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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 

November 6, 2014 / Southerly

November monthly blogger – Geoff Page!

A huge thanks to Nicolette Stasko for her excellent posts.

This month, our monthly blogger is Geoff Page. His bio is below.

Geoff Page is based in Canberra and has published twenty-one collections of poetry as well as two novels and five verse novels. His recent books include 1953 (UQP 2013), Improving the News (Pitt Street Poetry 2013) and New Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattmann 2013). His Aficionado: A Jazz Memoir is forthcoming from Picaro Press.

GPPhoto credit: Alison Hastie

October 31, 2014 / Southerly

And now for something completely (well, maybe not completely) different

by Nicolette Stasko

Interviewer: Well, hello Nicolette, glad you could make it.

NS: Thanks, happy to be here.

Interviewer: Just a few straightforward questions to get started.

NS: Fire away.

Interviewer: Is your nationality American?

NS: No, I’m Australian.

Interviewer: What are you reading at the moment?

NS: I had dinner with my Inspector Maigret supplier last week and now have a new stock of Simenon. I chose A Crime in Holland to read first, as it sounded the least ‘dark’, hoping not to get too excited or addicted because I have to finish this post. But I’m already halfway through and resisting the urge to keep reading! Along with the novels, which by the way are correctly termed romans dur (not roman noir as I said in ‘Apologia with Rave’, probably because they generally don’t contain the element of surrealism that noir often exhibits), my bibliophile friend also included a study of Simenon by Lucille Becker. So I can get my hit without too much guilt. Crime or detective fiction has always been considered a poor cousin or lesser genre of the novel. Although it may still be a subgenre, in the last decade or so, it has gained a great deal of respect and critical attention particularly in the hands of a master like Georges Simenon.

Interviewer: Why such an interest in this Belgian crime writer?

NS: I mentioned that he was born and grew up in Liege. I’m never certain why some authors/books attract and others don’t (see essay below) but I have a notion that it may have something to do with knowledge or experience of the place the novel is set, among other things. By coincidence in my younger days I spent many months in a little village outside of Liege picking apples and waiting for the kombi van to be repaired. We went to the city fairly often and I still have a pair of beautiful six-inch heel Italian boots I bought there. (How I walked in them all over Europe I’ll never know!) So there’s a lot in Simenon’s books I recognise, especially the atmosphere. When a journalist asked him why it always rained in his novels, Simenon answered, ‘it rains in my novels because it pours in Liege 180 days a year’[1]. How true! This area is one of the least inspiring in Western Europe—flat, monotonous and grey, with weather from the North Sea bringing constant rain, the mood and colours of the landscape are not unlike those that characterise his novels.

Interviewer: Sounds rather depressing. Are all the novels set in the same area?

NS: Interestingly, though I haven’t by any means read all of his work, Simenon tends to reinhabit this area of Northern Europe and especially Paris where Maigret is based at the Police Judiciaire on the Quai des Orfèvres as part of the ‘flying squad’. I have been fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time in Paris and find my familiarity with that city also enhances the novels. Some early ones I’ve read, set in the South, are imbued with a kind of wonder at the bright sunshine and in A Crime in Holland, the ‘limpidity’ of the light and air is continually noted. It makes a real contrast.

Interviewer: So besides the setting of the novels what else compels you to read these ‘Maigrets’ as I gather they’re called?

NS 4 1Simenon writes directly on the typewriter. He types very quickly and without ever crossing out.
It takes him two months to write a novel[2]

NS: One of the things Simenon is famous for—besides his numerous love affairs—is how prolific he was. Those of us who may be haunted by recurring ‘writers’ block’ might find his work habits (described in the caption above) a matter of envy. A great deal is made of the fact that at his death in 1989 he is credited with producing 573 works (190 potboilers signed with 17 pseudonyms, 358 novels and short stories signed Simenon, 25 autobiographical works, 30 series of articles for the French press and a ballet scenario.) One wonders how he had time to sleep with anyone! Becker argues rightly that the ‘sheer magnitude of his output obscured their literary merits’.[3]

Interviewer: What then would do you think are the ‘literary merits’?

NS: Well in the words of Julian Barnes, it doesn’t sound like much. That’s the extraordinary thing about his work: ‘Simenon got away with a very restricted and therefore very repetitive vocabulary (about 2,000 words, by his own estimation) – he didn’t want any reader to have to pause over a word, let alone reach for the dictionary. He kept his books very short, able to be read in one sitting, or (often) journey: none risks outstaying its welcome. He eschews all rhetorical effect – there is rarely more than one simile per book, and no metaphors, let alone anything approaching a symbol. There is text, but no subtext; there is plot but no subplot – or rather, what appears to be possible subplot usually ends up being part of the main plot. There are no literary or cultural allusions, and minimal reference to what is going on in the wider world of French politics, let alone the international arena. There is also–both admirable positive and enviable negative – no authorial presence, no authorial judgement, and no obvious moral signposts. Which helps make Simenon’s fiction remarkably like life’.[4]

Interviewer: So besides your ‘supplier’, you’re not the only one who has ‘rediscovered’ Simenon?

NS: No, not at all. The TLS ran another review by Tim Parks of recently published translations: A Man’s Head and A Crime in Holland—but since that is the book I’m in the middle of I’m not reading the article until I’ve finished.

Interviewer: You sound completely addicted.

NS: Well yes I guess, although I still have 278 pages left to read of Bleak House which I will get around to. But if for nothing else (which seems evidenced by Dickens’ life as well) I agree with Simenon: ‘Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy’.

