In New Zealand there used to be a Year 13 exam called Scholarship English. I more or less failed the exam (102 marks out of 200) back when I was at high school and spending a lot of my time in Dunedin’s snooker parlours. Hence it was odd many years later to find myself Chief Examiner for Scholarship English, and able to set essay questions like this:
“Each of the following texts has been published as a poem. Write about all three in order to give your own definition of poetry.”
Not many students chose to answer this question – though a few did, brilliantly – which makes sense when you see the specified poems:
Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, Sir, whose dog are you?
If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.
I like all three of these poems, written (in order) by the 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope and the 20th-century Americans Bill Knott and Aram Saroyan. One thing I like is that they have a sense of humour. They aren’t troubled by a sense of self-importance. You can’t miss the mischief in Pope and Saroyan, but it might be harder to find it in Bill Knott’s dark, haiku-like piece. Still, consider this: if you happen to be alive and close your eyes at the point where the poem tells you to, you can’t read the remaining words. Reader and poem are obliged to become co-conspirators in overriding this logical problem. The poem goes on, past its own imperative, and of course we go with it.
One of the problems some people have in trying to fit Pope and Knott and Saroyan into their sense of “poetry”, is that we still tend to give the word a capital P. It makes us a little hushed and breathless, as if we are in the presence of something sacred: Poetry.
We are often taught to regard poems as vehicles for a kind of superior wisdom, more important than anything mere prose can carry, full of feeling and spiritual insight, if perhaps a little bit misty in their phrasing. That is one reason poems seize the floor at weddings and funerals and naming-ceremonies.
“Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man,” wrote Wordsworth, and many people who sigh over Poetry agree with him. But as often as not they are the very people who are frightened of real poems.
Bill Manhire lives in Wellington. Doubtful Sounds, a collection of his essays and interviews, is still available from Victoria University Press.