Robert Wood: Country & Western

  Robert Wood

 Country & Western

  JPR 07
This text contains endnotes. Endnote links: If you click on the number in the list of endnotes that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.
The aim of the writer should be as a social interpreter, his realism the realism of the people working, fighting, living and struggling. For a long period, the progressive Australian writer found very little outlet for his work. Literary Australian journals were too busy arguing over the pros and cons of art for arts sake, that outworn hobby horse, to realise that world events were booting in their ivory castles.

 — Dorothy Hewett [See Endnote 1]

Paragraph One Follows: 1:

That poetry is implicated with politics is incontrovertible. [See Endnote 2] As Theodore Adorno writes ‘art exists in the real world and has a function in it, and the two are connected by a large number of mediating links.’ [See Endnote 3] Those mediating links however, the things that connect each to the other, are harder to grapple with. What does the daily life of a protest poet look like compared to a conservative one when both work in a modern university? What poetry does the politician read? [See Note 4]


The heuristic separation of aesthetics and politics is historically seen in the debates around Communism and realism whereby one can have a ‘radical’ politics and a ‘conservative’ aesthetics or a ‘radical’ politics and a ‘radical’ aesthetics (Lukacs and Prichard being iterations of the former; Adorno and Hewett of the latter). [See Note 5] It is far rarer to have a ‘conservative’ politics and a ‘radical’ aesthetics, which is partly why the debates about Goldsmith and Place were noticeable. What this suggests though is that one’s aesthetic persuasions are no guarantee of one’s politics, that the mediating links go in many directions.


Consider then Robin Blaser’s six propositions in regard to what is political poetry. In his essay ‘Particles’ he writes:

  1. ‘The public realm is necessarily political’
  2. Despite the appearance of settlement in our body politic ‘our political thought is dominated by modern revolutions’ from America to China
  3. ‘Our thoughtful concern about revolutionary purposes always revolves around the problem of authority’
  4. ‘The purpose of a revolution is to destroy a rotting body politic in order to replace it with another in which the foundations are laid for freedom’
  5. ‘Freedom is an activity involving deeds and words in a shared public realm’
  6. ‘Life as the highest good is not understood for the enclosure it is, but when it becomes, as ideas do, active in the world.’ [See Note 6]

Two conclusions we could reach from Blaser are that all poetry has a politics and that revolutions matter. We could also ask:

  1. Who is the public? Is that the voting citizenry of a polis? Is it something else?
  2. How might we think of revolutions after the ‘end of history’? How might we consider what is happening in Bejing where there is a different marriage between Communism and capitalism than one that may exist in Berkeley?
  3. What of Foucault’s ‘discipline’ versus his ‘technes of the self’? [See Note 7]
  4. How might freedom be possible today?
  5. What deeds might poets undertake? What words might activists and politicians heed?
  6. What strategies are necessary for making poetry matter in the world?

I do not want to attempt to answer each of these questions, but to orient myself around them. As a starting point, and after Frederic Jameson’s maxim to ‘always historicise’ we might turn to Claude Levi-Strauss when he suggests that ‘history is a fine vocation as long as you give it up.’ [See Note 8] Indeed, it is necessary to always contextualise, particularly when thinking through politics. In that way, we need consider poetry that often escapes criticism.


In thinking through the activities of poets who consider themselves political, and in responding to an oversight of the literary academic record, we might want to consider poetry that is outside the official record. To that end, we need to consider the volk, to think through bush ballads, spoken word, performance poetry as political verse cultures with their own logic and economy. Indeed, for all the debates within the academy there is a tacit conflict with those outside it through the absence of criticism. Tranter and Murray, Kinsella and Adamson, Hose and Page all seem to exist in a pre-determined context without considering a mass of poetic activity that occurs in Australia. This includes Indigenous traditions. These may be dismissed as an object of study because they are ‘difficult’, but we could simply update debates concerning the avant garde to justify their inclusion in the university sector. [See Note 9]


In the Australian context I believe that means bringing poetry that escapes scrutiny into the critical realm as much as it means changing the poetics discourse around accepted texts. As AD Hope wrote in ‘The Activists’ in 1965:

In a sense all great literature makes itself known as such by the overwhelming conviction of truth that it produces: either that enlargement of experience which astonishes us with a quite new vision, or that refashioning of experience which Shelley calls the power to strip ‘the veil of familiarity from the world and lay bare the naked and sleeping beauty’. [See Note 10]


Enlargement and refashioning need happen in our criticism too.


