A Note on Modernism:
for The New Australian Poetry
[Part One was published in New Poetry vol 27 no 4, 1980, and Part Two in New Poetry magazine, vol 28 no 2, August 1980.]
Paragraph 1 follows. 1:
Martin Harrison died of a heart attack in 2014. He was born in 1949, and was a widely respected Anglo-Australian poet. Born and educated in England, Martin arrived in Australia in the late 70s after three years in New Zealand. He published poems and limited edition books in London and New Zealand before his first main collection, The Distribution of Voice (University of Queensland Press),appeared in Australia in 1993. In the 1980s Harrison worked as a literary journalist and reviewer as well as a producer for ABC Radio, where he was closely associated with sound art, new music and experimental radio work. His 1997 poetry collection, The Kangaroo Farm (Paperbark Press) was shortlisted for the Victorian Premiers Award, and his 2001 collection Summer (Paperbark Press) won the Wesley Michel Wright Award for poetry. A selected poems, Wild Bees (University of Western Australia Press) was shortlisted for both the South Australian Premiers Awards and the ACT Poetry Prize. Harrison wrote extensively about Australian poetry. Some of his essays are collected in the internationally acclaimed volume Who Wants to Create Australia? (Halstead Press). This book was a Times Literary Supplement book of the year selection for 2004. This piece was published in two parts in New Poetry magazine in 1980.
So far, in the first few months after its appearance from Makar, there have been a few relatively favourable and largely unpenetrating notices of John Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry. Perhaps this lack of penetration is the result of the media’s limited space, though perhaps it’s not. Is it, instead, a sign of weariness (or extreme wariness) in entering once again the conflict which was brought into Australian poetry with the emergence of the late 60s generation of poets whom Tranter has anthologised? Or is it an indication that the poetic achievement the anthology signals has been let pass, has been let become canonical — somehow too close and yet already too ““established” to be open to further understanding and discussion? I hope, myself, that the answer is negative to both of my suggestions, for the anthology has a number of very important bearings upon the future of Australian writing and particularly at the present when much of the seemingly inherent fervour and energy of that generation’s new writing appears, as mysteriously as the power of the dollar, to have abated. Indeed, it has always seemed to me that the adversary critics of the new poetry have, despite their dismissive methods, brought critical discussion closer to the point at issue. In this sense, Peter Kocan — writing in December’s “The Critic” as the only recent adversary commentator — recognises the anthology’s central issue and then, in pursuit of an ingenuous but irrelevant poetic of his own, completely fails to understand it. But unlike the more favourable critics who would simply include the book as yet another couple of hundred kilometres in the Australian poetic way, at least he sees that what’s at stake in The New Australian Poetry is an idea about the writing of poetry which is thoroughly different from most of what has preceded it. Then, as so many critics and readers have done in the past, he shows how incapable he is of discriminating amongst this new and presumably unwelcome reading.
For John Tranter’s intentions are quite clear, and should be clearly stated. By selecting the work of some of his generation’s poets, he has attempted to begin establishing an Australian version of modernism. I suppose one could say that, historically, The New Australian Poetry is an attempt to reverse the barbarous work of Stewart and McAuley in the late 40s — though they as mere writers may, to be fair, have been the least responsible for the intellectual strait-jacketing which followed the war in most Western countries. Tranter has, in other words, produced a book which questions polemically a certain kind of imperviousness in Australian poetry to innovation overseas and which quarrels deeply with the increasingly out-dated British academic and poetic tradition invoked in defence of that insularity. His criterion for choosing amongst the poetry of his contemporaries is a precise one: he looked, he writes in his introduction, for poets who had “that commitment to the overhauling of poetic method and function that seems to become necessary from time to time in any culture.” His bête noir in reading is “that Common Room Humanism… as apt to sermonise as any minority belief” whose ancestry he satirizes as “by Matthew Arnold, out of Doctor Leavis, via Victorian England”. Both these quotes, too, should alert us to another clear intention in the anthology: to produce a collection of poetry which exemplifies his notion of modernist “overhauling” and only as an equal but not totally determinant aim to produce an anthology which contains the best of his generation. This ideological aim makes this book of 24 poets a much more avowedly documentary anthology than most. What’s more, it’s even a retrospective anthology in which most of the poems come from the early 70s, for Tranter himself (and I agree with him) sees this period of overhauling “that began around 1968… now drawing to a close”. The New Australian Poetry is not, given these two intentions, a particularly easy book to read at first sight or bring into perspective.
So: modernism, here, in Australia. And a modernism identified specifically with what will in time come to be seen as the relatively early works of an impressively large generation of poets — the generation of Tranter himself, of Martin Johnston, Robert Adamson, Vicki Viidikas, Michael Dransfield, John Forbes, Kris Hemensley and (by this generation’s identification) many poems of Bruce Beaver. I’m not concerned to argue whether, or not, other names should have been included beyond Tranter’s 24, though they might have been: Tranter looked for a grouping of poets who had in practice worked together. Also I wonder (and doubt) whether Tranter would disagree with me that there have been other partial modernist initiatives in Australian poetry before the mid-60s. I think that basically he is right in broad terms in seeing modernism as the particular discovery and contribution of the generation he collects. And yet: modernism… it’s a term which already, like the Romanticism it has replaced, seems these days to be in need of fresh definition every time it’s used.
