Peter Steele once wrote:
I do not apologise for mingling one kind of preoccupation with another, since I am myself quickly bored with any writing which does not attempt something of the sort.
With that in mind, I’m going to practice a variation of what Steele called ‘mixed farming’—speaking of the world in general by speaking of poetry in particular, and vice versa—because, for me, poetry has always been my way into (and more importantly out of) the extreme sport that is life. In other words, consider this more a confession than a lecture: a personal, political, poetical confession.
Like all good confessions, mine begins with my father, Barry Deane. I don’t know when Barry died. Don’t know the day. Don’t know the hour. Don’t know the cause of death, either. All I do know is that, when it happened, Baz was alone. He was apart from his family when he desperately wanted to be part of his family; and he died when he desperately wanted to live. I know Dad wanted to live because of what I found when I went to his house.
Dad was living in Shepparton when he died. When we found out, my brother Tim and I drove up from Melbourne. We met the undertaker—a sixty-something scarecrow called Ricky who was smoker-thin rather than cyclist-thin—but he wouldn’t let us view Dad’s body.
Ricky had wrapped Barry in plastic and popped him in the fridge like last night’s takeaway dinner. When we pressed, Ricky explained that Barry’s body was black and bloated and unrecognisable—that it wasn’t our father. Not anymore. You see, Barry had been dead a while before one of his brothers found him. And his body was in such a state—it was the middle of summer—that the doctor couldn’t give a precise time or cause of death. So, Tim and I had to look inside Dad’s house for answers.
But Barry’s brothers and sisters advised us to stay outside. They were trying to protect us from what we might find inside 64 Guthrie Street. Initially, Tim and I agreed. But, as we started driving back to Melbourne, we decided we had to see for ourselves—so, we wheeled back to Guthrie Street.
Inside, the smell was incredible. We started in the bedroom—where, judging by the bedclothes, Dad sat up, then vomited. The carpet at the entrance to the bedroom—and all the way down the hall—was caked with blood and body fluids. The scene reminded me of a long-lost summer in Mooroopna when Tim, my sister Liza and I made a slippery slide out of a sheet of plastic and a garden hose—and carved a warm muddy channel into Barry’s front lawn. The Old Man was not amused.
Judging by the bloody finger marks on the skirting boards and wall, Barry had dragged himself up the slippery-slide of the hall. I don’t know how long it took him to make the journey from the bedroom to the laundry. I don’t know what he was thinking—or what he was seeking. What I do know is that he wasn’t ready to die. I know because Baz could have stayed in bed and given up, but he didn’t. Instead, he crawled up the hall. And he fought to live. And he lost the fight.
This happened more than two years ago, but I can’t stop thinking of Barry. I can’t let go of him—and he won’t let go of me. My father haunts me.
Is that, as Peter Steele put it, a preoccupation? Perhaps. To be honest, though, it’s more like an obsession. And, sooner or later, my obsessions come out in my poetry—especially when triggered by a traumatic event—because those shocks blow open my internal aperture: letting in the light, letting out the darkness; causing a chemical reaction, a transfiguration. It’s a bit like what happens over Melbourne on a hot summer’s day, when all the nitrogen dioxide from cars and trucks and industry is blown out to Port Phillip Bay—and cooks until it’s transformed into a white photochemical haze, then blown back to town. Poetry is like that photochemical smog, except it’s a stimulant rather than a pollutant.
The point I’m making is that—even when they have been transfigured by the photochemical process—every poem I write is grounded in the blood and bone of experience. Does that make my poetry confessional—or political—or whatever label you might want to affix?
Who knows—and, frankly, who cares? I know I don’t.
It’s like what novelist Ursula K. Le Guin wrote:
The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.
The same inherent contradiction applies to poetry: the poet uses words to say that which is beyond words. Let me repeat that last point: using words to say that which is beyond words. When I think about that statement it sounds like a description of an exercise in futility. No wonder every poem I write feels like a failure. It should come as no surprise, then, that the poems of mine I feel closest to are the ones that are the smallest failures. And, yet, despite more than thirty years of failure, I’m still trying—and failing—to, as physician and poet William Carlos Williams put it, build a ‘small (or large) machine made of words … [that is] pruned to a perfect economy.’ Such is the conceit of creativity.