To that end I want to discuss a type of Indigenous song poetry called tabi. Tabi are personally authored, public song poems of the Western Pilbara. They are similar to other forms in other regions including junba in the Kimberley, but they are decidedly their own object domain. These are not songlines and as such there is a very different type of ownership and relationship to sacredness than commonly assumed. They are essentially common knowledge rather than religious understandings and there are relatively few cultural proscriptions in place that prohibit their circulation. This is in contrast to the songs Ted Strehlow discusses in Songs of Central Australia, or even Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines. As the former writes in his introduction, ‘a song is a complete set of verses associated with any ceremonial site and pertaining to the doings of any single mythical being or group of local totemic ancestors’. [See Note 11] In contrast tabi are often reflections on daily life. Donald Norman, for example, has tabi on wristwatches, aeroplanes and station work.


In the published record of poetics, tabi are most well known through Carl von Brandenstein and A P Thomas’ book Taruru. Tabi from that volume have been collected in the Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry, quoted in Final Theory by Bonny Cassidy and taught in university courses. [See Note 12] They are, moreover, part of a well-developed anthropological tradition of song poetry that has been recorded by ethnomusicologists such as Bob Dixon, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, John Bradley, Alan Marrett, Linda Barwick and Sally Treloyn.


I came to tabi through my brother-in-law, who is a Ngarluma man from Roebourne in the Western Pilbara. The first time I went there was in June 2003, and since that time I have conducted research and cultural heritage work in the region with Indigenous owned and run organisations. [See Note 13] One of the projects I worked on was a collaboration with Perth’s FORM Gallery in 2013. Titled Ngarluma Ngurra it was a multimedia exhibition that featured paintings, digital mapping, and recorded poems and oral history from Ngarluma country. Part of the project involved the return of materials collected during the production of von Brandenstein and Thomas’ Taruru. The repatriation of archival material for Ngarluma Ngurra was to the community, including elderly traditional owners. It included recordings of interviews, extra poems that did not make the book’s final cut, material artefacts such as visual art and cultural objects, all to family members of the informant poets. This took place on country and was subsequently re-interpreted as paintings by Jill Churnside to be paired with oral histories by a number of people. This type of song poetry repatriation differs from skull and bone repatriation because of the reproducibility of most of the materials. It is similar though in that communities feel a positive emotional energy from rituals associated with return.[See Note 14] They feel, and I quote Reg Samson here, as though ‘we are getting our culture back’. Central to this was updating translations of tabi for an academic audience. Consider the following two poems:


Racecourse Wharlu


Tabi by Old Tumbler


maya kalinda ngunu warnda yundu mara-la-ngu
(pungu-na) yarra wa ni ula pirrirrda manguna
maya kalinda ngunu
Guran-Guran du pirrirrda manguna
Ieramugadu-la ngarri ma na
bawa-na wa…. Yarra li na


The storm turns back towards the houses
Tearing the trees to pieces, torn
Throwing trees up in the air, thrown
Smashing the houses, smash, pow


It’s coming towards us
The Guran-Guran bird leads the salt-water snake towards us
The rain thunders down through the night
At daybreak Ieramugadu is under the flood.


Tabi Two


Mount Satirist Station


by Robert Churnside


Kangala karnamarna warrimarila,
jurndiri julajula
marnda wangugurrula
puliri karba


From high up I viewed the bare ground
The crevices, recession in diffusion
Towards Narnuna
The mountain in the corner of my view
Seems to have torn to shreds
The rounded contours of its peak. [See Note 15]


If, as Les Murray has written, ‘settled country is the land of the dead’, this work is unsettled and alive albeit rooted and located. [See Note 16] Note the words shredded, torn, tearing, throwing, smashing. Note too the place names Narnuna and Ieramugadu. There is also a different I here, which connects us to the complications of lyric, liberal speaking subjects. Stylistically however, the poems have a sort of plain speaking materialism — weather is central and expressing that in a common sense way is what matters.


This tabi, and a poetics associated with it, enables the transformation of the objective social world because it transforms our mode of literary representation, which rest on expanding then re-interpreting the archive. This does so through the recontextualisation and defamiliarisation it brings by virtue of being. This is because of the historical failure to consider Indigenous poetry within a literary aesthetic paradigm, which is still the case notwithstanding Michael Farrell’s discussion of Ngarla songs in Writing Australian Unsettlement. [See Note 17] In that sense it speaks back to questions of style here, style being never more than an extension of context.


