Cultural Erasure

Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.Bertolt Brecht 

Australian Poetry since 1788, edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray, has been reviewed yet again by Ali Alizadeh in Overland literary magazine. So far, this anthology has been reviewed by Mike Ladd, John Clare, Peter Pierce, John Tranter, Peter Minter, and has been featured on Phillip Adams’s Radio National program—which probably makes it the best-reviewed and most-discussed anthology of Australian poetry ever. The issue dividing the literary community, however, is the editors’ selection of poets and, in particular, the supposed under-representation of indigenous poets.

Peter Minter, Co-ordinator of Indigenous Australian Studies at the Koori Centre at the University of New South Wales, chief investigator for Auslit and the editor of Overland, gave a paper at the 2011 Poetry Symposium held in Newcastle last October, during which he referred to the selection of indigenous poetry in the anthology as an act of “cultural erasure”. This term is repeated on the blog comments after Alizadeh’s review, which includes some interesting contributions from Alison Croggon (theatre critic for the Australian and poet), Jeff Sparrow (Overland editor) and Ian Syson (Overland editor). Alizadeh claims that a list of indigenous poets—including Kevin Gilbert, Jack Davis, Lionel Fogarty, Samuel Wagan Watson, Anita Heiss and Lisa Bellear—were left out because of their race.

Minter’s address was advertised thus: 

Peter Minter will speak on the exclusion of modern Aboriginal poetry from Australian Poetry since 1788 … He will examine how Lehmann and Gray’s marooned neocolonialism (circa 1988) whitewashes the rich tapestry of Aboriginal poetry from its so-called “landmark” vision. As such, and alongside the editorial sanitization of many other non-Anglo poetries from its pages, the anthology will undoubtedly be viewed historically as one of the last gasps of white-Australian conservatism.

Alizadeh goes for the editors early in his review. “Australian Poetry since 1788”, he says, “is not only a collection of some of the more timid and uninteresting poetry produced in this country since British invasion, it also propagates ideological notions that are comprehensively trite and reactionary.” He continues with an unusual attack on Geoffrey Lehmann: 

Is it [sic] disappointing, for example, that a sincere champion of centre-leftist values and Green politics such as Philip [sic] Adams has had no problem featuring this anthology on his ABC Radio National program and praising its editors, one of whom is the co-author of this piece of Global Warming skepticism in the Rightwing journal Quadrant.

Is an anthology of Australian poetry about the poets or is it about the poems? This is the fundamental question. If it is about the poems, then the only issue for the editors is the selection of the poems they consider to be the best poems written by Australian poets. However, if the anthology is about the poets, then the representation of minority groups, races, cultures and genders becomes the fundamental arbiter. That is, the ethnicity of the poets, their race, their gender and so on will be considered before the quality of their poems. Anthologies based on poems may maintain the quality of poetry at the expense of under- or over-representing minority groups or genders. Or you may gather together an extremely representative anthology of Australian poetry which contains bad poems. That the latter has become the default template for anthologies of Australian poetry may be a win for the Left but should not necessarily be something to celebrate, as it represents a triumph of politics over poetics—the art of the poem is subjugated to the politics of inclusiveness.

There is much Australian literature given passage through political imperatives rather than aesthetic ones—everything the Australia Council funds, for example, considers race, age, gender, ethnicity and sexuality before it considers content and quality. So much so, that it is uncontroversial for Alizadeh to assume that Geoffrey Lehmann should lose his credibility to edit an anthology of Australian poetry because he has written a piece of global warming scepticism for Quadrant. Alizadeh, however, has no problem in describing the settlement of Australia as “invasion” or in admonishing Adams for betraying his “centre-leftist values and Green politics” in giving air time to the Lehmann–Gray anthology. Alizadeh’s subliminal text that Australia was “invaded” rather than “settled” is an interesting indicator. He chooses to view Australia from the Aboriginal perspective and thus it was “invasion”—yet from the perspective of whitefellas, it was “settlement”—a convict settlement; invasion was not in their consciousness any more than was “terra nullius”. In banishing the whitefella point of view on this seminal point of Australian history, Alizadeh is also committing “cultural erasure”.

Australian poetry from the 1970s has been overwhelmingly based around left-wing “progressive” politics and poetics. Minter may almost protest too much—as he is the designer, teacher, mentor and “chief investigator” developing modern Aboriginal poetry and literature. He teaches “Marxism”, “Transnational Indigenous Poetics”, “Indigenous Eco Politics” and “Aboriginal Poetics” at the Koori Centre at the University of New South Wales. Why is “Marxism” taught in indigenous studies?—why not “Capitalism” or “Free Enterprise” or even “Free Thinking”—there was a subject called “Clear Thinking” when I went to school. Minter is one of the major architects behind the “indigenous poetics” that seeks publication within the Australian literary canon. Australian anthologies of poetry, therefore, will be the gallery in which he can display the revolutionary poems of his students. Perhaps Minter should have to declare an interest before he accuses two of Australia’s finest poets of “cultural erasure”, after all, according to his website he has, so far, attracted nearly half a million dollars to himself and his projects. As an outsider, all I can see is the vanity of the gatekeepers continuing to write their own CVs.