Interviewer: Care to explain?

NS: I think I already have.

Interviewer: A few questions about your work… Did you write that claim on the Glass Cathedrals SALT web page about you being ‘one of the best loved poets in Australia’?

NS: no, I didn’t write any of the blurbs or media.

Interviewer: Do you think it’s true?

NS: I have absolutely no idea but I doubt it. It’s probably not a good idea to believe everything you read.

Interviewer: Would you like to comment on whether you consider yourself to be a nature poet or not?

NS: My last book under rats with Vagabond made reference to cats, rats, bats, spiders, deer, wasps and hummingbirds! Not in that order. In fact I am planning to write the definitive study on the life and habits of the Peruvian Marvellous Spatuletail (Loddigesia mirabilis) if I get a grant. Just kidding.

NS 4 2Loddigesia mirabilis – Gould Troch. pl. 161 (detail).jpg

Interviewer: I notice that you often use the word ‘seeing’ in a distinctive way. Care to comment on that?

NS: It’s probably a hangover from the John Berger era when his book Ways of Seeing made quite a splash in the 70’s. But the best way of explaining is with an early essay I published in a small journal out of Hobart. I think it only lasted for four or five issues but it was very ambitious and interesting. My essay is extremely ideal and somewhat romantic but twenty years ago we were all, I think, a lot less cynical. I still consider it a good piece of writing. I like the earnestness and am still impressed by the erudition I’m probably incapable of now. So at the least it can be read as a bit of Australian literary history or nostalgia[5].


Interviewer: Would you like to comment on this blogging experience?

NS: There is something I’d like to mention and that’s the library. As I said earlier I live in a very small terrace with not much room for books. So obviously borrowing is important to me. I’m still a Luddite and love the actuality of pages over electronics.

NS 4 9

It is really awful to find that almost every book I brought home for these posts (I can’t find my copy of Self Portrait. Someone must have borrowed it!) had been written over as if the reader didn’t have access to paper! I know the guidelines state that the blog is not for whinging etc but it really annoys me that someone might think that another reader would be interested in their drivel. I guess that’s one good thing about books on-line. So here’s another poem I wrote many years ago.

Reading in Bed

I love old books
except when they were owned
by students
and other earnest types
scored in black lines
asking questions that
can never be answered
Wallace Stevens’ Collected
thick cream pages heavy wine
dark cover
filled with bright blue ink
when you open it

Elizabeth Bishop  just now
quietly Questions of Travel
each hard gained insight
marked carefully
pencilled comments
so obvious
the poem unable to speak
for itself it seems
whole sections ruled
block wisdom
swallowed like a dose
and delicacy
of line and phrase
I sit here
filling the bed
with eraser crumbs

Interviewer: I guess it still holds true…A final comment?

NS: I’ve found these posts interesting and challenging because it’s not the way I normally write and I’ve come to admire those people who do it weekly on a regular basis. The immediacy of it is a little scary. My poetry has been described as ‘immediate’ and ‘intimate’—probably far too much for some people’s taste— but the difference is that it takes so long for a poem to appear and there is the distance that a poem, as a ‘thing’ or form, provides. And of course there are always regrets for what one could have, but didn’t write about…

NS 4 10Bleak House with glass of wine


[1] Maurice Piron, ‘Georges Simenon est son milieu natal’ in Simenon, Cistre Essais, Lausanne: Editions l’Age d’Homme, 1980, p38, quoted in Lucille Becker, Georges Simenon: ‘Maigrets’ and the ‘romans durs’, London: Haus Publishing Ltd., 2006, p3.

[2] Paris Match, Number 217, May 16-23, 1953, pp 56-57.

[3] Becker, p. viii.

[4] Julian Barnes, ‘Georges Simenon Returns’

[5] Siglo, Francisco Ascui and Kirsten Dunlop (eds.), Hobart: Diogenes Press, 1994, pp. 15-20.

October 23, 2014 / Southerly

The Painterly Eye

by Nicolette Stasko

NS 3 1It would be an understatement to say that almost every poet has written about art. I could use this entire post to list only the Australians. In his preface to Writers on Artists, Daniel Halpern comments, ‘many important writers have spent a significant part of their non-writing time thinking about painting and sculpture’[1]. The American poet, John Ashbery, also an art critic and friend of artists, immediately comes to mind along with his brilliant long poem, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,

‘As Parmigianino did it, the right hand/Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer.

The soul establishes itself. /But how far can it swim out through the eyes/And still return safely to its nest?’[2]

Why is it then that writers feel such an affinity to the work of visual artists?

As a writer and especially as a poet, I have always found myself drawn to the visual arts rather than music for which I have no aptitude. I tend to work in silence and have never written a poem inspired by music. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that my father on Saturdays, to give my mother a break, used to take us to art galleries and museums. They were free in those days and we respected the quiet stillness. So viewing became a habit transformed eventually into ‘seeing’ (more on this in my next post). Halpern asks: ‘Could it be that in some rather intriguing ways the bonds between writers and artists are as strong, and often stronger than those between fiction writers and poets?’[3] I would certainly answer yes.

Throughout my career I have written about artists and paintings: Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Frida Kahlo, the Aboriginal painter, Ian Abdulla and a South American Jorge Damiana, as well as Etruscan tomb sculpture and a silver Roman casket. I can’t write a haiku without ‘seeing’ a Japanese print in front of me.