How though should we consider this material? If my conversations with people on country and Stuart Cooke’s Bulu Line are indicative, there is a wealth of ordinary language criticism in Indigenous Australian communities both today and historically, a kind of theory of texts performed in colloquial Aboriginal Englishes.[18] This is to say nothing of the conversations that happen in Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi and Banjima, of the endogenous rituals that suggest a form of autonomy and resistance we must open ourselves out to. This is not to suggest that we mimic Aboriginal Englishes, lest we wear a rhetorical ‘blackface’, or that there are no Indigenous people versed in French theory. It is though about suggesting that our frames of reference, our reading tools, might not so easily serve the same purpose for which they were designed, which is to say we cannot mimic an empirical theory either. Our references and vernacular can’t all be Deleuze, Badiou, Lacan, unless we would all too easily separate our poetry from a suitable poetics. Every new poem deserves a new theory. As Stephen Colliss writes:


poetry’s politics is to be found in where we find poetry — in the communal spaces it becomes a part of, the struggles it has some currency in. [See Note 19]


We need poems then from country within the landmass Australia to speak back to the idea of the nation. In addition we need to begin reframing certain material as poetic and in so doing enrich what constitutes the political as it exists in Australia today. We might start by thinking of Western Pilbara tabi as part of the language games that form our ideologies and worldview. And from that we may grow more conscious.


In this regard John Kinsella’s ‘activist poetics’ provides an analogue of how we might think through the critical work required to engage with this material. People may speak of close reading, or even close listening, but in thinking through the lived conditions of occupation in settler societies such as Australia and America we might want to re-examine some of the revolutionary potential of activist listening, particularly in a transcultural context. I derived this term after repeated criticism from elders up north to just listen to the poems, to engage with the language. I would translate activist listening to be gurlga warrgamarnigu, or ‘ear work’ in Ngarluma. The hybridity of this term derives from Kinsella then as much as it does from Jill Churnside and other traditional owners in Ngarluma ngurra.


The listening, which connects to us as a reading, is a type of critical endeavour when one is faced with a mainly analphabetic culture. If this is what we may call a type of labour, what are the specific ideas of its labouring? That depends on the text and the body of the listener. In other words, no two tabi elicit the same response, and no two listeners respond in the same way, and one listener’s response may change between any two listening sessions. Every new poem needs a new theory every time it is encountered. It might though also imply some differences in how we listen, or rather how we watch the listener, which connects us to the frame of suburbanism as endogenous critique.


We might call this ‘ritualisation’, which is the dehabitusing of daily life, including our own, which is to say the bringing to conscious articulation that which had been congealed. This is listening, and hence literary criticism, as a type of intellectual dance precisely because it is consciously embodied. It might be the habitus of one person, but it is about defamiliarising the habit so we can re-cognise it as ritual and articulate what is happening in the language of the academy. [See Note 20] A cup of tea when we first meet might take on a totemic aspect if our relationship develops into a meaningful one, which is not to suggest that each subsequent encounter cannot also take on this energy but rather to say a good life is aided and abetted by the intentionalising of the taken for granted. In that way what separates ritual from habitus is intention. [See Note 21] That is to say through intention we can ‘speak of interpretation only when one expression of a rule is substituted for another’. [See Note 22] Ritualised rules are the rules we prefer to the habitualised one, which is not to say we reach them through a process of defamiliarisation or recontextualisation, but through intentional action, which is to say intentionalised reflection and their being brought into language. In every case though, ‘an intention is embedded in a setting, in human customs and institutions.’?[See Note 23]


We need not only a critique of all the white supremacist and misogynist poetry, as the Mongrel Coalition, Claudia Rankine and others call for, but also a way of thinking through the ways and means for loggers to ‘become’ poet protestors. In that sense we could add to Tranter when he says, in a common refrain, that he had not developed his voice in his first book to claim we are yet to develop our ears. [See Note 24] Developing our ears might mean listening homonymically to social poetry as it exists as part of Suburbanism in a transnational Left.  Activist listeners are necessary then. They are fellow travellers to revolutionary poets, particularly when considered alongside passive tourists ogling the spectacular. [See Note 25] They provide a mode of engagement, a positive emotional entrainment, a reason, for poetry to be. The central question becomes then how do ‘we’ participate in ‘their’ cause.


