The Stakes of Settlement: Fences in Ned Kelly and Michael Farrell

By | 1 August 2021

In a recent contribution to a 2016 special issue of Wasafiri entitled ‘Australian Deceptions: Some Definitions of Craft’, Farrell writes:

The metal desires of settlement … wire fence as form and force on the land. To affirm poiesis, to align it with making, is to affirm (Luis) Camnitzer’s scenario (in which, in Farrell’s words, ‘poets … possess a minor, technical knowledge, rather than the means to thinking about the world’). What is needed, rather, is to align poetry with unmaking.1

The Jerilderie Letter may be one of the most powerful testaments to this poetics of unmaking: shards of Kelly’s vision of the colonial state as a kind of wrecked enclosure (or enclosed wreckage) are strewn throughout Farrell’s recent work. Indeed, I Love Poetry is bookended by poems containing images of broken or inoperative fences. The opening poem ‘A Lyrebird,’ which consists of 22 different aphorisms and propositions (some which are repeated at varying intervals), contains the line: ‘A rhyme’s a moral that becomes a fence; a fallen-down fence is a joy forever’.2 The poem that ends the collection, the memorably titled ‘When Arse Is Class, or Australianything’ concludes with the assertion: ‘Australianything begins (ends?) with a crook fence’ (one could say that after Kelly, all fences are crook – irregular, illegitimate, and in disrepair).3 In between these two poems, fencing is precariously poised; indeed, it comes to symbolise the poet’s sense of his own precarity (in ‘Kangaroo Moon,’ ‘The country is split in two/ I feel like a fencepost’) or his affiliation with a wilder, less pastoralised genealogy.4 In ‘Drag Me Down’, the poet claims: ‘I’m not yours/ but a Junglefowl’s descendant, come to Upturn the fences/ staked out Here, like a german idealist, or Rousseau teaching/ a dandelion is a Meadow.’5

But Farrell also seems to be taking Kelly one step further, his ‘crook fences’ opening up the possibility of re-wilding the Australian imaginary, re-populating the field with assorted verbal seedlings garnered from popular music (AC/DC, One Direction, Outkast) to Romantic poetry to native flora and fauna. (For someone who didn’t grow up in the country, one of the pleasures and difficulties of Farrell’s verse is the novelty of the plant and animal names that crop up, for instance, the line ‘casuarina Whip the air, koel keen in verbal Attendance’, which sounds like something Hopkins might have written in its keenness of ‘Attendance’.)6 This re-wilding in Farrell’s poems is enacted by a persistently unenclosed imagination which repeatedly poses the question, ‘is there an outside the Poem?’, and which is alert to the enclosing force of punctuation (as his brilliant reading of Bennelong’s ‘Letter’ demonstrates).7 I think it also partly explains his antipathy to the sonnet, the most enclosed of poetic forms (remembering, too, that ‘stanza’ means ‘room’: ‘Nuns fret not in their convent’s narrow rooms’ as Wordsworth once wrote, in inadvertent confirmation of Farrell’s thesis) and, therefore, as Farrell suggests in ‘Portrait of an Alternate Universe’, the ‘deadest’.8

Farrell’s resistance to the poetics of enclosure contributes another chapter to Australian poetry’s long-running tussle with European Romanticism – a tussle characterised, to summarise the argument of Paul Kane’s book, by an attempt to substitute for an absence of Romanticism with a Romanticism of absence.9 The aspect of Romanticism that Farrell seems to be turning over (or, indeed, overturning) in his poems is Romanticism’s obsession with enclosed spaces, spaces of containment, an obsession that manifested itself in the gravitation towards minor lyric forms (such as the sonnet) and what Rachel Crawford has called ‘the poetics of the bower’. Both these symptoms are accounted for by an ‘association between containment and productivity’.10

It’s no accident, then, that in ‘A Lyrebird’, Farrell would seem to re-writing Keats’s Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

When Farrell writes that ‘A rhyme’s a moral that becomes a fence; a fallen-down fence is a joy forever,’ he is in some ways laying bare the mechanics of this kind of narcotic fantasy of self-seclusion, ‘health’, and an assuasive, quiescent plenitude (‘fence your reader in with rhyming couplets; give them a comfortable moral that they can keep nestling into’). Yet, where the Keatsian bower is a site of ease, the bounded spaces in Farrell’s poem are attended by dis-ease in the form of either melancholy or violence: ‘A nest-building lament starts up’; ‘The enclosed imagination buys a hunting gun.’ Farrell’s ‘lyrebird’ isn’t quite a bowerbird – it’s a less complacent homemaker even as it records the noises that accompany the clearing of land, the simultaneous making and unmaking of homes.

If Farrell’s work does bear an affinity with any of the Romantics, it is probably with John Clare, whose poems record the effect of the Enclosure Acts (‘the fence of ownership’) on the rural landscape around Helpston at the beginning of the nineteenth century. If the line of influence that runs from Ashbery to Farrell is a well-worn path, then the track that stretches even further back and through some underbrush to Clare, whom Ashbery admired greatly, has yet to be beaten out. But the Clare I have in mind is less the celebrity peasant-poet of nature than the escapee from High Beach Asylum who recorded his three-day journey out of Essex – is a madman ranging and eating his way through the countryside pastoral or counter-pastoral? – with an absolute of ingenuousness that Farrell seems to be tilting at in titling a collection of poems, I Love Poetry. (Note the tonal complexity of this motto-like utterance – is it defiant or apologetic? Both at once, like a humble-brag? Nothing seems to elicit the hermeneutics of suspicion more than protestations of love.)

  1. Michael Farrell, ‘Australian Deceptions: Some Definitions of Craft’, Wasafiri 31.2 (2016): 19-25.
  2. Michael Farrell, I Love Poetry (Giramondo, 2017), 1.
  3. I Love Poetry, 91.
  4. I Love Poetry, 35.
  5. I Love Poetry, 13.
  6. I Love Poetry, 13.
  7. I Love Poetry, 28.
  8. I Love Poetry, 48.
  9. See Paul Kane, Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  10. Rachel Crawford, Poetry, Enclosure, and the Vernacular Landscape, 1700-1830 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
This entry was posted in ESSAYS and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.