The Significance of Poetry

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The significance of poetry

"Unlike our bodies which decay/ words first and last have come to stay" said the late Peter Porter in one of his finest poems Last Words. It is fitting tonight to thank Sue Hicks, at present living in London,and now Danny Gardner her former partner for twenty years of devotion to the poetic word in establishing and keeping alive the longest running poetry reading venue in Australia. Many who have read their poems here have passed on including the late Vera Newsom of Sydney and Tony Scanlon formerly of the Northern Territory. Many have made enduring friendships and 8 anthologies have been published.

Our planet is 4.6 billion years one tiny planet in an apparently 13.5 billion year old universe. Big bang or continuous evolution: who knows? Beauty, what Plato called "the good, the true and the beautiful", is endemic to all human endeavour. Art of the plastic sort (which you can touch) has been made for 2 million years. The world's first art object, the Makapansgat pebble, appears to be 2 million years old. Rock engravings such as circles which appear extensively in Aboriginal art, for example in Tasmania, come later before the first cave paintings. One rock art painting in a cave in Laura in north Queensland is 36,000 years old and has not been touched up. At some point language emerged; at this stage we don't know when and probably will never know: but say 50,000 years ago.

Poetry is not as ancient an art form as plastic art but goes back at least 4,500 years from the earliest Sumerian fragments of Gilgamesh, the first surviving long poem; then thereare the Hittite fragments from prior to 1200 BC before we come to the great surviving version in Gilgamesh in Akkadianso wonderfully edited by Professor A. R. George of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and translated into English by him in the new Penguin version. Versions of Gilgamesh also exist in other languages\

Poetry has survived in all situations: the brilliant first chapter of Xavier Herbert's great 1938 novel Capricorniatells of how an aboriginal chants it as he lies dying killed by a white. The most amazing case is surely that of the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti whose poems were found posthumously in a notebook, the so called Bor Notebook, in a pocket in his raincoat after he had been executed in 1944 and buried in a mass grave. Ancient poems formerly unknown from at least 1500 years ago have surfaced in central Asia in the last century at the great site of Dunhuang, where over 100,000 literary works and fragments have were found in a former Buddhist monastery and will take decades or centuries to fully assess (they are only just being cataloged). For thousands of years poetry was mainly sung and only recently, especially since the advent of mechanically printed books, has it been spoken without musical accompaniment. For most of Australia's at least 50,000 year documented human habitation much poetry including the great ritual cycles was sung. It is perhaps fitting here to note that some 800 languages are now spoken in Australia, including the still spoken Sydney Language of the Aboriginal groups of Sydney, and poetry is probably being written in most of them.

Now, as Sir Martin Rees has warned in his great work Our Final Century: will the human race survive the twenty first century?,the chances of humanity and life on the planet surviving the next 100 years are only fifty fifty. Those who understand the problems created by nanotechonology don't need Sir Martin Rees to tell them why this could be so. Then there are nuclear bombs (which hopefully will be banned) and germ warfare (officially banned)."Are there guns which do not kill the possessor" the poet Robert Lowell once asked in his volume History thus hinting at a ban on guns and all weapons of destruction.According to Pope Benedict the sixteenth, "Beauty will save us".

A great Englishman Anthony Reid, Tony to his friends, of whom I was one, published an enduringpoetry anthology The Eternal Flame which he worked on for over 50 years and which was itself published in 2 volumes in 1992 and 2002. The eternal flame of poetry will never go out as long as there are humans on our planet, in Sydney as long as there are Sue Hickses and Danny Gardners.

Please accept this small token of our gratitude and affection. Whether it is vinegar or gold I do not know. Thanks also to Danny's partner for Helen for her delicious soup.

Paul Knobel 28-29 April 2010

Paul Knobel is the author of 3 books of poems and 2 encyclopedias and a former Honorary Associate. He has read frequently at Live Poets and is included in their anthology Free Range (1997). He is also the convenorfo the Constant Users Group of the State Library of NSW.

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