To me it’s a pity that Tranter felt himself — perhaps pressured by likely reactions of dismay — obliged to discuss modernism in his introduction in broadly theoretic rather than locally applicable terms. Yet I think that the main features of his description have some precise emphases. He is interested mainly in a poetry which reflects a modern lack of philosophical certainties and is relatively free of ethical or religious notions. He has looked for a poetry which stresses process, movement and impression over conclusiveness and resolved statements: he has looked in other words for poems which display their own tentativeness in linguistic performance and insight. He has, accordingly and almost inevitably, been more concerned with poems which turn inward, and reveal psychological events as the central constituents of perception rather than poems which address external events as prompts for the individual poet’s commentary. “This,” he writes, “is one of the tenets of modernism: that the mental landscape can be displayed as being more variable, complex and humanly meaningful that the external, because it includes the ‘real world’ as one of its many attributes.” And in relation to these ideas he has gathered together poetry which locates the central notion of the value of literature in the complex ways a reader re-creates the poem’s experience rather than a poetry which deliberately uses literary means to persuade a reader of the rightness of the poet’s allegiance to a given set of values. Tranter is interested, in other words, in a functional notion of value rather than a mimetic one. Finally, this functional notion of value has turned Tranter’s (and most of the anthologised poets’) attention sharply on to executive properties of a poem, on to its language, its style and its power of re-organising and representing experience though structure. “In all these poems,” Tranter writes, “words — the fragments of language the poet places in the special framework of a poem — have a reality more solid and intense than the world of objects and sense-perception… (These poets) have instead devoted their energies to that field of human action where their skills and talents arm them with a unique authority, where meaning embodies itself as speech, and words emerge… as that voyage of discovery, literature.” He has looked, in fact, quite narrowly for poems which capture that trait of much of the most adventurous of modern writing — its linguisticism, its conscious homing in on language as a medium or assemblage of codes.
Despite its abstract formulation, Tranter’s definition indisputably speaks of core elements in any understanding of modernism. Whatever else there is to be said, Tranter’s definition does indeed tell us some thing vital about development between Tennyson’s poems of the 1830s and Wordsworth’s of 1800, between Rimbaud’s and Musset’s, between the imagists and Browning: and, certainly, he expresses main preoccupations of many more recent poets in Europe, South America and the U.S.A. — clearly, the best of these poets. Yet, to me, Tranter’s definition also brings us to the heart of a problem: that his is a formalistic definition, that it delineates “conditions for” rather than “content after”. It can only adequately be understood as a reactive definition, as a definition in opposition to another idea of writing.
What do I feel is wrong with that? Nothing, in the sense that Tranter may well judge accurately the kind of critical and poetic work still to be done in Australia and may well be right in pitching his sights against a continuance, like a steady undertow, of a self-styled “traditionalist” neo-Georgianism which has persisted undaunted (even pre-eminent in Britain) as a tradition of a minor poetry. Of course, such an opposing definition is itself a formalistic one to which — as a stereotype, a baggage of moral and religious postulates have been ascribed and which may, again, leave unnoticed the actual achievements of such poets. The certainty of persona-voice, the clarity of ostensive reference, the suppression of metaphor and image-reference in the central thought, the resolution of that thought in conclusiveness all bring a poem such as James McAuley’s “Released on Parole” within that neo-Georgian spectrum.
I see wind, cloud and light
Weave pictures in the sky.
Blest by so clear a sight,
I never want to look
At shadows in a book.
Light snow there on bare rock:
A hawk balanced in air:
And over his cirrus flock
The sun’s silver stare
Saying, Look what I give:
Won’t you consent to live?
Well, I consent: I’ll try.
I’ve done twenty years hard —
A life term, God knows why,
With exercise in the yard.
And alas, to have done time
Becomes itself a crime.
In enforcing such a contrast, I don’t mean to score off points: McAuley’s poem has many, perhaps too obvious, competencies. Indeed, had I chosen a later poem of his such as “Nocturne” (recently republished in Poems from The Age) then I might have found the contrast more difficult to present. For such formalistic oppositions between modernist and traditionalist take us only a certain way. They leave untouched what must to my mind be the key difference between these poetries — between their semantic bearings, their differences in intentionality, between (if I can skirt the matter of “value” for a moment) their meanings.
Such grounds for discrimination are, naturally, founded on some agreed formalistic notion of modernism — but Tranter’s definition would not give me cause, were I obliged to be judgmental, to say that McAuley’s poem is minor. I believe that it is. And I would want to contrast that judgement — thinking personally, for instance, of recent reading of George Oppen’s later poems, or O’Hara’s “In Memory of my Feelings”, or Cesar Vallejo’s past-1918 poems — with the fact that nearly all major poetry I can think of this century has been modernist. Making such a judgement would bring me back to the semantic re-ordering of poetry which is part of modernism — in short, to questions of meaning and ways of meaning. The linguisticism of modernist poetry (so rebarbative a feature to traditionalist critics) can’t be overlooked.
What do I feel then might be limited in Tranter’s definition of modernism? It’s a narrow and effectively polemical definition which itself tends to make one overlook the great diversity of modernisms represented in his collection and even to obscure the criterion. I find at least five quite distinct, sometimes opposing, modernisms represented — abstraction, expressionism, pop realism, surrealism, open form — and one or two poems (e.g. Michael Dransfield’s “That Which We Call a Rose”) which are only dubiously modernist. One of the more recondite fascinations of the book is to see, now that Tranter has given us the context, how the more significant poets of his generation master this diversity in their own work. What’s more, there’s the fact that modernism as the late 60s generation experienced it was almost wholly channeled through the discovery of post-war American writing — and so, upon the rediscovery of what American poets had themselves selected from earlier poetry both in the U.S.A. and Europe. I’m not disputing the cultural relevance of the American connection — it was felt in every English-speaking country, but perhaps most appropriately here. But The New Australian Poetry gives little cognizance (as the poets themselves did not) to those less predominant strands of modernism which are, for example, realist, mythological, folkloric, primitivist or consciously neo-traditional. The painterly, urban, psychological concerns of a significant, but not total, number of post-war American poets has captured a still somewhat frontier-bound and deliberately technology-dependent attention. It needn’t necessarily be an adverse criticism that this is so. But it is a fact inherent in the materials collectable that Tranter’s anthology keeps its distance from other major modernists such as Lorca, Felipe, Ritsos, Seferis, much of Neruda and much of what might be found in early Japanese, Chinese or Tamil poetry — and so on. Not to mention what might have been visible more locally still. How different Australian poets have been from Australian composers, who have never had quite the same battle against anti-internationalism which for contemporary writers has been fought round only modernism. By cultural and economic accident, the Australian focus on literary modernism has been narrowed down, despite the flood of translations which co-existed with the discovery of post-war American poetry by themselves and by us.
