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 Essay


Wollstonecraft 1986

   A work of art should, and in the end always will, speak for itself. Its power, if it has it, becomes apparent over time, and the pleasure it gives, once it becomes known, will renew itself beyond the temporary containments of ideology and theory. As Keats said, a volume of poems needs no preface. However, given the fact that Australian culture is not nearly so well-known as its American, British or European counterparts, and also taking into account my own viewpoint on matters of aesthetics, it seems sensible for a poet like myself to try to say why I write, what I think my writing is about and how I think my writing fits into contemporary and traditional cultural practice, which is partly what I will attempt to do here.

   One of the first things that has to be addressed is the matter of Australia and being an Australian.

   As the twentieth century progressed, Australians had grown used to the misunderstandings and condescension devolving from a Eurocentric view of culture, where Australia, both physically and psychically, was considered to be 'down under' or 'antipodean'; these words were often code for the more brutal 'secondary' or 'second rate'. To a large extent these notions were somewhat self-abasingly reflected in the infamous 'cultural cringe', where everything European and latterly American was hugged to the chest and praised well beyond its use-by date. Then, in 1972, with the election of a nationalist, populist government, the very opposite, and perhaps just as harmful, cultural strut came to the fore, a phase in which a component was the idea that arts' funding could somehow buy cultural greatness and breadth of vision. Which is not to deny the necessary and useful work of promotion, translation and appropriate subsidisation that should be the bread and butter considerations of any arts bureaucracy expenditure. Some of the work thereby inherited attempted to bypass those cultural traditions that are the bedrock and birthright of any decent artist, no matter what part of that birthright might eventually be rejected or ameliorated. For myself, I could never deny the breadth or significance of the British literary tradition from which I have learnt so much. The clapped-out nationalism that is responsible for bashing English culture especially in the guise of a republican virtue would be amusing if it weren't so contemptible.

   Wallace Stevens was a poet who had an intelligent awareness of the need for literary independence from English culture. But his perspective cannot be ours; history requires that we now look at the world in a different way. Here is the beginning of Stevens' 'Of Modern Poetry'. He thinks he is explaining the difference between modern poetry and its precursor, and there can be little doubt he has in mind English poetry and what he saw as its baleful influence.  

   The poem of the mind in the act of finding
   What will suffice. It has not always had
   To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
   Was in the script.
                            Then the theatre was changed
   To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
   It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place....

  

   The first time we read this perhaps we agree with its sentiments. Then a doubt intrudes. Has not every important poet needed to find what would suffice, and in conditions far more conducive to Stevens' existentialist mode than those found in a New England insurance office. Did Chaucer really repeat what was in the 'script'? Dante? Goethe? Lorca? Stevens imagines his Godless universe not repeating something in the 'script', but what about Lucretius. Did Stevens end up speaking the 'speech of the place' more convincingly than Wordsworth, Baudelaire or Auden?

   Stevens is a major poet and his ideas about poetry are always on the right side of the literary divide. On the other hand, as is well known, literary coteries can spend decades being wrong about what matters. At least most Australian poets were spared the excesses of the cult of personality at whose hands some very ordinary writing was pushed to an excessively premature pantheon.

   Now, whilst acknowledging this situation, it is also true that from the earliest Aboriginal settlement of Australia, a cultural identity developed independent of European and American sensibilities, but which many writers and intellectuals outside Australia, and some within, have done little to acknowledge or understand. A Pacific or Asian-Pacific perspective doesn't exist, even as a mental image. For these people it is always a matter of Heidegger, Oxbridge or the Black Mountain school. The pragmatic and ironical cast of the Australian sensibility with its roots in an extraordinarily ambivalent yet poetic and metaphysical sensibility, its vernacular and urban registrations, its tremendous variety of landscapes, light and seascapes, hardly seem to register as anything more than the place to which Dickens once sent Magwitch. Thus the commonly-held view of Australia as some kind of laid-back wilderness devoid of either the sensual or the tragic, constituted part convict stock, part cute fauna. As for tourism, too often a glimpse of Opera House sail, a trudge along Bondi beach or a haul up Uluru, constitutes the inner vision of Australia for the short-term visitor who departs none the wiser, dazzled by Sydney Harbour's sheen. However, people drown in it and the water gets dirty. We still don't seem to be able, even at this late stage, to resist mythicising what we are unfamiliar with. Some Australians have not helped the matter by promulgating a parodistic and cliched view of the country bearing only a notional relevance to the contemporary facts of an extremely complex and sophisticated dynamic. Aboriginal and multicultural perspectives, albeit sometimes treated tokenistically, increasingly centred Australian perspectives. Yet still, too often, the critical response to Australian culture was bound by prejudices either imperial in origin or subject to provincial self-pleasuring. To expect a general knowledge of a particular country's history and culture is asking no more than the barest minimum for those who seek to write analyses and critiques, if only to sensitise their antennae and thus register an awareness of artistic and aesthetic changes when they occur.

