Verse from the Desert Country
An essay from 1986, now nearly thirty years ago
Paragraph 1 follows:
I first went out to Australia because I was invited to perform at the Sydney Biennale in April 1982. It was not at all as I had expected. I think Barry Humphreys has invented Edna and her entourage more to gratify his British public than to convey Australian life with much accuracy. Or perhaps Australia used to be like that. My friends tell me that before the ethnics moved in — Italian, Lebanese, Vietnamese — the food used to be terrible, and perhaps life was less cultivated than it is now, though the literary evidence suggests that this was not the case.
Today, things are a little too refined. The wines are exceptional, especially the Chardonays and the Clarets: the French have pronounced Australian champagne ‘drinkable’, and there is little reason ever to set foot in a pub. Most social drinking is conducted over the dinner table. Far from being loud-mouthed, I found the Australians too courteous, confusing criticism with insult. Such politeness is one of the last vestiges of a cultural cringe which is rapidly going out of fashion — the other remaining trace of it being an excessive interest in their own art and literature, a sort of inverted cringe which somehow manages to bring a discussion about Vermeer, say, around to a tub-thumping for some modern out of Wollongong.
There has always been great painting going on there, from the early days of Eugen von Guerard, working in Victoria in the 1850s, whose work is said to rival, but I think surpasses, that of Caspar David Friedrich, through to the work of Imanz Tillers, Mike Parr and Ken Unsworth, whose recent group exhibition at PS1 in New York was an acknowledged sensation.
I stayed two years, off and on, returning to teach sculpture and later to take up an artist’s residency at Sydney College of the Arts. The art world there had an enthusiasm which I enjoyed. The artists believed in themselves and I think they felt they had some national role to play. The spacious landscape won me over completely. But one of my strongest reasons for remaining there was in order to become better acquainted with the poetry.
Australians have made a major contribution to verse in the twentieth century, and it is a scandal that the works of their poets are so little known in the rest of the English speaking world. Had I been editing the recently republished Faber Book of Modern Verse, there are at least eight Australian poets I would have included in it before including Seamus Heaney. They are: Shaw Neilson, Kenneth Slessor, Francis Webb, James McAuley, R. D. FitzGerald, A. D. Hope, Randolph Stow and Les A. Murray. David Campbell, Rosemary Dobson, Christopher Brennan, Douglas Stewart, Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Grey also deserve serious attention. Why has this continent of writers been ignored by us so far?
From a British point of view one might suppose that one of the reasons was a fear of discovering strongly anti-British sentiments inside this literature. Here is the conclusion of Neilson’s ‘Ballad of Remembrance’:
“Too well the law, my father knew, the law of Lash and Chain,
That day he walked to Bathurst Gaol, ’twas in the blinding rain,
And they flogged his flesh into his bones — then he walked back again.”
The man he said, “I have always heard that English laws are fair,
We are a part of England, and her fighting glory share,
But the English sent my father here for the shooting of a hare.
“My Father was of England and it is against my will,
Of any nation on the earth, to speak one word of ill;
But I know the English by one mark — my eyes can see it still.”
Then spoke I still of England, I would not lightly yield,
“England,” I said, “is strong, she does the little nations shield,”
And the man he said, “Some things there are that never can be healed.”
But our literary acumen has coped with national antipathies before now, in Yeats’s ‘The Irish Airman foresees his Death’ for instance, and we were willing to forgive Pound the mad bigotry of his wartime broadcasts for the sake of his poetry, so I do not believe that this is why we have neglected the Australians. After all, the neglect is transatlantic, and in this I detect a key to the problem, for we share with the Americans a North which is cold and a South which is sultry. One must remember that for the Australian ‘the deep South’ is a ‘deep North’. It is a continent resembling the land Alice found through the looking glass. Everything is topsy-turvy. As McAuley puts it:
Where the sun like a centaur vertically shoots
His raging arrows with unerring aim,
Stand the ecstatic solitary pyres
Of unknown lovers, featureless with flame.
Perhaps to an inner eye of the Northern hemisphere this appears merely surreal. But to anyone with experience of the antipodes the passage is clearly descriptive. In the Northern wilderness one expects to find outcrops of rock; red sandstone, glaring in the heat, or the charred trunks of eucalyptus — fire being part of the ecological cycle of the bush.