This from a very early poem ‘Sun upon Sun’ the sequence about van Gogh:

In Japan

People hurry
across a bridge finer
than a spider’s web
their parasols and conical
hats keeping off
the shafts of slanting rain
rice gathers
bend ankle-deep in a mirror
cut clean with a reed pen
such clarity and light!
such colours
blue and green and red
there are no potatoes

The ‘Sun upon Sun’ sequence is not a series of descriptions of van Gogh’s painting but more of an attempt to explore the processes of his art, what he felt and thought about it through reference to his letters to his brother Theo. So they are not, strictly speaking, ekphrasis, although the little poem above does attempt to capture what the artist found in Japanese prints which so profoundly changed his and many others ways of seeing. The one described above was in his collection.

We are all familiar with the concept that poetry is like a painting, as in the Roman poet Horace’s phrase, ut pictura poesis.[4] Perhaps this is where the notion started and perhaps the simile remains in use because it is so accurate. When I think of prose (fiction or non-fiction) in my mind’s eye I see a flat page, whereas a poem always appears to me as three-dimensional. The irony of course is that a picture is two-dimensional as most modernist painters strove to emphasize.

The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek ek, ‘out of,’ and phrasis, ‘speech’ or ‘expression’. It seems that it originally referred to a description of a visual object produced as a rhetorical exercise and later to mean a description of any thing, person or experience both real and imaginary. ‘Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness’ (Wikipidia). More specifically it sometimes referred to text in which the mute work of visual art is enabled to speak for itself.

In recent decades, the use of the term has been limited, first, to visual description and then even more narrowly to the description of a real or imagined work of visual art. Modern ekphrastic poems have generally eschewed the ancients’ obsession with elaborate detail, and instead have tried ‘to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects’.[5]

Frequently along with definitions and examples of ekphrasis is found the following from a dialogue by Plato, which probably has helped form some of our ideas about what writing is, although those readers familiar with The Republic know that Plato had little time for poets, considering them timewasters and a bad influence on youth. My feeling is that Plato on the whole was a pretty grim character.

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.

The idea here I think is that through ekphrasis the writer/poet can speak for the mute object of art. However if you read the rest of Socrates’ statement, it’s fairly clear he/Plato doesn’t have a lot of faith in words either.

And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power or help itself.’[6]

A bit of a conundrum; I’ll leave you to try to figure out who the ‘father’ is.

I particularly like the idea that modern poets have generally tried interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects. I realize that Italo Calvino[7] is not a poet in the strictest sense but assuredly a most lyrical writer. His short piece ‘The Birds of Paola Uccello’ is worth quoting at some length as it so beautifully illustrates the variety of ekphrasitic writing, in this case what is not in the painting:

We see no birds in the paintings of Paola Uccello. In all his teeming world the skies are empty. …What has become of the birds that according to Vasari once studded his canvases, so much so as to earn him his nickname of Uccello? Who has scared them away? Most certainly the soldiers, who render the highways of the air impassable with their spears, and with the clash of weaponry silence trillings and chirrupings…Fled from the colored surfaces, the birds are hiding or fluttering invisibly outside the borders of the paintings. They are waiting for the right moment to come back and occupy the canvas’.[8]

 NS 3 2The Battle of San Romano 1438-40 (182 x 320cm), National Gallery, London

Halpern suggests that poets have a ‘unique ability to describe the visual’ (a poem is like a painting) or what I described in an earlier post as an ‘acute power of observation’ which tends to ensure that their engagement with and reflection on works of art is almost second nature, ‘that the scene has its meaning inherent in it …that a depiction of the perfectly ordinary [is] deeply interesting because of the medium, painting’[9] or, we might say, poetry.

NS 3 3At the moment, between writing blogs etc, I am working on a poem that attempts to ‘inhabit’ or ‘interpret’ a large installation, Waste Not by the Chinese artist Song Dong shown at the Carriageworks last year. It is a very overwhelming, beautiful, complex and moving work and so far none of the classic forms, dramatic monologue, lyrical response or description has been able to come close to the essence of the work, which is composed of decades of refuse hoarded by the artist’s mother at the time of the Cultural Revolution and continuing until 2002 when the installation was conceived by the son as a way of pulling her out of her grief and isolation. The concept underlying the work is the traditional Chinese virtue of frugality ‘wu jin qi yong’, defined as ‘anything that can somehow be of use, should be used as much as possible. Every resource should be used fully, and nothing should be wasted’[10]. (A lesson the Western world should take more heed of!) According to the artist, this became a kind of ‘fabao’ for his mother—translated as a ‘magic bullet’—to protect one through hard times. The story behind the work is intriguing and poignant, complicating any poem far beyond ‘simple’ ekphrasis. I am trying to shake myself out of habit and complacency by experimenting with forms that may do the work some justice and although I can see it in my mind’s eye, I cannot as yet ‘see’ it in words.

Waste Not, Song Dong

This leads me to question what is the difference between ekphrasis and a lyrical poem with ekphrastic elements—a hair-splitting delineation that has been in the back of my mind during the writing of this post. It seems to be whether the focus of the poem is on a writer’s engagement with the work of art or on the poet observing the work of art through the lenses of her present experience and/or emotions.

