by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
Perhaps the biggest reason for not knowing if we’re there yet, as discussed in the previous post, is that nobody is quite sure where there actually is. The development of literary modes / –isms / genres / forms tends, on the whole, to be reactive rather than proactive. That is to say, the writer does often work from the starting point of wanting to bring a unique method of expression into the public discourse, but this particularity is generally based on a movement away from a form of expression thought to have lost its currency. There is always a destination in flux.
In terms of a there for the lyric poem, the impulse is two-fold. Firstly there is a movement away from (and I could quote from any number of theorists, from the post-structural to the post-theoretical, but I’m going to go with Claire Nashar’s distillation in the latest issue of Southerly) ‘the lyric’s assumption that humans wield language and that language politely acquiesces’ (157). As I suggested in the previous post, this is an impulse which has been around for a few decades now, often playing itself out in a perception of the lyric as mainstream, imitative, representational, and a consequent tendency for experimental poets to eschew the form. To quote Nashar again, ‘[t]he mimesis of the lyrebird’s song has lost some of its sweetness’ (154).
The second impulse is a move toward reclamation of the lyric as a mode with experimental potential. Logically, shouldn’t these conflicting impulses cancel each other out? In the Australian context, the drive away from, and the drive back toward the lyric are neither clearly defined nor chronologically continuous. Nashar also makes clear, via Duncan Hose’s categorisation of contemporary Australian new lyric poems as being mostly ‘mild triumphs of décor’ (153) that the border between the old and the new lyric is extremely permeable.
At this juncture, I should make it clear that this post is not aimed at persuading the reader of one type of lyric’s supremacy over the other. Selfishly, I’m using this blog to talk to myself, as well as anyone out there listening. From my earlier discussions of telling ‘the truth’ in poetry and T.S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ (also here and here) it is probably apparent that I do still hold out hope (even in the face of theory that declares it impossible) that poetic language can achieve some kind of transcendence. One of the main reasons (besides personal interest) that I’m engaging at some length with Nashar’s article is that her choice of two very different examples of lyric poem highlights the varied artistic practices that can serve to map these broader drives in the production of poetry. This will bring me in turn to my own praxis, which also, of late, involves grappling with the intractability of language and the fluidity of my relationship to it.
The experimental lyric generally insists on making its status as a constructed object very clear. Disjunctive and/or opaque language, pastiche, ambiguity or polyvalency of meaning all work against the more traditional view of the lyric as a poem in which language works as a ‘transparent’ medium, the most ‘natural’ way to capture both the physical and emotional impact of the scene or poetic moment. L.K. Holt’s ‘My Lover Meets the Bowerbird’ is, to me, an interesting mix of both old and new lyric technique.
Despite the fact that metaphor is a staple of the lyric in the scenic mode (see here for an example by U.S. poet Hank Lazer discussed by Marjorie Perloff) Holt’s poem (as read by Nashar) uses metaphor (the bowerbird as poet, collecting ‘plastic and foil’, ‘soft rings of black bones’, ‘Monopoly pieces’) to draw attention to the process of building the poem itself. More than just collecting, the importance of arrangement is also foregrounded – ‘He dismisses you with a sudden cry at a composition of seeds loosened by the breeze. / He nudges them back into a pattern divined’ (155).
Kate Fagan’s cento ‘Chrome Arrow’, on the other hand, draws attention to its construction through precisely the types of technique mentioned earlier. The juxtaposition of the borrowed lines creates language-scapes that almost, but don’t quite evoke something we have experienced ourselves. This, I think, is one of the main sources of the presence of the uncanny in Australian ‘new lyricism’ noted by David McCooey. Another (evident in both these poems) is a tendency to show the irruption of the anthropocene into the ‘natural’ elements of the physical and poetic Australian landscape, simultaneously echoing and disrupting our earlier (and still pervasive) notions of its constitution. Thus Holt’s bowerbird is stilled by ‘the beauty of human excess’ (155), while for Fagan ‘the Pleiades blink / like a sparkler in the HaHa room’ (161).
There are many words and phrases in ‘Chrome Arrow’ that would look at home in a more traditional lyric: ‘hills & dunes’, ‘song of one breath’, ‘sky’ – and others that, in this context, take on an ironic and self-aware tone: ‘dangerous’, ‘phantoms’, ‘surrounded by beauty’, ‘rococo’. Claire Nashar rightly points out the way ‘the pronoun I is deployed…with an unwavering hand (162), and the way that this ‘I’, the lyric speaker, simultaneously undermines the idea of its own spoken truth by being so obviously a construct.
As you may have guessed from previous posts, I’m interested in debates about the role of the lyric ‘I’ as a teller of poetic ‘truth’. Reading work by Freud and Lacan on the human subject’s relationship to language made me reconsider the potential functions of the lyric subject. Whereas we might see the lyric ‘I’ as a false construct, pretending to present experience through language as though it had no ideological agenda, or was immune from cultural influence, Lacan and Freud might see that same lyric ‘I’ as one who whilst doing this, somehow speaks accidental truths, accessing the material of the Unconscious through the slip of the tongue; the forgotten name; the mispronunciation; the Freudian slip.