But I’m not here to pontificate about the process of creativity. I’m not because I can’t, because every creation—and therefore every attempt to create—is unique. Consequently, to reconstruct the chaotic, organic way a poem or suite of poems or novel comes into being would be little more than imaginary nostalgia—an attempt to rewrite an invented history. It’d be like looking in the rear-view mirror at the creative goat-track and seeing instead, say, the Western Highway—because recollection had bulldozed the memory trees, and paved over the goat track of false-starts and anxieties until all that remained was bitumen and dividing lanes.
I remember the emotions, though; can’t forget them. For instance, my third collection of poetry, Year of the Wasp, was written in terror; Magisterium, my second collection, in grief. But it’s only when I’m up to my elbows in a project—as I am now, finishing the draft of what will be my third novel—that I remember the pain. That’s because, for me, writing is physical; it’s addictive and it’s exhilarating and it hurts.
But, really, what is the purpose of all that pain when the creative itch is, at one level at least, an exercise in egotism? What is the purpose when every poem and novel I write is a bubble that isolates me from the people I am responsible to and for? And, besides, who cares about poetry when, as W.H. Auden wrote, it ‘makes nothing happen’ and our world is falling apart?
Who cares in this not-so-brave new world of climate change and startup-terrorism and crypto-fascism? Who cares in this anxious era of super bugs and the superrich and superpowers (emerging and subsiding)? Who cares in this moment of artificial intelligence and Big Data and predictive analysis, where the activities of herds of humanity can be monitored and stampeded and corralled? Who cares in this great retreat from personal liberty and independent thought and civil debate? Who cares in this brutal, tribal, gilded age, where we export our misery and citizens are commodities and the rights that matter most belong to those who pay the most? Who cares—and how can the arts in general and poetry in particular respond to all this carnage and chaos and carelessness?
What is the point of poetry?
The selfish answer to that question would be: writing poetry keeps me sane in the face of insanity—keeps me from jumping off a bridge. Poetry may not make anything happen, but it is, as Auden put it, ‘a way of happening’. As for the selfless answer to the what is the point? question, listen to what poet, playwright and critic Alison Croggon recently wrote in Overland. Croggon asked:
What’s the use of art on a dying planet? … Art isn’t a solution. Art isn’t going to bring down the catastrophic hyperdrive of capitalism. Art won’t save the world. Not by itself. But it can be part of the resistance. … Art is a magnificent illusion of possibility. It expresses the best of us, as well as the worst: it encompasses everything we are. … [But] the only thing that is going to change anything is direct action.
Art may not change anything, but, as Croggon goes on to explain, art matters because it can inform and inspire us. ‘It’s a way,’ Croggon says,
…of bringing us together to critically consider who we are in relation to the realities in which we live. In our atomised world, art reaches for connection, expressing the fullness of what we are, the variousness of our pasts and our futures. Art gives us courage.
And that is why poetry matters. And that is why, like a sissified Sisyphus, I keep rolling my office chair up that hill in Hades. I keep writing because I want to add my page to the living book that is literature; I want to tap into the culture that inspires and sustains me; I want to respond to that culture and send something back out into the void that, fingers crossed, connects with someone, somewhere, sometime; I want to make that connection because I know that when a poem blows open the internal aperture of a reader it sparks a little revolution of revelation; and, so, I keep chasing moments of grace—those instances when something that I couldn’t have conceived conspires to finds its way into my notebook or onto my computer screen.
But let’s go back to the purpose of poetry. The poet Pam Brown recently had a go at answering the purpose question on Alice Allan’s Poetry Says podcast. Brown was talking about a poem that touched on the Boxing Day Tsunami when she pivoted to climate change and said:
If poetry has any skerrick of a purpose—[and] well, I’m never sure—I’m not kind of a tub thumper—then I think there is … a natural responsibility to respond in some way to those kinds of things [such as climate change] without becoming necessarily the topical poet.
