Sep 3, 2023 | The Long Read

On the persistence of poetry: a true confession

Stephen Stockwell

Covid-19 has a lot to answer for but one of its most remarkable side effects has been a tsunami of poetry that has emerged from the epidemic lockdowns.

Award winning poet and author, Steven Herrick says: “I blame the recent lockdowns for my inbox being crowded with people sending me books to read!”

The phenomenon is easily understood: corralled in their homes with little to do but watch Tiger King on Netflix and consider their own death, there is no wonder that people grab at any purpose they can find and start channelling their inner John Keats or Sylvia Plath.

Writing poetry was more popular during Covid 19 lockdowns

I know this to be true because I am one of these people. No sooner had the disease travelled out of Wuhan and arrived in Australia on various boats with “Princess” in their names than I was struck by the mysterious joy of existence while taking out the rubbish in the rain and came back inside to pen twenty lines under the title “Rhapsody on a Wheelie Bin”.

I had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and the medication prescribed for this condition may have been a contributing factor – one of the side effects is impulsive behaviour and while I’ve avoided excessive gambling and random sex, I’ve written a lot of poetry.

What was particularly interesting about this poetic flood was that I had spent much of my youth as a public opponent of poetry. Queensland in the early 1980s was a dangerous place where the authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen government generated a rowdy and obstreperous opposition that, being Queensland, had an eccentric wing.

Once we were anti poetry

But none were so eccentric as the Cane Toad Times. I was involved in the second iteration of this journal between 1983 and 1990 – fifteen issues that not only excoriated the government for its corruption, violence and petty-mindedness but also celebrated absurd Queensland phenomena such as the cane toad, big things and people who wore hats while driving.

It was also stridently against poetry.

I myself penned a page long diatribe against poetry pointing out how its high-minded idealism was bound to be wrecked on the hard rocks of reality thus producing disillusionment, disappointment and death.

But rather than banning it and making the forbidden fruit more attractive, I advocated a modest proposal in the tradition of Johnathan Swift: not to eat the poets but to introduce a poetic licence and government regulatory board to bureaucratize poetry and make the whole process so boring that poets would find it no longer fashionable. It was a satirical magazine.

In the end The Cane Toad Times prevailed, or at least made its own minor yet eccentric contribution to the rise of the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the train crash that was the decline and fall of the Bjelke-Petersen government.

The Cane Toad Times was very, very anti poetry

The once eccentric editorial committee went off to pursue alternative endeavours, some had success in theatre, film and literature but most, like myself, eked out a living in the wilder reaches of the media and academia.

After thirty-five years of writing formulaic news stories, press releases and academic articles, I took early retirement when it was proffered and found myself writing poetry.

So, to give poetry its due, I thought I should start with the basics of real poetry and not just jump straight into the free form yammering of which I had been so critical in my callow youth, though I do reserve my right to yammer with the best of them should it come to that.

A bit about technique

So what makes poetry tick? Where better to start to learn the craft than R.F. Brewer’s Orthometry: The Art of Versification and the Technicalities of Poetry with Rhyming Dictionary, first published in 1893.

This hallowed tome begins by laying out the forms of verse from ballad and ode to sonnet and epigram, touching on the varieties of song and the licences of blank verse before turning to the “trifles”, the rondel, rondeau, roundel, sestina and triolet.

Don’t forget the villanelle, a typically pastoral nineteen-line poem with a tight pattern of rhymes and refrains that Dylan Thomas brought alive with majesty in ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’.

But wait, there’s more detail: a myriad of forms with their own histories and purposes – ottava rima, chant royal, rhyme royal, English quintain, Sapphic, haiku, Limerick, Clerihew.

Brewer builds from the syllables which when stressed and left unstressed make up the feet that provide the rhythmic meter at poetry’s heart: iambic where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable (^/), trochaic (/^), spondaic (//), pyrrhic (^^), anapaestic (^^/), dactylic (/^^) and amphibrachic (^/^).

Feet are assembled in various patterns to produce the meters that make up the lines of poetry: the iambic pentameter popular in English verse is five unstressed/stressed feet per line; the ancient heroic meter in Homer’s Illiad is the dactylic hexameter, with a truncated sixth foot and spondees sometimes replacing dactyls.

Know the rules and break ‘em

What’s the point in having rules if you can’t break them which poets are licensed to do. Poets can dabble with feet and meter and introduce pauses mid-line to produce unexpected rhythmic variation. Enjambment allows poets to run sentences on to new lines and begin them mid-line to produce surprising effects.

Omission allows poets to drop syllables or words not required to convey the sense. Pleonasm allows the introduction of superfluous words, enallage the use of ungrammatical forms and hyperbaton and anacoluthon, the transposition of words and phrases respectively, all to maintain the beat while honing the sense of a line.

Then there is rhyme which I once derided for its predictable, jangling, sing-song character but that was before I experienced the subtle frisson between euphony and cacophony in every rhyme and the pleasure of pulling out the unexpected: harm/charm/Guam.

Then there is the joy of mixing masculine rhymes of the final syllable (fleas/freeze/Portuguese) with feminine rhymes of the last two syllables (canto/portmanteau), triples (insanity/humanity) and even quadruples (observation/consternation).

Or raising expectations with an unexpected perfect rhyme only to see them crash with a wildly imperfect one: New York/gawk/Pollock.

Imperfect rhyme, and even the bad rhyme that Brewer for one would seek to proscribe, has role to play in poetry. Often in the oral presentation the poet can bend the rhymes to fit and while the written word is less forgiving, in both cases the audience is reminded of the fragility of verse as they connect vibrations in their eyes and ear with ideas in their brain.

Something new is only a brainwave away

Done right, it can be entrancing

Any good poem is always teetering on the edge of collapse, only kept alive by the confidence of the poet that they have something to say and the complicity of the audience who are sufficiently entranced by the poet’s words to hear them out.

Rhythm and rhyme can be counter-pointed with patterns of alliteration: the repetition of consonants, often, but not exclusively at the start of words. There is also assonance (repetition of vowel sounds – “solitude suits abstruse musings” Coleridge), consonance (repetition of consonant patterns – keep/cape) and onomatopoeia (sounds mimic actions – sizzle, boom, growl) along with the possibilities of metaphor and simile.

These arcane formulas open the whimsical possibilities of poetry. There are so many rhythms, rhymes, rules and words that something new is only a brainwave away. And those possibilities might produce a new word or line or genre, like rap music. Poets remain adaptable, finding new contexts like Slams in bars and Instapoetry on social media.

Perhaps there is some explanation of the attraction of poetry in its mix of form and formlessness which mimics the ineffability of what it is to be human, a biological form subject to physical rhythms and resonances with a consciousness seemingly programmed to go beyond the here and now and into other times, places, dimensions, universes and more.

Perhaps this mix of the physical beat in the here and now with the ethereal journey of the mind is what attracts me and goes some way to explaining the persistence of poetry.

Stephen Stockwell is Professor Emeritus in Journalism and Communication at Griffith University. His first book of poetry, The Voyage and the Vision is available by print on demand or eBook. His next book, The Phoenician Sonnets is coming soon. He is working on a new edition of The Cane Toad Times exploring the END OF TIMES. Contact: jlrue@canetoadtimes.com.au

 

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