Sarah Holland-Batt, Fishing for Lightning: The spark of poetry (UQP 2021)
Between March 2020 and March 2021 Sarah Holland-Batt had a weekly column about poetry in the Weekend Australian. Each column focused on a recent book of poetry, all but two of them Australian, and was accompanied by a poem from that book. University of Queensland Press has done a great favour to those of us who don’t read The Australian by collecting those columns into this richly engaging book. Here’s how Holland-Batt describes the book:
I offer some suggestions about how to learn to pay attention to poetry and what poets do. In these essays, I am writing for readers who are out of touch with poetry, or who want to learn more about it, and even those who think they hate it, as well as for those who have already found a place for poetry in their lives. Some of these essays focus on opening up and demystifying poetic forms – the elegy, the ode, the sonnet, the villanelle – while others focus on poetic style and techniques. Many also offer some historical context. Poetry is, after all, an ancient art so durable and powerful that it has lasted millennia. Much of what poets do today still connects to prehistoric poetry that was sung and spoken prior to the invention of the written word; where I can, I illuminate those historical links.
That’s pretty much a perfect description. Sarah Holland-Batt has racked up an impressive list of awards and honours as a poet herself and she’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at QUT. While these essays benefit from her broad knowledge of poetry and her love for it, they don’t patronise their readers or leave them eavesdropping at the door of a closed shop conversation – both things that tend to happen in critical writing about contemporary poetry.
Take, for example, the essay first published on 11 July 2020, ‘The Sonnet Sequence: On Keri Glastonbury’, which begins:
In the winter of 1962, stoked by amphetamines, the American poet Ted Berrigan compulsively wandered the streets of Manhattan at all hours, and began writing his first book, The Sonnets: a book length sequence that sings up New York’s Lower East Side in all its grimy, fast-and-loose glory.
The essay spends a lively page on The Sonnets, its role in Berrigan’s subsequent career as a poet, and its status as ‘a touchstone of a poetic generation’. Having deftly evoked this precedent (no need to belabour us with the history of sonnet sequences from Petrarch to Christina Rossetti), it spends roughly two pages on general description of Keri Glastonbury’s Newcastle Sonnets, and rounds off with a page-long reading of one poem, ‘The Pink Flamingo (of Trespass)’: how it exemplifies the preceding generalities, how it is an exception, and how the poem itself works. It ends with an observation that arises from this close (but not too close?) reading:
Like many of the poems in Newcastle Sonnets it leaves you both with the feeling of having been let in on a joke by an insider, but also left slightly on the outer too: like Newcastle itself, as Glastonbury suggests, this is both a comfortable and disorienting place to be.
By the time we reach the poem itself, we are well equipped to read – and enjoy – it.
I picked this essay because I blogged about Newcastle Sonnets (here), and the comparison is instructive. While I hope I communicated my enjoyment of the book, most of my blog post was taken up with its difficulty, with my own sense of being an outsider. Reading Sarah Holland-Batt – on this poem and on any number of others – I realise (again, at last) that reading poetry isn’t about nailing down a clear meaning: not quite understanding, or even being mystified, can be part of the enjoyment.
Anyhow, I can endorse Holland-Batt’s own sentiments: whether you are out of touch with poetry, or want to learn more about it, or think you hate it, or have already found a place for it in your life, I’m pretty sure you could find some joy and light in this book.
Added later: I have one major discontent with the book, namely that there doesn’t appear to be a sequel in the works. I’m pretty sure another 50 new poetry books would be there for the SHB treatment if she were up to it. She could ‘do’ Jennifer Maiden, Adam Aitken, Kit Kelen, Pam Brown, Ouyang Yu … to name just the poets near the top of my To Be Read/To Be Blogged pile.