Thursday, 29 January 2009
Monday, 26 January 2009
I’ve made my thoughts about nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australian poetry clear before now. It seems to me another instance of the editor hesitating between the pragmatic (if I don’t include this material it won’t become a school text) and the idealistic (the Rothenberg job). It’s history that is partly used to justify these inclusions. If the authors aren’t that interesting in themselves nonetheless they represent a kind of ‘voice of Australia’ (though ‘Australia’ as such didn’t exist for most of this period and, in any case, it was not an America: it was less an ideal than a brute fact). For an ‘anti-nationalist’ this might seem a strange position to operate from.
So, the nineteenth century. Pretty thin gruel overall, though you could certainly argue for CJ Dennis (I imagine Pound and Eliot would have liked this poet had they read him), and there are always arguments for Charles Harpur and Christopher Brennan. The early twentieth century produced oddities like Furnley Maurice who often began poems well (try the line ‘The lanes are full of young men swallowing beer’) before collapsing into doggerel. Maurice had obviously read the early modernists but had made the mistake of figuring modernity as content rather than form.
The Rothenberg effect means that poems of very different provenance written for very different audiences are allowed to sit together. This can be a profitable exercise and, at times, an amusing one. My own poem, a translation of an early twentieth-century Italian sophisticate appears next to a piece by Geoff Goodfellow, a self-proclaimed ‘working-class poet’. It can also be a less than useful practice. The anthology has one of the better selections of Aboriginal poetry in English (plus several pieces in translation and a couple untranslated) and for this it is to be commended. However, among these are one or two pieces included for their overt politic rather than for any other merit. This is surely an unnecessary act of reverse discrimination when there are very good poets like Lionel Fogarty or, for that matter David Unaipon to hand who are every bit as ‘political’? I’d argue too for Sam Wagan Watson who isn’t included here.
So who are the ‘heroes’ of this new anthology? Kinsella disavows any attempt to suggest relative importance by representation yet it can hardly suggest otherwise. Those poets afforded three or more poems, it turns out, are an unsurprising list: Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Les Murray &c. For better or worse it’s more a kind of critical consensus (amidst this it’s nice to sense the editor’s undisguised awe of John Forbes). So how does the book justify itself? It is refreshing in some respects, though it’s a pity that for various ideological reasons poets like Alan Wearne and Robert Adamson refused the editor permission. Why did the poets not cooperate? Did they sense that they might become mere materials for someone else’s argument (isn’t this true of every anthology?). It’s a sad fact of general anthologies that they tend to exist as though those omitted need never have existed (I won’t win any friends for saying this even if I’ve been left out of any number of anthologies myself). In my own case, as an ‘expat’, I didn’t really feel I had much choice. Australia forgets its poets with alarming rapidity unless, like Les Murray, they hog the feature pages of the dailies (i.e. become ‘celebrities’).
Let the debate continue!
Wednesday, 21 January 2009
Friday, 16 January 2009
Rothko’s popularity is itself a matter of interest. Together with Jackson Pollock he is a sure draw for gallery crowds. Both artists have a considerable mythology built around them; their work when displayed becomes a site for pilgrimage as much as for ‘dispassionate’ viewing. A career retrospective would have been even more overwhelming (in terms of gallery crowding) though this may have proved a financially prohibitive exercise. It’s hard to imagine that Cy Twombly, for example, or even one of Rothko’s contemporaries like Barnett Newman or Philip Guston would have made viewing the work a potentially difficult task.
Sunday, 11 January 2009
Tuesday, 6 January 2009
Here are a few notes made along the way:
20/12 Amid the Xmas muzak in Hong Kong airport, a tepid version of ‘The Red Flag’ [I’m later informed that it was probably ‘O Tannenbaum’ which spoils the story a little but it’s still a small epiphany at the intersection of Marx and Mammon].
24/12 Wattle birds barking in Williamstown.
A crested pigeon.
The newsagent sells bait.
26/12 The question of how I relate to Australia, not in any nostalgic sense (missing the weather, the beach &c) but in the sense of what I intellectually take from (t)here. Is it a kind of grounding that makes everything I write relate back? If so, it means that my work may be ‘exotic’ in the UK, that people may like it even, but that it can never really be ‘essential’ for anyone else.
27/12 A new anthology of Australian poetry (in which I appear) must be one of the ugliest books Penguin have produced. And is there really any need for us to trudge through 19th century colonial poetry anymore? As a child I was punished by these endless ballads and clanky verses. I didn’t get an inkling of what poetry was until years later with Keats and TS Eliot. Lawson was a good prose writer, but I can’t see how he, ‘Banjo’ Patterson and the rest of the poets can be resuscitated, ever. I would much rather read the diaries of the 19th century colonies than I would the poets.All week, no movement
in the army depot.
Exotic birds over khaki trucks,
yellow boats on their trailers
ready for what?
The containers have left the Bay.
The Bellarine’s a smudge, past the
Ships move through the trees
A further week in Sydney was no less eventful but I gave the notebook a rest.