Click here to read ‘Honeymoon Sweet’ a lyric poem based on the diagram. Explicit language. Don’t let Barry O’Farrell hear you read it out loud.
In this diagram, Freud sets out schematically the specific paths by which his conscious mind is barred from recalling the name of the Italian painter Signorelli. His unconscious mind, sparked by the subject matter of a conversation with an unknown travelling companion, remains pre-occupied with the recent death by suicide of a patient in Trafoi, allowing his conscious mind to offer up only the painters Boltraffio and Botticelli as substitutes. Even across multiple languages (such as the leap from the Signor of Signorelli to Herr via the first syllable of Herzegovina) phonemes exist as building blocks in the unconscious, to be conflated, compounded, moved and re-moved without our conscious knowledge.
This idea of the parapraxis in or as poetry came to appeal to me very strongly, and I started to investigate its potential in my own work. The ideas in my collection plaintext (currently in production) show an essentially lyric poet’s attempts to come to grips with the use of the Freudian slip as a procedural element and observe how these two very different types of poetry might inform each other. As part of this collection, I began an ongoing collaboration (since 2007) with musician and software designer Mark Havryliv. The aim was to create poetry, either for the printed page, or for performance, that could mirror the action of the parapraxis in speech.
The P[a]ra[pra]xis software has evolved a lot since 2007. It was originally developed as a two-piece suite. The first was a dictionary-like database, where I could import, collect, store and alter words. The second was an interface where rules could be created to govern the otherwise random selection of substitute words. The earliest experiments were based around a very strict set of linguistic substitutions, such as anagrams, rhymes, or additions to / subtractions from the word. This software allowed us to create the substitutions in realtime, and use the rule-set (amongst other things) to generate realtime audio.
Mark later developed a scripting language with which I could make substitutions at the level of several words, or even a sentence. My associations became more free over time. This is the code that is included with the poems that are part of the P[a]ra[pra]xis iPad App, downloadable here. Unfortunately it hasn’t been developed for iPhone yet. There are also examples of electronic poetry and a demonstration of the app on my YouTube channel.
As a title, P[a]ra[pra]xis conflates the nuance of ‘para’ meaning ‘beyond’, or ‘outside of’ with the academic notion of ‘praxis’ as theory put into action: thus it comes to describe an entire way of creatively exploring language through the building of user-initiated dictionaries based on free association and metonymic slippage. Hopefully the name will be self-fulfilling, and we will be able to keep taking P[a]ra[pra]xis in new directions as new technology and new ideas proliferate. Voice-to-text substitutions are my dream.
As far as new ideas are concerned, there should be some coming up here soon; this is my final post. If you want to say hello again, please drop past my blog.
To take us out, here’s a pantoum describing a circular journey.
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!
by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
Reading and analysing (and perhaps even enjoying poetry) are complicated by competing perspectives, both current and historical, on what actually constitutes ‘poetic language’. A major player in the formation of such perspectives are the questions of if, how and why a written art-form which is subject to all the normal limitations of language can present thoughts, events, feelings, concepts or combinations of these in a manner which transcends language’s significatory limitations to create a poetic text-object which is more than the sum of its linguistic parts. Does poetry create or only represent its subject matter, and to what extent should these two states of creation and representation be labelled (as they have been) as a binary opposition?
The utility of attempting to define ‘what’ poetic language is lies perhaps mainly in the light it can shed on the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ it exists. Poetry of any kind presents deliberate linguistic challenges to the reader – chronological compression and expansion, rapid shifts in mood or character presence, the abstraction of images, referents and phrasing shaped to some degree by the impositions of form, or the creation of ‘vowel and consonant music’. These challenges are not necessarily present (or are present to a lesser degree) in the discourses of natural language. In the terminology of linguistics, natural language describes a means of communication arising in an unpremeditated fashion as the result of the human intellect’s innate facility for language. This serves to imply that poetic language is considered as being to some degree a constructed language; the degree of construction being dependent on the individual poem and its milieu.
In poetry of the modernist era onward, where the refusal or subversion of poetic form, the displacement, fracture or effacement of a unified lyric subject and a conscious exploitation of the Saussurian deconstruction of the link between signifier and signified are somewhat normalised, this constructedness is perhaps at its most obvious. However, contemporary re-investigations of earlier poetic texts can reveal internal oppositions and complications to simplistic acts of representation through the introduction of reading practices which place a particular emphasis on the historical, social and cultural conditions of the text’s construction; such as Marxist, post-colonial or feminist readings. It is clear that, overall, a concise, workable definition of ‘poetic language’ is increasingly problematic considering the breadth and diversity of poetic material now extant.
