[The American Model, page 1]
by Joan Kirkby
From the Introduction to The American Model, Joan Kirkby, Editor, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982, reprinted with permission of the author.
In anonymous reviews of his own work Walt Whitman contrasted himself with his English contemporary, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and celebrated himself in no uncertain terms:
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While most characterizations of American poetry since Whitman’s rather precise notations of himself have been notoriously vague (for instance Auden’s ‘poetry that could not be mistaken for that of an Englishman’), the focus of ‘The American Model’ essays is quite specific about the nature of American poetry. One of the qualities most remarked by Australian poets was the predisposition of American poetry toward the idiom and rhythm of actual physical life and its location in sense perception, the particular personal experience of the writer. In ‘Ease of American Language’, Vincent Buckley explores ‘the naturalness of American literary speech’, ‘its ease of movement’, ‘its emphasis on perception and sensation’ (‘and on registering it accurately; of registering it also in sequence, slowly’). Citing prose passages from Faulkner and Penn Warren — indeed Buckley argues that the American achievement in poetry should not be confined to verse — he remarks ‘a reflectiveness which cannot be separated, and can hardly be distinguished, from the sense-stimuli which provide its subject and occasion’.
The grounding of American poetry in sense perception was a quality corroborated by the visiting American poets. Galway Kinnell speaks of Walt Whitman’s attempt to put the actual physical world into his poetry and the consequent freeing of his verse. Whitman’s free flowing poetic line was more than a technical feat, it was ‘a leap of understanding’: ‘its music comes from a disposition towards reality, from physical life, from what surges through “what is”… from the giving away of the self to the life of the earth and the life of the body’. Whitman’s poetry is ‘Darwinian’ in that, like The Origin of Species, it teaches us ‘that we are children of this earth’. In Kinnell’s view, Whitman charted the direction in which all modern poets have tried to go ever since — down the Platonic ladder to find beauty in the physical
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world. The secret of William Carlos Williams, according to Louis Simpson, is that ‘he shows us that poetry can exist in our own lives’; like Chekhov and Wordsworth he concentrates on ordinary objects and charges ordinary life with excitement. Just as Whitman’s quality of feeling determined Whitman’s line of verse, Williams’ method comes from ‘a disposition of the heart’. These issues are also taken up by Robert Gray in his consideration of the particularity of Whitman, Williams and Reznikoff. Gray discusses the peculiarly ‘visceral’ quality in Whitman’s use of language, Williams’ ability to ‘accept what was really there’ and to catch ‘the natural shapes in everyday speech’, ‘a tone of voice that is fresh and accurate’, and Charles ReznikofFs ‘method of allowing physical details to evoke emotions’.
Another frequently remarked characteristic of American poetry was its inwardness or subjectivity. Thomas Shapcott speaks of ‘the act of becoming the vulnerable being’ and ‘the vulnerability of experiencing-man’ in American poetry and an accompanying use of language in its raw form — immediate, ‘coarsely rich and ready for any adventures to make it richer’. However, he points out that ‘the idea of vulnerability is not easy for the Australian poet’. For the Australian, ‘the act of personal vulnerability is easily confused with exhibitionism… Australian poetry has consistently underplayed flamboyant gesture. It is frequently imbued with a sense of the irony of survival.’ Chris Wallace-Crabbe also speaks of‘the American poets’ acceptance of the narcissistic self as the necessary core of their poetry’. In poets like Roethke and Crane this solipsism is ‘a kind of romantic liberation from worldly terms and scales of reference. It could be felt as a-social, unrepressed.’ Again however, Wallace-Crabbe notes that this ‘raw subjectivity’ is ‘foreign’ to the ‘normal imaginative priorities’ of Australian readers. On the other hand Andrew Taylor feels that ‘possibly the most important thing’ he learned in and from the United States was ‘the enormous potential for poetry in inner exploration’. In contrast to Australian poets who ‘addressed themselves to a subject, rather like a public speaker or a preacher’, and whose poetry seemed ‘a set of ideas about something’, American poets ‘taught me to understand how a poetry which is attentive to the inner life can avoid solipsism and be powerfully representative’.
