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Introduction

Photo: Rowan Fotheringham

   Born in Waverley, New South Wales, in 1950, Peter Nicholson was educated at Armidale Teachers College and Macquarie University. He has published four books of poetry — A Temporary Grace, Such Sweet Thunder, A Dwelling Place and New & Selected Poems. A Temporary Grace (ATG) was published in 1991. It contains At The Water's Edge and Views To A Bridge as well as the novella, Fast Forward. Such Sweet Thunder (SST) published in 1994, comprises Shadow of A Doubt, Prometheus and S.S. Snakebite. A Dwelling Place (ADP) published in 1997, includes Speech To A Mountain and New Affection, New Noise. These are separated by Notebook, a series of commentaries, opinions and questions about aesthetics. New & Selected Poems (NSP) contains three new collections, Bush Imperial, Up To The Living and A Bit Black, together with a selection of poetry from his earlier books.

"The poems themselves are sometimes incandescent. There is a strong sense of rhythm and linguistic verve... caustic and uncompromisingly political...joyfulness and a celebration of language... concerned with raising the mundane to a finer sensibility... so vibrant and concise they demand to be read."

Mark O'Flynn reviewing Such Sweet Thunder,

AUSTRALIAN BOOK REVIEW

   "The fifty-seven poems in A Dwelling Place's two main sections are remarkably varied in themes and style. They range from the dark humour of 'I Saw Elvis At The Supermarket Queue' and 'Gym Junkie Freakout' to the touching lyricism of 'Short Prayer', dedicated to the victims of the 1989 Armenian earthquake, and the creativity and critical skill displayed in 'Five Shakespeare Studies'... Nicholson emerges with this collection as a significant and versatile figure in the crowded world of Australian poets born in the decade after World War II".

Michael Costigan reviewing A Dwelling Place,

AUSTRALIAN BOOK REVIEW

   Email Peter Nicholson at poetnic AT yahoo DOT com

Praising Gathered Worth

Poetry, Biography, Aesthetics

Complete texts of the poems quoted below can be found in ATG ( 'Final Solution' 8), SST ( 'Hitch' 7, 'Late News' 31, 'Salt' 76, 'Lustre' 81, 'Black' 82) and ADP ( 'Great Attractor' 44-46, 'Emily –' 65-66).

When I look back and ask myself why I became a poet, I find it difficult to answer that question. As a child I had no special interest in, or aptitude for, language. I loved reading, but poetry was a closed book to me. The nearest I would have come to it was when I occasionally read a lesson from the King James version of the Bible at our Congregational church in Epping when I was growing up. I was a devotee of radio and listened to the Argonauts, I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again and Round The Horne with the irrepressible Kenneth Williams. I remember the shock I got when I found out later that the Anthony Inkwell I'd heard so often on the Argonauts was the illustrious Professor A. D. Hope. Well, poetry came to me one afternoon when I was walking back from school; I would have been seventeen. And poetry has not left me alone since. That is odd because, for one thing, my natural feeling was always for the world of the theatre. Perhaps I had a certain native instinct for the theatre because I was in a production of one kind or another almost every year at primary and secondary school. When I first started school I took part in Christmas pageants; at Armidale Teachers College I sang in Carmina Burana and played the Mikado and Bernardo in West Side Story — a theatrical element was always present. Poetry though is another matter. Max Harris once wrote to me and said that poetry had chosen me, I hadn't chosen it, and that was what made the difference. That is a good way of putting it, because if you were wise, you would never choose poetry as a vocation, especially in Australia where the poetic is more likely to be recognised in scrums or at a poker machine. But it is one of the tasks of the poet to find the poetic in each part of life. It is there in everything; it is the difficult thing to express the poetry of one's life and country memorably. At any rate, my feeling for music predated that for language, the world of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Strauss.


Bayreuth Festival 1977
Götterdämmerung Act 2
Manfred Jung, Gwyneth Jones, Karl Ridderbusch

The world is swinging on the back
Of this elephant memory, its sahib desire,
Where death's a friend whose treachery's expected.

Salt

 

My interest in Wagner came about in the following way. My mother belonged to the World Record Club and each month we'd get in some LPs. And one day in came a disc of Wagner preludes and overtures conducted by Toscanini. Well, that was the fateful moment. When I was young I was obsessed by Wagner, and Richard Strauss, to a degree. One of the first opera sets I collected was Die Frau ohne Schatten. It didn't have a libretto and I didn't have a clue as to what was going on, but I was besotted by the music. These days I think the work a bit of an Aryan tract, but I was a fanatical listener to the operas 2FC presented, and to John Cargher's Singers of Renown. I taped the Bayreuth broadcasts that were regularly presented. However comic it might now seem, I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that I was sometimes in a state bordering on intoxication when listening to these broadcasts. Then maturity set in; you start to question the nature of the work that can produce this narcotic effect. I still think of Wagner as a classic of Western civilisation. It is good to have that exaltation at your back when you look at the mess we're in. I mean, some mornings I get up and life seems like a bunch of chances going wrong. And other mornings I get up and life seems the result of an ideal and written in the stars. Now poetry for me is the intersection point of those two points of view. Music remains the planet I can visit for aesthetic refreshment without any of the hard yakka required by the Muse of poetry. The arts are not a substitute for life, but music, for this writer at least, makes tangible the wholeness words are always struggling to express.

