Attention Conservation Notice: Thoughts on the 14 poems I read last week as part of the JustRead readathon, including poems by Jennifer Maiden, Harry Hooton, Ted Hughes, Les Murray, Gig Ryan, Klare Lanson & Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I liked most of them. You should also read these poems. (1548 words)
It’s been a week since I started on this careful-reading-of-2-poems-a-day-for-two-months endeavour as part of the Just Read readathon, raising funds for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and I’m having a ball. Poetry is kind of excellent, you know?
I’ve managed to meet the 2-a-day quota almost every day, and I think there’s really something to be said for going back and re-reading poems a couple of times instead of reading them one-and-done.
As promised, here’s a look back at what I’ve read this week. But before we start, if you’re interested in sponsoring me, just head over to my Everyday Hero page and follow the instructions to make a pledge. And thanks to my four donors so far, who have helped me to raise $110.25 towards my $500 total.
And now, the poems!
Monday June 1: “What?” by Mary Gilmore & “If I Had a Gun” by Gig Ryan
You might know Dame Mary Gilmore from your Aussie $10 note (she’s the one who isn’t Banjo Paterson). “What?” is a short, solid rhymer in the voice of a mother who is prostituting herself to feed her children, rhetorically asking the reader what other options are open to her. It’s a powerful social justice piece.
“If I Had a Gun” really blew me away (pun intended) – an angry, smart, funny, detailed and precise litany about the overt and subtle violence against women that arises from the embedded assumptions of male privilege. To read this as a man is chastising in an inspirational “do better” way.
Tuesday June 2: “I am (so sick of my Self) or Cinema is Dead (for Godard)” by Klare Lanson & “Polyamoury” by Fiona Hile
Lanson’s poem is an excellent look at technology as a straightjacket/corset for women, a tool for dictating to & removing agency all the while disguised as emancipation. Though it was written 15 years ago it still feels frighteningly relevant and resonant. I loved “I am the living projection of your morality” especially.
Fiona Hile is a pretty experimental poet, at times too elusive for me, but “Polyamoury’s” rueful look at love and pain comes through loud and clear. Even if I can’t quite decipher “the succulent metonymies of your most deciduous areas”, I’m pretty sure I get what Hile means when she says “what has come before has been mere cause to show that all love leads to poetry and all poetry leads to the indistinguishable vistas that comport between you & your”
Wednesday June 3: “Tiresias” by Ted Hughes & “The Perfect State” by Harry Hooton
“Tiresias” is from Hughes’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, all tales of the Roman gods and that. “Tiresias” tells of a bet between Jupiter and Juno over who has better orgasms. Jupiter says women, but Juno says men, so they ask this guy Tiresias who was changed into a woman and back again when he hit some snakes with a stick while they were fucking. As you do. He says women, which pisses Juno off so she blinds him. As you do. Reading between the lines I think she was trying to point out that the women Jupiter had raped over the years really didn’t enjoy the experience at all. A contention both Ovid and Jupiter seem to dispute. Which is kind of dodgy, but then pretty much everything Jupiter does is dodgy when you think about it. Anyway, great poem. Nice and tight, measured and confident.
Harry Hooton is Australia’s greatest forgotten anarchist poet-philosopher with a Whitmanesque turn and a heavy socialist bent. “The Perfect State” is a cynical Lawsonesque paean to the modern corruption of the unionist ideal. I particularly enjoyed this bit: “We hated the ‘bloated capitalist’ once / And his ‘blackleg, scabbing rat’, / We fall for his smug successor now, / The Labor bureaucrat”. Bonus thumbs up to Harry for reintroducing me to the word “plutocrat”.
Thursday June 4: “Poetry” by Harry Hooton
I only got to one poem on Thursday, but it was a cracker. This is more typical of Hooton’s Whitmanesque style. It’s a call to arms that encourages people to write poetry without worrying what people say you can and can’t do. As Hooton says, poetry doesn’t need rules, but on the flipside rules do need poetry. The triumphalist tone, manifestoic flavour, stream-of-consciousness flavour and internal rhyme all make this feel like an excellent slam poem, even though it was written 40 or more years before slam was even really a thing.
