Written in the Chinese record of rites is the passage:
‘… Poetry is the expression of earnest thought’.
Can we deny that poetry inAustraliahas little community support?
Is it lacking in force and vitality?
Is it, as the folksong says, ‘an eyeless, boneless, chickenless egg?’
Are the poetry movers and shakers insular, elitist, self-focused and politically active to the detriment rather than to the advancement of poetry as a community art form, vocation or even pleasant creative pastime?
Why have the publishing powers engulfed us in a tsunami of post-millennium modernism, is there nothing else? Has poetry inAustraliabecome a bureaucracy?
Are these rhetorical questions? Well, are they?
On reflection, it occurs to me that today’s management committee czars, selection panel specialists, competition judges, anthology editors and some website moderators, not to mention the political gongoozlers responsible for dishing out government grants to apple polishing supplicants, often take their apparent powers far too much for granted. Are their positions unassailable, their bastions impregnable, and their rules absolute?
It is just possible that the ambitions, objectives and tunnel vision of any tight-knit common interest group, fortified by a goodly dose of self-importance, guided by enlightened self interest and a desire to rule the roost, will be a cause for concern to many of the workers in the field.
It is likely that perceived organisational loss of peripheral vision, demonstrated by website assertions and cyber fiats, handed down to the groundlings with an authoritative, – take this, it is good for you – will generate distrust, disquiet, resistance and with a bit of luck, revolution.
Does all this beg the question: How did poetry inAustraliabecome a bureaucracy? If it doesn’t, perhaps it should. However, should you wish to create your own poetry bureaucracy, go for it.
The steps required to transform a diverse poetry world into the sterile grey bastion of the ‘Big Poetry’ cartel are herewith clearly marked and deliciously easy to follow.
Step 01: Convince small groups they need government grants to survive.
Step 02: Monster small groups by claiming government grants will not be forthcoming unless they amalgamate and become a big group.
Step 03: Form the big group with a labyrinthine constitution, inspiring title and select [note not elect] the right sort of ‘connected’ committee.
Step 04: Get the promised government grant and spend it on salaries.
Step 05: Employ beautiful people and give them fancy titles.
Step 06: Create a website to establish the new poetry oligarchy in the world of .com.
Step 07: Create an email storm to attract new members and to keep up the cash flow.
Step 08: Publish cyber plaudits by public figures seeking any sort of relevance.
Step 09: Remember that the apathy of the many will serve the energy of the few.
Step 10: Publish a grey, serious looking anthology of carefully chosen works by writers who support the elitist cause.
I recently received and ploughed through, with no small effort, two new anthologies. In terms of presentation, one had all the charm and grace of a surgical stocking catalogue, the other wasn’t that good. However, I did not judge the books by their covers or by their dowdy presentation but by their contents.
I found the entombed selections, with a few exceptions, uninspiring. They did not make me feel, they did not make me think. I found much of the fractured meandering unintelligible, some of it unappealing to the point of alienation.
Why do so many modernist poems sit so lost and naked on the page, isolated like their modernoid creators, insulated from the known world and largely incomprehensible to the questing reader?
Why do so many arty-farty editors accept the incoherent raves of writers apparently ‘hanging upside down in the cosmos’? Why are so many short stories, chopped up into verse-like chunks and passed off as ‘free verse’ when they are neither free nor authentically verse?
Both unsatisfactory tomes dramatically demonstrate why the broad community does not read and embrace poetry, if poetry it be, as published by the current elitist, modernist poetry bureaucracy. Clearly, the poetry cartels are screwing the pooch.
The legendary ‘Ern Malley’ website asserts that Harold Stewart and James McAuley, the creators of Ern Malley, his spinster sister and his body of work, thought modernist poetry was pretentious nonsense. They likened it to ‘a free association test’. They agreed with Alec Derwent Hope [1907-2000], influential poet, polymath and feared reviewer, that it would be a good idea to ‘get Maxy’ [Max Harris] and the modernists and to debunk what the conspirators called the ‘Angry Pungwungs’. The rest is history.
The audacious hoax worked well, the debunking was savage. ‘Max and the Modernists’ took a hit. Unfortunately, in time, the Angry Pungwungs, like the indestructible cockroach, survived, re-immerged and flourished to pervade the literature.
One can only hope that another deadly duo, channelling Stewart and McAuley, is waiting in the wings, with the three debunking rules at the ready, to scuttle or at least curtail the current onslaught of pretentious nonsense. For the uninitiated, the writing rules applied in the debunking of the modernists are:
01] There must be no coherent theme.
02] There must be no care taken with verse technique.
03] In style, the works must imitate the work of as many dead modernoids as possible.
I will add three more rules to guide and excite:
04] Find every rhyme and annihilate it.
05] Find every rhythm and obliterate it.
06] Get published in a Poetry Cartel Anthology.
Of course, the consummate debunker should not give the game away until after receiving written fulsome plaudits from the self-appointed poetry gurus of the day.
Will it work? Is it likely, or even remotely possible? Can ‘Hope’, or Stewart and McAuley, spring eternal? In this brave new, conservative, government granted world, probably not. Those worthy of the name poet will continue to languish at the margins. The bureaucracy will make damn sure they remain there.
Bear in mind that even though the names of the movers and shakers change, the bureaucracy, much like the cockroach, is self-replenishing and therefore indestructible.
As Nicholas Hale Blundell remarked, in an impromptu address to a group of demoralised poets, quaffing happy hour schooners and licking their wounds in the Union Bar of a nearby university: ‘Those who promise to lead, coordinate, and guide you in your industry, nurture your creativity and protect your intellectual freedom will inevitably seek to control your future and direct your artistic output to serve their desired outcomes. They do so because they can, and as you radicals become conservatives – by disappointment, opportunity or ageing – you will become as they are now. I know this to be the natural order of things. Make mine a double, no ice’.
From a reading at ‘Poets Alive’ at Liverpool NSW Library © Dermott Ryder 2011