The late 60s feeling was that, starkly mirrored in the period’s political and moral bankruptcy, poets and readers had been denied proper access to modern poetry for too long and for too trivially litterateur reasons. Is the modernism of The New Australian Poetry, then, a narrow focus which zooms in on the “new” with a certain extremism? Perhaps so. But if so, it’s an extremism taken up for the simple reason that an excellent poetry could be written in Australia. There was (in more than one sense) a good deal of justice in thinking that the conditions for a larger, a more major poetry had to be constructed: and that for this, the context and the ground of Australian poetry needed shifting. Myself, I’m not particularly concerned that one surface and extremely apparent feature of this shifting was, literally, back from country-station to Sydney terrace, from a mainly rural poetry to an urban one. Tranter’s own definition of modernism gives the proto-physical factors which allowed for that change. For what was more important was the creation of a kind of “forcefield” of aesthetic preoccupations within which a certain sort of innovative poetry would cohere. Of these, the most important in my own view is the emphasis on process, on envisaging a poem’s structure as a not necessarily completed structure of perceptions through which the reader is taken — for by denying conclusiveness, released the poets from the imperative need to make obeisance to their cultural predicament (i.e. Australian “reality” shading off into artistic “realism”) before they began writing any poem. As is true of all modernist poetry, cultural predicament lies in, is part of, the unfolding of the poem’s form — surely, the only reason why poets can and do change the formal dimensions of their art. This is essential, if poetry is to stay alive and is not to be rendered incapable of dealing with the “whole” situation, if it is not to be reduced to each man’s individual humanism. As sustained a glance as you can bear at any recent British anthology shows what such a failure to change means in terms of loss of real vision and ultimately of real facts about the world around. So it is not surprising that adversary critics should repeatedly insist that modern Australian poets perpetrate exactly that failure and should constantly equate a poetry of process with their reductive claim that such writing is nothing more than poetry about writing poetry. In opposition to that view, the claim which Tranter makes that the real world should be seen as an attribute of the perception and language in which it is revealed is not only philosophical good sense but relatively conservative good sense. And perhaps the deeper point in John Forbes’ “Four Heads & How to do Them” is that there is no period in which conceptions of the ‘real’ have not been self-consciously mirrored as a central pre-occupation in conceptions of art. In fact, it is hard to think of any major poem which achieves its “statements” and does not consciously oblige the reader to understand the further meanings of its form and technique. Again, it is minor art which tells us that the “real” is self-evident and that its values need only to be educed. What comes out clearly all the way through The New Australian Poetry is the writers’ commitment — to that re-discovery of the real in and through their writing. For no doubt time and culture, too, will catch up on all of us.
Perhaps the late 60s poets were unnecessarily fastidious (or wanted to think themselves so) in clearing out restrictions. Tranter singles out another poem by John Forbes, his “T.V.”, and has this to say about it “Whatever else John Forbes may have intended his poem to do, it is at least certain that he is not concerned with persuading the reader to accept his view of human destiny: ethics, morality, religion and mythology are distinctly absent from the writer’s concerns.” (This poem is quoted in Tranter’s article on pages 14 & 15 of this issue [of New Poetry].)
And yes, this is not a poem which immediately offers conclusiveness of a moral or ethical kind. But a reader who wished to argue the point could say that it does so in other ways. This reader’s reading — devitalising though it would be of the poem’s language-play which resists immediate de-coding — would perhaps go like this This poem asks us to experience again the semi-dream state in which we watch T.V. and tells us something about the implicitly sterile messages of T.V. culture, which are identified in the poem by the voyeuristic nature of 1.) western anthropology and 2.) T.V. anthropology documentaries made by figures like “the unlucky Doctor Mathews”. The poem tells us (the undaunted reader would go on) that the only substantial thing in our apparently effortless perceptions of other cultures such as the native hunter’s is our technology, our weather-resistant cameras — but the poet adds a further irony to his piece by adopting throughout the voice of an authoritarian telecaster, in order to emphasise this rather negative conclusion. And so on.
To be sure, this reader’s efforts are unattractive whether over this or any other poem, though Forbes’ poem in particular is written for a different and more sensitive kind of reading. Yet neither is the reader’s interpretive procedure entirely illegitimate: and certainly it brings out the fact that “T.V.” is by no means as insulated from a certain order of ethical and moral pre-occupations are, in a sense, the writer’s. What then of Tranter’s claim that “(Forbes’ is not concerned with persuading the reader to accept his view of human destiny?” I think that the matter is similar to Tranter’s viewpoint but not the same. Surely, the point is that a poet setting out to write a poem with all these opinionated, semi-moral pre-occupations firmly established in his mind (or with an intention of arriving at them) would have written a very different poem from “T.V.” and, arguably, a much inferior poem. I believe, in other words, that Tranter is talking about a compositional method rather than what, in reading, has actually come about. Again, I think he is talking of ‘‘conditions for” rather than “content after”. For what we find in “T.V.” and what our conclusion-hunting reader overlooked is a poetry in which language and images have been allowed to develop themselves tentatively and openly in relation to the poet’s ideas. And what has been allowed for, by the poet’s not pre-supposing a set of opinionated, semi-moral pre-occupations, is a foregrounding of the poem’s structure, a humour, and the possibility of range. “T.V.” works both specifically and non-specifically: it allows further dimensions, and it persuades by choice. Significantly, had the poet set out with those firm moral intentions in mind, he would have written a poem in manner similar to McAuley’s “Released on Parole”.
