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Anaesthetics: some notes on the new Australian poetry
To overcome the inertia of the intellect, a new statement must be an overstatement, and sometimes it is more important that the statement be interesting than it be true. — George Homans
The title of this paper is ‘Anaesthetics: some notes on the new Australian poetry’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘aesthetics’ as ‘the philosophy of the beautiful, or of art’; and an ‘aesthetic’ as ‘a set of principles of good taste and appreciation of beauty’. The drift of my paper will be in the direction of implying that the last thing we need at the present stage of Australian poetry is just such a set of principles of good taste and appreciation of beauty.
As this conference in general deals with the American Model, I think it’s fitting that I concentrate on what I’ve called ‘the new Australian poetry’, the work of a recent generation of Australian poets who, more than any other generation in Australia’s writing history, have been influenced in important ways by writing from the United States of America. I’ve just completed editing an anthology of poetry written by this group of poets, called simply The New Australian Poetry. The echo of that title with that of Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry is partly deliberate — that one book, more than any other, had a very strong influence on this whole generation.
And before I get down to generalizations, perhaps I’d better list the names of the poets I’ve included in my anthology: Bruce Beaver, Rae Desmond Jones, Nigel Roberts, Michael Dransfield, Vicki Viidikas, Tim Thorne, Robert Adamson, Martin Johnston, Jennifer Maiden, Ken Taylor, Charles Buckmaster, Robert Kenny, Kris Hemensley, Walter Billeter, Rudi Krausmann, Philip Hammial, Garrie Hutchinson, John Jenkins, John Forbes, Laurie Duggan, Alan Wearne, John A. Scott, Clive Faust, and myself.
There has been something of a groundswell of reaction against the
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work of this group of writers over the last year or two. It’s not my purpose here to defend them against these critical assaults, but it might be worth recapitulating, briefly, some developments over the last ten years that have concerned this group of writers.
In the closing years of the 1960s a new generation of poets emerged in Australia, one that was unique in many ways. Their energy and commitment were remarkable, and resulted in more poetry readings, and new little magazines, in a few years, than we’d seen in the previous twenty. These were the so-called ‘underground’ magazines, usually printed mimeograph, and sold sometimes literally for nothing. I suspect their audience initially was mainly other poets, though in the atmosphere of mingled insecurity and bravado that prevailed under the shadow of the Vietnam war, this was a very necessary thing. There was no established avenue of communication for these new writers, and the little magazines provided them with a much-needed sense of cohesiveness.
In Melbourne, Kris Hemensley organized a series of poetry readings at the La Mama Theatre Workshop from 1966 to 1969. Most of the young Melbourne poets read there, and appeared in his magazine Our Glass. A close friend of Hemensley’s, Robert Kenny, started Contempa magazine with Phillip Edmonds, and another friend, Charles Buckmaster, began to edit The Great Auk, and in Adelaide Richard Tipping and Rob Tillett began Mok magazine.
In Sydney, Nigel Roberts began Free Poetry, a roneod magazine that was given away, and that was full of poems about sex, drugs and the Vietnam war. I brought out two issues of Transit magazine in 1968 and 1969.
The position with Poetry Magazine was a little more complicated. In 1965 its editor, Grace Perry, broke away from the Poetry Society of Australia, which published the magazine, and began her own Poetry Australia [magazine] in direct opposition to it. Poetry Australia is still quite successful, as poetry magazines go, and flourishes in much the same form as it had when it began; that is, it is contemporary, but not experimental, and is generally regarded as being somewhat conservative in its outlook.
Poetry Magazine continued publication under the editorship of Roland Robinson. Within a few years a group of younger writers including Robert Adamson, Carl Harrison-Ford, Tim Thorne, David Rankin (now better known as a painter), Vicki Viidikas and others, involved themselves with the running of the magazine, and by December 1969 Roland Robinson had left it in the hands of Robert
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Adamson, Greg Curtois and Carl Harrison-Ford. It was significantly re- named New Poetry, and began a strenuous campaign of propaganda on behalf of the new American poetry (especially the Black Mountain school, which was seen as experimental and academic at the same time) as well as contemporary Australian verse.
