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What Use Is Poetry in the Contemporary World?

By MTC Cronin MTC Cronin

Everything seems like something that should be said first. So before the first, I'll get rid of the contemporary world because I don't get that. We always live in our own world. We're still writing poetry in it. Replacing it with 'presence' I'll dispose of 'contemporary' with

The Note

Have I become a note? Not one for anyone to read but just a reminder to myself of something that seemed important, something I should remember for things to run smoothly, for events not to drop too far behind or overtake me on a road travelled in ordinary time. This has nothing to do with history. We don't have those for ourselves, you know – simply a modern idea that took hold when everything began to expand and contract simultaneously. The world got lost inside a very small theory and a microscopic bit of stuff – couldn't tell what it was – blew out to the size of whatever was going on anywhere. So now you can see the silliness of a personal history. The note says a few lines written in the dark in my own hand and which I cannot now read. That is me. What it really means to be yourself.

Then, for an interval at least, discard use: I don't know that use/utility is always something worth justifying – as Paul McCartney once sung, 'What's the use of worrying/What's the use of anything' and 'when death', as Vallejo says, 'smells of guarantee'. His next words are, of course, 'But now I want to laugh'. And use is especially not worth arguing for for something whose purpose is not known; whose use is precisely, or perhaps imprecisely, for the unknown.

So I'm left with poetry. When contemplating what it is about poetry that makes poetry matter; when wondering what it is that poetry is about; and when asking the questions: What is poetry for? What should it do? What is its purpose?, I'm not sure if these are questions worth answering for those interested enough to ask them. Still, if forced to do so, I keep coming back to myself and what poetry means to me. 'To read is to discover unsuspected paths that lead to our own selves. It is a recognition.' Because the worlds of words are unknown worlds but at the same time 'older, truer homeland[s]'. (Octavio Paz) And Blanchot: 'Speech as archipelago: cut up into the diversity of its islands and thus causing a surging of the great open sea; this ancient immensity, the unkown always still to come, designated for us only by the emergence of the earth's infinitely divided depths.' But of course, in coming back to the self, the 'I', one isn't necessarily returning to the singular. Consider Rimbaud's 'I is another' and Emmanuel Levinas: 'The mind is a multiplicity of individuals.' Yet still poetry remains for me

Solely Interior

I have inserted an Impressionist painting into my navel. Love Love Love send the heart to its mother. The violins have got behind the mirror and are reversing the world. Licking the lips these lips of cimelia have become marketed by war. I am fitted out for passion and sound like a forest of water-spray and rumorous mud. Loud confused mud and timelessness flows from me into the fog-basket as the morning shelves catch my changing shapes and seal them. Protect me from that numb gravity that lush stony custody of the lover. Catch the hole in my mind with the tree-tops and rusty smell of city-road's pre-rain. Get out of the poem calumny before the cradle falls. Love Love Love my frozen body is cracking into the colours of another vision. anch'io son pittore. Necessity has found its relation to me.

Pablo Neruda has a lovely little essay called 'I Refuse to Chew Theories' where he describes masticating words about poetry and spitting them into the mouths of others so that they can then swallow them. Louise Gluck says:
A bird was making its nest
In the dream, I watched it closely
in my life, I was trying to be
a witness not a theorist.

Poetry is a way of saying things that avoids saying things about things. One of its best uses is to avoid having to write articles and panel discussions about poetry because it is the answer to itself and to any questions concerning itself. It enables us not to have to say things in another way – it speaks what is not spoken in other ways.


All the words in the world don't explain laughter or tears. I am not a fine observer but wearing the skin of a lens and gripped by what is before me. It appears magnified as if closed in upon when this is the world and its counterparts, its precursors and unimaginable others spreading out across a plain that runs from vision. Indeed, any sense. Try feeling the contours of the names we give to ambition or betrayal, to obedience and devotion. On your tongue they are as if the body; in the air they stretch to unbecoming. But nonexistence dressed. And this is all we say, that moving from not knowing ourselves to the story, we wrap what can never be full or empty, what is neither here nor there, what has no level, in content. The gift is on the outside. This is not to say that life as flesh and breath is a matter of style and that living it in a certain way, substance, but maybe that words measure for us the measure of us and as well the distance from everything to nothing by taking as their mark something in between.