On a different point, both Bruce Dawe and Fay Zwicky feel a lack of social awareness in Australian poetry and express their interest in certain American writers’ sense of the inseparability of private and public concerns. Fay Zwicky cites the garrulity, social consciousness and other-directedness of Jewish American writers like Malamud, Roth
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and Bellow who explore ‘the theme of the man of heart in a mass-produced civilization’. These writers, by articulating an ‘awareness of a self that lives alongside others with similar problems of social integration’, provided her with a sense of community felt lacking in the Australian context. The compulsion to challenge moral and metaphysical issues characteristic of Russian writers and their characters (‘What are your convictions?’ is a question that is willingly answered as well as asked) is contrasted with the reluctance of Australians to challenge such issues. Bruce Dawe identifies ‘the task of relating the public world in which we have a stake as citizens like everyone else and that private world where we confront the mystery of our individual personalities… and destinies’ as ‘one of the continuing tasks in which so many Australian poets of the post war generation are necessarily engaged’. For him writers like Edwin Arlington Robinson, Edgar Lee Masters, John Crowe Ransom and E. E. Cummings suggest ways of relating public and private feeling. Robinson and Masters take specific villages (which become ‘archetypal settlements even for non-Americans’) and speak for their silent suffering inhabitants, while Ransom’s elegiac mode and Cummings’ ‘cross hatching of public voices’ (the ‘mixed monologue’) demonstrate other ways of uniting private and public concerns.
Fay Zwicky, Bruce Dawe and Andrew Taylor also comment on the urbanization of American poetry that accompanied the urbanization of American life. There is an awareness of city life in American poetry, in contrast to Australian and English poetry up to and including the fifties, which provided no models for dealing with urban experience (Taylor).
The impact of American poetry on Australian poetry was seen as primarily a liberating one — less a matter of influence than of example. The discovery of American poetry in the Anglo-Saxon dominated literary culture of Australia was to suggest, quite simply, as Andrew Taylor puts it, ‘other ways of living in poetry’. As Galway Kinnell said at the forum on the final morning of the conference, ‘Models come from your encountering a work in which you recognize kinship, and that helps you’.
The very great difficulty of access to models other than English ones was a theme that was reiterated throughout the conference. As Chris Wallace-Crabbe points out, for reasons of copyright and distribution, American poetry was filtered through to Australia by ‘the taste and judgement of English editors’, and the sense of American poetry — like
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the sense of America itself — was ‘limited and selective’. Several of the essays deal with the complex Australian social milieu in which American poetry was first encountered and in this context two important anthologies were mentioned time and again — Geoffrey Moore’s The Penguin Book of Modern American Verse (1954) and Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). For Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Moore’s anthology brought ‘a welcome shock of strangeness’. In contrast to Australian and English poetry which ‘were at the time deeply committed to plainness and good sense’, this was poetry that seemed ‘not merely exotic but even mandarin’. For Andrew Taylor modern American poetry struck less as American than as familiar, ‘something that broke with the hieratic literary speech of Australian poetry in order to sound like my own speech’. The impact of American poetry was diverse and included the dynamic poetry reading scene in America, which stimulated community-orientated and community-involved programs of poetry readings, including those instigated by Taylor in Adelaide. For Taylor, there was also a thesis on Wallace Stevens who instilled ‘the sense of poetry as a vocation and as such an ongoing process’ and the example of poets like Kinnell, Bly, Merwin and Wright and their long devotion to poetry as a vocation, ‘the daily business of getting their lives right’.
