Thursday, November 20, 2008

Michael Gurr's speech to launch Magisterium

When Joel asked me along to welcome his new book tonight, I’d already heard one of the poems in it.

It’s a poem called “Hansard” and he read it during a speech he gave at a seminar for public servants. They’d been given a day off from their various departments to come along and do a bit of what’s known as ‘professional development’.

Now this group was expecting solid, practical tips on speechwriting. That’s why the Premier’s speechwriter had been asked along.

They were ready for the Five Rules of Successful Speeches.

They were ready for the PowerPoint presentation.

They got a poem.

I was sitting on one side – and half watching the audience during Joel’s speech. Watching – while they didn’t quite get what they were expecting.

They were sitting there – dutifully along for their professional development seminar – with their pens hovering over their notebooks. And an interesting sequence of things happened when Joel got to the poem.

First, there was a little of puzzlement and irritation. Why’s this bloke reading us a poem?

It was as if the waiter had brought something to their table that they hadn’t actually ordered. I mean: What’s this doing here? Nobody ordered poetry.

But then – because the poem starts out funny – they started to enjoy it.

Still not quite sure, but going along with it. Sort of.

And then – because the poem gets serious – well, blistering, really – you could see something else happen to this audience.

I wouldn’t call it thinking. I’d call it absorbing. It was like watching the pores of peoples’ skin open up a little bit and watching something sink in.

It’s how good poetry works on you. Not through a series of logical arguments through the brain. But through sensation.

People always compare poetry to music – and they do that for a good reason.

It works on your nerve-endings – or it squeezes parts of you that other kinds of writing doesn’t. At its best, poetry is like having someone name and describe your middle-of-the-night thoughts. Or your walking-down-the-street thoughts.

The things that have the fierceness of argument in them, but don’t have argument’s structure.

There is a lot of the middle-of-the-night and a lot of walking-down-the-street in this book. The middle-of-the-night is everything personal. The walking-down-the-street is everything public and political. The best of this book is when you can’t tell the difference between the two.

This book is also full of lines that had me calling out to the person in the other room: Hey – listen to this.

At one point I phoned a friend and said: You know that thing you were trying to describe the other day? Here’s the gospel on it.

The man in this book has a yearning in him, I reckon – a longing. There is anger too – for a world that refuses to be put to rights. But also the particular resigned tenderness of someone who wouldn’t be anywhere else.

It’s a voice I know from down the other end of the phone. Calling Joel during the last state election campaign: How’s it going in there, Joel?

The answer comes back in a sigh so deep it nearly blows you over: Oh, you know.

But then, out of the sigh, an immediate determination to get good Labor ideas into the centre of public life.

A wrestle with a phrase. Gnawing on a bit of policy. Putting life on the bones of those dry departmental drafts.

The speechwriter is the most paradoxical position in a politician’s office. Because you’re simultaneously naked and invisible. Wrap your head around that.

I don’t see a big disconnect between Joel’s work as a speechwriter and his work as a poet. Just like that theatre full of public servants found out a couple of months ago – clarity and heart will carry an idea a long way down the messy river.

It’s also very physical writing. You don’t feel most of Joel’s stuff through your head – you feel it through your body.

Writers always envy musicians and painters for the direct connections they can make. Poetry is the closest we can get.

My favourite playwright in the world is the American Wallace Shawn. His plays don’t get performed much – they’re difficult and very confronting.

Wally Shawn says he loves the poets. He loves them because they don’t much care about how many people read them. He says that this gives the poets a wonderful freedom.

Playwrights fret about numbers in the audience. Novelists fret about their sales. But the poets are somehow wonderfully free.

There’s a sort of comforting melancholy in that idea that might be partly bullshit, but I’m happy to hold to it.

That isn’t meant to be pre-emptory consolation for sales figures – just that I think Wally Shawn might be right: that the poets put their stress into where it matters – the work.

Let me tell you what I felt when I read this book.

Three things.

Someone who’s really in charge of his language.

Someone who knows how to throw a rope between the emotional and the political.

And someone who knows how to mess up your mind.

You can’t ask much more from a book of poems.

Let’s wish Joel’s book well.

June 25, 2008. Collected Works Bookstore.

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