The poet pays attention to and scrutinizes everything:

better to consider everything and give it its due
for we have evolved
to watch each other carefully

and the serious challenge is to see
the iris
the small house beside your house

which you never go inside
the surrender
at the heart of each moment

(from Better, Everything)

Poetry does justice: it is an act of judgement. Justice is a voice, not a discourse or theory, it is living, a process, a moving towards, as is poetry. Paul Celan refers to poems as en route, 'toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.' Poetry is towards as life is towards death, as life is flux, quintessentially, as desire is an inclination:

The Case of Burning

In poetry the burning is not mentioned. Poetry is explicit. A pelvis pressed against pelvis. On burning it is silent. On fire it is. Flames come from women burning in boxes. Written there by other women. Real women burn in the boxes made by men. Trees they cut for the wood are from the forests they write. Poems found there contain no human hands. They purport to be about the beauty that is running from people and becomes beautiful in movement. Hands are clichιs. Hot. On the neck. The kidneys. Cooler than the cunt. In satisfying one's desires one breathes. In setting out to satisfy one's desires more oxygen is used. The fire lit. The poem tells us that longing foretells the sacrifice of itself. Want and none. What burns is not the fire. The untouched part of the body is desperate but does not know this means without hope. Too many words are left by quenched fires. But unspeakable. Two bodies. Whatever sex. Pressed. Poetry through to the heat at the base of the spine where the future lodges. Hot poker of the tongue seeks the lively tongue. Say the death of it in love. Burning down language. Burning-box. Shhh!

Ash is how we stand around cringing at our own obliviousness. Did we ever love like that? Not caring who saw?

And like desire poetry is mystery. Raymond Gaita talks of 'contingent mysteries' and 'essential mysteries', the former are dependant on our limited cognitive powers, the latter are not. And Rumi: 'Mysteries are not to be solved. The eye goes blind / when it only wants to see why.' Poetry is definitely not to tell you anything. Different for every writer and reader, it is remarkable in being for the use that nothing else is. It goes into the gaps and doesn't attempt to fill them. It preserves mysteries and ellipses whilst reverencing them. Its use is in the reaching out, not the grasping whereas so many things have an end to their use, a purpose. For these things the end exists in both senses, they're a means to an end and once that is attained, they themselves are at an end. Poetry has no – pardon the pun – use -by date.

The Desire Project

Arouse in the poem the parting that opens between the lip that is writers who are always people who do not believe and the lip that is writers who to write must believe and the space is dark. Have you ever gone looking for black in black? Have you never tried separating white from white? Worth having or wishing for, we think, are the things which tilt our brain in that direction, we think, unsatisfied.

Introducing a gloss:

Between your thighs is the warmest place I know but I can't fit my life there. And by what they call pure chance two stars fall and the shape of the poetry is wholly changed. This I found one day when misreading Shikibu – kissing across centuries, you can miss the mouth.

Intimately connected to both life and death, poetry is something to do till we die and has many uses for the living. It counteracts boredom:

Rigorous Heart (Boredom)

Today there is a definite possibility of madness. Nobody is sympathetic. The hedges have ceased to speak with the wind and sit motionless under the thousand webs of spiders. There is no haunting – that would bring sanity up through time and into space – and all of Spring is confronting me with the need for sadness before the cumquats' too-sweet skin, miscellaneous red berries and pink flowers that do not stop even when picked for salad. My shit is full of them! Apropos of this, what is ongoing, I have sent three messages out. Two have gone to lovers, long-time believers in long-term happiness and success. The third is an expression I keep expanding upon in words that grow more and more the same – like the beats of my heart they act as signals of possibility, yet drop to the coldest waters of consciousness without an immediate effort to detect their gentle tic-like shrugs made wholly of blood and perpetual despite and in spite of belief. WHAT'S TO BE DONE? The body and what it does close the drifting gap between life's nature and art so it can be solidified for short texts and frames. Innovation is called for because of the oldness of the game. But I think today I will claim for myself an interval and fill it with all the craziness of the world, while outside my little yard a rare paradise will release itself in an all new edition.

Poetry is something to do – we do things in order to have something to do; we undo things in order to have something else to do. This is what creation is – making things up. Poetry makes reality and undoes reality. We get joy out of making and perhaps that joy isn't to be explained, perhaps it is the act of life – it makes up our lives.