Still, a definition of poetic language remains important for critics and practitioners, as well as publishers and other agents in the literary sphere. Not an essentialist definition listing a range of necessary attributes, for that might proscribe the addition of as yet unconsidered possibilities, but one which seeks out bases of similarity at least as broad as the bases of difference in text-objects being considered comparatively as ‘poems’. The question of what poetic language is, how its purpose differs from other types of language use marks the genesis of poetics itself, and an increased interest in the role and responsibility of the poet as the arbiter of the representation shown to the reader / audience. Ian Johnston traces the shift in classical thinking thus:
In Homer there is a recurring celebration of art, but it is not seen as anything we need to discuss or debate. It is there to celebrate the deeds of great heroes and divinities or as a manifestation of the excellence of the owner of the art (like Menelaus) or to foster enjoyment among those who contemplate it…What makes a work of art good is self-evident–it moves those who are exposed to it to admiration.
I think it would be fair to say that we may never quite escape this attitude (the enjoyment ideal) towards art entirely, from a subjective, if not theoretical, standpoint. From Plato’s Republic onwards, though, debates about poetics begin to be shaped by a constantly evolving notion of the role and means of representation in the poetic text, and the social function of writing as an art-form. For the first time, ‘the contribution of poesis to the political development of the community and to the well being of the individual lies at the heart of the argument’ (Johnston).
Thus from Plato’s politically motivated suspicions of the poet as an imitator of forms twice-removed from the essence of the subject-matter who may promulgate bad examples as well as good, a split develops between the voice of the poet and the voice of the poem:
Placed alongside a nascent theory of genre, the idea of mimesis introduces the important issue of decorum (what is appropriate for certain characters to say or do in certain situations). An ancient concern for genre thereby anticipated one of the fundamental tenets of later formalism, namely that representational content is inseparable from representational form (Hamilton 2005, 2876). 
The genesis of a political or a moral dimension to poetry leads to the notion of the author as responsible for his or her own material, which inevitably leads to some conflation of authorial presence with lyric presence. Plato’s dismissal of poetry as an art that is purely mimetic (but flawed) has ramifications today, although the idea of mimesis is considerably broadened in scope. Acts of representation are widely divergent, and are often aimed at transcending the ways in which natural language might explain an object or situation. Both diachronically, in the flow of poetic movements, and synchronically from poet to poet, both that which poetry represents and the method of representing it varies greatly: thus, Wordsworth’s ‘fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ presents a very different attempt to give verisimilitude to the representation of intangible abstract concepts such as sublimity than does Keats’s formalism.
In the twentieth century beginnings of formalism and modernism, concerns multiply about the fact that poetic language is crafted from essentially the same building blocks as the language of the everyday. From Todorov’s idea that ‘[l]iterature exists by words; but its dialectical vocation is to say more than language says, to transcend verbal divisions … the nature of literary discourse is to go beyond otherwise it would have no reason for being; literature is a kind of murderous weapon by which language commits suicide’  to Shklovsky’s insistence that ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’  to T. E. Hulme’s view of the artistic object as a synchronic capturing of multiple perceptions and of the artist as one who fashions ‘a fixed model of one of these transient waves [and] enables you to isolate it out and to perceive it in yourself’, the concern lies primarily with esthesis rather than poiesis; the challenges of how to engage a particular type of reception in the reader or observer within the set of limitations placed by language. Representation is a focus here, but it is the representation of complex combinations of affects, not a poor imitation of a Platonic ideal, and may not rely on direct description or the felt impressions of a lyric subject.
By the time experimental and high-modernism, with their absent or fractured lyric subjects, had coalesced into the more institutionalised versions of the post World War Two years, voice began to come to the fore again as an instrument of representation in the poem. Robert Lowell’s famous acceptance speech at the 1960 National Book awards placed a firm distinction between two poetic camps – even if he was trying to avoid placing himself within either:
[s]omething earth-shaking was started about fifty years ago by the generation of Eliot, Frost and William Carlos Williams … Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvelously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed.
Here, Lowell is speaking of new formalist poetries as the cooked, and beat poetry as the raw. His speech posits a binary split between poetry for the page and oral poetry, a poetry of form and a poetry of content and perhaps most importantly a poetry for the academy and a poetry for the real world. Although by now distinctions between academic and non-academic poetic practice are fairly blurred, the binaries developed from these earlier perspectives (academic poetry as form-driven, representational, mainstream and avant-garde poetries as a non-intelligible experience created in language which can barely be contained on the page) still haunt debates on poetics.
Yet even the most avant-garde poetries – those which reject signification in the traditional sense of the word and to which no natural language ‘meaning’ can be ascribed and those such as language poetry which seek to lay bare the very operations of language itself, as opposed to its signified meaning, can be said to be representing something – in this case the operations of language. Poetry has always dealt with portraying imaginings, intangibles, human emotions and the workings of the interior aspects of human consciousness. To some degree then, we might say that all poetry is ‘representational’, and the question of how different poems represent or render their poetic object is perhaps of greater interest. Roland Barthes, speaking to the idea of the deconstruction of the sign, suggests that:
poetry … attempts to regain an infra-signification, a pre-semiological state of language; in short, it tries to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves. This is why it clouds the language, increases as much as it can the abstractness of the concept and the arbitrariness of the sign and stretches to the limit the link between signifier and signified. 
