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

By | 1 August 2021

If it is the aim of Farrell’s criticism is to bring out the genuinely experimental poetics of colonial Australian writing, then one of the aims of his recent verse seems to be to show the viability of colonial Australia for an experimental poetics. Passages such as the one in ‘Some Problems with the Page as Terra Nullius’

(…) The 
First Australian poem was a collaborative prose poem of colons
Posing as a letter. Harpur off
His hinges was better than a swinging door. I hope
Your chooks turn into wrecking 
Balls and knock your arenas over. Undergraduates of Melbourne
These are your models.1

divulge a pedagogical impulse that is somewhat embarrassed by pedagogy’s more formal occasions. He will speak of his scholarship as aiming to ‘enliven and enrich Australian poetics by creating more interest in the colonial era,’ though in his verse, he harbours some doubts about the efficacy of thorough-going institutionalisation (‘When Arse is Class’):

… if we hide it, frisky kids will find it
and love it the more, all the fiercer for not having
it smeared on their bread every morning.2

‘Frisky’ is perhaps the right word to describe his poetry’s relationship to colonial Australian history, especially its literary history which gets written up not as a ‘history of generals’ (as the Russian Formalists once put it) but as an Agatha Christie murder mystery (in ‘Bush Christie’) where the victim is a reviewer ‘of a new book/ Of not-so-innocent Austral verse’ and where the suspects range from Mary Gilmore to Ned and Dan Kelly (the unsolveability of the act of originary violence makes it ‘a case of dereliction’, but the taint of criminality persists all the more insidiously for the collective ignorance).3 Australian poetry’s putative points of origin are always available in Farrell’s poems because they are never decisive: ‘no one can sum up a country or its aura/ so we’ll just keep riding along till both of us conk out’.4 Is this something only a comic poet could have seen and said? I’m still on the fence.

  1. I Love Poetry, 63.
  2. I Love Poetry, 87.
  3. Michael Farrell, Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo, 2015), pp.
  4. I Love Poetry, 88.
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