CHRIS MANSELL

australian poet










It is important to have a clean heart, or a clean a heart as you can manage. Sometimes I think that things should be more cluttered and difficult, but I always come back to the idea that knowledge is the attempt to make the very complex simpler.

Not necessarily simple, but simpler.

I originally wrote poems because it was a way of explaining the world to myself. I had no theories about what a poem might mean in a cultural or artistic sense and had no idea of communicating with anyone else (which was probably just as well at the time). This a deeply naïve way to write - and to read - poems but I did not know differently at the time. I'm not a hundred percent sure I know differently now, though I do have theories.

Now, when I write, I have the theories about language and about the way language is processed, the way the mind works upon language, its preferences, predilections and the mistakes it's likely to make. Some of these theories may well be wrong, but they lean on the poem as it is written. When I write there are the other poems and even other poets who directly or indirectly have something to say about the poem in progress. Some of these writers are dead, most of them are absent, but all the poems I've enjoyed or hated influence the way the poem unfolds.

The poem has become a deeply personal and cultural artefact, but at the centre of it, I believe that it's important to maintain as clean a heart as you can manage. (Stalking the Rainbow (PressPress, 2002) deals with this somewhat.) It's a hard thing for a poet to understand in a time of fire. Political emergency - real or manufactured - is difficult because it strips language from its owners and catchphrases become action at the press of a button. To read poetry in such a world is an act of defiance.

I don't have much patience with the netballers of poetry (those who see it all as a game to score with). Don't misunderstand though: I love even some of the most insouciant postmodern poems, the archly formal poems, the clear-hearted crippled poems in translation, even the faux naïve poems with their contrived stillnesses and economies.

Poems in grey cardigans, however, are an abomination.

If the context in which I write has changed, my preoccupations have not.

I still write to understand the world, but my sense of what 'the world' is has changed. I am more aware of the experience of others and the ways other people express themselves and more aware of the life and death struggles that ordinary people undergo everyday. The Fickle Brat (IP Digital 2002) represents that struggle with death and the big questions. In the poem in which the fickle brat herself appears the 'I' is speaking from the point of view of a younger version of myself: angry, intolerant of the facts of life and death, irascible and unreasonable - which is commonly experienced when we are rendered powerless. But there's humour too - because humour is part of it, and more subtly associated with poetry than with any other art form. I can't resist it, even, sometimes in the midst of a serious poem. It's like people making jokes on their deathbed. It's the sort of thing we do.

In earlier works (Redshift/Blueshift, Five Islands and Day Easy Sunlight Fine, Penguin) I have been very concerned to exploit the difference between a written poem and the poem read aloud. Often I construct poems so that there is a form of grammatical enjambment - the end of one grammatical unit can serve as the beginning of another so as to produce a more kinetic ways of reading. When you read these poems aloud you have to choose: when you read them to yourself of the page you can have two or more meanings running concurrently.

This is the great virtue of poems - that they imply a multitude of readings. There are two poems really, the potential poem which is the written version and the aural version of the poem which brings with it the particular prejudices, choices and intimate knowledge that the reader has. This enriches the reading. When someone reads me a poem, if I can be bothered, as they are speaking the poem, I write it out in my head (sometimes revising!) and 'reread' it myself so that I can get a sense of the whole poem. (The poet knows their own poem in a different way again - not better than all other readers, but differently. The poem that you have written yourself carries with it all the drafts and circumstances that it had and shed along the way.)

There is a poem (in translation) by Yoshiro Ishihara called 'Horse and Riot' (originally in Sancho Panza's Homecoming, although I read it in Ten Japanese Poets translated by Hiroaki Sato) which begins: 'When two horses run inside us/another horse runs between them./When we go out to riot/we run with the third horse.'; and finishes: 'What goes out with us to riot/is this last bandit/this last hollow.' Even when we think we are being wild and free etc there is always something which is inexplicably there that remains unaccounted for. This stable instability, the tension between equilibrium and disequilibrium, is what a good poem, of any kind, keeps.

I like poems to have this unbalanced balance - or at least be somewhat disrespectful of clean modern manners and more able to break the shell of the polite, to call attention to the contingent. In this luxury of trees, we'd better watch out for fire.






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poetics