As a young man, I was told that most Australian poets are Left because “it goes with the territory”; that I had to join the Left, or be left behind. But even then I could see that this “territory” was just a refuge for poets who lacked artistic vision, creative imagination and the technical skills that could make something of vision and imagination, had they had any. Defying pressure to conform to stereotype was very difficult, even if it was instinctive, but I knew that I had something original to say and was determined to make a significant poet of myself in the saying of it.
I am now approaching my seventy-fifth birthday. I have achieved my ambition of becoming a full-time, original and professional poet. Original, in that I apply my craft in novel ways, independent of prevailing and derivative practice; professional, in that it’s all I do: read, research, develop, write, publish and promote my Australian poetry, though I have not been able to make a living from it. Few poets can; my wife’s support for the last thirty-five years has been crucial. But it’s a real job in which I have been able to write fifteen books of poetry that are as immediately personal as they are a public contribution to Australian literary culture.
This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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Forming and knowing one’s own mind, however, and acting upon it to produce work that is original to its genre, relevant in its time and popular with its audience can also be seen as a challenge to institutionalised political correctness. Poets who persevere with whatever originality they possess risk being ostracised by peer groups and surrounded with silence. Unsurprisingly then, most poets accept the certainties of approved and pre-digested style and opinion. As Harold Bloom observed in The Western Canon, “Originality becomes the literary equivalent of such terms as individual enterprise, self-reliance and competition”, qualities abhorrent to critics he characterised as “members of the School of Resentment”.
“Any man who is not a socialist at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no brain” is a proverb variously credited to Winston Churchill, Georges Clémenceau or David Lloyd George. But whoever wrote it didn’t quite understand the dynamic: the progression from Left to Right is not solely explained by the wisdom that age accumulates and experience confers. It can happen to anyone at any time and at any age and be simply explained by an individual’s determination to think for themselves. And you don’t need to get old to do that.
Let’s face it: most poets are other poets. Their lines are fishing expeditions in overseas trends, where they find their second-hand sentiments and impoverished images. Rhyme, to many Australian poets, is a mystery, as are the complications of metre. And they seem never to have listened to, or played on any instrument, music that was melodically, rhythmically or harmonically more complex than a pop song.
It is impossible to overstate the consequences of ignoring peer pressure. If you fail to conform, acceptance of your work by mainstream literary journals will be limited and editors may not even bother to reply to submissions. Being published in one magazine can be considered a good reason for the editor of another magazine to ignore your work. Book-publishing subsidies will be unobtainable. And it can also get quite personal-political as well: despite having been sent copies of my last four books of poetry, the Canberra Times, which no longer employs a literary editor and is now little more than a clone of the Sydney Morning Herald wondering why its circulation is falling, did not arrange for any of them to be reviewed. Nor will you be invited to contribute to anthologies of Australian poetry, anthologies that you will only become aware of after their publication. It is that political.
Typical of the genre is the 658-page double-house-brick-door-stopping Contemporary Australian Poetry, published recently by Puncher & Wattman. Edited by the usual suspects, it comes complete with “the inclusion of much dross”, as Louis Nowra wrote in his review in the Weekend Australian on March 4, 2017. He also noted an extraordinary exclusion: love. Would you believe that in the one literary form whose continuity, whose glory, whose prime reason for being has been this subject for thousands of years in both Eastern and Western literatures, he found only three poems in this anthology that dealt with love? That’s three poems out of more than 500 poems from 240 contributors. I cannot accept that the other 237 poets and their editors have never been in love. Or that none of those editors know what love is. It beggars belief that the power of love in relations between the sexes, in the continuing reproduction of humanity and as inspiration for works of art in every genre, can be virtually absent from the verse of such a huge anthology. In ruling out love, the editors have omitted emotion (the only thing the lasts in every art), and ruled in politics (the one thing that fades from every era). “Overall,” Nowra concluded, “it is a safe and inoffensive selection and, as such, is probably a true reflection of the state of contemporary Australian poetry.” Left literary politics is this political. And that boring.
That’s the downside. An upside might be your discovery of “live” verse at a poetry reading that you hadn’t intended to attend, but found yourself sitting in. Perhaps you recall the scene in a late-night inner-city café: the fifty or sixty people sitting at some twenty tables. The waiters ferrying food, wine and coffee between knots of animated conversation. The semi-colon clink of champagne flutes punctuating celebrations at one table, as whirlpools of red wine are poured into Bordeaux-thin wine glasses at another. But most of all you remember how much you enjoyed the metastasising metaphors of the melodious poetry as it filled the café and the entire evening for you and your friends.