If you demand an illustrative role of poetry, if you judge a poem by comparison with what you know of the aspect of reality that the said poem is supposedly dealing with, then obviously you are going to have a problem with verse from a continent so radically different to your own. Out there, the trees do not lose their leaves at one time of year and put them on at another time of year. They lose their bark rather more than their leaves and look half-dead and half-alive all the year round. The seasons are not nearly so clearly defined as ours — and think of the amount of verse the changing seasons have inspired here and in America: ‘Fall’ must be one of the commonest words employed in American poetry. It is our lack of the Australian experience, I suppose, which has often proved a barrier to our appreciation of their writing; though I must confess I enjoyed my initial discovery of their literature precisely because it did possess this added frisson of the fantastic. It is a quality their best poets know how to use, Les Murray for instance:
drily upheld in edge-on, wax-rolled, gall-puckered
leaves upon leaves. The shoal life of parrots up there.
Stone footings, trunk-shattered. Non-human lights. Enormous
abandoned machines. The mysteries of the gum forest.
On the whole, though, Australian poetry is noted more for its conservatism than for its surreal tendencies. Many Australian poets persisted in employing the four-line rhyming stanza long after most of England and America had turned to free verse with Eliot and Pound. The result is some extremely fine writing in a vein we might associate with the Fugitives, Tate, Bishop and Ransome — ‘The Southern School’ of American poetry. At its worst, this excessive preoccupation with the craft produces a poetry which is too neatly tied up to suit the vast sprawl of the land. It feels as if it is thus carefully wrapped in order to shut out the empty reality of the place, which is always there, the sense of a great void at the back of the imagination. Some of Douglas Stewart’s poetry is like this, and some of Judith Wright’s. It works too well. It is all over after the first reading. But at its best, this tightness produces absolute masterpieces, such as McAuley’s poem ‘Because’:
They were united in a kind of love
As daily as the Sydney Morning Herald,
Rather than like the eagle or the dove.
This poem is too long to quote in full, but well worth buying the Angus & Robertson ‘Collected’ James McAuley in order to read. [See Endnote 1]
I was not terribly impressed by the younger generation of Australian writers, that is, by my …own contemporaries. Like many of us in England they have fallen in with the American ‘beats’ or are still struggling under the influence of the ‘New York School’. Their very modernism counts against them, since what they are trying to do has already been done by Ginsberg or Ashbery; by Schuyler, O’Hara or Coolidge. But they weren’t around at the time, and they may be categorised as ‘also rans’. This could be a risk for Nigel Roberts, on the beat side, and for John Tranter, on the ‘New York School’ side. Les Murray is more innovative than either, and much admired, incidentally, both by Ashbery and J. H. Prynne. As is often the case, though, I think that Murray’s poetry has softened up rather since he became so popular, which is true for Ashbery as well. I’m afraid poets must avoid accolades.
After a while I began to demand difficulty from Australian poetry, obscurity even. Where, I wondered, was the Australian as complex as William Empson, or as opaque as Clark Coolidge? At last I found what I was looking for in the work of Francis Webb.
Webb is difficult. His poems are as concerned with the language as they are with whatever content may be pointed to by the language. He is as busy hiding his meaning as he is revealing it. But this strikes me as at the heart of the contemporary poetic quandary — though Webb died at the end of the 1960s. To read a poem by him is to play ducks and drakes with meaning: sometimes one skims along blithely, out of the water, but at other times one finds oneself somewhere below the surface, dragged under by the forces in the words. Here are two verses from ‘Wild Honey’, the eighth part of a sequence entitled ‘Ward Two’:
Combing her hair before the grey broken mirror,
The golden sweetness trickling? Her eyes show
Awareness of my grey stare beyond the swirl
Of golden fronds: it is her due. And terror,
Rainlike, is all involved in the golden glow,
Playing diminuendo its dwarfish role
Between self-conscious fingers of the naked soul.
Down with the mind a minute, and let Eden
Be fullness without the prompted unnatural hunger,
Without the doomed shapely ersatz thought: see faith
As all such essential gestures, unforbidden,
Persisting through fall and landslip; and see, stranger,
The overcoated concierge of death
As a toy for her gesture. See her hands like bees
Store golden combs among certified hollow trees.