However, for others the long term Anglo-Saxon domination of Australian literature was experienced as more of a stranglehold. For Fay Zwicky it was a sort of ‘democratic repression’ whereby she was restrained from developing and expressing her own voice. Characterizing the Australian community as ‘one whose speech habits come as close to near silence as you can get’, she highlights the need for enlarging the dimensions of a community which is limitedly Anglo-Saxon. John Tranter describes the energy and commitment of the sixties generation of new Australian poets and cites Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry as a strong influence on their ‘call for new freedoms in their lives and poems’. He points out that a large part of the energies of these young writers went towards overthrowing what they saw as the tradition of conservatism that had dominated poetry in this country for many years (a tradition which they saw as ‘largely derived from enfeebled English models’). He goes on to criticize Australian literary criticism for failing to accommodate the new poetry of the sixties and seventies. Whereas ‘much recent Australian poetry has diverged from what we might as well call the English Colonial Poetic Tradition’ and whereas ‘its main influences have been American’ (via
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European models), ‘our critical thinking has been based on an English tradition’ and ‘has remained isolated from those European and American developments that figure so largely in the work of many contemporary poets’.
To sum up, then, Australian poets were struck with the diversity of American poetry — its potential for inner exploration, its emphasis on sense perception, its subjectivity, its attempt to incorporate the physical world into its idiom and rhythm, its striking regionalism, its ex-perimentalism, its development of modes for uniting public and private feeling, as well as the American poet’s sense of poetry as a vocation, an ongoing process, the daily business of getting her/his life ‘right’. The encounter with American poetry provided a different perspective from which to view the culture and literary tradition of Australia; it was an opportunity for lateral growth.
From remarks made by Australian poets at the conference — both in the papers and the discussion sessions — it could be inferred that one would only have to invert the qualities admired (or remarked) in American poetry to gain a sense of some of the dissatisfactions with Australian poetry in the past; that is, instead of a poetry of sense perception located in the particular personal experience of the poet, a poetry of statement, discourse and abstraction; instead of a poetry concerned with the inner experience and exploration of the poet as vulnerable man, the ironic detachment of laconic man who, even when he does write about himself, writes ‘as though he were a stranger who had only recently been introduced’; instead of poetry which investigates social issues in an urban context, a poetry which fails to deal with contemporary urban experience; instead of exoticism, conservatism; instead of experimentation, an unwillingness to experiment. And indeed these characteristics have been discussed in other contexts (Vincent Buckley’s Essays in Poetry: Mainly Australian; Alexander Craig’s Introduction to Twelve Poets 1950-1970; James McAuley’s A Map of Australian Verse; Andrew Taylor (Meanjin, December 1972)).
However, the main point of divergence between Australian and American poetry was on the issue of inwardness — ‘the vulnerable stance’, ‘the narcissistic core’, the ‘raw subjectivity’, ‘the solipsism’ of American poetry. Indisputably American poetry is a poetry of the self and the American writer has ever made a myth of the self (or at least a cult if not a lifetime’s work of it, as Mark Strand says in his introduction to The Contemporary American Poets, 1969). Self-scrutiny and selfrevelation were encouraged by both Puritanism and Transcendentalism. Roy Harvey Pearce maintains that, ‘In form, substance,
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and method, American poetry from the seventeenth century to the present is on the whole a development of the Puritan imagination, with its compulsion to relate, even to make identical, man’s sense of his inwardness and his sense of his role in the world at large’ (The Continuity of American Poetry, 1965). Among the Transcendentalists, as Jay Martin has pointed out, Emerson’s ‘Wherever we go, whatever we do, self is the sole subject we study and learn’ was matched by Thoreau’s ‘I on my own side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life.’ Martin continues: ‘Offering their personalities as paradigmatic, turning their historicity into archetype, the American has made a myth of the self… Restating Whitman’s “Camerado, this is no book; / Who touches this touches a man” — willing to stand thus exposed — the American artist is, as Pound observed, “ready to endure personally a strain which his craftsmanship could scarcely endure”’ (Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914, 1967).
In American poetry the self is viewed as a microcosm; the artist registers on his self the dilemmas of his age — often with disastrous consequences. Unlike the European poet who, according to Auden, ‘instinctively thinks of himself as a “clerk”, a member of a professional brotherhood… taking his place in an unbroken historical succession’, poets in America ‘have never had or imagined they had such a status, and it is up to each individual poet to justify his existence by offering a unique product’ (The Dyer’s Hand, 1960). Hence, the diversity of narcissicisms — the number of idiosyncratic American poets who ‘along with their work’, as Hugh Kenner has noted, ‘invent the criteria by which we must understand them’ (A Homemade World, 1975). They resemble each other primarily in having invented highly personal idiosyncratic worlds and new kinds of poems.