Would I then, if obliged to say, assert that “T.V.” is a major poem? Something in the brittle artifice of the poem’s Homeric simile, some sense of the poem not reaching deeply enough, makes me think I’d hesitate — with the qualification that there is clearly the possibility of a much larger, much more free and deep poetry here, unlike McAuley’s. What matters here, in short, in this as in many other poems in The New Australian Poetry is the language-centred nature of the writing and the way this new centre changes how poems are “about” things or have themes to do with the real world. For, at the very least, there is surely something extremely precarious in the more traditionalist poets confidently re-iterating their knowledge of the “good” and the “true” like so many latterday Dr. Johnsons refuting Berkeley (who has now grown to the proportions of Einsteinian physics, Heisenberg particle theory, Helmsjevian linguistics, Freudian interpretive procedures, and modern quantitative logical systems) with a deft kick at the nearest gum-tree. The object is indeed there — and perhaps beautifully so and of great concern to poets — but it may, in a structural sense, be of no great matter to the way a modern poem will have to be written “about” it. It is this quality of containing both specific and unspecific meanings and of letting the poem differentiate its moral pre-occupations or not — that strikes me as one of the most important things that many of the poems in Tranter’s anthology offer to.us. An attention to the writing of poetry as a process, an interest in the inner workings of perceptions and an assumption that language is the dimensional force which makes for a requisitely many-sided coherence are entirely proper to such an enterprise. Inevitably, there are many contemporary poets (and there are several in the anthology) who simplify this requirement for a modern poetry into a mere rejection of the probable truth that it is an oppression to let reality be ruled by other people’s home-made dicta. But I am more concerned with the way that the best of the book’s poems do work, and with the implications of their tentativeness and their language-centredness. I find two broad emphases throughout many of the book’s poems. Firstly, I find the possibility of a poetry open and diverse enough in elemental structure (and sufficiently city-centred) to resist the temptation to pin poetry to Australia’s cultural heart, thereby delicately killing it. When the poetry is good, the culture is allowed to invade it, to be gathered by it and be defined by it — rather than the poets asserting that the centre is a desert or a bricolage or a repressive version of the Australian tradition or Max Harris’s plea (may god and Melbourne’s Greeks forbid it!) for a return to dialect. I will be the first to admit that all is not well on this score in The New Australian Poetry, for the fascination with the U.S.A. has been too unchallenging. But at least other areas of cultural censorship have been crossed and left behind. Secondly, I find a poetry whose repeated movement, in terms of specifics and non-specifics, is one of going outwards, of discovery and (at moments) of transcendence. I choose that last word carefully, for the irony and stylishness and verbal complexity of many of the poems disguise the real nature of their tentativeness: as does our own proximity to the period in which they were written. To quote his work again, John Forbes can carry his transcendence more lightly in “Ode to Tropical Skiing” than I can climbing up the other (critical) side of the snow-peak.
I take a bath
& it’s a total fucking gas
Enjoy that ice cream, Gerald,
the sun sparkling on its white frostiness
is the closest you’ll ever get to St Moritz,
racing up the tiny snow fields on the side of a pill
as beside you the young girl’s
mirrored goggles reflect all Switzerland
like a chocolate box at the speed of sound
& like the ashtray he/ she you & it
are a total fucking gas
the milk bars
daylight saving annuls our tuxedo
& happy to breathe again
like a revived dance craze
we gulp fresh air, our speeches to the telephone
so beautiful —
who loves at close range
like they do thru a tube?
& when the sun polishes the wires gold then invisible
a million cheer-up telegrams
collapse in the snow
while Mandy & I have a glass of Coca-Cola
as we fly past the moon &
after the piano goes to sleep in our arms
we wake up
& it’s a total fucking gas
Was that a baby
or a shirt factory?
no one can tell in this weather, for tho
the tropics are slowly drifting apart & a
vicious sludge blurs
the green banks of the river, a chalet
drifts thru the novella where I compare thee
to a surfboard lost in Peru,
flotsam like a crate of strong liquor
that addles our skis
& when they bump
it’s a total fucking gas
Yet I am sure that there are many readers, and many poets, to whom that poem will fall below serious consideration. It is to that issue and to what I have called the language-centredness of The New Australian Poetry that I want to turn in a later article. And at the same time I hope to discuss in more detail what I see as the real achievements and equally real problems of the collection’s major poems, in order to understand what their likely future home might be in Australia. For it is (to give Tranter, the poet this time, the last words) “here, you can become a little more/ becoming.”
Martin Harrison: A Note on Language: For The New Australian Poetry (first published in New Poetry magazine, vol 28 no 2, August 1980.)
For as long as Modernism was not understood to be a complex of problems, it was visible only if it wore a name-tag.
— Humphrey McQueen (on Margaret Preston’s flower-paintings)
He used to think of the world of language (the logosphere) as a vast and perpetual conflict of paranoias… then he realised that the… pressure of capitalist language is not paranoid, systematic, argumentative, articulated: it is an implacable stickiness, a doxa, a kind of unconscious: in short, the essence of ideology.
— Roland Barthes, ‘The Pleasure of the Text’.
Poetry is words, well-fashioned words. Why assert this? I said that in this second note on John Tranter’s anthology The New Australian Poetry the language-centred nature of much of the book’s poetry, the self-conscious way in which the poets address themselves to their primary material of words, would be a central issue. I have found, reading through notices on the book in recent months, critical reactions to this aspect of the new poetry both puzzling and predictable. Critics have pointed to the poets’ linguistic self-consciousness and then merely complained about it or scorned it. Agreed, I can see myself that some of the lesser poets of the anthology have had too ready recourse to stating that self-consciousness as an end in itself. But I can also see that other poets have ably demonstrated their concern for language as the primary vehicle of delight in poetry, and I think that something of their delight might have been allowed to alleviate our critics’ emotional jaundice. Some of the book’s poems are actually funny and clever. Some of the poets have realised that poets throughout the ages have talked about their means and techniques as a way of introducing themselves and their verse. A good many have understood that poetry is, before it is anything else, a linguistic art and that if the words don’t excite us then nothing else in a poem will have a chance of doing so. How willful of them! how (allow me to imitate a critical sneer) entertaining of them!… and how, well, traditional of them to be so concerned with the fundamental aspect of their art. I mean, you could be forgiven for thinking that our new poets aren’t concerned with all those crucial critical ‘something else’s’ — the world around us, truth-to-life, a viewpoint, something to get hold of, and interpret and forget.