Perhaps it was with my knowledge of Wagner's life and work that my first unconscious acknowledgement came of the importance of the artist's independence from the cultural milieux of their time — you are either going to succumb to the prevailing aesthetic tendencies of your time, or strike out on your own path. Following that path puts you in the wilderness, but you cannot trim your sails to suit another's disposition. Without making irrelevant comparisons, I knew that many works of art from Une Saison en enfer to the Coen brothers films had been produced independently. A Temporary Grace was published on 28th August, 1991, Such Sweet Thunder on 28th April, 1994 and A Dwelling Place on 12th July, 1997. Chomsky has demonstrated the manufactured consent engendered by political hierarchies. Some contemporary culture is a cargo cult propped up by analogous cultural groups. It is part of the artist's job to challenge their authority. Art doesn't exist to serve the idiosyncratic preferences of an establishment — poets should not participate in the fractious world of literary politics more than is absolutely necessary. They don't have to any longer if they don't want to because the Internet has created the equivalent of the free market economy in poetry, something not seen before in the entire history of literature. It is no good objecting that a great deal of questionable material has thereby been brought to light because a great deal of questionable material was published in the old days too. In Australia you have to be conscious that the failure of the 1999 republican referendum was a corollary of an equally hidebound set of cultural parameters. As the critic and curator John McDonald wrote concerning the art hierarchy in Australia: "The art community contains a small, highly vocal minority and a large silent majority. Unfortunately, only the minority usually seems to be considered when survey exhibitions are put together, works acquired for some public collections, or reviews and articles written for most art magazines. This threatens to restrict the scope of contemporary art even further, reducing it to a very cosy club, with a strict code of nepotism and brain-numbing conformity to fashion." [SMH 30th December, 1989, 42]. The literary hierarchy is no different to the artistic one. Even today, the objective, in-depth poetry review that quotes substantially from the poet's work is as rare as the unicorn. Poetry written in rest of the Pacific region seems to be largely ignored. However, as much as one might deplore this situation and recognise the political dimension that invariably surrounds the distribution and dissemination of art and artistic ideas, the actual creation of works of art continues unimpeded by critical or institutional bias. It would be odd if it were otherwise; art and science are alike in the sense that they have a built-in Q.E.D. whose proofs cannot be resisted.

In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were many poets who kept to the path less travelled; they honourably maintained a poetic tradition in the face of the great Australian silence. Cultural cringe had been responsible for some servility in the past. When the Jindyworobaks put up a plausible literary alternative the danger of self-referentiality wasn't entirely avoided. I admire some of the earlier generation of Australian poets who worked against fearsome difficulties and often in squalor, particularly Henry Lawson, Christopher Brennan and John Shaw Neilson. I don't really like much of Lawson's or Brennan's verse, but I'm moved by the sacrifices they made and the struggle they put up on behalf of literature. The tragic figure of Francis Webb must lie at the root of any decent and sensitive response to the question of Australian poetic tradition. He not only brought forth beautiful and deeply-felt lyric verse; his life was an amazing act of dedication, an act witnessed in the schizophrenic's hell of isolation wards and electroconvulsive shock therapy. Alec Hope, whom I previously mentioned, was an influential voice in the post-war period; we had a correspondence of kinds for a while. Kenneth Slessor showed how a modern sensibility could be accommodated in an Australian context. Both Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood wrote from the advantage of a freshly-felt and expressed poetic. Of course I cannot do justice to contemporary Australian poetry whose poets spread themselves over a vast literary terrain. Our poets did not register on the consciousness of overseas readers for a long time; that is now changing. Usually, art has to seep through a phalanx of self-satisfaction before it gets through to the clear light of day. Emily Dickinson is the classic case here.

One picture may be worth a thousand words, but all the pictures in the world, and certainly not the one daguerreotype left of this New England poet, could begin to equal her staggering literary estate. Her posthumous grandeur subsumes the entire twentieth century with its intellectual and emotional weight and devastating metaphysical satirics. How ironic that the greatest of modern poets should have managed without the usual baggage used to bolster the claims no-one, except for the happy few, could ever bring themselves to believe in. Whether it be the Cantos or the Hughes/Plath poetic bell jar; nothing could stand in the way of her greatness, a greatness earned through a lifetime's devotion to a literary ideal. That was an unacknowledged greatness. Only now, her greatness is beginning to reach into even the most recalcitrant corners. New perspectives must form in the light of the edifice she left behind, what could so easily have been confined to the bonfire of a temporal vanity. But the stitched packets of poems survived and, after much tampering and censorious diminution, eventually came to view under the superb editorial wing of Thomas Johnson. The letters too, as cryptic and enticing as the poems. And then the life became clearer to us with the biography of Richard Sewell.

But all that was preliminary — the life, the publication. Then began the weaving of time and destiny as the world awoke to the distances evoked in those dash-filled poems, distances bigger than any found between California and the New York islands.

