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A sense of place

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Thursday, Jun 12, 2008

Poets usually have a choice between writing on mythical themes or of mythologizing the ordinary.  Anything truly mundane it’s…well, prosaic.  For modern writers dealing with everyday life, there needs to be a kind of transcendence introduced, something larger than life itself.  You’ll find that in the poems of even the most down-to-earth, like Simon Armitage or Wendy Cope—a sense that someone brushing their teeth or reading the newspaper actually represents something more.


Avenues and Runways Aidan Coleman Brandl & Schlesinger 2005

Avenues and Runways Aidan Coleman Brandl & Schlesinger 2005, 66 pages

Of course some topics and themes stubbornly resist mythologizing, as do some locations.  Grimy and degenerate can be poetic – and has been ever since Blake’s reference to “dark Satanic mills”.  But boring?  Boring is hard to make poetic. Sometimes a poet can overcome this with sheer skill.  John Betjeman’s “Slough”, made famous through TV’s The Office, looks at the most extreme example of boring suburbia and in its ennui and pretensions finds something bigger and more universal than the town. Modern Australian poetry faces a similar uphill battle.  The golden age of our national poetry was the “bush poetry” of the late-19th and early 20th centuries.  Now the “jolly swagman” and “Man from Snowy River” are gone and we’re left with a more uniform suburban existence.  We’re a lot like other countries, except newer and less certain in our identity. Adelaide’s Aidan Coleman has it even harder.  The City of Churches is a byword on the east coast for boredom and sameness.  Its residents are forced into a polite defensiveness combined with an awkwardness about talking themselves up lest they be laughed at. So you know what he means when he writes in “Mythology” that:
“Home never seemed worth writing about. The place was post-history”
As a first-generation resident (Coleman was born in Wales), he identifies with his town, but doesn’t see in it anything worthy of poetry.  A bit of a dilemma for a poet! So he does what the modern British poets have done faced with a similar ambivalence towards their own country and a tendency to understate—he sucks it up and writes some poems anyway. Out of it we get a volume like 2005’s Avenues & Runways in which housing estates, airport terminals and government research facilities are given the poetic treatment we once reserved for natural wonders.  And it works because it’s clever and simple and speaks to all the ordinary poetry readers who aren’t blessed to live somewhere timeless and dramatic. It’s the same way that a clever painter or photographer can turn an ugly scene into something remarkable.  It’s the reason we read poetry in the first place.  It’s far less efficient than prose at transmitting facts or information, but it’s much better and communicating the things behind the things, the subconscious feeling that the ordinary isn’t really that at all.
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