Poetry as trespass
‘What kind of poetry do you write?” Anyone who writes poetry will inevitably be asked this at some time or another. Some questions are easy to answer. What code of football do you like? What kind of cooking do you like? etc. But when it comes to poetry, I don’t have an answer. Perhaps the closest I could get would be something like “The best I can manage, I suppose.”
Not very satisfying for someone who most likely genuinely wants to learn something about my poetry. Some people might have a more specific answer, such as ‘I write satirical poetry’ like Bruce Dawe; or ‘I write verse novels’ like Dorothy Porter or Geoff Page or Les Murray. But I don’t write anything like that. So I mumble about writing mostly short poems, but then I remember that several times I’ve published poems the length of a whole book. If I were more of a salesperson I might leap at the opportunity to say ‘Look, give me $25, and I’ll sell you a copy of my latest book so that you can find out for yourself.’ But I’m not much of a salesperson, sadly for my publisher.
But why is it such a hard question to answer? I think the reason is to do with the nature of poetry itself, at least so far as I understand it and try to write it. Poetry is not so much a matter of saying something. Rather, it is a matter of saying. It is trespassing on silence. Maybe two anecdotes might make that a bit clearer.
Many years ago I was living next door to a house that had been uninhabited for some years. The old lady who had lived there had died, and the house had just been left shut up, furniture and all. One afternoon I decided to explore it and found that the back door was open. As I wandered from one silent room to another, suddenly the phone rang. I got the fright of my life but answered it. It was another neighbor wanting to know what I was doing. That moment when the silence was broken is not unlike what happens to me when I discover words or words discover me, unexpectedly and mysteriously.
Another time I visited a friend on Ontario. He was a zoologist, and he took me to the edge of an escarpment in the woods, where the snowy landscape fell away before us. Then he told me to stand still, not make any gestures or utter a word. ‘Just become a tree’ he whispered to me. And gradually the voices of the landscape began to re-emerge. A woodpecker started pecking; there were insect sounds, all kinds of sounds my zoologist friend could identify. Out of the silence, the language of the landscape gently but undeniably asserted itself. Poetry comes like that too.
In other words, I can never write a poem with a preconceived notion of what it will be, what it is about and how it will end. The Swiss painter Paul Klee talked of ‘taking a line for a walk’ when describing his paintings. That describes what I do exactly. I take a line for a walk and wait for it to reveal where we are going and what it will lead to.
When I was living in Perth, I was a keen kayaker, and the Swan River was for me a magical place. I now live in Sydney and continue to kayak, mostly on Iron Cove, but it’s not as good as the Swan. When you kayak, you skim across the water with very little knowledge of what is underneath you. Occasionally you get a surprise. Once a dolphin swam directly underneath me. Once an eagle plucked a fish from the water just ahead of me and soared up with it into a tree. But mostly it’s a venture across the face of the unknown, with no clearly identified destination or arrival time. You could say it’s a case of follow the leader, where the leader is not me, but language itself.
That’s why my new book is called Impossible Preludes. The poem by that name suggests that anything, no matter how trivial or painful, might become the language of a poem. No matter how impossible that might seem. Another poem in the book comes closer to what I’m trying to describe here, as it describes the empty page always visible behind the letters printed across it, the mysterious silence across which the lines of the poem trespass.
It’s in the nature of language – its function, you might say – to convey meaning. So, of course, most (though not all) poems do say something, as well as saying. Mine do too. Some are love poems, some are about history or landscape or world events or cats. One is an interview with an old and rather grumpy mathematician. But these are not predetermined topics that I use language as a tool to say something about.
I’m a Pisces, and Pisceans are meant to be indecisive. For me, and for my poetry, that’s what I want, so that language can lead me wherever it goes until it gets there, and lets silence take over again.