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On the Use and Abuse of Poetry

Being jaded has become my default setting in too many ways of late. Like many others, I am often angry and irritated about the state of things in the wider world: the abuses of climate and people, the reprehensible nature of governments. This morning I read about facial-recognition software that’s already set into the fabric of Australia via the Federal Police: that they started developing it in Australia for such use in 2008, and that by 2015 it will likely be available to all state police forces. Yes, Big Brother (and Sister!) fears, strongly articulated in the light of this and the likelihood of yet more public surveillance, are more than affirmed every day. What astonishes me is how it is just allowed to happen, the passive acceptance even by those who publicly oppose it.

This acceptance is very much tied into an increasing ‘reliance’ on (or devotion to) the very electronic devices and softwares that allow for such policing in one’s private life. A rapid and damaging process of defamiliarisation, and handing-over of one’s rights and ‘freedoms’ (more of this later), go hand-in-hand with commodity fetishism. For me, poetry is a powerful means of resisting such things. For others, such devices and softwares are the liberation of poetry. The contradiction here needs much discussion.

Any poet unfortunate enough even to engage with commercial media’s ‘summer of sports’ (in its various incarnations) will have noticed the car, fast food and beer adverts that use ‘poetry’ to sell their product. Not just references to that product, but a po-mo-lite interweaving of Australian jingoism and nationalism (interesting for products which are non-‘Australian’ in any way), modernity and consumer-democracy into propaganda that affirms ‘identity’. The use of rhyme and repetition, anaphora and clichéd symbolism affirms and sells the product, and the ‘values’ that will underpin such a product’s permanence. Poetry, in its ritualistic mnemonic heart, is being called upon to do its ‘spiritual’ (read: filling that God-shaped hole) duty.

Is this the logical outcome of promoting poetry as eternally relevant? Of placing poets in all ‘day-to-day’ situations and having them respond to and feed people’s working lives with their insights and utterances? Privileging the poet’s ‘third-eye’-like depth, fetishising the process of witnessing? Yes and no. I believe in the poet’s public role, I think that poetry installations and declaiming on street corners are a good thing – but when, in the realm of funding and product-placement, poets start to serve the consumer gods, it worries me. We all need to make a living, and if need be, we all turn to the work we find least morally compromising, but we should always give thought to cause and effect. I have had this happen with public commissions, and have then spent much time trying to disclaim or undo my involvement. Really, from the outset, we need to be conscious that poetry is a very useful tool in the ‘wrong’ hands, and that it can be turned against the very essence of what the poet believes if it is to serve a government, a company, or some other more empowered entity.

But really, what I wanted to say was that, despite jadedness being my default setting, today started differently. Before I read about facial-recognition software and cameras, I had a sense of things I’ve lost in the last couple of years. It’s going to be another ‘stinker’ today, yet another 41/42-degree day out here in the wheatbelt of Western Australia. Last night, Tracy had to reassure ten-year-old Tim that we’d have time to get out if a fire started somewhere unknown and headed towards us. As people do across Australia, we live in constant awareness of fire. So it’s going to be dangerously hot today and a breeze is lifting from the north-east – the deadliest direction here. There’s a trough just off the coast so we’ll have storms in the coming days. Lightning. We hope it rains heavily to lessen the lighting-strike effect. It probably won’t.

But very early this morning, I stepped out, and there was a strange diffused light through the valley, with the light hung like webs through the York gums and jam trees. I saw a sacred kingfisher, which we don’t see often around here in this dry place, though it’d obviously come up from the pool at the brook, down at the base of the hill where water still lingers, or off the brackish waters of an almost empty farm dam. I noticed it because of a burst of singing and flying from weebills and thornbills in dead branches overhead. Then silence. Something akin to Eliot’s ‘still point of a turning world’? Probably not – I am no fan of Four Quartets, but the line works in this context as well. Everything through the valley was still, at least as far as I could hear. I was inside a poem that didn’t need writing. Its moment was enough, and permanent as memory (likely) because of that. The thinking of it as poetry or poetic was an intervention, but even if I had not named it, what many of us think of as poetry would have taken place. No one would judge or assess it, and no one externally respond to it.

Does this devalue it as poetry? Should poetry always be externalised to have ‘cred’ as poetry? Of course not. And anyway, it’s no mere audience of one – in my actions throughout the day and maybe even further on, the distilled poetic moment will become part of my interactions with others. Ironically, were I to write a poem of the tranquillity, it would be a jaded poem, because such tranquillity cannot be possessed and held for long (by me) in such a disturbed and distressed world: locally, regionally, internationally. That would seem indulgent and a betrayal. Which is not to say I don’t find fulfilment and see purpose in reading other people’s translations of their still poetic moments and glimpses.

