Laurie Duggan 7
Melbourne & Brisbane, 1988-2005
Notes from a Journal
[Editorial note: To avoid ambiguity, dates are given in the ISO 8601 date format: year, month, day. For example, the fourth of March, 1968, is given as 1968-Mar-04.]
Paragraph 1 follows:
With the exception of the Manchester and Washington journals of 1992, my journals from the late 1980s become sporadic and consist often of quotations: more like a commonplace book. The tone of the earlier entries is a little grimmer than usual with the sense that I had come to the end of something. I did stop writing poems for six years from late 1994 (a blip on the radar from 1999 appears here). I started to write again in late 2000 with a sense of release. The problems of poetry remained with me but I had gained in the interim a perspective on the smallness and craziness of the poetry world.
In these and various earlier entries I have possibly been unkind to some people. But diaries reflect feelings of the moment and it would be dishonest of me not to present this material. It should go without saying that many of the diatribes are momentary and many are directed at people with whom I have overall sympathy. Some, of course (and you know who you are!) receive their just deserts herein.
1988-Mar-22: I’m amazed that anyone should want to be a poet in the present climate. But there are hundreds of them.
a nationalist tendency never predominates during a real efflorescence of art. Nationalism is at a lower level of consciousness. When it comes to the forefront, crowding out fundamentals, it is a sign not of health but of sickness; not of depth but of shallowness.
– Nadezdha Mandelstam
Landscape painting is the obvious resource of misanthropy.
1988-Oct-25: What was wrong with a lot of 1950s poetry was not that the poems had multiple meanings, but that you could count them.
1988-Nov-16: The ‘Generation of 68’ were no more a ‘school’ than the Murrayites are now. John Tranter yoked together a bunch of poets who seemed to him to share some view of the art which was different from the perspectives you could deduce from the pre-1970s anthologies and which, for better or worse, seemed to embrace ‘modernism’. The act of bringing these poets together in a book was not easy – contrary to the imaginations of its detractors. It’s very much a personal vision, though the newspaper reviewers were ready to use the tool of T’s introduction to claim that the constituents were a bunch of simple-minded conceptualists. They were not. The only generalization I think you can make about the poets in the anthology is that, for them, the correspondences between ‘the poem’ and ‘the real world’ weren’t simply ratio 1:1.
1988-Nov-19: Vincent Buckley’s funeral two days back. At the end of the mass, instead of a George Herbert setting [as advertised], Irish bagpipes wailed up in the gallery as the coffin was carried out, and I had to bolt myself to the floor.
1989-Jul-15: It’s Les Murray’s genius that he has allowed a public to assume his idiosyncratic writing represents some general national consciousness.
1989-Sep-11: In a country like this even the conservatism (in literature) is half-baked. The Literature Board may not like Ken Bolton (for example) – but when you look at the state of publishing there are hardly any, perhaps no collected works available for even the kinds of writer we could safely model ourselves on. No decent edition of Slessor, and there have never been complete editions of e.g. David Campbell, James McAuley, Francis Webb, Douglas Stewart, RD Fitzgerald. What other country would do this with its vaunted authors? [There have been attempts since then to rectify this.]
Two parallel and contradictory strands run through Scottish writing since the Enlightenment. On the one hand, there is an advocacy of material progress in society based on individual entrepreneurial skills and rationalized methods of work. On the other hand in literature and belles-lettres no country has been more preoccupied with retaining a maudlin, retarded and pastoral image of itself.
– Andrew Noble, intro to Edwin Muir: Uncollected Scottish Criticism
The other big booksellers in this part of town have been tending in a different direction. One gets the impression that their wares are to be taken as articles of luxury rather than as intellectual currency.
Young poets who cannot afford night clubs are writing poems on the hollowness of modern life.
– Edmund Wilson: The American Earthquake
1989-Nov-25: Les Murray’s recent newspaper poetry: like prose with the sense left out.
1989-Dec-27: Money and prizes are difficult to come by – but even these are easy compared with a just estimate of your worth.
Poetry returns authority to man by grace of the imagination. Some intimation of the character of this force may be discovered, I think, in the much greater interest felt in the snatches of pictures shown at the movies between the regular films, to advertise pictures coming the following week, than the regular features themselves. The experience is of something much more vivid and much more sensual than the entire film will be. It is because the banality of the sequence has been removed.
– William Carlos Williams in Bram Djikstra: Cubism, Steiglitz & the Early Poetry of WCW
1990-Mar-07: The ‘Elizabeth Swanston’ column misuses a line of John Forbes’ when she refers to David Malouf as the ‘laureate of the colour supplements’ – JF meant that this was the essence of M’s writing style, not that he was an ideal contender for Good Weekend publicity.
1990-May-17: Modernism: for its sense of possibility, not for its doctrines.
1990-Jun-22: Yesterday – phone from Gig Ryan to let me know Martin Johnston is dead: surprising though expected. None of us really lived up to his expectations – nor did he live up to ours. Martin was the perfect Scripsi author – that is, before Scripsi dropped High Modernism for The Main Chance. I spoke to Terry [Larsen] on the phone tonight – he will go down for the funeral. Chris Wallace-Crabbe said he’d heard on Saturday, when M went into hospital, he’d muttered ‘Bloomsday’. No one knew what he was talking about. Timor mortis conturbat me.
[In fact when the doctor asked Martin who he was, Martin answered “Martin Johnston”. When the doctor next asked him did he know what day this was — it was June 16 — Martin answered (quite correctly) “Why, Bloomsday, of course.” (The day and date in 1904 on which the adventures of Leopold Bloom occur in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.) The doctor turned to Martin’s wife Roseanne: “Does he have a friend called Bloom, who is having a birthday today?” — J.T., 2015.]
1990-Jul-18: Curious reflection – how many writers of satire, epigram &c have been physically deformed: Pope, Lichtenberg – who else?
1990-Jul-21: A couple of days back I phoned Pan Books to see what’s happened with the page proofs [for Blue Notes]. They had sent them via Australia Post three or four weeks back. Too late to do anything now as the book is being printed – they assumed I’d seen them and had no complaints. Worst of all, H______ hasn’t looked at them – what kind of editor does he think he is. So there’s more than a fair chance of line breaks/page breaks &c being crushed or stretched into what some designer of novels feels is appropriate. It seems absurd after such a waiting period for things to be rushed through without as much as a phone call to see if I’d received proofs – evidence, I suppose, of poetry’s status with a big publisher. [The nightmare was realized. Pan misprinted then distributed. They then withdrew the book, pulped it and reprinted, but the book missed out on a launch. I still come across people with copies of the misprinted version.]
1990-Oct-24: One of the problems an art like poetry faces today is the large scale absence of an audience who have any common experience of ‘making’. If you don’t even make a meal but go for a takeaway, or even assemble readymade items, how can you understand what’s involved in the production of a poem?
1990-Nov-25: The death of the author; author as fiction &c. These are concepts I can take in and agree with. But I think we should be absolutely honest about the use we make of them. I am happy to be seen as an ‘enabler’ of ‘facilitator’ of poems rather than as a ‘poet’. Really, anyone’s existence as a ‘poet’ is purely in the world of publicity – it’s a way of ensuring that you’ll have the funds, the situation, whatever, to continue to facilitate poems. But it irritates me that those who, from professional heights, are happy to pronounce the author a fiction are at the same time reifying the critic – note the pantheon of names that float through the discussion of one poem. And the ‘facilitators’ of these discussions are indeed not beyond constructing themselves as figures of great importance (and therefore worthy of annuities &c – a secure existence, letters after the name &c, and, most importantly, mention in other texts). As an aside to this it’s interesting that the very writers who talk of their work as coming from outside themselves – via the mysterious rear bit of the brain, the White Goddess, God &c – are the readiest to parade their egos: just as the Christian convert may be using the greater power of God as ego camouflage – a mask from which to utter ordinances and prophesies. Les Murray dedicated The People’s Otherworld to ‘the glory of God’ – but did he ask and receive the dedicatee’s permission?
1990-Dec-21: There’s a marked difference between the reception of Michael Dransfield by slightly older writers & those his own age and younger. For the older poets it seems Dransfield fulfills a kind of wish for a Rimbaud figure – a young man (who would remain eternally young) deranging his senses, hitchhiking and bringing back progress reports from an antipodean enfer, in short: Sex and Drugs and Gustav Mahler. Whether or not the older poets took drugs themselves their attitudes to drug-taking tended to the sacramental – they are the ones who really believed, vicariously or otherwise, in ‘mind expansion’. For most people younger than MD drugs were just like Coca Cola except illegal; they were consumer items associated more with fun than with spiritual development. I think this leaves us in a better position to look at D’s writing as writing; to separate its success and failure from any mystical agenda.
1991-Mar-10: Unpopular poetics: There is a kind of poem which even reading aloud violates. Performance lends it an undue emphasis.
1991-Apr-18: America is a notion; Australia is a brute fact.
