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Thursday, 14 February 2008

Sappho Poetry reading tonight was a success as the guest reader highlighted a line of the sonnet I read. I won a DVD set.

The DVD packaging is very neat. The box contains six disks, mounted on the plastic interior. But the configuration is strange. One disk is mounted on the inside of both the front and back covers. Welded inside the box, however, is a pair of plastic, moulded leaves. Each side of each leaf holds a disk: on one side (recto) it is toward the top of the case and on the verso it is near the bottom.

The ingenuity displayed in this set-up is satisfying.

The poem I read is part of a sonnet sequence that begins on 13 December with 'How many years have passed in your absence'. This line, however, did not match the rest of the poem, said Martin Harrison.

A Canterbury graduate (oddly, he did not complete a BA prior to starting an MA), Harrison is English and teaches at UTS, which is located opposite Central Station, on Broadway. He runs the creative writing program.

The evening's schedule started with him reading some work. A poem about the landscape, which used an effective image of a wild beehive, was the opening item. Unfortunately, Harrison subscribes to the 'dun school' (my coinage) which is the dominant orthodoxy today.

Free verse has reached an end-point but nobody will admit it. Harrison is not free of irony but it is less visible in his work, than it is in the work of other poets writing today. Modernism has run its course but there is currently no viable alternative. And Modernism demands free verse.

The main element characteristic of the 'dun school' is a lack of striking imagery. These poets also borrow heavily from one another. In another item Harrison read, which included lines describing currawongs (a sort of native Australian crow), the same words you read elsewhere appeared. Things like 'skein' (to describe the bird's beautiful cry), and 'purling' (same), emerge, as they do, as part of the standard 'package' of tropes that are associated with the bird.

He described the sound of cicadas as a 'single breathing sound', which was quite nice. Overall I'd say that half of his lines contained viable imagery. The other half attempt to depress the tone to a level that is audible to the great unwashed.

In my poem, he said that the tone of the first (triumphant) line was not equalled in the remainder of the lines. This is probably correct, but I will not change a line.

I guess my system is to deploy the sonnet in a way that resembles the deployment of haiku by Japanese poets. The haiku is a single-image, high-impact unit that gratifies the desire of Japanese readers for a concrete, simple aesthetic moment. Such a moment is valued because it is quickly assimilated and does not tolerate development.

Development is not valued because it implies polemic, and this is not valued because it is antithetical to Oriental culture. A sonnet, comprising 14 lines of metrical verse, demands development.

More, the final couplet of a sonnet must contain a fresh angle, related to the themes within the preceding 12 lines, but that leads to a new place. Here is mine:

13 December 2007

How many years have passed in your absence?
Eternity obeys your pounding heart.
The sudden changes of your countenance
Ratify this moment, in which I start

Like the wild jerboa, lithe kangaroo
Of another desert, millennial
Denizen with an equal urge to woo
And win, and wean off desire.
Finical,

Admiring yourself (seemly reticence!),
In me you find much to admire: curtains
Kept closed must strengthen desire; absence
A breeze that keeps kissing these rock-strewn plains.

You reached inside and broke off a corner
Of your heart, and placed it in my palm, girl.


The italicised segment is, thinks Harrison, not equal to the clarity inherent in the opening line. He's not the only one to criticise the segment. But it is necessary, given my artistic pose, to include something like this. It refers directly and explicitly to the object of my esteem.

The bold-text segment (the final couplet) is derived from popular culture. These two lines were praised by another friend. So we have some agreement and some disagreement. Which is as it should be, I suppose. Possibly I am being lazy. Should I rewrite?

There is a viable poetry scene in Sydney and I wonder if there is elsewhere in Australia. Possibly. But there seems to be something every week here. Which is nice.

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