Reframing that for poetry we might ask: how do we read these poems on their terms? This is not to suggest one can be on the inside of an Other’s experience and perspective, but that through empathetic openness one engages actively with the text, which is ultimately an interpretive and political act that involves creating community. [See Note 26] It might be one thing to decolonise solidarity then, but we also need to find solidarity in decolonization. [See Note 27] This means there are allies to be found in ways that undo myths based on racialised thinking. In other words, what is to be gained by perpetuating basic identity categories such as Indigenous and white as assumed forms of authentic cultural capital rather than calling into question their very foundations and historical fraughtness? Activist listening suggests this question if only because it is attentive, open and doubtful, and implies that we need think through lived power relations in a historically attentive manner if we are to generate useful understandings.


Poetry, as the research and development wing of language, is thinking at the edge. [See Note 28] It can help us precisely because difficult problems, problems endemic to the frontier that is the Western Pilbara, require difficult language. A self-aware poetry, of a particular social kind, can give us a critique that moves us towards decolonisation in a digital age. [See Note 29] Returning materials, allowing communities control over archives, learning languages in an appropriate way, listening to elders, spending time on country all matter for the society that is to come. To undertake this work is essentially utopian, for in shifting power from traditional anthropological and literary institutions we can find a collaborative project that responds to the ongoing re-presentation of self in everyday life occasioned by the digital industrial complex — this is the self as artificially constructed, as mediated, as disembodied to a degree where performance is inseparable from the real. [See Note 30] In that way realising that the Western Pilbara is globally connected not only through iron ore pathways, but through the online access of cultural resources means we need think through the possibilities of activism now.


In the transnational anti-capitalist activist discourse there is the (common) idea that poetry can comfort us in the diminishing light of the contemporary world. And that may be the case. But specifically we must ask, after Byron Gysin, whether politics is fifty years behind poetry. In Arundhati Roy’s Capitalism: A Ghost Story, which is symptomatic of broader conversations, there are two lengthy quotes from Pablo Neruda, including his poem ‘Standard Oil’. Poetry though, even activist poetry, has moved on since Neruda. The Occupy movement, whom Roy addresses directly in her last chapter, has a freely available online poetry anthology, which, despite being overly moral, offers a newer engagement with the world and word. [See Note 31] Given Roy’s own reticence to articulate what a unifying activist front might look like, we can assume with some certainty it is not the State as it once was for the Communist Party supporter Neruda. [See Note 32] For Roy the State and India’s assorted Communists (Maoist, Marxist, Leninist) are portrayed in a particularly damning light in Capitalism and perhaps only corporations are met with more disdain. In that regard activism has not kept pace with politically progressive poetry.


Poetry, as the research and development wing of language, is thinking at the edge. The fact that very little money changes hands in the poetry industry, that it is a ‘gift economy’ allows it to be a far wilder place for experiment than many others. [See Note 33] It does not have to be about beauty or emotion, and its relationship to capital allows it a greater degree of self-awareness or independence then many other forms. A self-aware poetry, of a particular social kind, as critique not therapy, can give us an idealism that has more chance of being outside the book royalties and literary festivals, the market logic, that so raise Roy’s ire.


The shape of anti-capitalist thought will be decided in part by people versed not only in the past history and present news of activist struggle, but by the utopian spirit of a materialist poetry, despite its scepticism of such a hegemonic, and eminently contestable, idea. Indeed, it is utopianism that seems to be sorely lacking in anti-capitalism at the moment, especially when we compare it to the heady teleological narrative of Capitalism, even more so since the approval of coal-mines, destruction of sacred sites and pervasive mentality about the possible. Onwards and ever upwards go corporations while activism, struggling against totalising narrative, clings to micro-resistances, jettisoning revolution and reformism, abandoning Gramsci’s ‘war of position’ and ‘war of manoeuvre’, hoping against its own hope for a reason to activate. There is hope though if one considers the recent material success of Podemos, Syriza and a whole host of Latino movements as well as Frederic Jameson’s injunction of Lenin’s ‘dual power’. [See Note 34] These may yet coalesce into structural changes that can enable the advancement of a more poetic life. As Benjamin Kunel suggests it is ‘utopia or bust’. [See Note 35] The answer, afterall, ‘is not in our machines but in our politics.’ [See Note 36]

This text contains lots of endnotes. Endnote links: If you click on the number in the list of endnotes that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[Note 1] Dorothy Hewett, ‘New Writing is Vital Force’ in The Workers’ Star, 22/12/1945 in Fiona Morrison, ‘Leaving the party: Dorothy Hewett, literary politics and the long 1960s’ Southerly, Vol. 72, No. 1, 2012: p.37.

