Monday musings on Australian literature: World Poetry Day

Well, folks, Trove has let me down, which is a very rare occurrence when I’m doing historical research. I looked for the phrase “world poetry day” and I looked for all the words “world”, “poetry” and “day”, but nothing apparently relevant appeared. Hmmm, because …

Interestingly, a Google search did retrieve a photograph on flickr of a World Poetry Day function held in 1963 Australia. The photograph says “all rights reserved” so I can’t reproduce it here, but you can see it online. Clearly World Poetry Day has been known about here for some time, but, oh dear, it’s only poetry so why write about it in the newspapers, eh?

I did find a few more recent references to the day via Google (using “world poetry day Australia”, without the double quotes), such as:

  • an Australia Council for the Arts news item on World Poetry Day in 2013. The item says, among other the things, that the day is for us “to acknowledge the role of poets around the world who are unable to speak openly and freely and who strive to build a better world.” Amen to that.
  • a news item from the United Nations Information Centre in Canberra on World Poetry Day in 2014 stating that “One of the main objectives of the Day is to support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities” but it doesn’t list any activities planned to achieve this in 2014 Australia.
  • an article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled “World Poetry Day 2015: a chance for children to embrace the power of words” but it doesn’t mention any events encouraging children to do just that.
  • a World Poetry Day program (Eureka!) for the 2015 World Poetry Day, fun by the Queensland Poetry Festival. The web page starts with a William Hazlitt quote: “Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else.” I don’t see anything for the 2016 day.

That’s pretty much it for the first page of results on my Google search. I guess these results tell me that Trove let me down for a reason. There really doesn’t seem to be much interest in the day here. Most of those links about seem more lip service than commitment, don’t they?

Before I continue, a brief explanation of World Poetry Day. According to Wikipedia (and some of the links above), it was designated as 21 March by UNESCO in 1999. The day, though, has been celebrated for much much longer, often in October to align with the birthday of the birth of the Roman poet Virgil. The UK, says Wikipedia, still celebrates it in October. There is a Facebook Page for World Poetry Day, but I can see nothing on it for Australia in 2016.

And yet, Australia – like many countries – has a rich poetic tradition. We have, to name a very very few, the bush balladists of the 19th century, early twentieth century poets like CJ Dennis and Dame Mary Gilmore, indigenous poets like Oodgeroo Noonuccal, later poets such as Judith Wright, Dorothy Porter and our grand old man Les Murray, and new poets-cum-rappers like Omar Musa*. We have poetry events and slams, poetry prizes, poetry websites, poetry magazines and poetry in literary magazines, and publishers specialising in poetry. I’ve written about many of these over the life of this blog. (See my poetry tag which tags all my poetry-related posts, not just Australian.)

Cover, Four and twenty lamingtonsAmong the first works I read to my children when they were babies were poetry books – AA Milne (of course), Dr Seuss, TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and poetry anthologies, of which I bought many. A favourite Australian one was Four and twenty lamingtons. And picture books too, many of which are told in verse. Poetry is such an easy way to introduce children to the fun of language and words and to reading together. Poetry like music is something you can introduce to babies from the beginning.

I’m going to keep this post short – give you an early mark this Monday! And, anyhow, I’m sure you’ve got my meaning.

But, just for a straw poll, no matter where you live, can you tell me whether you’ve heard of any World Poetry Day events in your neck of the woods?

* I hate naming names here, really, because there are so many wonderful Aussie poets I’d love to mention.

POSTSCRIPT: After I drafted this post, the UK-based International Business Time published, for this year’s World Poetry Day, a list of “Famous non-English poets you should read”. Not Australian, but of interest to us all. Check it out.

29 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: World Poetry Day

  1. I might never do this again:
    The waves of European conflict surge
    Against our shores, the striving millions fight,
    But far greater calamity to him –
    The rabbit man’s grey pony died last night.
    Mary Fullerton, quoted in my father’s compilation of WWI poetry, Dark Somme Flowing.
    Happy World Poetry Day!

    • There is not much about World Poetry day over here either sadly. This might be because of some justified worries about the possibility of translating poetry -but much more likely it is indifference and insularity. Poetry will get a surge of interest this year. The Scottish government has appointed the excellent Jackie Kay as the nation’s Makar and of course there is the commemorations of Shakespeare, on the whole, however, poetry does not have as big a presence as it should.

