What is the use of poetry? One of its most crucial and historically valued functions has been the revitalisation of language, the renovation, at times even the resuscitation, of the imagination’s linguistic engagement with the social and material cosmos. From its most ancient roots to the present day, whether written, performed or just bled into the night from the lips of those so taken, poetry apprehends and articulates the acute limits of human experience and its sublime mash of nature, society and history.
As the most prominent Australian prize for new and emerging poets, the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize is especially well placed to reveal how poetry is ‘making it new’ today. Of course, Ezra Pound’s modernist clarion call simply recycles an archaic truism – every poet since Homer has been a new beginning. Indeed, poetry is now made new amidst compelling superfluities of repetition, fragmentation and perpetual reconnection. Originality and distinction emerge, like the sculpture Plastic Monster, from teeming profusions of cognitive, aesthetic and technological waste, and the best new and emerging poets revitalise human embodiment – materially, socially and politically – amidst the maelstrom of the banal. HL Hix said it right in ‘Training for poets’ (Iowa Review, 2000): ‘Poetic inspiration occurs not upon the occasion of an unmotivated visit from a capricious muse, but as a function of the poet’s own progressive embodiment of an attitude towards language and the world.’
In judging the prize, I was compelled chiefly by spirited and vital poetic language and its embodiment of an attitude towards the world, with and in the world. KA Nelson’s ‘Chorus of Crows’ stood out for its accomplished synthesis of narrative, intense imagery, prosody and lineation, and a powerful attention to vernacular speech, its rhythms and drive. But why is it powerful? What is its use? It is powerful and useful not simply because of the energy of its expression or the singular potency of its imagery, but principally because it catapults the reader into a space in which an acute attitude to nature, society and politics forges a new – revitalised and renovated – apprehension of reality. Much has been said and written about the consequence of Indigenous consciousness in Australian creative and political life. I won’t add to that here. Nelson’s wise counsel is encapsulated in the lines: ‘Later she stared at her blank wall/ where Rover’s Universe used to hang.’
Runners-up Thomas Denton’s ‘The Pirouette’ and Judy Durrant’s ‘and day breaks’ (to be published next issue) are very different but equally impressive. Denton’s (no doubt experientially based) piss-take of the emotional and aesthetic fragilities of capriciously indulgent young male poets, executed against an ironic, post-pastoral backdrop, breathes life into the neo-Forbsian acrobatics that have become somewhat commonplace. Durrant’s poem is a refined, dare I say beautiful, reflection of the apprehension of nature in language. Her subject is effortless – a cormorant lands at dawn in a still body of water – but it is elevated by an innovative attention to form and expression, and a masterful painterly impressionism.
Other poems also deserve commendation: ‘The Gardener’ by Liz Hobday, ‘Lake World’ by Mandi Randell and ‘First City Christmas at Grandma’s’ by Jeremy Thompson. I hope these poets continue to write well. As this year’s winning poems unmistakably proclaim, there is plenty to write about, plenty to make new.