by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
About six weeks ago, I was tagged in a Facebook post by Australian author Shady Cosgrove asking various folk for ‘recommendations for essays that dissect what, exactly, constitutes Australian literature’. She was asking fellow academics and writers, yet other than some suggestions about what we don’t think Australian literature is, or should be, or what it used to be, the response, on the whole, was a fairly solid ‘dunno’.*
As a sometime reviewer of Australian short stories, more so than novels, I could name a handful of stylistic devices that seem to crop up in volumes of the last five or so years: Absurdism (Cameron Anson’s Pepsi Bears and Maria Takolander’s debut collection The Double). Connections that link stories to each other, not through plot, like a novel, but through a recurring character or theme (Julie Chevalier’s Permission to Lie, and Takolander’s Double again). A tendency toward more global locations than in the past (Anson and Chevalier). Across the board, a fairly neutral emotional tone, verging sometimes on reportage, taking the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’ to the maximum. Jessica Au’s review of Cate Kennedy’s second short story collection Like a House on Fire, describes her prose (and I agree) as ‘cool and glasslike’. A focus on a particular, isolated incident that serves as the fulcrum taking the load of past and future events, and all their metaphorical implications. The title story of The Double begins as an elderly woman regains consciousness after a stroke, finding herself lying outside in a puddle on the farm she and her husband are getting too old to work. If that’s not in medias res, I don’t know what is!
Some of these devices are probably born out of necessity, adaptations to the constraints of the form. Talking to Helen Garner about Like a House on Fire on the Readings blog in 2012, Kennedy summed up in very practical terms the need to finely craft the short story: ‘I think, all right, I’ve got ten pages. So I make it just one thing that happens to the character. The day the dolphin dies; the day he loses his dog. Then comes the discipline part – how to build in the back story.’
This combination of ‘cool and glasslike’ – implying a smoothness and also a transparency of language – and the ‘moment’ as a metaphor (more accurately a synechdoche) for something larger turned my thoughts (and if you’ve been following this blog, you won’t be surprised) in the direction of Australian poetry. What I’ve been describing above in short stories, reminds me of the lyric moment, the catalyst for the synthesis of the poet-speaker, the surrounding environment and an inexpressible emotion into the poetic object, which transcends the sum of its parts.
Australian poetry is, in many ways, still very attuned to a certain type of descriptive almost-narrative, to lyrical (as in musical) language, and the idea of a speaker (perhaps even more reticent than Altieri’s US model, which I talked about previously) somehow evoking ‘what lies beyond words’. Poet and critic Martin Harrison in his essay ‘Who Wants to Create Australia’ holds that ‘the key concerns of Australian poetry continue to be self and place’, and I think that this is true in a very particular sense – ‘concerns’ is exactly the right word. Aside from larger cultural and political issues which I detail below, I get the feeling that most Australian poets are uneasy with both their selfhood (poetic selfhood, that is, not necessarily personal) and how that selfhood integrates into this place, Australia.
To paint a tiny canvas (not the topic, just my representation of it) with some very large brushstrokes, in Australia, as in North America, something of a binary perception of the poetic text exists. Some readers and poets see the function of the poem as representational, its job to capture and render an image, a moment in time in the medium of language. Others feel it necessary for language, as I discussed in my previous post to be used to create rather than imitate experience.
The Australian context of the development of these ways of looking at poetry are different to those of the USA and Canada – Australian poetry lacked perhaps the numbers to institute a direct and assertive challenge to the presence of an institutionalised and mainstream modernism. It has, however, always had a stake in the political, and the chronicling of social states and social change. The work of the ‘Generation of ’68’, many of whom are still practicing and socially engaged poets, provides a fruitful view of a changing poetic landscape. While not an entirely cohesive group, The Generation of ’68 definitely indicated, as John Kinsella suggests ‘some kind of connection between a diverse group of poets who began to respond to the political and social climate and the New American Poetry of the late 60s and early 70s in an energetic and “new” way. The New Australian Poetry, edited and introduced by John Tranter, was published in 1979, and brought a lot of these poets into the Australian poetry landscape.
The idea that poetry could promote social change, and perhaps a wish to move away from older forms and themes that did not, including tropes of nationalism and idylls which no longer seemed appropriate in a post-Vietnam era resulted in distrust of a lyric speaker who mouthed such platitudes, and the settings in which they were uttered. The split between avant-garde and mainstream, urban and rural, universal and personal, even (as noted by John Kinsella) Athenian and Boeotian as categories of thought and poetic production drastically affected the Australian poetic community’s view of the lyric poem. It is not until relatively recently that the possibility has been considered of a poetry which might unite the lyric with the power of creation rather than mimesis.
In his 2005 essay, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry’, David McCooey makes the unfortunately still apt comment that ‘Australian poetry, until perhaps very recently, has often been seen as wracked by factionalism (making it a kind of cultural equivalent of the Labor party)’. His neologism, that of ‘the new lyricism’ suggests that contemporary poetry demonstrates how poetry can renew itself in part by writing against ‘the habits and visions’ of poetry itself while still seeking effects central to the poetic.
An interesting (and often not considered) aspect of this change in poetic direction is that McCooey is careful to point out that some of the conditions resulting in the rise of the new lyric are due to changes in larger arenas than that of individual poetic practice, in particular publishing and the rise of the anthology, formal innovation in terms of the proliferation of the large scale verse novel and something less tangible, a new kind of ‘worldliness’ in Australian poetry that breaks free from the perceived influence of nationalistic expression or adoption of British or American styles. This worldliness is seen in poets’ entering into dialogue with other, international poetries or collaging from and engaging with a wide range of sources, both historically and geographically. As well as this worldliness, McCooey sees the uncanny as a second overarching feature of this new type of lyricism.
Since McCooey’s article, written in 2005, the term ‘new lyricism’ does not crop up much at all, until Duncan Hose’s 2013 review in Southerly of Benjamin Frater’s 6am in the Universe, also quoted by Claire Nashar in her article ‘as the new / gets newer’ in the current issue, the aptly named Lyre/Liar. Hose dismisses most contemporary Australian new lyricism as ‘mild triumphs of décor’. Nashar, on the other hand, still speaks of the ‘possibility of a new Australian lyric’ (153) seeing the current arena as ‘pitting experimentalism against conservatism in a way which offers few gains for poetry’ (153). These two stances seem at odds with each other. Is the new lyric finished, or not yet begun?
‘Are we there yet?’
In my next and final post, I’ll continue on with some thoughts on the place of the subject in the lyric, the idea of the uncanny, and our unease with the lyric generally. How do you like your poetry?
*except for a pointer to this great article by Southerly’s own co-editor, Liz!