The purpose of a poet, then, is to ‘respond in some way’. The poet takes everything in: some event blows open their internal aperture: and, amidst the darkness and light, there is a photochemical reaction—a transfiguration—and a poem sneaks out, hopefully. It’s a poetic call-and-response—or antiphony—with the chaos of the world the music and the words of the poet the refrain. Without that artistic refrain there is only chaos. Or silence. Or the white noise of social media ejaculations.
But can that purpose be quantified? Can it be given some kind of social or economic or environmental value?
Of course it can’t. Not in a million years. That’s because poetry—like all the arts—is life itself. And, art—when it taps into our culture, when it connects people, when it gives us courage to engage with the world—is too serious a business to be captured and contained by a cost-benefit analysis.
Poetry is priceless, in other words.
Just how serious—and priceless—poetry is occurred to me when I read Wayne Macauley’s new novella, Simpson Returns.
Simpson Returns is narrated by Jack Simpson, the legendary stretcher-bearer who, together with his donkey, saved countless lives at Gallipoli. In reality, Simpson died in 1915. In Macauley’s novella, though, Simpson lives on—a mythic figure who can only be seen by those who believe or those in need.
Much the same can be said of Australian poetry. It’s a mythic art—visible only to those who believe and those in extremis. That’s why I felt as though Simpson spoke for the poets when he said:
I was an ass: dull, clumsy, ignorant. On my back I carried the whole nation and every sickness in it; every canker of the heart, every affliction of the soul, every mortal wound. … I never slept, as such, but my waking was a kind of sleeping: every moment I spent in a somnolent state, like a koala full of leaves.
Like a koala full of leaves: now, that’s an apt description of the Australian poetry scene. After all, we chew on our books and live in a somnolent state and write poems that will be ignored until the poetically unwashed realise what they are missing—what they need.
Australia doesn’t know it yet, but it does need its poets. The country needs us because it is blithely heading for a social, economic and environmental cliff; and our democracy—drunk on consumerism, chained to the neoliberalism of the Howard era and the xenophobia of Pauline Hanson, and cheered along by the flying monkeys of Rupert Murdoch—is either unable or unwilling to commit to the radical, generational reforms required to avoid catastrophe.
Am I saying that, therefore, our poems should read like media releases? Of course not.
What I am saying is that—now more than ever—poets have an obligation to engage with, and respond to, the temper of our times, because we can be a counterweight, if not an antidote, to the prevailing tide of intolerance and ignorance and toxic individualism.
Recently, I read historian Florian Huber’s Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself, a study of the mass suicides that swept Nazi Germany as the Red Army approached in 1945. It’s an illuminating book. I kept finding parallels between the delusions of many everyday Germans—both before and towards the end of World War Two—and the delusions many everyday Australians operate under with climate change.
As a nation, we are turning our backs on the hard realities of mass extinctions, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and water and food security, as well as the avalanche of refugees this convergence of catastrophe will create. How many refugees? As many as a billion by 2050, according to the United Nations. Unless we confront the reality of climate change, that tsunami of humanity is our national destiny. Just like the German people in 1945, Australia is on course for a terrible reckoning.
Something else caught my eye in Huber’s book. I didn’t realise the Hitler Youth credo was:
Our philosophy is a matter of the heart. Feeling is more to us than reason.
Feeling is more to us than reason. That mantra reminds me of ‘truthiness’: a word comedian Stephen Colbert coined to mock those who refused to let facts interfere with their prejudices. Truthiness is funny. But, ultimately, the joke will be on us unless we challenge the truthiness that wilfully misrepresents everything from climate change to offshore detention to the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Make no mistake, Australia is walking a dangerous path. It’s not a path my father walked. But Barry—who was white and conservative and spent his life having a go, as Prime Minister Morrison compels, without every really getting a go—never blamed migrants or Muslims or Indigenous Australians for his lot in life.