New affection, new noise.
Le Monde or New York Times may praise
The margins on their better days:
Some see the whole circumference
And not just bits whose mapping edits
Hemisphere's false circumstance.
Sides of rusted sheds are loved
As much as sleek Manhattan
And speech that's barbed with nasal vowels
Knows its motive human.
We no longer justify
What we are by perishings
In a pouring island
Or need the well–clipped Luxembourg
To prove our roses foreign.
 
A flock of parrots fills the sky,
Shimmering in haze,
And near a parched, eroded hill
Stumps of wood prop up the gate —
Here is hope for future greening,
Crops renewed and gate rehung,
Self-sufficient images
Spinning in the air.
 
Put beside those older books
Newer ones that glisten;
On their shining paddocks
See the centre broaden. 

from 'New Affection, New Noise' ADP 85-86

   The foregoing is simplistic and inadequate as history, but it sets the context out of which I can write about my own work.

   If I say that I see myself as a twenty-first century writer with roots in the nineteenth century I suppose I will be misunderstood from the first. It is not that I reject modernism, or postmodernism — it would be fatuous to suggest that I could or would want to. But what has come in their wake fails to provide the responsiveness I expect to find at the centre of an important artistic experience. One may very well enjoy 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', Le Sacre du Printemps and the paintings of Braque, but these works hardly qualify as contemporary culture. My objections have nothing to do with a philistine desire to turn back the clock. It is redundant to say that the modernist revolution was necessary, but it is now time for us to move on from our present weakened state. Neither Adorno's idea that it was no longer possible to write poetry after Auschwitz nor Beckett's endgames are options for the poet who believes in the intimate, spiritual relationship between the word and the world.

Word

That flickers,
Heard
After reels
Collect facts
In an air-conditioned room;
 
Which fills
Time
With gristle of tongue,
Beginnings and endings
Vowelled;
 
Whose weight
Trembles
By the fold
Of computer digits
And printouts;
 
This word,
Beautiful, true, free,
We hold.

 ADP 82

   The artist is capable of making the ego serve the creative impulse, an impulse which serves order, radiance and harmony, though it be at the expense of a disillusionment as intense as that associated with Hiroshima. But this ego is capable, as we have seen all too often, of serving nothing apart from a narcissistic self-image, gazing at a world that simply reflects the perceived chaos about it. Artists cannot be instructed to put aside the implications brought by history, but they should not allow nihilism to constitute their art's raison d'être. That kind of art will merely enervate its audience.

   Surely artists want to participate in a new period of creative effort that goes beyond an obsession with technique and an obeisance before theory that has brought us to an artistic and spiritual dead-end. There has been too much hard living done by artists in the past, too many sacrifices made, too much given to art, for this point to be avoided. To serve the future one must honour the past and, in the act of remembering those who suffered — Dickinson, Mandelstam, Francis Webb — carry a sword of fire before anyone who wants to trivialise or abuse the creative gift others, far greater than we, never sold short.

   Of course the poetic is unavoidable; it clings to everything we do or are, from sporting commentaries to that inner turmoil we feel at the report of some fresh disaster we can do nothing about. Poetry that has earned its place in the hierarchy of difficult pleasure as, for example, Celan's, warrants its difficulty by virtue of necessity and artistic integrity. Celan's difficulties stand for the inarticulate horror we feel at the historical crossroads of the Holocaust, difficulties worth confronting with as much passion as we can muster. But difficulty based on indulgence had, by the end of the century, substantially reduced the readership of poetry and its appeal to the general public. Naturally enough, open rebellion set in against this oppression, and it was not long before the printed poem was left as a somewhat forlorn cultural artefact as rap songs, video clips and other variations on the technological theme rose to fill the void. If some of this material was tendentious or suspect from an artistic viewpoint, so much the worse for all the poetry that had failed to engage its prospective and now dormant audience.


1948

   I was born in 1950, not long after the conclusion of the Second World War's universal conflagration. However, as a young man, I was not aware of the significance of my parents' role in the war and could not see its relevance to me. It wasn't too much later, in my twenties, when my road to Damascus occurred; I realised my freedom was due to the sacrifices of my parents' generation. That was a key moment for me. From then on I was aware of, and have never forgotten, what it means to be a free citizen in a free country. That is one of my central poetic understandings; it underpins much of what I write. I make a point of mentioning this now because of the fashionable viewpoint that has taken hold of some writers and intellectuals that words are unable to express a meaningful moral viewpoint or that the writer's concept of self is a delusion. I never believed any of it.

