The New Reality in Australian Poetry

25 February 2016

The generation of Murray is not my generation. The generation of Adamson is not my generation either, nor is it Tranter’s or Kinsella’s. My generation is a new generation in Australian poetry. In this era of the ‘contemporary’, particularly as a political proposition after the end of history, it is a dangerous endeavour to suggest there is a modernist / social realist debate. And while the actors have undoubtedly changed (as has the world and its labels) we can discern two such derivative realities in the newest generation of Australian poets. These poets are working in ‘deformed realism’ and ‘sentimental radicalism’.

I take as foundational in the modernist / social realist debate the division that emerged in World War Two Australia and was later embodied by Katharine Susannah Prichard and Dorothy Hewett in the field of poetry. Of course, one could look to Lukacs and Adorno for similar faultlines, or to Albert Tucker and Neil Counihan, but given my position on Noongar country it is important to see what sediment exists here in and of itself. This then is a genealogical and sociological position, not a search for roots or an importation of culturally sanctioned and accumulated references.

Both modernism and social realism are important unconscious aesthetic influences in today’s new generation of Australian poets. This is simply one way of organising these groups and is a poetics of critique and projection not an inalienable and incontestable truth. If one chose to, one could organise the whole in a different way; for example, somewhat predictably, by authorial identity. I would welcome that if only to see how allegiances shift and groups coalesce around different stories. But authorial identity is a red herring and poor analytical tool at the best of times. It ultimately displays a myopic liberalism in the reigning paradigm of identity politics that focuses on the life rather than the art, and fails to come to terms with the death of the author.

That modernism and social realism haunt Australian poetry, now, seems to me to be in their complicated historical positions, for they have dripped down, leaving not so much inheritors in a strict lineage but rather a spectral presence. This is no doubt due to the elasticity of their original definitions and the catholic breadth of today’s poets. Indeed, the following observation from Martin Duwell’s reference to the ’68 generation seems so outdated that it has no resonance now. He wrote:

… a common charge was that the New Australian Poets had simply surrendered to a new (US) orthodoxy at just that moment in history when, in poets such as Dawe and Murray, Australia was finally achieving its own ‘voice’.1

That national moment has well and truly passed, but networking now means some possibility of return to a division before that. My generation works as bowerbirds do, taking language from all over to make its nest. The American influence that is predominant, though, would seem to be John Ashbery and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in deformed realists, and hip hop in sentimental radicals. But this does not discard that they speak in a distinctly Australian idiom.

As Bernard Smith wrote in 1944’s ‘The New Realism in Australian Art’, ‘The development of this realist tendency from the ranks of the moderns should be distinguished from the rise of modernism itself’ (466). Indeed, there may be poets working in a derivative modernist vein (Astrid Lorange for one, as epitomised by ‘Select Menu Items from Outback Steakhouse’) but the deformed realists who have taken modernism and twisted it, which is not entirely separate from a social realist iteration. This is particularly so in Bonny Cassidy’s Final Theory, Corey Wakeling’s Goad Omen and Luke Beesley’sJam Sticky Vision. These three poets seem to be the most prominent exponents of this style, which is characterised by disrupted narrative, concern with daily life and intermedia, and experimentation from a centripetal location. It could be said to have a stronghold in Giramondo Publishing’s list, which might be explained by the proclivities of publisher Ivor Indyk. But this is complicated by his publication of Lachlan Brown and Fiona Wright who seem to work in an entirely different, and altogether more suburbanist iteration. As Smith suggests though, ‘to accept realism is not to retreat’, which is to say it is not a retreat from the treatment of form nor of the figurative world, which is the case in these three poets (468). One is struck by the combination of difficult abstraction and literal image that seems to explode the binary oppositions that so animated mid century visual artists.

As Gertrude Langer wrote in ‘Notes for a Talk on Modern Art and Abstraction’ from 1945:

To abstract is to distil and to distil is to intensify. The contemporary artist (the genuine ones anyhow) search for an essence, a central meaning in what is seen. One group of abstract artists consciously abstracts (or distils from nature). The other group does not but, ultimately, no one can get away from nature, even if it is not so obvious in the work. (470)

Upon first inspection the sentimental radicals might appear to be moving away from nature, such is their relatively urban coordinates, but this is simply to resurrect an unhelpful city-country wall that does nothing to comment on the animating energy and form of the work. The importance of this passage is, I think, in highlighting intensification. Emerging from a context of spoken word, slam and orality, one notices the desire the intensify experience in the work of sentimental radicals like Omar Musa, Omar Sakr and Maxine Beneba Clarke. Their content is avowedly political, they deal in ordinary language and have a proclivity for rhyme, but this is not combined with a formal experimentation common to deformed realists. However, one notices in them a willingness to try new things and to be influenced by shared innovations, hence the break in strict teleological linearity common to the generation as a whole. Modernism matters here as well.

In splitting hairs though, deformed realism tends to be concerned with the form politics takes, which means it sides with a Hewettian archetype. By contrast, sentimental radicalism takes a political content (the Prichard mode). It should not be suggested that neither of them are Marxist, for materialist readings of each can be supplied. Rather than a traditional dialectics being projected, I would rather think of them in a synchronic sub status group conflict given their temporal concurrence. Who is the master and who is the slave remains to be seen for the identity politics paradigm (and in its left liberal microcosm of poetry) there are shifting intersectionalities that make the assessment of power fraught, particularly if it aspires to thoroughness. In addition, accessing information on the history of the book (sales, advances, reviews) and its performance (door takings, audiences, launches, readings, festivals) makes it harder to assess the field comparatively and to define where a poet definitively stands. While any poetics must always historicise, we must also always contextualise and in so doing understand that the frame will determine the weight, gravity, importance, power, place and so forth.