Friday June 5: “This Time” by Dorothy Hewett & “Joni Mitchell is Not Unconscious” by Michelle Bitting
I’m in and out with “This Time”. It’s clearly a poem about the stages of loss, but I’m not clear who’s died. A lover? An ex-lover? An old friend? Was there an affair involved? A lot of the imagery hits home, but some things are too inscrutable – I have no idea what “centuries of escalators” are, or “Heidelberg paraplegics”. That said, the last line (“the engaged signal beeps mournfully through the house”) is killer.
Bitting’s Joni Mitchell poem is a bit half-baked. It starts out with a solid metre, but then it frays. It feels like it’s trying too hard to mine the crazy-rock-and-roll-recluse vein and only coming up with cliché. Again, that said, the last line (“Oh Joni keep singing we need that nothing gray about you”) is pretty good.
Saturday June 6: “The Year of the Ox” by Jennifer Maiden
Another one-poem day, but I’m going to count this idiosyncratic 15-page poem as being worth two poems. There’s a hell of a lot going on here.
Narratively it weaves all over the place, from reflections on the Chinese star signs of Maiden (ox) and her daughter (tiger) to Hilary Clinton having conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt in a hotel room after a UN conference on Israel, to Maiden reading at Dorothy Porter’s funeral, to Mother Theresa and Princess Diana having tea in heaven, to two fictional characters from Maiden’s first novel hanging out in a suburb of Sydney, to the digital nature of poetry, to Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria fussing over Florence’s pet owl to the grammatical implications of pornography…
This is a compelling poem and seemingly indicative of what Jennifer Maiden’s poetry is like. I’m fascinated by her repeat use of conversations between contemporary political personages and what seem to be the ghosts of historical figures. Especially her use of contemporary political figures. Does Hilary Clinton read Jennifer Maiden? Does Julia Gillard? Or Kevin Rudd?
Wanting to understand as much as I could about this poem, I took some notes for things I needed to look up once I’d finished with the poem, and ended up with a list of eighteen names including Conor Cruise O’Brien, Florence Aubenas, Sonny Terry, Clarence Darrow, Nye Bevan and the oblique and dative cases. And yes, in case you’re wondering, Florence Nightingale did have a pet owl. Her name was Athena.
Sunday 7 June: “Science Fiction” by Les Murray & “Past and Future” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The Murray poem was neat and short and totally curmudgeonly. Apparently he doesn’t like mobile phones. Or Skype. It’s not “real” enough. It’s amazing to be able to talk to people that way, he admits, but it’s also really lonely. Bah humbug.
The EBB poem was sad, but good stuff. It’s a sonnet about a convalescent looking forward to dying because things will be better in Heaven. She’s not complaining, though – although her mortal life pales before what she’ll receive in Heaven, she’s grateful for it nonetheless. I struggle sometimes with religious poetry, but this is a sad, clever and beautiful poem that gets better and better with repeat reading.
Monday 8 June: “i’ve done this wrongly before” & “The Reflection” by Jennifer Maiden
Both of these poems about Kevin Rudd, a man about whom I feel much contempt and disappointment. Maiden would seem to share these feelings, painting him in these two poems as a man pretending to be unaware of the bad things he has done.
In “i’ve done this wrongly…” Rudd signs the papers to make himself Prime Minister of Australia (again), careful to make sure he puts his signature on the right line, and the double-entendre of the title rings out like a bell.
In “The Reflection” Maiden sets up another of her contemporary-political-figure-plus-historical-figure scenarios, with Rudd waking from a nightmare to find himself on a plane with Christian anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Boenhoffer (who Rudd has cited as a hero in the past). He shares the dream with Boenhoffer, who chides him for his refugee policy, making parallels with the live export trade. Rudd does not respond.
These are both really well-written poems, but I have to admit the reason I really like them is because of their cool and calm take on Rudd as a deceptive, weak, self-aggrandising weasel.
And that’s it for week one! Thanks for reading this far. I have to say I would certainly recommend pretty much all of the poets and poems I’ve read this week. If you can be arsed, you should really track some of them down for sure.
See you next week for round two!