In good faith, I think we can call her Emily, as long as we realise that Emily will always be waiting upstairs, and will not allow us to come any closer than the lowest rung of those Hitchcockian Amherst stairs. If we attempt to climb them we are more than likely to encounter one of those peculiarly virulent forms of psychic torture the poet virtually celebrated and which Camille Paglia outlined with such glee in Sexual Personae. We have to approach the storm of psychic energy she unleashed carefully because you cannot take on too much of Dickinson at a sitting; the poetry is so dense with feeling and metaphoric richness.

 

Remember Jim Morrison asking for baby to "light my fire". He probably never had a clue that a New England poet lit an incendiary fire in the nineteenth century that burnt all it encountered to stumps, and all done in tulle too, not leather trousers. But this troubadour took his pretensions with him to an early grave. And now, as the guru-searchers tramp past Baudelaire and Piaf in Père-Lachaise en route to their encounter with the poet manqué, doubtless they have not a clue either that back home there is a finer dust interred, a dust that speaks to the whole world with an unparalleled intensity and depth.

 

For once a passion that will last
Past what rusts and buckles,
There with Walt in double grandeur,
Mystery's odd couple.

Emily –

 


The authority of a poet like Dickinson can never be garnered through the auspices of special pleading or parochial grandstanding. A decade or two may pass in which a reputation takes wing before it fades from view. But Dickinson shows that even utter poetic silence, apart from those butchered poems that saw the published light of day, could not defeat the Muse of fire that did, indeed, ascend the brightest heaven of invention. How blinkered, by comparison, seems the imperative to "make it new", as if every artist from the beginning of time hadn't been trying to do just that. After all, it seems somewhat arrogant for Pound to imply that he was making it new after the work of Dickinson and Whitman, Nietzsche and Emerson. If he helped Old Possum get his book of impractical cats into sleeker format, very well then. A poem such as ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ might be of interest to academics and other poets; it certainly could have no appeal to the general reading public for whom a Cole Porter, a Bob Dylan or a Gil Scott-Heron were real touchstones of the contemporaneous.

All this time Emily was waiting in the wings with her rigor, her intelligence and her joy. And she knew her value. How certain is the tone with which she declares

Mine — by the Right of the White Election!
Mine — by the Royal Seal!
Mine — by the Sign in the Scarlet prison —
Bars — cannot conceal!

Mine — here — in Vision — and in Veto!
Mine — by the Grave's Repeal —
Titled — Confirmed —

Delirious Charter!
Mine — long as Ages steal!

Dickinson is brilliant, but it would be impossible to try and write like her. Her work is an outstanding example of what language can do when it is put under imaginative pressure; the lumps of coal produce diamonds whose intensity and light outlasted a century of manifestos and poetry wars.

Australians have certainly had a lot of cultural imperialism to put up with. Don't misunderstand me — the English poetic tradition means a very great deal to me. We did, however, ingest a lot of English sensibility that had nothing to do with us. We are not one with Irish politics or culture either. I understand the importance of ancestor worship, and I want an Australian republic too. But I see the world as one, not Irish, not American and not Australian either. I can't play the nationalist card. Poetry is a repository of a tradition, a trust passed on to us through centuries of thinking, feeling and creating. Obviously it's going to take time for poets who write in a complex and serious way about life to get through, but that comes with the territory. A lot of contemporary culture short-changes society — lowest common denominator produces the big bucks. You have to try and make art equal to life, a pretty big ask, not reduce art to the status of commercial product.

The World according to Ptolemy
Beside the tournament of anchormen in London
Or New York bravos for the Met's last show
There's splendour in the brick veneer's fierce acres
And different beauty, difficult to prove,
Because it is removed from all the baggage

Heaped at capital corners where time
Strokes itself in ego-stretching cities.

Late News


A single sensibility can't soak up everything, but an Australian sensibility must at least try to come to terms with Aboriginal culture, the heat and the light, the oceans, droughts and bushfires. However, if a critical overview is made of Australian culture it is no good putting northern fingers all over our sunburnt art and thinking it is going to be a pale copy of your own culture. There has been an enormous amount of northern drift in discussions of culture — London, Paris, New York, St. Petersburg — while an entire hemisphere went missing. Responses to Australian culture have often been nothing more than cliche-filled repositories of prejudice that simply reinforce a local status quo. That is hardly an honest or intelligent way of dealing with the complexities and subtleties of a continent's artistic tradition. What can happen is that a critic with a perceived interest or expertise is asked to write up an article when the subject of Australia comes to hand. That can work, but occasionally you hear the sound of an axe being ground. Then the usual suspects are landed on like a ton of bricks. The resulting newspaper or magazine article sometimes gives an impression that Australia can be found, amidst a slew of self-projection, rodomontade and jawbreakers, on board the good but improbable ship Neighbours. As Pushkin said, a critic should be a letter bearer. Some are not content with that role, and so they deck themselves out in prophetic robes that are usually moth-eaten. Their responses can be sticky with the stereotyped responses of the European critical tradition. Instead of writing an honest assessment that expresses their personal views, they distort their style through ideological prisms. This approach is perhaps more out of hand in the art world with its well-known phenomenon of the jargon-filled art catalogue, but literature has also shown itself to be a worthy follower of the let's-bash-a-theory-to- bits school of critical terrorism.