1991-May-24: Death of Manning Clark: expect a special issue of Scripsi. There is a thin line between ‘vision’ and blather and I suspect a better part of the latter in Mister C’s work. As John Forbes said, on reading MC’s Tomes: ‘I hadn’t realized that God played such a big part in Australian history’.
Abjuring the realm. To make an interior act of renunciation and to become a stranger in the world; to watch one’s fellow-countrymen, as one used to watch foreigners, curious of their habits, patient of their absurdities, indifferent to their animosities – that is the secret of happiness in this century of the common man.
– Evelyn Waugh
There comes a morning when the survivors grope among the wreckage, as after a tidal wave, and learn that their world has been swept away with among other things, its web of literary relations, its editors, its magazines, its responsive audience, its rewards and penalties for being honest, and its fine gradations of respect. A fortunate generation, in literature, is one whose defeat is palliated by a few lasting achievements and perhaps by the memory of great purposes and good times.
– Malcolm Cowley
1991-Oct-01: My fear that I will be ‘found out’. The notion of being an ‘impostor’. But, found out for what? Posing as what?
1991-Nov-03: I’ve just read through the first draft of ‘Kora Down Under’ again – the source of ‘It might as well be spring and all’, a few ‘Dogs’, the ‘Political poems’ & ‘Paintings’ – & found it livelier than its developments, though there are of course boring stretches. Feel in retrospect that Blue Notes is generally an arid book (with its moments); also a book with a number of things in it which hadn’t been allowed to settle into what may have been preferable forms.
1991-Dec-05: I have an indirect audience now, which I’d not had before, but lack that more important thing: an immediate audience. When I read things like Homage to Ted Berrigan I realize the seriousness of loss of community: who, for example, are the poems for? Maybe though, the community is there – it’s just that I don’t reach it any more, or it doesn’t respond.
1991-Dec-21: Like a wall runs between ‘writing’ (my writing) and ‘me’. It’s always there – as though when I read a book ‘my writing’ is off somewhere in peripheral vision. But when I drop everything and turn to it, it’s gone.
1992-Feb-13: The circularity of attempts to write, their failure, repeated attempts, building up. Is it the problem of a ‘position’ to write from? Is it that I’m too much of a sceptic or too much of a believer? It seems weird that the sense of being able to write should leave me so completely (though the desire remains). ‘I am’, as Tony Hancock would have said ‘at work on a number of projects’.
[In March 1992 I was a guest at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington. Journal entries become more expansive.]
1992-Mar-09: Now en route somewhere off the coast of Victoria/NSW and due in Auckland in about 2½ hours (where I’ll have a 4 hour wait – contemplate being introduced by my reception to Romanian novelists &c). Auckland – No Romanian novelists. I’m met by Gail Richards who escorts me over to the business class lounge. I’m here, undisturbed, where all the other souls wear suits and ties and the alcohol and sandwiches are free. TV news comes on behind me. An item about a car accident gets a whole lot of the businessmen up on their feet to watch. Even the receptionist gets up for one of these items. The big news item from Wellington seems to be about a bar that sells drinks with live goldfish in them. Someone on TV commented ‘If I were a goldfish I’d rather drown in alcohol than have my face ripped off with a hook’.
And the clouds are long and white. Why?
Wellington. Met by Greg O’Brien – dropped off bags at the Quality Inn – Wellington Harbour out the 6th floor window – then up to G & Jenny Bornholdt’s place, where Andrew Johnston is visiting. Back here to meet Philip Salom in the bar.
1992-Mar-10: Andrew Johnston interviews me for the Wellington Evening Post. Then Katriona [Mifwan] arrives and a driver takes us to the lunch reception. Meet Bill Manhire and Elizabeth Alley who is to interview me for Radio NZ. The interview goes well. E.A. has read the two Picador books plus Martial and asks good questions. The only odd one I can’t answer is ‘why does the colour blue occur so much in your work?’
1992-It’s gotten cold and drizzly. At the hotel I put on a jumper and leather jacket and carry my umbrella up the hill to Greg’s [to discuss our session] then catch the bus to the Marae at Waiwhetu – the outer suburbs up in the Hutt district. Terry Sturm is on the bus & Witi Ihimaera. The Marae is good – the singing especially. We have dinner out the back of the house and I talk to Paul Durcan and Patricia Grace, who says that a lot of the recent Maori land rights successes were due to the courts and the legal system rather than the government. After dinner some guests are invited to recite if they wish. Alice Walker reads a purple poem. Margaret Mahy recites a funny children’s story. Paul Durcan does a fairly maudlin song about a dead bird. Edwin Morgan reads the Scottish piece he read at the ceremony earlier. Jenny Bornholdt reads a short piece, and I read two very short bits – ‘The mysteries’ and the Martial epigram:
shed fewer tears.
1992-Mar-11: Make it to the foyer near the end of the opening speeches and the Oliver Sacks’ session. He’s much better in this context than I’d have imagined – but then his interviewers on the occasions I’d seen him were not very bright. After this deliver copies of Home Paddock and Adventures In Paradise to the bookstall and come back to the Quality Inn via a chemist & down some Mylanta [suspected sea-urchin poisoning].
Back at Renouf Foyer it’s Paul Durcan’s session. The Poem On Its Sleeve. A certain edge of wit but basically very depressive stuff with no variation (it would be easy to parody). Then Patricia Grace’s session – much better. Talk briefly to Terry Sturm, meet Fergus Barrowman, then there’s a book launch which is pretty dire and a prize which is even worse. I go out to dinner at a Malaysian restaurant with Greg, Ginny Were, a friend of theirs from Sydney (who works as a court officer), Andrew, and a guy who works in medicine and is an African music fan.
1992-Mar-12: Seems to be a gale blowing outside. Walk up the road to see if the local coffee joint is in operation. No go as yet, so progress in cold wind up Mt Cook – steep roads – Bidwill, Bell & Heaton Rds and across Cleveland St to the Brooklyn shops. Figure out the right direction to Ohiro Rd to find out if the Barrow family residence c1927-32 is still there [my mother’s family lived in Wellington briefly]. It is – modified, but clearly (from address & old photograph) the same building. Walk down a track into Central Park & through the ferns, pausing on a seat near the creek. Note the NZ clouds – the phenomenon of little round turbulences (long white clouds seen up at Auckland). Then walk out the park gates and into town. Cuba St, to the Ferret (2nd hand) bookshop; then the main Unity store for new books. Light lunch at the Lido with a decent coffee. Ginny Were and a friend walk in and join me. Then I find Quilters (2nd hand) for more books. It has started to drizzle again.
Greg calls over and we have a couple of beers before heading in to the Renouf Foyer. I’m on first, [skeptically] introduced by Keri Hulme as a ‘winner of many prizes’ (I don’t mind this but it’s a bit rich coming from a Booker Prizewinner). I read four Martial pieces, ‘Historical Process’, and end up with the ‘Modernism’. Edwin Morgan reads, ending with the ‘Computer’s Xmas Card’ then Alice Walker. Interval. Then Josef Henzlik, the Czech poet who reads in slow English – kind of o.k. – Philip Salom who explains things a little too much & Daniela Crasnaru who has a good voice & whose last piece is o.k. Interval. Then Vincent O’Sullivan, Phyllis Webb – good in parts, also with a good reading voice, & finally Paul Durcan – better than the hour session because shorter & a bit less obsessively personal. I figure his work very prose-like, much like a short story but with just that trace of rhythm – aided greatly by his own performance. Talked to Edwin Morgan during an interval – he knows Gael Turnbull.
1992-Mar-13: Walk into the Foyer with Greg & Jenny. First the panel Jen is on – Beginnings – which goes without hitch, then Edwin Morgan. We take a brunch break at the Lido and back for my panel. Picked up at 5.30 for the Picador party up on the Terrace, which is rather spectacular – great views out over Wellington Harbour. A string quartet plays inaudibly in the front room. Talk to Anne French, Elizabeth Smither, Colleen Reilly and an unknown cricket fan. Then get taken to a restaurant – The Settlement – where I talk to Anne Thoms Ellis’ secretary, Bharati Mukerjee, and Orhan Pamuk. Drunkenly walk back to the Inn.
1992-Mar-14: Very fragile. Go in with Greg to the Café Lido and slowly eat a scrambled egg to line the stomach. Greg’s introduction to my hour session is funny and good and the session goes very well indeed. Read and talk about The Ash Range, Martial, ‘Peasant Mandarin’; sing ‘A square dance’; read ‘All blues’, ‘Blue Hills 30’ and a fragment of ‘Workin/Steamin’ [i.e. ‘Well you needn’t’ from Memorials]; answer audience questions, then conclude with a repeat of ‘the Modernism’. People seem completely bowled over by all this.
1992-Mar-15: Sunday morning in Wellington. Is it possible to get coffee and breakfast? At 9 am? Answer, yes – but at what Jack London would have called a chop house, on Courtenay Place. Mucoid egg &c all on a napkin which shreds with the bacon. Coffee – ‘a pool of roadmetal in thick white china’.
