Jacques Derivative: Interrogating ‘John Leonard’

9 July 2004

First we must say something about the history of the inscription, “John Leonard”. Australian poetry, that world which is small enough that we can indeed say “world” and not “worlds” when placing it under discussion, is occupied, allegedly, by two “John Leonards”. I say allegedly here deliberately. Even if there are in fact two beings occupying time and space who have the name “John Leonard” – a reality that must be held in doubt by the many Australian readers who have never sighted individuals naming themselves “John Leonard” – there is only one inscription “John Leonard” attached to various publications and works within the world of Australian poetry.

My interrogation of the inscription “John Leonard” has only become necessary, only reached my ears in Paris, due to a recent review the allegedly junior “John Leonard” wrote in Overland, the journal of which he is also poetry editor. This “John Leonard”, also a poet, strongly attacked the poetry of the Australian “Les Murray” (I place this inscription in inverted commas because it has not been proven, absolutely, that the soccer commentator “Les Murray” is not the author of the poems under the inscription “Les Murray” that exist in the world of Australian and international poetry). Notwithstanding the reaction this review caused in the world of Australian poetry, there was a strong reaction from the allegedly senior “John Leonard”.

This “John Leonard”, allegedly the editor of several anthologies of world and Australian poetry – and one of the poetry editors of Blue Dog – distanced himself from the criticism of the junior “John Leonard”. The question was again raised whether the junior “John Leonard” should adjust his inscription to avoid confusion (i.e. “J. or John middle initial Leonard” or “John Leonard jnr” or “j. leonard”, etc, etc.)

Who is this doubled figure, “John Leonard”? The case for the idea that the inscription “John Leonard” is in fact a singular figure appears strong. “John Leonard” bears the marks of a literary hoax. But a seminal and intelligent hoax; a hoax that in fact holds together the threads of the concept “Australian poetry” and allows for a cohesive poetic cosmos.

Take the fact that the “John Leonards” occupy binary or other opposites: senior/junior; conservative/radical; formal/informal; and poet-critic/critic. It appears the author of “John Leonard” has created “John Leonard” to bookend the Australian poetry world. Like Jesus' statement that he is the Alpha and Omega, “John Leonard” is positioned as the first and last word on and operative word in Australian poetry. It also must be noted that “Les Murray” is often a lightening rod for approaches to the merit or otherwise of Australian poetry: it's then no surprise that “Les Murray”'s work has, by the author of “John Leonard”'s design, become a litmus test that has revealed the likely truth that “John Leonard” is a fabrication intended to show up forced polarities within the criticism of Australian poetry.

If the “John Leonards” were distinct individuals, by now one would expect either of them to have made a joke – that most prevalent of literary truth serums – about being the other “John Leonard”. If these “John Leonards” were really combatants in separate divisions of Australian poetry, this kind of en piscine (taking of the piss) would be expected by now. Instead, we have in print both “John Leonards” continually distancing themselves from the other. What makes this necessary now? If it wasn't before, it is now perfectly clear to which journals, etc., their “John Leonard” is attached. The only reason for this behaviour is that the author of “John Leonards” is now nervous about the possible discovery – which I believe I have opened as a possibility – that there is one inscription “John Leonard” and no actual “John Leonard” occupying time and space.

“John Leonard” will, due the current literary spaces occupied by the inscription, continue to make a valuable contribution to how Australian poetic merit is assessed. When, however, the hoax that is “John Leonard” is revealed, Australian poetry will fall into a period where its poles are unbalanced until a new hoax double is brought into being. One suspects a feminine “John Leonard” or perhaps a non-gender specific inscription will be the next to occupy the polar position occupied currently by “John Leonard”. Until then my recommendation, albeit from the safe distance of Paris, is for members of the Australian poetry world to begin using both verbally and in writing (ecriture) the inscription ” ” when referring to “John Leonard”.

Au revoir, in revere!

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