I will end with an illustration: the final section of ‘Dwelling in the Shape of Things’, a meditation on Cézanne (from The Weight of Irises), on which one critic generously commented: ‘there is more than one useful and persuasive way of responding verbally to great paintings’.[11]

How little we know about one another
each locked in our own delicate case
surrounded by dark scenery
we contemplate
the apples laid out before us
making deep shadows
on a sail of white cloth
like holes in a field of freshly fallen snow
round reddish gold
we do not understand them
only one woman
with a neck curved and vulnerable as a swan’s
holds warm fruit in her hands
leaning toward the centre
giving   or taking away
and what difference between such gestures
in the end?
brooding parallel of trees a storm threatens

that last strange gleaming light the sides of our faces
a couple walks away into the coming darkness
clouds cloth hem edge repeat their shape[12]


[1] Daniel Halpern (ed.), Writers on Artists, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

[2] John Ashberry, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, New York: The Viking Press, 1975, p.68.

[3] Halpern, preface to Writers on Artists.

[4]Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BC), third letter, Book II of the Epistles, line 361.

[5] See Academy of American Poets, and

[6] Plato’s Phædrus, from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9, translated by Harold N. Fowler, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

[7] The Castle in the Pyrenees illustration is the original cover for the first Italian edition of Invisible Cities, 1972.

[8] Italo Calvino, ‘The Birds of Uccello’, translated by Patrick Creagh, Antæus 54: Spring 1985, in Halpern, Writers on Artists, p.3.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘Henry Rousseau’, Antæus 54, Spring 1985, in Halpern, p.155.

[10] see Graeme Smith, ‘Difficult World’, in Real Time, Sydney, February-March 2013, p.44.

[11] Geoff Page, ‘Books and Writing’, Radio National (ABC), November 2004. ‘Stasko here is concerned to articulate not only her personal response to the paintings but, more ambitiously perhaps, to create a verbal equivalent to them, akin, in some ways, to a translation. While some traditional art critics might well benefit from reading this sequence, ‘Dwelling in the Shape of Things’ is not a piece of art criticism or scholarship. It does show, however, that there is more than one useful and persuasive way of responding verbally to great paintings.

[12] after Paul Cézanne, Luncheon on the Grass (1869).

October 16, 2014 / Southerly

‘Apologia’ with Rave

by Nicolette Stasko


A blog (short for weblog)[i] is a discussion or informational site published on the World Wide Web and consisting of discrete entries or ‘posts’. It’s interesting that Blog is also be used as a verb, meaning ‘to maintain or add content to a blog’. ‘The emergence and growth of blogs in the late 1990s coincided with the advent of web publishing tools that facilitated the posting of content by non-technical users’ (Wikipedia). I hope I’m not stating the obvious. I’m not normally a blogger nor a bloggee. (BLOG is such an ugly word!) This is a new experience for me. But then all writing is a risk, a discovery, an adventure. As soon as you put (I was going to type ‘pen to paper’!) fingers to keyboard you are entering unknown territory. I’ve often thought about Barthe’s infamous ‘death of the author’, a claim that has caused much discomfort to some, when to my mind it means exactly that: from the moment you start to write you are no longer yourself (whoever that may be) but a complex of language, experience and texts. The challenge of a new genre—like diving into deep water.

NS 2 1Rave on, John Donne, rave on thy holy fool
Down through the weeks of ages
In the moss borne dark dank pools

Rave on down through the industrial revolution
Empiricism, atomic and nuclear age
Rave on down through time and space down through the corridors
Rave on words on printed page

Rave on, you left us infinity
And well pressed pages torn to fade
Drive on with wild abandon
Up tempo, frenzied heels

Rave on, Walt Whitman, nose down in wet grass
Rave on, fill the senses
On nature’s bright green shady path

Rave on Omar Khayyam, rave on Kahlil Gibran
Oh, what sweet wine we drinkin’
The celebration will be held
We will partake the wine and break the holy bread

Rave on let a man come out of Ireland
And rave on, Mr.Yeats
Rave on down through thy holy Rosy Cross

Rave on down through theosophy and the golden dawn
Rave on through the writing of a vision
Rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on, rave on

Rave on, John Donne, rave on thy holy fool
Down through the weeks of ages
In the moss borne dark dank pools

Rave on, down though the industrial revolution
Empiricism and atomic and nuclear age
Rave on, on printed page

—Van Morrison ‘Rave On’ from Inarticulate Speech of the Heart
(photo credit:

I’ve frequently wondered why I write, why anybody writes. I can’t remember having this conservation with any of my friends who are almost all writers; it just seems a given. I wanted to be a writer ever since I could hold a pencil although at the time I didn’t really know what a ‘writer’ was. I don’t believe poets are ‘the legislators of the world’ or have any special communication with the cosmos or even particular wisdom or insight. But there seems to be a kind of super sensitivity and acute power of observation that results in the need to express what is felt or seen. Almost as if nothing’s real if it isn’t written down. People frequently say—even if the most awful or extreme circumstances—‘you should write about that’ or ‘there’s a poem in that’. I’m usually somewhat appalled although I recognise a certain truth. Recently I scribbled in one of the numerous notebooks I have lying around:

Suicides unite!
the Prince of Comedy
has shown the way
no earthly reason to wait if
he can do it so can we
we have the right
stand up and be counted
beheadings beware
we are starting to stare like
the dead
Ebola outbreaks
the world devours itself

I’m not going to bother to explain the circumstances that prompted this (which I’m sure you can imagine) nor pretend that it is a poem although for some reason I wrote it in lines. Earlier, in another notebook, after phrases collected from Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels for an experiment with a ‘collage’ poem, I found a description of the atrocity in the Urkraine and under it a note added later:

‘Fiddle with Maigret?! And yet does one ‘fiddle with Maigret’ because it keeps you from going mad?’

