Robert Wood: A Local History

  Robert Wood

  A Local History:

  Pi O’s Fitzroy and
  Hegelianism after Pound

I can quite see how Australians, the inhabitants of a young country, pushing her way into history, could naturally adopt the exaltation of the will. I can even see how (pagan deities apart) a nation of sunbathers would produce poets who might revel in the… most sundrenched and jolly.[See Endnote 1] — Vincent Buckley

Paragraph One follows: 1:

In Ezra Pound’s oft-quoted phrase that ‘an epic poem is one containing history’, one must ask: what is history? To begin to answer that one might begin by asking: what did Pound mean history to be, particularly in the text this quote is drawn from? And then one could begin to consider: what is history in the poetic register more generally? What is history as a discipline now? And how might they be reconciled methodologically in the present?


Of course, the Pound quote comes from an interview with Donald Hall, published in The Paris Review in 1962. Central to Pound’s view of appropriate historical subject material is:


The struggle for individual rights is an epic subject, consecutive from jury trial in Athens to Anselm versus William Rufus, to the murder of Becket and to Coke and through John Adams… The nature of sovereignty is epic matter, though it may be a bit obscured by circumstance. Some of this can be traced, pointed; obviously it has to be condensed to get into the form.


This is essentially then a Rankean view of history, one that is metropolitan and liberal — money, politics, the law, great nations and great men, murder, war, conquest, kings. As Casillo writes, Pound’s history is ‘masculine, phallocentric and hierarchical.’ [See Endnote 2] However, one need always be mindful that for Pound, this content must fit his form. As he writes:


There has been a good deal of work thrown away because one is attracted to a historic character and then finds that he doesn’t function within my form, doesn’t embody a value needed…. If the stone isn’t hard enough to maintain the form, it has to go out.


Epic then is an interplay between the expression and the material, between an attraction to ‘the spirit’ and its ability to exist in the text. Yet Pound has more to say on the style this historic form should be presented in, stating that ‘one was hunting for a simple and natural language’. Hunting is noticeable here, for Pound talks about his grandfather at the frontier, a ‘natural’ thing, stating:


Well, he got the railroad into Chippewa Falls, and they ganged up on him and would not let him buy any rails. That’s in the Cantos. He went up to the north of New York State and found some rails on an abandoned road up there, bought them and had them shipped out, and then used his credit with the lumberjacks to get the road going to Chippewa Falls. What one learns in the home one learns in a way one doesn’t learn in school.


In this passage the long shadow of that American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, and his ‘Frontier Thesis’, casts its shadow. In that framing, the frontier is what ‘furnishes the forces dominating American character.’ It is ‘the West’, even as a part of the Northeast like Chippewa Falls, that determines what America is — not the Yankee or the Brahmin or the Ole Boy, but the frontiersman, the lone man building that symbol of civilisation (the railway). When read next to Pound’s comments on sovereignty and in light of present conversations about occupation in settler societies, we can ask: what it is to be American or Australian and ‘our’ relationship both to nation and land conquest?


Today the banal expression of consumerist neo-colonialism in both nations manifests as the suburbs. In other words the everyday evil of occupation today is not country (the frontier of the Western Pilbara) or city (Sydney), but the domestic home and private-public infrastructure in between. The suburbs drive political, economic and cultural life despite the lack of acknowledgement in academic discourse around this.


The alienation and anomie expressed post-war, and including institutionally recognised poetry from people such as Gwen Harwood and Paul Hasluck, is due to the distance from revolutionary possibility. In other words suburban loneliness is due to the lack of Historically meaningful political action, which means that there is not only a complicity with settlement but its wanton perpetuation. As Pound writes,


Sixty years ago, poetry was the poor man’s art: a man off on the edge of the wilderness, or Frémont, going off with a Greek text in his pocket. A man who wanted the best could have it on a lonely farm. Then there was the cinema, and now television.


Television as that suburban cultural form par excellence is then seen as a counterpoint to poetry. Both though share their function as either / and / or false consciousness around sovereignty.