Aboriginal/indigenous poetic integrity requires authenticity—that is, the work should be written within the culture it claims to represent. It should be written in an Aboriginal language, for example, and then translated if necessary. As it needs to take into account all the lores, rites and traditions of that society, most authentic Aboriginal literature would have been created (not written, as there was no writing) long before 1788. Modern poetry written in English in the Western tradition by Aboriginal people is a different thing. It is Australian poetry written by an Aboriginal poet—it is not traditional Aboriginal poetry any more than my poetry is Irish poetry. If Jonathan Swift replaced his Irish babies with Aboriginal ones and transformed himself from a satirist into a historian, he may have been able to develop the story of the “stolen generations” into a narrative capable of assisting reconciliation rather than one preventing Aboriginal children from learning to read and write. This is a use of good poetry and literature—it enables dreaming, as well as clarity and communication; it does not hinder them.

Modern Aboriginal poetry therefore is a very different genre from traditional Aboriginal poetry, which could also be interpreted as religious song. Barry Hill (former poetry editor of the Australian) referred to the Aboriginal songs of central Australia as the Aboriginal Book of Genesis. Modern Australian Aboriginal poetry has formed around a narrative of sovereignty, land rights, separatism and exceptionalism—its tribal nature has been exploited by a communalism informed by the hard Left of Australian and international union politics—from Frank Hardy and the AWU, to Mick Dodson as the Australian representative on the UN. The politics of Aboriginal literature has consumed other literary pursuits.

Anita Heiss says:

I believe poetry attracts Indigenous writers because it provides a political platform for Indigenous writers in lieu of or in addition to those offered by the more conventional channels for their voice in national political organisations or government infrastructures.

The trouble is that the “political platform” that Heiss wants to whore poetry to, does not always provide the poem to the poet. The muse is a bitch when poets attempt to use her for selfish purposes. For example this poem by Tony Birch, though filled with pathos, does not fully arrive: 

Half Caste

You see me
half black
half white
but never whole

a corpse
torn apart
to toy with
my body—
an “intellectual’s”

you “make” me
my history
and identity

I turn to see
I am decapitated
my body
in gubbah discourse

Neither does this from Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker):

Make us mates, not poor relations,
Citizens, not serfs on stations.
Must we native Old Australians
In our own land rank as aliens?
Banish bans and conquer caste,
Then we’ll win our own at last.

Alizadeh claims that indigenous poets were left out because of their “race”—yet it seems clear by the significant effort made to include a whole section on traditional Aboriginal songs, that perhaps they were left out because of their quality. The most interesting modern Aboriginal poet, by far, is Mudrooroo, and I cannot understand why he is not only left out of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, but also left out of the list of silenced Aboriginal poets presented by Alizadeh. Why is Mudrooroo’s profound knowledge of Aboriginal society therefore doubly erased? Is it because he has been accused of not being Aboriginal? However, to include more indigenous poets because of their “race” (as Alizadeh advocates) would also be “racist”. In the end, poems in poetry anthologies must be selected because of their quality—anything else is open to political interference in search of “equality”, “inclusiveness” or even to silence dissent, and if this is the rationale behind an anthology, I am no longer interested.

As a poet, I am more interested in what to write about than how to write it. Though the “how” is essential, it’s the “what” in a poem that interests me. The “how” must always be subservient to the “what”; if the “how” becomes more important than the “what”, the poem becomes endangered by its own form—by the fashionable code it employs to advertise its poet rather than seek the truth. Where are the Australian poems about global warming “denial”? Where is the body of work challenging the metanarrative of feminism? Why is there not a significant prosody around the notion of “sexuality”? Why is there so much content that could be seen as “misanthropy” or even “misandry”, masquerading as environmentalism, yet little text describing the experience of the “homophobe” or actually exploring the meaning of “racism”? Where is the poetry of the great alliances and profound friendships formed between black and white people in developing the outback and fighting off the Japanese?

The Lehmann–Gray anthology is the very first anthology of Australian poetry I know of which has not been funded by the state—this may be at the heart of this controversy. It has provided a very different perspective on what these editors include in the Australian canon—without the interference of the gatekeepers at the Australia Council. 

I think the Aboriginal people are the soul of whatever it means to be Australian. The narrative of Australia from Bennelong to Pearson is interwoven with the Aboriginal peoples. We have become them at least as much as they have become us—we have infused each other with tragedy and humour, violence and disgrace—with our blood, our traditions, beliefs and dreams—with our literature and art. We have been consistently and deeply (perhaps fatally) attracted to each other. So whatever is the Australian literary canon must certainly contain aboriginality at its heart. We cannot imagine Australia without its Aboriginal peoples, and without Australia, modern Aboriginal peoples could not survive. We are inter-dependent—perhaps co-­dependent—yet the dynamic conversation between black and white is dominated by a narrative that has entrenched a shallow “racism” at its core. “Aboriginal Literature”, “Indigenous Studies” and all the other disparate arms of the Aboriginal funding industry are all paid for by the Australian taxpayer on the basis of “race”. Though we may have decided that positive discrimination in the case of Aboriginal people is warranted, we may not yet have envisaged the dramatic effect it may have on our literature and on our freedom of speech.