1992-Mar-16: Last morning at the Inn. Half-light. The window coated with spray or drizzle. A yellow helmeted cyclist pushing along the harbour road. I start to feel generally ill. By the time Greg picks me up to go to Fergus & Elizabeth’s place I’m a mess. I end up in bed for the rest of the day – feeling brain death. Fergus says it looks like a particularly virulent 36 hour flu which he had not so long ago. I can’t eat dinner & feel bad about being a guest and a corpse.
1992-Mar-17: In the morning the worst seems to be gone, though I’m still a little queasy and weak in the limbs. I get up around 10.00 and manage some toast – later cereal. Greg picks me up and we drive to Makara Beach. The South Island is visible (it’s only 8 miles away). Makara, a windblown holiday shack place – desolate. Wild goats up the steep hillsides. There and back through sunken – very silty I guess – valleys. Yellow gorse on the slopes. Sheep & geese on the flats. The fencing style very different – wood slats, vertical, and close together, connected with wire. We stop at the lookout near the botanic gardens, then at Fergus’ VUP office, on the way back. In the evening I manage a meal. Look at some NZ small press books (Hawk) – including one by Martin Harrison. Then F & E go to a show & I watch a video of the Keith Jarrett Trio & look at books on Colin McCahon & a photo history of NZ rock’n’roll.
to draw a sharp line between metaphysics and common sense would itself be metaphysics and not common sense.
– TS Eliot, letter to Norbert Wiener, 1915.
[See the Manchester & Washington journals on this site for July-December 1992]
[I resumed writing the journal after a year’s break.]
1994-Jan-01: Remember ‘Colour Field’ painting? What strikes me about it is – even with the ones that look good – how boring it must have been to paint them. Imagine being Bridget Riley! No wonder Dale Hickey doesn’t do that stuff anymore. And what about Larry Poons? (Maybe he turned into Jeff Koons?)
So, 1994. Year of uncertainty. Don’t know as yet whether I’ve gotten into Melbourne University fine arts – things look slim. Saw John Forbes yesterday evening – back from Italy with copies of poems by Rocco Scottelaro. He said isn’t it funny how after half a century of stomping out non-party-liners, Russia within two years has a fully-fledged and accredited fascist.
1994-Jan-02: I’d decided last year not to write any more poems for some time. Paradoxical that just as I get a job teaching poetry [at VUT, St Albans] my enthusiasm for even reading it (except for friends’ work) should dry up. But it’s partly from the feeling that I should be doing a different kind of writing. Memorials still a problem with the first section. I don’t know how to edit it further though it is a stumbling block for readers – but at the same time so much of the rest of the poem refers back to it: it is the Ur-poem of the set. Meanwhile two sections go ahead – I think – in Scripsi [this didn’t happen] and the proofs of another will arrive from Otis Rush this week. I’m in no hurry at all with a book.
1994-Jan-04: The Otis Rush proofs of ‘Ornithology’ arrive. It looks good – often it’s not the case with open form work, necessitating rearrangement of lines &c, but this one has some permanence about it.
1994-Jan-06: It’s funny to have ended up doing a writing which is so unfashionable – I mean carrying through to its conclusions something others have abandoned years back. But I don’t think I’m wrong. Rather this discursive stuff than ‘narrative’.
1994-Jan-07: A very unfortunate development recently: the tendency for artists/writers &c to sue critics for bad reviews (the Edmond Capon case, Keneally & The Australian). In sport where things are clearly measurable – your ability to run 100 metres in a certain time without the use of drugs – there’s no such problem, just as there’s no feeling that in calling someone a champion you’re being elitist. But in writing and art generally this tendency to take things to court seems based on a notion that criticism is mere opinion and thus may be simply defamatory rather than an estimate of the worth of some particular exercise. Not that criticism or particular examples of it are without malice, or even examples themselves of ‘good’ criticism. But if people want their own work, or art generally, to be seen as something of value they have to be able to admit that discriminations are possible and necessary. If they can’t do this then art is simply a therapeutic exercise and shouldn’t be hanging in a gallery or sitting in a bookshop in the first place.
I am as usual appalled by the machinery of fiction: it’s much work for little result
– Virginia Woolf, Diaries, Aug 1930.
1994-Jan-13: I finally had a hack at ‘Workin, Steamin’ [the first long section of Memorials] yesterday. Cut it down by another two pages and eliminated section numbers which had seemed to give a false sense of ‘progression’ [I ended up reinstating these]. It’s now 18-19pp with maybe the odd phrase, word, to be adjusted but no further editing. This sort of poem can succumb all too easily to the house-of-cards effect. I remembered that Under The Weather had similar problems: the later sections came easily and had some flow; the early bits were reworked and reordered considerably, in some cases probably over much.
1994-Jan-14: I’ve fine tuned ‘Workin &c’ again, removing the ‘Workin!’, ‘Steamin!’, ‘Relaxin!’, ‘Cookin!’ asides and thus the rationale for the title, which now becomes ‘Well You Needn’t’.
1994-Jan-18: I’m now a bona fide student with an ugly ID photo to prove it. [From 1994 to 1999 I worked on an MA Preliminary and then a Doctorate in the Fine Arts department at Melbourne University.]
1994-Jan-19: Things fall together. Just when I figure on giving up poetry too! Christina Thompson has been confirmed as the new Meanjin editor and so I’m to become the poetry editor – starting mid-year.
1994-Jan-21: Lunch with Jenny Lee [the then editor] & an afternoon in the Meanjin office. JL’s usual memorable anecdotes. At home a letter from Pan Books – Blue Notes is to be pulped due to poor sales. There are still 648 or so copies which means only some 350 copies sold, minus the innumerable ‘casualties of promotion’. I’ll buy a few at the reduced rate, though it’s not as good a book as it could have been if it had been put together with less haste [most of the translations in the book were either reworked or abandoned subsequently].
1994-Jan-30: John Tranter rings with congratulations on the Meanjin appointment (& Peter Craven had written during the week that I had ‘an unerring eye for quality in verse’). Apparently my appointment was far from a fait accompli – there was a degree of opposition. As for Peter’s decree of infallibility, I’ll have to wear that around my neck for a while.
1994-Feb-07: This morning the computer catches fire. And other poems. Spoke to Sue Abbey, UQP poetry editor, on the phone. The Selected to come out in 1995 (as will a Scott selected). & there’ll be problems with the cover. Laurie Muller thinks the current designs – the fake portraits – are good. He thinks schools like them because students like to see pictures of the authors. But in that case why not just use photographs on the back? I think of possibilities – a rear-view, like Magritte (someone had already suggested that), a portrait by a 6-year-old, a Sydney Nolan Ned Kelly drawing? Cubism? [The book, which came out in 1996, has a sketch of me by Ken Bolton on the cover.]
I am very materialistic and John [Ashbery] is very spiritual – John’s work is full of dreams and a kind of moral excellence and kind sentiments. Mine is full of objects for their own sake, spleen and ironically intimate observation which may be truthfulness (in the lyrical sense) but is more likely to be egotistical cynicism masquerading as honesty
– Frank O’Hara letter, quoted in Brad Gooch.
It is a conscious plagiarism that demonstrates invention: we are so often taken with what someone else did that we set out to do likewise. Yet prospects of shameful exposure are such that we disguise to a point of opposition; then the song becomes ours. No one suspects. It’s unconscious stealing that’s dangerous
– Ned Rorem, Paris Diary.
[Milton Babbit] illogically equates music with mathematics by suggesting that a concert audience should be as formally equipped as an audience at a lecture about advanced mathematics, as if science weren’t a means to an end, and art an end in itself. They all speak of progress, of evolution, as though these terms were more inevitably applicable to a healthy musical growth than to a cancer
– Ned Rorem, New York Diary.
1994-Mar-29: I don’t think I’d find an ‘artists retreat’ of much use. Ideas don’t come from isolation and as for the work itself, if there’s anything there it always finds a space between other activities. In fact I find it hard to imagine how anyone can take advantage of these institutions. It would be a bit depressing to be surrounded by ‘creative people’ out in the middle of nowhere.
1994-Jul-20: Peter Craven, in the Australian Higher Education Supplement writes a rather peevish note on extracts from diaries I published in Meanjin. I suspect he’s just annoyed that the diaries don’t render praise to Scripsi as The Magazine That Made Me What I Am Now. Peter forgets that Scripsi didn’t commission The Ash Range. He forgets that a number of writers (and others) committed themselves to the magazine when it was still an English department spin-off. He may be right to feel that writers bite the hand that feeds them but then he and Michael [Heyward] publicized their charity to writers and writing to such an extent that it seemed an act of bad faith. I mean no-one has bitten Ken Bolton’s hand (image of Ken, alarmed, examining tooth-marks). If only Peter and Michael had at any stage admitted that they made mistakes or that they were ignorant of just some small thing I’d feel a little more kindly disposed towards them.