Geoff Page, Pi O, John A.Scott, before their airliner flight to the USA, sponsored by the Literature Board of the Australia Council, the Australian government Department of Foreign Affairs, and Lyn Tranter. 1985.
Geoff Page, Pi O, John A.Scott, before their airliner flight to the USA, sponsored by the Literature Board of the Australia Council, the Australian government Department of Foreign Affairs, and Lyn Tranter. 1985.


In contemporary Australia one poet most consciously working in epic as a poem containing history and aware of the conversation of sovereignty is Pi O. This is not only in reference to the most obvious expression of this — 24 Hours — but also his most recent work Fitzroy. Fitzroy strikes even the most casual observer as epic simply because of its physical girth (740 pages).


In the vernacular, Fitzroy might simply be a local history for it focuses on an inner city suburb of Melbourne. One could see in it as post-colonial, anarchist and working class histories as well, to draw on Pi O’s subject position as an author. But in thinking in Hegelian terms, we see that Pi O’s work crosses many types of history. These types include original, reflective and philosophical and all are present in the poem ‘Alfred Deakin’.


The poem reads:


  Alfred Deakin 1856–1919


Houseflies, came to Australia
as stowaways. Lightning causes 16% of bushfires.
Alfred Deakin’s father worked as a Storekeeper (and
a Water-carrier). The Egyptian hieroglyph for
a hundred-thousand, is a tadpole. Alfred Deakin was
born in a house on George St. — Demolished now.
He laid down the foundation stone of the ol’ Fitzroy
Courthouse (when he was Prime Minister (years ago); its [sic]
still there — blasted into the bluestone, and
inlaid in gold. The trowel he used to lay it with, is
now being used by his descendants, to serve / cakes on.
(Later) the family moved to Gore St (near
the corner of Gertrude) — the house had a gentle ‘honey-
suckle’ growing all over the window. His father
started up a coach and dray business (with his wife’s
brother). Alfred (as a kid) would charge / all over the place.
Jerk : twitch, quiver, shake, spasm, shake, quiver;
making speeches, and finishing off other people’s sentences.
He was an excitable kid, excited by everything
: horns and antlers! One hears, piper for paper, and
lie’di for Lady. A ‘d’ is a rotated ‘p’. Burp —ing (*!) has
a relieving function. Wasps (he said) tasted
like pine nuts. All good Actors, have to have
a wooden sword / to charge around with.
Emmanuel Zachariah was fired out of a canon — into Gertrude St. Alfred stood up on a disused dray, and
fought for the Mother-country (under the banner of
William / the Conqueror), and after each battle,
handed out medals, for bravery : to You!, & You!, & — You!.
Once, a man with a bagful of snakes (not the brightest
light-bulb in the circuit) came down the lane  —Silence — a whip (*!) is a fearsome object!
A star * shrinks to a point (when there’s
too much gravity). But proverbs are the wisdom of the Ancients, so he put on plays, for passers-by, and
recited chunks of Tennyson: She left the web /
she left the loom / She made three paces / through the room,
she saw the water-lily / bloom / she saw
the helmet and the plume / she look’d down / at Camelot  —
out flew the web / and floated wide; / the mirror
crack’d / from side to side; ‘The curse has come / upon
me’ / cried / the Lady of Shalott!
The street was a thoroughfare of businesses.
The temperature, 103F. A tired dray, lumbered up the street.
A dog pissed, on a pole, and a fried egg lay on the horizon.
But, when everything is exhausted, and
there’s nothing else out there much to do
‘tis best to just, go back inside, and
      read The Pilgrim’s Progress


For Hegel original history is by historians ‘who have themselves witnessed, experienced and lived through the deeds, events and situations they describe (12). In ‘Alfred Deakin’ this is seen in the phrases that return us to the present and remind us that Pi O is a witness to Deakin in some particular way. This is demonstrated by the lines: ‘Demolished now.’, ‘years ago’ and ‘now being used by his descendants’


