take that to the bank.