My love of literature has always sustained me; more than alcohol, drugs, psychiatry and medication ever have or will.
The fleeting hope and peace I have found can always be traced back to the books I have read, and the landscapes and images I have been given by human beings I have often never met, and never will.
It is a truly indescribable phenomenon, this marriage of an escape from, and confrontation with, the world.
Poetry has been the constant reason for everything I do and am. Kafka said ‘a book must be the axe for the frozen sea with us’, and this notion is one I carry with every page I choose to devote my time to.
In my mind, the writer is the prophet, the creator and destroyer, the rapture and the apocalypse.
As a teenager, who understood better than Sylvia Plath the anguish of my depression, or John Berryman my descent into alcoholism?
Books, both read and written, are my way of understanding, communicating with and navigating the horrific world around me.
I no longer hold any romantic notion of suffering being required in order to write great works of literature as I once did; in fact, books and writing have given me joy in spite of suffering. My great love, the first and complete love of my life, is literature. Not the writing of the thing but the thing itself. Reading is what I would choose if I was told I could only ever read or write again.
I follow an obsessive pattern when reading, often reading the same author until I have exhausted all available texts, revisiting the work of writers most dear to me, and reading as many things simultaneously as I can manage to comprehend. Those which always line my bedside table are Sylvia Plath, Robert Adamson, Philip Larkin, Dante, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, J.G. Ballard and the works of the Japanese haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa.
A current obsession I have rediscovered—Henry Miller’s picaresque novels, namely Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy—make me excited at the prospect of being alive to witness the world in both its depravity and beauty. My greatest hero Bob Dylan called Miller ‘the greatest American writer’, and like Dylan, what appeals to me most about Miller’s work is his undeniable obsession with language. Every sentence feels constructed urgently and naturally, playing with language for the joy of it, while simultaneously assembling a work of great beauty. The writing is staggeringly human, raw, harsh and explicit, but in his words there is a passion for literature, and for words, that I believe I share.
The act of being solely for the point of existing inspires a series of existential questions in the mind; our understanding of menial work in particular, the monotony of employment and existence purely for the sake of existence, is only justified for Miller as for myself, in the need to live within books and because of books. Perhaps we live, suffer and persist, to live again in books. Everything described that harms the narrator can be rewritten into beauty. Literature is parallel to life, perhaps, at least in my mind, and the consumption of literature creates another life for us, regardless of how frequently we are interrupted by the seemingly baseless lives we lead. Take this beautiful passage from Tropic of Capricorn, for instance; ‘The experience he acquires is never used for personal ends; it serves the larger purpose to which he is geared. Nothing is lost on him, however trifling. If he is interrupted for twenty-five years in the reading of a book he can go on from the page where he left off as though nothing had happened in between’.
The recurring, revolving obsessions that follow me most often examine truths beyond that which confronts me explicitly, but lives within the ocean of the conscience, as Miller once referred to it; The Gospels and Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, are books that alter the perception of things and refashion the understanding of the self.
If there is a future, it makes sense in the lens of what has come before, the extremes of faith and damnation, when the commandments and the circles of Hell coincide. This is why we read these works now.
What binds me to Dante most urgently is the relevance of Hell within us, as within the book, and the journey to pass through it in pursuit of paradise. Hell exists in the body as it does in the poem, and the reading of the comedy is cathartic, scarring and cleansing. It feels as if Virgil is leading the reader at times, and Dante is the scribe allowing you to witness the personal fires of life anew on the page.
Some have argued that obsessing over such works, (a case has been attributed also to Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, in my experience) is counterproductive when in search of some kind of solace. I find the opposite to be the case. When I first read the Inferno, the flesh had been made word again; all the greatest existential longings within me did not make more sense exactly, but had developed personal meaning and understanding.
In contrast to the above, a common misconception made by many Australian readers, especially those with aspirations to make careers in the field of letters, is that the only writing worth reading comes from overseas. Certainly, every aspiring writer should read Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf, for example. This is a necessity, but something I notice too often amongst the younger generation of which I am a part, is they are not seeking work written in our own country. To think only works set in the most romantic cities are essential is ludicrous.
Christina Stead, Henry Lawson and Alexis Wright are some fine examples of why we need not look so far afield to appreciate where language can take us.
My current Australian obsession, the writer that has completely assaulted my senses and preconceptions about our literature, is Melbourne writer Gerald Murnane, his classic novel The Plains in particular. The imagery of the landscape in this strange, insular world is haunting, and Murnane’s gift of craft and ability to harness language to create an Australian, yet completely unique and universal, novel is truly breathtaking. The novel is indisputably a masterpiece and he one of our finest writers. I have heard he is also soon to release a collection of poetry, which is something I very much look forward to.
Australian literature is one thing, regardless of political or cultural disappointments, whose future I will always be proud to enjoy and participate in, in whatever small way I can.
We have some of the finest poets and writers, many living and writing today. Robert Adamson for example, a writer whose books are always close at hand, his collections The Golden Bird (Black Inc) and Mulberry Leaves (Paper Bark Press), in particular. Other books I have recently enjoyed immensely, and which have sustained and inspired me are Jo Langdon’s excellent Glass Life (Five Islands Press), Ian McByde’s moving The Adoption Order (Five Islands Press) and Amanda Joy’s stunning Snake Like Charms (UWA).
I am in the final stages of writing what I believe to be the final draft of my first play, which has lead me to read works for the theatre even more voraciously than I usually might. Once again, I feel it is important to follow the pulse of what drives the art in one’s own country; I attempt to read as widely the works of Australian playwrights as possible, my favourites being Louis Nowra and Joanna Murray-Smith. Beyond Australia, I have found myself once again habitually preoccupied with Antonin Artaud, especially his works The Cenci and The Theatre and It’s Double, whose rejection of theatrical expectation and the barriers imposed by language have subconsciously inspired the psychological brutality of my own piece of writing. Alongside Artaud, I frequently revisit the works of Sarah Kane, Euripides, Jean Genet, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Beckett, Brecht Chekhov and of course, Shakespeare.
Another close companion during this time has been Eric Bentley’s indispensable The Theory of the Modern Stage (Penguin).
Being given a space to express the importance of literature, to me, feels more worthwhile than almost anything before; to read, to learn and to write. We are doomed and we are lucky to be in such a position.
What are we without stories? What are we without words? What else but poetry speaks back to us from the darkness? It is everything. Maybe I am wrong, but I have never felt more certain.
I do not believe in a world without literature, and such a world terrifies me even more than that which I attempt to live in.
If I am ever to live, truly live, it will be for the second time inside a book.
This is why I read. This is why I write.
This is why I go on.
Robbie Coburn is a Melbourne poet. His work has appeared in places such as Poetry, Meanjin, Island and Westerly.