What has Socrates done with instinct? Something different to what Lorca did with instinct. I feel it circling in my body now and it beats the ground with a foot of evil, foot of love; flattens the dry grass with a foot of question, a foot of insistence. My heart fills with ink before the languages of its jaw. The beast is bilingual – sadness and joy. Two ways of speaking become one. Start poetry here in the aftermath of a great mauling. I knew that flesh would taste good. And the blood around my mouth has dried into a red smile. This is the flower that knows how to grow from your pen. A little each day, simultaneous with prior thought.

In this way, it is a way to live. Paul Valery said that one abandons rather than completes a poem. How can you ever complete a life? Poetry is also a way to die, to practise death, to speak to the dead and to the unborn.

Its use is to find what we know, that is, what we didn't know we knew.
If you feel you need to escape from the mind
write what you know
but only if you know in what way
it fills and astounds you

(from The Poetry of the Rule)

Poetry's use is to find the labyrinth in ourselves, to discover both our smallness, our largeness, both our significance, our insignificance:


My idea was to close this distance but thought touches nothing. As such, I've had to take instruction from the opening world: there is no such thing. Or, it is, and by being, it isn't. This isn't meant to cause confusion for confusion is in fact many islands to which we swim and in a state without recognition of any landscape, catch our breath before swimming on. To what? And yes, what immediately defines. To the smile I remember of my child when she was an infant. How big would she be now? To the discarded scrap at the corner of my desk. A scribble held down by a stone. Everydayness. Blending. Moving in its indiscernibility away from the crisis, the disaster. The disaster: produced by my love of the imagination. I went too far. And got lost. And that is why I am now swimming, though in an orderly fashion. Lost is not to say gone, but simply that I don't know where I am and in such a place insignificance has no meaning. The truth of? Is that the world is such a place. So small. So hard to see at all...... When I think about it, the horizon seems like something very simple. Much smaller than the dissection of my complete vision. Surely not able to be made sense of. Something to move towards......

It communes, communicates, and creates community. For Octavio Paz, poetry does justice to the one and the many, by joining them. At the same time, it liberates the self from the self and the self from the community. Residing in paradox – 'No words can express how inspired words spring out of silence' (Rumi) – it does the opposite of itself.

Shattering All Writing Pens

after Rumi

Don't write!
It makes your toes go soft!

Don't write!
You will be eaten by snails! Don't write!
You will hear voices and be pursued by every contamination
and lack!

Can you come to the bed
and do things
that can only be done
with flesh?

Put your cool hands here!

Please don't remember my words!

The use of poetry is presence. To be here now, to exclude nothing:

Slender Rice-Flower

for Ryokan

How many bags of rice
do I need for this life?
These flowers are not within
half a world of rice
but look what happens when you know
something's name. Your mind
introduces it to strangers;
allows fingers to touch
other fingers though
flesh never meets.
How pleasant that in this field,
by the side of this road,
I have recognized infinity
and it has rewarded me with reverie...
I close my body
and it excludes nothing.
I relish firmness in my mouth though my mouth is empty.
Grain is so correct.
Embodies soul. And toil
as it works towards
its own concentration.
Is oblivious. Is fidelity.
I wait for one star.
For the black sky to detach itself
from that prick of light.

Poetry's use is the use of nothing else: 'let us celebrate unreality and miracle: man proves his existence by entering and exiting through doors of darkness.' (Neruda). Poetry stops
and starts with itself:


Searching for my children
in myself
I found a small glass cylinder
clothed as if a torso
and a bowl of sand coloured
with chlorophyll and seas

Make me alive they said
and I will take your right arm
I will be what you search for
in your landscape
of anxiety and severest plush
Get us in through the portal
of future dreams
and we'll reinvent the word for you
so that it looks like break
and continuance
Don't let history get you down
It's coming up the path
with a new appointment
in its diary
It's finally seeking help
Don't leave us here in forms
that can only shatter or run
and we'll make twin worlds
so you can live
in the freedom of realities

And the chatter went on. . .
And the torso grew legs and arms
transparent with use
and the sand rusted into the air
at the slightest kick to the bowl
creating a beautiful cloud
that made tears for my eyes
my heart my expectant fingertips

Oh, is that it?

In a single idea
pain stopped its conversation
with the world
and every child in me
lost its reason to be born

Or, should that be found? Poetry is inexplicable even as we try to explain:

The Piece That May Have Tried To Provide An Explanation

Filled with, and characterized by, the difficulties that plague all writing and especially poetry and considering also an observation made about a lack of butterflies.

for Mireille Juchau

Some things begin with a dream. These are nice – the torn out heart wearing the paper napkin as a hat; truly understanding the relationship not had by the barn and the picture of the barn; swimming above the sea in a stage of mitosis, out-flung chromosomes moving towards the poles in one enormous embrace.

