Monday, August 16, 2010

Does poetry matter? Well, yes - but not as much as plumbing

MY ATTENTION has been drawn to a talk apparently given earlier this year by local literary luminary Ian Wedde, and since posted on the website of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre. The address, entitled Does Poetry Matter?, included the following passage:

“Some time back the Dominion Post columnist Karl Du Fresne [sic] … wrote an opinion piece about the uselessness of poetry or more specifically of poets, in the course of which he asserted that if he wanted to get his plumbing fixed he wouldn’t be asking a bloody poet would he, so what good were they?”

Two things struck me about this. The first was that the column in question was published five years ago, and I took it as a great compliment that it was still lodged in Wedde’s brain after all this time. I had to ask the Dom Post library to retrieve it for me so I could remind myself what I had written.

The second thing was that Wedde’s comment didn’t quite reflect the tone of the column. Here’s what it said:

HAVE poets become the All Blacks of the chattering classes? Books sections in newspapers and magazines lavish acres of space on new volumes of New Zealand poetry, which seem to spew out by the week. Kim Hill devotes a regular segment of her Saturday radio programme to poets. Obscure poets are celebrated in something called the Writers' Walk on the Wellington waterfront, where we are supposed to feel a frisson of excitement at the sight of their names. The cafe society crowd, meanwhile, excitedly flock to poetry readings where they sip chardonnay and listen reverentially to the droning of people who write marginally better than they read.

Statistics New Zealand tells me there are now more poets listed in the census than drainlayers, and that at any given time there are likely to be 9.3 New Zealand poets flying to some exotic destination to give government-funded readings at international poetry conferences.

All right, I just made those last bits up. But seriously, does all this attention to New Zealand poetry reflect mainstream interest, or is it just a passing whim of the literati? When can we expect a Drainlayers' Walk, or perhaps a Plumbers’ Promenade, on the Wellington waterfront? These people contribute more to my quality of life than any poet. I mean, who looks up “Poets” in the Yellow Pages when they have a blocked dunny?

I think it’s clear from the above that this was a light-hearted piss-take of the undue (and often uncritical) reverence with which anyone claiming to be a poet is now regarded. In pointing out that utilitarian occupations such as plumbing make a greater contribution to our quality of life, but get on with it quietly without fuss or adulation, I wasn’t arguing that poetry doesn’t matter. In fact I have quite a few well-thumbed poetry books on my shelves and have been known to launch into impromptu recitations of anything from Ozymandias to Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis. At a symposium a few years ago I even won a modest trophy for recognising more poems than any of the other 40-odd people present, some of whom had very distinguished academic records. So in wrongly assuming that I disdain poetry, Wedde has taken what might be described as poetic licence.

You can read Wedde’s dissertation here:

I found it eye-glazingly ponderous and pompous; the sort of writing that gives intellectuals a bad name. It includes the obligatory references to mad French sociologists. But most of all I was struck by the fact that a supposedly distinguished academic appears not to know how to spell the name of Percy Bysshe Shelley.


Bearhunter said...

Sigh. The problem I have with poets is that pretty much anyone who arranges words on a page so that there is more white space than text considers him or herself a poet. And they're all such dreadful bores down here. I went on the piss with Seamus Heaney once, which was an experience I still mentally savour. He had an urgency about him and a genuine interest in the sort of things that do not reflect the middle-class liberal cabal that wets itself about poetry in this country. And perhaps some of them could try for a few rhymes sometime. Or even write something cheerful...

Karl du Fresne said...

Goodness me, Bearhunter. With a pithy turn of phrase like yours, you should be writing this blog. (And no, I don't have a lithp.)

Bearhunter said...

Sorry, Karl. It's just the whole Kiwi-literati mafia wind me up intensely. A self-enclosed echo chamber filled with wafts of empty praise and mutual backslapping. An odious mob.

Bearhunter said...

And exactly which sadistic bastard put an "s" in "lisp" anyway?

Santiago said...

Karl, your columns always make me laugh out loud. I loved the bit "The cafe society crowd, meanwhile, excitedly flock to poetry readings where they sip chardonnay and listen reverentially to the droning of people who write marginally better than they read". So true - although its likely to be Pinot Noir rather than Chardonnay these days.

Anyway, would love to know your thoughts on Pam Corkery's brothel plans.