It has just occurred to me, that in an odd way, this idea, although very much aligned with contemporary debates in poetics, almost overreaches its point of origin, hinting back at the Platonic idea that there is an essential form in the meaning of things of themselves. Perhaps if we could resolve this knotty question, the rest would fall into place. This can of worms might be best left for another day, though.
The wants to create a thing through language, but can only describe it, using a predetermined number of available signifiers. Twisting the structure and choice of signifiers makes a poem ‘difficult’ to read. Should the poet stray outside the bounds of those signifiers, for example writing in a personally created language, the poetic text ceases to signify to the reader in any way. Thus the poem is always held in tension between its attempts to transcend language’s limitations and its need to signify something, somehow for someone.
Cast in a contemporary light, we might see the evolution of Plato’s perception of poetry’s failure to move beyond the mimetic to the ideal form as a set of issues and competing arguments around the limits of poetic representation, in which the position of the poet’s ‘voice’ often plays a major role. Although the voice of a poem is not necessarily that of a lyric ‘I’, in practice the positioning of voice and/or of the speaking subject of the poem has a lot to do with how we understand mimesis – the position of a unified lyric voice tends to align itself naturally with the concept of representation. Even if what the lyric portrays is an abstract concept, or indeed not a concept at all, the presence of a unified first person voice, whether denoted by the presence of an ‘I’, or its apparent direction toward the presence of a ‘you’ lends it a perceived tangibility, a realness, because we tend, as humans, to speak about things. In the next post, I’ll look at Claire Nashar’s article ‘as the new / gets newer’ in the current issue of Southerly, and think about what I’ve written today in both an Australian context and in terms of my own work. I’ve made some rather sweeping claims; get stuck in!
 Hamilton, John (2005). “Poetry and Poetics.” In Maryanne Cline Horowitz (ed.) New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Vol. 5. 6 vols. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: 2876-78
 Todorov, Tzvetan (1975). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Translated by Richard Howard. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press. 267.
 Shklovsky, Viktor (1965). “Art as Technique.” In Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis (eds.) Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press: 3-24. 12.
 Hulme, T. E. (1936). Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art. London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd. 115.
 Barthes, Roland (1972). Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 132-33.
by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
The most anticipated highlight of this trip for me was a chance to revisit the small town of Mallacoota just past the NSW/Victoria border, and Croajingalong National Park. I hadn’t been back since my daughter, the half-a-teenager flopped over a table in Braidwood two posts ago was about eight months old. Mallacoota is an inlet town with creeks and lakes curving and pooling out into the ocean. Everything is pretty low key; the river aspect means it’s remained more of a small fishing town than a beachfront high-rise development. The prevalence of brown and orange in the décor of the pub where we stayed are testament to this. It’s an Instagrammer’s delight: Everywhere you turn, there’s a rustic boatshed, or a sunset reflected in the water off a jetty, or a local dog everyone knows by name (Kendall, in fact) pleading for a bit of your bacon and egg roll outside the café.
By the time we got there, in the course of a slow day’s drive, I’d already taken about a hundred photos and videos on my phone, and started and discarded about twenty poems in my head. Staring out the window on long car trips triggers an ekphrastic style of thinking, even when you aren’t taking photographs, especially when passing through varied scenery in a relatively short space of time. Mental snapshots accumulate. Three thin sheep sucking lichen from a rock. The way that disused rail tracks snake off into a future past, the vision lost and re-glimpsed with the curves of the highway. The poetic moment, that first whiff of objective correlativity arrived several times an hour, sparked by the pairing of visual stimuli with sensory experiences. The thirty-five degree heat of the air between Goulburn and Braidwood drying my tongue; the haze on a Colorbond bus shelter. The bowed patience of a horse standing in a bleached paddock / my own attempted zen in the face of a failed stereo and no air-con.
But the moments became attached, linked by virtue of their common ‘momentness’. I started to wonder what relationship they have to each other, and to me, driving through them; creating them, in fact, by my observation. I started to think about the unfurling distance in relation to the progress of human life. Here I was, making this trip again, but with a different partner, the same (but yet so different) child, and a different version of myself. There have been ups and downs this year. Some sense of personal achievement, for me at least, was riding on the social success of this holiday journey. Already I had put myself as a potential poetic voice right in the position I talked about in the last post, that of the speaker in the scenic mode.
