‘Augment the alphabet.’ (BH, 58) The letter G in ‘The afterword’ (LT, 8) as a clue to the ‘ordered randomness / I aspire to’. The letter K in ‘Amerika’ (LT, 33 – like the sardonic ‘democrazy’ in ‘Stochastic Acts’, The Codicils, p. 553), ‘brought to you by the letter Q’. The large letter O at the end of ‘moat’ (EW, 7), the punning one in the title ‘O pine’ (LT, 70; lots of Os here, especially at the start of words at the start of a line) and the technopaegnic ‘O of the / mouth’ (BH, 20). The letter Q (see above).
Young uses names to conjure certain geographies or atmospheres in his poems, or states of being in readers. The blurb on the back of BH says that the characters in his poems are ‘temporally & geographically distant’. ‘Carol Carroll’ came to me in my sleep last night – immediately, I thought of Lewis Carroll, the precursor to modernism with his neologist absurdism (although Gertrude Stein has Picasso say in her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that Braque and James Joyce, like Carroll or Lear, were ‘incomprehensibles whom anybody can understand’1). ‘Carol’ is also a type of song, chanson, shanty (Hose), which fills Young’s work, from jazz, bebop and reggae to pop. The refrain, for example, ‘everybody dance now’ (EW, 19) is used for an advertisement for a popular chain store on television. (This is similar to Hose’s ‘Death bags’ – i.e., Frankie – ‘goes to Hollywood’ (from ‘Snottische’ – i.e., Schottische – Bunratty, p. 54).2) I’m sure there are many other pop-song references that I have missed. Young also makes use of colloquialisms, often amusing and used in contemporary song, such as ‘where the sun don’t shine’ (LT, 34).
I do not mean Orientalism in a negative, Edward Said, sense, with colonials cavorting across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific and South America. Although Young does draw on Asia, Buddhism and Japan, and to a lesser extent, China, for poetic material, American culture is never far away, just as it is never far away in other cultures (cultural imperialism).
A sense of place: Africa, America, Asia, Australia, Canada, China, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Sweden, Turkey … inevitably, Iraq is mentioned in terms of war.
See 9: America & Japan
Capitalism works if you have capital; capitalism enslaves if you do not. So long as you understand this, you can live comfortably in a capitalist society and achieve most of what capitalism has to offer (except riches): namely, the support of democracy.3 Politics, though, is hardly mentioned in the three books under discussion, unless you believe the impersonal is political, which in turn is cultural, which is a part of popular culture, then it is pervasive. Politics is always wrapped up with commercialism and consumerism (‘the / transaction in / question is suspicious’, LT, 58). In ‘a thin collagenous investment’ (LT, 53), a female Young says:
I’m sorry about the weird effect the gritty Chelsea midfielder had on the secretion of osteoprotegerin in rat dental follicle cells but I really wanted to conceive as soon as possible.
‘Collagenous’, from collagen, summons up collage, a method of composition exploited in the Twentieth Century in the plastic arts as well as in writing. In ‘Stochastic Acts’, having traced it back to at least Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Young asks, ‘& just how long has collage been around?’ The method William S. Burroughs used from the 1940s, cut-up, is a type of collage that has been used by many an artist, culminating in Ty Roberts’ Verbasizer used by David Bowie (‘Like a blind man with scissors, the (Verbasizer) shreds and realigns text’ – so said David Astle, a pompous cruciverbalist for my daily newspaper) and search engines on the Internet. (‘The search engine is a powerful tool for generating poetry’ – Young paraphrased in ‘Stochastic Acts’.) Having said that, Young’s poetry is no weirder than real life: is Hitler’s portrait on mini coffee creamers recently on sale in a Swiss supermarket, until a customer complained, any more polemical than a Young poem? His landscape is not pastoral but digital. You will not find such Australiana as eucalypts or kangaroos in his poems, for his landscape is actually a headscape.
29: Commercialism / consumerism / materialism
The West in the Twentieth Century, from John Berger (The Success and Failure of Picasso), Trainspotting, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky et al. to artistic movements such as Dada, Surrealism and Pataphysics, have critiqued commercialism / consumerism / materialism, some quite savagely. Young – and all artists since the Second World War – has proved Theodor Adorno wrong, who once said that poetry could not be written after Auschwitz. Americans said something similar about history never being the same after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. While the majority of Americans supported the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they do not regard their actions as a kind of holocaust, and thus confirm that the world has stayed, in essence, the same. And now we have terrorism committed in the main by Islamic extremists, where the majority of victims are Muslim. What cannot be denied is humanity’s capacity for cruelty. That is where Young and others, including myself, think that Social Realists are wrong-headed – they say you cannot paint pretty pictures or write saccharine material when there is so much suffering in the world. But there has always been suffering. I do not believe a poem or painting can change that (not even Picasso’s Guernica). I believe there is room for all types of expression, from the sickly sweet to the brutally honest, from indifference to total engagement, from I-poetry to conceptualism; it does not mean you have to like them all. Poetry – or history – ‘wars’ are just nonsense; and war itself, wrong. (There is no such thing as a just war.) The French wit the Marquis de Vauvenargues sagely advised: ‘One should never judge men by what they do not know, but by what they know, and the way in which they know it.’ In a similar vein, not by what people do, but the way in which they do it.4
I wonder whether Marshall McLuhan’s saying ‘The medium is the message’ means more than accepted usage, that it depends on how the message is presented as to whether we receive it or not. I wonder whether it is not simply another glib version of Americans’ consumerism: ‘No ideas but in images’.
Young’s protagonist in ‘part of the conspiracy’ does not want to look like a conformist:
Could I wear my light blue shirt & not look like a corporate drone? (LT, 45)
- Stein, Gertrude, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (Vintage Books, 1990; p. 212). ↩
- Hose, Duncan Bruce, Bunratty (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015). ↩
- D. H. Lawrence’s has this to say about Australia and Australian democracy in a letter to his sister-in-law (Portrait of a Genius, But … The Life of D. H. Lawrence 1885–1930 by Richard Aldington, pp. 254–255): ‘This is the most democratic place I have ever been in,’ he wrote to Frieda’s sister. ‘And the more I see of democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric-light and water-closets, and nothing else. You never knew anything so nothing, Nichts, Nullus, niente, as the life here. They have good wages, they wear smart boots and the girls all have silk stockings; they fly around on ponies and in buggies – sort of low one-horse traps – and in motor-cars. They are always vaguely and meaninglessly on the go. And it all seems so empty, so nothing, it almost makes you sick. They are healthy, and to my thinking almost imbecile. That’s what the life in a new country does to you: it makes you so material, so outward, that your real inner life and your inner self dies out, and you clatter around like so many mechanical animals. Yet they are very trustful and kind and quite competent in their jobs. There’s no need to lock your doors, nobody will come and steal. All the outside life is so easy. But there it ends. There’s nothing else. The best society in the country are the shopkeepers – nobody is any better than anybody else, and it really is democratic. But it all feels so slovenly, slipshod, rootless, and empty, it is like a kind of dream. Yet the weird, unawakened country is wonderful and if one could have a big piece of land of one’s own …’.’ ↩
- Clive James mentions the Marquis de Vauvenargues in Cultural Amnesia: Necessary memories from history and the arts (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), well worth the read. For a portrait of Clive James – and other Australian ‘giants’ – it is worth reading, too, former Meanjin editor Ian Britain’s Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes (Oxford University Press Australia, 1997). Young does not mention Vauvenargues, but he does mention another marquis: ‘the / Marquis / de Sade. He / bores the shit / out of me’ (LT, 16). ↩