Independent Australia managing editor David Donovan has been repelled by the self-obsessed, self-referencing, Australian poetry scene — and here's why.
Despite my best intentions, I have been completely alienated and turned off by what I have seen of modern art and modern poetry. How many others are in the same boat — who would like to become involved, if only as casual observers, but have found it too self-involved, too cliquey, too self-obsessed and self-referencing, in preference to being good, to be worth a second look?
I have given modern art and modern poetry more than a second, and a third and even a fourth look and I have found that, sadly, it is full of inaccessible elitists — people who have no desire to promote their field, but actually want the canon to be inaccessible to the hoi polloi. Many of these people, unfortunately, could be described in no other way than as "absolute wankers". They have no desire to progress talent or promote quality or strive for widespread public appeal for their dwindling artform — but are only interested in exploring a trend, or a political ideology, to shock, or to promote their own careers.
In this piece, I will tell the story of my strange, often disappointing, but also frequently rather hilarious brushes with poetry in Australia and the odd people who run it. In a future piece, I will cover my strange experiences with modern art in Britain and Australia.
BUSH POETRYPoetry is in my blood, coming down to me from my father, Gordon Donovan. My family come from cattle properties in Central Queensland and Gordon came from an age when everyone could recite a few bush ballads, and maybe even a bit of Wordsworth.
He continued this tradition with me, and I was able to recite The Man from Snowy River from memory from before the age of nine, for instance. Gordon was a bush poet of some local renown, who would sometimes be asked to recite his latest composition over the PA at the local field day, or picnic race day, or rodeo. People liked his stuff, I think, because it was accessible, fun and he parodied local figures in a gentle and humorous way.
Here’s an example of Gordon’s poetry:
You will all remember the Dingo folk
Who prayed for rain that day;
To clear the land of smoke and smell
And cover the land with grass.
The Lord send down the rain okay,
But it came too jolly fast.
The Isaacs was a banker,
The Mack’ was in full flood.
Every little gully was a rushin’
Brown and yellow mud.
The water was everywhere
Really all about,
And gone were all the cattle
That had survived the five year drought.
The graziers were ruined,
They moved to near and far.
Harold Park is now a shearer’s cook
He’s camped out on the Darr.
Holt Hutton had to sell his plane
And bought a fishing boat.
Stewart Mack now runs a dairy;
“Is it true he’s milking goat?”
Bob Bauman melted all his eights
And made a great big vat.
Then collected up the carcasses
And boiled them down to fat.
And with Bob’s ingenuity, he canned
The bloomin’ lot, called it boiled hen!
Now sells it on the Asian market
Per gross a million yen.
BEYOND BUSH POETRY
Bush poetry is one thing, and Australia has a thriving bush poetry scene that I look in on from time to time. Much of it though, I’ve found, perhaps unsurprisingly, is like country music without the steel guitar — lyrical and moving, but limited in scope. Bush people, of course, love the genre — but it is difficult to see it being taken up in the trendy inner-city coffee shops of Sydney and Melbourne.
I developed a passion for poetry and, while I was at high school, I borrowed and read the writers that appealed: Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Auden, Frost and many others. Since poetry did not seem to be taught in any of my English classes at high school – it must have been out of fashion in the Queensland Education Department during that period – I read my older brothers’ and sister’s English textbooks to initially get a taste for more modern poetry and the way poets were experimenting with styles and using different forms.
When I got to Brisbane to go to university, in 1988, I didn’t immediately get involved in the poetry scene as there was too much else happening — like carousing and trying to pass Constitutional Law and Company Accounting II. However, in 1991, I read in the Courier-Mail that the Qld Poets Association (I believe that was what the organisation was called) was holding an open poetry competition and so I decided to go down and recite a few of my poems, which I did. The event was held upstairs at an Arts venue in central Brisbane and the room was fairly well packed with aspiring poets and their support crews.
The standard of the poetry was, I must say, pretty poor. With a small number of exceptions, it was mostly doggerel, or overblown epithets, or what seemed to be a series of unrelated words put together seemingly at random. It was hard to sit through.
One of the poems I chose to recite was the following — which, interestingly, I wrote before I had ever worked in an office:
They left each other casually
in a strictly formal way;
he wished her all good fortune
whilst she wished him pleasant days.
