Barry Spurr


Annie Proulx, who is incapable of writing an imperfect sentence and whose prose is more genuinely poetic than much that passes for ‘poetry’ today, reflects, in Bird Cloud, that ‘sometimes I don’t know what poetry is’. She will ’stumble into and around poetry, frequently knocked sideways’ by it. But she certainly recognises it when it is genuine, citing a poem ‘I liked so much I almost fell over’. Real poems, for Proulx, have a kind of physical force and impact, being possessed of the ‘Thing Which Cannot Be Explained’.[2]

Over the centuries, the onus has fallen on literary critics to explain that ‘Thing’ and they have mightily disagreed with one another about it, in the process. One of the most famous attempts, in the twentieth century, was that of A.E. Housman, Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge, and himself a poet, who delivered The Leslie Stephen Lecture there on 9 May, 1933 on the subject, ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’. Having been asked to give a definition of poetry, Housman recalled that

I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.[3]

Then, he declares that ‘poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it’ and that ‘meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not’. This last statement is closest to the main thesis of the lecture: that poetry is as indefinable as the appeal to our emotions which it makes. The extent to which we seek to interpret it in terms of meaning or intellectual content or, worse, approach it with the idea that poets write it with the appeal to those ends in mind, it ceases to be poetry (even if it is cast in recognisably poetic forms and uses what might be described as poetic diction). The reader turning to it for these kinds of satisfactions is finding elements in it that are perfectly legitimate, but not the essence of poetry. Housman gives, as an example, devout ladies who admire John Keble’s poems in his collection, The Christian Year, because of the Christianity not the quality of the verse.

In the mind-narrowing obsession today, in education, with race, ‘gender’, identity and ‘woke’ priorities of social justice, poetry can be set for student study not on the grounds of its excellence as verse, or historic significance and standing in the history of poetry, but because it affirms ‘correct’ views on these matters.

The name and fame of poetry have been under active threat for too long, even in those very places where one might have imagined that their nurturing would have been safeguarded – in school English curricula and university English Departments. Schoolteachers of English are heard to say that they ‘don’t like’ poetry and, because of sufficient syllabus flexibility, they can avoid teaching very much of it. In some Australian states, such as Victoria, it is possible, at matriculation, to have taken the highest level of English study and have sidestepped poetry entirely in that senior year. Graduates in English Literature from even the more conservative university departments have lacunae in their knowledge of poetry and its history that once would have been unthinkable (no Chaucer or Milton, for example), and which are indefensible if one holds that an Honours graduate in a discipline should have at least some acquaintance with its key elements and its historical development. Poetry, in particular, has suffered from the abandonment of any idea of a ’canon’ of great books which any educated person, let alone graduates in English, should have read.

The formal study of poetry, while customarily sniffed at (especially by poets themselves), must be an important component of a reading culture worthy of the name. The centre has to be held somewhere and experts need to be trained in the teaching of verse, which depends for its success at least as much upon a love of poetry, as on well-developed skills in communicating the language of poetic diction, poetry’s various techniques and its history.

One reason for the poor regard in which poetry is generally held today is undoubtedly the now-pervasive reputation that it has for being difficult. Poet Philip Larkin contended that this was the result of the wilful complexity of the early twentieth-century Modernists:

It is as obvious as it is strenuously denied that in this century English poetry went off on a loop-line that took it away from the general reader…. the strong connection between poetry and the reading public that had been forged by Kipling, Housman, Brooke and Omar Khayyam was destroyed as a result.[4]

But there was much difficult poetry in English before the Modernists’ advent – a Shakespearian sonnet has a rich, multi-layered complexity; what would the ‘general reader’ have made of The Dunciad? – and Larkin and other ‘Movement’ poets, reacting against the Modernists, are far from innocent of abstruse and elusive meaning in their own verse. Particularly as the twentieth century unfolded and as pupils stayed at school longer and, so, encountered the approach to poetry as an academic discipline, the sense developed that verse, like differential calculus, was a kind of specially-challenging brainteaser, the successful unravelling of which in examinations brought its undoubted rewards for matriculation purposes and then could be blessedly left behind - for ever.

This quarantining of poetry for exercises of practical criticism and interpretation (and the more complex it was, the better it was suited for this exercise), while fictional and dramatic texts tended to be treated more in thematic terms (and now, of course, are as often as not set for study in combination with their cinematic versions, making them even more attractive and teachable), further emphasised poetry’s unapproachable, exclusively-linguistic, arcane character. That poetry has a unique power to plumb the heights and depths of human experience in a rich inventiveness and concentration of language appropriate to such a serious, even solemn enterprise does not especially commend it anymore, either. Susan Sontag observed, as the twentieth century drew to its close, that to defend the idea of seriousness has become an adversarial act. Just to be serious or to care about things in an ardent, disinterested way is becoming incomprehensible to most people.[5]

No-one would argue that epic and profound conceptions of character and life are not to be found in the novel or drama, and in abundance. But language, variously configured, in poetic texts seems over-pitched, too ornate or too intricately configured in an unceremonious, unrhetorical and unromantic world, and its complex, elusive and allusive subtlety of suggestion rather than plain statement frustrates the mind of a civilisation that prefers (or is only equipped to comprehend) the frankly obvious.

