‘The Pleasures of Poetry’ at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, May 2012

The Auckland Writers & Readers Festival is New Zealand's largest literature event, running for five days every May. They have a dedicated two day schools programme and a three day public programme, which includes great stuff like Ian's talk.

In 2013 the Festival will run 15-19 May.

Sincere thanks to the Festival for providing this video. Their Vimeo channel has hours of wonderful talks and discussions.

The Auckland Writers and Readers Festival organisers asked me to do a session with high school students in May this year. At some point, ‘The Pleasures of Poetry’ appeared as a theme for it. I was happy with that – especially the plural ‘pleasures’, which opened up a pretty wide front.

But nothing is simple, even when – as is often the case with poetry – it looks that way. I soon realised I’d have to cut a fairly narrow channel through the topic, or risk bewildering the audience as much as I almost certainly would myself. I thought I’d go back to my memories of first encounters with poetry of some sort, and try to explain why the pleasures that began then have continued.

When my brother and I were little, our father ‘Chick’ Wedde used to row us around Waikawa Bay in the Marlborough Sounds singing ‘Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream – merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!’ Without wishing to over-egg this memory, I can say, with my hand hovering a few millimetres above my heart, that the rhyming of ‘stream’ and ‘dream’ seemed to me to make those words flow together into the joining-up word ‘life’, producing a puzzle that stretched the meaning of the rowing-chant between nonsense and something very significant.

At the age of five or six, this is not what I thought; but it’s something like how I thought. Nor did I know, then, that this was a kind of ‘poetry’, but fairly soon afterwards I did begin to know that words organised like this were poetry.

Back then in the old kauri clinker rowboat, exactly where meaning came to rest along that stretch between nonsense and significance was pleasantly complicated by the sunshine and sea, the salty taste of splashes, sometimes by the speckled glitter of fish-scales on Chick’s forearms, and frequently by the rowing-exertion farts he let rip with obvious pleasure. It’s not possible, now, for me to separate the ‘pleasures of poetry’ from these apparently circumstantial factors, nor from the physical nature of the rhythm.

I got similar kinds of pleasure, though probably not as richly sensual, from the meaning-stretch in poems we were read when my twin brother Dave and I were learning to read for ourselves. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ was one:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

Of course, one of the pleasures of this poem, aside from the tantalising hunch that meaning and nonsense weren’t opposites, was the old story of a boy going forth to conquer his fear and winning his father’s praise.

Another favourite was also a Lewis Carroll poem, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.

The sun was shining on the sea,
    Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
    The billows smooth and bright –
And this was odd, because it was
    The middle of the night.

The joke turns sinister when Carroll, with droll, laconic dramatic understatement, prefaces the paedophiliac Osteidaecide of juvenile oysters with the most famous nonsense in English poetry:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
    “To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax –
    Of cabbages – and kings –
And why the sea is boiling hot –
    And whether pigs have wings.”

The shudder of pleasure I got from hearing, and then reading, this poem had as much to do with the jokes as with the warning about accepting beach-walk invitations from strangers; with the nonsense as with the sense. What made it work – what made the pleasure special – was the way sense and nonsense, fun and danger, jokes and horror, played together in the poem.

Quite a few years later, when I was about nine or ten, I completely bewildered myself by obsessively reading Robert Browning’s incomprehensible historical narrative poem ‘Sordello’, which I found by accident in a padded, leather-bound 1907 edition whose binding was leaking its mysterious, woolly stuffing, and whose title page had my grandfather’s name, A.A. Wedde, written on it in fading, elegant handwriting. The pleasure of this doomed enterprise came down to a couple of simple factors anticipated in my encounters with Lewis Carroll. Firstly, I knew nothing about the Italian history in the poem, let alone what Browning was making, or hoping to make, of it; the poem might as well have been about ‘cabbages and kings’ as about Guelphs and Ghibellines; it was non-sense. But secondly, there was an irresistable undertow of significant meaning whose codes I wouldn’t crack simply by finding out who exactly the ‘cabbages’ and ‘kings’ were and what they’d been up to back then. Rather, the pleasurable sense of meaning that kept me reading was in the space between non-sense and something that could be easily explained away as ‘facts’. The non-sense was intriguing but ultimately a blind alley; the explanation of who Sordello was and what he was actually doing was only interesting in the limited way that facts are interesting. What was pleasurable was found in the gap between the two. I came to think quite early on that this was where poetry belonged and where the pleasures of poetry were found. Around sixty years later I still find this to be so.

Another very special pleasure on the day of the Festival event last May was the readings by two poets in the high school audience, which you can hear if you watch the video. There were about 500 students in the audience, and their poets Ben and Hamish got huge applause.