By contrast, as James Tulip has written with regard to Australian poetry before the 1970s, ‘No tradition of modern literature… has stood out quite so firmly as has the Australian against the principle in poetic imagination of the primacy of the self. ‘There is something in the Australian personality which turns away from the dramatic’, away from ‘outbursts of ego’. There is a ‘characteristic a-personal style. It means a submerging of temperament in the role that society expects of their particular activity; and it comes close to an obsessive professionalism of spirit — objective, purposeful, modest and economic.’ Similarly, the Australian poet ‘traditionally moves into a role-playing situation whenever he writes… Whether expressing himself as seer or satirist, narrator or lyricist the Australian poet
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instinctively steps out of himself and adopts the mannerism and style of “poet”, for which role there is a recognizable language and tone. A heavy conceptualizing Augustan blankness of verse is the unconscious norm’ (Southerly, 1972). The Australian style is characteristically ‘uncommitted, a-personal, objective and athletic’ — ‘one which can accommodate new insights and interests without loss of, or even feeling a challenge to, its identity.’ (What did Lawrence say in Kangaroo? ‘Each individual seems to feel himself pledged to put himself aside, to keep himself at least half out of count. The whole geniality is based on a sort of code of “You put yourself aside, and I’ll put myself aside.” This is done with a watchful will: a sort of duel… the continual holding most of himself aside, out of count…’)
The related issue concerns the place of irony in Australian poetry — whether irony is a way of confronting experience or a way of avoiding it, an attitude to deploy against something or a way of evading it altogether. Some suggested that the ironic mode tended to trivialize experience and to strangle vital speech while others argued that irony is profound and reaches deep down into the psyche, that it was a way of coming to terms with dire necessities. Galway Kinnell pointed out that through irony Emily Dickinson probes deeper into herself than Walt Whitman does through speaking directly. In C. D. Narasimhaiah’s An Introduction to Australian Literature (1965), Alec King distinguishes between a ‘lesser irony’ — ‘the defense-irony which moves too easily from the strength of not taking oneself too solemnly to the weakness of not taking anything too seriously’ — and the ‘greater irony’ which ‘knows how feelings passionately believed in are opposed by others equally valid: it exposes one to the irony of existence’. And Chris Wallace-Crabbe has argued elsewhere (Meanjin, 1961/2) that irony is an imaginative dimension which ‘can suggest that the poet is holding two sets of possibilities in mind at once and seeking a position between them’; it ‘can play an important part in communicating the sheer complexity of human experience’. Clearly, irony as a mode should be distinguished from irony as a stance.
However, for the most part, it could be said that both Australian poetry and American poetry in the latter half of this century have been fighting the same battles — to free themselves from the post-Eliot establishment of abstract, impersonal, formalist poetry. Whitman’s battle has had to be re-fought and re-won — but then as Harry Levin says, ‘Poetry would soon bog down into tameness if it were not constantly striking out for what Robert Frost likes to call “wildness”’
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(Refractions, 1966). William Carlos Williams, the Beats, the Black Mountaineers and Life Studies poets alike have returned to the matter of immediate perceptions, personal experience and an emphasis on ‘subjectivity over objectivity’, ‘image over symbol’ and a treatment of immediate rather than remote landscapes. There has been a movement from formalism to simplicity, impersonality to directness, abstraction to specifics (see Richard Kostelanetz’ excellent exposition of this in his introduction to Possibilities of Poetry, 1970). A survey of personal visions of the poet’s task at this conference (from Galway Kinnell’s that poetry is the effort to bring the rhythmic motion of existence itself into our bodies and intelligences to Fay Zwicky’s emphasis on the attempt to confront social disorder and disintegration in personal terms and try to make poetic sense out of it) suggests a closeness to experience, an awareness of every day life — of what is really there — that is the mutual concern of contemporary Australian and American poetry.
