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The American model: Penelope or Circe?
by Andrew Taylor
At the end of 1957 I was seventeen and what would be called today a semi-dedicated surfie. In all that summer which lasted from when I left school until I started my first year at Melbourne University, I missed only five days on the beach, despite my job as a postman. Next summer I missed three months of beach because I was part of Australia’s peacetime army. The following year, I missed only two days. I swam in water so thick with dredged-up autumn sand that I couldn’t even see the patches of seaweed that I used to mistake on calmer days for stingrays. I would let myself be swept out by the undertow. Those were cold, early March days when the beach was totally deserted except for me. In 1959, the very first surfboard, a real surfboard, appeared on the beach at Warrnambool. I asked the old lady who owned it (she must have been about 28 and a total stranger) if I could borrow it. She let me. I wandered aimlessly over the ocean for twenty minutes, I ran over a helpless swimmer, I found the shore and eventually got the surfboard back to its owner, whom I never saw again. I was a different surfie from today’s surfies: I only knew how to float with my body, I don’t have their elegant sense of balance. But before surfboards appeared on the Warrnambool coast, I used to let myself go like a cork. I’d tuck my legs up and be swept out to sea by the undertow until I was totally beyond my depth. It was a matter of judgement. When I got to where the biggest waves were breaking, I’d flatten out and swim to shore. The waves always brought me back.
I guess this should be a metaphor. I was young. I was prepared to be swept one way or another, frequently totally out of my depth, but I was trusting to luck and, partly, to a developing sense of judgement.
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The American model
Probably, I was often in considerable danger, though that didn’t worry me much at the time.
I only had the haziest notion of the dangers I was taking. Like most very young writers, I was heady with the excitement of it all, with the feeling of poetry taking me out of myself, of the way the act of writing revealed to me my part in something larger, more mysterious, more magical, than my own life defined in social terms. There was nothing cautious about poetry for me then: it was a series of grabs at the universe, and anything that could help was exciting and accepted.
My first contact with American poetry had been forced on me at the age of five, when I entered Warrnambool State School. Every morning I got the shores of Gitchi-Goomi by the shining Big Sea Water. That lugubrious little redskin didn’t know much about my tumbling big sea water, I thought then; and looking back, I realize I was bored stiff. Those readings from Hiawatha were a way of putting the infants back to sleep and prolonging the lifetime somnolence of our teacher.
So my first real acquaintance with American poetry was formed on that beach at Warrnambool. At school I’d been taught Milton and had discovered Eliot by myself. In first year Uni I’d been taught Eliot and discovered Pound. In second year I’d been taught Wordsworth and discovered Ginsberg; in third year it was Duncan and Creeley and Olson and Dorn and Levertov. And so it went on. I read them all on the beach at Warrnambool, and Olson’s
on the left side of the beach
like a motorcycle club! And the handsomest of them,
the one who has a woman, driving that snazzy
they weren’t an unusual sight on the beach either, so that Olson’s poem was about something I knew. They were certainly more familiar to me than the Labra of A.D. Hope’s poem, ‘The Coasts of Cerigo’ which was written in 1959, about the same time as ‘The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs’. So was Olson’s language, which didn’t strike me as ‘American’ so much as familiar, something that broke with the hieratic literary speech of Australian poetry in order to sound like my own speech; but it did so in order to create the unfamiliar. His words were like those satyrs:
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on the beach as we had previously known it, did not know
there was this left side. As they came riding in from the sea
— we did not notice them until they were already creating
the beach we had not known was there — but we assume
They came in from the sea. We assume that. We don’t know.
In this particular case, I know where those words came from, even though their effect on me was exactly as Olson describes, creating a new half of my world for me to marvel at and explore. I found Olson’s poetry, and that of the other poets I’ve mentioned in Evergreen Review, and I found Evergreen Review in Cheshires’ Bookshop. That was in 1960/61, where I also found Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. I was startled to read in an article in The Australian (28 April 1979) by Robert Adamson that his generation discovered the Allen anthology in 1967. I’m the same generation as Adamson, but I picked up a copy of this book in 1960 or 1961, apparently long before it became common knowledge in Australia. I still have it, a first edition, with most of the pages falling out: which indicates how much I read it.
