Can Poetry Be Happy?

By | 1 September 2023

There aren’t many scholarly articles, which surprises me. I click on a few which open into new tabs. One hit is for an e-book called Larrikins: A History, in which my search for ‘Corey Worthington’ gets one hit. Corey appears with his mates in a greyscale reproduction of a photograph that was in the newspapers back in January 2008. I write an iPhone Note: ‘Larrikin as Limit: the Poetics of Corey Worthington’, and close my Notes app.

* * *

Corey Wakeling writes in the ‘Afterword’ to The Alarming Conservatoryof his eight-year-old self ‘smiling the world away’. I could write an entire essay about this poem alone. The fading love heart of my cappuccino fizzles in the cafe’s ambience I try to lean into. I’ve been biting my nails since about grade one. I started because the girl I had a secret crush on bit hers. I noticed one afternoon class, maybe summer, and began immediately. This girl, like me, had thin brown hair and freckles dotting soft white Australian skin. I never told anyone about this crush – I didn’t have that sort of relationship with any of my peers, and actually I still don’t. I was a vague and idle child, not very sociable. At night in bed I used to imagine us living together as adults, our neat and organised household, what we would have in our fridge. It pleased and calmed me. I don’t know when these fantasies stopped, or what they were replaced with. I’m sitting at a cafe in Fitzroy thinking I would like to feel – really feel – a sense that I am lucky to be alive. They bring me a sandwich, cut in the shape of a love heart. It’s less a sandwich, more beef and bread; this doesn’t really matter but it could. I am saying it is dry. But anything on this plate will give me time, which is all I ask. And objectively I am lucky. It’s like in White Lotus S2, Portia goes, ‘Yeah, the world’s a fucked-up place’ and Jack goes, after a pause, sincerely I think: ‘What’s wrong with it? […] We’re fucking lucky, we’re living in the best time in the history of the world on the best fucking planet. If you can’t be satisfied living now, you’re never gonna be satisfied … So, let’s get pissed, ey?’

* * *

Corey Wakeling writes of anxiety in a way I am trying to understand. It hurts to wrap my head around it; it’s like wrapping your head around something hard and indifferent, like a pole. This is true of his poetry generally – especially the bulk of The Alarming Conservatory– as much as his reflections on anxiety therein.

Anxiety does well to refer to itself as per norm (‘Agora, Arcadia’)

The hand here admits it feels every newcomer
approaching. That’s one definition of anxiety. (‘Odes to Parkville’)

[...] Due anxiety 
returns to due entrepôt, preface, like gravy on chips 
at the sports carnival (‘Reactor of the Tiny Minutes’)

[…] It is a cold anxiety
that two families ruin in Melbourne’s north.
The children will pay for this with surfeit information (‘Reform’)

In his Westerly essay, ‘Anxiety and Antigone: An Introduction to Gig Ryan’s New And Selected Poems’, Wakeling considers the anxious subject of Gig Ryan’s poetry: ‘those for whom belonging to the iniquities and legislations of the present is unbearable and becoming impossible’. Anxiety in Ryan’s poetry, he notes, is at once: a ‘lucid sensibility’, a ‘launching pad for critique’, and a source of humour. In other words, it gives the subject power. At the same time, it is ‘a symptom of negative forces’ which ‘stifle’ and ‘arrest’ a subject prone to ‘delay, vacillation and mourning’. In other words, weakness. Quoting from her poem, ‘Lines Written During a Period of Insanity’, Wakeling says that anxiety for Ryan is ‘massive claustrophobia’. He explains: ‘a space of critical analysis, positioning the ‘claustrophobia’ of the self within the ‘massive’ uncertainty of the present’. Finally, anxiety ‘appears to be a mode of propulsion towards a space beyond visibility on state-organised terms … [and?] a mode for the survival of thought in the cultural desert of the present’.

Anxiety is, in sum, a state of ‘inaction’, but inaction built on the powerful capacity to ‘criticise [one’s] own subjective foundations’. It is somehow (also?) connected to transcendence of being seen on state-organised terms. Is that what poetry, or avant-garde art is and/or does? A refusal to be understood? And the inherent critique that this refusal gesture entails? Like gravy on chips? Hahaha …

* * *

It’s RhymeTime at Fitzroy Library. I’m sitting amongst the ‘Fiction’ and ‘Arts’. Australian Poetry, about one shelf’s worth, is here under Arts. The wheels on the bus go round and round. A young and beautiful punk mum follows her two-year-old outside. My burden is my body. I take it to different toilets around the city. I fill up water bottles – I save water bottles – and drink water. I call this ‘party methodology’. I let the world in. I go to buy a jumper for the weather and I walk past my psychologist. Could I have a pastry-eating practice instead of a poetry practice? This blackberry danish is so fucking good! Suddenly sweet then the true sourness of blackberries and the salty largesse and crunch of the pastry. It flakes down my front and I notice there are flecks of someone’s dried vomit on my black Acne Studios denim jacket. I wore it to the club and am wearing it again now, discovering fragments of bright, acrid-smelling colour. Here I am in The Lucky Country. I see a psychologist in a shiatsu studio on Brunswick St. I like my therapist. I pay her a hundred dollars after the rebate.

After therapy I go to Coles. I buy a salad as a treat – only if I eat really carefully do I feel good these days – and a nice, crisp persimmon. I want to feel good. I have a handful of messages to ignore when I turn my phone back on. I make my way to my hot desk where there is a spoon to eat the salad with. I sit at the communal HDR student area in Building 9 with my salad of farro, lentil and fig with romesco sauce, and a glass of chilled water. A man named Marcelo sits down, we introduce ourselves and complain about the compulsory class for incoming HDR students we are both taking. When I open Instagram, several friends are participating in a NTEU walkout, a mass of casual academics and tutors marching out of University of Melbourne and RMIT to gather at Trades Hall where there are speeches. Marcelo and I don’t talk about the workers striking. My friend helped organise this strike. He has two phones, one for life and one for union work.

Marcelo is researching food waste in hotels. He is from Ecuador. Six years ago, he got a Masters degree from Melbourne Uni. He says the rental market was not the same back then. The cost of living. He’s nice. I tell him my favourite poet is John Ashbery. Though Marcelo speaks perfect English, I wonder what Ashbery would sound like in Spanish.

lo que pasa es que resbalé en la pastilla de jabón del aire 
y me ahogué en la bañera del mundo 
(‘Pensamientos de una muchacha joven’, translated by El Español)

What happens is that I slipped on the cake of soap in the air
and I drowned in the bathtub of the world! (My translation of the above, not JA original)
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