Although the emphasis in these essays is on ‘open poetry’ and American ‘poetry of experience’, tribute was also paid to the American formalists Elizabeth Bishop, the early Lowell, Delmore Schwartz, Wallace Stevens, Richard Wilbur. It was perhaps inevitable at a conference examining the particular nature of American influence (as distinct from English, which was labelled somewhat unjustly in this context as abstract and abstracting) that the simplicity, directness and closeness to actual physical life of American poetry was especially remarked. As Geoffrey Moore — perhaps the most influential editor of American poetry in the Australian context — writes, ‘Not talking about, but presenting in living detail is the American artist’s contribution to literature’. However, in American poetry itself there has ever been a cyclic alternation of poetic styles — open/closed; raw/cooked; beat/academic; free/fixed. Indeed, in a sense, Modernism implies primarily a self-conscious break with the past, whether that past be formalist or free. Monroe Spears has identified the ‘two primary impulses in modern literature, both always present but one or the other dominating’, as ‘the drive toward aestheticism, toward the purification of form, its refinement and exploration’ which is ‘countered by the opposing impulse, to break through art, destroy any possibility of escape to illusion, to insist that the immediate experience, the heightening of life is the important thing.’ (Dionysus and the City, 1970). Spears goes on to say that much as the ‘symbolic dyad, Apollo and Dionysus can be used to describe any time or place’ and ‘English literary history be put, not very implausibly, in terms of their alternating reigns’ (Dionysian Renaissance, Apollonian eighteenth century,
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Dionysian age of Romanticism, Apollonian Victorian age), modern American poetry has also seen an Apollonian/Dionysian alternation of poetic styles.
However, now there is a new freedom by which each poem is free to find its own style. As Kostelanetz has emphasized, it is a ‘sense of possibility’ and ‘change’ that characterizes contemporary American poetry. There is ‘no dominant metrical convention such as obtained in centuries previous to this one’, all subjects are available to poets as are ‘words from all realms of discourse, and all kinds of syntactical structures from scrupulously discontinuous to outright narrative’. There is a commitment to ‘organic form’, a style developed out of the subject and stance of the poem and not an imposed or adapted style.
Moreover, as Mark Strand writes in his introduction to The Contemporary American Poets, ‘it is part of the character of American poetry since 1940 to have made friends with everyone. Many different sorts of poetry seem to have co-existed more or less peacefully except for a brief skirmish at the end of the 1950s when we experienced what has been glamorously called “the war of the anthologies” ’ (largely a story in the ‘sociology of poetry’, he claims, rather than a description of what was being written). American poets in pursuit of‘an individual manner that would reflect a sense of self-definition’ have used ‘what they wanted from various literary traditions’. They have looked to other literary traditions for their models — ‘there are poets in the United States whose imaginative roots seem to have sprung from Neruda or Char or Cavafy or from Arthur Waley’s versions of Chinese poetry quite as much as they have from Emerson or Whitman’.
Such is also the case with Australian poetry in this century. The responsibility of the reader — and the academies who have so much influence on the study of poetry in Australia — is to keep up with the poets (although one effect of the new simplicity of modern poetry is that the poet is speaking directly to her/his public again, without the intermediary of the university or the school system). I do not know if Vincent Buckley would still agree that ‘the dangers of Australian poetry still come from “insularity”’ (Essays on Poetry), but at this rather late stage of the twentieth century, insularity of any kind would seem to be the greatest danger to any culture. (American culture could do with a stiff dose of Australian laconicism!)