Different from these causes but probably more fundamental to the problem is the decline in the earliest years of family life and schooling in the learning and loving of anything linguistic by heart, but especially poetry, which is essentially an oral art. Obviously, this is related to the demise of our reading culture in general, but especially of careful reading and of savouring and cherishing repeated readings. Before young people have been caught up, in their later teenage years, in the need to be syllabus-focused for such as the Higher School Certificate in New South Wales, they need to be introduced to poetry’s unique power to take root, through rhythm and rhyme, and striking vocabulary and imagery, in their receptive and retentive young minds. It needs to have come alive and to have spoken to them on its own terms, and this needs to be sustained as they mature, before they are required to dissect it and apply it to this or that Procrustean bed of ideologically-mandated interpretation.


In reviewing text lists in Year 12 syllabi for more than a generation, I have encountered an increasingly impoverished menu of poets suggested for study. The whole wondrous world of poetry in English, from Chaucer to the beginning of the nineteenth century, has mostly been eliminated. Sidney, Spenser, Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Pope, Gray (for example) are gone, and while there are Keats and Dickinson from the entire nineteenth century, their presence highlights the absence of the greater Wordsworth, Coleridge and Tennyson. This is the dismantling of the poetic culture of the English-speaking peoples (to which Australians belong – and, of course, it is a deliberate strategy). It is the equivalent of studying Greek without Homer, Latin without Virgil, Italian without Dante, German without Goethe.

To take just the first of the poets who have been abandoned: Geoffrey Chaucer. It is difficult to imagine a richer or more entertaining collection of characters and insights into their humanity than he assembles in a series of telling poetic vignettes in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. I remember studying this myself in Year 12 and the delight which a classroom of boisterous, eighteen-year-old Australian boys found (under the guidance of a skilled and devoted teacher) in this cavalcade of satirical and lovable creations. But equally valuably, the study of this text over several weeks taught us some very important truths: that the understanding, interpreting and evaluating of human nature is a process that poets have engaged in through the centuries (and, so, for us to grow in that understanding, there is a wealth of material through the ages to investigate and we are certainly not confined, nor should we be, to the insights of the present or even the near-present, and/or of poetry by local writers or poets who express views that we agree with). Also, we learnt that poetry, with its requirements of compression and suggestive revelation can communicate truths and sheer entertainment, even if it was written several hundred years ago (perhaps especially so, as it affirms those lasting truths by its sheer historical distance from us). And we were required to read that poetry out loud and try to come to grips with its deliciously strange sounds and to savour them, as I do to this day.


For the revival of the nurture of poetry, in twenty-first-century Australia, we need to look primarily to the schools and their curricula and to committed, gifted teachers of poetry, as well as ensuring the systematic teaching of poetry from Year 1 to 12 as an accumulating, ever-expanding (rather than ever-diminishing, as it now is) element in the compulsory English syllabus. And we also need to look at the pre-service training that teachers of English are receiving.[6]

If poetry is to reclaim its position at the centre of literary study, in individuals’ word-stores and literary breadth of experience and in the broad cultural life and memory of societies whose collective ideas and beliefs it has individualistically and incomparably expressed, interrogated and celebrated in timeless language, through the ages, and into the future, all of us who are committed to professing and passing on this great legacy of linguistic accomplishment, delight and wisdom in the English language must be very determined in our advocacy of it.


[1] An abridged version of ‘The Fame and Nurture of Poetry’, Sydney Studies in English, 37, 2011, 1-18.

[2] Bird Cloud (Scribner, New York, 2011), pp.67-9.

[3] (accessed 11 April, 2011). All references to the lecture are to this text.

[4] ‘It Could Only Happen in England’ [an introduction to an edition of John Betjeman’s poems, 1971], Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber, London, 1983), pp.216-17.

[5] Interview, ‘Susan Sontag, The Art of Fiction No.143’, by Edward Hirsch, The Paris Review, Winter 1995: (accessed 27 May, 2011).

[6] See my analysis of the problems in this domain, ‘The Vicious Circle in the Teaching of English’, Quadrant, June, 2022, 32-7.

  • About the Author: Barry Spurr was an academic in English for forty years, and was Australia’s first Professor of Poetry. He is an authority on the life and work of T.S. Eliot and the author of numerous books and articles, including Studying Poetry (2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). In 2019, he succeeded Les Murray as Literary Editor of Quadrant, Australia’s leading publisher of new poetry.