Is Contemporary Australian Poetry Contemporary Australian Poetry?

1 March 2017

Australia’s noticeably contemporary poetry works through the conceptual problems of a suburban milieu. Of poems in CAP, consider: Keri Glastonbury’s displaced courtly economy of the suburbanised ‘dirty ruralism’; Liam Ferney’s ‘tyranny of the viewfinder’ in ‘Gli Ultimi Zombi’; the haunting of ruined epic structures of Lisa Gorton’s ‘Dreams and Artefacts’; the unresolved disjunct between documentary and the living in Bonny Cassidy’s Anthropocene-concerned Final Theory (excerpted); the outrageous spatial politics of Lionel Fogarty’s ‘Refusing Blackfella’; or Pam Brown’s psycho-geographic ‘Authentic Local’. Radically different poetries. Curiously, however, all happen to deny easy cultural distinctions between urban and country as markers of contemporary Australian experience. Suburban mixtures of high and low culture in that tricky category of the middle-brow, the pervasion of simulacra, the national as a performative category, and newly segmented social oppositions – such as on the street, between the police and the marginal (Fogarty), or class distinguished in place by definitions of district and commodity (Ferney) – flow through these diversely placed poems.

Arguably, such contemporary poets extend doubt for the monolithic, patriotic project of an Australian literary centre. At the same time, paradoxically, such poets offer poems more geographically and contextually locatable within Australian circumstances than the polarised works of the 1960s. At least, contemporary works have not turned away from the suburban realities of cultural flattening, commoditisation, the specificities of suburban segregations, and the new spatio-temporal terms of engagement in a postcolonial, Americanised, haunted, geographically contentious, and decentred context of expression. Given the precedents and political-aesthetic diversity of Australian poetry’s forebears from the 1960s onwards, what distinguishes many contemporary veins of practice from Noonuccal and Dransfield is that poetry’s recent past is continuous, rather than discontinuous, with their processes of disentanglement from the colonial project.

The contemporary has its own neo-colonial problems to disentangle from, of course. Therefore, this continuity of disentanglement makes contemporary Australian poetry so vital a project given its difference to the cultural agendas of past Prime Ministers such as Howard or Abbott. In other words, what makes Australian poetry’s modern project worthy of critical investment is its capacity to withstand and transform patriotic fantasies informed by neo-colonialist ideology. Admittedly, Les Murray’s sustained prominence as Australia’s most recognisable poet signals how tentative, and even frustratingly inconsequential at times, such a contemporary project is on an international stage which easily takes up the caricatures of Australian experience our literary ecology can sometimes wittingly recirculate. Murray, ‘the last of the Jindyworobaks’ – a movement of white nativist poets from the 1930s and 1940s – and at the same time a figure opposed to an Australia understood as part of Asia, represents the high ideals of the neo-colonial line: belonging and cultural exceptionalism.1 It comes as no surprise then that Murray has been sourced for nationalist policy and constitutional amendment several times in Australia’s political history.

Contemporary Australian poetry is no longer so much about the registration of a displaced cultural centre. Such registration was largely the concern of 1960s innovations embracing modernity and decentred cultural experience, but also motivated the anxious neo-colonial drive in figures like Murray. Where 1960s practices were obliged to develop urgent trustworthy literary alternatives to the discredited postwar moment, the work of the contemporary poets discussed earlier contributes to a more complex vision of the philosophical importance of poetry. In particular, such work continues the dismantlement of ideological country-city, artificial-natural divides, and registers, often with criticism, the pervasive suburban experience of average Australia. The concept of the literary for contemporary Australian poetry, then, is not so much a reliable category as much as a speculative future possibility. Furthermore, such a contemporary shift entails the discovery of geographical and contextual singularities for expressing self and environment through networked correspondences with questions of cultural memory and condition. There is momentum now where once there was an urgent gap.

Consider the meta-biographical work of Brown’s ‘Authentic Local’. The title does not figure an irony, as it might seem to suggest, but rather a project. Moreover, what the poem investigates lies not within the binary semantics of the urban versus the rural, but rather with the phenomenological experience of the geographically immediate. In other words, Brown here is concerned with the elusively local and authentic at once:

if the hinterland was somewhere
to go, I’d go       only, today,
I’m slouching towards nearby
clutching a flaking wishbone—
the wish— to write something
not located,   unconnected

Although some of Brown’s work can be encountered as bricolage, this poem shouldn’t. Instead, here, a documentary poetics of self-observation comes at once announced and unresolved. In scenario, the poem suggests at once proximity to city statuary, but also restless satiety, boredom, and distance. Critic Nicholas Birns reads Brown as a poet for whom nostalgia is ‘empty solace’ (117). ‘Authentic Local’ presents the authentic and the local through affects of dislocation. That is a truth, if you like, of suburban commute as a negotiable, but problematic, identity. Authentic locality in the suburbs is to be located by virtue of dislocatedness – ‘to write something / not located, unconnected’. Geographically, the poem registers urban Sydney, I think, but suburban Sydney. Everything arrives in view first as bus timetable, as indexical point, through Yahoo, or through ‘my thirty-sixth address’.

Although Brown can be seen to belong to the post-1960s, late modern poetry defined by postmodern American influences, not to mention the public rise of queer culture, it is the making of life writing by other means in the twenty-first century, if you like, which signals Brown’s contemporaneity. Writing’s speculative place in staging as well as registering experience seems to motivate this view of contemporary Australian poetry. Brown interacts with the city tentatively, stimulated by being in transit and in commerce, but separated from static conceptions of place, such as ‘home’. Such a poetic phenomenology rejects at once expert knowledge (urban) and allegorical counterpoint (rural), illuminating impasses encountered due to social and geographical conditions, but also framing global predicaments as local, ontological ‘problems’ of writing in location. Out of a suburban condition, Brown enlarges our capabilities for cultural navigation.

I stage the above reading of Brown after reference to Glastonbury, Ferney, Gorton, Cassidy, and Fogarty, to show how a diversity of writing practices are defining an Australian contemporary, how they exist for poets prominent before the millennium but doing some of their most recognisable work today, as well as poets very much arriving as textual agents in today’s Australia. I also present the history of textual practice after Malley to help the reader navigate the complex paradigmatic change that Australian poetry underwent prior to the period the editors of CAP choose to represent, along with the period in question. Finally, I stage this reading to put Australian literary history’s problems in counterpoint with the uniqueness of the aesthetic, ideological, and philosophical principles underlying this anthology’s editorship.

Now we can ask what Contemporary Australian Poetry’s contemporary Australian poetry is.

  1. For Murray’s rejection of the notion that Australia could be understood as part of Asia, see poem ‘A Brief History’ in Subhuman redneck poems (1996).
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