I didn’t want to use the landscape to tangentially evoke my quote-unquote innermost inexpressible feelings. So I gave up on the road-trip as snapshots, and the road-trip as metaphor. The ‘poetic moment’ had kept shifting. I tried to imagine how many times it must have shifted for T.S. Eliot in the construction of ‘The Waste Land’ and perhaps even more so, ‘Prufrock’. The poetic moment is, in my personal lexicon, the initial spark between an idea (image, sight , phrase, event, feeling, noticing of a set of similar circumstances) and the first burst of language that comes with that. For me, they never come separately. I can honestly say that not once have I sat down with the idea that I wanted to write a poem about something, but no cluster of words at its nucleus yet. I don’t know (but would dearly love to) how this works for others. In any case, I think this is where my fondness for the ‘objective correlative’ arises. For me, when Prufrock compares the ‘evening spread out against the sky’ with ‘a patient etherized upon a table’, this is a poetic moment, something that could spark the beginning of a poem, as well as a metaphor. Two remarkable and very different poetic moments occur consecutively in:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
The claws are not a metaphor for the observation of lonely men, yet there is the sense of some kind of understanding of them, or belonging to them. The first moment is based on the visual, the second on the imaginary. Either could also have been an impulse to begin the work. This is how I use Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative, seeing it as multiple poetic moments coming together to build an emotional landscape, rather than constituting links in a linear chain leading to the endpoint of a single emotion…
Our second day in Mallacoota, we headed out to Croajingalong National Park. It curves around the base of the continent, right along the coast between the border and Melbourne. A solo walk, six kilometres return from one secluded beach at Shipwreck Creek to the even more secluded Seal Beach. A solo walk did not denote a holiday failure for me, as long as everyone else was happy to be at base camp reading Kindles and / or taking selfies in the back of the ute.
Writing about the Australian landscape and my relationship to it is not at all a large part of my repertoire, particularly when it comes to lyric rather than narrative poetry. I feel uncomfortable claiming a relationship of ownership of or kinship with the land to describe an emotional state, and at the same time I worry that feelings of resentment about my discomfort might creep in to my writing. So I was looking forward to two hours of unthinking observation of nature.
The track, described as ‘following a creek to a secluded beach’ and having ‘amazing rockpools’ at the end, wound across hot, open heath for the first two-thirds of its lengths. My inability to put up with the flies quickly dispirited me. Everything looked the same. A dull scrub, punctuated by clumps of short trees. Except for wrens, I saw few signs of animal life. That was the first three hundred metres. After that I started to notice the subtle shadings in the palette of greens and browns and yellows. I started to feel more in tune with the landscape, noticing changes in the thicknesses of foliage, distinguishing birds by call, not name. My eyes started to open to the gem-like sprinkling of flowers and new foliage – gemlike!? Why was I thinking in these terms of commercial trade and acquisition? Was there a poem there? A poem about my inability to connect with the landscape in any terms other than those of colonialism, capitalism or taxonomy?
In the final hundred metres, the sandy scree running down to the final hook of the tannin-stained creek, I ran into a family on their way back up. I couldn’t even write a poem about the solitary nature of the experience any more!
Down on the beach, I felt none of the elation normal to having reached a destination. Where was there to go / but back / to the carpark? Another hour / of not belonging anywhere.
So I went for a swim, and that clear coldness and the sensation of being thrown around in the wilderness surf changed everything / I left the land and stepped into the water
Looking back / at that judgmental rock face
its bitter pits and scars more hard-fought than [how does this turn into war?]
its bitter pits and scars more hard-won(?) than my own [why am I in this?]
I don’t even dive / just let [does anyone actually know how to use these breath breaks? / the flour sack [sheep and arsenic? how did they get there? because I’m pale?] / of my body
roll and tumble in the billows [billows? might as well sing rule Brittania;
Australian poems in English just don’t WORK] folds / of that cold gown;
let the sea decide my guilt.
by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
I feel like I’m going round in circles thinking about Eliot’s formula for the ‘objective correlative’ as set out in my last post – ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion’. This seems to imply that the emotion, not the objects, comes first in the creative impulse. But does it? And does the dogmatic-sounding nature of the statement render it impractical for the composition or criticism of poetry – a mode to which the idea of formula is often anathema?
In some types of poetry, generally more mainstream than avant-garde, a natural setting is used to reinforce the poem’s dominant mood. As Charles Altieri points out in his description of the ‘scenic mode’, the point of this type of lyric is not so much ‘to interpret experience but to extend language to its limits in order to establish poignant awareness of what lies beyond words’ . The description of the natural setting is directly conflated with both the speaking persona and its attempt to convey what is felt or experienced but cannot be expressed. This is a simple application of the idea of the objective correlative. Description of setting + human action within it / interaction with it = expression of complex emotion felt. A good brief exploration of this type of poem (and some insights into the complexities of defining poetries) can be found in Marjorie Perloff’s review of Hank Lazer’s book 3 of 10, where she discusses his poem ‘Point Sur’ from the earlier volume Doublespace.
Applied to Eliot’s own work, this theorem takes on aspects that both validate and problematise its use in poetry. I’d like to talk about ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’; how coffee spoons and bare-armed women are used as signifiers of the speaker’s discomfort or social anxiety, but I won’t, because it predates Eliot’s first mention of the objective correlative. On the other hand, although the idea of the objective correlative has often since been used in discussing poetry, Eliot does not write about it as an intellectual tool used in the creation of his own works.