I have been in the audience of poetry readings like this. I have also read at poetry readings like that. Looking out over the lectern in a Canberra café more than thirty years ago, I could see, not only the faces of the people listening, but the barman who had just walked into the room, wondering why everyone was so quiet. He had a large beer glass in one hand and, in the other, a tea-towel with which he was drying the glass. And then he stopped drying the glass, leaving his hand and tea-towel in the glass whilst I read my poetry for another fifteen minutes. That is when I knew that I had their unconditional attention; they were enjoying my reading. It’s an enthralling feeling because you seem, simultaneously, to be both occupying the present moment whilst illustrating long and valued tradition, to be creating enduring national character whilst also presenting as an entertainer singing for his supper.
Then, in 1985, I gave a poetry reading at a “Word Festival” in the Common Room of University House at the Australian National University. My mentor, Judith Wright, was in the audience of about 100 people, so I included this account of our first meeting in her house in the bush near Mongarlowe, in southern New South Wales:
Black Sallee (Eucalyptus stellulata)
This was a meeting neither of us would forget: you,
and the poet who wrote and was Orpheus and who looked for,
and saw, that sparkle, that glint in an eye that said:
“Yes; I know that power, still have it and see it now.”
And we shook hands, branches, leaves, pages and words
that all came from the same earth around Mongarlowe.
The Southern Tablelands breeds poets as good as her trees;
who are her trees: “Black Sallee”, you said,
and I saw you olive-green, divided near the ground,
and branching off into a crown which decorated the sky
as you reached up with star clusters of poems
budding up to groups of twenty without any effort at all.
In reading this, I reminded myself of how privileged I was in being “apprenticed” to Judith Wright. Many years later, when the “apprenticeship” had become a mentoring friendship, she would lend me books from her massive poetry library, books that she knew, instinctively, I needed to read in my development as a poet. She also gave me a back-cover blurb or a publication-subsidy recommendation whenever I asked.
It seems to me that Left and Right in the arts have little or nothing to do with one’s reading in political philosophies. This is not how the arts work. One joins the Left in any art, and especially in poetry, for two reasons: the realisation (usually unconscious) that one has nothing original to say, and for safety in numbers. Then, despite a lack of any discernible talent, the prizes, grants, anthology publication and invitations to writers’ festivals will be shared around: “to each according to his incapacity”.
One does not move to the Right. If you are any good, you are Right (and right) to begin with, or very soon thereafter. Everyone else is catching up, is copying your take on what matters as a means of discovering themselves and the wisdom that can flow from acquiring their own independence. Note the paradox here: whilst civilised societies have long recognised that democracy and the rule of law deliver the best management of a nation’s politics, yet it is irrelevant to the ongoing vitality of a nation’s artists. People equal politically are not necessarily equal artistically. You can either write a memorable sonnet, or you can’t; you can either paint a portrait in acrylic, watercolour or oils, or you can’t, and you can either compose music for a string quartet, or you can’t. No system of politics known can change that.
Important as mentors are for budding poets, they still only provide guidance. A muse can inspire a single poem, a group of poems or even an entire book of poems. For most male poets, this will involve women. That said, many poets do manage to “get by” without a muse, but in my opinion, that’s all they do: get by. Note another paradox: the lyric poet, proud of his independence, is being inspired by an “external” influence, the love of a woman (or a man, if you are a woman—or whatever). And that’s the point: a poet in love is beyond the reach of academic theory, of climates of literary opinion and bureaucratic preferences. This is why the “gatekeepers” of publishers’ poetry lists have problems with the manuscripts of such poets: they cannot relate such lyric poetry to anything in their experience that is being published in the literary journals, or in the door-stopping and dross-drenched anthologies.
In the absence of the love of a woman, a poet’s love of landscape could, almost, do. Sort of. I’ve written before on how by living in Canberra one can obtain a national perspective on Australia and Australian literature; set in the southern highlands, Canberra is also and easily the most beautiful of all our cities. Where better, then, to look to maximise one’s chances of falling in love with that person, this city and securing a place in our literature:
Sometimes a siren chases down the darkness,
as Canberra illuminates the night,
as people dress to meet and fall in love
with someone who, like them, would never leave.
