Joan Kirkby: Preface

[The American Model, page xi]


by Joan Kirkby

From the Preface to The American Model, Joan Kirkby, Editor, Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982, reprinted with permission of the author.

‘The American Model’ was the title of a poetry conference held at Macquarie University in May 1979. The aim of the conference was both to explore the relationship between Australian and American poetry and to provide a forum where poets and readers of poetry from all over Australia could meet, talk, debate, as well as participate in workshops, poetry readings and formal sessions on the significance of American poetry in the Australian context. The result was a highly charged four days of critical exchange which would have satisfied even Emily Dickinson’s rather apocalyptic criteria of poetic power — ‘If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?‘‘The American Model’ was exciting because of the presence of the poets themselves (as one who sees the poet as a ‘diviner’ or ‘the an­tennae of the race’ as Pound put it and poetry as deadly vital because it does register ‘the slightest change in the atmosphere’) and so many people acutely concerned with poetry and its registering of vital im­pressions, its role in forcing us to notice. The conference provided the all too rare opportunity in Australia to hear poets reading their poetry and talking about it and the occasion for everyone present to speak out on a provocative but neglected (repressed?) topic — it would seem that the ‘anxiety of influence’ is fraught enough without reference to an American connection.

All the poets whose essays appear in this volume were invited to speak on the theme, ‘The American Model: What has it meant to me?’ Their

[The American Model, page xii]

answers are a group of diverse and provocative essays which explore the Australian context in which American poetry was first discovered, the sense in which the discovery was both liberating and strange, as well as the specific ways in which American poets influenced Australian poets. For the first time people interested in poetry in Australia can learn what some Australian poets think about American poetry and how it influenced them. It is also the first collection of essays that looks at American poetry from an Australian point of view and as such it has produced some new and unusually concrete insights into that literature. The essays have a lot to say about the experience of being a poet in Australia and about the poet’s conception of her / his task. There are also useful insights into distinctions between Australian and English and American poetry.

The book also includes essays by two of America’s finest contemporary poets. Galway Kinnell and Louis Simpson, who were writers-in-residence at Macquarie University and the University of New England respectively, participated in the conference and presented papers on the American models whom they thought were the most influential. Because the essays generated certain resonances — and controversy — by the order in which they were presented at the conference, they have been printed in that order. Even the titles, from Shapcott’s ‘Beware of Broken Glass’ to Taylor’s ‘Penelope or Circe?’, suggest something of the tensions, risks and enrichments of the cultural encounter.

I would like to take this opportunity to commend my fellow members of ’The American Model’ conference committee, Virginia Blain, David Johnson, Mark Macleod, Rodney Pybus and James Tulip. I would also like to thank the Literature Board of the Australia Council for their generous support of the conference and Macquarie University for its subsidy towards the publication of the book.