‘The Waste Land’ (first published in 1922, two years later than The Sacred Wood) does not present a chain of events, as such, and its ‘situation’ encompasses a large geographic and chronological span, including much that is imaginary or mythological. The poem’s many voices range from the diffuse and undefined, such as the song of the three Thames daughters, to the redeployed quotes referenced in the extensive glossary, to the sharply defined and cutting sketch of modern London life in the scene with the sexual encounter between a typist and a house agent’s clerk:
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
This scene (including the part that precedes it) has always been, for me, one of the most immediate pathways to understanding the uneasy personal relationship with post WWI urban life that Eliot charts over the course of ‘The Waste Land’. And yet it is explicitly announced within this section that the speaker of the poem here is neither Eliot, nor the typist herself, but rather Tiresias, a mythological figure, a blind male prophet of Thebes who was transformed into a woman for (at least) seven years:
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
For Eliot here, finding the objective correlative and thus expressing the experienced emotion most effectively seems to involve effacing himself as much as possible from his own lyric poem, transforming his own voice into that of Tiresias, which encompasses both genders and finally reminds us of the one unshakable common human bond: our mortality.
In ‘Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World’, poet Ron Silliman posits that ‘[t]he work of each poet, each poem, is a response to a determinate coordinate of language and history. Each writer possesses in his or her imagination a subjective conceptualization of this matrix (inevitably partial, inevitably a distortion), usually termed the tradition’.  The choice of the word ‘partial’ here bears a double meaning, that of ‘not whole’ and also that of ‘biased’.
The fact that Silliman flags the nature of the author’s concept of the matrix as problematic implies the inevitable interference wrought by the actions of the author as subject: if the poem is the response to a determinate coordinate of language and history, then the author can be seen as its product, shaped by the same forces. Thus although I find the term ‘matrix’ particularly useful, rather than seeing it as something in the author’s possession, we might, in a more Lacanian sense, think of the author as equally embedded within this set. In one of the best expressions of the need-to-write trope I have yet come across, Silliman continues: ‘[t]he locus of the work to be written is felt as a blind spot, a primal lack toward which the writer is driven. Each successful poem abolishes (but only for a time) the lack and subtly reorganizes the structure of the subjective matrix’ .
This works so well for me because the idea of a blind spot opens up the idea of many possibilities for what the lack consists of, a lack unique to each author. It might be political, or form-driven. It might be emotional, or it might reside at the level of language itself. I write poetry for very personal reasons – not in the sense that all my poetry deals with my innermost feelings, but in the sense that I write it generally for myself.
Again, this needs to be qualified – I think that every poet writes for herself, but to return to the idea of the blind spot for a moment, some poets’ concerns are more overtly public by nature than others: poetries of gender, the environment, cultural diversity, and politics generally tend to involve and be addressed to a public audience as they often assume an otherwise unspoken voice. On the other hand, for me, writing for myself can be something more like the process of solving a crossword puzzle. It might be creating a set of events or a situation, or at another level, a set of sounds or graphemes that don’t so much attempt to describe an emotion as to explore it for myself. Sometimes, once the objective correlative coalesces out of a rough draft, I may lose the need to finish the poem. Others, I redraft scrupulously – a kind of zone happens where I will cut from one side and add to the other until the outward expression of the poetic impulse is as close to perfectly balanced with the emotion / situation that sparked it as I can make it. In the next post, I discuss not writing a poem in Croajingalong National Park, and the continual readjustment of what, exactly, constitutes the poetic moment.
And today’s question: In an Annual Progress Review of my PhD several years ago, one of my readers remarked that my poetry was ‘accomplished, yet [pronoun] could not escape the sense that this was thought poetry rather than felt poetry’. Leaving aside the idea of privileging one conceptual framework over another, how could any poetry worth its salt not be both?
 Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
 Ron Silliman, ‘Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World’ in The New Sentence. UNSW pbk ed. New York: Roof, 1989. Print.
by Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
This post, and the next two or three, will be written enroute. You’ll note I haven’t specified a destination. This is a holiday; a pack the tray, jump in the ute and drive off holiday. Heading South. Being away from home and office and institution brings both blessings and curses in terms of blog-writing. There is the joy of seeing, smelling, tasting the new as kilometres unfurl beneath us and sensory experiences spark new thoughts and new connections to (or at least positions in relation to) the Australian landscape, both physical and social. On the other hand, there is the fear of being away from my familiar pile of scholarly resources and my stash of well-rehearsed arguments, not all of which can be fitted in my head at once, even if someone were to sit on my skull in an effort to help me close it. Intellectually I’m worried about taking the wrong turn; missing that dot on the map that marks the quickest, most efficient route to the point I want to make. Or failing to stop at the mental antique shop where the vintage theories are lovingly polished, showing very little sign of the wear that years of use brings. Or how could I not have heard about that farmer’s market where they sell only the freshest organic artisanal ideas, slow fermented then fully baked over tempering coals?