You sometimes hear on the radio a voice that's musical and intelligent, perceptive and passionate. That's the way I like poetry to strike me: 'I measure every Grief I meet','Le Cimetière marin', Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, 'The Orange Tree', 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', 'Ode To a Nightingale', 'Archaischer Torso Apollos', 'The Garden', 'Wandrers Nachtlied II', 'The Planet On The Table', 'Glory Be To God For Dappled Things', 'L'invitation au voyage', 'Five Bells' , 'Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood'. Not the most adventurous list, perhaps, but I can't help it if it's Slessor and Wordsworth who get through to me rather than, say, Berryman and Brodsky.

Earlier on I spoke of my interest in the theatre. When I became a teacher, all that theatrical side of me passed underground, but despite that, my poetry still seems to have an inherently theatrical feel to it. When I was young I was a terrible stage-door Johnny, and in my time met people as various as Margot Fonteyn, Birgit Nilsson and, on one memorable occasion, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears when they came out of a rehearsal of the church parables that were being presented at the 1970 Adelaide Festival. My mother had learnt the piano at the Conservatorium with Alexander Sverjensky, and there is a picture of my mother's father playing the violin, although I never saw him play. We had an old pianola in my bedroom and I used to crank out the piano rolls. I wanted to play but only got as far as Grainger's Country Gardens. However, I was a keen attender of the Proms, the opera and the ballet. I especially remember a fantastic production of Turandot with Morag Beaton swathed in an enormous peacock train. I had the great pleasure of telling her just how much her performance meant to me at a function in 1999. There were many brilliant performances — Jenufa under the direction of Edward Downes, Robyn Nevin's Miss Docker in Patrick White's A Cheery Soul, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic's performance of Mahler's 5th. I wanted to travel to get to the Bayreuth Festival and look at the Elgin marbles, but was on the outer of all sources of income apart from that of my teaching salary and had to be content with the local product.

Now, as much as I owe to music, and musical expression, I never believed that poetry aspires to the state of music. The use of language in the poem, the novel, play or essay, requires a different sensibility. To discipline the literary sensibility so that it becomes a vehicle able to accurately express your perceptions requires a technique as developed as Bernini's sculptural hand or Horowitz' finger work. The subtlety of a line of Verlaine comes after a mastery of countless confrontations with an enigmatic and variable emotional biography. Failures of sensibility show up very quickly in poetry because the text is left so exposed. Prose enables the horse to bolt but keep the rider in the saddle; poetry doesn't allow for that. However, you're always going to come across countless consumers of culture who have fallen hook, line and sinker for the hokum spun in review pages and promulgated by tunnel vision. A decent artist acknowledges their successes and failures, even if you can sometimes be mistaken in evaluating your earlier work.

The political is an aspect of my work which is expressed both overtly, as in 'And The Winner Is ...' and covertly. I follow no particular political bent except that I believe in democratic values and have a dislike of authoritarianism. I'm happy for people to express themselves in any way they want, although personally I prefer art that shows a knowledge of, and respect for, the cultural inheritance that has brought us to the present moment. I'd lost my illusions about the political process fairly early on, which is something of an achievement: what is pragmatically possible is the best that we can hope for. Both idealism and political activism are essential, but some writers get seduced by the evasions and flattery of politics. All good writing is political in the sense that it seeks to ask questions of life and of the institutions that comprise life, but to mistake that political dimension for the actual effort that puts the refugee in a warm bed at night or bandages the wounded arm betrays a fatal misunderstanding. When Mandelstam wrote his poem about Stalin he was carrying out a truly heroic political act; he knew he was signing a death warrant. Has any Australian poet been that brave?

NKVD File of Osip Mandelstam

Through this there is a music
That can't be denied,
A frequency not halted,
Surpassing every stroke
That butchered in the shadow of the furnace,
A thing whose greatness bears
That magnitude which flows
Beyond our terminus,
A mind no tear has felt
Or haemorrhage yet blooded.

Lustre

My first intuition of political realities and their consequences came with the 1959 hit song, Toni Fisher's 'West of the Wall'. I wouldn't have appreciated the political situation the song described — "The world knows of our sadness and we are not alone" — but I remembered the song and its lyrics. Like many Australians, I welcomed the arrival of the Whitlam Labor government, but was prone to some unreal Romantic mythologising. After what seemed like the torpor of decades, Australia embraced the contemporary with a vengeance. It was all too much for the general populace who gave the government its marching orders after three years of spills and thrills. However, there are still some who pine for a political utopia that never was. Even the Kerr sacking hadn't alerted them to the fact that the deployment of political power was what mattered, not visionary ideals. The same power plays occurred in literature. All that Marxism ingested after the Second World War, aided and abetted by the theorising of Adorno and Lukács, was suddenly thrown out and replaced by equally-suspect postmodernist finger pointing and structuralist hectoring. What this had to do with literature was anyone's guess, but when an actual writer got snared by politics, as Amnesty International showed happened all too often, it proved exceedingly difficult to duchess political realities.