[Note 2] See Maurice Bowra, Poetry and Politics; Hugh Ford A Poet’s War; Bernstein, Poetry and Public Policy; Ernst Fischer The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach; John Harrison, The Reactionaries: a study of the anti-democratic intelligentsia.

[Note 3] Adorno, T.W. ‘Reconciliation under duress’ in Aesthetics and politics, p.159, quoted in Mark Berry, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: politics and religion in Wagner’s Ring, London: Ashgate, 2006, p.6.

[Note 4] See for example Senator George Brandis reading bush ballads in Senate Estimates committee

[Note 5] There is though less work performed on radical aesthetics and conservative politics.

[Note 6] Blaser, Robin, ‘The Fire’ in The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006, p.21.

[Note 7] See the differences between Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume One and Volume Two.

[Note 8] Levi-Strauss, Claude quoted in Thomas Meaney, ‘Library Man: Claude Levi Strauss’ in The Nation, 19/1/2011.

[Note 9] See Charles Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[Note 10] Hope, Cave and Spring, p.33.

[Note 11] Strehlow, TGH Songs of Central Australia, Sydney: Angus and Roberston, 1972, p.xiii

[Note 12] Cassidy, Bonny, Final Theory, Sydney: Giramondo, 2014. See endnotes.

[Note 13] I have worked on the FORM gallery shows Ngarluma Ngurra and Once Upon a Time in the West. After the birth of my nephew I was commissioned to write a vocabulary builder and a short story for children (both in Ngarluma).

[Note 14] Collins, Randall. Interaction Ritual Chains, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[Note 15] Reikjaveich, Frank, Know the Song, Know the Country, Port Headland: Wangka Maya, 1995, p.10.

[Note 16] Murray, Les, ‘Recognising the derision as fear’>. See also Michael Farrell, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796 — 1945, London: Palgrave McMillan, 2015.

[Note 17] Farrell, Unsettling, p.xvi.

[Note 18] Cooke, Speaking the Earth’s Languages, p.32.

[Note 19] Colliss, Stephen, ‘On Embedded Poetry’, 7/8/2015,

[Note 20] Bourdieu, Shlovsky.

[Note 21] Wittgenstein, 205, Philosophical Investigations.

[Note 22] Wittgenstein, 201.

[Note 23] Wittgenstein, 337.

[Note 24] Duwell, A Possible Contemporary Poetry, p.15

[Note 25] See Nicholas Powers ‘Why I Yelled at the Karen Walker Exhibit’ The Independent 30/6/14:

[Note 26] Levinas, Emmanuel, ‘The Trace of the Other’ in Deconstruction in Context, ed. M. Taylor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p.356.

[Note 27] Land, Clare. Decolonizing solidarity: Dilemmas and directions for supporters of Indigenous struggles, London: Zed Books, 2015.

[Note 28] Sanders, Jay. ‘Charles Bernstein’

[Note 29] See Andrew Dowding’s work on this in Jacket2

[Note 30] See Frederic Jameson ‘On Utopia’

[Note 31] See Occupy website:

[Note 32] Cooke, Stuart. Speaking the Earth’s Languages: a theory for Australian-Chilean postcolonial poetics, London: Rodopi, 2013.

[Note 33] Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic society, W.D. Halles translation, New York: Norton, 2000.

[Note 34] See Frederic Jameson> and>

[Note 35] Kunel, Benjamin. Utopia or bust: a guide to the present crisis, London: Verso, 2014.

[Note 36] Bernstein, Charles, ‘Warning: Poetry Area’ in Charles Bernstein, My Way: Speeches and Poems, Chicago: University of Chicago, 1999. p.311

Australian writer Robert Wood.

Robert Wood holds degrees from UWA, ANU and Penn. He has delivered lectures at Berkeley, Peking and Mumbai Universities respectively. Wood will be an Endeavour Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University in 2017. Find out more on:


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