I should, I think, briefly repeat what I said in my earlier note: that it isn’t that I regard these critical ‘something else’s’ as trivial or irrelevant, but that a naive demand that an already interpreted set of cultural themes should be the crux of poetry is a very repressive state of affairs in which to write good verse. I suspect, partly from my own practice as a poet, that certain conscious newness of language and structure in poetry is precisely what gives a new poem a chance of later becoming recognised as an ‘objective’ presentation of the real. It is as if a new poem is not unlike the strange experience of growing familiar with an abstract or semi-abstract painting. At first the painting seems merely to offer the possibility of coherent form, whilst lacking expressiveness and being readily reducible to its play of colour and shape. What happens in good painting is that it gradually starts to associate itself with, starts to frame, an increasingly deep series of perceptions of the ‘real’. It takes on a further graphic meaning. How much more concern with literal meanings of visual experience hard-edged abstract painting seems now to have than twenty years ago…
To go back to the newly-written poem, the case is similar. Without that technical adventurousness in language, what objectivity can it freshly compose? Without that apparent undermining of our expectations as to the shape and form of meaning, what discovery would the poem bring? There would be no discovery, for there would be no way that new facts could be ‘brought back’ into the verse as an integral part of its technical performance. Without such adventurousness, the newly-written poem is just a rehearsal of where we as readers already are. Without such extremism of technical performance, there is the crippling danger that fact and fiction will glide too easily together in verse, that the experience will be stale, will be recuperated into an overpowering literariness or into propaganda. It worries me that the achievements of the generation of poets Tranter anthologises may simply sink under a tide of critical misunderstanding. Do we have to go back to that devastating misapprehension that the poetry they strove to get away from — a recuperated writing which fails to search for a new technical discovery of objectivity — is the same as realism, sincerity, political commitment or traditional skill? That seems to be precisely what we are getting, insofar as we are getting anything at all, from poets more recent than Tranter’s generation. This foreboding prospect makes me think that though my purposes here are to write about a poetry which was often stridently anti-realist, there is a parallel need to ask what it is that would constitute a realist poetry these days — by which I mean, naturally, a truly modern realism. What is technical extremism in the 1980s? Who are our contemporary poets?
Having said which, here is a poem, one not to be found in John Tranter’s anthology:
The crab sidled out
From its hiding place
Beneath my shoulder-blade
Fending with one enlarged claw
It scuttled sideways
And settled in an outcropping elbow
It left tiptoe tracks
In the hard sands of the ulna
Pain broke on the white beach
The crab has reached my hand
In the dreck at the high-tide line
Look what I have found.
It is, of course, a late poem by David Campbell. It may at first sight offer a number of (relatively small) obscurities in reading, particularly to do with the way the poem establishes its meaning and with what I would term the ‘focus’ of certain images and phrases. I would guess that most readers overcome these problems fairly rapidly, and find it as I do a very satisfying poem. What interests me is the way that we overcome these problems and the assumptions that we make about the poem’s form. Firstly, we recognise that the stanzas indicate how a series of moments, of clustered perceptions, are built up one after the other. I must stress that it’s stanzaic form which gives us this sense. There is a patterning of discreet moments, of narrative incidents. We cannot make them into a single image which will overlay any single narrative scene, but we can recognise a coherent patterning. Secondly, we are made aware by the sparseness of the poem of the care with which the poet has chosen a certain area of language, a certain consistency of reference. It is this sense of care that makes us wary of trespassing beyond the choices which the poet has made in terms of his specific references. That care encourages us not to import irrelevant associations, trivial or overly rapid interpretations, into our attempt at understanding the verse. We are prepared to limit ourselves to the way the poet fuses together into a more complex linguistic figure his references to the crab, the sea, the beach and his body. The fact that we are aware of the choice he has made about words — and by extension, about his dominant mode of visual perception — is what matters here. Thirdly, we may not at first be able to decode the underlying figure on which the poem is structured and we may have to suspend our expectations of what the poem means until we are thoroughly familiar with its formal properties, yet we are aware at all points of the structure of interrelation between the poem’s parts. We are aware that the poem has, in a deeper sense than parsing, a ‘grammar’ or a syntax of operations. We may not, so to speak, know the code but we do understand the direction in which a message is passing through it. It is because we understand the poem’s semantic ‘grammar’ — further than this, because we understand a good deal about the moves which the poet has and has not made in a field of possibilities wider than this single poem — that we realise that the poet intends a meaning to us. The poem’s intentionality, indeed, resides in this play of formal linguistic properties. So: in a necessarily abstract way, it seems that the three central features on which we understand the poem — its patterning, its choice of words, its intentionality — all relate to the poet’s highly self-conscious manoeuvres of language’s structural options. It is because the poem successfully establishes certain differences between the way its language works and the way other sorts of language (ordinary conversation, bureaucratic jargon etc. etc.) work, that it comes to have poetic meaning. The literally unrealisable fusion of images of crab, sea, beach and human anatomy becomes a satisfying complex at a purely formal level and, accordingly, can later develop their objective and even their personal meaning for us. The poem has, so to speak, acquired its own vantage-point, its own angle of vision; it has something of that technical extremism I intuitively require from a poem. Think of the opening lines (‘The crab sidled out / From its hiding place / Beneath my shoulder-blade’) establish both continuities and discontinuities between the words’ literal and non-literal meaning, upsetting our ordinary sense of spatial co-ordinates: where is the crab? where has it come from? what is it? Even one of the most deeply inadvertent meanings of the poem (by which I don’t mean that the poet either meant or didn’t mean it) comes from our understanding of a metonymy used as a pun ( e.g. Crab / Cancer, i.e. from a play of language. It is for these reasons solely that the language of the poem retains the power to name in a factual sense and the power to evoke feeling in an expressive sense — for these reasons alone, I repeat. As in all good poetry, ‘Crab’ suspends its way of meaning, at least in relation to the means which most uses of the English language operate. It creates in a technical sense a language-problem (the fusion of its disparate references) and then proceeds via the reader to solve that problem. It problematises a specific and discontinuous language. To do this, Campbell has directly and indirectly made use of some of language’s formal properties which late 19th Century French poets (shockingly incomprehensible experimentalists dans leur jours! ) structured for us.
