‘Poetry lives, Okay?’ | Australian Literary Review Vol. 5 Iss. 6

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XP13-3 (xenotext protein)


by Jaya Savige; first published in Australian Literary Review June 02, 2010. [3780 wds]

Rev. Essay: Australian Literature and the Symbolist Movement (2009) by John Hawke & Networked Language (2008) by Philip Mead.



STUDENTS of Italian literature like to quip that the sonnet was invented by the Sicilian mafia in the 1240s. This glib ascription is not without a basis in fact. As Monash University poet and lecturer in Italian studies Simon West explains in his critical English edition of The Selected Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti (2009), the invention of the famous form is usually credited to Giacomo da Lentini, ‘the principle voice of the scuola siciliana’ (Sicilian school) of poets writing under the patronage of Federico II of Sicily in the first half of the 13th century.

The Western poetic tradition, however it is defined, is inconceivable without the radical innovations of the Sicilian school. By formalising the Provençal troubadour tradition (which died out with the Great Plague), the Sicilian sonnets established the primacy in Western poetry of what we now know simply as the love poem, which was not a central feature of the classical tradition (Sappho, Ovid and Catullus notwithstanding).

But perhaps the greatest innovation of the Sicilian school was its decisive break with the strict poetic convention of the day that insisted all literature be written in Latin. Instead, again following the troubadours, these poets chose to write in the language of the people, vernacular Sicilian. The next generation of Italian poets, who followed suit by writing in vernacular Italian, came to represent what was called the Dolce stil novo or ‘sweet new style’, a movement that included Cavalcanti, Petrarch and Dante.

In 1372, an English diplomat in Italy encountered the works of these poets and on returning home decided that he, too, would write poetry not in the educated, bureaucratic languages of French and Latin but in nascent and nebulous English. Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the father of English poetry, and even ‘the firste fyndere of our fair langage’, in the words of his booster Thomas Hocleve.

This sketch of the first stirrings of poetry in English underscores the paradox of the concept of literary tradition. In poetry, as in all culture, today’s tradition often turns out to be yesterday’s violent break with the status quo; the flag-bearers of tradition were, like Chaucer and Dante, once the torchbearers of radical innovation. When we talk of tradition, therefore, we are on slippery ground, even as we think ourselves most secure.

Fast-forward to the present and the concept of poetic tradition seems more troublesome than ever. A century has passed since the inception of what would become the full-scale assault on artistic tradition known as modernism, which defined itself as ‘essentially a post-traditional order’, as sociologist Anthony Giddens put it. To younger generations, in an age of digital poetics and posthumanist aesthetics, the notion of an ‘authentic poetic voice’ looks suspiciously like schtick or a brand.

One option is to accept that poetry is most at home in the intimate register of the lyric poem, and a good many fine poets, Australian and otherwise, continue to work within this rich tradition. Another is to tackle head-on the vagaries of the brave new world, and all its implications for the technology of writing, and the art of poetry. The former continues to be well documented: most poetry reviews in this journal attend the work at the coalface of the lyric tradition in Australia, whether in verse (as in Geoff Page’s piece in the May ALR) or otherwise.

Two controversial developments from the past decade serve to illustrate the latter.

In March last year, the science journal Nature interviewed Canadian poet Christian Bök about his proposal to genetically engineer a poem, or more specifically ‘to encode his verse into DNA that will sit within the genome of a live bacterium’. Bök’s Xenotext experiment was inspired by Washington-based scientist Pak Chung Wong, who genetically ‘enciphered lyrics to the Walt Disney Company song It’s a Small World (After All), and was able to retrieve the information after several rounds of cell division’. Bök explains:

The poem can be most easily encoded by assigning a short, unique sequence of nucleotides to each letter of the alphabet, as Wong has done. But I want my poem to cause the organism to make a protein in response — a protein that also encodes a poem.

