Poetry and Public Speech: Three Traces

David McCooey

Abstract


Poetry is routinely seen as ‘marginal’ to public culture, especially in terms of it having lost its status as a form of public speech. Such a condition is often noted in nostalgic terms, in which a golden era—bardic or journalistic—is evoked to illustrate contemporary poetry’s lack. But traces of poetry’s instrumentality, especially as a form of public speech, can be found in various extra-poetic contexts.
In this article, three examples of poetry operating in ‘extra-poetic contexts’ will illustrate the different, sometimes troubling, ways in which traces of poetry as a mode of public speech can be observed in contemporary culture: the poem-cartoons of Michael Leunig; the role of the poet Les Murray in the drafting of a proposed preamble to the Constitution of Australia; and the quotation of William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’ as the final statement of Timothy McVeigh (the ‘Ohio Bomber’) prior to his execution.
These examples illustrate that poetry-as-public-speech engages with political discourse in diverse, incommensurate ways. Leunig’s occasional cartoon-poems, appearing in the metropolitan press, are examples of poetry at its most public and politically engaged state. And yet, even Leunig’s most ‘political’ work gestures towards a realm beyond politics, where the poetic, the comic, and the existential coexist as a way of making life in the political realm more bearable. Les Murray’s role as a ‘national’ poet in the failed attempt to introduce a preamble to the Australian Constitution illustrates the vestigial role that poets can play in nation building. Lastly, McVeigh’s quotation of Henley, made without any explanation, shows the unpredictable and potentially volatile condition of poetry-as-public-speech. In addition, the examples variously engage in arguments about the relationship between the individual and the state, private identity and national history.

Keywords


poetry; public speech; politics

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