Although Thomas Shapcott felt that he grew up in ‘the first generation in Australia which made cultural isolation a matter of individual apathy’ (unlike the forties which were still ‘in the colonial
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pull’, the generation of the fifties had the opportunity to be part ‘of what is immediately happening’, ‘the flux and battleground of current attempts, failures and thrustings forward’), two important issues raised at the conference suggest that the experience of others has not been so happy. One of these was the problem of distribution whereby it is often just not possible in Australia to get certain books within years of publication. The significance of being able to get a book or anthology in one year or another, or even in one decade or another, was emphasized again and again. Particular and all too rare bookshops came in for very high tribute both for ignoring the copyright laws in order to stock American books and for providing an outlet for current books while they were current. Nor is the problem of circulation related only to American publications. In a commentary on the ABCs ‘Books and Writing’ program, Rodney Pybus reported having the impression that ‘it may now be easier to obtain American small press publications than British… An Australian view of British poetry of the last twenty years is certainly limited if it does not include Fisher, Redgrove, Silkin, Hill, Bunting, Tomlinson and Hamburger, in addition to the inevitable Hughes and Larkin’ and ‘an immensely gifted generation of Irish, Scots and Welsh poets, in addition to Seamus Heaney. And these limitations are imposed not so much because Australian readers and writers are not interested, as that often they don’t get the chance.’
The other issue was a recurring criticism of the Anglophilia of Australian university English departments. This was a problem that almost everyone at the conference had experienced. The exclusive concentration on British English poetry characteristic of many English departments ignores the main thrust of early Modernism — its international, cosmopolitan flavour. An important part of this cosmopolitanism was the Anglo-American collaboration. Monroe Spears, for instance, credits Ezra Pound with creating ‘a situation in which, for the first time, there was a “modern movement in poetry” in which English and American poets collaborated, knew each others’ works and influenced each other’. Similarly, A. R. Jones writes in his essay ‘Imagism: A Unity of Gesture’ (American Poetry Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 7) that ‘Perhaps the most important single fact about Imagism is its Anglo-American character. English and American poets worked together with a feeling of a common tradition — or lack of tradition — behind them and common objectives before them, thus the two literatures were brought into an association so close that there is no feeling of national differences’.
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Nevertheless, segregation persists. At the end of the first session of papers, Louis Simpson remarked that the Australian poets’ accounts of their experience of American poetry from 1950 to the present was not unlike what a young American poet would have experienced. ‘What puzzles me’, he went on to say, ‘is the complexity of their knowledge of American poetry and the almost total ignorance of it on the part of young people in high schools and then an almost equal ignorance of it in the universities on the part of the faculty members. Why is the line between the poets and these others so great in Australia?’
Among the answers to the question surveyed at the conference were the tendency of Australian born Oxbridge graduates to return to Australia to build their own versions of Oxbridge and the view of English literature as a monolith instead of a whole range of literatures in English. However, it may be that the cultivated ignorance of American poetry is related to the long term resistance in Australia to things American.
There is certainly a strong tradition of anti-Americanism in Australia. Although much of this is justified, much of it remains at the level of unexamined prejudice. America is to many Australians what the mere mention of Communism is to many Americans — a bogey. As Richard White writes in Meanjin (3/1980), Americanization has been opposed in Australia by both Anglophiles and Australianists simply because it is ‘foreign’:
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And so it has been with American poetry. There have been strict procedures of immigration restriction (students discouraged from the study of American literature) and censorship (American poetry not being offered at all) extant in Australian university English departments.
In his Godzone article, ‘Other Places’ (Meanjin, 1967), J.D.B. Miller raises three issues in relation to America which should perhaps be raised again: (1) ‘whether it is really “Americanism” that is upon us, or simply modern technology’ (‘Most of the complaints about the influence of the United States look to me like complaints about the twentieth century.’); (2) ‘whether we are justified in regarding only the dark side of American society as typically American’ (‘The United States is multiform.’); (3) whether America is making ‘an unprovoked assault on other countries’ or whether ‘within the general ambit of contemporary technology and communications, a common English speaking culture is being developed.’
It may be a good idea to have walls, as Robert Frost once suggested, but ‘Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out’.
In conclusion it is worth remembering that Australian literature has also suffered discrimination in English departments — much as American literature has in English departments in the U.S. It is even more anomalous that one’s own literature should be perceived as ‘foreign’ and ‘other’. As Louis Nowra reminds us in his notes to The Precious Woman, literature is ‘a truer reflection of a country’s psyche than any historical or sociological study’.
The writers of the following essays have refused to accept arbitrary barriers and have sought ideas and stimuli wherever they are to be found; in this instance they explore the American model.