The New Trad is a poetry journal and self-described experiment, published by a small press in Sydney, Australia. This little literary platoon is determined to revive poetry’s place in the public consciousness, come what may. They are well aware that they face an uphill battle, but their resolve to eschew free verse and highlight the importance of place and rootedness is admirable.
The introduction makes a valiant effort—and largely succeeds—in describing the two-part decline of poetry in the public sphere. On the public side, the song and novel largely replaced the poem’s literary value during the second half of the twentieth century:
The people’s poet of the nineteen-sixties was not Ted Hughes but Bob Dylan. The popular song is what impinges on the traditional territory of the poem, forcing it to deform itself to justify its existence, much as the photograph did to painting, film to theatre, or science to philosophy. (p.9)
But changes in popular taste are not solely responsible for poetry’s endangerment. The editors accurately observe a recalibration amongst the intellectual milieu and academia writ large from a vertical to horizontal orientation: “Above was replaced with ahead; the promise of a kingdom of heaven was exchanged for the promise of the Enlightenment: a self sufficient humanity, striding forward into a future of progress, peace and self-mastery.” (p.7) The unfortunate byproduct of this rearrangement is the poem’s obfuscation; there is a resulting lack of connection between poet and reader. A true commitment to form is replaced with lines devoted to the author’s own internal monologue, decreasing the impact on his readers.
Now that the poem is more a means of expressing individualism, it has lost much of its original potency of evoking a particular time and place. Poetry is a cultural heirloom in a way the novel is not. Novels, by design, are narratives subject to the author’s vision. Poetry, even in epic poems that have a narrative, is imbued with historical and cultural ties that are tantamount to identity. Homer’s cultural influence on the Ancient Greeks, for example, was inestimable not only in terms of its artistic contribution, but also in its cultural legacy. In other words, poetry has a rootedness—both in its structure and in the themes it evokes.
In its first volume of poetry, New Trad seeks to bring back the locality of metered verse, mostly modeled on the Ancient Greek rhyme and meter patterns. What the editors describe as the raw emotional power of the confessional poetry that dominated post-modern poetry (Ariel by Sylvia Plath was the groundbreaking work in this arena) is preserved in the poems printed in this edition, but the rhyme scheme and meter is the invisible structure holding it all together. The journal’s first edition is divided into three parts: the first is a spate of a few short poems submitted by writers and academics; the second contains two academic papers on meter. The second paper is an introduction to a segment of an epic poem written in an Icelandic style that constitutes the final section of the journal. You can get through the volume in an afternoon.
The first section of smaller poems is a striking collection of varying types: some are descriptive, others confessional. The poem that stuck out the most was “The Man From Ithaca,” written from the perspective of Calypso, the nymph who kept Odysseus as her lover for seven years before he returns to his rightful place as king of Ithaca. Told with wry humor and regret, the poem demystifies the well-known liaison between eternal being and hero, instead portraying two squabbling lovers on the verge of a breakup. “Though he could kill a sheep and spear/A fish, he mostly sobbed on rocks/for Ithaca…But this went on for seven years!” The poem ends with an image of cheerful men who drink wine and cavort, but she misses the weepy Ithacan, though his histrionics annoyed her when they were together.
Though much of the poetry in the first section pays homage to the style and meter of the Ancient Greeks, there is a poem modeled on Ancient Chinese structure. It’s extremely difficult to model English words into a Chinese structure, but the results are breathtaking. The language is startlingly descriptive and conjures up images of court life during imperial China. The poem, “Yang Guifei: Donning the Apparel of a Taoist Nun,” describes the unrivaled beauty of the treasured consort-turned-nun: “As you rise, the rustle of skirts, dyed yellow with gardenia, and the jangle of bronze amulets rouse the jealousy of magnolias and peonies; the flowers / your face puts to shame.” It’s remarkable.
The middle section, an academic paper on the Greek scheme the “dochmiac,” is less for the poetry aesthetes like me and more food for thought for the poetry scholar. If you want the nitty-gritty, syllable-by-syllable analysis of the dochmiac from Aeschylus to the Belle Epoque, then by all means, peruse this section. If not, an adventure with Icelandic warriors waits in the last section. You might want to read the preface on Skladic poetry (“Measures of Skaldic Poetry: What Does Metre Mean?”) for context and the right frame of mind, but it’s not necessary to do so. I generally find academic preambles to be distracting from the rhythm and music of the words strung together.
What’s important is the plot: Opyla, a swordswoman, is charged with the task of bringing back her kidnapped cousin from the rebel leader of a rival tribe. Her journey is complicated by political conspiracies to launch a new king, forcing her to protect the future of her people by supporting the designated heir to the throne. The whole poem has not been published—just Book III of a four-part poem. But it is a sweeping narrative of a would-be warrior’s journey from girl to woman, and encapsulates the charged political climate surrounding her.
In its effort to preserve the tradition of poetry, New Trad unwittingly pushes the envelope by featuring a female hero and grounding the poem in feminine themes. The female hero is faced with the same challenges as any male hero in an epic poem—pleasing her elders, performing well in battle, and securing the future of her tribe. She is noted at the outset for her abilities, and it is her talent that determines her destiny. “You are [the] finest with pike and skeggox. / No one knows these hills / better than you, Opyla Ring-maker. / Your name circles wedding feasts, but you neither marry, mend nor sew.” Opyla is sufficiently invested in the future of her tribe without taking the traditional route of marriage and childbearing. Instead, she focuses on perfecting her fighting skills and on not letting her elders down.
By asking ourselves why poetry was important to the ancients, we can try to understand why poetry is still relevant in the age of technology and globalization. The answers may not be immediately obvious—you can’t really fit an epic poem into bite-sized tweets, and it doesn’t fit neatly into texts or Facebook posts (Though Chipotle is now trying to put them on their cups and paper bags).
But the power of metered words and their ability to ground us in a particular place gives us clues to who we once were, in ways that history books and novels cannot. It’s a bridge to the past and a mechanism of preserving the present to hand down to subsequent generations. New Trad understands this well, and they will hopefully not give up on their experiment.