 

   Given the stultifying sensibility exhibited by much culture at the turn of the century and a perceived need for change, it was not surprising to find that the modernist agenda showed a preoccupation with technical advances. The search for meaning paused whilst artists purged their work of inherited techniques and traditions. Modernism did confer powerful freedoms, but it also instituted at the same time an equally profuse set of limitations, if we take into account the hermetic aesthetics and incipient nihilism of much late twentieth-century culture. Many artists set about the task of redefining contemporary poetics. Earlier still, Verlaine had told poets to wring the neck of rhetoric (l'eloquence). He associated rhetoric with the literature of the point of view, something, he thought, to be avoided at all costs. Perhaps he would not have foreseen the extent to which the world's politics, news and advertising would become one continual rhetorical assault, a thing poets would have to respond to, and partly reflect, if their work was to maintain any kind of contemporaneity.

Race was a badge for destruction —
Armenian, Palestinian;
You never saw the flies
Buzzing round piles of corpses
Or felt the colonel's boot
Kick in your aching ribs.
 
Yet you lived in your ivory tower
Moralising for all,
Never lifted a finger to help
One amnestied soul from its hell;
People endured
As you read the editorials.
 
In a free state, accustomed
To the full belly,
How could the hungry mouth
Compare to those sensual lips
Which advertise at night
Remorseless appetites.
 
You still put faith in a party,
You haven't learnt;
They'll sell your ideals from under your feet,
If you're in the way they'll sell you.
Stop prancing through the haze
Of right-wing journals and Left Bank cafés.
 
There's one born every minute
Who thinks he's found the way,
The truth, the eternal light
(It shines from his fundament),
And when there's at least one hundred dead
He'll know he's got what it takes

To ban books written, ideas expressed —
Finis to that;
The mind which thinks, unbound
By the censor's pride,
Is likely to find its face
Crushed by the secret police.

from 'And The Winner Is...' ATG 102-104

   Perhaps Verlaine would not have perceived the ironies inherent in the situation of an artist such as Shostakovich. Once his symphonies were regarded by some as not much more than rhetorical bombast. Now, given an enlightened understanding of Russian politics, his music is heard as being equal to the demands of both personal and social history. One further example. In David Bradbury's film Chile: Hasta Cuando? there is a scene in which a woman who finds that her husband has been murdered gives vent to an impassioned outburst of grief on the steps of the morgue — one of the most spontaneous and natural rhetorical utterances I have heard. Why shouldn't a poet call on this kind of rhetorical energy. Shakespeare is full of it and it enhances and gives verisimilitude to his plays without them ever falling to the level of propaganda. And what of the other, vast range of technical resources available to the poet, the resources that can make poetry a living, accessible thing filled with the resonant, communicative imagery of its time.

   In Japan there exists a sect one of whose strictures imposes the extraordinary demand of total silence on its adherents. In this silence one is meant to apprehend the mysteries of fulfilment; perhaps that is possible. Western artists however have experienced the contrary sound of centuries of creative effort. The sound of that effort continues to shape, renew and challenge our aesthetic pleasures and our idea of the world. For a poet to distrust language or use linguistic philosophy as a means of bypassing a serious engagement with the world is the ultimate betrayal of the poet's calling. Shelley once claimed that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Isn't that the only viewpoint for a serious poet to hold.

   The freedom I spoke of earlier on, the freedom given to us by the sacrifices of others, brings in its wake the responsibility for one's actions. And the effort to exercise responsibility is where the difficulty lies. If I now seek to excuse some of the difficulties in my own work, given what I have said above, I suppose I shall seem perverse. I would say on my own behalf that the exercise of poetic responsibility, whether consciously or not, is the source of the difficulty that sometimes comes in my work. I know for example that tackling intractable subject matter makes my work earnest on occasions. And if there is sometimes an opaqueness, if the imagery is occasionally dense, if sententiousness now and then gets the upper hand, then I think that is the poetic price that has to be paid for a sensibility that wishes to engage with the world in a diverse set of contexts. I am not content to give a local habitation and a name to my domestic environment. There are some poets who do that very well, but I am not like that. I think any ensuing interpretative difficulty a small price to pay for freeing myself to discover the hidden resemblance of things, where I can praise, lament or laugh, be political, elegiac or satirical, sometimes in the same poem.

I Saw Elvis In The Supermarket Queue


I saw Elvis in the supermarket queue
Waiting for the checkout girl to total up his bill.
 
My friends will not believe me when I tell them that it's true.
They laugh at me behind my back and say that I am weird.
 
He likes to shop in private now and doesn't like the crowds
That used to chase him everywhere and tear his clothes to shreds.
 
He's put on lots of weight I'd say because his shirt was tight,
But still he's nice and sociable, a friendly sort of guy.
 
Well after I had seen him then I had to buy a gun —
My parents keep me home at night and stop me having fun.
 