She turned away so slowly
slightly swishing her green dress
while gloomily he watched that arse
he never would caress.
They were temporary colleagues
but total mental lovers.
Both dreaming they would work together
underneath the covers.
He was tall and he was handsome;
she was tiny, lithe and fair.
She dreamt of his tight abdomen
whilst he dreamt of her long hair.
But neither had the courage,
though each knew they surely must,
and so they spent a working fortnight
in delirium and lust.
Which could have been more tangible
if either had drawn near
but, why worry, this will happen
fifty million times this year.
CITY POETRYThis poem received an excellent reaction from the crowd and, though I didn’t necessarily expect to win, I thought on balance it should, given the pretty appalling quality of the poems on display, at least snare a 2nd or a 3rd place. I was wrong; it seems I wasn’t even close. The poems that came in 2nd and 3rd were from what I would call the randomized word school — 120 words of jibberish, perhaps selected by a computer program from Webster’s Dictionary. But the one that won was, as far as I was tell, not even a poem at all. It was, in my mind, simply a short piece of prose; it sounded like prose — there were no breaks, apart the short ones you get at the end of sentences. What I heard was a middle-aged lady read out a paragraph of prose, without any dramatic emphasis whatsoever, about what it felt like to her to breastfeed a baby.
I was mystified. I went away.
About six months later, the Queensland Poets held another competition, this one with the assistance of the Brisbane City Council, in the charming little square that existed then outside the City Hall at the top of the Brisbane mall.
Before it all began, drier than dry Comedian Elliot Goblet warmed up the crowd:
And then there was a recital.
I entered this one:
My mind swirled
like a storm that day:
my mouth the wind,
my heart the rain.
The fire scorching in her soul,
the deluge poured and did annul.
Her ship awash on eddied seas,
the wind a breath to bring her peace.
Dark thunder broiled with bodies toil
as Thor did rend from sky to soil.
I gave the girl a quenching passion
and left a rainbow in refraction.
Again, the crowd really liked this poem, and indeed this poem was later published in a recognised poetry journal. The Queensland Poets, however, ignored it. The winner was a poem by a spiky green-haired lady, whose composition merely consisted of snarling different names for the female genitals for a torturous, seemingly never-ending, five minutes. I still remember the shocked looks on the faces of mothers there with young children, who happened to simply be sunning themselves in the park that crisp November day, and them struggling frantically to cover the ears of toddlers, while at the same time packing up their things before scuttling away, looking back angrily over their shoulders.
I left poetry where it lay for a while after that experience – like most people in that park I suspect – but was drawn back a few years later, in about 1995, when I was about half-way through another degree, in Journalism, at QUT. I had taken an elective in Creative Writing with a lecturer who, it was said, wrote satirical political poetry, and had a book of his verse in print — maybe even two!
The lecturer took us through modern Australian writing in his course, including poetry. At some point, I offered him some of my poems to read and he came back to me a week later.
“I like your poems,” he said, “but they're too old-fashioned.”
“You need to look at what other people are writing in the local poetry scene and write something more trendy.”
He was probably right, I grudgingly admitted to myself; it was true that I has been rather turned off the local poetry scene. I asked him whether he had a point of contact in this “scene” and he said he would send my poems to someone who was apparently the local doyen of – yes, you guessed it – the Queensland Poets Association.
About two months later, the same lecturer handed to me an envelope that contained my 3 or 4 poems, along with a bundle of other poems written on blue paper that I had never seen before. In it also was a letter that had been scrawled, almost illegibly, in lead pencil.
“David, there is no point in us meeting up,” it began.
“You have no talent and your poems dont [sic]even make sense. Like in your poem I wandered alone how can you wander and at the same time not move much at all. Thats [sic] impossible.”
She was referring to this poem:
I wandered alone
I wandered alone
I didn’t move much at all
Staring at nothing
Held in thrall
By the trees and the clouds
And the fools on the ground
I wandered alone
And not much was found
The clouds blew away
Flying over the hill
While the trees lost their leaves
Went so awfully still
And those fools on the ground
Erstwhile merry and gay
Packed up their bags
And trudged slowly away
I wandered alone
So alone I now stood
Staring at nothing
Moving like wood
Til the night took the sunlight
And dark was the world
I wandered alone
Not seeing at all
Quite obviously, this stupid person thought the poem was about an actual journey, not a spiritual/metaphysical one. I shook my head in sheer astonishment that anyone in the poetry field could have such little apparent poetry in their soul.
