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‘Receive the changing voices’: the place of poetry in our digital age

When was the last time you read a poem?

For many of us not currently involved in the teaching, study or creation of literature our answer might well be when we were finishing school, or during our undergrad days at university. But that might not actually be the case.

It can be argued poetry influences many facets of our lives. From song lyrics, to jingles, contemporary music and even corporate branding, the foundations of poetry are present in ways we often wouldn’t be aware of. Far from being hidden away in long forgotten textbooks, poetry in its many forms is now more accessible than ever thanks to the web and social media channels.

With UNESCO’s World Poetry Day taking place this week (21 March), we caught up with Dr Daniel Hourigan, Lecturer in English Literature in the School of Humanities and Literature at USQ, and one of the judges of the annual Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize, to get his thoughts on the important place of poetry in the 21st century.

CR: Many people might think of poetry as an archaic literary form from the distant past; what do you think poetry can offer us in contemporary society?

DH: Poetry is a mainstay of oral traditions. Yet today, in Western nations, we usually think of it as a work of written literature that uses the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language such as sound symbolism and meter to evoke meanings in addition to, or in substitution for, ordinary meaning.

Poetry has been around for a long time, certainly, but it remains at the core of so many of our everyday experiences in modern Australia, from the song lyric to the advertising jingle or company motto. Poetry has a power to present an image or experience in an intense way that few other modes of communication can.

Higher education institutions are becoming increasingly focused on teaching practical, vocational skills to produce job-ready graduates. Where would you say the teaching and practise of poetry fit in with this?

I would like to counter the presumption that poetry is somehow impractical. It is important to remember that poetry often relies on the spoken word rather than the read text, and a significant part of poetry is its performance, both verbally and on the page.

To put this another way, reading poetry requires that we think of reading as an active rather than passive engagement with our imagination. Moreover, we tend to miss the point of poetry if we think of literature such as poetry as something that Someone A does to Someone B. The act of reading is just that: an act that we enact. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines poetry as a written literature, I’m of the mind that this is too narrow a definition for poetry because its performative basis is not easily reduced to one among many literatures.

You’re part of the judging panel for the annual Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize. What are your thoughts on the state of contemporary poetry in Australia, and how does it compare with what’s happening overseas?

The contemporary poetry scene in Australia is very active and exciting. Almost every national or state-based literary award houses a category for poetry, which goes a long way to recognising that it has a place in the Australian national imagination.

There are some significant overlaps between the poetry occurring overseas and in Australia. Chief among these, I feel, is the way that poetry provides a space to raise consciousness about significant social and political issues, including Indigenous rights, domestic violence, and other systemic injustices and violence that can be difficult to richly articulate in other modes.

If we curtail poetry to a national category, then I’m also inclined to point out that a number of Australian poets have, historically, lived abroad while producing their works. Transnationalism and moving beyond national or ethnic boundaries is thus another significant factor in thinking about contemporary poetry.

How has digital technology and social media influenced the creation and distribution of poetry? Has it been a good thing in your opinion?

We cannot overstate the impact that online spaces have had on improving the visibility of poetry beyond the canon taught by schools and universities. At the same time, however, this digital revolution has shifted the conditions by which poetry operates today, not only in terms of its media, e.g. e-poetics that plays with the profundities of online experiences, but also in terms of whose poetry gains a voice.

It is arguable that digital technologies have demotised rather than democratised poetry, with sites such as Poetry.com and the Web 2.0 networks of social media almost entirely circumventing the curatorial role of editors and publishers. This does not suggest that poetry is easy to accomplish by any means, but it does mean that we have access to a lot more that we might describe as ‘poetic’ in general.

While some commentators will delight in measuring the moral compass of this shift, I’m less inclined to impose an irrational guilt on social mediation online and instead present this shift as a transformation of aesthetics.

Today is a unique time for poetry because the presentation of tortious problems is suddenly presented to our private judgement alongside old formalisms and eclipsed tropes shambling forth.

How did you spend World Poetry Day?

I continued to push for the richness and value of the Humanities in a day full of university administration. UNESCO established World Poetry Day to support and celebrate linguistic diversity through poetic expression, especially that of endangered languages and their communities.

Set on the 21st day of March, the date overlaps with the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Australian Government initiatives around Harmony Week, and the Autumnal equinox. For me, this complex of calendar events highlights that World Poetry Day is not a normative elevation of the dignity of the poetic, it is also a call to respect and receive the changing voices of our world.

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