Like the need to gratify the passion, the subject of love is inexhaustible. Examples crowd the page: Nellie Melba’s friends and colleagues noticed the extra dimension to her stage performances and the emotion-saturated richness in her singing whenever she was in love. She not only brought her roles to life, but also gave them a plausibility that delighted composers like Giacomo Puccini, entranced tenors like Enrico Caruso, even as it flattered librettists best left unnamed. I characterised her feelings and memories for her in her letter to the Duc d’Orléans, a letter that brought a reluctant, but career-preserving, end to their relationship and the love of her life:
These memories will blood the driest music,
add depths depicting inconsolable grief,
or pitch my exultation unheard heights.
In loving you, I’m able to enhance
my characters as they appear on stage,
and sing their life, or death, with such conviction
that audience suspend all disbelief
accepting song as sung convincing proof.
Recognition of tradition is important and useful. In Delphi, Greece, in May 1970, I visited the (then still accessible) Castalian Spring on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. I had heard about Apollo’s reputed connection with it: bardic inspiration could follow from drinking its waters. Certainly, George Gordon, Lord Byron, drank from this spring believing that the waters enhanced “poetic spirit”. I was twenty-six years old and, much as I loved poetry, I could not be sure that I would never write any: I could not risk not drinking at that spring. Three times I cupped my hands, scooped up and drank the waters. My point is not that I thought that Apollo had done something to the spring, or added something to its waters—I didn’t—but that this was a tradition I knew I needed to have experience of and remember were I ever to reference “inspiration” in any poetry I might later write. (This is not to deny that there could have been something in the water …) Thirty years later I recalled the experience:
Though cold and tasteless, its sparkling freshness,
silver purity and restless motion seemed to confirm
its reputed blessing by Apollo:
“Imbibe this water for bardic inspiration.”
Your love for me was just as free-flowing
You gave without being asked
as I created without reserve
this memory of you, the only Australian woman
qualified to climb Parnassus and advise the Muses.
To say that a particular woman is beautiful tells us very little. All women are beautiful in their own way, in their own time and to their own admirers. But to single one out as “the only Australian woman / qualified to climb Parnassus and advise the Muses”, conveys the image of a woman of extraordinary physical beauty, sharp intelligence and impeccable taste.
Of course, being in love does not guarantee that you will get to enjoy the object of your affection, even when that love is reciprocated. Elegant persuasion written into a good sonnet, though, can add a delightful inevitability to a mutually desired seduction. Pierre de Ronsard famously tried this on with one of the sonnets from his second collection, for which William Butler Yeats wrote an excellent imitation, though not in sonnet form. Here is my imitation of the Ronsard original:
(After Ronsard, II, xlii)
When you are old and sitting by the fire
and reading in my books to contemplate
how much I loved, and loving, did admire
your beauty, not so much admired of late,
a piece of wood will flare-up in the heat,
symbolic of my passion long ago,
and you will marvel how my lines defeat
time’s unrelenting preference not to know.
I shall be ash; by proud winds blown around:
a eucalypt that flowered, fell and burnt,
whilst you, a dowager to England bound,
regret the things that might have been, but weren’t.
How can the well-lived life have other ends
than loving, here and now, one’s loving friends?
You know what love is, but you may not know how love plays out in the perceptions of a poet in love with a woman and luxuriating in her presence. As her eyes sparkle like sapphires in sunlight, her conversation seems to sound like spoken song in a recital that she seemingly presents just for you. And as she combs back her hair with her fingers, her face visibly radiates pleasure as she gestures a thought with one hand and then with the other appears to give you an idea for a sequence of poems, or even the concept of an entire book, the outline of which you spend the next hour frantically writing into your notebook with your fountain pen. (In my experience, poetry flows more freely and elegantly from the gold-plated nib of a fountain pen than can ever be put on paper with the ball of a cheap, throwaway, plastic biro):
Love marinated my imagination
and left me doubly intoxicated,
already drunk on vintages of words:
curated feelings in archived sentences.
I wrote that with a fountain pen.
Why do literary critics abhor humour and verbal wit in contemporary Australian poetry? Are these delights really incompatible with serious, examined and exampled life? Or are such critics simply jealous of, and thus resent, writers who can readily coin and effortlessly apply a wealth of witticisms that are an enduring investment in reader interest? The latter, I think. In one review of my very first book of poetry, The Greek Connection, published in 1977, a critic for a daily broadsheet suggested that instead of trying to be a poet, I could consider a career as a comedian. It seems that he was annoyed by the extensive verbal wit and self-deprecating humour in my book. A year later, in 1978, the book won me the British Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the best first book of poetry, in English, published anywhere in the British Commonwealth of Nations (excluding England) in 1977. This prize scored me a second and more positive review of the same book in the same newspaper by a different reviewer, a feat not equalled, to my knowledge, in that newspaper, to this day. As I am quite a charitable fellow, I ruled out jealously and malice and attributed that first review to a simple case of tin ear, an ailment common amongst amateur poets and amateur amateurs generally. The condition, though not life-threatening, is unfortunately untreatable.