And what of nos jours, our conservative anti-poetic 1980? It seems, I guess, that Rimbaud is still our best contemporary. I choose a poem of David Campbell’s because it reveals from what diverse sources comes the information about poetry which we need if we intend to read The New Australian Poetry, or any poetry. On the whole, I dislike the prevalent habit of making a critical article into a personal Last Day of Judgment, measuring up our poets of critical election or perdition. How provincial, how crabbed and ungenerous it makes our reading. It’s true, as I’ve said, that a major difficulty in reading The New Australian Poetry is that it includes too many poets who understood only the signal truth that the language of poetry is discontinuous from other types of language and that poetry is a consciously-directed artefact. Worse, it appears that for these lesser writers this discovery was all that was needed for a major breakthrough to be declared. Sure, poetry proceeds through technical problems, through the creation of underlying figures in language — but how often are these understood in relation to the larger demands of language or to the demands of tradition? How different, in this respect, are these poets from their predecessors? A naive demand for already literary meaning and form is, after all, not countered by an equally naive rejection of them in favour of endless playing with words. How well did the poets of the late 60s understand and practice the requirements of genre and the reshaping of genre? There is a certain sameness which springs less from the fact that the poets seem to have rejected the romanticism of the ‘poet’s individual voice’ than from the fact that not enough kinds of poetry were written, not enough manners tried out or enough voices subsumed into their discourse. Yet there is also work which has this variety and range. I limit myself to speaking solely of what is offered in the anthology and will, like a Sunday paper, name names Bruce Beaver, Rae Desmond Jones, Vicki Viidikas, Robert Adamson, John Tranter, Robert Kenny, John Forbes, Laurie Duggan, Martin Johnston. And other names should not be added? I suspect that they could be. Certainly, there are many other individual poems worthy of reading: Garrie Hutchinson’s series ‘Learning to Live Together’ has had a sufficiently rough time from critics. Doesn’t his skill at his sonnet-like form reveal something of value? Does it not relate rather adequately to the kinds of consonance, the kinds of harmonisation, which we find in the Renaissance sonnet? Does that give us no valuable knowledge? Isn’t his ‘unbreeched’ a genuinely clever poem? Isn’t ‘xeres’ a genuinely moving one? Yet before I lose my negative critical mood, I’ll mention another facet of writing which is often missing from the poems, and which reveals an insufficient skill at writing that suspended, problematising language of verse. I refer to the way in which too often the late 60s poets wrote excessively for a polemic aim, a polemic aim whose literary terms are already becoming unmemorable. John Forbes’s ‘After the Bombs We Invent the Future’, dedicated to Richard Nixon successfully de-constructs the poetic import of verse’s figures and forms because it is pitched into the political arena. He is aware of the nature of his genre, political satire. Other poems, Kris Hemensley’s and Jennifer Maiden’s, strike me as much less successful at a not dissimilar (yet certainly less political) de-structuring. At times, the poets seem not aware of the public implications of their activity. They seem concerned with non-poetry. The rather desperate irony of John Forbes’ poem might suggest that the historical period itself made it hard to feel convinced of public implications.
Poetry goes bad, I’m saying, when poets lose that rather splendidly unconcerned ability to suspend the way their language resolves itself into immediate meaning, into naive literalness, so that a new meaning comes into being. It requires a sure control of patterning, choice and intention: these are the instruments, these are the repertoire of verbal dance-movements. Yet the means that are available, like all techniques, are a carrying over from wider structures, social structures and cultural structures. Any use of language must immediately imply a carrying over, a bringing back, of wider actions and meanings. In this sense, poetry is not a reflection of society. I believe Humphrey McQueen is right when he says of the claim that it is a reflection of society: ‘the use of ‘reflects’ indicates a passive relationship in which art is received and not made’. It overlooks what poets and poems do, and how. It’s for this reason that I wrote in my earlier Note on Modernism that I was unhappy with leaving the distinction between the poetry of The New Australian Poetry and previous poetry at the level of old and new, ethical and non-ethical, modernist and anti-modernist. What a poem problematises formally, i.e. the way it works, is how it engages with the world around. Technique is more heavily loaded with philosophical and ethical meaning than any import of statement. I would say as an example that a modern poem which in its formal construction failed to implicate the ways in which we take information from, say, film had better give us bloody good reasons for ignoring that cultural fact. Obviously, whether it mentions film is of no importance at all. Likewise, with other contemporary developments in our perceptual capacities. Likewise, too, with those more amorphous structures of perception, our national economies, our climates of opinion, our theories of class structure, our fashion-systems, our mechanisms for maintaining psychological stability. All, I would say, bear first and foremost on technique, the performative level of poems. They are the materials from which figures, structures, ‘grammars’ of poetry are made. There’s nothing to make anyone blush in all this: it’s not shockingly ideological, despite my reference to McQueen. Even old-fashioned aristocrats like Sir Philip Sydney and a number of the world’s more major poets would agree with me. We might then not cease to wonder what the placidity and conservatism of ‘recognised’ Australian literary culture has led us to — again, in terms of the formalisation of language. We might find renewed strength for investigating our poetic culture and for turning to what I see as the central difference between poetries: in their meanings, in the values which are integrated into ways of meaning. What are the problems that are grasped by the late 60s poets? Where they themselves fail, it is because they at times write poems which do not grasp these problems. Where they succeed, their poems have that power to name and that power to express feeling.
Here is a lovely poem of Jennifer Maiden’s, called ‘Climbing’:
The substantial night.