Reflective history includes the reflective, the critical and the specialised. The reflective:


covers more than just those events which were actually present to the writer; it depicts not only what was present and alive in this or that age, but that which is present in spirit, so that its object is in fact the past as a whole. (16)


In other words, it is an overall view and includes summaries of nations not simply detail about individual statesmen. This is demonstrated in ‘Alfred Deakin’ in the lines:


fought for the Mother-country (under the banner of
William / the Conqueror),


In this passage we glimpse the complex and transnational web of relations connected to the military and our present situation. It is then a type of reflective history in the first sense. The second sense of reflective history, the ‘critical’, is ‘the history of history’ (22). It is, in other words, meta. In ‘Alfred Deakin’, this is seen in the Tennyson passage, which reads:


recited chunks of Tennyson: She left the web /
she left the loom / She made three paces / through the room,
she saw the water-lily / bloom / she saw
the helmet and the plume / she look’d down / at Camelot  —
out flew the web / and floated wide; / the mirror
crack’d / from side to side; ‘The curse has come / upon
me’ / cried / the Lady of Shalott!


This is an assemblage technique that samples from the past to comment on the diegetic contemporaneity of the poem. One notices, importantly, the heavy use of the past tense. The final type of reflective history is ‘specialised’. As Hegel writes, ‘it can readily be recognised by its fragmentary and particular character, for it selects a single general perspective from the wider context… it provides a point of transition to the philosophical history of the world’ (23). In this particular poem the opening lines provide us with this type of history, whereby Pi O states:


Houseflies, came to Australia
as stowaways. Lightning causes 16% of bushfires.


The seemingly disparate and disconnected facts, which are a feature of the opening lines in this book overall, furnish us with a fragmentary and particular character while also providing Pi O with the voice of a omniscient narrator common to professional histories written in the academy now.


The last, and best, type of history for Hegel, is the ‘philosophical’, which ‘is not abstractly general, but concrete and absolutely present for it is the spirit which is eternally present to itself and for which there is no past.’ (24). Its presence is keenly felt in the lines:


Silence — a whip (*!) is a fearsome object!
A star * shrinks to a point (when there’s
too much gravity).


In this passage there is, at the level of content, the suggestion of a scientific universalism, a type of universalism that underpins Hegel’s aspiration for philosophical history. What these quotes suggest however is that Hegel’s scheme of history cannot adequately cope with this text, that ‘Alfred Deakin’ exceeds the critical lens that is applied to it. Hence, to categorise Fitzroy according to Hegelian modes means that we must speak back to theory — it is not a case of importation and siloing. What is relevant in Hegel in a discussion about Fitzroy though is the dialectic of poetry and history, a dialectic that could be traceable back to Aristotle’s Poetics, if one were inclined to seek it. History is malleable, flexible, diverse, changeable, just like poetry. Where they are clearly delineated is in their bureaucratic and institutional difference: not only in their formal distinctions. [See Endnote 3]


To return to Pound though — what of a poem containing history? What are we to make of an epic like Fitzroy? The first observation that need be made might be that we are dealing with a project that is epic rather than a single epic poem. Indeed, most of the poems in the volume are one to two pages long and thematically concern things, people, events that do not register on a Poundian scale. In its organisation though, particularly the contents page which resembles an index according to subject, we see something approaching an arcade. This is history well and truly after Walter Benjamin. And from this we can undo the binarism of assemblage and voice.


History is a synthetic activity, an exercise in establishing context from multiple sources, the mode of its synthesis being dominated by voice (in a Rankean model) and frame (in a Benjaminian model). The former is notable for its flatness, consistency, plain speech and aspiration to truth, the latter for its method of construction, polyphony and source fidelity. They are yoked though by their reliance on archive.


Pi O likewise assembles his text as a patchwork but it is a single quilt — the homonymic sees the singular diversity and the multiple unity of the work. The contextually determined understanding of a form, say biography or history, depends on the available material. In other words, how we understand what history is, or ‘official verse culture’ for that matter, depends on the contextual idea of it. This depends on the sociological positioning of that history and our present positions in a field. That means we must counter, in a national frame or even a suburban frame (Fitzroyan), the idea of Hegel’s that ‘the Indian has no history’.