As a method, not one expostulated but one in busy-ness, I have decided not to be aware that what I am writing is poetry. Of course, it's useless – things which are often not dangerous and sometimes are – and dangerous to persist with this thought-action when not writing. One must be prepared to live unprepared. Further, to prepare everything for that which can abide no preparation.

I see a mudpuddle. I see mudpies. It's all too unclear and messy for allegory. Symbols can sometimes get in the way of other symbols and life has refused its familiarity to the living. Bought a lamp and write by lamp-light. I do this for none of the wrong reasons. I simply write differently beneath the softness of a moon-sun.

It was said of Bruno Tant that '[he] designed fantastic buildings for imprecisely formulated purposes.' My poems are invisible sleeping dwellings on the maps of these towns where Tant's architecture migrates towards the imagination. Perhaps Poe stands in the square taking snap-shots. The poems are not as useful as ribs but like them do protect life and when removed from the body grow certain murmurings of the mind.

Susurrant. Should we consider it the work of many rather than the work of one? Libratory. Poised between islands only occupied by each of us once and alone, I consider this token space – plants, animals, stories about them beginning with the last sentence of the previous tale, but used to head in a different direction. A tree moving position. Seahorse becoming seashore. Little poems, in the form of voices, knocking on the door of the neverending house.

What is the main danger with deciding to do this? To write a little piece and make no claims with it yet still believe in its justification? Is it that tears and chuckles bearing signatures – not names, but the unmistakable marks of a singularity – cannot be cried and laughed again by others? Or never enough others? May I answer: the voice, has this special nature, that it can speak to, and of, itself. So listen...

A friend of mine, herself a writer, tells me that there are no butterflies in her life anymore. I was delighted today, when in a restless moment, two white ones with wings edged in black (as if outlined by the drawing hand of a child god) chased each other in circles fluttering the tree opposite my balcony. But I cannot take her butterflies – they are the kind of thing which loses what you want from them when taken.

You cannot hide stupidity in poems yet all poems contain stupidity, as well as the intelligence they seek. They must be the poorest of the poor living by a full sea in which to fish; they must be where they are originally from in every place.

Other things begin in the mind awake. These, also, are for travelling with. And though we may stop to ask, How candid can we be with ourselves, truly?, there is nothing here by which to be overwhelmed. To be afraid of life, is to be afraid of poetry; hearts bleed, with or without the humour; ready to grow, the plot itself, like the stem of a young tree.

There is the impossibility of finishing – what must be finished and in general. Clouds sink like stones some days and others they seem as light as the ghost in my chest. My heart is not on this cover but within the pages of this book, a book which contains a missing growl.

1. Representation differs not only in reality but removes the representation of the thing from its own representation. The barn you see from another direction is the same size as the barn you see from the other direction. The picture of the barn is a different size from every direction and the barn that is always the same size is not there. (This perhaps makes sense only as dream.) Why dream of a barn?

In any world, poetry does what it can. It is the life of the imagination and I doubt that we can live without that.


MTC Cronin's work first appeared in print in 1993 and since then she has had six books and one booklet of poetry published, between them shortlisted for the Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature, the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, the Age Poetry Book of the Year, the Qld Premier's Literary Awards, the Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry, the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. Her most recent books are Talking to Neruda's Questions and Bestseller (Vagabond Press, 2001) and My Lover's Back: 79 Love Poems (UQP, 2002). An eighth collection, beautiful, unfinished ~ PARABLE/SONG/CANTO/POEM is forthcoming through Salt Publishing (Cambridge, UK) in 2003. Other awards for her work include the Gwen Harwood Memorial Prize for Poetry, the Artsrush Poetry Prize and the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship for Poetry. After being employed for most of the decade of the nineties in law (specializing in feminist jurisprudence), she has now begun teaching writing at university level. Also, with Mireille Juchau (novelist, essayist and playwright) and Caitlin Newton-Broad (youth theatre director), she runs Muse on Wheels, a group which provides writing workshops in secondary schools. She is currently working on her doctorate, Poetry and Law: Discourses of the Social Heart, at the University of Technology.

Email MTC Cronin
Available books:
my lover's back ~ 79 love poems: $22 with postage ($24 overseas)
bestseller: $22 with postage ($24 overseas)
everything holy: $17 with postage ($19 overseas)