This coup by a group of young writers meant in effect that the new writing had taken over a part of the establishment — the Poetry Society’s meetings and poetry workshops and its magazine — but the audience was still quite small. A wider and more general audience was reached when Rodney Hall became poetry editor of The Australian newspaper and began publishing the work of poets such as Adamson, whose poems in those days were mainly on the themes of drugs, lawlessness and male homosexuality, and Michael Dransfield, one of whose books was titled Drug Poems.
The little magazines started appearing around 1967 and 1968; within five years or so the movement had produced at least twenty valuable poets, and had exercised a major influence on all the forms of poetry publication in Australia, as well as in the review columns of the newspapers and in the English Departments of our universities. What was it about this loose group of writers that made it unique, and how did it come to have such an influence in so short a time?
I think the first cause is demographic. The ‘baby boom’ of the post- war years meant that there were more children coming out of high schools in the early 1960s than ever before. The affluence of Australian society in the 1950s meant that they were being offered better education than ever before, and often this education — particularly at university level — included poetry. For example, when I studied English Literature at Sydney University in 1962 there were more than five hundred students in my first year class, all of them studying twentieth-century poetry. This created a large, relatively well-educated audience; and because they were young, they were ready to hear a type of poetry that rejected conservative values; and because most of the new poets were young, they were just as ready to accept the influence of the new pop music — Dylan, and the Beatles — as they were that of Yeats or T.S. Eliot. And the pop music of the late sixties was, in some cases, very good and very literate indeed.
Another strong influence from America was the new poetry that
emerged there in the late 1950s and early sixties. And here, the influence of a single book — Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry — was incalculable. It was big, various, and completely new; and when it
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finally arrived in Australia in the mid-1960s — though Andrew Taylor found a copy in Melbourne in 1961 — it showed the young local poets that there was a real and vigorous alternative to the world of Henry Lawson and A. D. Hope.
Another major difference between this generation and those preceding it was the attitude to drugs that came partly out of the pop music I mentioned earlier. And here I’m referring mainly to ‘‘soft’’ drugs such as Librium, Marijuana and Mandrax. I would claim that by about 1970, at least 90 per cent of the young poets I’m talking about had tried one or more of these drugs as a deliberate experiment. I would also say that, of the generations of Australian poets that preceded them, at least 90 per cent had not tried these drugs. Whatever the actual relevance of this disproportion to the poetry itself, it does mark a very strong difference in attitudes to authority, to moral experience, and to the craft and purpose of writing.
Another difference was simply technological. Printing was suddenly better in terms of quality, low cost and availability in the late sixties than ever before. The development of the small offset litho press, such as the Multilith 1250, the electronic automatic Gestetner, and the IBM office golfball typewriter using a carbon ribbon, all made the little magazines faster and easier for an amateur to produce, cheaper to print, and better-looking.
The differences in the poetry itself are less easy to catalogue, though I think a major shift in emphasis does stand out fairly clearly. One of the aims of any new movement is to replace the old, and 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. I think it’s fair to say that most of the best Australian poetry from about 1955 to 1965 was essentially conservative in both technique and sentiment. The main influence here at that time was the so-called English ‘Movement’, and the center of poetic and critical activity was the academy.
It was this image of cautious, conventional verse that was attacked most energetically by the new generation of poets. They called out for new freedoms in their lives and in their poems: freedom from conscription — we were at war with North Vietnam at the time — freedom from bureaucracy and capitalist exploitation, freedom to experiment with drugs, to develop a sexual ethic free of hypocrisy and authoritarian restraints, and freedom from the handcuffs of rhyme and the critical strictures of the university English departments.
That they largely succeeded, and went on to claim the decade of the
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seventies as their own, is now a matter of record. Their achievement may be measured crudely in terms of quantity — in the last ten years the group of poets I listed earlier, together with others loosely associated with them, have published, and found readers for, more than twenty thousand pages of creative and critical writing in magazines, newspapers, radio programs, anthologies and books, including a total of more than one hundred volumes of poetry. No other group of poets in Australia’s history has produced such a sheer mass of published writing.