One question might be whether it is possible for ‘Australia’ to produce a ‘great man of History’, which was once an animated way of understanding power and of conducting history as a profession even as it only remains common in populist texts. History has changed but history has too. There is a difficulty of ‘world historical spirit’ ‘here’ when the place and its actors perceive themselves as isolated, disconnected, uncentral.


It is not necessary to jettison the great man argument and replace it with a simplistic anonymous composting sensibility, particularly because both may help us lead good lives. If anything we need to historicise them. In the case of the former this might not necessarily be its undoing, and in fact may allow us to enter into this myopic liberal fantasy more fully with important linguistic and material effects.


In other words wrapped up in the great man approach is the biographical imperative, which encourages questions about individuals, responsibility, influence, perhaps even the shouldering of burdens in contexts that are important for psychosocial and economic reasons.


Deakin himself mattered structurally, literally influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands, and in that way he matters more than many of the other actors who populate Fitzroy and Australian history. Michel Foucault might be right to suggest that ‘power is everywhere’, which means resistance is too, but we can question the relative gravitational pulls, enacted limitations, material outcomes of power in a more traditional, even Hegelian sense.

Pi O, at the "Poetry and the Trace" Conference, Melbourne Public Library, 1982. Photo by John Tranter.
Pi O, at the “Poetry and the Trace” Conference, Melbourne Public Library, 1982. Photo by John Tranter.


For Australia to see itself as Historic one need see frontier conflict as a type of war and not rely on a reified, defining moment such as Gallipoli to shape a self understanding of myth, identity and being. After Pound we must unobscure the circumstance that prohibits the ongoing contest for sovereignty in ‘Australia’ from being seen as epic, and hence Historic.


In that regard Pi O’s own involvement with literally drafting and constructing the city of Melbourne [as a highway draftsman in the employ of the Victorian Government], built as it is on Wiradjuri land, complicates his sense of belonging, authenticity and legitimacy in regard to contemporary sovereignty.[See Endnote 4] This is not to suggest a wanton culpability with the ongoing occupation of Indigenous land, but rather a banal occupation that afflicts too many. In that way, Pi O connects to Pound’s grandfather as a frontline worker in the construction of empire. Fitzroy might be as much his as anyone’s in the language game that is contemporary printed poetry, but one need question the fundamental power relations that enable the obscuring of history as well as its enlightening.


To attend then to the politics of the ‘author function’ would require then the acceptance of responsibility and the realisation that epic poetry may not necessarily be an adequate ethical response to what is surely Australia’s most important Historical question.


[1] ‘Utopianism and Vitalism’ in X, p. 23.
[2] Casillo, Robert, ‘Nature, History, and Anti-Nature in Ezra Pound’s Fascism’ Papers on Language and Literature, Summer 1986, Vol.22(3), p.284.
[3] See for example Greg Barnhisel’s Cold War Modernists.
[4] ‘After university [he] took a job with the Victorian Public Service as a Draftsman where he has worked for the last thirty years. ‘Same job, same desk, no promotion!’ he writes in his bio in Fitzroy Poems. Pi O once confided that being the most senior worker and the least ranked at his workplace he tended to be overlooked, which meant he had plenty of time for his poetry activities and the use of telephones, stationery and photocopy machines.’ Komninos Zervos, Griffith University, 1 June 2004, in Australian Literature 1975-2000, edited by Selina Samuels, which eventually became the Dictionary of Literary Biography: Australian Writers 1975-2000, 7 July 2006, authored by Selina Samuels, Gale Books, ISBN-13: 978-0787681432.

Robert Wood, 2015.
Robert Wood, 2015.

R.D. Wood has previously had work published in Best Australian Poems, Southerly, JASAL, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies and Foucault Studies as well as in various issues of JPR. See his work here.


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