This distinction between amateur and professional is fundamental to all the arts. Professionals, typically, know what they want to do with their art, how they want to do it, have the determination to succeed and the perseverance to do so. Amateurs, typically, do not even know they lack that knowledge and those qualities.
Donald Hall, literary critic, author of some fifteen books of poetry and, at one time, the Poet Laureate of the United States, explored this at length in his brilliant essay collection Poetry and Ambition. “We fail in part,” he wrote, “because we lack serious ambition.” He was referring to American poetry, of course, but the template applies to any literary culture. “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems,” he added, lamenting the generality of poems that are published in America. “They are usually brief, they resemble each other, they are anecdotal, they do not extend themselves, they make no great claims, they connect small things to other small things.”
Such criticism could also apply to contemporary Australian poetry, which is generally amateurish and micro, as opposed to professional and macro. We write very little on a grand, epic and culture-defining scale. We prefer to culture-cringe. It is hardly surprising, then, that our profession is not taken seriously by the general public. A proverbial maiden aunt on my mother’s side once asked me what I did. “I’m a professional poet,” I said. “But what do you do?” she repeated. No answer I could give her was ever going to break this all-to-common Australian mindset.
Christopher Allen’s review in the Weekend Australian of August 25 this year of the work of the Australian artist John Russell summed up this artist’s essentially amateurish attitude. At the time, Russell was living and painting in Europe. Independently wealthy, John Russell could rarely be bothered exhibiting his art for sale or even public enjoyment. This is the reason, Allen suggested, that Russell “does not really make any serious contribution to the history of art”. Allen’s criticism can be applied to all artists and especially poets:
The danger of being an amateur is that you do not develop: for it is only the hard work of writing, painting, composing for a public and for a market, for deadlines, that leads to the growth of skill and confidence.
For all their praise from academic critics who should know better and have never known worse, most contemporary Australian poets, with their forlorn and loveless, humourless and amateurish offerings, might be much happier forming a chorus of frogs and croaking (Brek kekekek koax koax) for our amusement in an English-language production of Frogs, the comedy by Aristophanes.
I have seen Frogs staged in the original Greek (with English-language surtitles). It’s a rollicking romp, a riotous, disguise-swapping, satirical farce that, as a comedy, as a play and as theatre, is more than comparable to anything by Shakespeare. Aristophanes apparently thought that the impending loss of Athens to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War could be attributed to poor Athenian leadership and the weakening of traditional Athenian values. The other great playwrights who might have responded to this crisis, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, were all dead. So, in Frogs, Aristophanes sends Dionysus, disguised as his half-brother Heracles, down into the underworld to retrieve Euripides. The plan is to bring him back to the living to help save Athens by staging tragedy to inspire hope and restore community values.
Dionysus discovers that the long-dead Aeschylus enjoys the status of “best tragic poet” at Pluto’s underworld dinner table. Euripides challenges him for the position. Dionysus arranges a contest for which he is the judge. They trade barbs and snippets of poetry in criticism of each other’s work. Aeschylus is judged to have delivered the “weightier” words and the better advice on how to save Athens. Thus, Dionysus obtains Pluto’s permission to take Aeschylus (rather than Euripides) back to the land of the living. This is perhaps why Aristophanes gives Aeschylus the more memorable lines: “For the children, we have teachers to instruct them; for the adults, we have poets.” Sadly, we cannot entrust our current crop of poets with the instruction of anyone, since most of them write like schoolchildren and cannot be told a thing.
“All poets, if they are any good, tend to stand apart from their literary age,” wrote Charles Simic, a recent Poet Laureate of the United States, in the New York Review of Books, on April 7, 2005. “They either linger in the past, advance into some imaginary future, or live some version of the present that is altogether their own.” An exceptional Australian poet could live and write in all three of these scenarios simultaneously by applying a creative imagination powerful enough to give us authoritative description and imaginative definition of Australian myth within a context of historical fact, add predictive hope for cultural continuity and community aspirations, whilst providing insightful commentary on how presently we live our lives. Only poetry can convincingly do this. All novels, and especially the good ones, are invariably verbose poems that could do with some editing.
