Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry by Philip Mead
Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008
Once every decade, it seems, a scholar succeeds in writing an all-encompassing account of the practice and development of poetry in modern Australia. The 1980s saw Andrew Taylor's Reading Australian Poetry; and in the 1990s we had Paul Kane's Australian Poetry: Romanticism and Negativity. Now, Philip Mead, senior lecturer at the University of Tasmania's School of English, Journalism and European Languages, has provided what is perhaps the most ambitious and provocative overview of the agonistic and at times conflicting discourses of Australian poetry in the 20th century.
The purpose of Mead's study seems sufficiently straightforward. He states at the beginning of his introduction that his interest rests with 'the networks of relations' between poetry and society and/or public culture. Similar 'Cultural Materialist' perspectives have been deployed for quite some time by many critics – by the late Edward Said, for example, in Culture and Imperialism – perhaps as a consequence of the immensely influential work of the Welsh theorist Raymond Williams. As such, Mead's exploration of Australian poetry enacts a somewhat familiar strategy; and yet it produces poignant and startling results.
Simply put, in Networked Languages Mead looks at the phenomenon of Australian poetry in its broader socio-cultural context. He begins by examining Kenneth Slessor's early 20th century 'cinematism' and proposes that – as Cultural Materialists may have it – poetry legitimises new media. Mead points out, for example, the appearance of 'a cinematic scene' in Slessor's 1939 poem 'Five Bells' ('Deep and dissolving verticals of light / Ferry the falls of moonshine down') to suggest that Slessor's modernism can be seen as 'an instance of expressive language' formulated in response to modernity and new technology.
Not all Australian poets, however, responded – and indeed continue to respond – positively to 'the shock of the new' (to use Robert Hughes' phrase), and anti-modernist and reactionary poetics are the subject of the next two chapters of Mead's study. His account of the infamous episode of 'literary-cultural sabotage', the 'Ern Malley' hoax, provides both an engrossing narrative of one of the more bizarre cases in Australia's legal history, as well as an expert deconstruction of the poetic and cultural implications of this event. Mead is well-suited to write about 'Ern Malley' as he, with John Tranter, played an important role in rehabilitating 'Malley''s poems by including them in the 1991 anthology Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry.
Here Mead concludes his investigation of the Monty Pythonesque trial by making an observation that resonates through the rest of the book. The trial of 'Ern Malley''s publisher Max Harris (for the apparent 'obscenity' of some of the fake poet's work) was, according to Mead:
a trial [-] about the (threatening) ambiguity and unlawfulness of poetic language. In the conservative cultural context of Australia in 1944, we have an instance, fascinating and appalling in equal measures, of the successful criminalisation of poetic language.
Opposition and tension – between the avant-garde (represented in this book, most visibly, by John Tranter's 1996 computer-generated book Different Hands) and conservative traditionalists such as McAuley and A. D. Hope – constitute a sort of meta-narrative informing much of Mead's analysis of Australian poetry. Here James McAuley emerges as a tragicomic, albeit significant, figure whose attempt at humiliating the left-leaning avant-garde backfired – due to the unintended artistic merits of the 'Ern Malley' poems – and he devoted the rest of his life to championing 'deeply religious assumptions about culture, value and language'.
Other than founding the ultra-conservative journal Quadrant (in reaction against the progressive Meanjin), McAuley also wrote a rhyming epic about the 16th century Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandes de Queir??s who at one point envisaged establishing a Christian colony called La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo (Great Southern Land of the Holy Spirit) long before Cook's fateful expedition. According to Mead, McAuley's 1963 Captain Quiros is
the generically awkward and poetically reactionary site of what was, by the time of its writing, an outmoded struggle: a ritualized linguistic agon over the mythogenesis of white Australia's national origins. [-] The failure of Quiros is culturally determined: it is a late, enervated attempt to will into existence a counter-myth of national history.
While Mead is right about the obsolescence of McAuley's attempt at championing Catholic Queir??s over Protestant Cook as the 'true discoverer' of Australia, it can also be said that the contesting versions of 'Australia's national origins' as a whole are far from outdated. As the second half of Networked Language demonstrates, debates over Australian culture's origins (and therefore its identity and destinations) form one of the central paradigms of Australian poetry. In her poem 'Habitat', for example, Judith Wright aims 'to establish a myth of the 'shared house' of Australia' which inevitably leads to the question of the country's original ownership and land rights.
Furthermore, the continuing marginalisation of contemporary non-Anglo-Celtic – Aboriginal or immigrant – Australian poets such as Lionel Fogarty and ?ì?Ñ. o. can also be seen as a consequence of the conflicts over 'Australia's national origins' which have resulted in the hegemony of a monolingual 'vernacular literary nationalism'. Yet Mead is not content to let the marginalised remain subjugated by 'the linguistic terror' of a rigorously imposed national language, and in the final chapter of the book he celebrates the work of Fogarty and ?ì?Ñ. o. by providing the two poets with a detailed reading and appraisal that is long overdue.
Mead is particularly enthusiastic about Π o.'s 1996 long poem 24 Hours which, in opposition to the totalitarian supremacy of English in Australia, displays an 'inherently democratic impulse' by providing a space 'where it is the ordinariness, or everydayness, of language that the poetry represents, not its literary 'separateness', or its official vernacular or 'national language-ness'.' Mead argues that Π o.'s work performs a 'linguistic mimesis' and can be best described as 'neo-modernist' (as opposed to, say, Tranter's anti-mimetic postmodernism); and that the formal irreverence of Π o.'s 'dialecticism' (with its nods to Objectivism and Olson's 'Projective Verse') presents 'an intolerable challenge to a mainstream Australian identity'.
Mead reaches his conclusion apropos Fogarty's and Π o.'s heterogeneous poetic languages by briefly mentioning feminist American poet Adrienne Rich's attempt at fashioning 'a language of and between women'. This note gives way to the only criticism this reviewer can make of Mead's book, that is, its lack of detailed examination of the female voices (other than Judith Wright's) that have also either contested or supported the cultural tendencies under discussion. This point notwithstanding, and by indentifying the tensions and contentions at the heart of poetry in modern and contemporary Australia, Philip Mead has made an immensely valuable contribution to the understanding of Australian literature. Although produced as a monograph, Networked Languages should be of great interest to academic as well as non-academic readers of Australian poetry; and it is, needless to say, recommended reading for all Australian poets.