And people thought Eunoia, Bök’s superb, Oulipo-inspired lipogram (a book of five chapters, each chapter using only the one vowel, with remarkable lyrical effects) was pushing the envelope when he published it in 2001. As to his motives for attempting to encipher a poem into a bacterium, Bök remarks:

I am striving to engineer a life form that becomes a durable archive for storing a poem, and a machine for writing a poem — a poem that can survive forever . . . Language is very robust. Even under duress, it finds a way to say something uncanny, if not sublime. Poets are always trying to write works that ‘come alive’ but I’m trying to write a poem that literally is a living thing.

What are we to make of this? Is it poetry? If we take his proposal at face value, which the editors of Nature and a Calgary laboratory that is hosting his project have done, then we run into some challenging questions about the relationship between science, art and, well, culture.

For instance, might Bök’s attempt to express his poetry in the 21st-century language of DNA be compared with the radical 13th-century innovation Dante and Chaucer’s decision to write in the vernacular? And even more fundamentally: what leads a culture to adopt the poetic forms and traditions it does — or should we say, encode its poems — at all? Why, for instance, did the Anglo-Saxon poets, the author(s) of Beowulf, use the form they did, which required three or more alliterative consonants and a caesura in each line? Would anyone be comfortable stating that’s the way poetry should be these days? As whacky as it may sound, who’s to say that future generations won’t be studying poems expressed in proteins and amino acids long after print media has had its day?

Another 21st-century challenge to our notion of poetic tradition is presented by what is known as flarfist poetry, or simply flarf. Yes, it is supposed to sound ridiculous, a portmanteau evidently comprising both fluff and the text-speak spelling of laugh. Ten years ago, Brooklyn poet Gary Sullivan deliberately sent what he considered to be an awful poem, replete with misspellings, online chatroom slang, offensive material and randomised content derived from Google searches, to online poetry publisher Poetry.com, to test its standard of quality control.

To Sullivan’s surprise, the piece was accepted for publication, along with, as it turned out, every other submission. Poetry.com was a vanity publisher, a thinly disguised marketing ploy designed to take advantage of people’s artistic aspirations for its owners’ financial gain.

The Flarfist Collective followed in 2001, as members of an online mailing list began exploring the implications of Sullivan’s experiment, and writing flarf poems. Today flarf generally refers to any sort of poetry that is or appears to be generated by randomised Google content. In a brief article written for John Tranter’s online poetry magazine Jacket, Sullivan alludes to the indeterminacy of the flarf aesthetic:

Flarf has been described as the first recognisable [poetry] movement of the 21st century, as an in-joke among an elite clique, as a marketing strategy, and as offering a new way of reading creative writing. The act of writing flarf has been described as collaborating with the culture via the web, as an imperialist or colonialist gesture, as an unexamined projection of self into others, as the conscious erasure of self or ego.

Whatever flarf is or isn’t (and the debate continues to rage), its inception represents the pointy end of the predicament facing contemporary poetry. Where modernist and postmodernist poets grappled with the phantasmagoria of consumer capital — a world in which whole armies of copywriters wring the sincerity out of even the plainest public language, leaving poets its dried husk to work with — today’s poets confront all these issues transposed into a virtual and posthuman key. One thing is certain: the proponents of flarf are trying to understand the place of poetry in the digital age, even while on a hiding to nothing in the marketplace, a fact Poetry.com’s founders were exploiting.

To some, this may all seem moot. Nothing is stopping anyone from picking up a pen and paper, immersing themselves in a few good sonnets and, in the time-honoured tradition, banging out a few imitations before sending one to Meanjin, or indeed, the ALR. If Bök wants to write a poem that ‘lasts forever’, then why not just plug away at his pentameters, as thousands before him have done. If the talent is there, then like Donne or Dickinson he will last.

But poetry is of course the product of its specific cultural moment, however much some would like it to reflect the cultures of yesteryear. Only those poems that are truly of their time have any hope of lasting beyond it. All arguments to the contrary can’t help but sound like ‘a bidding of the waves to stand still’, as Judith Wright once wrote of Jack Lindsay’s reactionary Vision manifestos of the 1920s. Poetry — indeed, language itself — is like a shark: if it’s not moving, it’s dying. And, like it or loathe it, flarf satisfies this test, reflecting our culture as it noses through the reef of the nascent internet age.