Rather than stand apart from their literary age, most of the Australian poets I know, or know of, sit complaisantly in it, appeasing peers and bureaucracies. I knew one of these high-profile, “official” poets. She modelled herself and her work on a well-known Australian poet of leftish inclinations. I once asked her to quote me a line, any line, from his work. She couldn’t. Some ten years later I met her again, this time over lunch in one of those delightful barbecue-your-own-steak watering-hole pubs in The Rocks, in Sydney. Again, I asked her to quote a line from this poet’s work. Again, she couldn’t. “He’s not that sort of poet,” she said. “Exactly,” I replied. What was Australian literature coming to? I wondered. If people cannot recall a single line of a poet when he’s alive, how can posterity be expected to remember his work once he’s dead?
Why do artists create art? Why do I write poetry and compose music? It is not sufficient to say that the poetry flows from my pen (onto paper) and the music from my fingers (at the piano, and then onto paper). I do it because I grow into both Australia and myself. It gives me pleasure to wrap up a feeling about someone or something in the context of contemporary or historical Australia in words intended to instil that same feeling, admiration and pleasure in my readers now and in the future. To do this, I need facts about the person or persons who made, suffered in, or merely witnessed our history. This requires research that deepens my understanding of myself, Australians and Australia. This is how I grew. That is how readers grow. And that is how the Australia that matters grows—in all the arts and all the sciences. Similarly, I capture feeling in music, writing melody with harmony in rhythm and counterpoint to make feeling memorable to myself and pleasing to others.
So what does all this mean? Why is poetry so important? Many years ago, in October 1970, I listened in awe as my hiking companion, a Greek bus driver, stood on a rock on a mountain path near the summit of Mount Athos in northern Greece and declaimed from memory a whole slab of Homer’s Odyssey as clouds swirled around us and fogged up my glasses. Then there was the Greek policeman who quoted lines from the Odyssey as he gave me a lift to recommended back-packer accommodation on the island of Rhodes. People educated in and proud of their literary culture can do things like that.
Australians able to dispense selections of Australian poetry like this can rejoice that briefly they hold the soul of the nation in the palm of their hand. But to do that we need an education system that doesn’t dumb down our literary heritage and its sources in Western civilisation; that teaches, with pride, our legacy of literature in general and poetry in particular, poetry that young people can learn and quote at length to illustrate an explanation or clinch an argument as, having graduated into ambition, they venture into a working life to explore their abilities as they pursue their dreams. Anthologies that include the best of the “bush ballad” work of poets such as Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson through to the more-modern Kenneth Slessor, Alec Hope, Judith Wright and the best of contemporary Australian poets including myself would be indispensable for this.
Australian politicians and government officials who have such cultural competence would be less likely to be cowed by culture-cringing put-ups from locals or arrogant put-downs by foreigners and better able to deal successfully with domestic and international problems that need to be openly discussed, debated and resolved. These would include our obscenely high levels of immigration (without being accused of “racism”); the disadvantageous trade treaties we have a habit of signing (without erecting huge trade barriers ourselves); our propensity to engage in overseas military commitments inimical to our national interests (without upsetting bilateral defence arrangements and treaties); the ability to confront mindless group-think bureaucracies determined to impose questionable conclusions about climate change (without limiting our research into the subject); the childish virtue-signalling of state governments determined to ignore our massive reserves of coal, natural gas and uranium whilst electricity prices rise dramatically throughout Australia (without limiting justifiable research into alternative and renewable energies); the need for drought-affected states to take more interest in the groundwater resources available in the Great Artesian Basin and the Amadeus Basin (without limiting safe gas-fracking exploration); the reluctance to invest in high-speed and other intercity public and private transport infrastructures; the erosion of the rights of free speech and the refusal of governments at all levels to direct their bureaucracies to give preference to, and always buy, Australian-made products.
Four hundred years from now, the only product of our twenty-first-century civilisation that Australians will take any interest in will be our best poetry. Much private property and public infrastructure will by then have been replaced several times over if we’re lucky or, if unlucky, destroyed by natural phenomena or catastrophic regional wars that could, as The Bard predicted more than four hundred years ago, “like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind”.
Poetry is important because it is best able to celebrate the achievements of our civilisation and, enduring for millennia, describe how we lived and loved on this island both continental to itself and illustration to the world, this home in the sun, red sand and sea that we call Australia, because the best of it forms, fuels and lives in our imagination.
Timoshenko Aslanides is a full-time professional Australian poet. His Collected Poems was published last month by Hybrid Publishers.