1994-Jul-28: Peter’s alarm that I had been all along such a serious person makes me think of the reasons I left Melbourne in 1972. Apart from John Scott & Alan Wearne who were and always have been supportive of what I’ve done the Monash café crowd had treated me as a kind of idiot savant. And the same thing happened, I can see now, during the early years of Scripsi. (A terrific letter from Pam supports me in the Peter thing. Pam had read the article and was incensed.)
Ken Searle has done a series of paintings of Greek Gods – John Forbes as Zeus [touchingly John felt that he appeared overweight in the picture].
1994-Sep-06: Scripsi announces its demise in the newspapers. A moody picture of Andrew Rutherford, then Peter’s column, then a comment by Michael the next day. The big question about the magazine which no-one to my knowledge has asked is this: What was distinctive about Scripsi? What is its legacy? Meanjin could publish an anthology which clearly situated it in an Australian cultural history, but I doubt this could happen with Scripsi because, for the most part, it existed without any real mandate. It seems its main reason for existence was simply to be like a number of other existing productions (Granta, the TLS, the LRB &c). All of which is not to say that it didn’t publish a lot of impressive work (though I suppose ‘impressive’ is the operative word here). Everything about Scripsi – its content, its physical style &c – existed as a kind of simulacrum which self-regard envisaged as cultural identity. [This is a bit unfair. The magazine certainly did, in my case, lead to connections with writers in Britain and America like Gael Turnbull and August Kleinzahler. And it was Michael Heyward who put the idea to me and assisted the production of The Epigrams of Martial, for which I will always remain grateful.]
1994-Sep-07: Bob Adamson was once going to call one of his books ‘After me, sleep’ (I remember thinking this a possibly unfortunate title). So now I write when I would drift off if I were reading. About what? My thesis [MA Preliminary], which Paul Carter thinks well-written, though not, as its hasty foreword and afterword imply, a ‘postcolonial’ view of its subject. My seminar paper which cobbles itself together in my usual manner, trying to approach a subject from as far off as possible. In the end, whatever I do, I’m a writer. Even the six months of prose – cafeteria prose – which threatens to desert intelligibility testifies to something, though I’ll probably throw it away (and almost certainly won’t show it to anyone). [This was ‘The Minutes’. I did publish it. It was the last poem I would write for six years.]
1994-Sep-16: In the Bakers Arms Hotel, Richmond, waiting for a VUT dinner. I glance at the bar TV assuming I’m watching a commercial channel. A painting appears on screen – the back of a naked female figure on a river bank. I think it must be an item about a killing/rape and only keep watching because the ‘artist’s impression’ of the scene seems particularly bad. It turns out that the channel is SBS and the artist is Renoir.
[I]t is useless to subvert language by destroying its syntax, for example: that is a paltry subversion, in fact, and one which is moreover far from innocent, since, as someone said “small subversions make large conformisms”. Meaning cannot be attacked head-on, by the simple assertion of its contrary; you must cheat, steal, refine – parody, if you must, but, better yet, counterfeit
– Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice.
1994-Oct-15: Chris Price of Landfall wants me to review Michele Leggott’s new book and another by Murray Edmond. I’ll demur, partly because I’m really unsure myself of where I stand on poetry at the moment. I mean I know what I find inept or boring, and I know I like Michele’s book (she just sent me a copy), but I don’t know how to justify any of these things (hence feel ok about poetry editing, but no good about writing criticism or teaching). All this doubt really stems from my final break from the Poundian thing, signaled by the intro I wrote for my diary extracts in Meanjin, but dating back at least to my reading Robert Casillo’s Genealogy of Demons, which, I think, torpedoes EP ultimately. (By this I don’t mean that Pound becomes unreadable. Rather he becomes unavailable, like Gerard Manley Hopkins. He’s no longer a point to refer to. Not that I’d want to play into the hands of the current crop of right-wing newspaper – & academic – hacks like Paddy McGuinness or John Carroll, who’d like to dance on the grave of modernism & bring James McAuley back to life. Miserable bastards, both of them. Carroll, some relic from Quadrant; McG – my image of him: a grumpy Push drunk, sitting in the corner of a bar in a dandruff-coated black skivvy. Both of them imagining themselves as bold crusaders against the ‘fad’ of ‘Political Correctness’ when in effect they’re just importers of moral panic from the USA.)
1994-Oct-22: Last night I saw a stage adaptation of The Nightmarkets (at Luna Park). Very hard to try and figure what it would seem like – how it would hold together – if I hadn’t read the original several times. I mean I’m not sure it resolved. The poem doesn’t really resolve but that’s not its point. With a play it might be.
1994-Oct-24: The world of the poetry reading, for all its pretensions, is a shabby world. Attempts to render poetry socially useful are condemned to failure – not that poetry can’t be political (though in the appropriate situation billiard playing could be political). If poetry is going to ‘go’ anywhere, ‘do’ anything, it’s as a kind of chamber music I guess. Against all this it’s interesting to note Π O’s refusal to be part of various things – prizes, commercial ventures &c – ends up making him as inaccessible as K______ (who doesn’t show his work to anyone). What a price to pay for a clear conscience.
1994-Nov-26: I drive in to university to use the e-mail but the system is down. Walk over to Lygon St, buy papers and a coffee. Then drive home. Walk down to Alfred Square and sit in the shade, waiting for the replica of HMS Endeavour to appear from Mornington. Eventually it comes into sight with its accompanying rigged navy training vessel. This ship – a clipper? – appears neater; it’s all white and low on the water, whereas the Endeavour is a dark blob. The clipper’s sail rig is easy to read from a distance; there’s space between the shapes of canvas. But as the vessels come closer the clipper reveals nothing further while the Endeavour’s sail shapes assume a configuration which is other-worldly. While the clipper looks like a slightly boring naturalistic maritime painting, the Endeavour begins to look like something only a cubist could have imagined. As they come abreast I walk around the Upper Esplanade into Fitzroy St. On the corner reserve the local Kooris appear unmoved by the arrival of the ‘Gubbas’; they sleep in the sun or gather in the leeward shade. I buy a couple of buns at the cake shop and go home to listen to Australia beating England in the cricket.
1994-Nov-30: The departmental types are trying to get rid of Alan Wearne from RMIT and are hoping to replace him with F_________. Just sacking him was going to attract too much attention, so they decided to ‘offer’ the position to interviewees [the later common practice of ‘spill & fill’]. Alas it was ‘too late’ to advertise the position so they made a few requisite phone calls. J_______ called me yesterday to see if I was interested. I said no, but asked about Alan and got the disingenuous reply that he too could apply for the job. John Forbes has been rounding up support [for AW]. From a practical point of view I think RMIT must be just about the only place teaching poetry that’s produced anyone who’s any good (Wollongong might rate maybe?). And this is Alan’s doing. Whereas X (where F_______ has taught) has sent nobody of any merit out (I’m sure I’ve had a few ‘I’m studying/ have studied at X’ submissions for Meanjin and nothing so far would lead me to suspect otherwise.
1994-Dec-17: News item: Albert Einstein’s eyes discovered in a bank vault in New Jersey (the rest of him had been cremated). Michael Jackson wants to buy them for his collection (maybe he could have them implanted?).
I’d been thinking; if I were a visual artist how could I make a political statement about life in Victoria today? I figured I would cast a number of larger-than-lifesize statues of Jeff Kennett in his jaw-forward Mussolini pose and place them at strategic points throughout the city. But I open today’s Age to discover that the Premier has already erected large billboards of himself (with road safety messages) over Melbourne freeways. A taxi driver from mainland China said he thought he’d seen the last of this in Beijing.
Feb-14: It occurs to me, reading James Clifford, that quite a bit of my poetry, like the ‘New England Ode’, is a kind of ethnography: one of a sort which flaunts its subjectivity rather than camouflages it (the ‘on location’ portions of The Ash Range also follow this model). I guess the context of a lot of my work (as it positions itself) is one of ‘notes written to kill time’, making a virtue out of purposelessness (just as the structure of The Ash Range takes ‘music’ rather than ‘history’ as an analogy).
1995-Feb-22: [Sydney:] AGNSW. The 95 Perspecta – a poor second to the show of work by high school students, which made one wonder: what happens to people when they go to art school? Perspecta reinforced my desire not to be a newspaper art critic [again – I had been one in the late 1980s], though there were some good things, like Ian Burn’s ‘value added landscapes’ & Tracey Moffat. Otherwise the usual array of junk & electronic gadgets. Isolated in this show were the bark paintings of an artist for whom presumably ‘integrity’ wasn’t just a code-word for ‘career move’.
1995-May-06: Has the ‘moment of theory’ come and gone? It seems as though the academy, having recognized the (disingenuous) separation of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, had wanted to assure its own prominence through ‘high’ theory. The old pop albums were brought down from the attic and dusted off but there would be nothing innocent about the way they were to be received.
