Friday, April 11, 2008


In one of his recorded talks with Peter Porter, Clive James places the ability to make memorable phrases centre-stage: "On any given contemporary scene, but especially the one we have now, there are many, many, many poets who canít make phrases. They write poetry with a capital P but they don't do the essential thing that poets do - or I think it ís the essential thing that poets do but maybe I'm old fashioned."

Given the recent uproar in the letters section of Poetry (March 2008) issue there are plenty of Pound defenders who would agree with that label "old fashioned". But the lines that lodge in our brains are surely integral to the manner in which reading poetry transforms and enriches day to day experience - the lines pop into your head, and there's this whole expansive dimension at hand. Kris Hemensley writes - in a comment on an earlier post "For me it's as often lines or parts of poems as it is the complete poem or a poem or two as much as the poet's complete works that sustains me or maintains that particular poet in my mind."

I've been enjoying Don Share's collection Squandermania, not least because of his talent at making phrases. Often enough the good phrases are shows of wit, lifting the poem with humour ...

Patience comes
to those who wait -

or (echoing a Joni Mitchell lyric)

Paradise can't exist
till it's gone.

There are many observations, appealing in the same sort of way as Billy Collins can be, but the texture and language of the verse is quite different

Joke shops are always
in bad neighborhoods.

But Share's phrase-making can be turned to serious effect. In a poem which sets out with a reference to "ground zero" the final line starts with a phrase which has all the weight, balance and import of a line from the classics:

disaster marries us

1 comment:

Laurie Duggan said...

From early in the piece, when I was still at Monash university, I have very consciously reacted against that type of poetry that relies on the 'memorable phrase'. It seemed at the time that the newspapers were glutted with this stuff. Whatever my own poems look like, I hope they appear as structures rather than as dictionaries of quotation. So my disagreement with James is a deep one. Of course we do remember lines and phrases but to set out to create these seems to me some kind of abdication.