POETRY AND ITS KEEPERS / PETRA WHITE
Poetry may be a (sob!) neglected art, but it can still attract devotees who are as scary as Collingwood supporters. It was wonderful to visit the Laurel Villa guesthouse in Margherafelt, Northern Ireland, ‘Heaney country’. Laurel Villa is a shrine to twentieth-century Irish poetry, with poems by Irish poets (particularly Seamus Heaney) on Belfast linen framed on the walls. Each room was devoted to a particular poet – I stayed in the MacNeice room. Our host, Eugene, took us on a tour of Heaney country, showing us sites and objects that feature in Heaney’s poems, including the forge of ‘Door into the Dark’, the original rusted turnip snedder in the back of a paddock, and the place the railway line of ‘The Railway Children’ used to be. Eugene’s knowledge of Heaney was considerable. We stood there as he read us the applicable poems, evoking the object or place that still existed or had changed or vanished. It was a curious layering, poem upon place, presence upon absence, history upon memory. Heaney is very much a poet of place, so it worked particularly well. I was fascinated by this custodianship of poetry, this keeping of its places and objects, and Eugene’s knowledge not only of the poetry, but external world from which it is drawn, read, as it were, through the poetry.
The following weekend I went to see Paul Durcan read at Listowel Writers Week. There were easily 300 people in the audience. At such moments one naturally springs to thinking, why don’t poets get audiences like that in Australia? But perhaps this is beside the point. All practitioners of this neglected art are themselves neglected. Some poets are superstars by poetry standards, but an audience of three hundred would be nothing for a minor popstar. Trotting around Ireland doing poetry readings, my audiences have been between 3 and 50 (clearly I am not a superstar!). If one person is moved by a poem, that seems like a lot to me.
For Celan, writing was an act of faith: he likened it to throwing a message in a bottle out to sea, hoping it would wash up ‘on the shoreline of a heart’. Milton famously wished for ‘fit audience though few’. A lot of us worry about poetry not being popular enough, but I think it’s possible that good poetry eventually finds its readers, perhaps within minutes of a poem being written; perhaps decades. What we need perhaps more than large audiences are keepers: those who read us, those who publish us; those who keep our poems in some way in the world.