Readers who remember the days when verse was the undisputed medium of poetry could be excused for feeling a twinge of deja vu with all this. For the basic ethos of the flarfist experiment has something in common with that defining moment in Australian poetic history, the Ern Malley hoax of 1945. Just as Sullivan sought to expose the nonexistent quality control of Poetry.com by submitting what he considered to be utter nonsense for publication, so James McAuley and Harold Stewart sought to lampoon the editors of the modernist poetry journal Angry Penguins by submitting what they deemed to be nonsensical parodies of the sort of poetry they detested. While there are vast differences between the cultural contexts of these two events, let alone their effects, the urge to test the limits of perceived literary and cultural value was common to both.

IN February and March, the ALR published articles by poet and novelist Ian McFarlane and writer and English teacher Christopher Bantick that gave voice to those many who believe that contemporary poetry is in a parlous state, in dire need of a return to its traditional roots.

Obtuse, otiose and wilfully obscure, today’s poetry is, McFarlane and Bantick contend, ‘unread because much of it is unreadable’. In their view, the balm is to be found in ‘a reawakening of traditional elements’ such as rhyme and meter, and a reprioritisation of clarity over difficulty. In this way, poetry would reclaim its mainstream literary status and, ultimately, ‘enrich and strengthen our sense of community’.

With the spectre of Ern Malley, we return to these concerns. For the rhetoric of these writers recalls the conservative, anti-modernist sentiment that underscored McAuley and Stewart’s critical position. McFarlane’s aversion to ‘arcane bric-a-brac cloaked in wilfully suffocating obscurity’ and Bantick’s dismissal of ‘pap’, ‘twaddle’ and ‘tosh’ echo the sentiments of a correspondent to The Bulletin in 1945 who offered ‘earnest thanks’ to the hoaxers as ‘joint debunkers of Bosh, Blah and Blather’.

That is, the argument is not new, especially in the context of poetry in this country. It retraces the battlelines staked out by those opponents of the modernist artistic aesthetic. Its chief antecedent is found in the writings of McAuley, Stewart and A. D. Hope, who bemoaned what he called ‘the mindless sludge of surrealist verse’ fashionable at the time. No doubt McFarlane and Bantick would want to extend Hope’s scathing dismissal of the young Max Harris’s novel, The Vegetative Eye, as ‘a Zombie, a composite corpse, assembled from the undigested authors Mr Harris has swallowed without chewing and animated by psychological voodoo’ to whomever their contemporary targets might be.

As Chris Wallace-Crabbe writes in his superb 2005 collection of essays on poetry, Read it Again, ‘blame is everywhere, like tomato sauce at a children’s party’. But who or what is accountable for this mess? Is it the elitist poets who care not a jot for the common reader? Is it the prize culture, the grant culture or the ivory-towered academics prescribing poetic trends from on high? Is it the abandonment of traditional verse forms, the decadent French symbolists and the German romantics before them who informed the modernists, is it the American beat poets or the New York school, so influential on Australian poetry of the past 40 years or is it, as Bantick suggests, the fault of the ‘small presses’ that foster ‘a cottage industry for the indulgent’ and ‘the lethal mix of vanity publishing, the uncritical gushing of blogger poets and narcissism’?

The culprit, it would seem, is everywhere at once, yet nowhere to be found. So the self-appointed culture warrior rages from front to front, swinging like a drunken boxer in a hall of mirrors, throwing haymakers at the hydra-headed beast that is contemporary poetry, full of belligerent intent but unable to land a blow.

These criticisms lack rigour. Their arguments tend to be emotional and haphazard, their evidence anecdotal. Bantick is guilty of this when he asserts:

There has been too much doggerel and indulgent introspection being passed off as poetry. It’s pap. How many of us have been to a reading in a pub and heard an audience clap a poem that by any measure is tosh. No one says so. The result is a lack of clarity over what constitutes worthy words as opposed to words in search of meaning.