      • Thanks Ian … I suspect that’s the story we’ll hear from most places. I hadn’t heard the term Makar before though – like a poet laureate? And I don’t know Jackie Kay either. So, I’ve learnt some new things today. Thank you!

        I’ll never forget when Bill Clinton asked Maya Angelou to write his inauguration poem. Wonderful.

        • Makar is old scots for “maker”. Jackie Kay made her name with a fine collection of poems The Adoption Papers in the 1990s and has written memorably about growing up as black and adopted by Communist parents in a Scottish context. She has also written novels and memoirs and short stories and I think will be an excellent ambassador for poetry.

        • That’s a lovely term, “maker”, for this role Ian. And she sounds like a wonderful choice given that background of such a complex and different experience.

    • Your father edited a poetry anthology? I love that you’ve shared that now. It’s not surprising I suppose that war brings out the poet in people, is it? Happy World Poetry Day back to you, Bill.

  2. Thank you for this post, Sue. So much information here. 🙂

    I read TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and I adored it. Such a funny, heartwarming book. 🙂

    • It’s a great collection of poems isn’t it Deepika. I first heard of them at school .. A good introduction to TS Eliot before you face his tougher, in mood and theme as much as anything, works.

        • Do you have a tablet, Deepika? There’s a wonderful app for his long poem The wasteland. It includes video of a reading of it, audios of several different readings, text with annotations, commentary by various people. I’ve reviewed it … Just look under Eliot in my List of authors page. Oh, I guess it would work on smart phone too of course. It wasn’t the cheapest app when I bought it, but so very very worth it.

  3. I just took a quick look at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, who you’d think would be doing something if anyone is, I couldn’t find anything on their Events page.
    To be honest, I’m hard-pressed to think of any contemporary Australian poet who speaks to the masses the way that our canonical poets did. Is it bad PR, or is it opaque poetry? Where are the poets of the suburban shopping malls?

    • Interesting Lisa re Wheeler Centre. A real shame.

      I think the poets are there. I guess the question is what do you mean by speaking to the masses? My feeling, from the bits and pieces I’ve read – and I’m definitely no expert on modern Australian poetry – is that it’s PR rather than opaqueness that’s the issue. Geoff Page, Suzanne Edgar, Melinda Smith, Omar Musa are just a few poets I’ve read in recent years who write poetry that speaks to contemporary lives and concerns – some political, some personal/domestic.

      • Yes, but you don’t hear about them in popular culture, that’s what I meant, not in the way that Banjo Paterson or CJ Dennis or even the war poets were known used to be known by everyone. Apart from a few singer-songwriters who write a special kind of poetry, I can’t think of anyone like that. Maybe it just isn’t taught at school the way it used to be…

        • I wondered if that’s what you meant. I do think they’re there but no longer getting the airplay they did 100 years ago. I wrote some posts back in 2014 on Australian literature in the 1920s and remember noting that there was as much discussion and controversy about poets and poetry as there was about fiction and novelists. I think that novels have become so transcendent since the middle of the last twentieth century that the poets just aren’t getting a look in. Why that is, I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s that they’re not there.

  4. I have heard of both Poets Day and World Poetry Day. I would not have know of the dates they are celebrated on unless I googled and read your post. And, as to celebrations, I know of none. I was at the library last night and there was no mention of World Poetry Day. But as John Keats said, “The poetry of the earth is never dead”.

  5. Late Breaking News. Inside front cover of the West: “One-thousand early birds in the CBD were presented with poetic blooms yesterday in honour of World Poetry Day. Volunteers from the Centre for Stories and WA Poets Inc handed out handwritten haiku poems written by 40 local poets and fresh flowers to underscore the original nature of the event.” And we got a rhyming Alston cartoon. We’re not all bogans over here.

  6. Love the Hazlitt quote! I haven’t heard of any World Poetry Day events in my are, but then in the US we have National Poetry Month in April so I think World Poetry Day tends to get lost in the run up to the month.

  7. I had only heard of World Poetry Day because some cafes around the world (but only one in Oz – in the Northern Territory!) were offering free coffee for a poem. Next year I’m going to remind my favourite cafe that World Poetry Day exists and that I will exchange a poem for caffeine.

  8. I just read today that “April is set aside as National Poetry Month, a time to celebrate poets and their craft. Various events are held throughout the month by the Academy of American Poets and other poetry organizations”. I think I must read some of Robert Frost poems this month.

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