Friday, September 16, 2016

Thought Provokers

Susan Hawthorne:
why write poetry    

before writing poets were
important not just for their words
but for metre and song
and stories told in poems

poems were like way stations
on a journey through country
the stations of the cross
might be ancient tracks

poems with memorable tales
of histories made by ancestors
were living singing dancing
ways of remembering all

that was necessary to survive
insects and birds their habits
and habitats the season of frogs
and movements of the moon

writing meant that no one took
the task of remembering and
passing down those way stations
and the code of knowledge

'Thought Provokers' is a new, occasional category. Many poems, of course, can give rise to much thought on the part of readers. But for these posts, I choose those which make me question my assumptions – and if they do that for me, they will perhaps do the same for others.

For instance, although we can talk glibly of 'the oral tradition' in poetry – although many of us present our work in the form of 'spoken word', in a supposed return to that tradition – who among us would not write it first? Rappers, maybe? No, they too write down their words.

Susan Hawthorne is an Australian poet (like me) and this poem reminds me of our indigenous people's tradition of 'song lines' which guided them on their journeys through their country, which they took in order to look after the land, its plants, and its other living creatures. These songs were not written down, but passed on verbally over the generations. In such geographies, accuracy must be very important.

It was similar with other ancient forms of poetry, in other parts of the world (which she also alludes to). They were stories which recorded the history of a people, told in verse because that was both stirring and mnemonic. They were passed on orally and committed to memory. Histories, perhaps, allow more room for variation, and new details; even so they must be recognisable as the same story held in race memory.

I don't really know what I'm talking about, not at first hand. I'm far from the distant tribal origins of any of my European or Asian ancestors. Poetry is definitely something I write. As it is for you who are reading this. We are, after all, a community of blogging poets. Some of us put our work on YouTube or SoundCloud too, hoping our voices will literally be heard – but primarily we hope our words will be read.

Have we, as Susan suggests, lost something by this long devotion to the written word – for all its convenience and opportunity? Have we lost a deeper connection to life which poetry originally gave us and preserved for us? (Not to mention the innate connection to music and dance.)

You might take issue with this thesis, or be persuaded by it. For myself, I don't know that I could essay any answers to her question at this point – but I do think it's a good question to consider. No, I don't plan to stop writing; it would take a huge social shift to return to those times of oral history etc. But I wonder about how to revive some sense of the importance of those old practices. I wonder how we might now use poetry to connect us to life in a primal way? 

Susan Hawthorne, says her biography at Spinifex Press

is the author of six collections of poetry, two chapbooks and a verse novel. Her collection Cow (2011) was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award in the 2012 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards as well as being a finalist in the 2012 Audre Lorde Lesbian Poetry Award (USA). Earth’s Breath was shortlisted for the 2010 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. She has been the recipient of two international residencies: in 2013 from the Australia Council for the Arts for six months to write Lupa and Lamb, the BR Whiting Library in Rome; and in 2009 a four month residency for Arts Queensland and the Australia Council to Chennai, India to write Cow. Her work has been published in Australia and internationally in anthologies and literary magazines, in the annual Best Australian Poems (three times) and broadcast on Radio National Poetica (twice).
She is the author of a verse novel, Limen (2013) and a novel, The Falling Woman (1992) which was a Top Twenty Title in New Zealand’s Listener Women’s Book Festival and selected as one of the Year’s Best Books in The Australian.
Her non-fiction includes The Spinifex Quiz Book (1993) shortlisted in the Australian Educational Awards and Wild Politics(2002) selected as one of the Year’s Best Books in the Australian Book Review. Her most recent non-fiction book isBibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing (2014).
She is also a publisher and Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville.

She and Renate Klein founded Spinifex, an award-winning feminist publishing house, in March 1991, and it's still going very strong. Also she blogs at Susan's Political Blog, where she describes herself as (among other things) 'radical feminist, political theorist, linguist' – and 'aerialist'! Obviously not only thought-provoking, but a lively thinker herself – as well as adventurously engaged with physical living.

We used to know each other years ago, when we both lived in Melbourne. More recently we have reconnected on facebook, and even more so at the blog of poetry and art, 365+1, where I was a guest for a month and Susan is a year-long, daily contributor. She writes beautiful poetry on various themes, from new views of classical goddesses to the joys and trials of living on the land (in the Australian tropics). I urge you to read more at the blog. You'll find her posts (as well as a whole heap of interesting stuff by other people) by scrolling down the right-hand column.

You can find her books at Spinifex Press and at her Amazon page.