Don’t get me wrong, Dad wasn’t perfect—and, like many Australians of Irish-Catholic extraction, he was a good hater. For instance, Dad hated the Labor Party, although he bit his tongue when I started working for them; he hated the police, he saw too much corruption, racism and violence when he was a clerk of courts in the 1960s; and he hated the Marist brothers, they beat him black and blue in the 1950s. But, principally, Dad hated unfettered power—hated it with a passion that, in hindsight, was both inherently democratic and increasingly archaic. It’s archaic because we have been conditioned to follow the strong man—it’s always a man—who promises a return to a fictitious past, and claims every problem has a simple solution, and turns outsiders and dissenters into political piñatas. It’s archaic because—with the mainstream media reduced to click-bait—we increasingly judge our leaders on the manner of their performances, rather than the matter of their policies.
When did this happen? When did we begin to go so seriously wrong? Was it the Global Financial Crisis? Was it the September 11 attacks? Was it the Tampa? Choose your moment. Whatever moment you choose, though, this much is clear: powerful members of what is meant to be an egalitarian nation are stealing our collective rights and entitlements—and burning our future—while goading us to hate those without power: the unemployed, the disadvantaged, the refugee. This simultaneous hardening of the Australian heart and softening of the Australian head is deeply disturbing. Let me explain why.
If you go back a generation or two most Australian families have origin stories of persecution or hardship or dispossession. You’d think that would make us more compassionate. Yet, as we have become more prosperous we have become less compassionate and less courageous; and spent most of this century demonising and criminalising outsiders—and conflating asylum seekers with terrorists. In doing so, in abandoning the humanitarianism borne out of the hard lessons of the 1930s and 1940s, we are not just turning our backs on those we should give refuge to—we are betraying our history, our future and ourselves.
We are betraying ourselves because the day we started to hate the powerless stranger was the day we started to hate ourselves—and it is the depth of that self-loathing that I find most disturbing. And, in case you’re wondering, it’s easy to spot the self-loathers—they are the ones who demand unwavering fealty and consider dissent unpatriotic—when the dissenters are often the true patriots, because they are the ones who are not satisfied with mediocrity, who believe we can do better as a nation and a people.
Put it this way, I love my father too much to say anything less than the unvarnished truth about the way he lived his life—and the way he left this life. Likewise, I love this country too much to be satisfied by the status quo.
I want Australia to do better and be better. I want Australia to stop trying to be a second-rate American state or a Little Brexit and become truly independent—to become a nation strong enough to be fair, brave enough to be open, and smart enough to be sustainable. I want to be part of an Australian transfiguration. But, for that to happen, we must come to terms with the unvarnished truth about our past, present and future—the sinners and the saints, the beauties and the beasts, the forgotten and the hidden.
Poetry can—by, as Pam Brown puts it, responding in some way to the world we travel through—speak that unvarnished truth and play a part in that national transfiguration. For that to happen, though, poets have to speak up—and I’m not sure we’re ready to play our part. Historically, we’ve tended to spend our collective energies fighting among ourselves like a Kombi van full of koalas—starved, stoned, stroppy koalas. If you don’t believe me, look up the Ern Malley hoax—brilliantly described by critic and poet Philip Mead as ‘a kind of cultural herpes that couldn’t be eradicated, and that led to a series of secondary infections’. And don’t get me started on the hairy-chested skirmishes that break out from time to time.
Take, for instance, poet and critic Geoff Page’s recent review in the Canberra Times of the spoken-word anthology Solid Air. Speaking as a former newspaper journalist, Page’s review read as though it was butchered by a subeditor. I suspect Page wrote a longer piece that was cut brutally, from the bottom up. Consequently, his review is all preamble and no amble—with Page having much to say about the ‘asymmetrical’ (read: warring) camps of Australian poetry (namely, ‘mainstream’, ‘avant-garde’ and ‘performance’), more to say about the fighting words of the anthology’s introduction, and bugger all to say about the actual poems in the poetry anthology. Bottom line: it’s a review that’s not quite a review.