Now, with respect to that unique breed known as the Aussie pub poet, to suggest that anecdotal evidence of a woeful poetry reading at a pub puts you on solid critical ground from which to engage the state of poetry in Australia is, to use Bantick’s own words, pap, twaddle and tosh. It is probably helpful, therefore, to consult a few professionals. Two recent titles may serve as guides for the descent into this apparent inferno.

JOHN Hawke’s Australian Literature and the Symbolist Movement (2009) is a timely engagement with the beginnings of this debate. In seven chapters of lucid analysis, Hawke traces the profound and lasting influence exerted on modern Australian poetry by the French symbolist movement of the late 19th century, which catalysed what we now think of as literary modernism.

The book begins with a re-evaluation of the foundational role of The Bulletin. The magazine’s first literary editor, A. G. Stephens, in publishing the likes of Bernard O’Dowd and Henry Lawson, Steele Rudd and Joseph Furphy, is often thought to have fostered a nationalistic literary culture detached from European developments. But as Hawke explains, Stephens and The Bulletin’s founder, J. F. Archibald, were Francophiles, intellectually invested in literary and philosophical developments in Europe. At the same time as he was fostering the idea of a national literature, Stephens was also commissioning articles on French symbolism by Christopher Brennan.

Together with Arthur Symons, who introduced the symbolist aesthetic propounded by Mallarme, Valery, Baudelaire, La Forgue and others, to W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, Brennan was one of the first important interpreters of the movement. One of the achievements of this book is its underscoring of the influence of Brennan on Australian poetry as a result. Many of the key developments of the 20th century, from the vitalist school of Jack and Norman Lindsay and Kenneth Slessor through to Wright, Francis Webb, McAuley and Hope, are indebted to him.

Hawke’s archival digging turns up a world of early and mid 20th-century correspondence by some of the key players in Australian literary culture, shedding new light on a period of political, cultural and literary foment that helped shape modern Australian poetry. He uncovers the local brand of anti-modernist sentiment that came to prominence in the 1940s in the correspondence between Randolph Hughes and A. R. Chisolm, two important figures of Australian letters in the first half of the century.

Today’s critics of seemingly incomprehensible poetry would likely concur with Hughes’s passionate denouncement of the ‘modernistic Pound-Eliot-Auden stuff’ as ‘essentially indistinguishable from a haphazard, amorphous, utterly artless compost of odds and ends which is and can be no more than a mass of inert rubbish’. Likewise for Chisolm, such poets were ‘the charlatans of literature . . . the criers of false wares, the chatres, the procrustean thesis-twisters, the antipoets posing as poets, the scum and Sargasso-flotsam on the ocean of literature’ and so on. Less palatable might be Hughes’s sympathy for Mussolini’s fascism.

Hawkes’s book is a refreshingly nuanced look at the hotly contested world of poetry and politics that culminated in the form of Ern Malley, as it reveals the extent to which many of the main players could and often did modify subtly their position in response to the volatile intellectual scene. Even those poets and critics whom history regards as staunchly anti-modernist turn out to have been, in Hawke’s view, deeply indebted to the traditions they railed against.

The publication of Philip Mead’s Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry (2008) is a significant event. Meticulously researched is barely adequate to describe this immense work of literary scholarship. Comprised of five essays and running to more than 500 pages, it is easily the most substantial critical work on Australian poetry of the past decade and will be required reading for serious students of Australian literature for many years.

A great deal of ink has been shed on the subject of Ern Malley, with the key study remaining Michael Heyward’s 1993 account, The Ern Malley Affair. What distinguishes Mead’s contribution in the second essay of his book, Poetry and the Police, is his analysis of the Kafkaesque legal trial (for obscenity) of Max Harris, the brilliant 23-year-old student editor of Angry Penguins, and his co-editor John Reed, and his examination of the collaborative impulses of the hoaxers, through a reading of Shakespeare’s Pericles, itself suspected of being a collaborative work.

