Po­etic in­sight into our in­te­rior lives

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

one of the edi­tors of the an­thol­ogy, be­lieves the qual­ity of Aus­tralian po­etry is at an all-time high — but we need to take no­tice Aus­tralia has not al­ways given a re­cep­tive ear to po­etry, with the ex­cep­tion per­haps of the bal­lad writers, who it was felt at the time did say things Aus­tralians wanted to hear, in a way we wanted to hear them. In our ear­lier his­tory, this in­dif­fer­ence was un­der­stand­able: for the pi­o­neers, the task was sur­vival. Art and sci­ence were lux­u­ries that could come later.

Be­sides, it takes time to de­velop a tra­di­tion. Po­etry, for some rea­son, is one of the slower arts to be­come es­tab­lished.

The US had been set­tled for hun­dreds of years be­fore its po­etry got off the ground. A young coun­try, anx­ious about its self-es­teem, mea­sures it­self against more es­tab­lished lands with suits that will be com­pet­i­tive: sport, agri­cul­ture, mil­i­tary prow­ess.

If, as in our case, the par­ent hap­pens to have a rich lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, then the ex-colony is likely to set that hand aside when it comes to con­struct­ing its iden­tity. At least, that is, un­til it is in a bet­ter po­si­tion to claim it as an as­set.

The par­ent can re­in­force this, with the disin­gen­u­ous part it plays in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo. As long as its edi­tors com­pile the an­tholo­gies and its crit­ics award the praise, then the rel­a­tive po­si­tions of the two cul­tures will be an un­ac­knowl­edged el­e­ment in their judg­ments.

This is es­sen­tially the sit­u­a­tion that has per­tained so far.

Even­tu­ally, how­ever, as a so­ci­ety ma­tures, it will have to con­sider its re­la­tion­ship with its more thought­ful at­tain­ments as well. It doesn’t have much choice about this: they are es­sen­tial com­po­nents of a cul­ture.

Any cul­ture that ac­tu­ally pro­duces any­thing has to be rest­less and un­pre­dictable — and strong enough to be per­ma­nently wary about its con­clu­sions. We ac­cept this in sci­ence or in his­tory. Over the past cen­tury or so, it has be­come a key as­pect of po­etry as well.

The ex­ploratory el­e­ment in po­etry — as in all lit­er­a­ture — has al­ways been there, but its more typ­i­cal func­tions, in say 1900, were ei­ther to tell a story, or to feed our prej­u­dices in a way we found pleas­ing be­cause of its rhymes, or its ve­he­mence, or per­haps the clumsy but tri­umphant joke at the end.

News­pa­pers of the time might print half-adozen po­ems in ev­ery is­sue, but only a mi­nus­cule num­ber would still be of in­ter­est. Many of the func­tions of such po­ems have been usurped by other media. We have talk­back ra­dio for our prej­u­dices, and — though po­ets do ex­per­i­ment with nar­ra­tive from time to time — nov­els and movies and pod­casts for our sto­ries.

One thing po­etry still does uniquely well, how­ever, is to ex­plore our un­der­stand­ings: to ask the ques­tions that are left hang­ing when the story ends. If sci­ence tries to un­der­stand the world in terms that are as ‘‘ob­jec­tive’’ as pos­si­ble — cross-ref­er­enced against ex­per­i­ment and other es­tab­lished find­ings — then po­etry in­creas­ingly ap­plies those find­ings to our lives by giv­ing them their emo­tional weight.

These re­sponses may be shaped by our imag­i­na­tive lives, but ev­i­dence-based con­clu­sions are ubiq­ui­tous in con­tem­po­rary verse. To take a few ex­am­ples from the an­thol­ogy: how the ‘‘atomic’’ view of the world in­vests David Brooks’s Dust; how a psy­chol­o­gist’s find­ing about the for­ma­tion of men­tal im­ages in­forms Bron­wyn Lea’s think­ing about the con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion of love in Driv­ing into Dis­tances; how Maria Takolan­der’s med­i­ta­tion on the move­ments of her un­born baby (in Foetal Move­ment) is in­con­ceiv­able without mod­ern tech­nol­ogy.

Aus­tralian po­ets are very good at ex­plor­ing our shift­ing un­der­stand­ings, and at reg­is­ter­ing their im­pact on our in­te­rior lives. They are as good, at least, as our prose writers. Hav­ing re­cently had to read pretty much ev­ery­thing we have pro­duced over the past 25 years, I and my co-edi­tors came to the con­clu­sion there were per­haps 30 po­ets writ­ing with a se­ri­ously high level of skill and in­sight: with both dis­tinc­tive and in­di­vid­ual per­spec­tives, and the crafts­man­ship to re­alise them. We have never had so many po­ets writ­ing at this level be­fore. If this is a story the media has missed, it is not alone. The uni­ver­si­ties have not got hold of it ei­ther. It is a big story, and will play out over the com­ing decades.

The point here, how­ever, is that the po­ets have been ful­fill­ing the role we would ex­pect them to in a cre­ative cul­ture. They are one of its cut­ting edges — the edge that weighs its un­der­stand­ings ver­bally.

Now it is the so­ci­ety’s turn. Some­how, we re­main trapped in a view of po­etry that is more suited to a pi­o­neer­ing age — to an age of un­for­giv­ing ne­ces­si­ties. In some ways, that is eas­ier: we never like to be dis­rupted into the present. But we can’t se­ri­ously lay claim to be­ing a ma­ture and cre­ative cul­ture un­less we are pre­pared to en­gage with the un­der­stand­ings that the most thought­ful minds in that cul­ture pro­duce.

In many ar­eas, we are en­thu­si­as­tic about the new. With po­etry, how­ever, our re­sponses seem frozen: an in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­flex left over from some ear­lier cul­tural need. Cre­ative cul­tures ex­plore all the pos­si­bil­i­ties — even their blind spots.

It is time Aus­tralia stopped re­peat­ing it­self and looked around — par­tic­u­larly when the work is al­ready there.

Sa­muel Wa­gan Wat­son

Gig Ryan

Robert Adam­son

MTC Cronin

Stephen Edgar

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