I think I'll kill them Sunday morning just before they go
To church — those bloody hypocrites, I'll show what I can do!
 
And then I'll ask poor Elvis in to come and have some tea;
He'll like that though it's hard for him — he's really rather shy.
 
My head is hurting badly. Someone make it better please.
Why am I so dizzy? Who are these police?
 
Elvis will look after me and I will love him well
Though there's not really room enough inside this prison cell.
 
They're digging up the backyard but they will not find them there;
I buried them beside the dam in blankets from their bed.
 
Elvis hasn't come. I'm sad. This is the end for me.
The razor that they didn't find will help to set me free
 
And then I will find Elvis up there in the starry sky
And we will marry happily and make the angels cry.  

ADP 19

   I want my work to be based on feeling, feeling that thinks, feeling that brings to the surface our contradictory passions, ideals and discontinuities. My central interest lies with the ways in which language can express the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of life whilst reflecting our need for the good and the beautiful in the midst of suffering and failure. It cannot but sound pretentious to write about one's poetic ambitions, yet they are real to me, and I must leave it to others to say whether they find such ambitions fulfilled. Civilisation, by whose enigmatic evolutionary spiral we have been shaped, but which we shape too, gives birth to poetry and our sense of the poetic. And there, in the difficult architecture of language, the poet tries to incorporate not only the historical moment but also the idea that we are significant beyond the due processes of birth, existence and extinction. The poetic is instinctive, emphatic and serious, though the serious does not preclude either the comic or the lighter touch.

        Geography

Voyages of exploration,
Moaning seashore's invitation
Places me in certitude
For stroking on this globe.
 
Don't avoid the unknown edge,
Holding off that yummy stretch,
I am looking out to check
What is on the way.
 
Ocean gathers drooling waves,
Sky wings down its pleasure daze;
World is loving me to bits —
Guess I'll see what compass fits.

ADP 96

   If you come to my work in a spirit of sceptical interestedness, I hope I can eventually guarantee worthwhile artistic returns. But, as I have already outlined, sometimes ambiguity and complexity has to be presented on the wing, and that takes some getting used to — I trust this is not just an excuse for bad writing. When I write, in 'Rock Face', 'I hear the cry of a foetus,/The shriek of an octogenarian', I am trying to flesh out part of the immensity and strangeness of life. It certainly is not meant in any literal sense and should never be read that way. A reader once wrote to me about my poem 'Lunch At Centrepoint' saying that the line 'And Kanaks remember the Commune' was an historical impossibility. Here again is a literal mindedness that has nothing to do with the metaphorical reach of poetry in which the most disparate elements and events may be reconciled; the word 'remember' had been limited by this reader to its denotative rather than its connotative meaning. Or consider this line in 'A Patient, Found Hanged': 'All is loved, though handicap must follow'. In the logical and objective world of scientific rationalism I have no right to make such a statement. But the kind of poetry I write allows the claims that strong feelings bring; there is a kind of truthfulness there that rationalism will never reach. Besides which, a line such as the one just quoted should always be read in the context of the whole poem.

     A Patient, Found Hanged

The other side of difference,
Sometimes shared — ducts
To the air-conditioned scream,
Yacht and jewellery stuffed
In cracks where time leaks.
Birds skim above bush shadow,
Pulled tight all that follows.
 
This still life, bruised to calm,
Limbs whose skin will serve
For our morality,
Nerves poured in a ring turned black
While tea was sipped and tennis shots were nice.
Birds whisper near bush shadow
All is loved, though handicap must follow.
 
Cruelty wears its advertising smile
In civil cities while the mirror shows
Only a facade, below
Requisite hatreds rumble in the blood,
Putting their indifference on show.
Birds settle in the branches of bush shadow
And in the afternoon a sadness wanders in creek shallows.
 
Death gathers its amalgam in bright light,
Drilling out decay, stripping down
Enamel smiles to entropy, and one grin to dust,
A body hung in dark ellipse,
Necessity's mistake,
While in the starlit brilliances
One golden bird, in silence, waits.

 
SST 104

   Well, poetry is such a personal thing, and I can hardly expect my work to strike the same note in others that it does in myself. However, my poetry is not like that of other contemporary poets and it needs to be read in a different way to theirs.

   Beneath an apparent cynicism, a typical Australian trait, I hope a reader would be able to discern a wish to accommodate, in a ribbon of urban sprawl caught between ocean and desert, a sensibility that draws on popular and traditional culture, the hieratic and the farcical, the tragic and the joyful. Above all, I would want a reader to bring an inclusive and responsive imagination to a reading of my work which follows no theories but simply reflects how I have thought and felt about the world and our place in it. Even if the superstructure of metre and rhythm appears to stabilise my verse, I think the poetic space I occupy an inherently volatile one, where words can be wounds or stars, the very antithesis of theoretical certainties. My writing comes to me apparently spontaneously and usually messily. Whatever the psychic promptings, I don't want to examine them too closely. Occasionally a nervous sensation will set a poem going, or even just a line of advertising copy. I remember, for example, reading an advertisement for Lauren Bacall's performance in Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth in Sydney across which was written Absolutely No Extensions Possible. And that line gave birth to the poem of the same name in Such Sweet Thunder.

