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December 4, 2014 / Southerly

December monthly blogger – Hazel Smith!

Many thanks to Geoff Page for his thought-provoking posts.
This month, our guest blogger is Hazel Smith. Her bio is below.

Photo on 6-02-14 at 12.44 PM

Hazel Smith is a research professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. She is author of The Writing Experiment: strategies for innovative creative writing, Allen and Unwin, 2005 and Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: difference, homosexuality, topography, Liverpool University Press, 2000. She is co-author of Improvisation, Hypermedia And The Arts Since 1945, Harwood Academic, 1997 and co-editor with Roger Dean of Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2009. She is co-editor with Roger Dean of soundsRite, an online journal of new media writing and sound, based at the University of Western Sydney. Her monograph, The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship: intermedia, voice , technology, cross-culturality, will be published by Routledge in 2016.

Hazel is a poet, performer and new media artist, and has published three volumes of poetry, three CDs of performance work and numerous multimedia works. Her volume, The Erotics of Geography: poetry, performance texts, new media works, with accompanying CD Rom, was published by Tinfish Press, Kaneohe, Hawaii in 2008. Her next poetry volume will be published by Giramondo in 2015. She is a member of austraLYSIS, the sound and intermedia arts group, and has performed her work extensively in the US, Europe, UK and Australasia. She also had a previous career as a professional violinist. Her website is at

November 29, 2014 / Southerly

Four Things About ‘Teaching’ Poetry

by Geoff Page


Recent events have suggested there may soon be a renewed emphasis on teaching poetry in Australian schools. To Australian poets, and lovers of poetry, these rumours should be welcome. For course designers and English teachers there may now seem to be an attractive vacuum – which needs to be filled intelligently. Extremes, such as the rote learning of a few nineteenth century poems ‘set’ by the teacher (or some distant committee) or the imposition of a swag of pseudo-postmodern ‘critical theory’, need equally to be avoided.

As a poet and a former teacher of poetry at secondary level (mainly years 11 and 12) for 38 years, I hesitate to map out a detailed course to suit everyone but there are four crucial principles which need to be kept in mind – preferably at all levels, not just in those ‘Extensions’ for students who want to specialise in literature.

  1. The Oral Aspect. Poetry was oral for thousands of years before anyone got around to inventing a script for writing it down. It’s still an oral art form. Poems are best appreciated when read aloud – by the poet if still available or, more often, by the teacher and students themselves. And read aloud more than once. Read aloud until they’re read well. Read aloud, not just for subsequent dissection but as part of a ‘read-around’ for the class’s irresponsible enjoyment.
  1. A Sense of Choice. Let the students have some say in what poem or poems they’re going to present or talk about. Obviously this will be within (fairly wide) parameters set by the teacher (and those, apparently inescapable, curriculum writers). Such parameters should give the whole experience some coherence but the students should also be making their own choice at some point. This may be heavy on the school’s photocopier but we shouldn’t worry about that. A good teacher never relies on a single text or anthology.
  1. Technical Knowledge. It’s never enough when discussing a poem to talk merely about its content, as if it could be paraphrased to a prose equivalent and considered as a newspaper article or an op ed piece. With poetry, no matter how seemingly simple, language is always important. And language includes not only imagery (metaphors and similes etc – which most teachers are comfortable with) but metre and rhythm (which are not the same thing, incidentally). Students, even in junior high school, can enjoy being able to talk about the effect that a reversal of stress at the beginning of a line may have on the whole line. ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’, for instance, to quote Robert Frost at the beginning of ‘Mending Wall’.

In senior classes students may also enjoy being able to point out how the lineation of a free verse poem by William Carlos Williams really works (and even perhaps why he often seemed to ignore it in his recordings). When the poet is free to ‘turn’ a line wherever he or she wants to the decision about just where to do so becomes crucial.