1996-Jan-27: American Movies fail (when they fail) because the Americans want to cross genres. The weak endings of these movies are the product of wishing to turn a ‘slice-of-life’ into a fable. It’s part of the American Dream that it should be possible to knit these genres. But we know it isn’t, even if they don’t. And it occurs to me that this ‘slice-of-life’ ? fable slippage is what makes so much of the poetry I dislike bad (the drawing-a-moral-out-of-a-witty-suburban-observation type poem). This kind of text can only work where there is a strong theology behind it. And there is no strong theology around right now.
1996-Feb-16: I can get too excited to read properly at times when I want to take it all in immediately. At those moments I wish it were possible to ingest by some kind of instant osmosis all of Walter Benjamin or Gilles Deleuze. The idea of having to plod through parts of a writing before knowing the other parts can be painful and dispiriting, as is the sense that (with my memory) the earlier parts will be substantially lost by the time I get to the later. This is one reason why I can never regard myself as a ‘thinker’.
1996-Jul-06: [In Brisbane for the 1996 ASAL Conference:] Interesting works [in the QAG] incl. the ‘Café Balzac’ mural/triptych by Lancely, Brown & Crothall, works by Hinder, Crowley & Balson. Wakelin’s ‘Bridge Under Construction’, a double-sided work by Eric Wilson: ‘Stove Theme (1942) b/w ‘The Violin’ (1938). Modern Japanese prints. Aboriginal paintings hung over a shimmering water surface. Bus to Toowong & walk to Maryvale St. No 66 [where my Uncle, Aunt & cousins lived in the late 60s] no longer exists, but neighbour houses look similar.
1996-Jul-08: A late afternoon panel on ‘writing from life’. A_______ goes on much too long. Joanne Burns & the others good (Ed Berridge [the current literary ‘bad boy’] had turned up in Brisbane, gone to the football, & gone back to Sydney & so wasn’t on deck). Joanne talked about a NSW Education Dept guide which had interpreted an obviously surreal ‘autobiographical’ poem of hers literally. In the evening, dockside: a frighteningly clean and new Miami-like complex with a gym near the road entry in which you can see guys on exercise machines. The reading takes place in a bar called the Comedy Café. David Foster reads (from memory & ‘in character’ – whew!). I read – not all that well – though people seem to like it, then Joanne, a guy called Bruce Russell (from WA), Lisa Bellear and Jordie Albiston.
1996-Jul-10: Breakfast near the hotel with Amanda Lohrey & David Foster where we work out roughly our panel perspectives. The panel (‘Classics & Canon’) goes ok & leaves room for questions. DF quotes great slabs of Juvenal & worries people a little with his manner. [In the evening] I eat in a classy bar then go to parody night (subject: dirty realism – Edna Beveridge &c). I do some of the old parodies from Adventures In Paradise. We all win prizes.
1997-Jan-22: [Sydney:] A building site with the sign: ‘Yet another Sydney Building Project completed by Crookes’. In the Central pedestrian tunnel an old woman with short grey hair and a pink floral frock sings in a high & out of tune voice ‘It’s a sin to tell a lie’, all the time gyrating mechanically.
1997-Jul-01: [Sydney again:] In the evening John [Forbes] phones. He’ll be late. Nadia [Wheatley] & Ken [Searle] arrive. After dinner John sticks around drinking till late. I feel a bit bad about this (he shouldn’t be drinking at all).
1997-Jul-02: John has stayed over and looks like death. He vomits (blood) in the toilet. Then sits around until nearly midday. This is a tiring phenomenon though I feel bad about thinking so. Jann gives him a lift back to Mark’s. I go for a walk up the road to Dulwich Hill shops for some sunlight and junk food, then continue around to the railway line and back to the Cooks River to drop in on Ken & Nadia. Swap John stories. Nadia says not to feel too bad about him and instances Martin [Johnston]’s humouring of everyone who tried to get him to stop drinking. Then Ken shows me his new work: fabulous studies for another big painting (of Ballarat).
1997-Jul-04: Jann & Greg head off to Orange for a 3 day break. I’ve decided to stay here rather than a couple of nights at Pam’s (I’ll have dinner there tomorrow). Instead make the most of the quiet [I was in Sydney researching my doctorate]. It’s beginning to be rainy again after a couple of days’ grace. I get a bus to Glebe & pick up Stephen Muecke’s book [No Road] & the new UTS Review (with an axe job on Memorials by Leigh Dale) & bus back. Worry about the value of what I do.
1997-Jul-05: It’s still dark. I turn the heaters on, make tea, & return to bed to begin reading No Road. By the time I get up and shower the house has warmed. Buy the papers and return to settle in. Later, feed the guinea pigs. Muecke’s book is the cause for some reflection on my prospects: though it expresses the same kinds of doubt, albeit at a point further up the ladder and from a person who has had more ‘adventures’ than I have. Through the day I finish the book. Listen to some music. Then get a train to St Peters with the intention of walking up King St & browsing before meeting Pam & Jane. At St Peters the chimneys and buildings opposite the station are lit up in weird evening light and there’s a full rainbow to the east. But a downpour starts and I dodge the drips all the way to Newtown. Browse in book & record shops before meeting P & J in the back bar of the Marlborough. We progress up the road to the Thanh Binh. Pam says that outside Vietnam she hasn’t seen a couple of the dishes (chicken in strips of sugar cane, a variety of leaf in the salad). Discuss impossibilities – John Forbes, Dorothy Hewett.
‘I was also attempting a philosophical career, and I have the most vivid recollection of seeing my first pop work – it was in the spring of 1962. I stopped one day at the American Center [in Paris] and I saw Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘The Kiss’ in Art News. And I must say I was stunned. I knew that it was an astonishing and an inevitable moment, and in my own mind I understood immediately that if it were possible to paint something like this then everything was possible. And though it did not occur to me, if everything was possible, there really was no specific future; if everything was possible, nothing was necessary or inevitable including my own vision of an artistic future. For me, that meant that it was all right, as an artist, to do whatever one wanted. It also meant that I lost interest in doing art and pretty much stopped.’
— Arthur Danto: After the End of Art
[There are no entries for 1998. In January that year we moved to Sydney. Shortly after this we heard of the death of John Forbes back in Melbourne. Alan Wearne had phoned saying ‘I have some bad news.’ I knew immediately what he was going to tell me.]
June [A false start:].
Reading Hart Crane
I find myself in tears
– an impossible Man of Sentiment –
‘the chained bay waters’ of a Bridge
other than the one I can’t see but know is there;
a hopeless empiricism.
The gulls ‘dip and pivot’ as in the poem,
this ‘lovely world’ made by men and women
against which the radio and the all-ordinaries index,
cardboard boxes in the park below.
The great crane catches the sun:
not Hart, a device used to lift gun turrets,
an inverted Bridge,
useless now, the first thing to light up
before the bookshelf turns orange
then everything else takes on its shade,
the water, still; a brown rowing boat
that would (in summer) shuttle to a moored vessel.
Hart (he is always addressed personally)
not a popular poet when I grew up,
too florid for believers in ‘the objective correlative’
yet I loved him in high school, able to leap from drunken
to Shakespeare in a single bound.
Around 1973 (before dope had totally
undermined a streak of high-seriousness)
I wanted to write a poem about the Bridge
– or the Harbour – assembling fragments
of lurid description, a figure – the Engineer –
who was supposed to double as poet/creator,
influenced, I fear, by the New Romanticism
(I’d also written a sequence about the White Goddess:
abandoned, because – I later realised – I was
‘making it up’, a deity cobbled
from books. The Harbour poem
was something more than this, though it went nowhere,
a false structure holding together things
which were otherwise too ‘lightweight’
(I later saved the heaviness for satire
preferring to float – like a butterfly –
when not stinging – like a bee.
Would Hart have appreciated Mohammed Ali? I don’t know.
in my old poem, the drop to the Harbour,
imagining a place on the north side, say Kirribilli,
a mix of industry and residence
where now the expanse of water shrinks to a pond under development
and I watch the economy: containers enter full
and leave empty. Maybe John Forbes was right,
it should be concreted over. Idealism became empiricism
became something else: a wave pulse at night;
a pragmatist lurking in the park,
strolling through the ruins of narrative (like a Rick Amor painting
mixing charm with menace). It’s that Man of Sensibility again.
I seem, somehow, to thrive on disruption:
the kitchen dismantled for fumigators
as the floorboards in my last flat
when I wrote my poem ‘Ornithology’
unaware its elegiac tones were for poetry itself (mine);
at least they were for John Forbes;
and now, water taxis blinking across the Harbour,
once more I come upon passages from Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’
which seem right, but could I try again
to read the book? Romanticism itself was always
impenetrable to me, though Wordsworth was
somehow different (impenetrable all the same,
not so devoid of pleasure as Shelley,
though I guess he would have been more in Hart’s line
– that name, Hart Crane, a funny amalgam of sentiment
and technology. Who’s our Hart?
