Author: Guest blogger
When I conducted a quick straw poll around the ABC Radio National office, not one person agreed on the greatest poet who ever lived. I had expected a range but didn’t realise we were such a motley bunch.
One colleague agreed with the survey conducted by English Professor Dean Rader, published in the New York Times – that Pablo Neruda was the best.
Others up and down the corridor named Rumi, Keats, WB Yeats, Sylvia Plath, TS Eliot, Lewis Carroll (I know it’s daggy, the senior RN Broadcaster blurted, but I love Jabberwocky and immediately there was a chorus of ‘Twas Brillig and the slithy tove Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe…. “) Another named John Lennon as an enduring influence in their lives.
One arts broadcaster named not just the poet, but the poem; Jorge Luis Borge’s , The Palace. Another high profile presenter was closer to home with Australian bush bard David Campbell. ‘He visited me at my school, it was beautiful ,’ she said. For your interest, here are some of his poems.
Dean Rader who initially conducted the US survey for the San Francisco Chronicle experienced similar disparate views and was bemused by the response.
I suspect poetry speaks for the readers’ own times, the child in the classroom entranced by a nonsense poem, the adolescent hurting with unrequited love, the young activist looking for a slogan, reading a tattered volume on long journeys in foreign lands, or the quiet contemplative holiday perhaps in the bush or by the sea. Maybe the poet becomes an expression of the reader’s significant moments; of times of deep clarity or deep despair. Certainly my own reading of favourites like WB Yeats, the war poets, Charles Simic was a time of young adult reflection. It was also very private and probably extremely self indulgent, but hey, what other time in your life can you be so self reflexive? Now, when I occasionally dip into poetry, it does recall those intense times. Reading new great poets and new poetry is a different world, of discovery and analysis, but the poets we grew up with, are about memory, of feelings. So perhaps that is why they are the greatest to us. I didn’t dig deeper and ask why my colleague’s had their preferences but I suspect they reflect a certain period in their lives.
And I suspect we all recognise those significant moments because we all have them. Poetry can speak to the reader’s experience which is – in the end universal.
When Pablo Neruda received his Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 his acceptance speech included his recipe for writing a poem.
“….I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature. And no less strongly I think that all this is sustained – man and his shadow, man and his conduct, man and his poetry – by an ever-wider sense of community, by an effort which will forever bring together the reality and the dreams in us because it is precisely in this way that poetry unites and mingles them…………From all this, my friends, there arises an insight which the poet must learn through other people. There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song – but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny…”
Who is your greatest poet? Who is the poet that can somehow reach into those saddest places and convey ‘our sorrowful song’.
By Anita Barraud, producer The Book Show ABC Radio National