Where are the Aboriginal poems exploring the concept that “the land owns us”? Where are the questions that Aborigines ask of themselves in the chaos of the modern world? Where are the descriptions and explanations of that traditional song language written in the Western tradition—the psalms written in poetry? Where are the landscape poems through Aboriginal eyes—the “Tula Pintubi” poets? What we have in poetry by Aborigines is mainly revolutionary war cries or descriptions of despair—victimhood, white guilt and J’accuse—written with a black American accent.

We also need Aboriginal literature to dare to take hold of some of the more controversial aspects of the black–white divide—such as “Aboriginality”; the extraordinary attack on free speech against Andrew Bolt; the fraudulent claims of Aboriginality and other things in Tasmania; the real story behind Rabbit Proof Fence—with something a little more considered and solid than a flood of revolutionary Marxist aggression as exemplified in Anita Heiss’s Am I Black Enough for You? or in accusations of “cultural erasure” by Peter Minter. “Racism” is a moveable feast. In multicultural, inclusive, fashionable, middle-class, literary Australia, the whitefellas are not the ones who are playing the race card.

In a discussion on the Overland site, Alison Croggon comments on the Lehmann–Gray anthology. She says that Alizadeh

is correct to note the careful filleting of a crucial tradition of Australian thinking out of the selection (the selection from Dorothy Hewett only being among the most marked). The insistence that poetry is apolitical, a contextless aesthetic object, is the predictable cover for the overt reactionary politics this anthology expresses. 

The “tradition” she is referring to is the left-wing/communist tradition—for example, Hewett’s poems in praise of Marxism were not selected in the Lehmann–Gray anthology—creating a different “context” in which to view Hewett’s work. However I do have some sympathy with Croggon’s second point about the way more conservative poetry editors seem to view the poem as an “apolitical, contextless aesthetic object”—there is truth to this. I have personally found much of my own work wedged out as being too political for conservatives and yet lacking the left-wing essentials (such as global warming alarmism) that Left literary editors such as Alizadeh demand. I have come to the understanding that “poetics” may really just be politics in code.

Finally, Alizadeh explains some of the other stylistic concerns he has with the Lehmann–Gray anthology:

Nor is there much that can be praised about the awkwardly handled simile in the last stanza of Vivian Smith’s “Tasmania”. One would’ve expected that our editors, the self-identified connoisseurs of classical prosody that they are, would have desisted from including a poem in which “the hills [are] breathing like a horse’s flank”.

The association between hills and a horse’s flank is semantically very weak—one does not ride, breed or race a hill; hills don’t canter, trot or gallop; they don’t have manes or fetlocks, etc—and visually clumsy and unintentionally absurd. (One could safely assume that absurdism was not a poetics practiced by the poem’s author and conservative Quadrant literary editor.)

This comment reveals the dour conservatism of “progressive” poetics.

“Cultural erasure” seems to be a Minter phrase which can be translated as meaning “literary genocide” without actually using that much maligned word again. It is being used as a threat against those who might disagree with his project to create a new Aboriginal literary canon, written by Aboriginal people in the Western tradition, with a mandate to be included in all Australian poetry anthologies as a matter of “race”. I prefer to view this sort of poetry—poetry written around Aboriginal/indigenous issues—as a separate but similar genre to other Australian poetry written around various “liberation” causes. In the long run, it will be the poetry that will define the genre, not the poets. If you try to do it the other way around—then you are, by definition, being racist. The challenge for Minter and those who wish to develop the genre of modern Aboriginal poetry, is not to create racist and exceptionalist pathways for its publication, but to develop its quality and style—its mood, its context, form and content—to a point where the work enters the Australian literary canon under its own authentic insistence.

Modern Aboriginal poetry must find a way to liberate itself from its politicisation and in particular the Marxist fundamentals that have entombed its narrative. Minter needs to do no more than Geoffrey Bardon did at Papunya—provide the poets with the skills and abilities to stretch the canvas, gesso it, mix the paints and apply them. They don’t need to be told what to paint. Marcia Langton may be better suited to poetry then she is to politics. She has the mind of a poet and often writes like a poet—she is prepared to wander about sometimes within the metaphysical world, on the edge of logic; this is the country of the poet. Gurrumul Yunupingu is another modern Aboriginal poet who deserves attention—particularly so as he continues to sing and write in his own language.

The traditional Aboriginal poets who wrote the original song language cycles are not known, because these songs were written by the spirits, not men. So we have the poems but not the poets. Aboriginal people could not have maintained faith in these traditional song cycles if they thought that the words had been written by mortal men. This is a profoundly important belief that has the possibility of transforming the Western tradition of Australian poetry. Imagine an anthology of Australian poetry with only the poems and no mention of the poets. How would Australian poetry look if there were no poets, just poems written by the animals and the trees—the “country”? What is important—what do we value—the poet or the poem?

Patrick McCauley has been reading, writing and performing poems since 1970. He is also a frequent commentator on Aboriginal issues.

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