Mosaically Speaking: Pieces of Lionel Fogarty’s Poetics

By | 1 November 2019


I just watched that viral video of a white woman crying because the Hong Kong protests disrupted her travel plans. Somewhere, fifteen or so Tweets deep, someone has posted an article that describes the scenes inside the airport. Travellers arriving by plane in Hong Kong are being given leaflets from protestors as they walk through the building. One of the leaflets, branded ‘Independent Commission of Inquiry Regarding Police Brutality’ reads:

‘Hong Kong Police Shooting Us / Hong Kong Police Attempt to Murder Hong Kong Citizens / Fund Us / Sign Petitions / Know More / WARNING / For your own safety: DO NOT trust Hong Kong Police. DO NOT take MTR.’

The jagged, hurried look of the leaflet contains the urgency of resistance within its form. What does it mean to resist through form? One of the problems with form is that its boundaries are rarely clear. Can a poem have multiples forms contained within it? If so, where do each of the interior forms begin and end? And if it can be said that Fogarty’s poetry resists form, what form is it that he is in opposition to? Perhaps we need a better word altogether. But what? Hayden Carruth’s reflections on the use of ‘style’ might help:

{T}o my mind it is not something different from form but something contained within form, a component of form. True, it is unlike other components. But they themselves are more or less unlike one another, so why should this cause difficulty? The best definition I can make is this: style is the property of a poem that expresses the poet’s personality; or, most likely, a combination of the two. It is manifested in the concrete elements of form: syntax, diction, rhythm, characteristic patterns of sound or imagery, and so on. (1)

Each of these elements can be determined, theorised, even, to use Carruth’s word, ‘tabulated,’ but it is the inexplicable fusion of them that makes up style. A poem’s style is paradoxical in that we know it when we encounter it and yet its parts, in whatever way they may be measurable, cannot be separated out from the whole. Style ‘remains consistently itself from one poem to another,’ writes Carruth, ‘even though the poems in other respects are notably dissimilar.’ (2).

Fogarty’s poetics of resistance transcend a mere refusal to use a characteristically English language form. Setting up a false contrast between the apparent metrics of ‘English language’ and ‘syntax’ and Fogarty’s idiosyncratic style, ultimately has the effect of reducing the linguistic virtuosity of the poems to a refusal to adopt an Anglophone vernacular. The problem with this, of course, is that a critical theory founded entirely on a binary between ‘Standard English’ and some ascribed notion of resistance directs attention away from, or more to the point obscures, the extent to which Fogarty’s poetry actually engages with the English language in complex intellectual ways.

We get a reflection on this in ‘Is Speaking My Ability’ from Fogarty’s first collection, Kargun, published in 1980, which in its entirety reads:

Power to All Peoples

A long time since I pick up a pen
     and I had to pick it up now
     when I’m tired from nothing. 
I tried to look and find something
     and have found it – that’s my speaking.
But I’m being fucked over by capitalist society
     and I can’t make up my mind. 
Speaking is a thing that people put into practice
     and it never returns to where you began
     but carries on and on …1

Many have offered ways to describe the way that Fogarty’s poetry refuses philological logic yet at the same time forges a poetics that casts the English language in a new light. As the final lines of this poem seem to suggest, the voicing of a Fogarty poem from the page will always undo any fixed critical framework that attempts to explain its function as written (‘it never returns to where you began’). Michael Harris has written that Fogarty’s ‘unique style of verse’ is characterised by ‘intuitive rather than rational connections between words, phrases, and lines’, a position I am moving away from here since Fogarty’s ‘rational connections’ are clearly manifest.2 Others have used the concept of the image to describe the verbal and ontological paradox that many readers enter into when engaging with the text. David Brooks, being one of them, calls ‘Fogarty’s distinctive verbal texture’ his ‘agrammaticality, a departure from normative usage that can seem a lexical version of what in painting might be called naïf and which can be misapprehended as grammatical ignorance or failure, but which is as deceptive as John Shaw Neilson’s apparent simplicity.’3

The same might be said for all lyric poetry, however, Fogarty’s poetry goes one step further by treading an almost imperceptible line between a theatrical and yet forensic examination of politics. And yet somehow a Fogarty poem is always one step ahead of politics because its meaning sits outside the prosaic ostensible meaning of everyday speech. More than that, though, the poems usually present a meta-awareness of their own formal codes, symbols and observations while strategically manipulating that awareness into art: this, in essence, might be the ultimate marker of their form. To this end, Fogarty’s poetry is a ‘field of myth-thought, of song-dream continuity, a place that refuses closure.’4 It presents an internationalising of resistance at the same time as it presents an ancestral matrix that can never be read apolitically. Its pieces continue to move and melt in and out of shape; its lyric speaker is an infinitely proliferating sniper.

  1. Lionel Fogarty, ‘Is Speaking My Ability’, p. 44.
  2. Michael Harris. ‘The Aboriginal Voice in Australian Poetry’, Antipodes Vol. 4. No. 1 (1990), p. 7.
  3. David Brooks, ‘Possession, Landscape the Unheimlich and Lionel Fogarty’s ‘Weather Comes’’. Cordite Poetry Review. 1 August 2017
  4. John Kinsella, ‘The Hybridising of a Poetry: Notes on Modernism and Hybridity – the Colonising Prospect of Modernism and Hybridity as a Means to Closure’, Boundary 2 26, no. 1 (1999), pg. 158
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