To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture. Our first piece was written by C.B. (Clem) Christesen, who founded Meanjin in 1940 and then served as editor for 34 years. Clem received both the Order of the British Empire and Order of Australia for his contribution to Australian literature.
Our poems are like blueprints,
They are not mere tracts for the times,
They seek to instil no opinion
With the tinkle of rhyme.
Here are specifications
For the latest equipment of sense:
A locking device for the heart,
A trigger for truth’s defence.
I have deliberately selected extracts from a recent poem by Donovan Clarke as an introduction to this talk tonight. For one point I wish to emphasise is that Meanjin is largely an experimental literary laboratory. A workshop. And much of our poetry and literary criticism, written and published during these momentous years are, in certain respects, blue-prints.
In the first issue of Meanjin Papers, published early in December 1939, we said: ‘We believe that it is our duty to continue to write and to publish poetry. We believe that it would be a grave error to suppose the Nation can drop its mental life, its intellectual and aesthetic activities for five, seven or more years, neglecting them and those trained to minister to them, and then attempt to resume “after the war” as though nothing had happened. Literature and art, music and drama and poetry do not spring into being at the word of command. Their life is a continuous process growing within it self, and its suppression means death.’
We wished, therefore, to maintain continuity with the past and the present: and by writing and publishing to make a Report on Today, and to provide a connecting link with the future, the post-war years.
That was, broadly, the reason for publishing Meanjin. So little verse of serious literary quality was at that time being published in Australia and none at all in Queensland. There were other reasons, too, as we shall see later on.
But first I should like to point out that there is really no ‘school’ of Meanjin poets. A reviewer, after perusing the first issue of this publication, observed that it might presage the beginning of a new literary movement in Queensland. Others referred to a ‘school’ of modernists.
Meanjin contributors, originally exclusively Queenslanders, are now scattered throughout the Commonwealth. Young, unknown writers, as well as the older, established poets and critics, contribute to its pages. Neither previous notoriety, nor ‘school’ or standpoint form the criterion guiding acceptance of manuscripts.
As to points of view, Meanjin gives a hearing to a wide variety, the intention here being to encourage literary discussion free from humbug and hypocrisy, and attempt to broaden the public’s conception of the nature and potentialities of contemporary poetry, not only as a fine art, but as an interpreter of the urgent problems confronting society today, while avoiding what has been termed ‘literary politics’ and the furious recrimination of antagonistic literary coteries.
Authentic Australian bush and city ‘colour’ poetry, reflective poetry, the world view, so-called war poetry, the abstract and personal communication, ‘simple’ poetry and ‘difficult’ or studious poetry will all be sympathetically examined. So long as it is good of its kind; so long as it possesses ‘genuineness’ (to use T. S. Eliot’s term) neither the shearing shed nor the lecture room will, as such, be taboo. It is proposed, in short, not to attempt to found a school, but to mark out a meeting ground. The contents of Meanjin bear witness to our intention and, I think it can fairly be said, a certain amount of achievement.
But there are other reasons for our publishing. Why the title ‘Meanjin’ for instance? It was chosen deliberately. Meanjin was the aboriginal word for Brisbane. It means ‘spike,’ and was the name for the finger of land extending from the city proper to the Botanic Gardens, University and Domain. It has a symbolic meaning. Also you will have noticed the four footprints on the cover. They too, have a meaning. Originally there were four contributors—James Picot, Brian Vrepont, P. L. Grano and myself. But in addition they are the footprints of aboriginal cult-heroes leading onward from Alcheringa, the Dream Time, the Long Ago.
Meanjin attempts to relate local culture—Brisbane, Queensland culture—to place: Brisbane, Meanjin. We have attempted to take stock of ‘environmental values.’ As such, Meanjin follows in the bush track blazed by our nationally conscious writers.
It is surely obvious that if the majority of Australians possessed a balanced, passionate love of things Australian—but not in a narrow, bigoted, chauvinistic sense—there would be no need for literary movements such as Jindyworobak or Meanjin. But right up to the present there has been a vast deadening mass of downright un-Australian thought, which has had its disastrous effect upon the whole life and living of the nation. I cannot at this stage, enlarge on this subject, or discuss on what points Meanjin differs from Jindyworobak that has already been discussed in various publications, and Professor A. R. Chisholm has a provocative article in No. 10. But these young Australian poets will continue to write and to publish until the need for such movements will no longer remain.