 Absolutely No Extensions Possible

Or, if you like,
The open-ended gland bag
Of your brain
Must know quotidian fade-out —
The hypercharge might launch your genes
Into another atmosphere,
Your atoms crisped in the furnace
Might become affirmative
In another place at a stranger time,
But still there's the present ending
With its sadnesses and laughter.
 
Serious stuff.
You love the packaged glo-trip
That feeling brings to skin —
Seizing the pulse with body sweating,
Tearing down pieces of sky to your breathing.
Perhaps it's at Delphi,
A priestess in a parched land
Muttering beauty, truth,
Or maybe, prone in Hyde Park,
The voice of a derelict blurs
Through White Lady vowels piss off.
 
These garden suburbs
Filtered with sails
(Those harbour glimpses worth a million)
Swing hillsides down to the sea
As you pause before
The mirror in the hall,
Shuffling limbs
Near the glinting door
Before progressing to run
Outside: the sun, the sun
That choice well made; you are living. 

SST 23-24

   Now if poets, like the candle in Hamlet that dies in its own too much, are sometimes in danger of succumbing to the coils of their own preoccupations, it is still important for them to try to say something cogent about the gift of language with which they have been burdened.


1954

   With all the hubris of youth, I wanted to play Rachmaninov's Third, sing Tristan and dive at Olympic standard. I ended up stuck with words, the most recalcitrant of artistic tools. How I envied, and still envy, the sensuous apprehension of a painter before canvas, the ballet dancer perfecting technique, or an actor being dramatic amid the roar of the greasepaint. All my theatrical and dramatic yearnings were subsumed in words, and maybe that accounts for some of the metaphoric leaps in my work. Perhaps then a reader might discern the energies and passions of the thwarted performer in my poetry. Thus, I suppose, a poem such as 'Hitch', where the journey through life is presented as a train trip accompanied by attendant furies. At the same time there are references to Hitchcock and Fellini. So, I hope to combine an element of popular culture within the context of a structure that is part lyric, part narrative. The poet plays at being film director, a pleasant fantasy and, if it brings forth a decent poem, a harmless enough conceit.

Hitch

There's always a hitch in things
For those who think the sweet life
Can shimmer off the shadow of a doubt.
On a train, through a nightmare tunnel,
Sex and Death in the dining car
Harbour such horrible grudges
That you'd very much better be leaving.
 
In the bone strong room where loneliness bites,
Desperately trapped if the pulse slams shut,
Your valuables worthless if you are breathless,
There's the red frenzy of flesh on flesh.
Eat lots of ice-cream, drink up the brandy,
Neck so soft beneath blonde hair
As the bloodline bumps under skin.
 
And what if all that you'd done
Or said at indifferent moments
Was stored in their echoing archives.
They laughed when you put your foot in it —
The replays are shocking, some scenes are grotesque,
But some are fun too when reshown,
Even when sabotage had the last laugh.
 
This journey passes the time of day
Or night if it's then that you travel:
A smoke-filled carriage, the slow rabbit crushed —
You don't approve, but what can you do.
Relax, read a book, stare at the sun
Or the stars in their eloquent heaven;
It is late, and soon you will sleep.

SST 7

   Well, one cannot forever be explaining the meaning of poems; it is a mistake to try to. As I put it in Notebook, somewhere down the literary pathway writers' and readers' expectations eventually meet.

   To be a poet in Australia is to go on an awfully big adventure. If the value of what has been written must be left to posterity, the interim journey needs assurances and a perseverance for which there is no teacher apart from that of experience. I was certainly no prodigy, and when I did start to write it was a purely instinctual thing. The work that resulted was bad, but at least it was sincere which, despite Oscar Wilde's carping comment to the contrary, is surely a necessity for significant creative effort.

   It was only when I went to Armidale Teachers College that I started to write lots of poems and actually got round to doing some serious reading for the first time in my life. They had an excellent library there. Since my literary education was lacking it only slowly dawned on me that I wanted to do something different to what my contemporaries were interested in. I was lucky to go to Armidale. There was an excellent standard of teaching which forced you to encounter, if not master, a number of disciplines. All the same, I left Armidale as a very undeveloped writer. As I knew it would be a long time before my work would be published, I then completed a degree at Macquarie University. Poetry isn't an intellectual pursuit, it's an intuitive thing, though clearly it requires intelligence. And I would say too, the job of poet comes with certain requirements not likely to be found in any advertisement. If, out there in the real world, countless people are prepared to put their lives at risk to aid others in desperate or tragic conditions, often to the point of sacrificing themselves to a cause, then the very least that can be expected of poets is that they use language as an agency for revealing this same real world to their readers. Poetry is not a special case and, to maintain the status poetry automatically had in ancient and Renaissance times, poets have to show that the art of poetry is a relevant entity, not a bypass to some art-for-art's sake cyberspace.

