Monday, September 27, 2004

Lorikeets singing 'Inside Looking Out'

In my great tidy-up and shelving of books, I came across an anthology of poems in a very simple format: A5, photostated pages, many typed all in caps, plastic spiral binding, simple typographical cover, with the title printed lower case in 10 pt Palatino or similar many times down the page as a column, then larger over the top in a hand-script typeface: Inside Looking Out. It provoked mixed thoughts in me as I held it and flipped through the poems and very short stories. These were entries in a competition for the Lorikeet Clubhouse Poetry and Prose competition 1999.
The Lorikeet Clubhouse is a facility where people who are set adrift from a psychiatric ward or other hospital ward for pyschological or emotional problems can come and learn new skills, or simply socialise - with guidance - with others. When I was involved in judging this great little competition, the clubmembers had a lot of help from staff in computer skills and people-skills. I thought at the time how many other people in our society could do with such guidance - learning to get on with each other, and accepting other people's rights and 'place in the queue'. But I won't pretend to be a social worker - I was simply judging a competition where the entries were from people with less opportunities and often less education than other competitions I had judged. Did I say 'simply judging'? There was little simple about it. What yardstick do you bring to bear on such work? Literary judgements pale into insignificance in the face of the emotional whack of some of these poems. In the simplest of diction, and often with tortured syntax that John Berryman would have been proud of, they lay their emotions on the page. (By the way, when pondering what to print in the booklet, we decided to print the lot - they were all winners! We did give out prizes, and commendations, etc., but we printed all the entries in this delightful booklet.) Any arrogance I may have had in the role of judge in the many other competitions I had judged before went quickly out the window. I was floored and brought to tears often. The entrants didn't have the techniques needed to hide their emotions or to dress them up in layers of literary allusions and fancy figures of speech. I felt inadequote and all at sea - these people had 'the drop on me' (to use a Western expression), and it opened up my heart: I was used to judging with my head.
So that experience has made me now careful how I judge students' work, and how I respond to new work friends may send me for some response. The kindness and encouragement other poets have shown me in the past - and I think particularly of Dorothy Hewett, Tom Shapcott and Les Murray - I now try to pass on to others. Of course, some people recoil at any criticism you may make, but even they (often) come back later and say they agree with you.
I think it was Ezra Pound who said he didn't like 'professional poets' - he preferred 'amateur poets' - and he named about three or four. I wish I had a better memory, but I think the list included William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and (perhaps) DH Lawrence. What do these poets have in common with my Lorikeet entrants? They delight in the simple things of the world, and express their delight in straight forward language that doesn't put the reader through unnecessary linguistic or literary hijinks. But I had better check-up on who those poets were Pound classed as 'amateur'. (If you know, I'd be pleased if you sent them to me via the Comments device at the end of this posting.)
This is not to say I only respect the simplest of simple poems. (Or, indeed, the abstract and self-serving critical explorations of such poems by literary hawks.) I enjoy wrapping my head around complex notions and feeling the force of a strong, vibrant intellect working. But I do take issue with poetry that is simply a head trip.
One of the greatest delights I get in Oz poetry is the work of Kevin Hart. He can make abstract thought a physical reality - not simply a superficial physical mask, but thought as a living organism transported to the reader through language. Ah, my expression doesn't do him justice, but if you go to his work you will see what I mean - and enjoy it too, I trust.

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