‘A Machine Made with Words’—Anne Elvey speaks to Ron Pretty

Ron

Would you say a little about what attracts you in a poem? What do you value in a poem? Are these the same?

I like different things in different poems. Sometimes it’s the wordplay or the sound patterning, sometimes it’s the strange place to which the poem takes me. I like to be invited in to a poem by an intriguing opening. I like images that are strikingly auditory or visual and that are moulded seamlessly into the poem. Usually I like a sense of unity in a poem—of theme, image and language—and I like the poem to have some kind of reference to the world beyond the poem: a poem may be ‘a machine made with words’, but that machine is built in someone’s backyard.

What attracts me to a poem is the verve and excitement of its opening, the freshness and appropriateness of its language and imagery; I value those things, but beyond them I value the world that the poem opens up to me, making connections that I may not have previously seen. I don’t particularly value cleverness for its own sake: I want the poem to lead me somewhere. But I am prepared to work hard at a poem, if there are rewards for doing so.

Voice is such an elusive thing to describe. What gives a poet’s voice its distinctiveness?

It seems to me that voice is a product of the whole poem: not only its language, sound patterning and imagery, but also the movement of its lines and the patterning of its sounds, even the breath of the poet in the phrasing. Voice is the individuality of a poem; it is the working together of all these things that makes the voice of an e e cummings poem so different from, say, a Robert Adamson poem.

How do you see form and content working together in a poem?

I do subscribe to the theory of organic form: the idea that all elements—language, sound patterning, imagery, structure—make equal and essential contributions to the totality that is the poem. What a poem says, and the ways in which it says it, are two sides of the same coin. A poem can be weakened by disparate elements, such as language that seems inappropriate to this subject, images that contradict themselves or some other element of the poem, or a line whose rhythm is out of sympathy with the rest of the poem. It is possible, of course, to vary any one of these elements, but if so, there needs to be a clear organic reason for the variation, a reason that enhances, rather than detracts from, the sense of unity of the poem.

Have there been particular poets who shaped your understanding of poetry? Of life?

W. B. Yeats, more than any other poet, stimulated my own writing at the beginning.

I remain impressed by the range of his topics and tones, his firm control of form, the vividness of his imagery, the quality of his sound patterning, his use of both myth and politics. But there have been many others. Walt Whitman for the colloquial interweaving of the personal and the political (though he can be very wordy); e e cummings for his playfulness; the Caribbean poet E K Brathwaite for the brilliance of his use of sound; George Seferis for the power of his imagery, even in translation; Robert Adamson for the brilliant precision of his language and imagery; Dorothy Porter for the colloquial energy of her lines. But there are so many wonderful poems by a wide variety of poets, Australian and international, whose richness takes my breath away.

What can be said well in a short poem (up to 30 lines) such as called for by the Ron Pretty Poetry Prize? How does a short poem differ from the longer type of poem (60, 100, 200 lines) often invited in other competitions?

A poem of 30 lines or less insists on precision and unity; no redundancies or irrelevancies are possible. It has a limited space to make its impact, and that makes for both immediacy and precision in all aspects of the poem. But those who have written haiku, rhyming couplets or sonnets will know how much can be achieved in just a few evocative lines. A poem restricted to 30 lines will perhaps tend toward the lyric rather than the epic or the narrative, but that is not a prescription, just a tendency. And really, a 30-line limit still gives a poet a lot of scope.

Would you like to say something about your most recent and forthcoming books?

My two most recent books are What the Afternoon Knows (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013), much of which was written during an Australia Council Residency in Rome in 2012, and Creating Poetry (Pitt Street Poetry 2015), which is a revised edition of a book first published by Edward Arnold in 1987. It is a book designed to assist beginning or newish writers of whatever age develop their poetry.

Later this year or early next year, Pitt Street Poetry will bring out a selection of my poems entitled 101 Poems.