I never know when inspiration is going to come. Stravinsky said that the best ideas occurred at the piano. In other words, craft produces art. Craft — technique — is essential, but I'm not so sure about the implications of what he says. If you don't feel deeply when you create it shows up in the finished product. It is one of the virtues of good art that passion can't be faked — or bought — or funded for that matter. I try to look at life seriously; art should be a serious criticism of life. That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy humour — a life in poetry would be unbearable without a well-developed sense of the absurd and an ability to laugh at yourself. However, the more I experience life and think about its devolutions, the more mysterious and strange a thing it seems. In poetry, you don't answer the kinds of questions that philosophy proposes because poetry doesn't use Aristotelian logic; you are using the irrational logic of poetry. Now, so many poets have tried to define what that poetic logic consists of, and each of their explanations looks convincing. The truth must be that all these explanations constitute the meaning of poetic logic, an ocean of Dionysian and Apollonian imagery and technique that can produce sensibilities as divergent as Hölderlin, Rimbaud and Blok. So, I like to think the poetry I write is working its way towards an answer, a partial answer to the questions poetic instinct proposes. Sometimes the questions are answered negatively, sometimes satirically, sometimes joyfully. I hope I'm open to the art, the science and the politics about me, and that these interests are reflected in my work. You can never be sure whether this is the case.

 Entrance to Auschwitz

When honouring a chosen race
Beware the state's new testaments.

Final Solution

As I put it in the poem 'Poet', you are "Praising gathered worth/And skinline's various girth." In other words, you accept the heterogeneous nature of existence in all of its tremendous variety and, if you can, offer praise for the fact of its existence. In Australia, and perhaps elsewhere, there's a tendency to change channels when the program on Auschwitz comes up. Artists can't change channels; they have to confront the meanings and detritus that history has left. But the great renovators of the human spirit are standing at your back too. You hear the music they have made and you try to be worthy of their inheritance. Well, if you've come through with that kind of openness you have probably earned the freedom that can liberate your art from the parameters which make it amenable to the anthology and the grant. Life must always be an unfinished thing, like those Michelangelo sculptures of slaves, but art gives a chance to the writer to capture in words both the misery and splendour we see about us and to show, through the suggestive power of language, how we might move to a more-intensely conceived and felt state without abandoning our ideals and beliefs.

 

If you are one of those people who has been succoured on nihilism and taught to distrust yourself, your feelings and your ideas, I don't see how that kind of sensibility can produce anything worthwhile. A poet writes on promised time. You must follow your own star, but don't expect others to; not in the short-term. They can't and they won't. If you do follow your own star your work then has a chance of serving time, not cliques, theories or regions. I guess this differs from Auden's view — he said a poet's hope was to be like "some valley cheese,/ local, but prized elsewhere", notwithstanding the fact that his personal valley included Iceland, Ischia, New York and Oxford!

By virtue of past greatness, many a city regards itself as central, celebrating achievements not equalled in a diminished present. The critiques originating from these sources are sometimes to be taken with a grain of salt because it is a fact that even some of the most intelligent and perceptive people can be mistaken about works of art. The history of culture provides innumerable examples of important works of art being given a drubbing by the critical establishment. Think of Les Troyens, Carmen or Les Fleurs du Mal, three essential works of French culture hardly greeted with open arms, something that seems hard to credit today. Yet it would be naive to think that this situation is ever going to change. There are always going to be those people who think they have their finger on the pulse of art — Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault. They are people you would always want to read, as long as you realise that they don't have anything to do with the art you are creating. Only recently I came across these two ex cathedra statements: on the front of a collected poems of Frost — "The truth is that Frost was the first American who could be honestly reckoned a master-poet by world standards" Robert Graves; on the inside sleeve of the Faber Crow — "English poetry has found a new hero and nobody will be able to read or write verse now without the black shape of Crow falling across the page." Peter Porter. Surely these are contentious opinions — I think they're both wrong — but the fact that they get put onto poetry covers means that some editor somewhere agrees with the sentiments expressed. You have to be particularly wary of critical exegesis and its surrounding paraphernalia in poetry. Often some theory is in need of sustenance. Then there are those who are out to prove that a certain school of writing is superior, or that a particular country's verse has inherent virtues. In time, you learn to deconstruct reviews and editorials of this kind, but if you took statements like these at face value, you'd abandon art on the spot.

In Australia we seem to come back to the Ern Malley affair with almost religious zeal as some kind of touchstone for the fault lines that exist between the conservative and the radical. James McAuley and Harold Stewart supposedly faked up the imaginary poet's entire oeuvre one afternoon and foisted it on Max Harris who published the poems enthusiastically in the Angry Penguins journal. In all honesty, many of the poems aren't up to much, but there are some that read truthfully. There is that essential line from 'Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495', "I am still/ The black swan of trespass on alien waters." I sometimes feel like that swan , but I don't suppose I've got that to myself. But poor Max Harris was absolutely crucified in an unedifying rush to judgment. This affair seems to have put in train some kind of model, so that every decade or so we get a verbal battle zone between two opposing points of view. A lot of energy is expended as metaphorical swords clash in the air, which would be fair enough except that the outcome of these deliberations can be a kind of glum provincialism where everything except one's personal artistic modus operandi is given the heave-ho. Sometimes the provincialism travels to some corner of a foreign field that is for ever stricken. It hasn't gotten through that genuine culture is produced through an embrace of difference. When a country produces a D'Anunnzio and a Montale, a Hopper and a Pollock, a Tolstoy and a Dostoevsky, it means the culture that produced them is big enough to sustain different aesthetic points of view. What some seem to want is a Ceausescu-like ideological space onto which they can project strange fantasies of dominance. That can never be because that is not the way art works. Do people remember the absolutely ruthless ideological bent that dominated classical music circles in the nineteen fifties and sixties or the existential malaise launched forth from the city of light, all now gone with the wind.