A Definition

It lives
When the gold myrtle wreath
From an uncertain tomb
Is put on display under glass,
Is sex and death
In each of their various fashions,
Tastes of salt,
Smells of hot bitumen
Or a handful of crushed leaves.
It rids the boredom of known stuff
And gossip that doesn't amaze
In a shiver scalping our skin.
It can't be polite —
Mucus, scar tissue, fluids
Best not mentioned
Rush to its page
That we sometimes write,
Sometimes sleep with,
Sometimes kill with.
Our depression won't exhaust it.
Think of a cleaver stuck in your thigh,
Skin made mortal,
Or the crimp on the face
When we stand on the edge of large things —
A hard birth, the end of the affair,
That loved thing whose name makes us sweat.
It isn't money,
Though money might buy
Something of it
(Cézannes on the wall,
The rights to Fellini's next film).
It might come
Just as you've ironed the ninth shirt
And feel like throwing the kid
Who hasn't shut up for three hours
Out the window along with the bills
(But the child
Is made wholly of this thing —
It can shred as years intervene).
Then, for each expert
Who sets down its plan,
The real thing goes off at tangents.
It won't fit in troughs,
Glinting, flittering over books,
Breaking Olympic records.
Try to put a sack over it,
Hold it under water — just like Johnny,
It'll be back, grinning.
So, whatever you might think
About its demise, it will be around,
The warmth behind our monotony,
That passion in the slipstream,
For it lives and keeps on:
That's what poetry is.

ADP 20-21

   If we could categorise the beauty we find about us then perhaps we would be better satisfied than we are, but this has always proven difficult. Of course we know it exists, but it appears evanescent. Maybe a scientist would say such a categorisation exists only as some chemical, reactive need of the brain. In this frame of mind art can seem to fulfil Skinner's behavioural hypotheses. The danger then lies with an aspiration to Faustian knowledge, exemplified in this passage by Jacques Monod who assures us it is 'chance alone (that) is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer a hypothesis among others possible or at least conceivable. It is today the sole hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact.' (Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, New York. A. A. Knopf, 1971, 112).

   Whatever a determinist mindset might claim, art is not a species of biology, and certainly does not have anything to do with observed and tested fact; the monkey doesn't type Shakespeare. Science has brought to life, along with its brilliant technologies and unparalleled insights into the structure of matter, Doctor Frankenstein's monster, covered in radiation and napalm burns, with a computerised brain limited to purely mathematical calculations. Would we ask Doctor Oppenheimer or a Vietnamese farmer, if both were still alive, whether science should try to limit itself to the solution of urgent problems rather than indulge the Promethean tendencies that have brought us to the edge of an ethical minefield.

Ethics 

Death isn't straightforward
And can't be defined —
We doctors need organs.
Please sign here on the dotted line.
 
But doctor, my baby, it's living and warm —
My dear, your child's brain dead, cortically deformed.
Its head is just a bag of porridge, cannot feel a thing.
Sign here on the dotted line and see more children live.
 
(When will the public get it through their heads
That harvesting of organs is our future source of strength.
I'm tired of hearing amateurs spout rubbish on the soul;
Now the gene pool's mapped we'll be rewriting all the rules.)
 
Look. I feel your pain... if only you'd understand this —
An article in The Lancet that mentions things you might have missed.
Doctor, I feel terrible. Nine months and now this hell.
Sign here on the dotted line. There's no need for your guilt.
 
I guess it has to be this way;
I've prayed hard for the both of us.
Good, and always remember this plus —
Your child has diminished moral status.
 
Then, as all the old manoeuvres
Circled in to get their way,
The child in question quietly died
And fled its decades utterly.
 
No time for grief or explanations,
The mother signed the dotted line,
Surgeons hurried to their business,
Then tissues cooling were revived.
 
And mystery is beautiful
And truth will have cold eyes
And good is still imperfect
For what within us lies.

   No person or institution has changed the way of the world; that is, to nurture us and then destroy us. But what the mind conceives in art can lead us out of our technological torpor and obsession with appearances to newly-assumed depths. Shred away the sentimental and the false. Find music, paint, but especially words capable of accepting the creative gift with humility, and nature whose edges we have partially ruined, nature that will at last repossess us. If one has true simplicity then craft seems sufficient, but we suffer from the disease of sophistication and require a Finnegans Wake or a Dachau to assure us we could proselytise our desires, no matter how destructive they might be.