Sir Herbert Read has compared Francis Webb to Rilke and to Robert Lowell. There is perhaps something of Rilke in his work, but the reference to Lowell I believe to be inspired more by biographical similarities than by stylistic rapport between the two. In his use of a rich and elaborate vocabulary which occasionally gets on top of him I find Webb a kindred spirit to Harte Crane. Both write with an intensity which leads to a muddle — but this muddle is similar to the density to be found in the paintings of Jackson Pollock or Frank Auerbach. Actually it is a struggle rather than a muddle, the manifestation of the struggle in poem or painting to be a thing created — the epiphany of the battle for expression out of mental turmoil, flashing forth lightning images in the midst of its darkness. Webb has a right to be considered one of the world’s great poets, along with Shaw Neilson before him and Murray today.
Look, I was 41 when I wrote this, and frankly I find it distinctly “stuck up”. Phrases like “our literary acumen” would not get into any essay of mine these days! Nor would I be so dismissive of Nigel or John – especially since I simply assert an opinion – without any sort of textual back-up. I had just arrived in Sydney for a Residency at Sydney College of the Arts, and was overweeningly full of myself, I feel. Also, these were fierce times – poets defined themselves very much by which camp they were in. I was anti-beat and pro-New York School, back then. But In some ways, my doubts about being unduly influenced by the New York School amounted to criticisms I was aiming at myself.
While I admired Ashbery, Coolidge, Ceravolo et al. enormously, it seemed to me that it was difficult to emulate what they were doing without sounding like them. I tried working with repetition – but then I came over as a cross between Gertrude Stein and R. D. Laing.
It struck me that abstract poetry was in some ways more limited than abstract visual art. Abstract visual art, being made out of material, had a sculptural ability to increase its range – it could be made out of paint, or velvet or nails, or eggshells. But poetry was made of words, and words were already abstractions comprising signifieds and signifiers – thus there was a narrower range available for innovation. With this in mind, my own poetry moved towards “description without significance”, as I sensed that the removal of significance was intrinsic to modernism – significance being akin to humanization (I was constantly bringing my students’ attention to Ortega Y Gasset’s 1925 essay “The Dehumanization of Art”). A sentence that described something simply for the sake of describing it – without purpose, as it were – struck me as a viable form of abstraction, for me. This led me later to an admiration of John Clare, James Thomson and the Roussel of “A View”.
To write simply about the view out of my Glebe window, describing each item in my line of sight was a task I set myself. I was inspired by Ortega saying of Ramón’s writing, “The procedure simply consists in letting the outskirts of attention, that which ordinarily escapes notice, perform the main part of life’s drama.”
The Age of the Street
In a backwater of the town, above a backwater of the bay
Behind the containers brought to this faraway shore.
Wall-to-wall carpet, sweet-smelling dust in the air,
The gloss of doors, each knob a scintilla of day,
Rackets and hats, glimpses of sash and pane
Through the blinds, flaws troubling the picture-plane:
Then lengths of railing, kerb and the grey camber
Levelling off into gutters lead the eye away
With the newsboy’s whistle as he tugs his trolley of papers
Up the shallow incline punctuated by some blooms.
An hour between darkness and light for overcast portions
Of changeable afternoons; monochrome, khaki and amber
Moments with no more definition than a reproduction
In the discarded volume: vacant chairs and rooms,
Reticent gardens, phones unanswered, pasted-over heaven,
Locked factory gates. The blinds obey the suction
Or suspension of the breeze, exhale or hold their breath in;
Blinds gathered up or closing jerkily to obliterate
The criss-cross canvas view permitted through a mosquito net
Gridding the surface — before, or exhausted after
A storm out of season, watched through the slits in Venetians.
A print smears the sheen of dust on an outer wing,
The texture of macadam alters, rain or shine,
As wobbly birds with a few feathers begin to sing
Wibbly-wobbly songs, and a weeping willow caresses
A Volkswagen in the otherwise uninhabited street.
Then a motorbike, or a girl casually shouldering tresses
Turns the corner, hardly in sight before gone
Past fronts incurious as to whether prompt or late.
Thinnish cloud, inconsequential wind, a sagging wire,
While a bit of colour is provided by the parked car.
Here, what’s on the air is just preferred a little softer:
Loud noise-makers are locked behind factory gates.
Different hours obtain for dogs than do for cats.
Across the bay there’s a stillness about the black lifter.
From Why I May Never See the Walls of China, Anvil Press Poetry, 1989. This article was first published in PNReview.
 Alas, since Anthony Howell wrote these lines, MacAuley’s Collected Poems has long gone out of print, and his poems are unobtainable.