The letter finished with the following:
“Also can you pass on the other poems in this envelope to [the name of someone I had never heard of] because I dont [sic] have his return address and I think he goes to QUT like you.”
THE POETRY SCENEI don’t believe the Queensland Poets Association exists any more. I notice there is a Queensland Poets Union listed on the internet and an Australian Bush Poets Association, which has an active Queensland presence. I suspect the people from the Queensland Poets Association may have transformed themselves into the Queensland Poetry Festival, which has a prominent internet site and Twitter account. I could be wrong and the people that ran the Queensland Poets Association may have no involvement in this new entity — one can but hope.
I regard myself as a reasonable poet – and I have been published in a few journals and newspapers over the years – but I would run a million miles rather than become actively involved in the Queensland poetry scene, if there even really is such a thing these days.
My experience with poetry, which has also translated across to modern art, is that the gatekeepers to these cultural theatres – the ones who are most actively involved in determining what should be promoted and what should be ignored – are people who revel in the fact that the scene is counter-cultural and set out, either consciously or sub-consciously, to repel people who don’t follow a particular school or who aren’t “trendy” enough, in their opinion. In my experience, these people have no interest in making their art accessible to the broad cross-section of society, but use it simply as a means of furthering their own careers in writing or academia, or to further their own ideological agenda — be it environmentalism, Marxism, radical feminism, or some other ism.
There are probably barely a few thousand copies of Australian poetry sold in this country each year — this is because modern poetry is inaccessible and unenjoyable to the average person; in short, it is usually almost impossible for a layman to enjoyably listen to and understand. When people want poetry, these days, they listen to popular music.
A sign of how out of touch Australian poets are can be seen by a 2008 speech, republished earlier this year, made by poetry insider Martin Langford, who intriguingly says Australia has “…never previously had such a large number of quality poets as we have now” but admits that it lacks widespread appeal. He hints at the reason why most of us would never dream of buying a book of Australian poetry — why it remains a field for insiders to share poems amongst each other, as it drives all others away:
If there has been one overriding change in poetic practice, it is that under the influence of free verse, the poets have made a primary virtue out of exactitude and economy of meaning: this has replaced metrical skill as the first thing the poet tunes to. There is still a strong sense of musicality in verse, though now that musicality is more likely to be sourced in the quieter rhythms of conversation, as opposed to the more formal, and sometimes more public, rhythms of metre. Not all poets care deeply about rhythm, though most do. Some are happy enough with chopped prose.
What are the problems? The biggest are connected with poetry’s virtual disappearance from the public realm. I think the key reason for this has to do with the way poetry has moved from indulging people’s anxieties, to exploring them. Poetry has left the world of comforting conclusions behind, and now operates in the more unsettling realm of conscious thought. Unfortunately, that is not where most people want to live. Rather than the child-like world of either/or identifications, and of satisfying triumphs, it offers only the play and music of its understandings. This is also what makes it so difficult to market.
When Langford refers to economy of meaning, he means poets tend to write impenetrably, making their verse almost impossible to understand by ear. He suggests poets have forgotten about using rhythm, forgetting that rhythm is vital to making poetry compelling and memorisable. Then he, effectively, says that poetry is now all about confronting people rather than moving them. He chastises the listening public, whilst forgetting that any other form poetry than that which is designed to affect an audience is entirely self-indulgent and can never hope to gain broad appeal.
In short, he suggests that Australian poets are brilliant but, unfortunately for these geniuses, the Australian people are uncultured idiots.
What Martin fails to appreciate is that Australians are the only audience Australian poets have; and while they compliment themselves and their tiny band of followers on their new-wave chic, they are watching the artform die in this country.
There are of course, many decent Australian poets who write interesting and engaging poetry. But, I would suggest, the only reason they get past the gatekeepers is because their talent is so manifest that they can’t be beaten down; otherwise they probably have good contacts within the "scene". I imagine there are many other strong Australian poets, or potentially strong ones, that are repelled and turned off by the poetry gatekeepers who tell them, perhaps, that what they have written isn’t “trendy” enough.
You can find read of David Donovan’s poetry by clicking here.