   We would all like to think that our particular discipline could swallow the planet whole and regurgitate the final answers. The trouble is that these answers never show a glimmer of appearing. Thus, sometimes, we waste our time with trivialities. Necessarily, art's meaning involves an acceptance of the tragic nature of existence, but that does not comprise the whole or even the major part of that meaning. Art will not fail us, even though we are often unworthy of it. However, the great artists are much more than Nietzschean superpeople. They give us the miracles we seek since they are humble enough to submit themselves to 'the mystery of things'. Does it require more than one Shakespeare, Michelangelo or Mozart to show us what the human spirit is capable of achieving.

To Mr W. S.

An art not deciduous,
Sufficient for each failure, dense
With mysteries we disdain,
Patterning out of reach
Set on the protean table.
 
A human figuration
For the abstract canvas;
Passionate music crammed in mouths
Used to the maths
Of a twelve-tone row;
 
The gold element
In a retrospect
Of history's demands,
Setting down the scope
Of this planet's rhetoric.
 
Exeunt, pursued by fame,
No theory satisfying
This imagery, no talkback show
Explaining the ironies you foretold
Or pinning down the pleasure of the text.
 
Hero of intellect
And the given passions,
Bridge to an enormity
That seeps in vowels
Its precise verse.
 
Opinion skims
Your vacant portrait,
The blood and bone
Of feeling splinting
Blossom on our winter branch.
 
You felt space contract
To a green Folio,
Enigma variations
Setting forth the fact
Of time's diffidence.
 
Living has not changed —
Its red clamp
Still binds in one display
Crematorium oven and midsummer night,
Wars of the Roses and reluctant science.
 
We know our betters
Not too well or for long.
Having this love to hand
Orders our perishable world.
It is enough.

SST 78-79

   While I am referring to the heroic spirits of Western civilisation I might here mention my own passion for the music of Wagner. It would be hard to convey the importance Wagner's oeuvre has had on my intellectual and aesthetic development, though one must reject most of Wagner's dilettante prose systematisations as inadequate to the demands of social reality. What ecstatic breadth and creative intuition are evident in this 'music of the future'. All of life and hope is there. And the passion is never spent. I find it laughable that a mind which created a Ring cycle, a Tristan, a Meistersinger, could be expected to settle in some likeable bourgeois amenity of the kind whose books sell like, and are treated as, sacks of potatoes and who tours and talks at literary lunches; nice people with nice books. Not the least interesting aspect of Wagner is the endlessly ambiguous and contradictory aspects of his personality. As for Wagner's anti-Semitism, that is a complex topic, but it has left no trace on me. Besides, what was good enough for Mahler, Walter and Solti is certainly good enough for me.

   The artist's love of the world aims at wholeness, of course an impossibility. But the artist can arrive at a point that goes beyond mere fragmentation if he or she wishes it. While part of the world starves and another sets about cannibalising itself with weaponry and pollution, the responsibility of artists now lies in them giving their utmost to the fulfilment of an art that is prepared for a fresh approach, something newly-attuned to the aesthetic and cultural requirements of the twenty-first century.

   A new aesthetic is developing that favours the intuitive over the explanatory, not a repetition of Romantic cliche, not a fascist manifesto of 'thou shalt' and 'thou shalt not', not the eclecticism of postmodernism. This aesthetic's energies and complexities can not be set down in banal agenda form though I have suggested how such an aesthetic might evolve. It will develop its own richness and diversity, taking no account of ideological postures, and not necessarily in traditional stamping grounds.

   It may once have been both amusing and necessary for Duchamp to present a urinal as a work of art. The trouble is that much art has not progressed beyond this level of deprecation. Those who feel impelled to create the art of the future must be prepared to have the courage of their convictions tested. They should utilise their present neglect for it is their work that will bring into being new lineaments and will prove, in the end, to be something worthy of the challenges that lie ahead of us.

Visiting Emily eds. Sheila Coghill, Thom Tammaro
University of Iowa Press 2000
Cover illustration Barry Moser
ISBN 0 87745 734 4 (cloth)
ISBN 0 87745 739 5 (pbk)
An anthology of poems by Berryman, Bly, Crane, Eberhart, Hall, Kinnell,
Kumin, Longley, McGuckian, Macleish, Nicholson, Rich, Wilbur and others.

