Ars Poetica

If you were to take all the poetry books in the Turnbull Library and lay them end to end, they’d circle the earth at one-and-a-half times.

Ok, that was a fabrication; no one has any idea how far they’d stretch, except that, given the sheer number (more than several thousand), they’d go a very long way.

Maybe I was getting confused and had been thinking of intestines, which apparently are extraordinarily long. But then, aren’t poetry and intestines not that dissimilar – poetry being, metaphorically speaking (and poetry is nothing if not metaphorical), a spilling of guts, a venting of spleen, a digesting of experience, a laying-out of ideas and feelings and insights end to end in order to make sense of what it means to think or feel or see?

This week, poetry is circumnavigating, if not the world, then certainly the whole of New Zealand. Friday 26 August is National Poetry Day, a day to celebrate, promote and promulgate poetry in all its iterations. Poetry is taking to the streets up and down the country.

Poster for Poetry Day, calling on its readers to unleash the power of poetry.One of the Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day posters, seen in a street near you.

Poems talk to the poets

Poems are peripatetic like that. They travel across time and place, and strike up conversations with other poems, as well as with poets. This is particularly the case in small communities like New Zealand and the Pacific.

No poem exists in a vacuum. They are not called up out of nothing or from nowhere. Poems are products of the culture in which they’re created. And poets are influenced by what was written before. Every poem exists in a dialectic or conversation with its poetical whakapapa, with its nuisance brothers and reprobate sisters, its kind uncles and dowager aunts.

Poets may build on precedents, or consciously reject them. Either way, poets like all writers, are magpies, plundering earlier forms for influence and inspiration, whether intentionally or not. Influence might happen as a process of osmosis, or it might occur as an active dialogue. Or poets might use past poems as leaping-off points in the direction of something new.

Yes, all that to-ing and fro-ing, bickering, borrowing and ideas-swapping, means it gets pretty noisy in the Turnbull stacks in the vicinity of Dewey 821. The books mutter together and jostle in an expression of age-old antagonisms and friendships. There is nothing church-like about a library stack. Poetry is never static, never quiet, although paradoxically it uses stillness and silence to achieve much of what it sets out to do.

A poem exists in a tricky bind. Its purpose is to use words to give shape and meaning to the ineffable – that which can’t be explained in language. To pull off such a feat, a poem has many tricks up its sleeves.

Obviously, there’s word choice, their combinations, and the accretion of words – the way words are built up like layers of paint to create a picture. There’s rhythm and meter (listen for the tapping of the ‘metrical foot’, the stressed and unstressed parts of the line where the voice hops or skips in iambs, trochees, dactyls, anapests, spondees or pyrrhics).

These are harnessed to create something close to song, the sounds making shapes which, when they fall away, open up areas of silence. And meaning reverberates potently there, in the spaces between the words, as much as it does in the structures created by the words themselves.

Notoriously, poems approach their subject tangentially. Words paint one type of picture, but can point to another picture entirely. It’s easy to fall down the crack that is opened up between the metaphor and the reality it refers to.

But when poetry works, when we recognize the link between the one thing and the other (even if we have to work to find it), we can make the leap across the void. And it’s the surprise of an unexpected landing onto the far bank where the rewards of reading poetry are the greatest.

Poets talk to the people

New Zealand has an impressive poetic heritage. Perhaps it’s because, despite the pragmatic imperative of its first settlers, they were also idealists. (This is pure speculation on my part.)

The earliest New Zealand poems tended to be derivative of patriotic English models, thrusting and didactic and full of archaisms and earnest intentions. But we moved on, and our poetry scene continues to be increasingly idiosyncratic.

The published output is impressive and accomplished. This year has already seen wonderful new publications by Gregory Kan, Claire Orchard, Tusiata Avia and others. Volumes of poetry frequently salt our best-seller lists. Last week, just for example, Jenny Bornholdt and Hera Lindsay Bird were in second and third place, beating JK Rowling (hoorah!). And now in its third year, Wellington’s LitCrawl each November gives fans the chance to glut themselves on poetry at venues around Wellington, then stagger on for more.

Most significantly, though, the nationwide galvanization to democratize poetry will give voice and ears to those who aren’t comfortably off or have time to read or write, to those who haven’t done a post-grad creative-writing class, or who’ve been too shy to muscle themselves into print or say their work out loud.

Hopefully, the opportunities given to us by poetry days such as this will one day give rise to a greater diversity of voices in future publishing (whatever forms that might take).

Because – and here’s another tricky poetic paradox – although poetry occupies itself with the universality of what it means to be human, to do so it takes as many voices as there are people.

Poetry began in the oral tradition, was carried around in memory, on the tongue, lifted up on the winds. It was not always a solitary activity but was carried out in groups. It was a team sport. Poetry was shared, it brought people together and was intended for everyone.

Poetry taps into the mysteries of the collective unconscious, our irrationality, the intuitive or mystical, and produces through the most rigorous restraints of language something we can bring back, like a message from the other side, to illuminate what we know or see or feel, paradoxically both defamiliarising it and shining light onto it, so we recognize it again as if for the first time.

Poetry on the streets and in the stacks

This year’s Poetry Day sees major sponsorship by Phantom Billstickers, who’ve long advocated for the wider dissemination of poetry. They’re known for putting the Café Reader in places we might stop awhile to read them, and for pasting poems up and down the streets, on hoardings and bus shelters around town.

The day, with some 80 events, aims to get everyone involved – writers, readers, the curious, old hats and new. It invites individual and community participation by way of readings, poetry texting, poetry art, competitions, busking, slamming and jamming, using the power of public spaces and anonymity, social media, technology and pen.

Reading poetry in the Library.Keen readers with a selection of recently published New Zealand poetry, on display in the library reading room.

So, if poetry is taking to the streets this year, what of the poetry collections held in the Alexander Turnbull Library?

To describe the scope and extent – the guts – of the Turnbull’s poetry collection won’t elucidate what is important or special about it. That said, the collection is staggeringly large.

The Library has avidly gathered and looked after this nation’s poetry (and that of Pacific nations) since it opened almost 100 years ago, in 1920. It’s all here as our documentary heritage.

We’re not censorious, but try to be comprehensive. You’ll find the old and forgotten, the newly minted, the famous, fine or rare, the transcendent and the truly awful. We care for the poetry of this country so all the people of New Zealand can read it, enjoy and use it.

In the spirit of showing and not telling (as advised by any good poetry teacher), on Friday 26 August, why not let your metrical feet carry you to the library, where you can listen to a superb range of poets read their work. Then afterwards, pick a poem from the stacks, sit somewhere quiet, just you and the work in front of you, and read it, and let it read you.

By Fiona Oliver

Fiona is Curator of New Zealand and Pacific Publications at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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