Being solely a writer of poetry, I am going to talk in those terms only, although I do feel that despite the greater importance of narrative propulsion to most prose fiction than to most works of poetry, both genres must manage a tension between truth (and by truth I mean here a kind of internal cohesion or integrity of the literary object) and the language which the author uses to attempt to fix that truth. Here is an example of the two different kinds of truth I have in mind:
Back in 2005, as the creative component of an Honours thesis, I wrote a set of narrative poems that a kind reader might have labelled a verse novella, and one examiner tagged with a remark along the lines of ‘if this were indeed a Roman a Clef, the author would have nothing to be ashamed of’. I’m still not quite sure if that refers to my handling of the genre, or the torrid details of my textual thirty-something life. Apart from a couple of favourites that were strong standalone pieces, I’ve never tried to publish it. Yes, it was somewhat half-baked in the way that something written to a deadline often is, and it was the work of a more naïve writer than I hopefully am now, but it certainly would have been a solid starting point for a first collection. So why didn’t I pursue it further?
I had my first run-in with readers’ attachment to a particular idea of ‘the truth’. These mostly narrative, very confessional poems were discrete but not discreet. I tried very, very hard to tell ‘the truth’. At the time, to me this meant not so much an honest account of a year’s worth of the vicissitudes of a dissolving marriage – its affairs and deceptions and self-realisations and reconciliations – as an attempt to include this as part of a far bigger canvas, including, most importantly, capturing a series of emotions evoked in me, the poet, which were thoroughly enmeshed in the physical surroundings and social fabric of that time.
In practice, this sometimes meant the creation of a fictional narrative event or setting which seemed the best fit for the language I wished to use in relation to the portrayal / creation of a certain web of feelings. I cast myself as about five years older, feeling it better matched my level of cynicism. I combined several people to make some of the characters. A lot of these fictions seemed obvious to me but I was besieged by everyone who read the piece (yes, all eight of them) bombarding me with questions such as ‘Is Olivia me?’ or ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know you had sex with X’. I felt invaded on one level (which I’d been expecting) and on another just annoyed, because although this piece was fairly firmly situated in the autobiographical, ‘telling my story’ was the least important part for me. It wasn’t cathartic; I was standing back watching myself manipulate the character of myself. Perhaps that in itself was the closest thing I got to a release from the exercise, this manipulation allowing me the illusion of a degree of control. It just puzzled me that, as a very private person, people thought it was shocking that I would share these ‘facts’ openly, when it was the revelation of my true emotions that was the panic-inducing, gut-wrenching part of the project.
I’d like to think about this idea of truth for a moment through the well-known lens of T. S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’ as detailed in The Sacred Wood:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
In my work, Infidelity Suite, this is what I did, without realising it, although the chain of events that made up the ‘formula’ was drawn largely from my own life experiences, unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the text to which Eliot applies his instrument. In theoretical terms this might be considered a simplistic goal, bearing a pre-postmodern insistence that, by mere distortion into variable length / lines riding breath flows even / the odd / ideogram, I could make these stale markers of language utter purely and simply the story that I wanted them to tell. Because this is a blog, and I am not being assessed on it a way that might affect my progress through the Academy, I will say this: although I accept, embrace even, the view that we – as both products and subjects of a system where the signifier is given over to the services of late capitalism – cannot make language faithfully represent experience but rather must allow language to create experience as we use it, I have a secret hope (and I wonder how widely it is shared, if at all) that I can maybe, just sometimes, use language to convey the truth. Especially if that ‘truth’ consists of a meshed entity of poet, catalytic event and language. We’ll talk about this more in the next post, this is really half of a two part piece… In the meantime, poet, novelist or any form of wordsmith in-between, I’d love to hear some thoughts on where you often find yourself in the production of your own work.
By Joshua Mei-Ling Dubrau
It was inevitable, I suppose, that the first Southerly blog post of 2014 should involve the dreaded topic of the New Year’s Resolution (and in line with most people’s resolutions, mine is being put into practice now, after I’ve, erm, had a chance to get a feel for the upcoming year). Resolutions often involve quantitative changes that we hope will lead to qualitatively attractive outcomes.
Cutting down on cigarettes involves subtracting a concrete number of gaspers from the currently consumed amount, but the benefits – the increased volume of oxygen in the breath, the return to the nostrils of sensual odours like summer fruit and frangipani, the number of stairs one can bound up before wheezily collapsing – are, although scientifically quantifiable, generally perceived in terms of a wholistic ‘enhanced lifestyle enjoyment’ package.
Likewise, the actual free time gained due to less bickering with co-workers, relatives, frenemies or partners is not the main prompt to consume less (or no) standard drinks per interminable family or collegial get-together (or exhausting evening of parenting small children). A Vaseline-smeared lens reveals the soft, glowing, broadly-defined outline of a ‘better person’; physically, emotionally, and perhaps most important for some, morally.
No surprise, really – the lessening or removal of a favourite vice, particularly if it’s a physically addictive and thus most likely destructive one, never seems a sufficient reward in itself to compensate for the immediate and daily pangs of loss.