One might choose to see ПO as their common antecedent however. This is not first order obvious, and I doubt many would sight him as an influence, nor is it for reasons of identity. It is for his synthetical rejection of Hewett and Prichard, for his glocalism, epics which are poems including local history and for his formal inventiveness and orality/publication combined. He is decidedly his own thing, which is also decidedly a new thing. What unites them, though, is not so much an agreeable third way middle ground, which accounts for the majoritarian politics of poetry as a whole, but also a lack of politicised coherence. One forgets the content, or rather abstracts the content for fear of didacticism and obviousness. The other forgets the form, meaning that the radicalism of previous generations has not found its successor and that there is a conservatism that seems, at its worst, like the continued singing of the Internationale. This is despite the fact that the old can become new again, and that tradition is necessary bedrock for the revolutionary activities of tomorrow. It would be skulduggery and numbskullery to suggest otherwise. There is a half committed politics in a great many poets of my generation. This is not to deny the importance of a personal micro-politics grounded in embodied experience, but it is to acknowledge the decline of party membership and the lack of ideological vocabulary. We are all Marxists but none of us are members of the Communist Party.

This observation does not prevent seeing that some individuals are both poet and activist. Benjamin Solah − Melbourne Spoken Word and the Socialist Alliance − is one example. But of his work one might highlight what Albert Tucker suggested of his contemporaries:

The function of the artist is interpreted as that of a glorified cartoonist and banner maker … Only political action has validity today. Therefore art can only achieve validity when it functions in a direct and immediate political sense. It must be socially utilitarian consciously carrying out a correct political duty. Art is only art when it is politics. (433)

This is not to dismiss it, but to highlight the fact that we need to interrogate what art and politics are in a fundamental way, and in our language games that matter materially rather than simply take ideological positions and pragmatically proceed. In other words, the fundamentals need always to be questioned.

For deformed realism and sentimental radicalism one need turn to the Antipodean Manifesto, to suggest that ‘if the triumph of the non-figurative art in the West fills us with concern so too does the dominance of social realism in the East’ (686-7). There are, of course, other ways and these are evident even in specific poems by the poets named above (see the prose of Luke Beesley for example) which undo this paradigmatic assertion, complicating further the analytical critical enterprise.

  1. Duwell, Martin. A Possible Contemporary Poetry: Interviews with thirteen poets, St. Lucia: Makar Press 1982, p. 13
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5 Responses to The New Reality in Australian Poetry

  1. As usual, a very interesting and useful essay from Robert – a timely reminder of how aesthetic decisions (intuitiuons?) are also implicitly assessments about how language relates to the broader political world, and to this land. It’s also illuminating in terms of the basic distinction between “deformed realism” and “sentimental radicalism”. As usual, though, what makes a theory useful is not just what it illuminates but what it overlooks. What to do with poets such as Ali Alizadeh, Claire Gaskin, Santo Cazzati, Shari Kocher, Maria Takolander, Ivy Alvarez, Ouyang Yu and others whose writing either fits into neither category or embodies both? To me, these poets are deeply engaged with both the materiality of language AND of bodies (individual or collective). Which makes “deformed realism” an ironic and revealing label. What modernism and its successors often desire to transcend or ignore is precisely the figure they depend on – the deformed body.

    • Robert Wood says:

      I would be interested to understand the roots of deformation, or rather the genealogy of this, as it pertains to a generation of older poets (i.e. the ones you cite). How this comes to matter amongst the poets mentioned, and their ‘colleagues’, remains to be seen. But is something to trace and find of interest.

      • Cam Lowe says:

        Robert, I wonder if you could expand further on what you mean by ‘deformed realism’. I realise I need to be led to the water, but I’m not entirely grasping this definition (especially since the poets you cite as examples seem, in some ways at least, rather unrelated in their poetics).

        And following Andy’s comment, are you suggesting poets such as Ali Alizadeh, Maria Takolander, and Ivy Alvarez are not part of your generation? And if not, where are you drawing lines? And (sorry for the ands) I wonder to what extent this generational thing is overly reductive? Could not a ‘practicing’ poet in their 70s, say, be just as concerned with the aesthetic and political concerns that you raise here?

        Thanks for the essay.



        • Cam says:

          Okay, I’ve waited a while in hope of a response…alas, no reply. If my questions are dumberer than dumberer then no problems.

          Happy times marking out a generation of poets and their aesthetic and political concerns…



  2. Anna Forsyth says:

    I am interested in the conversation around activism and identity politics and their definition/role in the life of the artist that you touch on.

    Social realism offers a democratising of power to those who may be ostracized from more elite forms of the arts or who simply wish to work in didactics. (This tends to be a by-product of the former in my opinion).

    In my opinion when we celebrate the cult of the artist, this brings identity politics into the foreground because nowadays social media fed audiences demand a brand.

    This form of embodiment as you touched on can be detrimental to the art form in some ways as it places the artist as unable to be critiqued, except from a political paradigm. This could be potentially problematic. I have seen poets become personally affronted politically because someone dared to show them their work was cliche.

    I like whoever said ‘tell the truth, but tell it slant’. That to me is the beauty of the figurative. There’s the shock/mystery/sexiness of what is concealed artfully.

    Anna 🙂

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