I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t poetry: from the Irish lullabies my mother sang when we were put to bed, to my first hard cover 1968 edition of Poems to Read to Young Australians, with Mary Quant designs on the inside cover; from the ritual of prayers at Catholic mass, to the radio jingles of the 60s and 70s.
I went to school in a time where an elocution teacher would come once a week and teach us extracts from long poems. Teachers throughout my schooling asked us to write our own verse – ghastly evidence remains in my parent’s home to this day.
Later in boarding school a librarian asked me if I had ever read Pablo Neruda and handed me his Selected Poems. I never gave it back. How could I? He put his hand into my heaped up heart and pledged his life-long love affair to me:
…I leave you here
What I had and did not have,
What I am and what I’m not.
My love is a child crying
Afraid to leave your arms,
I leave him to you forever:
You, most beautiful of women.
from Autumn Testament Pablo Neruda
The book falls open to this poem every time. The spine split. There’s still the Dewey code waiting hopefully on the inside cover: Ch 861.44 NER. What was the name of that librarian? She said she loved Neruda and hadn’t even put this new book on the shelves yet and I was to bring it straight back. What can you do?
And then there were the heavily mascaraed years of writing poetry and going to poetry readings. I remember once my father took me all the way into town to Hyde Park where Les Murray and budding poets like myself were to read their poetry aloud. I can’t remember what poem I chose, having taken several with me, but I do remember Les Murray looked nothing like his poetry. I read a poem of mine and he watched on. Later, after reading many many poems of his he got up to leave and passed me with the sole comment, “Don’t stop.” I did stop, I can just about hear your sigh of relief.
My thoughts are this: poetry is deeply personal but can have a profound impact on the collective.
The word goes round Repins,
The murmur goes round Lorenzinis.
At Tattersalls men look up from sheets of numbers
The Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands,
And men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club.
There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.from An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow by Les Murray