mark o'connor - on poetry

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Mark O'Connor has written much about poetry, its role in literature and in society:

For more information on Mark O'Connor's poetry, see also:

What Poetry Is

By Mark O'Connor

Poetry is memorable speech: rich and evocative memorable speech, on subjects of some general importance, with a perpetual slight surprise from line to line.

It usually offers both an intrinsic verbal charm or beauty and also some new understanding, or at the least new sensibility---being new, and true, and rich, (and often slightly mysterious) all at once. It is of course the combination of new and true that is hardest to achieve.

Great poems take our minds to places we could never have imained for ourselves, yet we immediately recognize the validity of such places; and the experience of being taken there is at once an emotional and an intellectual one.

Poetry may be the world's oldest profession. (Its rival for that title needs special social conditions). Poetry's ancient roots are in Shamanism, spells, magic, religion. Ours is a species with a deep hunger for meaning. Other mammals may be born sure of themselves, like cats. We are born with a need to make sure, to find certainty. This makes us susceptible to superstitions and isms, vulnerable to the dream-worlds created by the hypnotic effects of music and song, yet it also calls out our reason.

"O full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife." Shakespeare's image of man's mind like a boxful of lashing scorpions works by multiple analogies. Such imagery is the fuel of poetry. It reaches a deep level of the brain where observation is linked to emotion, and where examples count for more than general rules. The great poets relentlessly ask of each new subject "What is it like?" or perhaps more exactly "What does it feel like?"

Like fractal mathematicians, they note the similarities that link widely differing objects. The result is a mighty compression. Ted Hughes does not dwell on the paradox and the pathos of the light-weight stiffness of a dead swiftlet's wing. He simply speaks of it cupped in his hand "in balsa death".

The poet, then, is a maker or, at the least, a re-arranger, of meanings, inventing words or phrases to help us grasp the meanings of our lives.

Mark O'Connor's Credo

Writing is a highly individual business, about which it is difficult to be either concise or dogmatic. But let me try . . .

Poetry is memorable and evocative and emotionally honest speech. Besides the Good, the Beautiful and the True, you need "The Fourth Transcendental"---the Interesting.

A good poem is one whose images know the value of teamwork. A poem has a power-to-weight ratio, like a car. Obscurity is weight.

Don't preach. Yet aim to create new attitudes and values. Hope to be a generation ahead of the politicians---and sometimes only months ahead of the media! Judith Wright's poems, a generation later, are stopping as many bulldozers as the activists.

Don't be an obscurantist---it maligns your profession. But, especially in poetry, an initial potent obscurity may be part of normal development. The muse, like wine, may start in a heady ferment, to go clear as it matures.

Don't set out to reveal yourself, unless it's for the reader's sake. But know that, whatever you do, you will reveal yourself.

A writer is a builder and destroyer of patterns, a bush encyclopaedist always on the lookout for the awkward fact or experience that fits no existing philosophy.

The only absolute rule, whether in prose or verse, is to say something interesting, something new, something important, and to say it memorably and well.

Mark O'Connor

Mark O'Connor on his twin allegiances to literature and science
From the book This I Believe edited by John Marsen

Having only one culture is like having only one eye in your head. I spent many years pursuing the impossible dream of being omni-cultural (in the ethnic and linguistic sense) before I realised that the second culture which most enlarges my horizons is one which I had had since childhood: Science.

To my mind, scientific and literary cultures complement each other. The literary world (in which I work) tends to create illusory constructs, models of the world in which only human beings and their concerns exist. The scientific culture rejects such "pre-Copernican" world-views; yet it cannot focus as finely on the human world in which we mostly live and work.

Modern biology reveals that human beings are only one species---though probably the most intelligent---among several million species that are all of them variously and wondrously adapted to life on Earth. This discovery is almost as revolutionary as Galileo's suggestion that the Earth goes round the sun. We humans are no more the centre of the universe biologically than we are astronomically.

All my adult life I have viewed the world through these two discordant eyes. I have felt a little like a friend of mine who was told when he reached middle age that he should go and see about getting glasses. The optician told him, "There's really nothing I can do for you. One of your eyes is so long-sighted it's what you've always depended on for driving etc, and the other is so short-sighted that you'll always be able to read without needing glasses. Leave well enough alone."

As a writer and sometimes a university teacher of literature, I am troubled by many literary people's ignorance not just of hard science, but even of basic biology. I remember when the fashion for literary deconstruction was at its height meeting one critic who pompously assured me that the modern interest in preserving "waste lands" (as he called them) was an artificial construct whose development he could explain through literary texts. He seemed to have no idea of the amount of biological understanding and information that underpins the modern conservation movements---or of the numerous anthropological parallels to our civilization's new-found ability to value wild nature for its own sake.

Indeed the feeling that wilderness should be preserved may be not so much a "construct" as an instinct. Our natural instincts still incline us to strive against (and within) an environment, but most of us do not wish for abject victory over that environment. Another critic who confidently set out to analyse my Australian environmental poems turned out to have so little idea of their reference-points that he interpreted them as classical "pastoral".

Like most environmentalists I am a regionalist. ("Think globally but act locally"). This need not be a limitation. Most good writers are regional writers. Jane Austen was a regional writer, whose characters belong to a particular place and landscape. So was Dickens. So were Homer and Virgil, great regional writers who drop an average of one place name every two lines. Only the most jejune writing is set nowhere particular.

As Australians we should abjure the cultural cringe that imagines London and New York are centres whereas Darwin or Oodnadatta are merely regions. The globe is round, it has neither up nor down, nor centre (unless you like living immersed in molten iron). Some places are more popular or more humanly convenient than others; some have more photocopiers than others, but to the dedicated writer or reader or scholar there are no centres, only regions, all deserving to be written about. Australia is a region, many regions. London is a region, a few regions.

As Australians, we should be peculiarly conscious of regions, because we speak a displaced language, one that has no longstanding relationship evolved over the centuries with the parts of this country, one which has dozens of words for small inconspicuous creatures in an English hedgerow, but no common names for the spectacular creatures of a coral reef or a rainforest. Yet it is an adaptable language, though it is certainly more at home in the south.

There is much still to do. A few years ago Oxford University Press invited me to edit an anthology called Two Centuries of Australian Poetry. I decided to structure it around the different "conversations" that were going on among Australian poets and writers. I found that in this I had almost no predecessors. Even the task of identifying what the major conversations were (I thought there were about 18 of them), much less introducing them knowledgably, was all to be done. Doing so gave me for the first time a map of our culture, of its viewpoints and presumptions, and of their statistical or absolute divergence from those of other cultures. (Before then my own culture was largely imperceptible to me, like the taste of water in my own mouth).

What the British writers did over centuries for their own landscape, turning much of it into a network of white-fella sacred sites like the Lake District, is being done for Australia today by poets, writers, and photographers. The poetry of nature, in the wider sense, is the fuel on which the environmental movement runs. Among the major literary forms only poetry seems adapted to focus on the non-human environ ment. The novel and especially the drama are human-chauvinist forms which tend to create the illusion---shared by such figures as Karl Marx, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, many economists, and the current Pope---that there are not 5 million species on the globe, but only one.

It remains urgent to find our own words and our own feelings for this most different, most "alien" of the continents the English-speaking peoples conquered. This is a job that poetry does better than other literary forms, which is why I remain poor (or poorer) by writing poetry rather than writing the more lucrative forms of drama or novel.

Mark O'Connor