Language Barriers

1 February 2017

Said the official verse culture antagonist to the suburbanist:

‘Yours is a proscriptive essay – administrative and alienated and angry yet masquerading as balanced. It is not a project for anyone else, but maybe it can generate heat and light as a prose critique of what is happening somewhere in the archive, which is infinite.’

The suburbanist replied:

‘Let me repeat: If we take for a moment a wide view of contemporary poetry in Australia we see the resilience of lyric, prose and narrative, which highlight stylistic elements such as clarity, rhyme and feeling. We see this in spoken word and slam, expressions of official culture like Hansard, bush ballads, and the literary bureaucratic establishment more generally, which is itself an international phenomenon. These stylistic qualities are less common in academic poetry (see Active Aesthetics) and traditionally inflected song poems (see Jacket2), but few have pushed poetry to a logical end of words. Pete Spence’s visual work might be one such endpoint, but limiting ourselves to language as language we see in many of today’s poems a number of techniques that half dissolve narrative prose.

Many live after L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E then, but few live as it. There is no comparable, or adequate, rupture precisely because there is a lack of Historical, and philosophical, work being done. Cue the misunderstanding of what to radically break with. This might be because of the paradox of university scholarship now – we live in a moment after the national mythmaking of bygone days and in one informed by the black armband view that is predominant institutionally. This means there is no agreed upon History, if ever there appeared to be one, no collective understanding both of a tradition to push against and a field of inheritance, which helps account for the common and superficial engagement with the contemporary. This means that the best one can do is simply capture the zeitgeist, sublimating this into a palimpsestic melange that flattens difference, distinction and knowledge. It ends up being anti-intellectual, which is not necessarily an altogether bad thing. But it helps explain the ecosystem. No wonder people trade heavily on personality and become obsessed with an internecine, close-in focus rather than a deep past or a relevant future.

Our history as our experience makes up our poetry, throwing into question the very notion of ourness and realising it is a performative utterance that brings into question what the limits, porosity and boundaries of experience and ‘the before’ are. This is not to be prescriptive about the type of influences that are ‘good’ or ‘valuable’, but to suggest that how we read, how we frame is not yet critical and hence creative enough. Why read L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E when you can read what they read, or read how they read? This should not be a way to throw the baby out with the bathwater even as sometimes the baby can be an asshole.

Our historical and philosophical work needs to go back far further. We need examine ourselves in the oldest forms of thinking and language that are available to us. This is not to binarise originality and repetition, to place a premium on beginnings instead of genealogies. It might be that our work is not unoriginal or derivative enough, that mimicry can be a politicised strategy for us in today’s colony rather than the embarrassment it is held to be going back, of course, to Plato. What then is the cure? The cure is not necessarily singular; we must have cures for many ills and it is not to have a project. But it is not not to have a cure and not not to have a project.

The originary rupture that I seek in Australian language is as poetic as it is political. It is a radical deformation and a reformed utopianism. There are many ways to enable this. Recontextualisation is one such method. This might occur when we take a settler conceptual assemblage into a legislative assembly. It might also look like a soundbite, or policy piece, taken into a poetry reading. But this relies on an understanding of context, which can be seen as a type of historical work. Historically, Australia is a colony and we need to realise we continue to live in one. The sands have shifted and continue to shift, but we still need to fight against the Queen’s English using the available material that is here. We need poetry that continues to stand against the hegemony that emanates from the crown. This happens at the level of content, form and style as well as language itself.

However, no poet working in Australia today has realised the potential of the available linguistic material. That may be impossible, but surely the ambitious search for it need be attempted. Of course, there are dextrous, nimble, thorough, able, adept, charming, intelligent, sensitive, aware, alert, challenging, difficult, admirable poets working today. And I love them all.

There is also potentially far more than that. To undo the Australian poetry mind means recognising that the material here, as a type of available truth content, need be re-expressed linguistically. But such is the conformity to structural limitations, the narrowing of available experience and the strength of the paradigmatic mentality that the possibility of new poetry, and with it revolutionary decolonisation, seems distant. In specific terms the hegemonic use of English, the slim band of influences and the geographic concentration of the literary bureaucratic establishment has meant the limitation of poetic, and hence political, possibility.

Of course, some poets counter the dominance of English. There is not only John Mateer (Portugese) but also a whole host of linguistically diverse Others (see Michelle Cahill’s ‘Extimate Subjects’). However, there are not enough poets working in Aboriginal Englishes, let alone with traditional Indigenous languages in and of themselves. This is not to dismiss those Englishes, or their idiolectical expression in, say, Lionel Fogarty or Ali Cobby Eckermann or their located and resonant, or, appropriative assemblaged use by non-Indigenous people (Philip Hall as an editor and educator in the Gulf of Carpentaria, or, in the latter sense, Bonny Cassidy’s Final Theory which quotes from tabi taken from Taruru). It is to suggest that traditional linguistic knowledge is under valued in society as a whole. Nowhere is this clearer than in governmental policies toward the teaching of Indigenous languages, which means that it is rare for students, or nascent emerging poets, to encounter those languages in ideological state apparatuses.

Quite simply, where does one go to learn Walpiri, Noongar, Yolngu or any other such language? Must one go to the country those languages are spoken in? But then one need ask, how does one gain permission? Such is the complicated and confusing legacy of new settlement governmentality. But many poets use the present situation simply as an excuse for a lack of genuine engagement and in so doing become complicit, through absence, in the egregious fact of occupation. One can read a whole host of linguistic material in Indigenous languages – there are wordlists, dictionaries and other such sources that retain the original, and there is also the Bible and a host of literary, and poetic, materials that have been translated back and forth in countless languages. That we should continue to be so uneducated on Indigenous matters is plainly criminal.

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