Airini Beautrais is currently enrolled in a PhD in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters, where she is exploring Australia and New Zealand narrative poems. Airini has a background in ecological science and has worked as a secondary-school teacher. Her debut poetry collection, Secret Heart, was awarded Best First Book at the Montana Book Awards in 2007. Her second, standout collection, Western Line, filled me ‘with joy – through what words can do and through the avenues poetry makes available’ (my NZ Herald review). The initial sequences of love and charm poems took miniature, imaginative leaps, trailed footprints in the everyday, relished musical lifts and were unafraid of humour. As I said in my review, there was no other New Zealand collection quite like it: daring, fresh, agile.
Airini has generously agreed to contribute to the ongoing series of small pieces ‘On Poetry.’
Here is a quote I came across recently:
“Poetry is the fulfilment of intent; what dwells in the mind is intent, what comes forth in words is poetry. Emotions move in the core of one’s being and take form in words. When speaking them does not suffice, then one sighs them or chants them; if sighing and chanting do not suffice, then one sings them; if singing them does not suffice, then unconsciously one taps them out with the hands, dances them, treads them and stamps them
Emotions come forth in sounds, and when the sounds fulfil patterns they are called musical tones. The musical tones of an age of peace are tranquil and incline to joy; their regulation is harmonious. The musical tones of an age of disorder are dissonant and incline to anger; their regulation is perverted. The musical tones of a kingdom in ruins are mournful and incline to nostalgia; their people are suffering. Therefore, to keep order in success or failure, to move Heaven and Earth, to touch the feelings of ghosts and spirits, nothing can approach poetry.”
This was written in the 1st century AD, in a preface to the Shih Ching anthology of Chinese poetry. It is attributed to a writer named Wei Hung. The translation above is by Dore Levy, and I found it in her book on Chinese narrative poetry.
The first thing that struck me about this passage was the statement “Poetry is the fulfilment of intent.” I had never thought of it like that, but the idea made sense. We do bring our intent forth in words – for better or worse. Intent is the beginning of the poem – but where might a poem end up? What work will it do? Moving heaven and earth, touching the feelings of spirits; these are no mean feats. Would we attempt such things?
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the work of poetry. Largely based on my own experience, I have a suspicion that as poets we have a tendency to make too many rules for ourselves, or to internalise the rules we interpret from what we read. Often these rules seem to involve the work poetry may or may not do. Such as: poetry may involve clever word-play. It may be obscure. It may be unintelligible. It may be funny. It may confess. It may not articulate an opinion. It may not teach. It may not preach, prophesy, challenge, condemn, tell, etc.
Maybe these are what have been my rules. I like to tell people I only have one rule in my poetry: Never write about cats (a rule I am of course prepared to break if the right occasion arises). But underneath are the bigger rules. In my work at the moment, I am staring them down, and it terrifies me. I am terrified of two things: If I break those rules, I will never be a poet. If I don’t break those rules, I will never be a poet.
I am not a chanter or a dancer. I write with a page, and silent reading, in mind. If I write anything that stamps, it will be in a metaphorical sense. But I do, in spite of my rules, have intentions. Are they honourable? I’m not sure. I feel that poetry needs a 1980’s bumper sticker: Poetry can do anything!
Victoria University Press page
Twenty-three love poems
Poetry With Airini on National Radio
On Tuesday Poems
Otago Daily Times review
NZ Books review
IIML student page