Bruce Beaver I’d guess. I wrote in a diary once
of ‘shoals of light’ thinking: fishing vessels,
the Andaman Islands (somewhere, approaching India
on an Italian airliner en route to Rome
from the plane circling to Fiumicino (the airport),
security with its submachine guns (benign however).
I stayed in Rome for a few days
but did not enter a church, much less the Vatican,
though a kind of Protestant sense of honour
– a false respect for things I didn’t believe in?
– at least for an idea of religion
reality didn’t live up to. Now I’d accept
the interiors as places to enjoy: pure tourism I guess.
In England I wanted to go to a Quaker meeting house.
Couldn’t, in the end, do that either;
the form always a disappointment after the spirit,
or spirit missing from the form etcetera.
This tiny writing (mine) like the poetry copied onto card
by my great-uncle: a mean-spirited man
who’d felt himself above my grandmother’s forced marriage
to a Jew: for him poetry equalled parsimony,
his snippets of Tennyson were spins of a prayer wheel,
little items of commerce which paid for grace
– a sensibility some distance from Hart (around that time
falling off the back of a boat). The heavy boots
of a neighbour hit the floor; the water laps
in the dark outside, the clink of masts
all too literal to be Matthew Arnold.
No God, no poetic, so the position of the moon,
thin crescent or new, above these lights
connotes neither certainty nor doubt.
Car doors shut, gears grate up the hill,
Friday night in Sydney, midwinter 1999.
Wordsworth was like some horrible stranger
on a long train trip who began to tell you
the story of his life; fragments of landscape
when concentration failed on the winding periods.
I have no such confidence beyond ‘behold the Harbour’,
descriptions of cockatoos in palm trees,
distant trucks climbing from the Bridge,
lit at just this moment, invisible otherwise
– it’s morning again: days and nights
of no coherent monologue. The Crane stands
unmoved and unmoving for how many years now?
a shed perched on top of its structure
housing the winding mechanisms, as large
as a small block of flats. There will be News and Weather
in ten minutes, the rumble of a garbage truck
seven floors up; sunlight on books
‘till elevators drop us from our day’
to breakfast up the hill with Don and Pene
and a glimpse perhaps of Hart Crane in a striped French navy shirt
heading south for Oxford Street.
[In January 2000 we moved to Brisbane. No entries for that year either.]
2001-Sep-16: Four days after the New York terrorist attack, a couple after the collapse of Ansett airlines (with whom I was to fly to Adelaide – now cancelled). Sense of a world unravelling, delivering us to the shock-jocks and political shysters. Brisbane, amidst all this, seems a quiet and distant place to be.
2001-Sep-21: To the Queensland Art Gallery to look at a couple of shows: Conrad Martens and William Robinson. The Martens show was of work done on a journey to Queensland. I’ve never liked his art much – it always seemed sub-Turner: not out-there enough to work by itself, too fuzzy to be topographically interesting. I don’t like Robinson either, I think because he seems like the kind of artist Les Murray would be (if he were an artist). I guess the very early work is ok: a bit like some Vuillard. But the big landscapes seem empty. They appear to have extraordinary detail but exhaust themselves very quickly (c.f. the big Vuillard which the QAG possesses and which I could look at endlessly). The middle period works – the funny farmyard paintings – interested me less than the real goats on the lawn outside (for children to draw). Australia seems to specialize in the overblown – Whiteley, Tim Storrier, Robinson. I like someone like John Wolesley better. His approach seems more modest.
2001-Sep-23: Coffee at the New Farm Deli, talking to Jaya Savige, a student of Martin Duwell’s, for his essay on my work (& WCW). We talk for a couple of hours and there will be further questions via e-mail. I’m probably less self-conscious these days when answering questions about my work, perhaps because there’s less at stake; I mean the work is really of lesser importance generally (though all-important as far as I’m concerned). Whether the world takes notice or not is out of my hands.
2001-Sep-26: Is it ironic that, as a person who has never been interested in power, I should be worried by a feeling of powerlessness? My world seems to have shrunken considerably. The new poems of the last year reflect this: they can’t take for granted the things the earlier work did. They are like participants in a conference who wonder whether they should even be there.
2001-Sep-29: Awake early thinking for some reason about Robert Lowell and Life Studies, then my Lowell ‘History’ parody [written in 1974]. Lowell had that patrician belief in the interconnectedness of his family history and major political events. The ‘History’ poem tackled L’s later work in which antidepressants and whatever other medication he was on further clouded things so that anything was ok if you could fit it into 14 lines (the fact that over half his work was done in the last few years has probably been the main reason there has been [to date] no Collected Poems: quality control would be right out the window). But I realized from all this that Lowell laid bare the creaky nature of artistic autobiography and its jamming together of incidents and the public record. So ‘History’ in all its slightness is the progenitor of ‘Adventures in Paradise’, the poem that puts this suspicion of autobiography into practice. ‘Sites’ [in Mangroves] is the latest incarnation of that idea tackling, as it does, moments which could be viewed as ‘turning points’ but leaving them as unconnected incidents.
2001-Oct-07: In one sense I’m aboard the same vessel as the Language Poets: the resistance to ‘myth’. Myth is the engine which turns most academic poetry into an endless series of rehearsals, whether it’s seen as ‘tradition’ (veneration of the ‘classics’) or as a way of writing one’s life (confession).
2001-Oct-14: Reading Gary Gutting’s history of 20th C French philosophy – the section on Sartre – I realize there’s a direct connection between my paralysis (career, activity) and the vertigo I’m prone to: both are kinds of anguish/ angst/ anxiety about the future. You only feel vertigo because of the imagined possibility of jumping or falling. So it’s almost strictly ‘existential angst’ (ha ha): fear of freedom. This ‘anguish’ is, for Sartre, an ontological, not a psychological category (as ‘anxiety’ often is).
2001-Nov-03: Glancing through The Arcades Project [Walter Benjamin] (bought in, of all places, Miami Beach, last year) it occurs to me that the great blockage I’ve had with work on the succeeding volume of Ghost Nation may have a lot to do with its plan, still cast in the mould of a thesis. I don’t have to write another thesis. Why not turn the whole thing into a more exploratory project? Instead of being slightly embarrassed at GN’s similarities of construction to the poems, why not revel in this coincidence? [I didn’t ever complete this book though I ended up assembling, but not submitting, a slightly different one.]
Last month’s dire Subverse poetry festival (they couldn’t have found a more descriptive name for this organization): I’m listed on the program before anyone asks me to participate. Alan Wearne is placed, unbeknown to him, in a shared room – he protests and they put him downtown in the Chifley. Organiser D_______ dominates proceedings. He’s a body-builder, a bad poet, and is seemingly uninterested in most of the writers’ work. When I do read we’re not told (or asked) in what order we want to read. The guy who introduces me, F_______, claims to be a fan but gets the titles of my books wrong, despite the fact that I’d sent him a requested bio. He says I’m the author of a verse-novel – The Ashram. Speaking of which, verse-novels seem to be the thing now. If you can’t write poetry and you can’t write a novel you can always do a verse-novel. It’s particularly ironic that alongside this newly proliferating form Alan Wearne can’t get Vol 2 of The Lovemakers into print. In fact this underlines Subverse’s attitude to the medium – it has no history. X’s verse-novel is an amazing innovation; Wearne is just some old poet they got up here for some reason or other.
2001-Nov-11: Three more years of Howard government. Worst of all is the fact that the election came down to a ‘race’ issue. It actually seems as though ‘race’ has not gone away for Australians; it can be activated for political gain at any point – even now, in the twenty-first century. The activation of ‘race’ as an issue sets back the chances of dealing with past mistakes. Indeed, to even use the word ‘mistake’ is to succumb, in the eyes of our rulers, to the ‘black armband’ view of history. For these people, ‘history is dead’. But they live in bad faith, dredging up some ceremonial event or other as it suits them, regardless of their economics. What’s important is ‘making it’. This is the backwash of sixties libertarianism, the eddy (pun intended) of Andersonian thought. It’s why nobody – even the poetry apparachiks of Subverse – can remember the past.
2002-Jan-06: An e-mail from Cassie Lewis makes some kind and astute comments on my ‘Louvres’ series. Among other things she notes a line early in the sequence of a ‘baton’ being passed on and says she imagined a John Forbes poem doing this (baton passed from Slessor to Forbes). I look through the JF Collected sure I’ve seen this poem myself, but it isn’t there. It ought to be though. And since then I’ve noticed a number of Forbes-like elements in my newer work (I referred to myself as Forbes-lite in my e-mail response). I think this comes in part from the poems being more ‘philosophical’ than my earlier stuff – so it’s not simply a matter of unconscious plagiarism. The lines that have the specific feel of JF poems are mostly (on examination) not present in the original. What this says about the process of writing is interesting though.