The rope twists all breath
From the mountain
As simple as a bed
Far above life in heavy wind you might
Fall beyond the common cliff of death
With all my side and ear adhered to stone
There seems a place like hell to draw the dead
Down so soft a body wouldn’t wither
But hear the desperate lute lament ahead
To lull the dog across a bloodless river
Gibberish, of course, incomprehensible nonsense — until we read the poem for its clearly indicated musical shape, for its play of vowel sounds, for its occasionally compressed syntax. We read, that is, for the way the poem gives us the contours of an emotion without stating what the literal import of that emotion is. The poem fashions a language which cannot be re-written into explicated symbols but which works upon us till we accept its own complex fusion of mountain, bed, climbing and falling: the image of mountain-climbing is re-ordered through the possibilities of poetic convention discontinuous with ordinary language. Feeling is not evoked with a literalness, immediately ready for consumption. It is as though my car isn’t sitting on the front driveway as an overcharged sign of my not inconsiderable wealth. Or: my love isn’t expressed in my wedding to a famous actress. My self isn’t identical with what is known of me socially, my public personality. My death isn’t co-terminous with my funeral. There is, in other words, a problem stated about the ways in which vital experience is expressed and recognised and is in certain vocabularies devalued. I’ll leave aside further examples which themselves tend to subvert the way Jennifer Maiden’s poem expresses a tentativeness which hardens only in the structure of the poem and which then in that form, asks us to acquire more literal meanings for the verse. I hope that I don’t have to spell out the kind of problem which the poem’s formal means elaborate and conclude myself, I feel it to be a poem fully alert to the facts of feeling, to the nature of reification, to the failure of social ritual. How different a poem is it from Campbell’s? Not much, save its degree of complexity and technical skill. And save, too, in the place that the poet puts her and our confidence: in the situation which she informs us we inhabit. She is closer to us than Campbell, more ‘this side’ of the barrier of communication, and she tells us we live in a more extreme and pressurised situation than Campbell believes. (Not to say there’s no extreme situation in Campbell’s poem, but it is presented as ‘his’ rather than ‘ours’ — the readers — ). Clearly, I’m not suggesting that such a reading is an exhaustive one, since it is only the beginning of a reading. And I’m not saying, either, that this is what the poem is about I want to show solely how efficient and fresh the poem is in conveying meaning to us. And what strength of meaning. As I read the poem (and not my extraneous ‘Ah, she’s so right!’ thoughts about death) I discover a further, less immediate literalness. In this regard, her poem typifies a manoeuvre, a restructuring of one of a poem’s formal figures, to be found in much of the best verse of The New Australian Poetry.
The second re-structuring, the second problem carried over into poetry’s formal means in The New Australian Poetry, is more difficult to exemplify. I’d have to quote the whole of a long poem like John Tranter’s magnificent ‘Red Movie’. That so many of this generation’s poets attempted long poems is itself significant of a feeling that poetry could no longer depend on briefly and easily transmittable impressions, and on immediate literal meanings: the conditions for poetic experience had to be made and re-made at each move through the reading of a poem. It’s as though the sound of the machinery, and even some of its circuitry, could not be separated out from the product which resulted. I’ll hope that quoting the shortest section of ‘Red Movie’ will indicate enough of what I’m getting at.
the death circus moves in.
all you’re worth is in it
the man with the plastic face
opens up his graves for you to see
the lady with the soft legs
opens up in the night
all the moon
long, the bitter light
chews at our faces, you will not like
the happy flame circus in the roaring dark
we were taking a ride
way out south, somewhere you have never been
into a country of cold beauty
the salamander circus
followed like a hungry dog
‘The Death Circus’ is not a surrealist episode in the poem, despite superficial appearances of that. In context, it has more the function of a literary salute to modern pop lyric. As poetry it lacks the surrealist mechanism which open up deeper thresholds, deeper insights into the workings of the mind. It doesn’t posit any content equivalent to the interpretive insights of psychologists: there isn’t present in the poem that typical surrealist figure, the series of ‘surprise/ explosions’ lighting up the subconscious. Yet though the subconscious, the random and the associative are not the subject-matter of the verse, they are clearly present as agents of the poem’s form. The private and psychologically shaped impulses of the verse have, as it were, already been ‘folded in’ amongst the poem’s images of circus, sex, fire. We are aware of their presence, but not of the route that they have taken in getting into the poem: we do not know what linguistic vehicles, if I can be forgiven this pun, the poem’s metaphors and symbols have used. What we have is the external shape of linguistic figures. The language of ‘The Death Circus’ is ordered exclusively for its effects upon us, without the poem giving us information as to the origin of those effects (i.e. biographical information about these figures and there workings upon us, provided that we recognise what is perhaps more clearly indicated in other parts of the poem: namely, that we consider self-consciously what those effects do to us as readers. It is as though the poem is constantly taking verbal photos of a reader from a multiplicity of angles: in this episode the angle of vision is to do with the subconscious elements of sexual feeling. Because the camera is hidden, the reader cannot see the photo being taken but knows how a camera works and in large measure can read the self-portrait snapshot which results. Through the poem’s language the reader can trace self-consciously his or her own process of feeling and conceptualisation. That it is we and not the poet who should provide information as to the origins of the poem’s figures is perhaps most clearly indicated by the direct address ‘you’, (‘you will not like / the happy flame circus’ etc.) and by the poem’s seemingly circular shape, beginning and ending with reference to the circus. Oh yes, we reply. Will we or won’t we? and how do we make the poem complete its circle? This feature, this problem by which we as readers are asked to provide a good deal of the poem’s emotional and intellectual content, is much more obvious when ‘Red Movie’ is considered as a whole. The poem constantly addresses the reader, questioning his or her position now at this point in reading and at the next. The sudden breaks and discontinuities ask us to weigh and consciously measure the emotional impact of one part with another. The way the poem technically imitates filmic procedures of cutting, flashback, superimposition, hold and zoom constantly asks us to evaluate one perceptual technology (film) with another (poetry). It is our position, our meaning which is at stake. But is not this one of the traditional functions of poetry? Is not this precisely why we say that poetry has a so-called moral function, and indeed often why we write criticism of poetry? Exactly so only, Tranter has foregrounded this linguistic figure in a way that few poems do. He has asked us to consider this matter again, and very impellingly. In precise terms, he has asked us to make the poem historical, to understand the way in which poetry and our reading of it is invaded by the values (personal and cultural) of historical time. And by a suspension of immediate literal references in the poem, he has done this crucial historicising work of a poet more effectively than the writer who asserts, whether in the first or last line of a poem, ‘Your country is at war with Vietnam’ or more modernly ‘You live in a period when economic recession has been imposed on you’.