I’ve said that most of the poets of this generation were motivated, in some part at least, to react against the conservative tradition they saw around them. To follow this point a little further: many of them believed — to put it very crudely indeed — that the main poetic tradition in this country had at least three major faults. It was largely derived from enfeebled English models; it was too closely aligned with the conservative establishment that had dragged us into the shame of the Vietnam war; and it was built upon a mid-Victorian understanding of poetry’s role that had been convincingly demolished in Europe and the Americas decades before.
They proposed various alternatives, ranging from the more rabid extremes of the West Coast colloquialists to the cryptic obliquity of the East Europeans. In some instances they argued the case of Romanticism as against Classicism; this I think was a reflection of a misunderstood and artificial division of Australian poetry at the time: Classicism being seen as the standard of conservative traditional academic poets, Romanticism being seen as the banner of the more emotionally-committed young. In other instances a somewhat different point was argued back and forth between Realism and Expressionism, a set of views related to those above, but the historical basis of which rests more upon the European experience than upon anything indigenous.
A more important development involved a critique of Classicism, Romanticism, Expressionism and Realism, and the attitude to literature that underlies them all. The complete overhauling of philosophy, anthropology and linguistics that had revolutionized European thought by 1950 had a strong effect on many Australian writers around the late 1960s. Its most important conclusion, for some poets, was that poems were no longer seen as necessarily embodying moral, religious, social or ethical imperatives. A closer attention to the act of writing, and a more thorough analysis of literature in the overall structure of language was found to free poetry from misplaced critical expectations, and to allow the poet a proper autonomy in deciding what and how to write.
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An example of the kind of thinking that had been going on in Europe and America, and that was beginning to have an effect on some of these poets, is given in one of the many footnotes to a paper by Kris Hemensley in a recent issue of Australian Literary Studies (October 1977). It is a quotation from Jean Ricardou’s essay ‘Rethinking Literature Today’, and it goes: ‘Two literary schools dominated the nineteenth century. Romanticism dealt with Expressionism: Realism with Representation. To oppose these two schools, as is often done in term papers, is to hide the fact that Romanticism and Realism are really two faces of the same coin. Both of them subordinate the text to an already established meaning.’ And a further note: ‘…a writer cannot be reduced to that proprietor of an established meaning whom we used to call an Author. Rather, he is a Scriptor. He is not neutral. No aspect of reality — body, work, thought — escapes his concern. But, rather than expressing or representing reality, he introduces it into a process of transformation which might be called inscription.’
It’s my contention that in the last ten years, in the work of a number of important new Australian poets, we have seen a change of emphasis in the way poetry is being written. I would further suggest that a useful way of looking at this shift — one that makes sense of it on its own terms — is to see it as resulting in two distinct types of poetry, each working from a different conventional view of the relations between language, literature, writing and reality.
An extreme example of these two types of poetry, both of which happen to be influenced to some important degree by American writers, occurred in an issue of Poetry Australia in 1972. On page 35 of issue number 42 we have Vincent Buckley’s ‘Golden Builders’, a poem that should be known to most of us. And on page 29, the poem ‘TV’ by John Forbes; much less ambitious, but important — for my purposes here, at any rate — for the way it exemplifies some of the new attitudes to poetry that I want to focus on.
Vincent Buckley’s ‘Golden Builders’ is clearly a major attempt, by one of Australia’s better-known poets, to construct a work of lasting importance in a modern idiom; I don’t wish, here, to attempt to analyze that poem’s ambiguously modern use of traditional rhetoric, still less to evaluate its final achievement. To do proper justice to it would take more time than I have at my disposal, and, in the present company, might turn out to be a somewhat foolhardy adventure.
What I wish to do, is to present, very briefly, the characteristic tone of its language. The poem begins:
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Lygon and Drummond shift under their resonance.
Saws and hammers drawn across the bending air
shuttling like a bow; the saw trembles
the hammers are molten, they flow with quick light
striking; the flush spreads and deepens on the stone.