At the moment I’m in a state of mild panic about a catalogue essay I’m writing for a joint exhibition of Ian Friend (paintings) & JH Prynne (poems) scheduled for the Brisbane City Gallery (and due at the end of this month). Ian chose me because I’m about the only person around with a fix on both visual art & Prynne’s poetry. But it’s hard to write about work like The Oval Window alongside Ian’s work without lapsing into bland comparatives on the one hand, or getting really obscure and ‘intuitive’ on the other (where the risk is competing with the artists who are supposed to be the focus of attention).
2002-Jan-09: Visited Ian F & had further conversation about the paintings. A chance also to look at them by myself for an hour or so. Then to the QUT Gallery to look at an exhibition on the history of the Blake Prize. The furore over Stanislaus Rapotec’s painting in 1961 took the form of an abstract vs. figurative debate (the painting, by the way, is one of the best). But it’s a dichotomy which isn’t really of much interest. In a sense figurative work tends to be a kind of ‘history painting’ anyway i.e. there’s nothing deeply ‘religious’ about it – it’s just illustration of a book (The Bible) or of scenes of historical events surrounding religious practice. In any case a lot of the recent work is figurative, yet it seems to my mind only tenuously religious. A more interesting division would be between paintings that function (or are produced) as ‘devotional’ objects [and those that don’t]. The term ‘spiritual’ doesn’t help much. The main question is – is ‘religion’ doctrinal illustration or philosophical investigation? What did I like? A cross-section really: Donald Friend, Orban, Szabo, Roger Kemp, Passmore, Hilarie Mais, Gittoes, Borgelt, John Adair. What did I particularly dislike: Eric Smith, Upward, Leach-Jones.
2002-Jan-25: [Sydney:] The AGNSW has vastly improved the modern Australian exhibition space. There’s more work on display in the 1920-1970s areas. Note of Ian Fairweather – his sense of planes within a picture; that ‘abstraction’ may depend solely on our sense of ‘depth’. Lines which might suggest physical forms can become simply pattern.
2002-Aug-15: Rosemary in Manila. Ken Bolton somewhere in Europe. Pam & Jane getting their final load of possessions in place at Rose Bay. I’d applied for one of four rather open sounding jobs in Humanities at Griffith, but haven’t been contacted for an interview [I have never been interviewed for an academic job – at least not since the chat in a pub that landed me a media teaching position at Swinburne in 1976]. People tell me I should relish my status and just do my writing, but I don’t know. Am I blue? Well, no. I just keep going. For the last few weeks Martin Duwell has been interviewing me each Monday, gradually going through the corpus. Meanwhile I order some books from Gomorrah – at last a proper collected [Lorine] Niedecker & a George Oppen too. And new critical work from the fabulous Susan Stewart.
2002-Aug-21: Trying to write another poem which threatens to be a sub-Memorials piece. First letter in a while from August, enclosing a London Review of Books item on Bruno’s Zam Zam Bar (now reopened with light and flowers). August is at last benefiting from the footwork he’s done – big US publisher with nice paper, articles published in major British organs. He deserves the run, though I don’t know that he’s any the happier for it. I was surprised that the Shearsman (UK) website said that my publication in Britain was long overdue. Don’t know who’d do it though. [In fact Tony Frazer, at Shearsman, took on the task himself. Compared to what, a new and selected, together with a reprint of The Ash Range appeared from Shearsman in 2005.]
2002-Aug-26: Tinker with dodgy new poem. Write a blurb for Basil King, which he likes. Try and figure out a possible selected for UK release (this is really fantasyland). Continue Monday sessions with Martin Duwell. I told him he was better than a psychiatrist: free, and I get a cup of tea and a biscuit too.
2002-Sep-10: A new book by Steve Kelen. I mailed a blurb to Pam: ‘SK is the psychedelic Bruce Dawe!’
2002-Oct-02: Mangroves has been through its final proofs – much of this time spent re-correcting the changes made by a novice typesetter. And the cover looks really good too. More books from the US – Ron Padgett, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian & Alice Notley. My supervisee (writing MA) Jaya Savige is reading all the wrong poets: Michael Dransfield, F_______ &c, but I feel like an old curmudgeon telling him so. I mean I never wanted to tell people who they should read – I just wish they wouldn’t. Though I guess I read everybody with no permanent damage done, ha ha.
2002-Oct-05: Michael Farrell has done a kind of dub version of ‘Blue Hills 1’ in an e-zine (Cordite). The mag’s editor David Prater asked if I’d respond so I’m to write some kind of piece (though ‘dialogue’ seems unnecessary really, indicating a lack of confidence in the mag’s perspective).
2002-Oct-08: As a response to my Overland piece on ‘working class poetry’ Lauren Williams wrote a poem ‘Shakespeare was a performance poet’ (for the next issue). So I wrote one back (in about 10 minutes) – a list of Shakespeare was’s (gay activist, woman, Christopher Marlowe, registered TM &c [they didn’t print it]). Today out of the blue Peter Craven phones to ask for my original article for his annual Best Australian Essays tome. It’s so long since I’ve spoken to him (since John Forbes’ funeral) that I’m happy to oblige, even if it will probably mean I’m part of ‘gangland’ [Ian Syson, editor of Overland was incensed: I had taken the ‘working class poetry’ argument to the enemy apparently].
2002-Oct-16: The Australian Essays piece will net $300. I’m so used to not being paid for things that it didn’t occur to me to ask. Via the net: Carl sends a piece from an English newspaper. Andrew Motion is a cough mixture addict!
2002-Oct-30: By the time Mangroves appears (schedule: Feb 2003) I’ll have pretty much finished another book. This month alone has been very productive – a number of small pieces including further ‘Blue Hills’ plus a couple of other poems, one of these a kind of catalogue essay for Greg O’Brien’s Peter Black (photographs) show [‘Tilt’]. In contrast to this my academic work has faltered yet again. When I look at what I’ve written it looks alright, but overall there’s a sense of pointlessness about it. I should just get it done, but without any realistic time-frame this is difficult. It’s in danger meanwhile of being overtaken by events.
2002-Nov-13: If there’s a certain dryness and repetitiveness about the recent jottings in this book it’s a cover in part for a sense of being within a ‘phoney war’; a sense maybe that none of my concerns amount to much given the possibility that, thanks to George W Bush (with the assistance of our PM) the world as I/we know it mightn’t be around much longer. I keep thinking of Yeats (whom I generally dislike) on ‘those I guard’ and ‘those I fight’.
2002-Dec-11: Richard Alston is going to cut arts funding (art isn’t ‘important’ in a time of emergency – but this is just an excuse to remove what little money there is from something seen as economically unviable). So ‘the world we fight for’ is artless, humourless and lacking in any charitable instinct. It’s the world of the oil barons and the rest of us are just inconveniences.
2002-Dec-17: I’m not good at saying nice things about bad poems. I think people expect I will as a generally mild-mannered person.
2002-Dec-19: Another rejection (also after a request) from Cordite. I think maybe I’m last year’s (decade’s?) flavour for the post-Calyx set. Too referential but also too minimal for their tastes. UQP have printed 1000 copies of Mangroves (c.f. their current poetry norm of 500). I wonder how many of them will sell? Meanwhile, requests from ABR [they didn’t print anything either] & the Adelaide Festival of the Arts. It’s enough to damage one’s street credibility.
2003-Jan-14: An interview for the Courier-Mail a week ago, then today a photographer appears. Amazingly he wants to photograph me ‘writing’ when he discovers that’s what I do. And he wants me to wear my glasses so I’ll look serious. I protest but not to much avail. Either this guy gets the photographs he wants or probably the C-M’s editor will pull the article. I end up photographed ‘reading’ my book.
2003-Mar-02: And the photograph ends up being cropped so it’s just my head with the glasses. The edited article [by Kris Olsson] was pretty good, but the sub-ed’s heading ‘Green Thoughts’ should perhaps have been ‘Grey Thoughts’.
2003-Mar-05: World War 3 begins Friday week – or so our Imperial rulers tell us. It’s coincidentally the day Mangroves is to be launched.
2003-Mar-12: They seem to have postponed the War for another few days (while actually conducting it on the ground as they have been doing for the last ten years). People seem to like the book, though it’s a bit early for reviews yet. But what to do about our government, which seems to be even more anxious than the US to wage war. All who oppose it are seen as misguided, and if they hold positions of power they are discredited. This seems like a parody of Soviet life – talk about ‘political correctness’.
2003-Apr-03: Lawrence Upton notes in brief on Cassie Lewis’ Poetry Espresso website that Ric Caddel has died. I await confirmation, posting a short note on my meeting with Ric in 1992. Time intervened and I never got back to him. His young son [Tom] died in an accident, then I stopped writing and partially slipped out of the poetry sphere. I intended to get in touch again but, too late alas. In the post a new issue of Overland with a reminder to renew my (non-existent) subscription. In it a poem by Geoff Goodfellow lampoons Pam, Ken & myself. It’s written in a sub-Personist style (Geoff should try to write like this more often – it’s better than his usual stuff).