My third problem carried over into much of the verse of The New Australian Poetry is more easy to suggest by example, though it is one of the most difficult and enriching to explore in detail. I shall limit myself to suggestion. Here is a poem of Robert Kenny’s.
I am finished. Empty. On either side of me lies my body. A shell. Neither alcohol nor cocaine offer stimulation. There is nothing to focus on. No motivation. Afghanistan or LA are no longer exotic enough — New York, just noise and big buildings. I want to be a spectacular victim. Or, at least, the victim of something spectacular. To be of some use. To justify my lingering attachment to crime. Or kill. If only to test the knowledge of one side from the other side. Spectacular. There is no need to offer consolation; the first is often the last and vice versa. There are no more statements to issue. The last plastic bag has been filled. There are more plastic bags. To say, Goodnight, yet stay within the eternal triangle of Victim, Hunted and Hunter. An elaborate suicide.
I am finished. Empty. But the poem seeks to bridge the gap between the public and the private, between the overcharged and mythologised language of the detective thriller and the predicament of the individual. It is the ultimate frame-up. One order of language refers to another. Kenny sees the detective and his world’s style of language as a metonymy for a search for the self. In terms of linguistic figure, he sees poetic content (the overcharged emotionality of certain words) as a metonymy for poetic form (the poem is written in prose). One thinks of why it is that overly impassioned poems do not work in English — of what the reasons are that we incline to think such writing is ‘too much’. What is that ‘too much’?
In its structural re-ordering of language, Kenny points to the dissension between public and private mythology as a key feature of a failure to produce an emotionally controlled form of feeling. Again we can extend the meaning of this formal procedure once we have fully understood the way in which Kenny leaves suspended literal themes of violence, powerless-ness and destructiveness. His concern is the one proper to his kind of poetry: to mythologise in order to produce a coherent view of our world. Such a concern recurs and recurs throughout the work of many poets in the anthology. There are other such concerns throughout the verse of The New Australian Poetry but these are the restructuring and problematisations of poetic language which strike me as important.
I wonder at this moment whether I need to say what I’m now going to. Yet I suspect that I am not preaching to the converted. The kind of things which this generation of poets were doing in their poetry are highly traditional: they are what poets have always done and have always found new ways of doing as their cultural situation has required of them. Poets have always sought ways to express emotion directly, to write poems which are truly historical fiction and to mythologise in coherent and serviceable ways. It seems that in certain periods (I believe that we are now in the middle of one) people forget what the traditional role of poetry is. I believe that in Australia it has never been fully understood that modernism was as much a way of maintaining a traditional role for art as of changing it. It is because self-ascribed ‘traditional’ means will not maintain tradition that artists do other things, try other means, take the risks involved. The nation has been unfortunate in having too many poets who have been able to take only back-handed views of the relationship between tradition and experiment. They have culled enough — whether from America or England, whether aesthetically or politically doesn’t matter — to keep repairing a relatively conservative, a relatively protected and Edenic feeling for tradition. Like all artificial gardens, such a situation is prone to plague — a moral and intellectual blight — in which there is permanent danger of writing ‘tradition’ in an overimposing yet, in the true sense, sub-cultural form. As tactful and aesthetically self-conscious poet as David Campbell or, more modernly, as politically complex a poet as Robert Gray can, it is true, make this negative tension into a thoughtful and original stance. Too often, the danger has been in the works of other poets that we encounter only the appearance of emotional and cultural facts.
It’s to this situation that I intend the epigraphs with which this note is prefaced to speak. That Modernism is not a simple stylistic shift, is not just a rapid learning of the ‘latest style’, but defines the way in which certain artists have entered a complex of deeply-embedded cultural problems should not need much further comment. These problems entail an accurate definition of existing cultural mechanisms truly modernist poets seem to me to have always had the neutrality and detachment, almost the scientific spirit, with which to pitch their poetry into the heart of these mechanisms. One is talking, in other words, about what sort of thing a modern art is in a modern age. Roland Barthes, on the other hand, offers a more contextual awareness of the constant dialectic which exists between the way language is ordered for us in a defaced culture and the way it must be ordered by us in our artistic experience. It is our peculiar fate to find our language in a state of ‘implacable stickiness’, of ‘doxa’, which must be encountered and transcended. I come back to what it is that the poem of John Forbes I cited in my previous note is actually doing and where it comes from and it re-organises our feelings.
There is that constant need to change the ground of language, to restructure the analysis. As Barthes says, this is not at one level a political tactic, at least insofar as it is an anti-ideological move. For reasons of sheer laziness I wish, indeed, that there had been a simple political ‘ism’ in which I could have written about The New Australian Poetry, but the facts of the matter are more hopeful than that. There would be no point in making such another stifling inroad into our possible experience of poetry by reducing the discovery of poetry to a single perspective, to a series of single and conclusive statements. There would be no transcendence. Ideological commitment is as naively literal as any other deceptive attempt to take meaning for granted. Think of what is happening now. Think of the meaning of our current thoughts and feelings. Yesterday I heard Mr. Fraser inform us that we should gladly accept the fact that Western countries will begin a massive re-armament and that we should believe that our supposed enemies will listen only to force. How do we accept the consequences of this lie? Barthes writes of the inner pressure of ‘capitalist’ language towards a kind of unconscious. Yet it is the business of poetry to reveal and discover. I have, yes, come to believe that it will be our faithless and incompetent side which will start any future world war. If so, then one knows how and why the poems, poetry-readings, classes, critical discussions, conversations and hours of reading and listening to poets will get obliterated by an utmost failure of coherent thought and feeling. We will long before have ceased to understand our predicament: knowledge of the ways in which thought and feeling are connected to, and interrupted by, cultural and personal process will have imperceptibly melted into an overpoweringly false representation, a mushroom-shaped mountain of cultural garbage, of ‘issues’, ‘questions’, ‘facts’, ‘real realities’. This is what is being asked of us. This is why most of us already say and do nothing. The operative significances of poetry matter. It’s here that, as I said at the beginning, poetry is words.
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