Writers, particularly poets, aren’t generally known for their mental health but seem to suffer all degrees of bi-polar and depression. I remember the possibly apocryphal story Bruce Beaver used to tell—that he had his first breakdown and began writing at the start of WWII. Is that perhaps the reason for art, for writing? Somehow to put out there something beautiful or of value to negate the evil in a world that can sometimes be so awful? And yet it is also so wonder-full and worth celebrating.

One of the paradoxes I discovered while doing research for my first post on the Reef was that at the beginning of the battle, not surprisingly, many of the conservationists were considered ‘cranks’, ‘hotheads’ and ‘ant-progressive visionaries’. Judith Wright explains that ‘most of us in the society at that time were people who were concerned and troubled at the destructiveness of much that was happening, but had no professional qualifications in biology’. At first many scientists were unwilling to join the fight: ‘biologists whose interests were not specifically in the young and struggling science of ecology tended to read them [certain reef studies] with some suspicion, which scarcely helped us’[ii]. ‘[T]he controversy promised to be highly political, and scientists are generally not anxious to enter such arguments’[iii] And yet Wright’s respected literary reputation enabled her to attract attention and support for the cause.

Ironically Brigid Rooney argues that ‘[a]nxiety produced by the decline thesis, the idea that the prestige of the literary is fading, has exacerbated the focus on the public role of writers…Contemporary Australian writers have been blamed for shying away from political engagement, from big national issues of the day’, David Marr stating ‘the idea that writers are society’s conscience is far from universal wisdom.’[iv] On the other hand, again according to Marr, things are very different now: ‘today artists and writers have become political liabilities, not assets, and politicians are quick to distance themselves from the taint of arts elitism’[v]. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Who said the life of a writer was meant to be easy? (We wish.) All we can do is continue to ‘rave on’.


Recently I finished a major project, feeling immensely relieved and gratified when I finally sent it off. In need of a break and battery recharge, while looking for books for my first post, I picked up the new novel The Young Lion by Blanche D’Alpuget off the shelving cart. Wow, what a ‘bodice-ripper’! Lots of rape, pillaging, beheading, arms and legs chopped off etc etc. I used to be a very keen historical fiction devotee when I was young but rarely have the time or inclination now. What’s been revelatory about reading this novel is the picture of the eleventh century (I assume it is reasonably accurate), a society driven by lust, power, and violence under the banner of Christianity. At the moment it doesn’t seem like Western civilization has advance very far in spite of our posturing.

NS 2 2In tandem I am also reading Bleak House, considered to be one of the first detective novels or at least a progenitor of[vi]. Charles Dickens serialised the novel in twenty monthly instalments from March 1852 to September 1853. The society that Dickens describes could not have been more different from d’Alpuget’s depiction of the era of Henry II and the reconquering of England. Bleak House is a very slow, quiet, detailed ‘wordy’ novel, the kind of reading we are not used to any more, meant to be read in bite-sized chunks. (I have to admit I also needed a break from it around page 657!) Even if you’ve not read it you will be familiar with its stuffy hypocritical ‘Victorian’ way of life, in which the genteel worried a great deal about their reputations (compared to the eleventh century when they cared about honour and glory—much the same thing I guess). The very wealthy ran the show and people appeared to spend their time visiting country houses for weeks on end. They seemed to have very little to do except to write letters. That is of course except for the rising middle classes who were very busy supplying the wants and needs of their betters and also worrying about their reputations. The lower classes just tried to survive any way they could. (photo credit: cover for the first serial, NY Library Berg Collection)

Victorian society was in its own way as violent, ruthless and uncaring as that of Henry II. But few of these unsavoury characteristics were acknowledged and most were condoned through belief in the rights of the aristocracy, class rigidity and what Darwin would later term ‘the survival of the fittest’. At least in the eleventh century, the feudal system based on loyalty of vassals to their liege lords, tended to show concern for those within it. But I’m raving. To get back to Bleak House—what a world of characters—grotesque and colourful although the sentimentality (Esther’s especially) makes some of the nasty ones more entertaining reading.

 NS 2 3The Lord Chancellor Copies from Memory
Scanned image and text by George P. Landow

I mentioned before that Bleak House is considered a forerunner of our modern detective fiction as was a novel by Wilkie Collins, a friend of Dickens, published around the same time. Strangely I can’t recall reading Dickens in high school but we studied The Moonstone. The similarities between the books is remarkable but Dickens comes out far ahead, if for nothing else but the strength of his characterisation. You just have to love someone like Krouk, known as the ‘Lord Chancellor’ who owns a rag and bone shop and eventually, famously, spontaneously combusts. I haven’t finished the novel so I don’t know how it ends but the mystery appears to have something to do with a lost will and the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce litigation, based on an actual case which Dickens was personally familiar with during his time as a reporter in the Lord Chancellor’s court.

