An ode to verse
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An ode to verse

Canberra is a front runner in research into a neglected field - poetry, Sally Pryor writes.

What is it about poetry? It's a fairly specialised literary genre. Volumes of poetry never make it on to best-seller lists. Book clubs don't tend to congregate to discuss the latest releases. The average person would be hard-pressed to name a single contemporary Australian poet, or any living poet, really, although the dead ones tend to be romanticised to the hilt.

And yet poetry is everywhere, if only we knew what to look for.

The recently established Canberra International Poetry Studies Institute is Australia's first. One of 13 locks that were scattered across Kings Cross, Sydney, with each lock engraved with one of 13 verses last year.

The recently established Canberra International Poetry Studies Institute is Australia's first. One of 13 locks that were scattered across Kings Cross, Sydney, with each lock engraved with one of 13 verses last year.Credit:Tim Purcell

That said, when was the last time you heard someone read a poem in public? Chances are, it was quite recently - at a wedding, say, or a funeral, in a movie, or at a poetry slam, a type of social gathering that is gaining momentum in pubs, cafes, clubs and theatres all over the place.

For writers, poetry can do magical feats - something about the economy of expression and distillation of emotion that renders lines of verse crystalline, dense but delicate at the same time.

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And for people who prefer to read it - or who are scrabbling for words for an occasion - lines of poetry are like conduits in the game of human emotion, always on hand to provide the words that we can't find within ourselves to say.

"Poetry can do things in language which can condense language, condense meaning in ways which other art forms tend not to do as well, even though they offer all sorts of possibilities," says Paul Hetherington, associate professor at the University of Canberra and himself a poet.

"Even though poetry isn't as widely read now as it used to be, I think it remains a very important undercurrent in a lot of people's lives, both emotionally and intellectually, and it tends to surface in key moments."

Canberra, as it happens, is positively crawling with poets. Some are published, others are not, and many gather for regular readings and discussions around town. Even the 2013 Australian Poetry Slam Champion, C.J. Bowerbird, is a Canberra public servant by day.

It's fitting, then, that the country's first research institute dedicated to poetry is now right here in the capital. The International Poetry Studies Institute has just been launched at the University of Canberra, as part of the newly established Donald Horne Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Faculty of Arts and Design. For an institute with such a grand title, its ambitions are suitably lofty - to conduct research into poetry and poets, and publish its findings internationally, as a way of "furthering the appreciation and understanding of poetry, poetic language and the cultural and social significance of poetry".

Hetherington is on the institute's management team, along with Professor Jen Webb, another published poet. Both have been thinking for some time about the research potential of poetry studies, what with the growing interest among academics in the possibilities of study in the area.

"It's a growing area because poetry can be technical, philosophical, phenomenological, it offers all of those sorts of things. It's actually a very rich area to work in," Webb says.

"There are quite a few professional groups on poetry, especially the peak body Australian Poetry Limited, but there aren't any other research groups, people who are actually doing conventional and academic creative research into poetry, the making of poetry, the field of poetry."

The impetus for creating the institute has come in the midst of the university's surprisingly high ranking in the Australian government's recent Excellence in Research for Australia study.

"There was a trial and two full runs, and we participated in all three of those, and in each of those three, the area of writing and creative arts generally came out as being of world standard research, here at UC," Webb says.

"That's happened without a great deal of focus, I have to say, just with our kind of doing things that interested us. So we decided, given that we are quite close as a group, we know each other's work quite well and there are points of connection, we thought well, let's see if we can bump it up to above world standard if we can in the next few years."

Hetherington says the creation of the institute is part of that agenda. "We think that in Australia in particular, there's this burgeoning interest in research into creativity, and also there's a kind of resurgence in poetry all round the world," he says.

"It's interesting that although poetry may not be a meal ticket for most poets, there's a great proliferation of people who are interested in writing it and who are writing it. And in Australia … the national and international standing of Australian poetry at the moment is very high. We've got a great number of very skilled and important poets in this country, and at the moment it's an area that's been under-researched."

The institute also has an online journal, Axon: Creative Explorations, established in 2011 as the faculty was testing the poetic waters. It now produces two themed editions a year containing poetry, interviews and articles from around the world.

"So far, people we've talked to have been very enthusiastic about this nationally, but also internationally there's recognition of the importance of research into creativity and the way poetry exemplifies the creative process," Hetherington says.

"Poetry presents such interesting and diverse ways of using language, it's an interesting take and way to just look at language and how we express ourselves, how we understand ourselves."

And it's already begun using an Australian Research Council Grant to conduct interviews with around 90 highly ranked Anglophone poets around the world.

"It's quite a nuanced set of interview questions," Webb says.

"How do they think? What makes these people different from everybody else who writes poems and puts them in the bottom drawer? Are the features of their thinking and their work and their life … transferable into other forms to help us understand what goes into a high-level creative person? Can we transfer that into IT or wherever else?"

So how is it that the recently established International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra is the first of its kind in Australia?

"Actually that's a very interesting point because in other countries, poetry centres and poetry institutes are more prevalent than in Australia," Hetherington says.

"Jen and I were very keen that we could try to fill the gap that exists in the Australian cultural landscape, not only in terms of university research … but also, we wanted to provide a key place where people can start to think about poetry more actively."

That is to say, as more than just a repository of cliches for opportune moments; poetry has a role to play in how we understand ourselves and our culture.

"I think poetry allows a kind of different, perhaps deeper kind of conversation, and it's the kind of conversation we may not want to have every hour of every day, but which is very important that we do have, from time to time in our lives. It connects us not only to others but actually back into ourselves, into where we actually come from as beings, and how we actually understand who we are and what we might be."

And choosing to read a poem at a public or intimate event should never be scoffed at.

"One of the things that's positive about poetry for me is as it does that, it raises a whole range of possibilities for people, so that I think actually as people read poetry, or let's say even something as well-known as a Shakespeare sonnet, at say a wedding, often what they're saying is, 'I actually want to open my relationship to something deeper and richer than I would normally talk about,' " he says.

"This poem is a way of opening those possibilities and that landscape of possibility, and in opening up those possibilities, I think people not only enrich other people's lives, they enrich themselves, and they begin then to connect into all sorts of things, which as we go to work or we wash the dishes and those sorts of things, we're not necessarily very connected into but we need to have conduits that take us to those places."

Axon: Creative Explorations can be found at axonjournal.com.au.

For more information about the International Poetry Studies Institute, see www.canberra.edu.au/faculties/arts-design/about-us/dhi.

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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