The drills call the streets together
stretching hall to lecture-room to hospital.
I hardly need to characterize for you the tone, style, and intention of the language of that passage. It is firmly in the traditional mode of English-language poetry that has been dominant from about 1800: a landscape at once natural and metaphoric, coloured by the poet’s intense perception of the broadly moral values underlying his own relationship to it. John Forbes’ poem ‘TV’ goes like this:
describe what your set is like the casing the
curved screen its strip of white stillness like
beach sand at pools where the animals come
down to drink and a native hunter hides his
muscles, poised with a fire sharpened spear
until the sudden whirr of an anthropologist’s
hidden camera sends gazelles leaping off in
their delicate slow motion caught on film
despite the impulsive killing of unlucky Doctor
Mathews whose body was found three months later
the film and camera intact save for a faint,
green mould on its hand-made leather casing
It is very obvious that the world of traditional poetic discourse has been left far behind. And yet the objects and events in this poem are quite everyday, and easily within everybody’s range of normal experiences. We’ve all watched television, and seen movies about African wildlife, and nothing within the poem is at all unusual. What is unusual is what the poem is doing, in terms of its role as a piece of language acting upon a reader. Instead of the poet saying to his audience ‘Look, here are some objects and events from the real world; I have experienced them intensely, and I want you to share this experience through a literary fiction that we shall pretend is not a fiction’ (which is
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what many readers expect from a poem), here John Forbes is saying to the reader: ‘Look at your TV set; don’t describe the content of the programs; describe instead to me, the poet (which is of course impossible) what the container of these hypothetical programs is like — And then the poet breaks off, abandoning the reader, and releasing him from the imperative mood of the poem’s opening, and writes an extended Homeric simile that contains within itself a story that depends (for its fictional validity) upon the contents of a film camera, itself imaginary. The word ‘casing’ in effect opens and closes the action of the poem; appropriately enough, for the poem is itself a metaphor for the concept of a container, or rather a set of descending levels of containers: the poem containing the concept of a television set, which contains an image that, through the process of metaphor, becomes contained within the imaginary story of unlucky Doctor Mathews; the television set which contains imaginary and never-to-be-described programs; the film camera which contains the slow-motion film of gazelles; and finally the poem seen as containing the word ‘casing’, which brackets and thus formally contains the whole metaphor upon which the poem is based.
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.
To see how far the language of this type of poetry has moved from the more generally accepted view of what type of rhetoric English verse is expected to embody, I’d like to quote a selection of phrases used in two recent reviews of Vincent Buckley’s Golden Builders. And the phrases go, in select quotation, as follows:
guarantees our belief, a change of heart, practical and positive,
what gives life value, keeps alive our hopes, more humanly
meaningful, sense of responsibility, convinced of the moral value,
intelligence and moral judgement, the ‘God’ who guarantees
human value, the artist’s responsibility, this responsibility forbids
self-indulgence, honesty of approach, responsible for the world
they have made, reverence, enlarge his sense of responsibility,
honest acceptance, seriousness, something significant to say, the
true, as against the false, life, freedom and responsibility,
reverent, sensitivity, sensitive response, deeply-observed, deeply-
felt sensations, full humanity, integrity, mature, (and) con-
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Many readers would find those terms quite acceptable in a discussion o: almost any contemporary poetry. They are of course particularly appropriate to any discussion of a poem such as Golden Builders, a worl with specific moral and religious overtones.
But the kind of high seriousness we find in this language is quite inappropriate to most areas of most people’s lives, and the applicatior of such standards to much recent poetry can only result in the dismissal of many poems that have a different kind of value. When one critic says of a recent poem ‘[it] demonstrates the importance of poetry, showing its power to celebrate and strengthen human freedom, dignity and risk…’, such a critic seems to be implying that unless a poem tries to fully embody (and I quote now from the same critic in the same context) ‘the myth which gives point and meaning to the otherwise solitary and pointless suffering of the individual’ — unless a poem tries to fulfil this arduous religious function, then it risks being at best trivial, and at worst criminally negligent.