I suppose it’s clear by now that I am a crime thriller, detective fiction aficionado. In the beginning I read these as a relief from the theory, non-fiction and contemporary novels I was reading for academic and review/essay purposes, although now I have an interest in them that has become far more professional. So besides trying to work out ‘who done it’ I’m also trying to understand how the writer has structured the book, how the complicated narrative is constructed from early works like those by Agatha Christie which seem to naively rely on people in hardly believable incognito, through the sophisticated plots of PD James with her poet detective to Georges Simenon’s very French Inspector Maigret. Simenon (1903-1989), a Belgian (writing mainly in the 30’s and 40’s) is known for his roman noir and his extraordinary psychological insight into crime, which by its very nature is irrational. As Simenon remarked:

My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points… ‘understand and judge not’.[vii]

And Maigret, for all his mental prowess and understanding of the motives of human beings, isn’t always so logical. I was particularly delighted when he jumps off a train in the middle of the night after a man just because he is wearing an odd combination of handknitted grey wool socks and patent leather boots![viii] Perhaps contemporary detective novels rely too heavily on verifiable facts and technological innovation. Have we lost our ability to suspend disbelief? You even hear children at the movies complaining ‘that was soooo fake!’

Reading and Writing

Recently another book has been added to the pile on my table: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. I’d noticed it when it was first published in 1996 but it wasn’t until a friend with similar tastes read a passage to me after dinner at the Castle and I knew this book had to be part of my relatively limited library (I live in a very small terrace!). So I’m going to end this post with a quote from Manguel:

‘To completely analyse what we do when we read’, the American researcher E.B. Huey admitted at the turn of the century, ‘would almost be the acme of psychologist’s achievements, for it would be to describe very many of the intricate workings of the human mind’. We are still very far from an answer. Mysteriously we continue to read without a satisfactory definition of what we are doing. We know that reading is not a process that can be explained through a mechanical model; we know that it takes place in certain defined areas of the brain but we also know that these areas are not the only ones to participate; we know that the process of reading, like that of thinking, depends on our ability to decipher and make use of language, the stuff of words which makes up text and thought. The fear that researchers seem to express is that their conclusion will question the very language in which they express it: that language may itself be an arbitrary absurdity, that it may communicate nothing except its stuttering essence, that it may depend almost entirely not on its enunciators but on its interpreters for its existence, that the role of readers is to render visible—in al-Haytham’s fine phrase—‘that which writing suggests in hints and shadows’[ix]

NS 2 final


[i] Blood, Rebecca (September 7, 2000). “Weblogs: A History And Perspective”

[ii] Judith Wright, The Coral Battleground, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1996, p.20.

[iii] Wright, p.22.

[iv] Brigid Rooney, Literary Activists: Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009, p. xix.

[v] David Marr, ‘The Role of the Writer in John Howard’s Australia’, ABC Radio National, http//, in Rooney p.x.

[vi] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971.

[vii] Georges Simenon, Night at the Crossroads (1931), London: Penguin Books, 2014, author note.

[viii] Georges Simenon, The Madman of Bergerac (1932), London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

[ix] Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, New York: Penguin Books, 1997, p39.

E.B. Huey, The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading, New York: 1908, quoted in Kolers, ‘Reading’. Quoted in David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from al-Kindi to Kepler, Oxford: 1976.

October 10, 2014 / Southerly

The Reef is Not a Poem

by Nicolette Stasko

When I began to think about a topic for my first post I realised that I had an opportunity to write about something I am passionate about but don’t usually get to address: conservation and the environment as represented by the natural phenomenon of the Great Barrier Reef. Readers who are familiar with my poetry or my book Oyster: from Montparnasse to Greenwell Point, would not find my interest surprising. For me, like many poets (including Judith Wright, whose work is also a main focus of this piece), the land and especially the sea is a ‘manifestation of a deeper and more abiding reality…the treatment of it an index of our values, or rather of our lack of proper values’ (Brady: 126). The Reef is one touchstone of this belief and practice. My decision was fuelled by the number of alarming reports about the deterioration of the Reef due to global warming and recently the activities of the Liberal government and the Queensland mining industry.

To summarise, the Australian government has given permission for the construction of one of the world’s largest coalmines, Queensland’s Carmichael Mine, to be located in the Galilee Basin region which will risk contaminating local groundwater and endangering wildlife. The resulting coal production will be transported to the Abbot Point terminal, which will need to be expanded to accommodate this coal export. Originally it was planned that approximately five million tonnes of seabed would need to be excavated and dumped within the marine park area. Researchers estimate that hundreds of ships will cross the Great Barrier Reef during construction and later to carry the coal to overseas markets. Recently however, the Queensland Government endorsed a new plan to dump dredge spoil on land, rather than inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. ‘It said the plan would ensure 3 million cubic metres of dredge material was reused on land and would seek fast-tracked federal approval’ (ABC: 8 September 2014). Stay tuned for further developments.

You cannot save what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know.
Aldo Leopold

As is my want, I have gone at this arse-backwards: on my desk is a stack of books about the Reef, about Judith Wright, her Collected Poems—my chance to reread the poetry and learn something. Among other facts, that the Reef is more massive than I had imagined, stretching from Bundaberg (QLD) and Lady Elliot Island, north to the Torres Strait and around as far as Papua New Guinea. It encompasses an area of almost 350 000 square kilometres, ‘comparable to the size of Japan and larger than the combined landmass of Great Britain and Ireland’ (Bowen: 2). It is the only living structure that can be seen from space.

NS 1 1Photo credit: (10/12/13)

Surprisingly the Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2900 separate coral reefs, ‘some fully submerged, some only visible at low tides’. As Captain Cook was happy to discover, it is ‘not a continuous barrier but a vast and impenetrable assemblage of reefs’ composed of ‘long strips of ribbon reefs, large areal spreads of patch reefs and circular formations known as cays, with a central lagoon and an elevated area of pulverised coral sand’ (Bowen: 2). Apparently the Reef as we know it is relatively recent in the earth’s geological history—but with a long period of settlement and use by Indigenous peoples.