But my use and disclaiming of the Eliot line and its original context tell me something about my own judgements regarding the use of ‘poetry’ in advertising. What offends me so much? The products themselves? Yes. The capitalist market-economy they are part of? Yes. Greed, exploitation of animals and the environment? Yes. Nationalistic brainwashing? Yes. But then again, one could be describing the content of a lot of poetry, used as an advertising gimmick or not. Even the ironising of consumer culture by naming products in poems so we can anchor ourselves in our disgust (yes, I know that product, and hate it as much as you, and the crass consumerism that leads to its existence), works as a form of advertising. Hating something is also knowing it. Spread the word. Get under the skin. Subliminal even. There are more than a few Rudyard Kipling poems that work as powerful imperialist propaganda, but then again, Kipling has moments where the very act of poeticising makes the propaganda less than the compassions of the poem itself. Having written the poem ‘‘My Boy Jack’’ for his son John who was killed at Loos in the First World War, Kipling, though remaining a patriotic militarist, introduced pained echoes of his loss, and the trauma of war, occasionally in poetry. It is not uncommon for those who are not opposed to war, who even embrace it as a noble act, to write poems which instinctively lead the reader to feel that war can only produce devastation and wrong. We see it clearly in overtly anti-war poems such as Wilfred Owen’s, but it’s often there in those actually saturated in noblesse oblige.

An interesting example of contradictory messages which only resolve in the reader’s nexus of desire for outcomes, for thematic consistency and resolution (which is not in this poem), is in the poem ‘Anzac’ by John Le Gay Brereton (1871-1933). It is a stodgy, ‘telling’ poem, but as it breaks down through its own dilemma, as it attempts to yoke and resolve a major contradiction, it becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

 

Anzac

Within my heart I hear the cry

Of loves that suffer, souls that die,

And you may have no praise from me

For warfare’s vast vulgarity;

Only the flag of love, unfurled

For peace above a weeping world,

I follow, though the fiery breath

Of murder shrivel me in death.

Yet here I stand and bow my head

To those whom other banners led,

Because within their hearts the clang

Of Freedom’s summoning trumpets rang,

Because they welcomed grisly pain

And laughed at prudence, mocked at gain,

With noble hope and courage high,

And taught our manhood how to die.

Praise, praise and love be theirs who came

From that red hell of stench and flame,

Staggering, bloody, sick, but still

Strong with indomitable will,

Happy because, in gloomiest night,

Their own hearts drummed them to the fight.

This poem is ‘having it both ways’, on one level, but in it the poet seeks to recognise that his view of what is ‘right’ does not necessarily concur with another’s genuine sense of ‘right’. In the opening lines, Brereton overtly states his opposition to war, his belief in love (a substitute nationalism as shown through the flag image, or maybe, even, a replacement for nationalism). He volte-faces a little with his respect for that old clarion call of ‘freedom’ (how many are murdered in its name, when no freedom is ever attained?), and he even unpicks the self-immolating codes of masculinity. It’s an attempt to understand. On the other hand, for a fellow pacifist such as myself, it seems incomprehensible that one can be consistent in one’s views and even acknowledge any worthiness in war. How one could even attend an Anzac service, an embodiment of the very State that sent these men to their deaths and injury in the first place? The final six lines of the poem are most problematic in that the identification of the ‘indomitable will’, as a quality worthy above all others, is co-opted to the determinism of war itself. The alignment of happiness even indirectly with death expresses the inability to get around the horror, and tries to affirm the triumph of human nature. Personally, I could never find such optimism out of such grimness.

Even when all substance is emptied from the event of the poem, even when it becomes a sales-pitch with baubles, does the consciousness and act of it being a poem in some way lift it beyond the abuse of its ‘form’? Given poetry is, thankfully, ultimately hard to categorise and keep in its genre strait-jacket; given that even the most canonical text is only as stable as the reader’s willingness to read in a prescriptive or pre-ordained way – in other words, that meaning is only what a reader chooses to give it – maybe the crassest, most exploitative advert using ‘poetry’ is ultimately rescued by the experience of poetry itself, in that it brings about a process of listening and questioning, of self-analysis and criticism. Then again, constant repetition irons that out (ads played between every over of the cricket, between each few games of the tennis, after every goal or play in the footy).

Poetry has a long history across many cultures of being ritualistic, controlling and organising. This has its essence in a desire for cohesion and even respect, but is also part of the very construct that underlies facial-recognition software and the police state. Love. Death. Buying. Proper behaviour. But poetry is also the tool by which all of these can be confronted, discussed and even undone. In its kinship with humanity, poetry has been the tool by which we behave and confront behaviour, memorise and challenge those memories. I will try to remember the stillness and peace of this morning for years. The poem is in my head. Some lines repeat over and over.

 

John Kinsella’s most recent book of poetry is Jam Tree Gully (WW Norton, 2012). He is a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. He is poetry editor of Island.

 

Erratum: the printed version of this essay in Island 132 mistakenly referred to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘‘My Boy Jack’’, as his poem, ‘‘If’’. We apologise for any confusion.