I don’t want to conclude from this that in 1960 I was a lone spirit on a deserted stretch of beach howling for an American model. What I do want to show is how lucky I was in finding at that age and at that time a bookshop in Melbourne where I could find poetry — and stories and drama — that made sense to me. (That was also the time I discovered Beckett, and in the same way. In 1961 I wanted to write an essay on Beckett but was told that he wasn’t substantial enough! Seven years later I was lecturing on Waiting for Godot.)
Cheshires put me in touch with writing that was new even while I was reading it: and it had a totally different newness from Australian poetry of the same period. The Americans who influenced me at that time — early adulthood around 1960 — were a terrible mixture, from Olson, for example, to Ginsberg. At least some of those were influencing Australian writers at a similar stage of their lives ten or even fifteen years later: Ginsberg, Kerouac, O’Hara, many of those poets in the Donald Allen anthology. In 1960 I wasn’t smoking marihuana or taking any other drugs but alcohol, speed and angst. I was heavily into angst because at the same time as I was reading the Americans I was sharing the contemporary vogue for Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard plus a few people like Barth and Tillich, none of whom I understood in the way I understood the poetry, but all of whom I found fascinating.
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Photo of Elizabeth Bishop
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The American model
The message from Europe was: ‘Life is a meaningless and deluded business which most of us live only partially because we live it in bad faith. And it will remain so unless we’re prepared to abandon all deluding promises of meaning and make a total intellectual commitment to the self in its moment of the present.’ The message from America was in some respects similar, but with a major difference: ‘Life is meant to be positive, it’s something to be enjoyed, not agonized about. To find meaning, one must look within oneself: but the stumbling-block to a meaningful life is middle-class capitalist society. Get away from that society and all those sunflowers inside us will suddenly bloom.’ I was oscillating between a pessimistic (European) Romanticism and a militantly optimistic (American) Revivalist Romanticism. In pursuit of the American model I abandoned shoes and wore tattered trousers to tutorials. Under the European influence, at the same time, I frequented cafes and several times even wrote in them.
I think it’s easy to see why this American model became popular later in the sixties with a politically disaffiliated generation threatened by conscription to fight in a dirty capitalist war in Vietnam. In the late sixties the Generation Gap became political, with the parents becoming the bourgeois capitalist imperialists. Inner search was supplemented by drugs as the Generation of ’68 turned its back defiantly on bourgeois society and the Australian poetry which was established in it. Kerouac and Ginsberg proclaimed forcefully that Whitman wouldn’t and, most particularly, shouldn᾿t be all that wrong about the purposeful creativity of life. This matched the feeling of many young people that society had made a mess of things which the individual must refuse to accept. And there have been a number of my acquaintances who responded to that call of the open road, even if it led them only to a banana plantation in northern New South Wales or to a leather belt workshop in Melbourne. In most cases, these people traded a hatred of large capitalism for a lifetime’s involvement in small capitalism. But they did respond to a young optimism which is proclaimed even in the harrowing pages of Howl. The fact that their mentors were twenty or almost thirty years their elders, or that Kerouac ended his life as an unhappy alcoholic living in his mother’s house in no way dimmed the appeal of this optimism. Only Dransfield seems to have captured the crash at the end of the dream: for instance, in a poem such as ‘Bum’s Rush’.
The Protest Movement of the late sixties was of course based on an American model, and extended far beyond poetry. I didn’t have a great deal to do with the Protest Movement’s radical lifestyle myself,
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although I objected to the war and demonstrated against it and wrote against it as much as most people did. The reasons for my not adopting a more radical lifestyle were various. First, possibly a bourgeois tenacity: I had a job I liked doing and I wanted to stick with it. Second, I was too old to be threatened with conscription. Third, I’m temperamentally a non-joiner. And, fourth, I’d only recently got back from two years in Europe.
