Love is Strong as Death by Paul Kelly

I loved the introduction. It was empowering. There is a relief when you hear your words said, your experience that you were too busy, fearful or muddled to express. In his foreword to Love is Strong as Death, Paul Kelly has captured the magic and the mystery that poetry is to me – that it is OK not to understand lots of poetry but when you find those special ones they glimmer inside you.

And like a perfect guide he has also helped to find me many, but not all, amazing poems that glimmer inside. Perhaps this is a new profession – a ‘poet guide’, a shadchan for sonnets, a recruitment agent for rhymes and all forms of poetic somethings that match our needs and wants. They can navigate the dross and select those that match us – to be in relationship with us, to slow us down and give us that ‘ahhh’ feeling when we are at home.

And I felt affirmed. It is OK to be a white middle-aged male in the pursuit of poetry. Paul Kelly is intelligent, cool and admirable, and if I can relate to his words and poetry selection there may even be hope for me.

Poetry is powerful and utterly democratic. It is accessible to everyone with a pen and a scrap of paper. It can ‘Unlock’ (see The Red Room Poetry Unlocked programme) even the hardest of criminals or youths in detention that have not been able to express their emotions and stories, who have failed grammar at school. It is the province of professors of poetry twisted in parameters and rules, but is equally owned by poetic paupers like me that come free from form, clean and untainted, ready to be captured by a moment, and even perhaps to scribble down a few of my own. All you need is a thought /sight/ emotion/ sense that has stood you still/ learned you/ inspired you to write/ think / feel more, and a scrap of paper and a pen!

I loved the introduction and then how it seamlessly slipped into the first poem, An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow by Les Murray. This completely random first poem selected by the god Alphabet (PK’s inspired choice for ordering) had me misty eyed and emotional. This was only the first poem and there were 325 more to go. By the end I will either be mad, a wreck, and/or even more deeply in love with my friend, poetry.

His use of Alphabet has resulted in letting some amazing poems jar or jam. This ordering has enabled poetry with its many authors, in its many forms and feelings, to work together. 

“Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” (1 Corinthians 12 15-20)

This body of poetry works together, it yeasts and rises us up in its work, it works together not in labour but in common cause. It makes us pause and think about how strange is the word ‘work’ – why and how it came into existence, its funny abrupt sound, how the letters are sounded differently from fork, perhaps even the playfulness of the word, and how many poems can become one body, that together they can become a friend. (Paul, this is your fault, you unleashed these silly thoughts – thank you.)

With each reading of a poem the moments become a body. Again in his few choice words Paul has captured the power and opportunity of poetry: “Poetry is deep play. It’s comfort. It’s challenge. Just like a friend.” With true friends you find comfort and more understanding of yourself. You experience life together in fun, in the banal, in mourning – not in snippets of ‘quality time’ but together over the quality of time. Yes, sometimes friends can be annoying, sometimes it is all about them, but we are created to be in relationship and Paul has reopened my eyes to realise that poems can be friends.

At the same time I am confused and intrigued by this revelation. The resonance of his analogy between poetry and friendship surprised me. We can have many poems and many friends – we can be ‘polypoemal’. There is also an overall feeling of friendship that is tangible and powerful, that can open your Johari Window to see more of yourself and meaning, how it comforts you. But how can you have friendship with a genre of writing, with a collection of poems? I am not friends with the authors, or even their body of work, but with a golem of mud and light that they, and Paul Kelly, have formed. Strange….

Poems are ultimately a poor isolating substitute for real, true friends, and yet they still can miraculously become similar.

What a wonderful experience this book is for us mere poetry mortals. It is also brilliant marketing as when I got to page 397 and saw the index of poems used by him in his previous songs, and in his new album, Love is Strong as Death, I rushed to the internet.

As in all good marketing it also left me wanting more. In his introduction he notes that he chose not to include songs with poems, or poems in song (except for a few that he lists that were so compelling that he could not leave out). I am ready for this next book of his selection of song-poems.

His book is of selected poetry and not of prose but he included the Uluru Statement because it was so important, because it reads like a poem thick with meaning and purpose. Perhaps also a hint of another book of PK guided prose-poems.

I can’t wait. I am licking my lips dry with expectation, or with arousal. I only hope that he can squeeze in a few new songs in between. Let me tell you how much I love his songs…..

Craig Lawn

(Love is Strong as Death by Paul Kelly, Penguin Random House, 2019)

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