The new millennium demands that we get rid of the prejudices that have for so long kept artistic practice subsumed under the cloak of what is nothing short of outright fascism. I'm a writer who believes that poetry can do a lot more than warn, to use Wilfred Owen's word; neither do I think that all art is quite useless, as Wilde has it. I don't even think those two writers believed what they said. Writing can become a bad habit, as has often proven to be the case, but if you don't really believe in the power of the word, what business do you have to be involved with literature at all. There was nothing more pathetic in recent times than the spectacle of various theorists and litterateurs using language, in the face of Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, to disabuse us of the value and purpose of literature. Some poets got their fingers burned when they got tangled up with philosophy. Left confused by the competing demands of the poetic and the philosophical, they succumbed to a kind of mumbling, neither poetry nor philosophy, more "an after- dinner's sleep, / Dreaming on both." For a poet, trying to square the poetic with the demands of analytic philosophy seems to lead to an aesthetic dead-end.

I came to cinema and art later than I should have, but at least I did come to them. As a child I used to go to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but the paintings on the wall didn't mean much until later on. The Australian landscape painters — Drysdale, Nolan, Boyd and Williams — seemed to have reached a more realistic accommodation with the realities of Australian life than some of the writers. And then there was the discovery of Aboriginal art which revolutionised the way white Australians looked at the country. It is one of the ironies of our time that you often now see Aboriginal art work decorating the foyers and boardrooms of the colonisers. The skyscrapers are hung with disturbing reminders of a reality disguised by computer screen trading figures and office politics. Over the years I saw a tremendous amount of interesting art, even though you still had to get to the Louvre to confront Le radeau de la Meduse. One gallery owner in particular, Stanislas de Hautecloque of Stadia Graphics, used to show comprehensive displays of graphic art — Goya, Delacroix, Ensor, Kollwitz. Discovering the world of Fellini and Hitchcock, of Une Partie de Campagne, Wild Strawberries and 2001 was a liberation too. And once you have seen these films on the big screen, you realise that you forsake nearly all of their aesthetic power when you see them on television.

 

Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita

There's always a hitch in things
For those who think the sweet life
Can shimmer off the shadow of a doubt.

Hitch


Some people are snobbish about television, but who would willingly forgo the delights of The Simpsons or Walking With Dinosaurs. If television can bring about such recreations as FU in House of Cards it would be foolish to renounce the gold that can be found amongst the repeats and game shows. Surely a poetic sensibility is enhanced through contact with art of all kinds, especially the art of the newer technologies. It is a cliche that the world has gone global, but we now see on the screen at night CNN, BBC, Reuters, satellite transmissions from anywhere and everywhere. It is short-sighted to think that poetry can avoid the implications of this technological revolution.

A lot of people now look to science, in preference to art, as a way of maintaining an honorable enquiry that can get beyond the failures of history. I look at the revelations of the Hubble telescope and I'm excited by them too. All the same, I'm wary of scientists claiming solutions to immensities. On the Origin of Species has changed our view of ourselves, but then so has Shakespeare. Richard Rorty thinks it would be admirable for us "...to see Beethoven and Jefferson as animals with extra neurons." [TLS December 3 1999, 11] Scientific determinism has more in common with fundamentalist religious practice than it could ever bring itself to acknowledge. Snow pointed out the problems arising from viewing the world in a way that divided up experience into either artistic or scientific phenomena. I have always felt a sense of wonder that the scientific imagination is capable of formulating a second law of thermodynamics or of putting a human-made object beyond our solar system. These are things that provoke a sense of awe in any halfway-decent poetic spirit. And yet, we must be careful that we don't take technological advance as an end in itself. One of the chief impressions left by many of those marvellous wildlife documentaries we see these days is that humans and animals are basically very much alike; we are told there is only a tiny bit of genetic material that makes us different from the apes. But the last time I looked, apes had not built an Opera House, no otter had gotten together a marine Paradise Lost, no flock of flamingos had conferenced the African AIDS pandemic. A cheap shot, but it is important to make the distinction. We humans are special. The whole of the living planet is no less special, but we are unique, and if art cannot celebrate that uniqueness, then something essential has passed from our perception of ourselves. The beauty Blake celebrated in 'The Tiger' was a spiritual beauty, a beauty that went beyond mere brute force. We see the infinity in a grain of sand. Perhaps an animal can too, in its own way. But let's not settle for believing that we are only animal in our instincts, whatever Freud might have had to say on the matter. It was one of the greatest failures of nerve that Western culture had seen when some started to promulgate the idea that we were simply genetic ciphers, "hollow men" of bad faith destined to be superseded by cyborgs, and that language was mere automatism, a linguistic chimera. Poetry has always warned of the dangers of looking at the world through rationalist glasses. Poetry, in its rhythms and energies, puts out the songlines of our humanity. Aboriginal songlines mapped an entire continent along their unmarked fault lines. Poetry's songlines lead us to our solitude, our ecstasy and our joy, as well as to our sorrow and lamentation. Kenneth Yasuda has written, "the Western mind itself, in large part, has come to devalue poetry, and indeed to devalue its own poetry, as witness the small place it occupies in the world of art today. Such devaluation ... is related to the larger problem of the validity and reality of values, the solution to which has yet to be formulated in a way understood and accepted by Western culture at large. Where the role of poetry is ambiguous within one's own culture, it is difficult to see how that of a foreign one can be appreciated for its positive contributions." [Yasuda. The Japanese Haiku, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1991, 178] Yasuda is writing about the problems arising from Western misunderstandings of haiku, but the point is well made. If we don't value our own cultural inheritance, how can we maintain any sense of aesthetic proportion as volumes of artistic dross flood towards us.