Also, at the time when a lot of the anti-war activity was at a peak in Australia in 1970 and 1971, I was actually in the United States. That was my first visit and it was very important in that it enabled me to get away from much mediocre Australian poetry that was cluttering my airspace. It also introduced me to a lot of poetry not available in Australia in 1970. Another important consequence was that I became entangled in a whole scene of involvement in poetry — at that time, naturally, heavily political — which as yet had no real counterpart in Australia. I found myself at Buffalo sitting — or, often, standing — in an audience that had a close relationship with the poetry that was actually being produced at the time. The poetry reading scene was intensely dynamic, particularly to an Australian who had never encountered anything quite like this before. It lay the seeds of a community-orientated and community-involved program of poetry readings which I helped to establish several years later in Adelaide, and which still flourishes under the name of Friendly Street. The extent to which this interaction of poet and audience was an American thing was brought home to me several months ago when I accepted an invitation to read my poems at Likge, Belgium. The audience told me afterwards that this was the first time they’d ever heard a poet read his own work. It wasn’t until La Mama was established in 1968 that Melbourne got even the vaguest approximation of the American readings; and, as its name indicates, La Mama was established on an American model.
My first time overseas, though, to go back a little, was a two year stay in Europe from 1963 to 1965. I didn’t go to England, where my academic contemporaries went, nor to Greece, where some of my friends wrestled with the Great Australian Novel and lost. I went to Italy, because the Italian Government paid me to go there. (At that time it was hardly considered respectable for an English graduate from Melbourne Uni to go to America. But then, it was even less respectable to go to Italy.) When I got back to Australia in late 1965 the influence of Evergreen Review and The New American Poetry had been overlaid by a lot of Montale and Cavafy; but also by Pound and Hart Crane. Then
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The American model
with the encouragement of Chris Wallace-Crabbe, I wrote a thesis on Wallace Stevens because he was one of the great modern poets in English and at that time almost totally unknown in Australia. Stevens replaced my earlier notion of poetry as the spontaneous expression of delight or disillusionment with a more demanding awareness of it as a vocation, an absolutely essential search for truth which is not, ultimately, true but which is none the less necessary and effective. Unlike the ironists, he offered me a view of poetry which is both idealistic, as the romantics had been, and yet disillusioned. Idealistic disillusionment, that’s me.
It was really only after finishing the thesis on Stevens that I began to understand that the impetus and the mantle of the English Romantics had passed to America, and that the true continuation of English poetry in the late nineteenth and now the twentieth century is still being done by Americans. Stevens talks of ‘The poem of the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice’ and he also describes poetry as being central to ‘the daily business of getting our lives right’. There are two central tenets of Romanticism here: the stress on poetry as being an act of the mind, something mindful and internal, personal and active, which can construct for us a raft that is right and sufficient against all that threatens to overwhelm us. This is closer to Sartre than the thin Zen cloak of the Beats. The other Romantic tenet Stevens reawakens in his stress on the dailiness of poetry is this: poetry is a vocation and as such an ongoing process, not a production of discrete jewels. Threatened by chaos around us, each poem is a ‘temporary stay against confusion’, effective for the moment, but not guaranteed to be effective for any others. It must take its place in a series, and consequently poetry is a process rather than a stasis. The present abundance of long poems in Australia, about which I’ve written two essays and to which I’ve contributed a long poem of my own, has resulted from Australian poets such as Bruce Beaver, Vincent Buckley, John Tranter and Philip Roberts and many others, becoming aware of the fruitfulness of this view of poetry as a process. Of course it has its drawbacks by definition; a poem of this kind is never really complete, and perhaps never fully satisfactory. On the other hand, it can kiss ‘the joy as it flies’, and therefore live ‘in eternity’s sun rise’, as Blake said. That’s certainly an achievement in Australia, where in the 1950s and well into the sixties most poems were conceived as irony sandwiches, as discrete and as appetizing as pellets of that other dubiously indigenous product — rabbit shit. The larger poetic forms give us access to the daily business
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of the poet trying to get his or her world into a manageable shape, and also into the fortunes of that shape in retrospect. The optimism of American writing in the late fifties and early sixties, which appealed so strongly to me then, is still with me and I feel that to lose that enthusiasm would be to lose touch with my youth, in fact to lose touch with youth itself. Today I don’t value only the jewels of achievement, those ‘possible impossible moments’ in which you find yourself standing on ‘the still point of the turning world’ watching the universe fall into its squadrons at your feet. I also value the ability to accompany a poet through his or her daily struggles and failures, to see the poet at his weakest as well as at his strongest, to be impressed by the continuity of a poet’s courage.