These poets, in their best work, have shaken off the literary tradition of a colonial past—but remaining conscious of our rich heritage, keenly appreciative; they draw largely upon their native environment, for reference, imagery, idiom, metaphor, simile; their concepts are distinctly Australian—while their imaginative horizons are not confined by national borders. We want to see more of that adult, unfettered, vigorous expression in our national literature.
Meanjin also wishes to lay stress on contemporary poetry, work influenced by the most recent trends operating in poetry today in Europe and America.
In spite of the difficulty of contemporary appraisal, there is no other poetry which can have quite the same interest to us as the poetry of our own day; a poetry whose material is the life about us here and now, of which we are a living part; the poetry whose creators art: alive in the way we ourselves are alive, who have to meet life on the same terms as we have to meet it; the poetry which is written for us.
At all times, poetry has revealed man to himself, in his unchanging essence; but we turn to the poet of our own day to make us aware not only of the changeless nature of the human heart , but of the pulse of the present.
We ask him to reveal and clarify our life by showing it to us, through a vision different from ours, and deeper. We ask him to organise the conflicting welter of impressions, which is the actual process of living, into the ordered and disciplined integrations of experience, which are examples of art.
The reader—or listener—who really cares about poetry—one who is prepared to make some effort to receive what modern poetry can give—asks this. The others, suffering from a vicious time-lag, can only condemn out of hand.
Readers and would-be readers very often complain that contemporary poetry is very difficult poetry. We need not here go into the reasons why this should be so. It is impossible, however, to discuss or write modern poetry without some discussion and knowledge of the modern world. That is why Meanjin, in addition to publishing verse of an experimental, as well as a traditional nature, offers brief, well-considered articles and essays dealing with aspects of contemporary art, literature, philosophy, religion, ethics, modes of conduct, and the mentality that lies behind these cultural system in Australia.
That branch of Meanjin has not yet been fully developed, but it is hoped that during next year’s series articles dealing with certain vital fundamental values affecting our national culture will be discussed.
Meanjin claims that political and economic order is the essential order of society; and though the poet may identify himself with propaganda on its behalf, it is not, for him, the essential order. The poet’s essential order comprehends the whole nature of man.
Meanjin hopes that gradually we will be permitted to assist in making articulate, by means of poetry, essays, literary criticism, and perhaps short stories and concise reportage, the highest aspirations of the cultural system produced by the New Australia which may arise during post-war reconstruction.
Perhaps it is true that many of the Meanjin poets are more ‘politically minded’ than the contributors to literary magazines during past years. Editorially, Meanjin has certainly been acutely conscious of the prevailing national unease with the disintegration of Western sensate culture. Many Meanjin contributors are concerned, even when it does not obviously show in their work, with the question: ‘What can the poet do at a time when external struggles for power consume the energies of nations and classes, when disillusionment debilitates the spirit of man, and when a crude social culture saps the soul of the people?’ If however, to quote L A . Richards, ‘Art is the point at which the growth of the mind reveals itself,’ it would appear as if the point has not yet been reached, here or abroad, when the society of the future will be heralded by a new revolutionary poet.
In the meantime—work, write, experience, form a synthesis.
But there are persistent attempts now to make poetry functional in society instead of, in many instances, a decoration upon it, just as there are persistent and inextinguishable attempts to regulate society itself.
Meanjin is very conscious that we are in an era when poetry’s organic function in the fabric of civilisation has been lost, and that it will not be regained until that fabric has been repaired or refashioned.
But the poet remains, as always, one of the potential instruments to that end. In a world of closing doors, Meanjin hopes to remain ajar, is striving to continue publication, and to assist those other literary groups in this country to keep alive until actual armed warfare ends, and the process of reconstruction can claim full attention. And in the midst of the present chaos of violence and bowel-twisting uncertainty, the modern poet is—
‘The voice of Man: Oh teach me to outgrow my madness:
Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive.
To all it suffered once a weeping witness.
Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubbish;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth.
Till they construct at last a human justice,
The contribution to our star, within the shadow
Of which uplifting. loving and constraining power all other reasons may rejoice and operate.’
The above (edited) speech was originally aired as a radio broadcast in 1942. Due to popular request, it was then printed in Meanjin the following year.
Meanjin Volume 2 Issue 2 1943
The full Meanjin archive can be accessed at www.informit.com.au/meanjinbackfiles