With regard to my own poetry, it doesn't seem that my juvenilia is indebted to any particular literary source, however poorly written. Some of my early inspiration came from the New England landscape in the north of New South Wales which I got to know well while attending Armidale Teachers College. However, I enjoy the internationalism of city life, and my later work tends to reflect that interest. Tradition in poetry written in English has been maintained by an evolutionary process whose continuing development I hope I am contributing to. I don't like analysing my work — I prize a certain spontaneity in my writing which I hope will not get set in the kind of literary concrete that can come about through continual self-analysis. I want to change with time, to evolve new ways of writing that are natural to me, not come up with the same stuff again and again. And if I don't feel moved to write, I'd rather not write anything. I admire writers who realise they have said everything they have to say and who then shut up shop. A very rare breed!

If you tell some youth today that Mozart is going to outlive their Nick Cave and Madonna they look at you as if you came from Mars. Capitalist institutions have been very effective in substituting product in place of aesthetic value. The money rolls in and gives a few incredible wealth at the expense of the many. There is nothing wrong in itself with the Pokémon craze or a passion for heavy metal bands, but there is a very great deal wrong with cultural product that requires conformity to stereotypes and the requirement to spend up big to get emotional returns. Poetry has shown signs of behaving like some of these phenomena, looking to numbers of books sold, creating cults and reducing complexity to the standardisations we have come to expect from a certain kind of journalism. People must find their own way through the cultural saltbush, but it's no good if poets lose their nerve, then fold, spindle and mutilate along the various credit lines so conveniently laid out for them. Independence is essential, otherwise the poet is going to end up as another commodity given the usual fifteen-minute freak show outing for the bored to gawp at. I think it is especially important for poets to maintain a distance from the popular orthodoxies of their time; dipping your toes into a milieu at odds with your own can quickly lead to burn out. In Australia the most popular orthodoxy is the sporting one. Hardly a day goes by without some hagiography being perpetrated on some unsuspecting talented man or woman who then is expected to carry the unreal expectations of thousands around on their shoulders. At the same time, commercial interests close in with the refinement of a shark attack. What has this got to do with poetry? Putting aside the marvellous imagery sporting endeavours can give rise to — the grace of a Bradman stroke, the carcass of the once- glorified Phar Lap — it seems that these sporting activities which so often preoccupy the nation must be a substitute for a more profound encounter with the realities of Australian existence. Thus the money-fed world of contemporary sport stands in the same position to the poet as does the personality profile in the newspaper or blatant plugging of the latest rock star. Australians like their champions, but we rarely see the tail-end of the picture, and Australians have shown they can be unforgiving if the personality involved shows signs of having an interior life. The price these people sometimes seem to have to pay is a divestment of their individuality, something no poet would countenance. Australia has often given birth to awkward customers whose complexity and drive could never fit the advertiser's need for cliched heroes — Chisholm, Mawson, Chifley — and Australian artists have been no different to them.

Art is meant to dig down into this soil and put forth the images through which people may see their own lives refracted, their own emotions portrayed, even ennobled and transformed. Australian literature has toiled long in the vineyard of indifference and trivialisation — many of its best practitioners have done heroic battles with the bottle. The forbidding Australian outback seems to lie in wait with a vengefulness that only frantic acclaim around ovals, cricket pitches and swimming pools can assuage. Writers must confront every harsh mental and physical interior without short-circuiting their emotional capacity and explore the beauties and the furies they find within them. The literature brought back from those confrontations may be ignored, but it will be something genuine and true.

Men and boys in neck chains

Rope burn
Patterns skin
Dropped in sudden graves,
Like enigmas bearing
Every failed intent
Of brief government.

Black 1988

Most Australians now see the Anzac tradition as an essential part of their emotional landscape. The shocking waste of life, the political mismanagement which brought about the carnage, the innocence with which many of the troops departed for the great adventure overseas — all this has sunk into the Australian psyche and given us an oceanic poetic resource in which we can find some answers for the unyielding harshness outlined above. The fact that Gallipoli was a monumental defeat only reinforces the power of the Anzac imagery. What followed in its wake, the Second World War, the Vietnam war — these too reinforced the idea of our lonely sovereignty. Then it finally began to dawn on many Australians just what had happened to the Aboriginal people, how cruel had been their dispossession, how tremendous had been their ability to hold onto their culture through the racism, the rapes, murders and suicides. Historical perspectives coalesced to present an unnerving but truer self-knowledge.