In terms of European history, there is some debate over who first ‘discovered’ the Reef (including the Portuguese, Dutch and the French) but credit generally goes to Captain James Cook who in 1770 literally ran into what he called its ‘Labyrinth’. Cook describes the ‘great wall of Coral Rock’ and wonders ‘if such reefs were formed in the Sea by animals…how came they [to be] thrown up to such a height?’ We know now that like oysters, coral polyps build and grow on the dead formations of their predecessors.

At the beginning of her book about the fight to save the Reef, Coral Battleground (1977) Wright quotes from Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Visions of Captain Cook’, which effectively captures the awe he must have felt before such a wonder:

Flowers turned to stone! Not all botany
Of Joseph Banks, hung pensive in a porthole,
Could find the Latin for this loveliness,
Could put the Barrier Reef in a glass box
Tagged by the horrid Gorgon squint
Of horticulture. Stone turned to flowers
It seemed—you’d snap a crystal twig,
One petal even of the water-garden,
And have it dying like a cherry-bough.

What is important here, and what Slessor’s lines emphasise, is that the Great Barrier Reef is a living structure, a vast eco-system of countless creatures, both plants and animals. The number and variety is spectacular as one small survey done on the ‘dead’ Ellison Reef in 1967—the first strike by conservationists in the long campaign to save the Reef—illustrates (more on that later). The diving team, in only thirty days, managed to identify 88 species of live coral, 60 species of molluscs, 190 species of fish and that was just the tip of the iceberg or reef so to speak.

NS 1 2Photo credit:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. … Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.
—George Santayana

Most of us know that the Great Barrier Reef was declared a protected national marine park in 1975. Some of us may not know that it was also declared a World Heritage Area by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) because of its

‘superlative natural phenomenon formations of exceptional beauty and superlative examples of the most important eco-systems’. It is considered an outstanding example of the major stages of the earth’s evolutionary history’ and of ‘significant ongoing geological processes, biological evolution and man’s interaction with the natural environment’. It was further listed as ‘the foremost natural habitats where threatened species of animals or plants of out standing universal value from the point of view of science or conservation still survive.’ (UNESCO 1980:22-23)

This was in 1981.

I have quoted the report somewhat in full since it will become apparent how sadly ironic many of the statements are. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1963 Judith Wright and others formed one of the first conservation societies, the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland based in Brisbane. Not long after, the first skirmish in the long war was identified when they became aware of reports that ‘coral collectors, shell collectors and tourist interference were increasing rapidly’ on the Reef (CB: 2). It’s not my intention here to give the entire history of the campaign (except for the fact that SAVE THE BARRIER REEF was the first bumper sticker in Australia as Wright was chuffed to record.) Anyone interested in the details can read her book. But I do want to point out certain astounding and shocking parallels between what was happening then and what is happening now to this precious natural resource.

In 1967 an enterprising cane-grower applied to the Queensland government to dredge for limestone by removing coral from Ellison Reef (supposedly a ‘dead’ reef as I mentioned above). The grounds for objection to this application were not only the damage to the actual reef and its denizens but more importantly ‘the danger of establishing a legal precedent for mining that could lead to widespread commercial exploitation of the whole of the Reef’ (CB: 6). (And of course the possibility of oil deposits and contiguous oil exploration reared its ugly head more than once during the battle and continues to do so.) Remember UNESCO’s recognition of the Reef as an example of the ‘foremost natural habitats where threatened species of animals or plants of out standing universal value from the point of view of science or conservation still survive’??

NS 1 3‘Any form of dredging, on such reefs, would create problems of siltation and water pollution, not only in the immediate area but along the currents that make an intricate network of patterns throughout the Reef, as far as silt may be carried’ (CB:6-7). Living organisms such as coral (and oysters) are severely damaged by siltation as they are filter feeders and if the silt becomes heavy enough they simply ‘suffocate’ and die. Sound familiar? The rest of the story (eight long years) is a similar tale of individual battles for various parts of the Reef with various Government bodies and industries. It is complicated by the sheer size and diversity of the Reef itself, the fact that it wasn’t clear as to which authority had control over what aspects of the Reef and from the magnitude of self-interested profit in the names of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. So much for ‘man’s interaction with the natural environment’. As Wright herself noted in 1977, ‘[t]his story has no real beginning and no one knows what its end will be’(CB: xiii). (Photo credit:

Beauty as we feel it is something indescribable: what it means can never be said.
—George Santayana

One of the first characteristics, according to UNESCO, to recommend The Great Barrier Reef is its ‘superlative natural phenomenon formations of exceptional beauty’. This statement raises questions of aesthetics and ethics. Is beauty a reason to protect and conserve a natural resource for our pleasure as against the needs of development and progress? Is ‘ugliness’ cause to allow a creature (consider the vulture) to become extinct? Wright described her chronological account of battle for the Reef as ‘bare’ and ‘unadorned’—not giving ‘much hint of the devotion, some might say obsession that drove a few people to resist at any odds the commercialising of the Great Barrier Reef’ (CB: 187). She goes on to explain: ‘But when I thought of the Reef, it was symbolised for me in one image that still stays in my mind’. She continues, and sounds much like the poet we know and admire:

NS 1 4On a still blue summer day, with the ultramarine sea scarcely splashing the edge of the fringing reef I was bending over a single small pool among the corals. Above it dozens of small clams spread their velvety lips, patterned in blues and fawns, violets, reds and chocolate browns, not one of them like another. In it sea-anemones drifted long white tentacles above the clean sand and peacock blue fish, only inches long, darted in and out of coral branches of all shapes and colours. One blue sea-star lay on the sand floor. The water was so clear that every detail of the pool’s crannies and their inhabitants was vivid, and every movement could be seen through its translucence. In the centre of the pool, as if on stage, swayed a dancing creature of crimson and yellow, rippling all over like a wind-blown shawl. …That was the Spanish Dancer, known to scientists as one of the nudibranchs, a shell-less mollusc. But for me it became an inner image of the spirit of the Reef itself (CB: 187-188). (Photo credit:

So ‘seeing’ may, for some, be the catalyst to a life-time love but as Wright goes on to explain not always necessary: ‘Some of us who worked in Brisbane had not even seen the Reef. …I myself had seen only a very small part of it, in the fringing reef of Lady Elliott Island many years before the battle started’. Beauty is probably the least of it. Aboriginal poet Lionel Fogarty puts the issue in perspective:

FIRST, well Great Barrier Reef 200 kilometres long
reefing us always, ha, ha, human construction
but we Aborigines respect Great Wall of China and Pyramids
compare our 40,000 years that say migglou scientist it.

This no scenic wonder we giving, but 1,000 million layers
of Murri season—open air, 30,000 years
top corner or waves
more iron ore than letting rich dissatisfied minerals
stealers raw our atmosphere, oxygen gets poison by you.

            from ‘Scenic Wonders—We Nula Fellas’

Judith Wright’s entire ouvre attests to her deep and abiding love for the land and her spiritual connection to it. Interestingly I have not been able to discover a poem published by Wright specifically about the Great Barrier Reef although she was wonderfully prodigious during that time, producing at least five impressive collections. Perhaps the wry, ironic ‘Report of a Working-Party’ from Shadow (1970) gives some indication of the toll the battle for the Reef was taking on her. In her last collection Phantom Dwelling (1985), the ghazal, ‘Rockpool’ may sum up her feelings at the time.

My generation is dying, after long lives
swung from war to depression to war to fatness.

I watch the claws in the rockpool, the scuttle, the crouch—
green humps, the biggest barnacled, eaten by sea worms.

In comes the biggest wave, the irresistible
clean wash and backswirl. Where have the dead gone?

At night on the beach the galaxy looks like a grin.
Entropy has unbraided Bernice’s hair.

We’ve brought on our own cancers, one with the world.
I hang on the rockpool’s edge, its wild embroideries:

admire it, pore on it, this, the devouring, the mating,
ridges of coloured tracery, occupants, all the living,

the stretching of toothed claws to food, the breeding
on the ocean’s edge. ‘Accept it? Gad, madam, you had better.’

NS 1 5Judith Wright lived another fifteen years and continued her activism for Aboriginal rights but she published no more poetry. Brigid Rooney asks: ‘How do writers negotiate the gap between the single-minded, solitary pursuit of writing and their public, collaborative or political interventions? How do writers hold in tension their need to retreat from the world with their need to engage in it? And what impact do their activities have on the value writers accrue in the literary marketplace?’ (Rooney: xxiii) There is no doubt that Wright’s literary reputation, founded on her first two collections, served her in good stead during the Reef campaign. Rooney rightly comments that it is ironic that Wright’s philosophical and poetic engagement with modernity’s self-destructiveness in these two collections was at first so readily dismissed, for this was the intellectual scaffold for a maturing environmental poetics’ (Rooney: 13). ‘There was a kind of weaving going on in Wright’s life at this time, between the inner and the outer life, the private and the public, the aesthetic and the ethical’ (Brady: 284). To balance both takes an enormous strength which few of us have. As a poet Wright worked towards reducing the ego and distanced herself from the petty politics of the literary scene. Increasingly she was interested in doing rather than saying and perhaps this gives a clue to her poetic silence in the last years of her life. She had produced an incredible and important body of work. And as she readily admitted—the world needs activists much more than poets.
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It has been almost fifteen years since Judith Wright’s death and it is difficult to believe in spite of all hers and others’ efforts that the Great Barrier Reef should be under dire threat again. In her honour, if for nothing else, can we manage somehow to be poets and activists as well?


In spite of international concern, the federal government has made several decisions within the past two months that arguably erode safeguards for the reef, including:

  • 10 December 2013 – granting approval for the Abbot Point port expansion (although it was the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority that took the decision on where to dump the spoil).
  • 13 December 2013 – reaching a revised agreement with the Queensland government (signed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Premier Campbell Newman) for a “one-stop shop” on environmental approvals, including decisions about “actions on state land and state waters that impact on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park”.
  • 20 December 2013 – approving the Galilee Coal and Rail Project, allowing for six new mines and a railway from the mine sites (400km inland) to Abbot Point.


Works Consulted

Bowen, James, and Bowen, Margarita, The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Brady, Veronica, South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1998.

Fogarty, Lionel, New and Selected Poems, Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera, Melbourne: Hyland House, 1995.

Rooney, Brigid, Literary Activists: Writer-intellectuals and Australian Public Life, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2009.

Slessor, Kenneth, Collected Poems, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1977.

Stasko, Nicolette, Oyster: From Montparnasse to Greenwell Point, Sydney: Harper Collins, 2000.

Wright, Judith, Collected Poems 1942-1985, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994.

________________The Coral Battleground, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1996.


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