On the other hand, such discussions shouldn’t be overdone. One or two technical points (preferably noted by the students) will probably be enough unless the discussion suddenly takes off – as it can sometimes do. Every now and again, it is good to analyse a poem thoroughly, looking at both its content and its form and (ideally) how they are woven inseparably together.

With poetry written in stricter forms (and in the history of poetry in the English language there is much more of that than there is of free verse, even now) it’s important that students start early on the business of metre and rhythm. They certainly need to know exactly what an iambic pentameter is but it’s best if they can recognise readily the four main metres, not only iambic and trochaic but also the two triple metres, dactyllic and anapaestic. The same goes for line lengths; not just the pentameter but the tetrameter and trimeter and so on (the way, for instance, the latter two are alternated in a ballad stanza).

Similarly, at the senior level anyway, they should be able to differentiate between the rhyme schemes of a Petrarchan sonnet and an Elizabethan one (and, more importantly, its effect). Likewise, the recognition of the abcb rhyme scheme of a ballad stanza.

They also need to be familiar with the business of rhythm in traditional verse, the variations the poet makes in a particular line on the metre, that platonic archetype ticking along underneath it. They should be able to note important rhythmic changes such as those in the last two lines of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’: ‘Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’ Even the absence of such variations can be significant. ‘The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace’, to quote Marvell. This emphasis, of course, is not a substitute for also discussing the general thrust of the poem but it’s no less important. No less important, too, is the whole business of sound effects: assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia (even the sound of long and short vowels) and the effects generated thereby.

  1. Context. Students, like the rest of us, have a natural curiosity about who wrote the poem and what, if anything, we know about her or him personally. Historicists would have us look at the context as much (or more than) the poem itself. New Critics would enjoin us to look at the poem and nothing else. There’s surely a happy medium here. Certainly some context is useful.

The poet’s birth and death dates for a start. Who else was writing at the time? The shared attitudes of the group of which he/she may have been a part, e.g. the Romantics versus the Augustans. Or New Yorkers v. the Beats, if we want to update a little. At some stage serious students need to build up some sense of the long poetic tradition in English (and why not in a few other languages, via translation, while they’re at it?). This is best done via units which explicitly examine the tradition (or parts of it) but it can also be at least hinted at in units where poetry may be just an incidental part of some wider concern. There is no single area or period which is sacred here – though, obviously, not all can be covered or even alluded to.

For too long the study of poetry in Years 11 and 12 has been reduced to a consideration of a dozen or so poems by each of four or five, often very different, poets. Typically, the poets chosen are indisputably major figures in the canon – with one or two contemporary poets thrown in – often for their ‘relevance’. Fifty or sixty poems, however closely scrutinised, can never be enough for a serious student at this stage. The habit of treating a poem as an example of some wider sociological concern is also too frequently seen these days.

Though the latter approach will inevitably be superficial, the close scrutiny involved in the former may also be counterproductive – especially if teachers want students to develop the lifelong habit of reading poetry for enjoyment. A few poems in depth, yes, but not too many or the victim lies dead on the slab.

So there are my four criteria, namely, the oral aspect, the importance of choice, the provision of context and an emphasis on technique. Any poetry syllabus that does not involve these four is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the distant and/or recent past.

November 25, 2014 / Southerly

Southerly is 75! Subscription Deals


Southerly is 75 years old! It’s almost Christmas! These are things to celebrate, so for the next 3 weeks we are offering some amazing subscription deals for you.

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These offers only last until December 14th, so you have just a few weeks to get Southerly into your life.

Of course, all year round we have our joint print subscription deals with Meanjin, Overland, Island, and Griffith Review. Just click.

November 25, 2014 / Southerly

A Blog on Clive

by Geoff Page

GP 3 1

I have always been slow to take up the latest communication device and have usually deferred doing so till it becomes inexcusable not to. Hence my advance from the typewriter to word processor somewhere in the late eighties and my acquisition of an old Nokia about ten years ago. I plan to hold off on Facebook and Twitter for a while yet, even though I know it may lose me “Friends” in the interim.

Now, confronted with the demand for a “blog”, I am told it should be a short, chatty, reasonably intimate piece of writing with a feeling of ephemerality. I am informed too that first names are de rigueur. Such a context seems ideal for talking about the latest book by Clive James, his Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 (Picador 2014) — which I actually purchased for $32.99 rather than await a review copy. It’s been a busy few weeks for me, with quite a bit of travel and a good deal of attention to organising of poetry readings and jazz concerts. (That’s the personal bit out of the way).

I’ve thus been forced to read the book piece-meal in coffee bars, in speeding vehicles and in snatches before sleep. That’s not the professional way to prepare a review but perhaps it is for a “blog”. It’s been great to have the company of (the no-longer-travelling) Clive — even if I didn’t get many words in. Like his good friend, the late Peter Porter, Clive is a compelling monologist. The Ancient Mariner’s Wedding Guest escaped relatively easily.

As with Coleridge’s poem, Clive’s Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 also has a number of important things to impart, all of them somehow intensified by the author’s slowly losing battle with leukaemia.

The book’s first part comprises fourteen pieces on poetry, mainly written for Poetry (Chicago); the second is made up of reviews deserving preservation, together with an obituary and a short “diary” or “blog” for the Spectator. The essays in the first part are cleverly linked by recently-written “interludes” which provide an after-the-event continuity.

GP 3 2It’s a measure of Clive’s courage and critical acuity that the difference between his pre- and post-illness writing is not at all obvious. A consistent voice emerges throughout, intended or not. Though Clive is commendably concerned only with the poetry under consideration, a strong sense of an enthusiastic but judicious personality also emerges.

 As Clive makes clear, he has been preoccupied with poetry since high school in Kogarah and, despite distractions into areas more productive of fame in London and elsewhere, he has never lost his passion for the form. As we know from successive collections, Clive’s own poetry has been marked by technical expertise and lightness of touch with just a few poems (more numerous lately) going as deep as the best work of those earlier canonical poets he so much admires (and so well understands).

Clive is no hagiographer, however. He has firm (and sometimes unpredictable) opinions about some highly rated poets e.g. Milton whose “Paradise Lost” is spoiled, he thinks, by an excess of deadening classical allusion. Likewise, the later poetry of Wallace Stevens which he finds too abstract and self-imitative.

Though it’s clear Clive much prefers formal poetry to what he calls “informal” poetry (i.e. free verse), he is careful not to cut himself off from the pleasures of the latter just to be dogmatic. He laments, however, that the current Australian poetry scene is dominated so much by the “informal” and implies a contrast with the situation in the US and the UK. Though much of his discussion concerns the poetry on either side of the Atlantic (there’s a great essay on Robert Frost, for instance) Clive, the expatriate, is by no means ill-informed about, or uninterested in, Australian poetry. There is an extended essay on James McAuley’s classic poem, “Because”, and enthusiastic reviews of major books by Stephen Edgar and Les Murray. His strongly-felt obituary for Peter Porter (1920-2010) could also be included in this category.

Ultimately, however, Poetry Notebook is a work of opinion. It’s not unlike two poets over a few beers discussing just which poets and which poems they approve and disapprove of going all the way back to Chaucer (if not Homer). Clive’s opinions are never arbitrary and are, at least briefly, supported by argument and quotation. There are some judgements, however, that (for all his erudition) are easy to disagree with.

He says, for instance, that “Judith Wright was a big Australian name but I could find only two or three self-sustaining poems in all her body of work”. He praises Wright’s efforts to “save the Barrier Reef from the mining companies” but compares her unfavourably to Gwen Harwood — “a better guardian of real meaning”. I seem to remember Peter Porter (unlike Les Murray) had a similarly negative view of Wright. It could well be, of course, that Judith had a comparable view of Clive’s poetry, if she attended to it at all. It may also be that Wright’s work is better savoured in Brisbane or Sydney (or Bunyah) than in the far-off drizzle of London.

Speaking of Peter Porter, however, must remind us of Clive’s excellent obituary on him. Here, the poet tellingly analyses his old friend’s foibles — and remembers fondly the series of conversations about the many dimensions of literature they were commissioned to record in London for the ABC. It’s been broadcast at least twice on Radio National and is available (with some difficulty) on Clive’s website ( where it remains a marvel of two people in love with a subject they know deeply (and can quote from endlessly).

The greatest compliment a reader could pay Poetry Notebook 2006-1014 is to say that it possesses a good deal of the same colloquial energy and effortless knowledge that those memorable conversations have. The whole book is, as Hemingway looked for in regard to bullfighting, an impressive display of “grace under pressure”.


Photo credits:
Top photo from Civilian Global:
Book cover from Pan Macmillan:
Final photo from by Eamonn McCabe published in the Guardian:

November 19, 2014 / Southerly

Australian Dreams 1

Southerly 74-2 cover (LoRez)

A country where ‘it’s ok to be a bigot’.
A country of refugees, refusing asylum.
A country violating human rights, ignoring the pleas of the United Nations.
A country ‘open for business’, with its trees, its coal, its uranium on the counter, its Reef and World Heritage areas on the line.

How are your dreams of Australia going?

Essays on the state of higher education, on ethnic minority, on the politics of fear; brilliant new work from major and emerging Australian writers; a troublesome feast of poetry, fiction, ideas and revelations, not all of them guaranteed to produce a good night’s sleep.

Read more…

November 19, 2014 / Southerly

Why Don’t People Read Faulkner Anymore?

by Geoff Page


It was one of those poet/teacher dreams. About a week ago. I was in a rambling school I’d never seen before and had been suddenly prevailed upon to give a talk on the great American novelist, William Faulkner. The audience was scattered over one of those large open-plan areas and aged roughly sixteen — not the best age for Faulkner, I would have thought. I’m not sure if I’d been introduced or not but suddenly I was telling them everything I remembered about Faulkner from when I was devoted to his work in my early twenties.

I noticed, reassuringly, off to my right, that there were three or four Asian students who nodded enthusiastically as if they too had read those particular novels and agreed fervently with what I was saying. For the rest, there was a general susurrus of inattention which did not, however, prevent me from holding forth. As with many dreams, the situation was intimidating, if not humiliating. I’d not even had time to check Google or Wikipedia, let alone re-read a novel or two or glance again at the great man’s Nobel Prize speech. I was not to be deterred, however. I’d been commissioned and I was stuck, as one so often is in dreams.

I couldn’t even recall the man’s birth date accurately. 1894? 1897? I remembered his death though — in 1963. I told them about his love for the American South, its terrible history of slavery and conflict, his hatred of the carpet-baggers who swept in during “Reconstruction”, his determination that the South had to settle its own moral problems — when it was ready and not at the behest of the goddamn Yankees.

I mentioned, in this connection, the novel, Absalom, Absalom, and its tormented central character. I told them of the writer’s drinking binges and how he never read the critics — or claimed he didn’t. Also of how he would disingenuously refer to himself as “just a farmer who likes to tell stories” and pretend that the great Modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf had had no effect on him. At one stage, I must also have told my sixteen-year-olds about his shortish sojourn in Hollywood, writing the script for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, among others — and proving a disappointment to everyone concerned, including himself.

I’m sure I told these students too (rambling here and there without a note) how I personally first became involved with Faulkner and his writing. His novel, The Sound and the Fury, was on our second year English course at my bucolic university back in 1959. I doubt very much if it’s there now. While not finding it an “easy read”, I really liked it and was soon consuming other Faulkner novels from the university’s surprisingly well-stocked library — while, no doubt, ignoring the classics I should have been absorbing for my exams.

I must have told these (resolutely uninterested) students something of the order in which I encountered the works. Light in August was an early one. So was Sartoris. Even in a dream, I probably steered clear of Sanctuary, with its grotesque central sexual episode. I would have mentioned the early one about flying (what was its name now? Pylon, I think). And that other early one, Mosquitoes — of which I remember little, I had to admit.

Did I expatiate too on the late long one dealing with the war, the “great” war, the war that Faulkner was just too late to see action in, though he trained as a pilot in Canada and wrote admiring (and compelling) short stories about airmen over France and Belgium? The novel (the name of which I wasn’t able to remember) was a slightly unwieldy tome about the French mutinies of 1917 with a mysterious Christ-figure at its core. It worked as a self-administered antidote to his earlier martial enthusiasms.

Naturally, I brought up As I Lay Dying (rather experimental and written in a few months while Faulkner was working as a nightwatchman tending some furnace or other). This must have sidetracked me a moment and I found myself telling them of his early job in a U.S. Post Office and how he quit — saying, over his departing shoulder, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to be a goddamn slave to every son-of-a-bitch with a dime to spend on a postage stamp” — or words to that effect. There may have been a chuckle of recognition here from the sixteen-year-olds who felt much the same about serving up interminable Big Macs. I don’t remember hearing it though. Dreams can be curiously soundless at times.

It was at this stage maybe that I retailed the anecdote of the now-somewhat-neglected short story writer, Sherwood Anderson. It was Anderson who told his protegé one day in New Orleans that he would send the young man’s first novel to his own New York publisher along with a recommendation (Scribner’s, I think it was — or Random House?) providing he didn’t have to read the damn thing first.

Since this was all a dream, I had no cause to hold back from the personal. I told them how, in my Dip Ed year, I had been allowed by an unusually thoughtful and progressive teachers’ college lecturer, Paul Lamb, to write my short thesis (15,000 words, I think it was) on William Faulkner rather than on what Plato said about education — or the more important rules of softball.

Paul (Mr Lamb to me, in those days) was also a Faulkner fan. He seemed to have read, fortuitously, the exact half of the Mississippian’s oeuvre that I hadn’t. We would thrust books upon each other with a “You mean you haven’t read the Snopes trilogy yet? Well, here’s The Hamlet. Start there. The Town and The Mansion can come later.” If this was Education Theory, I was all in favour of it.

My thesis (long essay, really) was grandly titled, William Faulkner: An Introduction. Legibly (and lovingly) handwritten throughout. Not much more than a plot summary of all the novels, with a few references to critics here and there, I suppose. If Faulkner himself disdained reviewers and academics, why should I have to spend much time on them? It was significant too that Faulkner was still alive at this point (1962) and wasn’t to die till the following year. I think he’d just published The Reivers, an eminently forgettable novel compared to his work in the 1930s and 40s. We sensed that he was on the way down but that didn’t lessen the excitement.

I don’t know how much these hapless students had been told about my own writing. I never quite did hear the introduction I’d been given. Their teacher, who had long since left the room (for a smoke?), must have said something about my numerous volumes of poetry, I surmised. At least the three Asian students still looked interested.

I began to tell them how Faulkner was the first writer I read who made me want to be a writer myself. The joy of reading the overlapping, intersecting and cumulative stories of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County ( I didn’t write it on the blackboard) gave me a sense of just how satisfying it would be to create, over several decades, something similar oneself. I think I would have mentioned the famous quote from his Nobel speech: “The past is not dead; it is not even past”.

When seen as a whole, his novels were a huge achievement of the imagination. I was only to discover later that the great Latin-American writer, Gabriel García Marquez, twenty years or so my senior, had had a similar experience and went on to create One Hundred Years of Solitude. Many have also seen the substantial ghost of William Faulkner in the novels of the somewhat younger American novelist, Cormac McCarthy.

No doubt I revealed to my audience, since I was in a confessional mood, how the early short fiction written in my first couple of years teaching did not turn out well and how within three or four years I had swapped to poetry — for which I had more talent and which was undoubtedly better suited the exigencies of full-time teaching. My dreams of a Yoknapatawpha County on the Clarence River (NSW) receded — without regret, for the most part. By then, I had other heroes — William Carlos Williams, for one. Some of my readers (were those Asian students among them?) may still detect a trace of Faulkner’s sense of history in those of my poems and verse novels set on the Clarence — despite my not having lived there for any length of time since I was twelve.

In the same spirit, I found myself discussing how, before giving up on fiction pretty much altogether, I had proceeded to read the great bulk of Faulkner’s talented contemporaries systematically (Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, John Does Passos et al). None of them quite measured up to the man himself — though both Hemingway and Fitzgerald were more accomplished stylists. Did I sneakily inform them that Faulkner’s first two publications were slim imitations of Keats and ludicrously short of his later achievements in prose? That seemed a small consolation, at least, to have written better poetry than Faulkner managed.

I’m sure I must also have told my students in this regard how the tone of Faulkner’s dialogue and narrative was often indistinguishable and how this really didn’t matter; how dialogue didn’t have to be realistic anyway; that this was all a misconception etc etc. I would have mentioned one of his simple methods of characterisation. How a man called Ratcliffe, I think it was, (Faulkner’s names often had symbolic functions — the Reverend Hightower, for instance) always wore a blue shirt and was referred to as wearing it each time he appeared (even in different novels).

I don’t remember how the dream ended. It’s a week ago now. Often they’re gone in thirty seconds. Perhaps the teacher came back from his staff room to rescue me. Perhaps his students quietly and collectively exited the room and left me in mid-sentence, the three Asian ones saying a soft “thank you” as they slipped by.

I do remember waking up though and being amazed at my recall when, to be honest, I’ve not really read Faulkner for the past fifty years and have never taught him. About fifteen years ago maybe, I dipped again into the first few paragraphs of Light in August but without the old excitement. Did I tell them this too? I suspect not. I think they were gone by then.


Photo credits: Top image sourced from Brain Pickings: Last image sourced from Nobel Prize:

November 12, 2014 / Southerly

Obscurity in Poetry — A Spectrum

by Geoff Page


(Developed from a short talk given in Bondi on November 7, 2014 at the salon of Luke Fischer and Dalia Nassar)

Firstly, we need to remember a successful poem is both an act of communication and a work of art. There is a tension between the point I first heard from John Tranter (“If I wanted to tell you something I’d have sent you a telegram”) and the fact that almost all poems (even the most obscure) are an attempt, in one way or another, to address a putative reader or listener.

There exists in current Australian poetry, and in world poetry across time and geography, a spectrum of obscurity which may be divided loosely into eight categories:

  1. Desirable or Essential Obscurity. This kind of obscurity is essential to the poetic process. Given poetry’s necessary compression, not everything can or should be spelt out. A poem which attempts to “cover all bases” will, unarguably, be banal.
  1. Inevitable Obscurity. This is where the temptation to “lift a footnote into the text” is resisted because the poet knows that doing so would probably spoil the poem by forfeiting its important qualities of compression — and, often, musicality. Poets have to “trust the reader”. More on this later — though we should note in passing that Ezra Pound broke this rule effectively in his Cathay poems from time to time.
  1. Obscurity of cultural reference. Nearly all poetry relies on knowledge being taken as given. Poets have to make assumptions about their readers‘ education — which, of course, changes over time. In the nineteenth century and earlier a working familiarity with Greek myths could be taken for granted. Now the Greek gods and heroes have been replaced by elements of popular culture — songs, movies, celebrities, etc. This is not automatically a decline; just a change of circumstances.

Google, of course, has cancelled many excuses in this regard — though we should note that an obscure poem which lacks any initial musical attraction is unlikely to be investigated further. We might observe too, in this context, that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has become much less obscure over time (and as more work is done on it by successive readers — and scholars). We are no longer troubled by a line or two from a foreign language we don’t know. With Google, the solution is immediately to hand.

  1. Syntactical obscurity. This occurs when the poem’s vocabulary and references are relatively simple but the syntax, deliberately, makes for obscurity. Take these two lines from Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”: “The jar was round upon the ground / And tall and of a port in air”.

Perhaps, for some readers, the meaning of that last phrase is resoundingly obvious. I have thought about it for forty years without finding a convincing answer. This does not, however, in any way diminish my delight in the poem.

  1. Obscurity for tonal effect. The French Symbolistes, along with the Post-Impressionist painters, were masters of this. Stéphane Mallarmé argued that “Poetry should aspire to the condition of music” — which, in instrumental form, is free of denotative words. It’s a tradition carried on in the later poetry of Wallace Stevens and by the New York poet, John Ashbery. To readers who find it difficult to suppress the denotative in favour of the connotative this can be a problem, even as we admit that poetry’s most important effects flow from the latter rather than the former. In this kind of poetry we often find we are listening to the sound of the syntax or the sigh of the syllables rather than to any point being made about the external world as we know it. It’s pleasurable — but less so over long distances.
  2. Accidental obscurity. This happens when poets don’t realise that a word or phrase may be taken in a totally counterproductive or “wrong” way. Politicians (who, in a sense, are amateur poets) often make this mistake with phrases such as “shirt-fronting” or the “right to be a bigot”. The phrase “goes viral” and achieves the opposite of its intention.

It’s also possible to use an image which, almost accidentally, may be totally meaningless to the “average reader”. Poets can often benefit from having a firmly-grounded non-poet read their work before sending it out to a publisher. On the other hand we have to agree with T.S. Eliot when he said “There are many ways to interpret my poems; mine are not necessarily the best”. One should never be dogmatic about interpretation.

  1. Reckless obscurity. This happens when the poet may detect an obscurity in his or her poem but can’t be bothered tidying it up — or refuses to so. It’s a particular problem with followers of Allen Ginsberg’s maxim, “First thought/best thought”.

This not to deny, however, the reality of Wallace Stevens’ distinction between the “poem of the idea” and the “poem of the words”. We’re reminded of Auden’s point that “a poem is never finished; it is only abandoned”. The problem with some poets is that they “abandon” the poem too soon, leaving obscurities that do no one any good.

  1. Wilful obscurity. This is where the poet deliberately intends to “shock” the reader by relinquishing traditional syntax and/or playing self-indulgently with the polysemic nature of language along with typography, spelling, punctuation. This is not to attack E.E. Cummings (who is rarely obscure once you get past the typographical hijinks) but it does apply to a significant group of contemporary (mainly young) Australian poets.

It’s possible these poets are attempting to suggest complex and elusive meanings that “lurk between the words” and are thus forced to abandon traditional syntax to achieve this. Without foregoing syntax, the Italian “Hermetic” poets had this intention — and were often successful. The best work of Salvatore Quasimodo is an example.

[A paragraph at this point of this piece has been withdrawn, with the agreement of the author, owing to the unexpected intensity of the controversy it has generated.’ – Southerly]

Again one has to concede that there is a vibrant, alternative avant garde tradition which has long flowed beside the poetic mainstream. One thinks of the remarkable Canadian experimental poet, Christian Bök. His performances are unforgettably dramatic. He knows his antecedents in detail, going right back to the dadaist, Kurt Schwitters, and his “Ur Sonata”. Young Australian poets hoping to occupy the space here that Bök fills in Canada would seem to have a lot more work ahead of them.

Is it just the jaundice of the ageing to think the avant gardists’ motivations may simply be to render themselves impervious to traditional criticism? Should one resist the fable of the little boy and the naked emperor? What a pity that our naïve young onlooker didn’t yet have the experience to know that the splendid new garments not being worn by the emperor were a hundred years old already.

Photo credit: “Theo van Doesburg kleine Dada soirée” by attributed to Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons 


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