Yet any critic who can so confidently claim that poetry has a real civilizing power can never have given serious consideration to George Steiner’s anguished assertion that (and I quote from his essay ‘To Civilize our Gentlemen’) ‘We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth century Europe… bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalised sadism. Literary values and the utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility… ’ After Belsen, the belief that poetry has a real and actual power to ‘strengthen human freedom, dignity and risk’ must be seen as naive, to say the least.
On a less intense level; to illustrate one of the problems that this general kind of criticism can run into when it tries to handle a work that’s constructed on entirely different premises, I’d like to quote a poem by Rae Desmond Jones, and one critic’s response to it. The poem is ‘The Front Window’:
as an old greek woman
dressed in black walks
along the path with
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the spray tapers on
the roof opposite like durer’s
hands & i know if i take a rubber
i can obliterate the world
the old woman looks
at me & her face is folded & cracked
& her eyes are small
i take the rubber
& she looks down as she
begins to disappear
because she is heavy i rub harder
& she becomes gradually faint
she drops the parcel &
it splits on the wet ground
& sets loose a swarm of angry
their tails are fat &
they beat against the glass & live
although i rub them out one by one
they are a plague
This poem ‘makes a woman of words’, says Christopher Pollnitz, in a recent Southerly magazine: ‘The way to recommend Jones is to quote him’. And Pollnitz quotes the whole poem, one which he obviously likes. Then he goes on to say: ‘Here he is meditating his responsibilities as a creator of fictions, but is this not also a parable about compassion, and even more about Woman? For Jones as for Robert Graves, She abides.’ Now it seems to me that Rae Jones here is not meditating his responsibilities as a creator of fictions, but his lack of such responsibilities, and his ability to play freely within his text. And I can’t see any evidence in the poem to support the rather strained thesis that it is a parable, nor that it has anything to do with compassion, and even less excuse to refer to woman with a capital ‘W’.
It seems clear to me that Rae Jones is here building a poem based on a metaphor as old as Shakespeare, that of the work of art having a life of its own, together with the reverse image of the artist’s and reader’s awareness of the fictions involved in such a process of creation. This is
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the area of tension where the fiction of the poem succeeds with the reader — and that poem has been quoted in full by almost every reviewer who has looked at the book it was printed in — and that poetic effect in itself seems more literally marvellous to me than any hypothetical parable about woman with a capital ‘W’.
Mr Pollnitz’ difficulties here are typical of many academics’ attempts to come to grips with much contemporary poetry. If a reviewer likes a particular poem, he or she has to justify it in terms he or she (and most of his or her readers) are used to, often the values of religious humanism. If he dislikes it, he can only condemn it in the same terms.
This type of criticism has been so useful as a tool for dismantling and analyzing much of the poetry published in Australia since the Second World War, that it could almost be implied that a large part of this poetry was written with that fate in mind. Where it is appropriate — for example with the poem ‘Golden Builders’, mentioned above — it does a very useful job.
But where it is inappropriate, it can only falsify the poet’s intentions, and limit and distort the reader’s possible responses to the work. The problem is that poetry and criticism in the service of humanism — even a humanism that attempts to remove itself from the domain of the overtly moral and ethical — faces the same danger as any art in the service of any propaganda: it attracts to its cause explicators who must guide and correct its course, and who inevitably bring to bear authoritarian restraints on the artist’s freedom.
Most of our critics are employed by our universities, and our universities were modelled directly on a nineteenth-century view of what English educational institutions should be: a force for moral and ethical enlightenment, based on a mixed doctrine of common sense, Christianity and Victorian optimistic humanism. Cold showers, a brisk run around the playing fields, and a dose of Matthew Arnold were considered a firm basis upon which to build a young British gentleman’s education.
