Monday, July 18, 2011

Poetry—an affair with words

Today, I wanted to talk a little bit about poetry. Out loud. Not under my breath. Not in a darkened community hall or a smoky bar filled with beret-wearing weirdos, but as a valued, time-honored artistic pursuit. It is no secret that, as a creative art, poetry is among the most neglected. It seems more people write poetry (with varying degrees of success) than read it, and even some of the most accomplished short story writers I know insist they don’t “get” poetry. Not only is readership low, but as a result it is difficult to get poetry published (or at least in a paying publication) and it is even harder to find reviewers. And it is next to impossible to make enough out of your poetry to live on; however, that is true for most writing, depending on your lifestyle requirements (that is, whether you can survive on dry crackers or not).

I have loved poetry since I was a small child. In fact, when I was just eight I won a poetry competition with a poem called “Pioneering Days.” My mother still has it tucked away in a drawer somewhere, illustrated with hand-drawn clunky Clydesdales plodding away beneath a radiant orange sun. That competition won me ten bucks. I was elated. I bought a kite and still had plenty left for several trips to the corner store for $1 bags of lollies. Ahhhh, those were the days. Success! How sweet it seemed. Winning that competition led me to believe, erroneously, that poetry was a lucrative pastime that would one day put my name up in lights. Hah.

Even after my realisation that publishing poetry was a mug’s game, I continued to write poems. Sometimes it was cathartic. Sometimes it just killed an hour or two. Sometimes I simply couldn’t help it: I was struck by lyrical words that arranged themselves beautifully in my head and wouldn’t leave until they were scrawled on paper or forced into some kind of rhyme. I also continued to read poems. And I continued to subject (not submit) my poems to competitions. I even won a few more, although by then I recognised that as a nice buzz but nothing to write home about.

Perhaps because I have spent my life being swept away by poetry's allure, a part of me always wonders why many writers aren’t as seduced by poetry as I am. Perhaps the distinction is that writing novels is about perception and projection—empathizing with the characters then projecting your make-believe world out there for the reader to inhabit; Poetry, on the other hand, is introspection—the world looking in. There is a certain vulnerable nudity about poetry that makes some people uncomfortable.

Me, I like poetry's honesty, but, most of all, I like that it represents language distilled. It is the purest form of writing. Metaphor condensed. Imagery concentrated. Words in poems don’t just talk to the reader, they sing. And they have to work as a finely orchestrated choir, even though, often, the weight of each word is greater than the whole. A single out-of-place word has the power to sink a poem, where in prose it might pass unnoticed or seem just a little clunky. Strangely enough, despite the high regard I have for poetry, most of my poetry reading is conducted not from a podium or reclining in a French love seat while smoking a fragrant slim cigar and wearing long white gloves, but in the loo—small windows of time being the best way to me to enjoy poetry.

Several years ago I invested in a several copies of “Poem a Day” books. I keep one on the shelf in each loo in the house, and I have one near my bed. Several other volumes take pride of place among my “toilet books.” They include such classics as Keats, Yeats, Pope and Byron, Shelley, AB Paterson, Henry Kendall, but some of my favourites are more modern: cummings, Kinnell, Sexton, Lowell, MacNeice, Dawe, Larkin and Akhmatova. Often, the poem for that day reflects my mood or speaks to me of something going on in my life, in a kind of telling bibliomancy, but more than that, they remind me every day how beautiful words can be. How profound thoughts can be. And how imaginative life can be.

A book is a commitment. It is marriage. It may become tedious and yet the reader shuffles on to the dreary, prolonged end. A poem is a quick, dirty, exciting fling. It is a whisper in a corridor. A sly glance that leaves a lingering desire for more. Whenever I read a poem (even in the toilet!) I am reminded how fleeting life is, how ephemeral love can be and yet, in poetry, I have discovered a love I know will last a lifetime.

Karin Cox is an editor and author, who recently released her poetry anthology Growth, comprising several of her previously published poems and some that have never been published. If you would like to review it, please email her on  You can learn more about Karin's other work at

No comments: