Is Contemporary Australian Poetry Contemporary Australian Poetry?

1 March 2017

Suburbia suggests the unresolved problems of Australian self-consciousness. In fact, today’s neo-colonial divisions of city and country – of civilisation versus nature, or intellectual life versus the vernacular, or revisions of Athens versus Boeotia – often emerge out of a popular imaginary held by a decentred suburban public. Consider that when Tony Abbott reached for cultural legitimacy as Prime Minister, he reached for mid-century Anglophilia to centralise a view of cultural heritage. Knighthoods offered a civilising possibility entangled with Anglophilia so ridiculous that, where the British sensibly knight popular actors these days, Abbott thought to knight an existing member of the royal family. When John Howard reached for legitimacy, he reached for a protectionist national idea, developing a kind of Fortress Australia politics reminiscent of the White Australia policy which involved a centre defined by the exclusions of an insoluble perimeter. Mateship was under siege, he suggested – the most rustic of white Australian ideas, drawn out from a sanguine loam of melancholy men. Neither Prime Minister could call on historico-material conditions of our immanent suburban cultural predicament with confidence, nor appropriate ideas from contemporary environmental or socio-political critique of this predicament (often lying on the left). They reached instead for colonially-informed ideological loci. Is Canberra Australia’s most paradoxical city? It is the country’s most cosmopolitan city, teeming with temporary, unidentifiable persons of the country’s professional realm, and yet its most suburban. The ACT, and parliamentary ideas drummed up before it, can be found in the suburbs too, even if Federation was declared in a great urban hall. Jennifer Maiden writes that, ‘(t)he future of the Australian state wasn’t decided in the Melbourne Club but in the conversation and imagination of Chifley at Bathurst’ (124). Bathurst – spiritual home of the bloody Australian car. Circling an enclosed track, that is.

Indeed, nation-building designs for Australia in the twenty-first century and earlier have been suburban projects, generalising town and regional qualities, incentivising investment, usurping resources, and homogenising environments into flattened, isomorphic curves and cul-de-sacs. In the suburbs, there is no public sphere. Instead, space for commute, access, security, and liquidity override community welfare. Suburbs today segregate us and bind us to the mostly bourgeois cultural indexes that constitute Australia’s tentative and spectral public sphere. In this way, projections of the Australian public sphere constitute a perversely heightened global imaginary, tenuously imagining a spatially-deferred communal presence.

Transforming the mid-twentieth-century suburban condition arguably came with the appearance of Australian poetry’s most debated figure, Ern Malley, a suburban creature. Scandalous hoax poet, robot, exquisite corpse, false angel of Max Harris’s avant-garde, cursed demon of anti-modern pair, Harold Stewart and James McAuley, grew up in Petersham, what in the 1940s would have felt distant from Sydney’s city life (Malley 2002, np.). One of Australian poetry’s most memorable lines, written as a parody of modernist poetry, equates Western Australia’s state animal with trespass: ‘I am still / the black swan of trespass on alien waters’ (np.). I associate black swans with the suburbs, although the suburbs are not their likeliest habitat. The reason is that one of my earliest memories takes places on the shores of Lake Monger in the suburb of Wembley in Perth, Western Australia, black swans with determined faces snapping at my outstretched hand and me retreating. For this reason, Malley’s miraculous final line from ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’ has always sounded superbly and self-consciously Australian to me. The line finishes an ekphrastic global adventure of a poem returning, at last, to an undeniable ontological problem of being an Australian creation of ‘trespass’. Imaginative, forever posthumous, eternally controversial, and resentful, Malley constitutes a limit point in modernism born of the suburbs. Malley manifests a mascot of suburban irresolution, and an insoluble issue for contemporary Australian poetry. In fact, the black swan of trespass, Malley’s badge and legacy, never what Malley’s designers Stewart and McAuley intended, designates the contemporary which emerges in suburban Australia. Malley never belongs to any time, but marks the appearance of the effervescent breaking from time and the hermeneutic punt of poetry. Not Dawe, but Malley is our most suburban poet – in plain sight and obscure, irrational, worldly, spoilt, and dreaming of Dürer and Innsbruck.

In the wake of the Malley scandal in the 1940s and 50s, embarrassed by a modernist orientation associated with gullibility and cultural naivety, but also a tradition-conscious vein associated with spite, negativity, and deceit, Australian writing became untrustworthy as an autonomous field of cultural practice. In the 1960s, much would change. Most notably, the prominence of Aboriginal perspectives, part of the departure from Anglocentric continuities, reinstated Indigenous stakes in cultural expression in the country, shifting literary practices overall toward energetic political perspectives on writing and performance.1 At the same time, poetic movements from the United States – first the Beat movement, and then postmodernist strains marked by their reinventions of and direct departures from high modernism (Charles Olson’s break from Ezra Pound is the most obvious example) – meant aesthetic opportunity was gained from the connotations of bankruptcy in the patriotic project. The best poetry in the country claimed utterly new ancestry, rediscovered the soil and the sea, took on unprecedented religious and philosophical sensibilities, and went globetrotting.

So, the 1960s became a time when the perceived authenticity or inauthenticity of the national in relation to cultural practices escalated in stakes. A bid to reinscribe legitimacy to this discredited space accelerated. Escalation and acceleration meant opposed responses whose acrimony at the time abets neglect of the reality of a shared origin: the delegitimisation of Australian literature as a collective project. Few of the 1960s generation felt they had to look back to Australia’s recent past to look forward. We can say more simply that neo-colonial European definitions of city and country, inherited from Anglocentric imperatives of cultural practice, could not be sustained in Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s or Michael Dransfield’s Australia.

  1. See Muecke for a discussion of literary heritage and the Aboriginal ‘cultural renaissance’. Muecke elaborates: ‘This (cultural renaissance) was not news for Aboriginal peoples, but it made this ancient history public in a dramatic way’ (24).
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