That bracing optimism long ago disappeared into the bottomless pit of the twentieth century, to be replaced by an anguished uncertainty. In the face of a general lack of firmly-agreed social and moral values in the teaching of English, many academics today feel — naturally enough — both useless and threatened. Poetry is thus often seen as forming a rather complicated but well-meaning religious text; the academic often sees his job as the explication of these cryptic utterances, for the purpose of strengthening and ennobling the otherwise meaningless
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condition of modern alienated man. The viewpoint can be Christian, or Marxist, or anything between; to the poet it hardly matters, for what he is facing at the hands of all such criticism is a type of appropriation. His art is being utilized — ‘used’ is a more honest word — ostensibly to better the spiritual health of man, and in fact to emotionally and spiritually validate the academic’s sense of his own tenuous social worth.
To oppose this dehumanizing process is to leave oneself open to charges of heartlessness, social irrelevance, triviality, and worse; but these charges are based on our hypothetical academic’s own terms, which are in turn a product of his own anxieties.
Thus many poets have declined to argue openly with this type of critical approach; instead, they have gone on to build a type of poetry that is concerned with its own discoveries, with trying to find answers to particular problems in our social, artistic and intellectual environment that other poets understand and suffer from in their work and in their lives.
One alternative to the broadly humanist approach — and one that is recently fashionable, intellectually rigorous, and impeccably academic — is structuralism, in one or other of its variant forms. It would seem to be attractive to poets, for its technical dismantlings work, in reverse order, in a similar manner to the way some contemporary poetry is actually put together; it also promises a greater degree of autonomy for the poet vis-a-vis the multifarious cultural forces he or she works against.
My knowledge of this discipline is slight; but I would tentatively mention what I think are two limitations to its use as a methodology of poetics. First, the necessarily laborious dissection of each phoneme of each word of each poem it treats (in its most rigorous and linguistically-derived form) places such a conceptual distance between the act of dismantling and the act of reassembly that the reader — not to mention the poet — is driven so far into a technical analysis of language that the other important purposes of the poem sink almost irretrievably beneath the surface. Another drawback is that structuralism, in some of its currently developing forms, appears to be attempting something akin to a reification of Marx into the body of its methodology, perhaps in an understandable attempt to build a socially, ethically and collectively acceptable foundation underneath the precariously ‘pure’ intellection of its best exponents. Roland Barthes has made cautionary mention of the philosophy he has done so much to develop congealing into ‘the grim science of semiotics’. For the poet, to escape from the warm but stifling
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embrace of Doctor Leavis is one thing; but to find oneself slipping into the firm grip of a literary Lysenko is another.
Neville Dyson-Hudson, in a paper revised for publication in 1969, sketched a more crucial deficiency in structural method in the field of social anthropology, at least as far as it is exemplified by Levi-Strauss on the one hand and Radcliffe-Brown on the admittedly distant other. ‘Levi-Strauss’, he says, ‘has offered only a partial solution to the problem of man in society. In that, he and Radcliffe-Brown stand on equal terms… another partial solution remains to be offered between them, called for by the deficiencies of both and hopefully offering something to each. [It] consists in the proposal to try and bring the individual within the purview of social anthropology again… In [the case of both authors], man as a sentient being attempting to work out his own solutions has disappeared. We have only his residues — as the externally constrained bundle of socially prescribed rights and obligations (in Radcliffe-Brown), as the unconscious instrument of his culture’s heritage of ideas (in Levi-Strauss). Objective or subjective, all we have is rigidity. Of the man of the poets, of the man of the novelists, of the man of the psychologists, there is no sign.’
The partial solution that Dyson-Hudson tentatively offers (in terms of social anthropology, and I am suggesting that a parallel might usefully be constructed with literature and poetics) is the concept of praxis; what the dictionary defines as ‘the practising of an art’, derived from the Greek for‘doing’.