That I should lose, as I grow older, imagination, emotion, a certain type of intelligence, a way of feeling, all that, whilst painful, would not shock me. But what is happening to me when I can read what I wrote as if it were written by a stranger? What shore can I be standing on that allows me to look down and see my own self at the bottom of the sea?
– Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
2003-Jun-07: I’m most successful with what I feel is the most disposable work. So often I find myself looking out the same window trying to write (the same?) poem.
2003-Jun-09: Partly the problem might lie in the fact that I’ve abandoned all but those poems that come out of daily life i.e. no translations, no documentary poems and no invented scenarios of any kind. When I started writing I was up for anything. Maybe reading too much in the area of poetics has left me without much room to move. But part of the reason I abandoned all those areas (and I should particularly include satire here as well) was that they seemed to come out of too much certainty. Then again I’d started to write satire when put on the defensive – it was a way of appearing to be a poet sure of himself and confident in his own pronouncements.
2003-Jun-29: Anyone reading this diary could be excused in finding it the record of a depressive personality. But this would be partly due to the accident of its writing. It is only when I’m concerned about something that I make a note of it. Today for instance is really a non-diary day, beautiful and clear with a butcher-bird singing not far from the open window.
2003-Jul-06: David Trotter, The Making of the Reader (1984) looks at English poetry of the twentieth century in terms of how it constructs its audience in the absence of an ideal of the ‘common reader’. For the ‘thirties’ poets, being ‘communists’ was as much a way of imagining an audience as it was a political commitment (and the same sort of things were going on in right-wing circles: Ezra Pound’s espousal of the ‘strong man’ [Mussolini] also represents the invention of an ideal reader). The losers, interestingly, were writers like the dissimilar Williams and Stevens, both of whom went against the romantic discourse. They were ‘anti-pathos’ in Trotter’s terms.
2003-Jul-08: Trotter also explains the amazing popularity of the so-called ‘Martian’ poets of the 80s by showing the ground had been prepared for them by the kinds of school poetry anthologies that had appeared in the late 60s and 70s. These were books that often paired poems and photographs and carried ‘exercises’ involving describing things (a frog, a train, a field of wheat) usually through the simile. Craig Raine merely capitalized on all this. This kind of writing appears to me to be superficial unless the simile is foregrounded as a strange act of language rather than an aid to perception (metaphor is a different matter, since language is itself metaphorical: you can’t sail away on the word ‘boat’). By foregrounding I mean that it becomes apparent that the simile isn’t a ‘way of seeing’, it’s an (odd) act of language because there isn’t (can’t be) any real equivalence. When similes are used conventionally it often seems we are supposed to admire the poet’s eye (wow, the trees really are like toothbrushes!) but once we’ve deciphered and admired there is often nowhere else to go.
2003-Aug-21: In Melbourne to accept The Age Book of the Year award for poetry. It’s a chilly 11°. Arrive at the Westin on Swanston & Collins Sts and order a $17 sandwich. In the evening go for drinks at the Town Hall, followed by the awards. We huddle in a stairwell offstage and can’t hear what’s being said. Go on and do our acceptance speeches, then back round and into the auditorium to hear Tariq Ali. I slip out at the conclusion hungry (it’s 10.00). Have hearty ramen at a place on Federation Square. Back to the hotel. The faint squeaking of trams.
2003-Aug-22: I walk up to the Victoria Market. It’s a beautiful morning. Eat bratwurst and sauerkraut. Later go to Collected Works and talk with Kris H about the death of his son Tim. Buy a stack of books: Keith Tuma on British poetry, poems by Fanny Howe, Barbara Guest, Denise Riley, Lawrence Upton, Brian Coffey, Javant Biaruja, Kate Fagan, Michael Farrell. In the afternoon check out the Colin McCahon show at the new gallery in Fed Square. It’s great [McCahon] but verges on the creepy. It’s odd now to see the new buildings opposite the Savoy Theatre: there’s almost a 21st century kitsch echo there.
2003-Aug-23: I’d mentioned to Kris that I’ve started to see myself as a kind of ‘occasional’ poet – no less a seriousness about poetry, just an awareness of its contingency (and perhaps its sanity in a world of near-complete madness). Spoke about Gael [Turnbull] and his feeling of being ‘left out’ – this in relation to Kris’s own hesitancies. I eat out early [evening] at Arintji – a great view across the Square back to Flinders St, the TV image of a wood-fire and a tickertape of Channel 7 News around Young & Jacksons [a pub]). Above the museums the buildings look like Clark Kent’s Metropolis. Back through the rain to watch Collingwood demolish the Swans. Well (¾ time) maybe not. Gig Ryan phones. We talk about the difficult choice from the list and the year of deaths – her father, Steve Kelen’s father, Tim H.
2003-Aug-24: I’m enjoying being here (Melbourne) but it’s a bit like being in a black and white movie (it’s significant that the Melbourne tourist ads are in b & w). Outside it’s starting to get bitter. Walk to the Malthouse. There are only 9 people at our session. Meet Michael Farrell, then Gig turns up with David McCooey and his friend [Maria Takolander]. The only place we can get a table is under the tarpaulin outside. By now it’s raining and biting cold. Gig keeps apologizing for the weather. H________ turns up, looking (and sounding) quite mad. Says he’s going to be a Labor candidate in [David] Kemp’s electorate. Also that Knopf (US) are considering his manuscript (with Ashbery’s support). Hits on me for money. I pretend not to hear. We escape and go to Carlton and the Università again. We eat outside where wind threatens to blow water in off the awning. Discuss mad poets & editors. L______ apparently wrote David a menacing letter after a non-laudatory review. Michael seems a nice guy. Gig gives me a lift back to the Westin where I collect my baggage and get an early cab via Docklands Citylink (which looks particularly bleak – million dollar apartments in the middle of nowhere).
The alternative to “art for a few” is not one art for all, which tends to degrade and level as it comes under the sway of commercial incentives – but many arts, many poetries. The possibly good intentions of “one art for all” – and the related agendas of clarity, plainness, accessibility – unfortunately tend to merge with the oligarchic marketing imperatives of modern telecommunications, “Keep your message simple and repeat it many times” – a formula that dominates not only American commercial advertising but also political and aesthetic discourse. (The “simple message” is the visible effect of a series of hidden agendas – call them ideologies – that remain obscured.)
– Charles Bernstein, A Poetics
2003-Dec-08: At Wordsmiths café [University of Queensland] the chiselled face of Judith Wright is paired with a quotation: ‘language carving all silence into meaning’. It sounds good, but it’s just wrong. It is sound or noise that is ‘carved into meaning’. Of course sculptors deal with the ‘air’ surrounding their work, but they don’t ‘carve’ it.
[I kept no diary for 2004.]
2005-Aug-29: An article on missing poets and the forgetting of literary history. Is there any longer an Australian literary history? Perhaps, paradoxically, our conservative figures like Murray have erased much of what you’d have expected them to preserve. Who reads Douglas Stewart these days? Or R.D. Fitzgerald? Or several others considered important once? Fitzgerald is actually pretty awful. But Stewart’s ‘Birdsville Track’ poems are good. And then what about those others you’d once get in anthologies who maybe wrote a handful of readable poems (Brian Vrepont)? Who even reads Judith Wright now? Slessor has survived. Not much else.
2005-Aug-30: I thought of this when old journals (1968) mentioned Frank Kellaway reading at Monash. Not a ‘bad poet’. But will he ever see print again?
2005-Sep-28: Notes for [Sydney Writers’ Festival] reading: Some talk about ‘difficulty’ and ‘audience’ – a kind of defence of ‘where you write from’… and how you can’t depend on any assumptions about an audience’s knowledge. The ‘accessibility’ disputes, ‘how Australian is it?’ &c. Nationalism as rhetoric; globalism as ‘reality’. Does poetry have to be ‘national’ to make up for the fact that in all other respects things here are transnational? We have to be careful about wanting our writing to reflect ‘who we are’. Quite often the writing that gets picked up for supposedly doing this is really more about who we like to think we are.
2005-Oct-26: Maybe the distinctions made between ‘language’ poetry and the other ‘left behind’ types of poem come down to a distinction between the ‘occasional’ and its assumed opposite (for which there can’t be a term – it is, like ‘whiteness’ an assumed norm). Langpo is distinctly not ‘occasional’. But what if poetry is, even at its ‘deepest’ levels an occasional practice (which I think it is). Where does this leave the Langpo proselytisers? Of course, being ‘occasional’ is no excuse for the types of poetry produced in writing schools.
2006-Feb-27: If I were asked whether poetry was ‘fiction’ or ‘non-fiction’ I’d answer ‘neither’. This is precisely what’s special about it. It’s also why poetry doesn’t benefit from the contemporary distrust of fiction (as evidenced by ‘reality’ television, literary fraud, false memoirs &c).
[At the end of September 2006 we moved to England for Rosemary’s position in the Law School of the University of Kent, living firstly on campus then, in February 2007,moving to permanent residence in nearby Faversham.]