Reading the life’s work of a Berryman, for example, has made me stop and reconsider not only how adequate I am as a poet, but also how seriously I really take this whole business of writing. The same goes for more recent writers, some of whom I really came across only during my first visit to the United States in 1970 and 1971. Kinnell is one of these, Bly another: each for very different reasons. In the case of these two — and others such as W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery — it’s not so much a question of influence as of example. These poets give one what can only be achieved by a long devotion to poetry as a vocation. Of course Australian poets have done this too, but until recently it has been hard for them. It takes a long time in a country such as Australia where invading settlers destroyed the original culture and set about getting affluent, for anyone such as a poet who is not concerned with material self-advancement to be considered as more than, at best, a harmless eccentric or a sponger on the hardworking taxpayer. Australia, I believe, has outgrown that adolescent phase now, just as the United States did earlier. But we still lack the vast system of patronage which operates throughout the American University and College system. For all its drawbacks, that system has enabled a number of fine poets to record their ‘daily business of getting their lives right’. The sheer size of their canvas — like that of their contemporaries, the Abstract Expressionist painters — shows the scope of their ambition and the seriousness of their vocation. Apart from the abortive neo-Romanticism of Brennan, Australia had none of this to offer until recently.
Another thing — possibly the most important thing — I learnt in and from the United States was the enormous potential for poetry in inner exploration. Almost all the Australian poetry I’d encountered had been
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The American model
‘about something’, about landscape, or history, or guilt, or dingos or marriage. Australians addressed themselves to a subject, rather like a public speaker or a preacher, and the poetry which resulted was really a set of conclusions about a subject which the poet considered, in fact, more important than the poetry itself. The result was a predictable misunderstanding and underestimation and hence denigration of the poetic act, easily exemplified by the habit of explaining images. The Imagist movement really had negligible impact on Australian poetry, with the result that images were too often embellishments to the presentation of ideas, extraneous to the matter of the poem and grafted on, like baubles on a Christmas tree, to catch the eye. Of course, nothing should be further from the truth.
Even when the poet was writing about himself, he talked about himself as though he were a stranger who had only recently been introduced, and in the kind of language one uses with new acquaintances, children and other foreigners. His inner exploration was conducted from the outside. Which is another way of saying that really Australian poetry had no inner life at all.
By contrast, such diverse poets as Berryman, Bly and Kinnell communicated more meaningfully to me in the act of communicating with themselves than any Australian did. They backed up my need to understand myself, and that meant listening to what my psyche had to tell me — and in its own language. I got great encouragement from Gregory Orr’s comment that poetry is a message from one part of the brain to another. I believe poetry is far more than that; but unless the poet is prepared to listen to the process of revelation that his poetry is performing for him, he will be condemned to be an outsider from the most creative part of himself and his poetry will lack inner life.
This line of development has also involved me in a lot of thinking about myth — not from the outside, though I’ve read my Levi-Strauss too — but from the inside, from the point of view of someone who lives it. Just as poetry is creative lying, it is also individual myth-making — and by that I don’t mean it has anything to do with creating a myth of the poet, which is merely a narcissistic and ultimately boring waste of everyone’s time. It has to do instead with being aware of how our deepest and most private experience can cease to be merely personal and can speak out for everyone. American poets taught me to understand how a poetry which is attentive to the inner life can avoid solipsism and be powerfully representative.
Now, at the age of thirty-nine, I like to feel — or hope — that my
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poetry less obviously reflects influence than once it used to. I’ve continued to read American poets, partly, of course, for their intrinsic worth. But they don’t provide me now with styles, modes of speech, cadence, rhythm, ideas or personae and many of the other essential elements of poetry that one can easily borrow. Instead, I read them because they give me a variety of things unavailable elsewhere, depending on the poet: a sense of inwardness which most Australian poetry studiously avoided, for one. An awareness of city life which tallied with mine, and which contradicted Eliot’s image of it in The Waste Land as a parade of the living dead. A discovery of larger forms and multiples. A stress on the image, rather than on abstract or discursive statement. A notion of the ‘dailiness’ or ‘ongoingness’ of poetry. A sense of poetry as vocation. And most particularly, they give me a sense of standards of achievement.