Both the poem, © Susan Hawthorne 2016, and the photo are protected by copyright and used with permission. They must not be reproduced by any method without written permission from the copyright owner(s). Enquiries should be directed to Spinifex Press.


  1. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! How I love this feature: the marvellous poem itself, the poet, and your musings on oral traditions, song lines (I LOVE song lines, which interest me deeply). You ask a very pertinent question. How can we incorporate more of the old poetic traditions into our work? I see a prompt idea there. Bravo, Rosemary. Wonderful post!

  2. A very interesting article, Rosemary.

  3. Thought provoking, indeed. Maybe the media will help us connect in what once was a tribal tradition, maybe PROTEST will--for example among the indigenous peoples gathered to block the Dakota access pipeline on the Standing Rock reservation in the USA. In my own life, I know this only in the folk song tradition, songs that are gathered and then written and replayed. This is what some 60's rock and roll picked up and played with in new ways. OK, well, Woodstock didn't do it, but we still have Joni Mitchell's song about it. Thank you.

    1. Very interesting observations, Susan. I was a big fan of folk in that era, and still love the more traditional old ballads.

  4. What a great new feature & topic to ponder. (And, yes, I enjoyed Susan Hawthorne's poem.) I do think there is something to be said for oral tradition. It amazes me really how much had been handed down before there was written language. I think this passing orally might even be a skill which has been pretty much lost, as we have relied so heavily on recording things of importance in writing. I do wonder how we can somehow meld oral tradition with written poetry. Perhaps there is a way. Thanks, Rosemary & Susan Hawthorne, for making us think.

    1. We evolve, I suppose - gaining new (technological) skills in place of those we have lost. But perhaps we can recover some things. Indigenous Australians have a practice of deep listening (called by some people Dadirri) which is worth engaging in. Some brought up in the old ways are considered stupid by members of the dominant culture – because they speak little and slowly. They are listening and processing deeply before they speak. We can learn this.

  5. Good question and very thoughtful response. Oral tradition was far more than the preservation of the land and its inhabitants. It was also a teaching tool, meant to help future generations to value those actions which would nurture that land and all of its inhabitants. That would bring about a higher quality of life for all. Scripture tells us that "without a vision the people shall perish." The story-tellers, oral-traditionalists, and yes, we poetry writers, all share that same energy. And because we do, we should never forget that there is an element of the sacred handed down to us through all of those generations. Whew! Thought provoking, yes. Thank you Rosemary.

  6. I always admire the spoken word artistes who stand in front an audience and just talk through volumes. If I have to speak my poems, which I have written I still need the script to read from. Some nice thoughts expressed here

    Much love...

    1. There was a time I used to learn by heart those I planned to speak, but I wouldn't like to try now! LOL

  7. hummm.....interesting, and causes one to consider...but is "writing" not like the basket woven, it does make our tasks easier. I think about the baby on the back, and gathering the precious, seeds, and other ediables. How revolutionary and how extrodinary to suddenly have a basket. I think that way about writing. Suddenly we can write it down, we can take it with us, we can share it, keep it when we forget. And it is all thanks to the discoveries of women. Now we can "count" the ways. Perhaps memory should belong to women?

    Still, I think the practice of memory has been lost to an extent. I think students of times gone by, used to memorize many things, and the "organ" of memory was better. Children should have the opportunity to memorize more. For me, and of course I blame it on age, I can't remember what I have written down, often before I finish writing it. Thank you Rosemary and Susan, for giving us something wonderful to think about.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts too, annell. I agree with you on both counts. It's good to have the writing, and it would also be good to exercise and train our memories more – as people did even as recently as when I was growing up. Perhaps the proliferation of knowledge has something to do with it – just too much, now, to hope to keep in one's head.

  8. Perhaps because we think the written word is more permanent? because writing is one of our greatest inventions?

    another excellent "musing", and certainly a thought provoker! also enjoyed Susan's poem. :)

  9. Thank you all for your comments and to Rosemary for posting it. I have subsequently written a number of poems on this topic, indeed it is a subject I return to faily often. Poetry before writing, along with song, dance, music, art and possibly architecture, was a way of encoding knowledge and passing it on correctly. If the metre was wrong then the memory had lapsed. I would love to see more poetry learned in schools, it's a great loss never to have the joy of memorising something correctly and being able to recite it. It should of course be meaningful and have great rhythm.

    1. My Dad loved poetry, and in the days when I was growing up, when there wasn't so much canned entertainment and people used to entertain each other at parties and family gatherings, his recitations were very popular. He often went for comedy, or the very stirring. Still a wonderful memory for me.


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