Between Virtue and Innocence: In Defence of Prose Poetry

By | 1 February 2001

Why there is such a dearth of support for prose poems, poetic fragments and tableau fiction in Australia is perhaps best approached with a statement about the beginnings of visual art in this country. Bernard Smith opens the first major study of Australian art, Place, Taste and Tradition, with ‘In older countries art has usually been, at its beginnings, the handmaiden of religion, but in Australia it first waited upon science.’1 An analogous observation might be made of Australian writing. It is remarkable that our earliest poetry is dominated by narrative verse with a strong leaning toward quickly cultivating a folkloric tradition. Romanticism had made of folklore artistic content as the Græco-Roman myths; by appealing to local lore, the poet was able to stress his tie with his immediate place, and the continuity of his voice to that of the many, which folklore, as an inheritance of illiterate groups, enshrined. Hence, with the aim of fostering a language which could be shared, epic and lyric on one hand, the radicality of prosodic poetry on the other hand, had no place. And it is only in the last twenty or so years that the greater urbanised reading public do not feel the same urgency as before in having to read about the country which it does not and is indeed disinclined to inhabit. Nevertheless the comfort of reading about ones place instating a history and making up for lost time, has left a vast hole in Australias artistic habits which are loath to nurture this form except in literary journals and quarterlies. For the genre of the fragment is not necessarily experimental in the use of the term to mean opaque writing for specialists, though it is branded as such, despite the continental tradition of this approach and continued use of this form by eminent exponents such as Deguy and Ashbery, and by many younger poets in Germany where formal lines are increasingly, as Baudelaire had wished, suppler.

I will end with a recent work by Nicolette Stasko who, with David Brooks and Gail Jones, is among the leaders of this form in Australia. In all three writers the debt to Continental Romanticism leading up to Symbolism is well evident. All have a strong tendency toward the visual and in some cases, the oneiric, yet there is a notable development in the visual referent for all three writers in that, while all three appear to be deeply moved and influenced by all forms of painting as well as the decorative arts, there is now the overwhelming presence of photography, as if they had kept the form and genre up-to-date since the end of the nineteenth century. It is a presence ubiquitous not exclusive to this form: John Ashbery’s extraordinary Three Poems are more like poetico-philosophic ruminations, fluctuating between declamation and mellifluous inner mumbling, and Deguy works more with the tension between the concrete force of words and sounds and their meaning as the successor to the examples of Mallarmé, Jacob and Apollinaire.2

Contrastingly, once the cover of Stasko’s most recent book, The Invention of Everyday Life is closed, and one looks up from the words, one feels as if one has just read a photo-essay. It is a Spleen de Paris but anonymously suburban and without the spleen. It is a prose composition of a female flaneur (though her protagonist is in fact male) in what could be any Australian city, and her mundane prosaic observations are about whatever one goes about in living; living at its most elementary: walking, shopping, staring out the window, passing people on a bench; what occurs when one passes someone more than once, and so on. Its art is not only in what is observed but the skill with which the entire book is assembled, like installing a large photographic suite in a difficult, demanding, at times inhospitable exhibition space.

The preface bears this out. It tells of a mildly strange and solitary woman photographer. It is as if the authors verbal visions are what is lasting of what the author herself saw as lasting, the eccentric photographers pictures, plastered randomly in the dusty window of her ‘modest studio’. The author/narrator is ‘intrigued’ and follows her, first unobtrusively then to encounter friendship. He is given a keepsake before her death. Shortly afterward the narrator convinces the photographers sister, arguing to her that they will only sit around and deteriorate, to surrender the copious, disordered remainder of the photographs — ‘It was difficult to believe that anyone could have produced an enormous quantity of work that, from what I could tell, nobody had ever seen.’ The reader of course never sees them and the author professes to inhabit them, colonising them verbally, travelling through them as a guide and the fragmentary character of the rest is revealed to any sensitive reader:

Inevitably, as with a doppelgänger, our two personalities merged, one a shadow of the other, inhabiting the same places, sentences, words, images. After long hours there were times when I began to be unsure as to which of us was myself and though I have attempted to be scrupulous in the following, I have no doubt that it contains (and reveals) almost as much of myself as of her. And always, as long as I stayed in that place [the place in which the book is set], something clamoured to be added, I make no apologies for this. 3

The narrative, if it can be called that, better a constellation or archipelago, describes a double search. The first, the narrator’s self-assertion within a sphere of existence which is largely inconsequential; the other a hypothetical tracery of hunches and suppositions based on a medium which is of her own; to make relevant, to consummate perhaps, the images which would have been discarded or would have moulded away, or if preserved, whose meanings would have dissipated as all precise meanings do. Stasko’s narrators effort of twofold restitution does not, she/he knows, restore anything. The success of the book is, paradoxically, to register the opposite. Exploring the small moments through and between these photographs, as he jitters between a morass of partial records, petrified moments, the minor and paltry deaths which are photographs, the narrator intercalates into them his own transient (verbal) records only to confirm despite this twofold gesture of preservation that there is still alienating chaos in the midst of order-making art. Art may be order prized from chaos maybe. The terse and nimble violence of the fragment is a concession to the order which art must have but, by ripping it slightly apart, it leaves room for instability and with it, a dangerous liveliness.

  1. Bernard Smith Place, Taste and Tradition (1945) Oxford U.P. 1979, 33.
  2. John Ashbery, Three Poems (1970) New York 1989; Michel Deguy, Poèmes II, 1970-1980 (Tombeaue de Du Bellay, Jumelages, Donnant Donnant), Paris 1986.
  3. Nicolette Stasko, The Invention of Everyday Life, unpublished manuscript, 1998, 7.
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