Mosaically Speaking: Pieces of Lionel Fogarty’s Poetics

By | 1 November 2019


I’m ‘working from home’ and looking at the Wikipedia page titled ‘List of Hong Kong poets.’ The page is divided into two sections:

‘Chinese language poets’ and ‘English language poets.’

I came looking for a biography of Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. Against her name there are four footnotes but no one has made a Wikipedia page about her yet. On August 12th she wrote a poem called ‘The Eye’. Part of it reads: ‘One eye open, one eye closed: only surveilling, seeing selective sights, scenes and sins. Hong Kong was once lost, and then found, and lost, and will be found again; a cycle of blood, sweat, and tears.’1

I’m ‘working from home’ and an existential ‘ding!’ distracts me: an email from Justin, with a flyer attached. I like the way that the flyer’s off-the-cuff tone jars with the glossy branding and University-endorsed typeface. The left-flushed text reads:

‘Contemporary Australian poetry is undergoing a kind of renaissance. Across the country there have never been more poetry readings, events, social media attention, publications, collaborations and so forth. Why is poetry so hot right now? What is going on? What are the key movements and moments of the present?’

Why is poetry so hot right now? When and why did poetry have its cold phase?

I want this to all be lies; poetry never died. But a sub-genre of non-fiction writing has emerged recently that is entirely devoted to telling us that poetry has made a comeback. Last year The Washington Post reported that ‘poetry reading by young people has doubled since 2012.’ ‘Sunil Iyengar, the director of the Office of Research & Analysis at the [National Endowment for the Arts], cites the rise of social media and technology platforms as one potential explanation for the increased interest in poetry and spoken word.’2 New York governor Mario Cumo went about town shouting, ‘campaign in poetry, govern in prose.’ In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential campaign, Americans turned fervently to poetry as a way of comprehending their new government. ‘Words for solace and strength: poems to counter the election fallout – and beyond,’ read a headline in The Guardian, while The Huffington Post offered ‘18 Compassionate Poems to Help You Weather Uncertain Times.’3 Might this just reflect a contemporary political culture in which poetry has ‘gone viral’ because of it can capture complex ideas in condensed text? This is, after all, very appealing to people unable to release themselves from the beneath the deadening rock of media saturation, click bait and fake news. If the role of the contemporary poet has become a difficult one in recent decades, this certainly has not been reflected in a rejection of poetry outright but rather a fanatic online marketplace that is eager to use certain kinds poetry as a shortcut to political profundity without necessarily addressing their hermeneutics. Without adequately paying their poets?

Who’s is getting paid out of this so-called return of poetry? Or, as Alice Notley asks in ‘As Good As Anything’: ‘Is there a right and wrong poetry, one might / still ask I patronize’ … Written and judged by. / Those befiobled guys / who think–you know– / the poetic moment’s a pocket in / pool’.4 A passage from Evelyn Araluen’s 2017 essay ‘Shame and Contemporary Australian Poetics’ sums up the complexity of this trend in the context of Aboriginal literature:

‘In contemporary poetic discourse, it is fashionable to write about Aboriginal literature – if nothing else it seems to be a notch in the belt of political relevance, but one which is usually reciprocated with panicked glances with Aboriginal poets actually enter the room.’

Araluen goes on to write that ‘while Australia is a mere blip within Aboriginal immortality, Australian poetic and narrative culture is foregrounded on an exquisitely curated erasure of Aboriginal presence.’

It is because of this ‘exquisitely curated erasure’ that poetry like Fogarty’s (if there is anything else like it), still remains seemingly unapproachable for some institutions. While there have been serious attempts to resolve the reception politics of Indigenous literature, there are still profound inconsistencies in the manner in which Aboriginal poetry is approached by those awarding prizes in this country. This point has been made by several critics, most compellingly perhaps Fiona Hile in her observation that ‘[i]t doesn’t take much investigation into the recipients of the smaller prizes and awards or the roll-call of reviewer and published poems in general before you need to remind yourself that, yet again, as Celan knew, ‘it all depends / on you’’.5 But, as Hile also questions, who exactly will take up the call of becoming the ‘you’? Fogarty’s been thinking about this question for a while and we get some indication of this in ‘Decayed Poet’ (1990):

Ah mountains of green given
in pleasant looks don’t hold
back my poetry.


I was a poet in another death
Yet I’m of our death now.
I am the accusers dat won’t decline
on the lost traveller’s paradise.

A self-conscious break with the ‘pleasant’ or romantic sublime becomes a metric against which the poem establishes its authenticity. And then, later in the poem:

You see my friends worship my 
poems and I am wasted by your
weary nibbling. The peace of the poet
lies in music, and I’m sanctified by my
poetry delights. I rejoiced at your 
words backing me up as a priest of poems
Yea Murri poets, I was a poet in another 
life. But one things me don’t like to
rhyme a poem for ease times.6

The poem’s central topic is its own capacity to eschew acceptance or, following that, popularity. Moreover, the reference here to ‘weary nibbling’ suggests the paradoxical disjunction between visibility and reward, attention and comprehension, ‘rhyme’ and ‘ease times.’ Reflecting on this refusal, Philip Morrissey notes how ‘{w}e do not live in easy times and Fogarty’s poetry will never offer us mindless comfort or foregone conclusions.’7 Thus, under the pressure of Western measures of poetic ‘delights’, the poem self-consciously decays and reinvents itself ‘in another life.’8

  1. ‘Simplicity Is Not An Option: Five Hong Kong Poems by Tammy Lai-Ming Ho.’ Berfrois. August 13, 2019. Online.
  2. Ron Charles, ‘Poetry reading by young people has doubled since 2012.’ The Washington Post (12 September 2018).
  3. Cora Currier, ‘Words for solace and strength: poems to counter the election fallout and beyond’, The Guardian. 11 Nov. 2016. And, Priscilla Frank, ‘18 Compassionate Poems To Help You Weather Uncertain Times.’ The Huffington Post, 11. November 2016.
  4. Alice Notley, ‘As Good as Anything’. Poetry Foundation. Online.
  5. Fiona Hile, ‘Fiona Hile Reviews Lionel Fogarty’. Cordite Poetry Review (10 March 2015).
  6. Lionel Fogarty, ‘Decayed Poet’, p.142-143.
  7. Philip Morrissey, ‘Introduction’, Lionel Fogarty: Selected Poems 1980-2017, ed. by Philip Morrissey and Tyne Daile Sumner (Melbourne:, 2017), p. 27.
  8. The theme of decomposition appears again later in ‘Decompose our Poems’ (2009), where Fogarty writes: ‘When . no man cheered to come, to crowd / Congratulates , think of me dead / When . certificates. votes your leaders / Platform, think of me . dead.’ This is a lyric that probes the co-opting of experience and themes by poets such that they might appeal to a wider commercial audience. p. 172.
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