More Intensity: Topography of Poetry Outcrops

1 February 2013

In April 2012 I published a Guncotton blog post, responding to a paper given by Peter Minter in Melbourne. Specifically I was interested in his proposal that Australian poetry could be viewed as an ‘archipelago’ of ‘psycho-geographic’ poetic activity. With thanks to Cordite Poetry Review for inviting me, and once again to Minter for his potent departure points, I’d like to expand on that post, particularly on seeking an alternative to national/ist and ‘monolithic’ ways of framing the poetry produced in and about this continent. By proposing an ‘archipelagic map’, Minter grants local poetry an appropriate critical framework that steers away from some problematic aspects previously encountered in reading and defining ‘Australian poetry’. In doing so, this framework negotiates a view of local poetry that is properly sensible to the actual, situated ethics of poetic practice and community.

Australian literature and poetry have enjoyed recent reappraisals in terms of the transnational and even global – terms that move beyond the fraught bounds of nationality and nationalism, and that rightly acknowledge the ongoing process of exchange, translation, influence and visitation that shape all writing including Australian. However, these enlightened critical concepts remained limited; transnationalism relies on the exclusive agreement of what is national, and Marshall McLuhan’s notion of globalism seems too unwieldy and frankly unrealistic (as well as creepily corporate) to describe literary practice.

Produced within immediate localities and regional histories, poetry and perhaps all aesthetic practice may be situated within any number of specific ‘intensities’ or ‘outcrops’. This way of seeing poetry has something in common with the established field of ecocriticism or ‘environmentalist cultural criticism’, namely that both claim a located view of literary practice and culture. However, Australian literary criticism and poetry have had a mixed relationship with ecocriticism.1 While by definition a transnational movement, it’s fundamentally related to a North American history of environment, particularly to notions of wilderness and the pastoral. When it ‘calls for a poetics derived from the interface of imagination and ethics, but predominantly informed by modern environmentalism’ – ecopoetics – it is traditionally invoking a North American literary history from Thoreau to Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Forrest Gander and onwards.2 For these reasons ecocriticism and ecopoetics, which have certainly been inhabited by Australian critics and poets, nevertheless impose upon them an imported set of concepts and traditions.

Importation itself, of course, has poetic value; after all, the trans part of transnational (or TRANSPACIFIC) seems very useful to thinking about how poetry and poetics are situated or placed within localities. But if we define place as a scale of infinitely nested localities, we can justify the concern that an international framework like ecocriticism may obscure significant local views. For instance, let’s consider some hypothetical poetic intensities or outcrops that might exist in and around the Australian continent: Australasian, trans-Tasman, transpacific, Oceanic, mainland and so on, all the way along to tropical northern, south-western, Bass Strait, detention-centred, and so forth. In his introduction to John Mateer’s the west: australian poems 1989–2009, Martin Harrison notes that an individual poet such as Mateer may possess several ‘parallel … organisations of networks, of overlapping centres of interest’ stemming from place.3 These are specialised, grounded in location. This is not to say that such outcrops are incomprehensible to critique; they are as much concepts for the free critical apparatus as they are reflections of how local poetry gets made.

Localism is at present enjoying a certain cultural cachet in parts of the heavily industrialised world. In that context, there are plenty of good reasons to be sceptical about it, not least when it manifests in contradiction, e.g. somebody sitting in a Brisbane locavore restaurant twiddling with their Chinese manufactured i-thing. In a critical context, however, location and locality offer a compellingly expansive frame through which to read Australian poetic practice. That frame is extendable from the local to the regional – bypassing the obstruction of nationality and thinking more specifically than globally. That somebody, perhaps, is a poet; he might be waiting for a group of friends, who are tonight celebrating a place that lies beneath their poetry: at the table will be Emily Bitto, Rhyll McMaster, Liam Ferney, Lionel Fogarty, Luke Beesley, Judith Rodriguez, Jaya Savige, David Malouf, Sarah Holland-Batt, and an empty chair for Gwen Harwood. (Dear critic, the guest list remains unfinished; add, subtract or rearrange place settings as you wish.) He might be reading Timothy Yu or Keiji Minato in Mascara Literary Review, or doing a bit of research apéritif to his Asialink residency in Singapore. Or he might have just flown across the ditch to catch up with his Australian publisher or to give a guest reading.

Because it recognises location in place, an archipelagic map or view of local poetry reflects real (and speculative) poetic communities and practice. Thus it proffers a potentially rigorous and revisionist critical mode in the spirit of transnational studies. I’d previously thought that ‘island poetics’ would be a suitable phrase to describe what this critical map might see; on second thought, however, the figure of the island is too readily associated in literary terms with isolation; as well as having for Australians unfortunate colonial, penal, exclusionary and escapist connotations, not to mention a settler history of anxiety about distance. On the other hand, ‘archipelago’ nicely conveys the sense of (geological, cultural, political, ecological, linguistic, economic and physical) interconnections that we see at work between local poetic outcrops.

Apart from those outcrops linked physically and psychically to settler cities and towns, another kind of archipelagic intensity might be found in Indigenous nationhood, with its own extensive and complex map. Woven into that poetic map might be connective histories of kinship, language, story and trade but also of movement, exile or return. Alongside that map, there is another, much sketchier one that may illuminate how some settler poets seek to ‘write about Australia’: a desire sensitively explored by Mateer in his essay, ‘Nativism and the Interlocutor’, in Cordite 40: INTERLOCUTOR. Can an archipelagic view of settler poetic activity help to locate and explore Mateer and other poets’ ‘wanting to imagine … the spirit of place’?4

  1. Kerridge, R, qtd in Becket, F and Gifford, T 2007, eds, ‘Introduction’, Culture, Creativity & Environment: New Environmentalist Criticism, Rodopi, New York, p7.
  2. Ibid
  3. Harrison, M 2010, ‘Introduction’, the west: australian poems 1989-2009, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, pp11-14 (p11).
  4. Mateer, J 2012, ‘Nativism and the Interlocutor’, Cordite Poetry Review 40 (np). Accessed 14/11/12: http://cordite.org.au/features/essays/nativism-and-the-interlocutor/
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