The pre-trial legal correspondence, reproduced at length for the first time in Mead’s book, and the court transcripts make for sobering reading. As Mead explains, the trial was nothing less than an ‘adversarial contest over the meanings of literary language’ conducted over four days. Conceptually, it is a fascinating juncture between acts of literary and legal judgment, which Mead places in the context of other obscenity trials, such as that of Flaubert for Madame Bovary.

The trial lays bare the deeply conservative cultural climate of post-war Australia. At one point, the investigating officer, a Detective Vogelesang, offers his own line-by-line reading of the poems:

In ‘Night Piece’ I think there is suggestion of indec[ency] about it. The naked nymph . . . the visit of someone to the park, the whole thing is indec[ent] . . I have found that people who go into parks at night go there for immoral purposes. My experience as police officer might under certain circumstance tinge my appreciation of literature.

Even more extraordinary is the ‘excruciating’ cross-examination of Harris:

Q. And have you any belief as to the purpose which the authors had in mind in writing the Ern Malley poems?

A. They claimed to be hoaxing the members of a modernistic culturism.

Q. Don’t you believe that Ern Malley’s poems were never intended to be serious work at all?

A. I have no opinion on their intentions, I only worry about their content as poems.

Q. And you say that it doesn’t matter if the significance is accidental or otherwise.

A. I don’t know if the significance is accidental, I am concerned with the significance.

Q. A great number of people would regard the poems in Angry Penguins as being rubbish.

A. It all depends on what people regarded them, on the person.

Q. The majority of people in Australia would regard the poems as nothing but rubbish.

A. Yes, and Shakespeare.

Mead identifies Harris’s evocation of Shakespeare as ‘a recognisably modernist defence’. He continues: ‘Malley is a difficult modern poet, like Eliot or Pound, and their difficulty is like that of Shakespeare. This argument is always a counter to the philistine (and judicial) one that it is only contemporary poets who are technically deficient, wilfully difficult and pretentiously obscure.’ In closing, the prosecution insists the Malley poems were ‘twaddle’, ‘meaningless nonsense’, and ‘revolting and crude in the highest degree, deliberate pieces of smut’.

As Mead explains, this was a case of ‘poetry itself’ being put on trial; time and again the prosecution’s case hinges not on the obscenity charge, but on the question of ‘literary value’: ‘The question before the court is not the indecency or otherwise of the Malley passages, but their literary worth, that is, whether or not they are rubbish.’ Given the evidence, it is difficult to disagree with Mead’s conclusion that ‘Harris’s real offence was that he was willing to defend [the poems] as art’.

This essay is the longest of the five, yet the others read just as comprehensively. In ‘Ut cinema poesis’, Mead reminds us that Slessor, usually considered Australia’s first modern poet, was in fact one of our first important film critics, and reads his poetry alongside his film criticism with startling results. ‘Constitutional Poetics’ examines McAuley’s attempt, in his epic poem Captain Quiros, to forge an alternative foundation myth for Australia based on the Christian Portuguese explorer. Homelessness examines the contradictions of Wright, simultaneously a great contributor to the myth of Australian space and one of its fiercest interrogators.

The final two essays bring us up to speed with contemporary developments. ‘It’s Poetry, Jim, But Not as We Know It!’ tackles the issue of poetry’s role in the digital age, with a focus on a few Australian examples, notably Tranter’s Different Hands (a text generated in part by a computer program) and the ways in which information technology and new media offer ‘translatory, combinatory and permutatory possibilities’. And in ‘Unsettling Language’ we encounter the challenges to our concept of a national Australian literature presented by the poetic and political projects of Pi-O and Lionel Fogarty.

Individually, each of these essays is a work of the highest scholarly calibre; Mead traverses a dauntingly broad continent of ‘networked language’, from seminal Australian texts to works of cultural theory, items of popular culture (both iconic and obscure) to dusty archival papers to cutting-edge conceptual frameworks. Mead’s analysis is organic and incisive. Combined, the result is a much needed adrenaline shot to the heart of Australian poetry criticism.


ALR July 2010

first published Australian Literary Review June 02, 2010.

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