Needless to say, the pseudo-review sparked a backlash on social media. In essence, Page was accused of being an avatar of a privileged, monocultural literary elite determined to marginalise authentic multicultural voices. There’s more than a some truth in the marginalisation critique. But here’s the thing: every poet lives on the literary margins. We’re all marginal. It’s just that some of us are more marginal than others. And, if we want to ever be anything other than marginal, we need to stop behaving like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story because, to extend the metaphor, we can’t fight, we can’t dance and we’re shit choreographers.
The point I’m trying to make is that—in the Australian poetry scene—there needs to be less antipathy and animosity, and more tolerance and generosity. Otherwise, by all means, in the best tradition of Ern Malley, let’s keep carrying on like a bunch of chlamydia-infected koalas.
Let me digress with a disclosure. I have spent a large part of my working life in and around politics. I have seen what political factions can do. I have been directly involved in leadership contests. I have dirty hands. But—despite all that—I still prefer political factions to poetry factions. Here are three reasons why I prefer political factions: one, they are more organized (political people know what they’re meant to be doing); two, they are more honest (political people don’t claim purity, they just hope, as Gough Whitlam put it, to not be afflicted by impotence); three, as nefarious as they can be, political factions have, on occasion, actually helped drive progressive change.
The same can’t be said of poets, by and large. We’re disorganised in our collective endeavours. We’re dishonest with each other about our ambitions. And, collectively, we have shown ourselves disinclined to confront the spivs who have hijacked public language and debate. And, yes, I realise that characterisation is not entirely fair. I realise there have been—in recent years—laudable efforts to fight the good fight, such as the Writing to the Wire poetry anthology, which includes a scorching introduction by editors Dan Disney and Kit Kelen. But that’s not enough. We need to do more—and we can do more. I know we can because I’ve seen it happen in a community every bit as dysfunctional as the Australian poetry scene.
You see, my oldest daughter, Sophie, has Down syndrome. As a consequence, I’ve spent the past eighteen years helping push various political causes for the disability sector. I’ve also watched my wife, Kirsten Deane, become the main player behind Every Australian Counts: the campaign to establish—and protect—the National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS.
No-one expected the Every Australian Counts campaign to succeed. Historically, disability was a political never-never and the three players in the sector—carers, service providers, and people with disability—brawled like the Hatfields and McCoys. But—with some encouragement from Jenny Macklin and Bill Shorten—the factions decided to put aside their differences and work together for the creation of the NDIS. And—to cut a long story short—that grassroots campaign delivered the biggest social policy reform this country has seen since the introduction of Medicare. In other words, anything is possible.
And, in case you’re wondering, I am not and have never been a member of a political or poetical faction because, as Groucho Marx put it, ‘I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.’ Instead, I enjoy reading work from across the divide of Australian poetry. And, from where I sit, Australian poetry is enjoying a purple patch. The standard is high—higher than the standard of Australian fiction—and yet Australian poetry is treated as the poor relative of Australian letters and the eccentric uncle of the Australian arts scene.
Not only that, our poems, like most creative work produced outside the Anglosphere of the United Kingdom and the United States, our poems are mostly ignored beyond these shores—or, if read, flown over at high altitude. This lack of recognition—domestically and internationally—tends to encourage cultural cannibalism. And the time has come for us to stop eating each other. Perhaps, rather than chasing the approval of the northern hemisphere, we should instead respond to the realities of this hemisphere—and develop what already are unique Australian voices.
I’m not talking about adopting a cultural protectionism or jingoism. What I’m talking about is a poetic reconciliation that places the purpose of poetry above petty ambitions and grievances. That being said, any reconciliation must begin with confrontation. Much like non-Indigenous Australians must confront the reality that European settlement is the original sin of our Commonwealth before we can begin to reach a treaty with this country’s First Peoples, we poets must confront our narcissistic tendencies before we can begin to speak courage to a divided country in a range of voices as diverse as the people of this continent. And, although I’m not here to pick a fight, I would like to make a sweeping statement—always unwise, I know—about the local poetry scene.
Here’s my sweeping statement:
Right now, the Australian poetic voices that shine the brightest predominantly belong to female, multicultural or Indigenous poets.