What about writing and the New Year? Second perhaps only to those involved in the fitness industry, whether as hobby or job, writers (again, both amateur and professional) are (perhaps obviously) very keen to publicise both their own resolutions, and lists of suitable resolutions for others. As well as the added pressure of public commitment to a goal, there is always the possibility of increased web-traffic flow around one’s name – a must, I am told, in this marketability-driven age. A Google search of ‘writers new years resolutions’ (the apostrophes of possession were confusing the issue) gets well into the thirteenth page before the tangential (i.e. posts that are really about cats) starts to take over.
The intangible, soft-focus advice basically boils down to this: ‘think of yourself as a real writer’. Walk in the woods. Muse on the journey of the autumn leaf. Nuzzle the ground under the nearest oak tree, imagining the rich, earthy smell of a prize truffle. (Previous Southerly blogger Kathryn Heyman mentions a similar set of activities used as prompts for writing exercises, but here I am referring to the idea of inhabiting the senses, making metaphorical connections between the world and the self before pen ever touches paper.) The quantifiable, on the other hand, involves setting hard targets, whether hours or words per day, number of submissions in circulation at any given time, or projects completed per year.
Most advisors, many of them published authors, seem to concur that diligence in the latter arena will lead to solid outcomes in the former. No one suggests giving up writing for the New Year. No great surprise there: all over the interwebs, in the blogosphere, sparkling throughout the twitterverse in great self-affirmatory clusters are the insights, the lived experiences, the inspirational, if occasionally misapplied, quotes that tell us to stay on the path; that we will manifest what we truly believe or desire; that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Bullshit!
Just as in most other scenarios, applying this kind of linear rhetoric to the writing process, or the process of being a writer, is reductive and probably downright false. The quantifiable act of pumping out a certain number of words per day is not necessarily going to trigger emotional or mental trauma. It is at the other pole, the qualitative zone, that of ‘thinking of yourself as a real writer’ that distress is likely to occur. I’ve been there. And I’ve consciously given up writing on more than one occasion, feeling that the pain of its production wasn’t worth the outcomes. Inevitably, though, I’ve taken it up again, generally using academia as a framework to compel me to perform.
The suggestion of the ‘strength’ gained through struggle with difficult situations is that it somehow mitigates the cost of its own gaining. And yet, people, writers a prominent group among them, might gain and gain and gain the strength born of trauma and catharsis only to eventually meet that one final hurdle which is too much to take. For the many writers who have taken their own lives over the centuries, has the act of writing been a salve or a goad, or a strange mix of both – essential to daily existence, yet poisonous over time? ‘Real writers’, we often are told, bear witness to unnamable horrors, whether lived or imagined; reveal to us their dark places so that we can make them our own. When Kathryn Heyman, in her blog post of December 23 speaks of ‘the fear that you’ll touch something, once you start to write, which might open you up so terribly that you’ll never be put together again’, I think she homes in on a key cause (for me at any rate) of the struggle and tension that animates both the author and the written text. ‘Without courage’ she goes on to ask, ‘how is it possible for a writer to face the truth? And truth is the cornerstone of good writing’.
The extent to which I find my current preoccupations mirrored in Heyman’s posts of the past weeks has come as a surprise, and also serves as an example of my strange ambivalence toward my craft. On excitedly accepting the offer to be this month’s blogger, I vacillated wildly between wanting to memorise the content of the last few months’ blogs and not wanting to look at them at all, torn between the poles of ‘getting the tone right’, and wanting to present a unique, unmodulated voice.
For someone in my position, a not so young but very much still emerging ‘writer’ (whatever that may be) these are concerns associated with writing publicly in the nonetheless enclosed arena of an Australian literary community forum. But I know that this is a step I need to take. It is part of ‘thinking of myself as a real writer’, not so much because of the dialogue it might provoke within the community (although this is something I am very hopeful of) but because it involves thinking honestly about what my own praxis, such as it is, means to me.
And this, finally, coming down the home straight towards the [end of the] post brings me to the beginning of a theme that will rise and fall through the following entries – the complicated relationship between writers, truth and language. What is ‘truthful’ writing? Is it the gritty, factual recount of a harrowing scene, or the perfect word set evoking the author’s desired emotions in the reader as in Eliot’s objective correlative (more on which next post). Is the truth something that language can tell? And in today’s age of multiplicitous forms, how important is the writing act? For the slam poet, the electronic literature writer and the print novelist, they might be very different things, occupying very different places in the creation of the finished piece.
Oh, and my New Year’s resolution? It’s not to make a plan, or to write more, but to focus on processing and feeling; on living a writerly life by thinking in and through language; learning to deal with the discomfort that can be part of not just trying to tell the ‘truth’, but trying to work out what that ‘truth’ actually is. Even more importantly, it is to try and recognise that perhaps this feeling of ambivalence towards one’s own craft is not something that needs to be resolved, but could be accepted and incorporated into future work.
All images (except rose) generated by the What Would I Say? Facebook App (what-would-i-say.com/). These bot generated statuses are part of a current poetry project.