The Land as Breath: Can Poetic Forms Be Metaphors for Landscapes?

1 August 2017

The other reflection comes from the journalist Nicolas Rothwell, who writes so well of northern Australia. In an essay for The Monthly in 2008, he noted:

I have a persisting sense that the novel sits uneasily in the Australian context, in the Australian landscape … [t]he novel may have colonised Australia, but it remains a foreign style, forged in another environment: forged, in fact, in the thought-world of Europe, and brought here, just as roses and plane trees were brought from far-off shores. One symptom of this transportation may well be the extraordinary prominence of the landscape as a theme in Australian fiction: land looms large for authors as diverse as Winton and Flanagan, as Stow and Murnane. It is as if the land were forcing its way into the novelistic narrative, as a central, shaping presence: as a character.

And he asks the same question that I have been wandering around. ‘To southern readers, this obsessive focus on the land and its effects on us may seem a touch unreal: is landscape so important for literature? Does land shape art?’

The direct presence of the natural world can surely be a factor in creation, however its influence plays out in form and content. Some writers say they can only write about a place by leaving it and establishing a more objective perspective. I can’t imagine living outside Tasmania, and at the same time writing well of it – or, at the very least, writing about it in the same way.

Certainly, a poet may attempt to capture something of a place by deliberately shaping his text to a certain rhythm or pacing, just as a composer might. But this is not in view here. There generally seems to be an assumption that this is an unconscious process; at one level, this whole discussion could take place within the analytical set of discourses whereby creative influences are analysed and more mechanical considerations of tradition, class and culture are taken into account, much the same way that a social context may influence a person’s behaviour without their being aware of it.

But I wonder if the idea is so compelling to the poet of place because of how attractive they find the thought of transition – not from land to water – but from land to breath. To wind, or spirit. Could this allure spring from a longing for this notion, that creative work is embedded in nature and vitalised by it? Do these suggestions ground a direct connection to land, perhaps the kind of connection we might aspire to or search for in our life and work? Are we establishing a relationship with the landscape as wind, where land abandons its weight and breathes through our writing? Such romance raises the stakes on discourses of place; of the poet as belonging in a very personal way to their surroundings, and of their lyrics existing as a kind of metaphor for the landscape around them. The thought is seductive, which makes me wary. But even if it explains the personal attraction to notions of the land’s influence, it need not repudiate the idea.

I have no clear resolution here. I suspect that the processes at work are highly individual, and I am also sure that there are valuable Indigenous Australian perspectives on this discussion on which I am not qualified to comment. But I am just about persuaded there is something to it. Echoing Rothwell: this southern obsession with landscape may seem unreal. But here, surrounded by the columns of dolerite cliffs, the purple mess of hills and by the sky, the land is the realest thing there is.

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