Furthermore, the spectrum of their poetry taken together is so wide that the ‘American model’ as a whole encourages me to be as catholic and even as eclectic as I can be without violating my sense of personality. Coleridge describes poetry as a concordia discors, which means that it is about variety as much as anything else. And one criticism I have of a few people in Australia who claim to represent the American influence is that they don’t know enough American poetry to appreciate how varied it actually is.
One central question to ask in this context then is ‘What is the main effect of being influenced by American models?’ And the answer is quite simply that if I had not been, my notion of poetry would have been much poorer now than it is.
The second effect could be described as a liberation from the influence of one’s immediate environment, finding new parents. Oscar Wilde is surely right in saying that although nature gave us our parents, thank God we can choose our friends. But poets are fortunate in being able to choose other parents for themselves when they need them. And in being able, usually, to discard them when they’ve done their job. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than an Australian poet, but I didn’t want James McAuley and Judith Wright for parents. Wallace Stevens and Emily Dickinson may seem strange foster-parents, but they — and many others — were most what I needed. Of course, I’ve chosen other foster-parents as well as Americans, including at various times Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, and poets from other European languages. They all serve to expand my understanding of poetry, and to liberate me from the restrictions of a totally home-grown culture.
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Photo of Emily Dickinson
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Photo of Allen Ginsberg
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The American model
A consequence of this is the third major effect of cultural borrowing. It provides a poet with new voices, new personalities to explore, new circumstances within which to imagine himself. If one thinks of all reading as vicarious experience, then reading the work of poets from different cultures is a form of travel, and I’ve always liked travel. One’s own poetry ultimately is made out of one’s own life, but American models have shown me a greater range of possibilities than Australia could have of kinds of life and ways of coping with it.
This doesn’t mean, though, that only the culturally deprived turn to foreign models. I want to conclude with a few comments on just what kind of person the cultural borrower is. First, obviously, he will be eclectic, since cultural influence is a branch of eclecticism. Second, he will inevitably be a critic of his own culture, aware of shortcomings in it which can’t be made good from within. (This doesn’t mean that such criticism is only valid for young cultures such as our own. Even English literature underwent such a change with the Modernist movement — mostly the work of Americans.) Therefore since, in a sense, he’s an importer of culture, any effect he has on his own native culture will be one of lateral change: he’ll push it a bit sideways, instead of continuing its upward growth from its own origins. What he does will inevitably be treated with a healthy suspicion by the traditionalists, and what is created will be a dialectic situation in which neither side finally predominates, but which will result in some later synthesis. Any culture which totally rejects this opportunity for lateral growth will end up like the ancient Egyptian, which drew cats the same way for over two thousand years. Third — and the example of the Modernists backs me up — the cultural importer will be city-orientated rather than rural-orientated. Cities are the focal points for the interchange of goods, services and information not only nationally but internationally. Virtually all the poets in Australia who have shown American influence have concerned their poetry with urban experience. Poets such as Les Murray or Geoffrey Lehmann, who turn away from urban experience for a further exploration of Australia’s rural tradition, show little or no American influence.
For that reason, it’s no accident that American poetry has emerged as a powerful influence in Australia since 1945. For many of us writing today, the bush, the farm life, the world of animals and of manual labour are more remote from us than O’Hara’s New York. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Australia’s population lives in cities, and that goes for most of the poets as well. For example, although my
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grandfather and uncle were farmers and I grew up in a country town, my father was a lawyer and I’ve spent my last twenty-five years in cities. It’s only natural, and only honest, that we should base our work on what we learn from our life, which means at least in part on the urban and suburban experience itself. Australian poetry up to and including the fifties provided no models for dealing with such experience — and neither, for that matter, did English poetry. On the other hand, American poetry did, and still does. Provided we treat these foster parents as we should any other parents — to be outgrown when we’re capable of standing on our own feet — we’ll do ourselves no harm in adopting them, and possibly a lot of good.