Why do we have the arts? Why do they seem to matter so much? It is all very well muttering something vague about eternal truths and spiritual values. Or even gesturing toward Bach and Leonardo da Vinci, along with our own Patrick White.
But what can the poets make of, and for, our busy, present lives? What do they have to say during grave crises?
Well, they can speak eloquently to their readers for life, in writing from the very base of their own experiences. Every generation has laid claim, afresh, to its vital modernity. In the 17th century, Andrew Marvell did so with witty lyrical elegance in his verse To a Coy Mistress. Three centuries later, the French poet René Char thought of us as weaving tapestries against the threat of extinction. Accordingly, he wrote:
The poet is not angry at the hideous extinction of death, but confident of his own particular touch, he transforms everything into long wools.
In short, the poet will, at best, weave lasting, memorable, salvific tapestries out of words. The poems in question will come out live, if the poet is lucky, and possibly as disparate as the sleepy, furred animals caged in Melbourne Zoo.
What is truly touching or intimate need not be tapped by elegies, for all that they can fill a mortal need. Yet the great modern poet W. H. Auden wrote in memory of poet, writer and broadcaster John Betjeman:
There is one, only one object in his world which is at once sacred and hated, but it is far too formidable to be satirizable: namely Death.
As William Wordsworth and Judith Wright both well knew, in their separate generations – and quite polar cultures – the best poetry grasps moments of our ordinary lives, and renders them memorable.
Poetry can give us back our dailiness in musical technicolour: in a thousand yarns or snapshots. Poems sing to us that life really matters, now. That can emerge as songs or satires, laments, landscapes or even somebody’s portrait done in imaginative words.
Yes, verse at its finest is living truth “done” in verbal art. The great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once insisted “nothing ever happens later”, and the point of poetry in our own time – as always, at its best – is surely to shine the light of language on what is happening now. The devil is in the detail, yes. But so is the redemptive beauty, along with “the prophetess Deborah under her palm-tree” in the words of the Australian poet, Peter Steele.
Poetry sees the palm tree, and the prophetess herself, vividly, even in the middle of a widespread epidemic.
Modern poetry is an art made out of living language. In these times, at least, it tends to be concise, barely spilling over the end of the page: too tidy for that, unlike the vast memorised narratives of the Israelites, the Greeks or even the Icelanders. But what it shares with the ancient, oral cultures is its connection with wisdom, crystallising nodes of value, fables of the tribe, moments or decades that made us all.
In the brief age of a national pandemic, poetry’s role and its duties may come to seem all the more important: all the more civil and politically sane. The poem – even in the case when it is quite a short lyric, even if comic – carries the message of moral responsibility in its saddle bag. Perhaps all poets do, even when they are also charming the pants off their willing readers.
Christopher Wallace-Crabbe is judge of the ACU Prize for Poetry. Entries close July 6.