Free-form ex­cur­sions to the high ground

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ian Mcfar­lane

Bar­na­cle Rock By Mar­garet Brad­stock Puncher & Wattmann, 122pp, $24 In­digo Morn­ing By Rachael Munro Grand Pa­rade Poets, 91pp, $21.95 Paths of Flight By Luke Fischer Black Pep­per, 81pp, $22.95 AMER­I­CAN jour­nal­ist and some­time poet Don Mar­quis mem­o­rably com­pared pub­lish­ing a book of po­etry to throw­ing a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and wait­ing for an echo. Even al­low­ing for the fact he was also a hu­morist, I sus­pect his metaphor car­ries weight, which prompts me to sug­gest that re­view­ing po­etry, given its ten­u­ous rel­e­vance to con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, may be com­pared to de­con­struct­ing a per­for­mance of Wait­ing for Godot in an empty theatre dur­ing a black­out.

Po­etry to­day is a mi­nor­ity art, largely, I sus­pect, be­cause of a yawn­ing (pun in­tended) gap be­tween the lofty per­cep­tions of an in­creas­ing num­ber of in­sid­ers who wish to write it and the ev­ery­day re­ac­tions of a di­min­ish­ing num­ber of out­siders who bother to read it. And there’s the rub: while most of us can read­ily agree we need po­etry to sus­tain a civilised cul­ture, the po­si­tion is less clear when it comes to the tan­gled task of un­rav­el­ling func­tion from form.

The three hand­somely pro­duced col­lec­tions un­der re­view are use­ful ex­am­ples of po­etry’s con­tem­po­rary di­rec­tion. They are all prod­ucts of so­phis­ti­cated in­tel­li­gence, with con­cerns ran-

March 15-16, 2014 ging from his­tor­i­cal ex­plo­ration to nar­ra­tive mem­ory and re­demp­tive aes­thet­ics.

The po­ems are closely fo­cused, of­ten vivid and gen­er­ally ac­ces­si­ble; driven by an un­de­ni­able sense of artis­tic sen­si­tiv­ity, al­though never quite man­ag­ing to es­cape the im­plic­itly sat­is­fied tang of hav­ing oc­cu­pied a lit­er­ary high ground.

The text in all three col­lec­tions is al­most en­tirely ex­pressed in a stylised form of free verse, and while I have no par­tic­u­lar prob­lem with this — other than to sug­gest (per­haps play­fully) that by re­mov­ing cho­sen line breaks and idio­syn­cratic spac­ing, the words can morph to­wards charis­matic prose — it im­plies a de­lib­er­ate avoid­ance of rhyme. Per­haps this shouldn’t mat­ter al­though, per­son­ally, I like to think it does.

Tra­di­tion­ally, po­etry with the power to in­voke Wordsworth’s “still, sad mu­sic of hu­man­ity’’ was ar­guably con­sid­ered to be the mother tongue of English lit­er­a­ture, al­though more re­cently its voice has been muf­fled by many things, in­clud­ing the white noise of a fa­tally dis­tracted “look at me’’ dig­i­tal gen­er­a­tion. I’ve loved po­etry all my life but find it hard to re­sist the no­tion that some­where around the mid­dle of the 20th century it was lured into a labyrinth of self-in­dul­gent jig­gery-pok­ery and is still strug­gling, with hon­ourable ex­cep­tions, of course, to find a way out.

At this point, it may be ap­pro­pri­ate also to con­fess a long-held scep­ti­cism about the process of writ­ing any­thing worth­while hav­ing be­come far too aware of it­self. In short, a ris­i­ble pro­lif­er­a­tion of cre­ative writ­ing cour­ses and lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, cou­pled with the pre­dic­tive prej­u­dice of peer-group ex­pec­ta­tion, in­evitably be­comes detri­men­tally coun­ter­in­tu­itive. Writ­ing well is cru­cially linked to in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­ity, and more dif­fi­cult to achieve than most people may sup­pose, while poets need to find a vo­ca­tion be­fore mea­sur­ing an oc­cu­pa­tion. Cre­ativ­ity can be sought, and cer­tainly en­cour­aged, but soon be­comes hope­lessly en­tan­gled with ar­ti­fice when sim­ply as­sumed, or at­tempt­ing to be taught. Suf­fice to say, there’s a damn sight more in­volved in be­ing a writer (es­pe­cially of po­etry) than want­ing to be one.

Mar­garet Brad­stock is a Syd­ney poet, critic and edi­tor with a well-de­served lit­er­ary per­sona, es­tab­lished through many years, hav­ing been an Asialink writer-in-res­i­dence in China, co-edi­tor of Five Bells and a mem­ber of the board of di­rec­tors for Aus­tralian Po­etry. Bar­na­cle Rock is her sixth po­etry collection and dis­plays a keen eye for the vis­ceral con­text of some ground­break­ing his­tory, em­brac­ing the dis­cov­ery and ex­plo­ration of Aus­tralia. It’s easy to for­get that James Cook’s En­deav­our was one of sev­eral ar­rivals to the fa­bled shores of our “great south land”, which had been also no­ticed (painfully as well as dis­dain­fully) by cap­tains of Por­tuguese, Dutch and French ships, and Brad­stock’s open­ing poem, Coun­try of Beach, deftly cor­rals a broad com­pass:

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