 

Sport, war, Aboriginal history — three profound resources for the Australian writer to take hold of. And what of the immigrant history of Australia which goes back beyond the arrival of the First Fleet. How many despairing and joyful poetries are waiting there to be told. The poet can do some of it, not all. It has started to happen, and it is good to see the variety of voices now at work in contemporary Australian literature.

American poets worked hard to stake out a specific poetics for themselves right through the twentieth century. Books such as Ekbert Faas' Towards A New American Poetics set down the parameters poets like Olson, Snyder and Bly thought were necessary to claim new expressive territory. New ways of seeing, thinking and feeling; a radical liberation from aesthetic orthodoxy; freedom from the supposed ideological limitations imposed by Western grammars — these were some of the achievements claimed on behalf of modernism, its godchild, post-modernism and the self-styled avant-garde, both in America and elsewhere, achievements — if that's what they are — not yet validated. Did these poets produce the news that was going to stay news?

We have not wrung the neck of rhetoric, and we will never wring it. Rhetorical utterance is an essential part of the poetic experience. Disempowering poetry of its technical ability to heighten language is wrong-headed. Why should anyone want to read poetry that has no emotional depths to impart, no arresting way of expressing itself. No-one wants to lay down prescriptive agendas anymore, but surely poetry has to have engaged its language with social and political realities if it is going to have relevance. It is a matter of emotional tact and verbal subtlety as to how successfully the specific subject matter has been confronted. You must often fail in the effort, but to write only to propitiate the god of your own emotional ivory tower sends out the message sticks: avoid this writer like the plague. When you are engaged, as Siegfried Sassoon clearly was, by the hell of trench warfare, the poetry you bring back from that experience keeps its directness; it still feels close to the dangerous edge; its emotion are tangible. Sitwell was also capable of memorability — 'Still Falls The Rain.' You feel in that poem that Sassoon and Sitwell have crossed the distance of two world wars and are drawing sustenance from the same poetic source of anger and indignation.

At the end, you are left to draw on your own resources, whatever your esteem for the grandeur we have inherited. The art of the West has been a personal confrontation with history and aesthetics. In my poem 'Ache', I wrote, "A metaphysical option is delight/ Of yes or no in direst circumstance." For the poet, the delight comes in the exercise of craft. For me, the world does give metaphysical options; I cannot see life as just due process, and I hope I express that belief in my work. And yet I know that life for many people is simply a dire thing, nothing more than brute existence; slavery, abuses of the worst kind and poverty are daily realities for millions. Doesn't your writing have to be linked to that knowledge of how life is for the people who will never get around to reading a book of poetry. That is why I have never preoccupied myself with academic discourse about poetry. It is not that I don't respect the intellectual tradition which lies behind it; I simply cannot bring myself to believe that, for the artist, it matters. Thus, if there is sometimes a tendency to state rather than shape in my work, that might be put down to my dissatisfaction with the idea, popular with some poets and those who write about poetry, that poetic language can be experimented with indefinitely. As much as one might hanker after the improvisatory capabilities and suggestibility of jazz or quantum physics, the fact remains that a poet is meant to communicate with an audience. It is now very much an open question as to whether poetry should, as Stevens said, resist the intelligence almost successfully. Language can bear only so much pressure in its quest for originality; when art passes over into the realm of indecipherability or self-communing, then the whole point of pushing language to an expressive limit has been lost. The end result can be the triumph of style over content. Radicalism that thinks icon smashing the only way forward is conceptually naive, though a newly-felt and imagined perspective is always welcome. Similarly, attempts to justify bulk appropriations of text and imagery, an idée fixe with some contemporary film makers, painters and writers, often looks like creative weakness. However, the academic habit of attaching a brand name — conservative, radical, modern, postmodern — to a writer, and then hammering them unmercifully because their work slips, as it invariably must, beyond the brand name's confining boundaries, is overdue for burial.

The future of art is unknown. There is so much waiting behind us that we have not yet come to terms with; — how can we say we are ready for the future? And yet we must be ready for the future. We live in a period where the worth of a company such as Microsoft has greater value than the GDP of Cuba and in which some have argued that the Gehry Guggenheim gallery in Bilbao is a more interesting artistic achievement than the art it houses. This is, to use the words of the Chinese curse, living in interesting times with a vengeance. Artists must leave behind what is not useful or relevant and find in the poem, the composition, the painting their own way forward. It will be difficult — opposition and antagonism must be expected. A great deal of that opposition will come in the form of intellectual disenchantment and a scepticism rooted in a profound distrust of human possibilities and capabilities. For my own part, I want to move on. I'm waiting to be surprised by the imagination and the challenges it presents. Without that there's no progress. I mean, I look forward to that. I'm waiting for that now.


Earth over the Moon

Now walk the fragrant earth,
All of living registered
On your stretching frame.
The great attractor, crackling,
Will never seek to name
Your goodness or your mystery;
They are yours alone,
And all time sits on your skin
As you peruse the sky
While everything's embraced
By what we have survived.

Great Attractor