Writers On Writing / The chimera of originality with Ron Pretty

We interviewed prolific poet and publisher Ron Pretty ahead of his course at Writing NSW on Saturday 6th AprilShaping the Poem: Structure in Contemporary Poetry.

Ron Pretty Shaping the Poem: Structure in Contemporary Poetry

Your course will focus on the possibilities of and issues within contemporary poetry. Why is poetry still important in today’s society?

Poetry in Australia today finds itself in a strange situation. There are thousands of people writing poetry, and there are major prizes being awarded regularly. But there is a disconnect between the two. Many poets are unpublished; some do not ever seek publication. Many others self-publish and/or publish on the web. Prizes tend to be awarded from the small group of writers who are published by a shrinking number of commercial poetry publishers. Few bookshops carry much poetry. The number of magazines carrying poetry has shrunk, as has the amount of space they tend to give it. Few newspapers or media carry much poetry. Many potential readers are unaware of the poetic richness that is out there. How could they be, in the face of such commercial neglect.

One of the saddest things I encountered in my life as a publisher was a writer who was producing some very fine poetry, but sending out nothing. When I asked why, she said sadly, “Because I don’t write as the real poets do.” She is not alone in this attitude, and it is one of the things that indicate that there are many more poets writing than most of us are aware of.  It also points to the divide I alluded to earlier between many writers and potential readers on one hand, and the poetic elite on the other.

So why do so many poets keep on writing, often without much hope of publication, much less recognition? One of the reasons advanced is that, because there is so little money in it, people write for the pure satisfaction in the act of writing itself. There is more than a grain of truth in this. Poets go to courses and workshops, not to make themselves more saleable, but to improve their skill as poets. They strive always for the elusive perfection, and for the satisfaction when a poem has taken them a little closer. They experiment with language, with form, with layout, looking always for the chimera of originality. They read widely, to see how poets they admire have gained their effects.

There are other factors that keep them at their desks. One is the great pleasure of arriving unexpectedly at an unplanned place or effect that suddenly rings of truth. Another is that, as they hone their language skills, they become aware of the misuse of language in politics, in the media, on the web. It gives them the pleasure of being to dig through the obfuscation to see what’s really being said, and the truth in it (or lack thereof). In that sense, poets are all subversives, in that they challenge the official line, no matter whose line it is. That in itself makes poetry a vital activity in the health of our society.

Throughout your career, you have taught and published many young poets. What has changed in the poems you read, in terms of structure and content matter?

People used to say to me, disparagingly, “You can’t teach writing.” It’s perfectly true. All you can do is set up the conditions under which learning can take place. (But isn’t that true of all teaching?). I have taught many classes, given may workshops, mentored many young poets, many of whom gave me great pleasure at the time, and continue to do so today.

Thinking back, the impression I have is that poets have become freer to experiment, though even from my earliest days in the seventies there were young and not-so-young writers I came across who were experimenting with form, with language, with structure. I do feel, though, that such experimentation has become more widespread. Even in community groups, where you tend to find more poets working in traditional forms, there are usually one or two – or more – writers who are pushing the boundaries of what they have known as poetry. And of course, the more widely they are prepared to read among the poets, the more likely it is that their experiments will be fruitful.

The other change I have noticed is that, as well as experimenting with form and language, there is a wider range of content. For many poets, the personal lyrical has been superseded, at least in part, by a wider range of subject matter. For instance, there are more poets tackling what is sometimes disparaged as “issues” poetry. Such poetry encompasses political, religious, moral and environmental topics. It runs the risk of overstatement, sentimentality or “preaching to the converted” but the best of it blends the political with the personal into thought-provoking images.

What writers have inspired you throughout your career in poetry?

There are so many wonderful poets to choose from, writers in the past and the present, from Australia and the world. Poets I have mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg. To read any of these poets is to be inspired, and there are many others.

The later poems of W. B. Yeats made a huge impression on me when I first came across them and continue to do so today. I was introduced to him and to T. S. Eliot at university. Eliot impressed me with his ability to experiment with rhyme and structure, and the sustained power of the Four Quartets. I continue to be taken with the playfulness of e. e. cummings and his ability to suggest deeper ideas beneath the play. Robert Lowell’s Life Studies continues to impress me with the interweaving of the personal and the political. Many years ago I spent a year in Greece and read many European poets for the first time. Perhaps because I was living there, the Greek poet George Seferis made a huge impression in me, as did some of the poems of C. P. Cavafy. There are many fine poets of the Caribbean and South America including E. B. Brathwaite whose The Arrivants trilogy shows a wonderful skill in manipulating form and language, while Pablo Neruda is probably the most wide-ranging poet I know. More recently I came across the anthology Against Forgetting, edited by Carolyn Forché, foregrounding the work of many poets from around the world using their art to protest against injustice, up to and including genocide. It is an area neglected by many Australian poets, yet, well done, it offers the possibility of deeper connections with readers. Finally in this partial list, the Ecco Anthology of World Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris for Poetry Without Boundaries offers a wonderful collection, including such gems as Yehudi Amichai’s Yom Kippur.

Among Australian poets I’ve read and been impressed by are Judith Wright, Gwen Harwood, John Forbes; all have had an influence on me, as well, of course, as Les Murray, Bruce Dawe and the John Tranter of Under Berlin particularly. R. D. Fitzgerald is largely forgotten today, but he was a fine writer of the long poem, and his Face of the Waters is a tour de force.

Historically, poets from Homer and Sappho, from Rumi and Dante, from Donne to Milton and Shakespeare, from Walt Whitman to Robert Owen and the war poets – the list goes on; one lifetime is not time enough to explore all the riches of the world of poetry.

Ron Pretty’s eighth book of poetry, The Left Hand Mirror, was published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2017. The third edition of his Creating Poetry was published by PSP in 2015. He published 230 books by Australian poets in the 20 years 1987-2007 as publisher for Five Islands Press. He has taught writing in schools, universities and community groups throughout Australia and overseas.

Shaping the Poem: Structure in Contemporary Poetry will take place at Writing NSW on Saturday 6 April, 10am-4pm. Book your spot here >


Shaping the Poem: Structure in Contemporary Poetry Ron Pretty

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