Commentary

Anti the Anti

To solve big problems, you have to be willing to do unpopular things.
                                                                                     Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler 

Last year when Quadrant began publishing my poetry regularly, I started getting a few irritating messages from friends asking me why I submitted work to this “right-wing rag”, as one fellow poet called it. Other writers I knew said they would never submit poems to Quadrant. A wife of a well-known poet cautioned me against getting too attached to the Literary Editor, Les Murray, warning that one day he would “turn on me” and that he was a bully.

At the time, I was blissfully unaware of not only Quadrant’s controversial reputation but also of the infamous “poetry wars” of the late 1960s where there was a great split into two diverse camps of word-believers. I arrived in Australia in 1979, well after the stoush, and my first impression of Australian verse at the time was coloured by an early experience at a reading I attended at Montsalvat. A poet who had been reciting become so irritated at another poet in the audience who had been talking throughout and heckling him that he walked off the stage and punched him in the mouth, knocking some teeth out. This poor heckler walked around the grounds bleeding at the gums and looking like a whipped dog, almost begging for sympathy.

When I lived in the States, my favourite poets had been Rilke, ee cummings, Whitman, Auden, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and May Swenson—poets whose work elevated the soul and evoked grace and beauty. Here in Australia, I was introduced to a poetry of the gutter, in the name of the avant-garde. Charles Bukowski was the King Bum. Poets prided themselves on braggadocio of grit and grime, bragging of time served in boys’ homes, jails and prison—H Division of Pentridge was the Holy Grail—and sporting Hemingway-style reputations for being drunk or addicted to something or other and proud of it and disruptive of any kind of art event they might find themselves at. Not the kind of person I respected much then—or now.

It took me almost twenty years to jettison this early inaccurate assessment of the state of poetry in Australia. Partially a new appreciation—and what I have now come to view as an almost current Golden Age for Australian poetry—was due to my discovering the eclectic yet bush-earthy work of Les Murray and dozens of other excellent writers who did not subscribe to a pseudo-streetwise poetic lifestyle. So my first submissions to Quadrant were to its Literary Editor, Les Murray.

It took me a few months, after I had begun to see my own work in print, to figure out what Quadrant as a magazine was actually about, as I did not make a habit of reading political magazines. I can now say that reading Quadrant taught me how to read and enjoy and learn from this kind of writing again.

I disagreed and still do disagree with a good deal of the content. I have always considered myself firmly Left (whatever that means any more). I was very much anti-Vietnam and very vocally anti-Iraq War. I was a physical activist during the George W. Bush administration in the USA. But I was still almost hypnotically drawn to reading the challenging articles in Quadrant—rather like the way we are fascinated by naughty behaviour in children—and it started forcing me to think harder by confronting me with well-argued, seemingly “politically incorrect” points of view. Reading Quadrant taught me to think anti the anti. 

So I decided to examine an issue of Quadrant from cover to cover and make extensive notes on what was actually inside this controversial “rag”. I wanted to measure the right-wing bias for myself, because I certainly enjoyed reading the poetry and there was a lot of it.

I took a copy of the April 2011 issue with me to the bush and dug in. It consisted of 127 pages, printed on recycled newsprint, comprising: seven letters to editor (three pages); ten assorted essays on: the Australian Financial Review, the internet, the Liberal Party, government prevention of natural disasters, global warming, international law, the American Civil War, the Tasmanian devil, Richard Dawkins and religion, terrorism and the Greens (fifty-three pages); one essay: a short bio of a novelist (two pages); one essay: review of an art gallery (four pages), three essays: on poetry and poets (thirteen pages), ten book reviews (thirty-four pages), one film review (two pages), two short stories (eight pages); and twenty poems (sixteen pages).

The impressive list of guest writers included:

Michael Wilding—novelist, for many years the Australian editor of Stand, the UK quarterly edited by Jon Silkin and Lorna Tracy, introducing the work of Robert Adamson, Peter Carey and Vicki Viidikas to the UK. Founding editor, with Robert Adamson, of Paperbark Press.

John Whitworth—English poet, winner of the Cholmondeley Award.

Clive James—Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet and memoirist.

Geoffrey Luck—journalist, radio and television reporter, foreign correspondent.

Michael Kile—MSc from Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, BSc (Hons) in geology and geophysics from the University of Tasmania and BA from the University of Western Australia.

Wilson Tuckey—represented the West Australian seat of O’Connor for the Liberal Party in the House of Representatives for thirty years.

Geoffrey Lehmann—poet and former chairman of the Australian Tax Research Foundation.

Peter Farrell—founder and Executive Chairman of Resmed.

Dick Warburton—Chairman of Westfield Retail Trust and former CEO of DuPont Australia.

Wolfgang Kasper—writer, Emeritus Professor.

J.J. Spigelman—Chief Justice of New South Wales.

Mervyn F. Bendle—Senior Lecturer, History and Communications, James Cook University.

Michael Evans—ADC Fellow at Australian Defence College, Canberra and former head of Australian Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

Sophie Masson—novelist.

Dr Andrew McGee—Lecturer in the Health Law Research Program, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology.

Dennis O’Keeffe—Professor of Social Science, University of Buckingham, editor of the Salisbury Review.

Robert Murray—historian.

The poetry editor was Les Murray, of course—and the guest poets in this particular issue were: Jamie Grant, Myra Schneider, Russell Erwin, Carmel Macdonald Grahame, Derek Fenton, Leah Hobson, Jennifer Compton, Karen Throssell, Stephen McInerney, Leon Trainor, Donald Mackay and myself. Since then, I have discovered that some of the other acclaimed poets who have published in Quadrant in past issues fall on both sides of the right–left divide. 

My political analysis of the content: Arts, opinions and letters with either no or neutral left–right political bias, 111 pages (88 per cent). Conservative views, essays and opinion, sixteen pages (12 per cent).

I know that these percentages are not representative of every issue of Quadrant, but I found it amazing that an issue of this poetic and literary intensity would not be embraced by the very critics of the magazine who so vocally and rabidly put it down. Wouldn’t it make sense that the loud opponents of Quadrant should have said: “That’s the idea! Bravo!”—if this is the kind of mix they wanted in a monthly magazine? After all, every parent and business leader knows that good behaviour has to be reinforced—you cannot expect initiative and leadership from children or workmates in response to perpetual negative criticism. The April issue deserved positive reinforcement even by its harshest critics, yet I could find not a single word of praise from them.

Something I have observed over the years, and a paraphrase of something Max Planck, Nobel Prize-winner in Physics, once said: one’s worst critics will go to their grave with their fixed opinion of you. Nothing you can do, no matter how skilled you become, or recognised or acclaimed by others, will change their paralysed view of you, which lies somewhere in the misty past, based on something or other you did long ago.

But those old stagnant minds finally pass away and their dogmatic beliefs with them. The next creative generation comes into the public arena with new inquiring and unbiased thinking and is able to discover your work afresh and without bias.   

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