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THEATRE POETRY by Alison Croggan


I have two big obsessions. (OK, I have a few more, but some –  like writing fantasy novels – are best not discussed in polite company.) One, the deep, abiding, private Alison Croggonobsession, is poetry. Another – a public, noisy obsession – is the theatre.

And my obsession with these two art forms leads me to a general puzzlement. Why, I wonder, is there so little exchange between these two art forms?

From the little crack through which I view the world, theatre and poetry are kissing cousins. Theatre, it seems to me, is a deeply poetic art, and poetry is profoundly theatrical. They are crucially and profoundly different, and yet there is much in each art form that can be learned from the other.

This is hardly a new idea – after all, back in the day, theatre and poetry were basically the same thing. You went and heard your rhapsodists and then got a good beating over at Plato’s place, where he would discourse at length about how poets/theatre types were mere tourists in life, incapable of discerning True Beauty and True Goodness (unlike Philosophers, who Really Ought To Run The World) and ought to be banned from the Polis for telling lies.

Yes, those were the days. Though had I been born at the time, it must be admitted, I would have been serving the wine, not drinking it.

In the English language, we have a great tradition of conversations between theatre and poetry. There’s the fact that one of our greatest poets is also our greatest dramatist. There are people like Coleridge and Shelley and Yeats and Synge, who were all deeply interested in the theatre.

Since then, a great gulf has opened between the cultures of poetry and theatre, and to my mind, this is to both their loss. Perhaps it’s different in Ireland – there was, after all, the Field Day Theatre Company, which attracted some conversation between poets and theatre.

But the fact is that I speak all the time to theatre artists who know nothing about poetry, and poets who labour under an equal ignorance of theatre. Theatre artists tend to look nervous when poetry is mentioned – although I can say with pride that I have convinced a few that contemporary poetry is where it’s at in the language game.

Although there are poets who understand that theatre is a fascinating and beautiful art, on the whole poets have tended to be less open. All too many seem to think, sniffily and inaccurately, that theatre is all luvvies and Les Mis.

In fact, my abiding enthusiasm for theatre has caused more than one poet to tell me to rack off. I admit, I must be a nuisance. At the drop of a hat I will launch into ruminations on the relationship between the body and utterance, on how speech on a stage is inherently metaphoric, how language cannot be theatrical if it has no poetic.  I will wax eloquent about Brecht’s insistence (in his conversations with Walter Benjamin) on the importance of “crude thinking”, and how theatre’s inherent crudity is a virtue, not a flaw. I will hold forth on how theatrical language is much closer to poetry than it is to prose, and on how exciting language can be in four dimensions.

And sometimes, by gum, an irritated poet has slapped me across the chops and told me that all this has nothing to do with poetry.  Yes, I admit I can be a nuisance. But I am a puzzled nuisance. What sort of poetry is it, I wonder, that this has nothing to do with?

Alison Croggon is an Australian poet. Her next collection, Theatre, will be released by Salt Publishing next year. She is the Melbourne theatre critic for the national daily newspaper, The Australian and her blog Theatre Notes.

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