There are many reasons for that phenomenon—too many to throw a blanket over with a glib explanation—but I would like to make one observation. If you come from the wrong side of the cultural tramlines it’s harder to break through—much harder—but those poets who do make it are far more likely to be talented than members of the old guard. They’re also far less likely than the poetic old guard to be beholden to the latest literary equivalent of the hula-hoop. Consequently, poetry outsiders are more likely to have an original voice and poetic intent—and, in time, become part of the vanguard. For instance, I am yet to see poetic intent as serious as this from poet Lionel Fogarty:
My writing is to give a direction to Aboriginal people coming up in the future, to stay away from European colonialist ways of writing, and the disease of stupidity in their language. … I see words beyond any acceptable meaning, this is how I express my dreaming.
To recap, poetry responds to the world; poetry connects people; poetry gives us courage—but we poets are often too busy scratching and pissing about in the back of the Kombi van to get our collective act together and do some damage.
Now, I’m not here to tell poets how to write or what to write. And I’m not here to ask all the koalas in the Kombi to join paws and sing ‘Kumbaya’. What I’m here to say is that it’s time for poets to take their rightful place in the public arena. It’s time for us to become the gatekeepers of Australian language—taking it back from the fake lingo of shock jocks and spin doctors and focus groups. It’s time for us to get serious, because, as one of my favourite novelists, Toni Morrison, said in her 1993 Nobel lecture:
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity-driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered and exposed.
And one of the ways Australia’s poets can begin to reject, alter and expose oppressive language is to campaign for the creation of the office of a national Poet Laureate. Now, what I am proposing is not a Poet Laureate who is captive to a poetic faction; not a Poet Laureate who would be incumbent for a decade; not a Poet Laureate who would pen public doggerel. What I am proposing is the creation of a national platform where, for a year or two at a time, a roster of poets would have the chance to—under the banner of the Poet Laureate and with the backing of organisations like Poetry Australia and the National Library—hold public readings, visit schools or prisons or whatever, and invest in a project such as, I don’t know, building a national audio archive of poetry readings, because we need to take our rightful place in the agora.
In conclusion, let me come back to my father, Barry Deane.
A few months after Dad died I did something unusual: I entered a poetry contest. That contest was the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize. I filled out the forms and sent copies of my books and made up an imaginary itinerary for a trip to Ireland I never thought I would make because I never thought I would win. Then something even more unusual happened: the Buckley family and the University of Melbourne, to my great shock and eternal gratitude, decided to send me to Ireland.
That’s how it came to pass that—a year after I’d buried my father in the high summer of Shepparton—I found myself driving alone through snow drifts in Ireland and Northern Ireland. You could call it a homecoming. You see, the Deanes left Ireland—Tipperary, to be precise—at the height of the Great Famine, and no-one in my branch of the family had gone back.
Now, I didn’t feel Irish-Australian. Still don’t. I didn’t want to find long-lost relatives in Tipperary. In hindsight—and this is my wife’s insight, not mine—I just wanted to escape. But I had—when applying for the Vin Buckley—promised to visit the Deane family’s old village, Lorrha. All of which is how I came to find myself standing in the middle of a cow paddock staring at a ruin that—up until 1850—had been the Deane family farmhouse.
Staring at those broken stones was deeply disconcerting. The day was freezing, but the muddy ground felt too hot to stand on. I snapped a photo, and left; stayed away from the place. Then, on my last full day in Ireland, I went back for a second look.
The truth is, I was going to steal a stone from the ruin, bring it back to Australia, then Melbourne, then Shepparton, then Barry’s grave. But, standing there, looking at the tree growing where a bedroom once had been, I decided to leave the stones where they lay. The stones, I realised, didn’t belong to me anymore than I belonged to them. So I stood there with my internal aperture blown open and took it all in—all the light and darkness. And I know I’ll write about what I saw—and all the days leading up to that day—but not yet.
I’m waiting for the transfiguration.
The piece above was delivered as the Peter Steele Lecture, in Melbourne, September 6, 2019