Thursday, 21 October 2010

Eventual After-effects of Travel

    As I mentioned in a previous post, at the end of last year I went travelling through Asia and Australia for several months. With my usual elephantine gestation-period, poems based on those experiences have only just started to filter through and coalesce from journal-pages and jottings, hopefully to form a fairly heterogenuous sequence of linked texts. In striving for an equilibrium between the spontaneity or sketchiness of my original words and later redraftings (with their inevitable perspective of ruminative hindsight), what has emerged so far is a focus and enquiry into the act of ongoing observation and experience itself, the two-way traffic between the unfamiliar newness of travel and how a) to record this in appropriately fresh language/style and b) to relate it to previous knowledge and experience; esp. in my case, the grieving-process I was going through and seeking to move beyond (not, however, to labour this and lurch into confessional territory.)  
   This stint of travel also initiated numerous directions for subsequent reading. This year I've been attempting an overview of Australian poetry, chiefly through the hefty Penguin Book of Australian Verse and the heftier Collected Poems of Les Murray. The Penguin anthology throws up a lot of surprises. There seems to be a roughly parallel development with the historical lineage of American poetry, whereby the nascent culture is at first in thrall to Old World paradigms (in this case of course the Miltonic and Shakespearean traditions of English verse) and then gradually shakes them off and establishes its own themes and registers with an increasing sense of self-assertion and boldness, until it appears in more recent decades that its indigenous poetry has a greater diversity, vitality and adventurousness to it than that of its debunked colonial forebear (still perhaps too often hemmed-in by the past).

Kenneth Slessor
   After the first 50 pages of derivative 19thC material, the first really interesting Australian poet is Christopher Brennan, who apparently corresponded with Mallarme and attempted an intellectually ambitious kind of post-Symbolist narrative in texts like The Wanderer. I'm inclined to agree with the editor Harry Heseltine who (in the Introduction) calls Brennan "a great poet manque" and accuses him of "over-writing" - the failure, however, must be accounted a brave one, and Brennan very much (in pre-WW1 Sydney) "out of key with his time".
    The promise evidenced in Brennan's proto-Modernist work seems to reach a slightly later fruition in the poetry of Kenneth Slessor (1901-71), which is clearly immersed in early Eliot and perhaps early Stevens but at the same time has a marvellously vibrant, rich-sounding, wry voice that is all its own. In fact this poem of his, 'Metempsychosis' (the word or concept out of Ulysses perhaps), is something of a masterpiece, bristling with verve and imaginative empathy, what Eliot's 'Preludes' should have been like if they weren't engloomed by their author's contempt for everyday working-class life:

        Suddenly to become John Benbow, walking down William Street
        With a tin-trunk and a five-pound note, looking for a place to eat,
        And a peajacket the colour of a shark's behind
        That a Jew might buy in the morning...

        (  ) Wake in a shaggy bale of blankets with a fished-up cigarette,
         Picking over Turfbird's Tattle for a Saturday morning bet,
         With a bottle in the wardrobe easy to reach
         And a blast of onions from the landing...

    Slessor leads the way for a succession of other strong poets who both learnt from Modernism and forged a distinctive manner beyond it: RD Fitzgerald, AD Hope, Douglas Stewart, Judith Wright. What's also really interesting as the century moves on is the development of a tradition of social satire directed against the perceived philistinism of Australian culture. One could perhaps theorise about the formative historical juncture at which a nation's poets most vehemently question and castigate a recently-emerging state: in England and France this happened as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, whereas such a young country as Australia seems to have experienced this robust self-analysis during the last century. If we think of Peter Porter's satirical poetry of the '60's, which seemed novel and fresh in the context of the limp post-Movement English scene, it looks less unusual alongside excellent contemporaries like Bruce Dawes and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, at least some of whose output was very much in a satirical vein. (The laudatory notices that met Porter's passing-away earlier this year attested to his ability to extend his range and in his later years write what was widely-held to be a compendious and far-reaching poetry.)
   Turning briefly to Les Murray, we see how he too has tapped into this tradition of social comment, although perhaps less happily. I'm only halfway through the Collected, but to me it's almost become a rule of thumb with Murray that when he writes of the natural /farming world, his poetry is almost always compelling and alive; yet when he turns to Australian society and history, it tends towards the cumbersome or dull. An interesting point of comparison in the anthology is between Murray and his near-contemporary and friend Geoffrey Lehmann: both have poems about pigs in the book ('Blood' and 'The Pigs' respectively). Murray's piece is evocative of the sounds and smells of farm-life, realist in a Heaneyesque sort of way; certainly a decent poem - but Lehmann uses the image of the pigs (we are never sure, since the poem's set in Tuscany and there's a mention of a toga, whether this is an imaginary scenario or based on memories or reading) both as themselves and as the springboard for a disturbing, gripping dream-poem eddying with dark currents and possible sub-meanings. Frankly it makes the Murray poem seem limited and one-dimensional.


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