Australian literature and culture: further reading, listed in chronological order of publication

Barron Field First Fruits of Australian Poetry 1819
Walter Murdoch (ed) A Book of Australasian Verse 1918, 2nd edition 1924
C. Hartley Grattan Australian Literature 1929
Ern Malley  (James McAuley, Harold Stewart) The Darkening Ecliptic (ed Max Harris) 1944
Sidney J. Baker The Australian Language 1945
Russel Ward The Australian Legend 1958
Bernard Smith European Vision and the South Pacific 1788–1850 1960, 2nd edn 1985
H. M. Green A History of Australian Literature: Pure and Applied 2 vols, 1961, revised 1984 Dorothy Green
Donald Horne The Lucky Country 1964
Judith Wright Preoccupations in Australian Poetry 1965
Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny of Distance 1966
A. A. Phillips The Australian Tradition Studies in a Colonial Culture 1966
Brian Elliott The Landscape of Australian Poetry 1967
Rodney Hall, Thomas W. Shapcott (eds) New Impulses in Australian Poetry 1968
Brian Elliott, Adrian Mitchell (eds) Bards in the Wildernes: Australian Colonial Poetry to 1920 1970
Thomas Shapcott  (ed) Australian Poetry Now 1970
Harry Heseltine The Penguin Book of Australian Verse 1972
Geoffrey Serle From Deserts the Prophets Come: The Creative Spirit in Australians 1973, revised 1987
John Docker Australian Cultural Elites: Intellectual traditions in Sydney and Melbourne 1974
Robert Kenny, Colin Maxwell Talbot (eds) Applestealers 1974
Leon Cantrell Bards, Bohemians and Bookmen 1976
Thomas Shapcott Contemporary American & Australian Poetry 1976
Peter Nicholson Wallace Stevens and the Poetry of the Earth, Macquarie University Honours thesis 1978
Brian Elliott The Jindyworobaks 1979
Herbert C Jaffa Modern Australian Poetry: a guide to information resources 1920–1970 1979
Humphrey McQueen The Black Swan of Trespass 1979
John Tranter (ed) The New Australian Poetry 1979
Richard Haese Rebels and Precursors 1981
Leonie Kramer (ed) The Oxford History of Australian Literature 1981
G. A. Wilkes The Stockyard and the Croquet Lawn 1981
Martin Duwell A Possible Contemporary Poetry 1982
Joan Kirkby (ed) The American Model: Influence and independence in Australian poetry 1982
Elizabeth Webby Early Australian Poetry 1982
John Docker In A Critical Condition: Reading Australian Literature 1984
Geoffrey Dutton Snow on the Saltbush: The Australian Literary Experience 1984
Barry Andrews, W. H. Wilde, Joy Hooton The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature 1985, 2nd edition 1994
Ken Goodwin A History of Australian Literature 1986
Fay Zwicky The Lyre in the Pawnshop: Essays on Literature and Survival 1974–1984 1986
Peter Pierce The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia 1987
Laurie Hergenhan (ed) The Penguin New Literary History of Australia 1988
David Brooks, Brenda Walker (eds) Poetry and Gender: Statements and essays in Australian women’s poetry and poetics 1989
Robert Gray, Geoffrey Lehmann  (eds) Australian Poetry in the Twentieth Century 1991
Peter Nicholson A Temporary Grace 1991
Peter Nicholson Such Sweet Thunder 1994
Geoff Page A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry 1995
Paul Kane Australian Poetry: Romanticism and negativity 1996
Lyn McCreddin, Stephanie Trigg (eds) The Space of Poetry: Australian essays on contemporary poetics 1996
Peter Porter (ed) The Oxford Book of Modern Australian Verse 1996
Mark Davis Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism 1997
Peter Nicholson A Dwelling Place 1997
Bruce Bennett, Jennifer Strauss (eds) The Oxford Literary History of Australia 1998
Elizabeth Webby (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature 2000
Delys Bird, Robert Dixon, Christopher Lee (eds) Authority and Influence: Australian literary criticism 1950–2000  2001
Richard Nile The Making of the Australian Literary Imagination 2002
Pradeep Trikha Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers and Critics 2007 (includes essay)
Philip Mead Networked Language: Culture and history in Australian poetry 2008
Nicholas Jose (ed) Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature 2009
Peter Pierce (ed) The Cambridge History of Australian Literature 2009
Kanwar Dinesh Singh (ed) Explorations in Australian Poetry 2010 (includes essay)
Robert Gray, Geoffrey Lehmann (eds) Australian Poetry in the Twentieth Century 2011
Peter Nicholson Hammerhead 2011
Peter Nicholson New & Selected Poems 2012

For further information about Australian poetry see the Australian Poetry Library, a joint initiative of the University of Sydney, the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) Cultural Fund and the Australian Research Council.


Explorations in Australian Poetry ed. Kanwar Dinesh Singh
Sarup Book Publishers New Delhi 2010
ISBN-978-81-7625-633-9
'Ern Malley: Doppelgänger in the Desert' pp. 80–88
An earlier online version of this essay can be found here.