He goes on to say: ‘… the Aristotelian notion of self-realizing and self-justifying, as well as purposive, behaviour — “performance”, as we might say — is the very essence of role behaviour, and it is no surprise to an anthropologist that praxis has its place in the Poetics… How, precisely, are we to translate a concern with praxis into a working method for social anthropology? I suggest we need three things. First, we need a concept of the individual — not as Radcliffe-Brown’s bag of molecules, but as a sentient being with — (the second concept) — definable interests… which I accept as “the settled and avowed aspirations of a man which he… believes to be more or less realisable.” Third,… we need a greatly elaborated conception of role, instead of the single one implicit in Radcliffe-Brown. Such an elaboration has already been provided by Levinson and I will not repeat it here, except to point out that in distinguishing the many facets — role demands, role conceptions (both individual and modal), role performances, and so on — it allows us to see roles for the plastic, manipulable things they are. And it is because they are flexible (means
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to act in alternate ways) and not simply constraints that demand action… that roles, so conceived, give us the instrument for dealing with praxis’
I think I’ve gone on for long enough elaborating a specialized theory with which I’m not very well acquainted. For those interested in pursuing this idea further, Dyson-Hudson’s paper is collected in The Structuralist Controversy, published by the Johns Hopkins Press.
I’d like to pass quickly now to the American poet Frank O’Hara, a writer who is read with respect by almost all of the young poets I mentioned at the start of this paper. He is in many ways a difficult poet, but his work has had quite a strong influence locally, and I think anyone with any pretensions to understanding recent Australian poetry should be prepared to read his work sympathetically.
As an example, here’s a short poem:
I am appearing, yes it’s true
it’s a great blow for freedom
the Commissioner said when he gave me
my card, you have proved that Society
contaminated you, not you it
and we’re proud to have you on the boards
not to say the records, again
but try not to spread the infection
like Billie and Monk and the others
be a good whatever-you-are and keep clean
and I’ll pick you up after the show.
And a sample of what Frank O’Hara thought of his own poetic practice; from a manifesto titled ‘Personism’:
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Most poets and critics would agree that O’Hara, and other American poets like him (in very general terms) make up a force that must be reckoned with in a seriously responsive way. Yet it’s patently obvious, after those quotes, that any critical vocabulary that embraces terms such as ‘keeps alive our hopes’, ‘sense of responsibility’, ‘intelligence and moral judgement’, and ‘this responsibility forbids self-indulgence’ — a set of morally-derived terms that seems adequate when dealing with some contemporary Australian poetry — will be found hopelessly wanting in the face of writers such as O’Hara.
The basic elements of aesthetics — the relationship of the parts to the whole, the decorum of technical elements, divergence from and adherence to traditional methods, and so forth — deal only with the operation of the artwork within its own frame of reference. It has always seemed necessary, in the history of aesthetics, to place this set of parameters within the framework of a larger system of human values — ethics, morality, religion or politics. We have had Platonic aesthetics, and Christian and Marxist aesthetics, and many others. The attempt to subsume art under a social need has always been with us. Where these attempts lead to a deeper appreciation of a particular poet’s work, they are useful. Where they lead to strain and contradiction, we must assume that the aesthetic principles and the actual principles of the work under discussion are at variance.
With the emergence of intelligent and talented poets such as Rae Jones, Nigel Roberts, Martin Johnston, Robert Adamson, John Forbes, Kris Hemensley, and others; and with the emergence of intelligent and talented critics such as Kevin Hart, Alan Gould, Christopher Pollnitz, Dennis Haskell, and others; we have entered an area of considerable misunderstanding and conflict. And a lot of this misunderstanding arises out of our various attempts to come to terms with the admittedly difficult shift in poetic consciousness I mentioned earlier.
To conclude, let me summarize some of the points I’ve tried to make in this paper. Much recent Australian poetry has diverged from what we might as well call the English Colonial Poetic Tradition. Its main influences have been American, and mainly American poets who have gone to European models, to develop a version of post-Modernism. On the other hand, our critical thinking has been based on an English tradition that stretches back unbroken at least as far as Coleridge, and that has remained isolated from those European and American developments that figure so largely in the work of many contemporary poets.
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In the last ten years, then, there has been a crucial divergence of opinion about the means and ends of poetry. Serious critics often seek to guide straying poets back to the fold of humanism. I’m suggesting that such an attitude is essentially mistaken; and that much enjoyable and valuable poetry will be misunderstood and unjustly condemned, unless readers of poetry are willing to educate themselves not in terms of the Great Tradition, but in terms of what is being done here and now.