Line and Space
University of Technology
What follows is a rather unplanned and immediate response to the nominal theme of this gathering. I would also like to share with you my reflections on yesterday's wonderfully varied reading of poetry, and how I interpret poetics in terms of 'line and space'.
But first, two lines from a contemporary British novel has been obsessing me, and I hope that any discuss that follows from this will shed light on the state of my mind.
The first is:
Oh, please, say yes, it would be the best thing that has happened to me for days.'
The other line is:
Leon, said, 'He's got a first-rate mind, so I don't know what the hell he's doing, messing about in the flower beds.'
Why this line from Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, which is set in pre WW2 England appeals to me, I have some idea.
Perhaps it's the contrast Leon makes in his description of another young male in the story - a contrast between the rational, middle class, university educated 'mind' - and the other being - a privileged idiot from Cambridge University, the perennial adolescent, 'messing about in flower beds'.
Perhaps it is the erotic overtones - the play between the notion of a masculine English ideal, the first rate mind is the first rate man - and the camping about.
Perhaps the line describes me - how I feel when I attempt to write poetry - messing about in flowerbeds, despite my first rate mind? The field of poetry invites messing about up to a point, but then the gardeners move in to restore order.
Should I stop messing about in flower beds and apply my first rate mind to a war?
In Australian poetry, I often get the feeling that something is out of order and needs to be repaired. That I am out of order. Attempting to find a theme for this gathering of poets is already a seemingly impossible task to create some orderly discourse that we can all share, but this gentle shepherding is a step on from the bullying we hear from critics and commentators in Quandrant, or even Overland: that Australian poetry is elitist, out of touch, doesn't speak to the working class, lacks the common touch, is PC etc. etc.
Peter Minter's desire to create a community that bridges gaps and goes beyond entrenched positions is a gesture toward a repair of a situation that is out of order. The idea that Peter is the gardener, restoring order to the garden of Australian Poetry is my fanciful metaphor, but I do query the genesis of the naming of this gathering in such formalistic terms - line and space is to my ears very formalistic - very abstract and theoretical - but useful at the same time.
I have interpreted Peter Minter's choice of a conference name quite literally. By lines I think of that unit of words that I consider an essential part of poems - the line, which for me, anyway, aspires to the power of aphorism. I admire the short poem, the Poundian style of haiku, objectivism or what ever you want it call it. At the same time such compaction goes against my normal instincts. In comparison with current trends II write very short poems - usually over a page. After listening to poets like Jill Jones, and Kate Fagan, who finds conclusions anti-intuitive, and reading Martin Harrison's and Brook Emery's longer poems, you would conclude that space determines the line. I mean, aphorisms are no longer confined to tombstones, fortune cookies, or other limited textual formats. What happened to the idea that 'less is more'? Are the longer voiced poets rebelling against the 'sound-bite' environment, the marketing gurus who insist on 'the hook'?
What is the line? The line is often a short sentence, but it need not be limited by conventions of English punctuation. This definition immediately alienates poets who deliberately and proudly limit punctuation, like Michael Farrell. Incorporating the stutter, non-sequiturs, puns etc, Farrell manages to liberate the line and create wonderfully inventive effects. At the same time Farrell never gives us the impression that his poems are out of control. A kind of disciplined messing about in flower beds.
While I hesitate to abandon commas and full stops in my own practice, the lines are often not sentences with subject, verbs and objects. This makes them less memorable, despite the brevity.
A good example of fragmented sentence grammar is my poem about Singapore's airport, Changi
Real orchid forest on Terminal 2
Where gypsies rest, fazed
By taped birdsong. Unpack-repack,
Those dreams that don't need sleep.
I remember how vehemently other poets have proffered the advice that
'intransitive verbs' are bad
They don't locate the speaker in a time scale. Without a present or a past, the action is seems to move no where. Sentences with intransitive verbs, or no verbs at all, are fragmentary. But they echo many of the sentences we use when we speak. I feel like that too - where is the before and the after?
Of course, there are wonderful poems by my peers that take far greater risks with syntax than I do.
What is a line, anyway? Do we mean the 'straight line'? The shortest distance between two points in space? If poetry seeks to mess about, then the line becomes a very long distance between two points in space. So, does it cease to be a line? Does it fit in a modular fashion, into the programme? Does such a perfectly grammatical poetic line, as it wavers between yes and no, open and closed, 'execute a command', as computer programmers say?
Here are some of my favourite lines, taken from poets I admire, and if their meaning is unacceptably distorted by being taken out of context, I apologise to their authors.
'I rent a lot of sentences & buy a few
date-stamped to fade, like that book
we both agreed was true.
John Forbes 'stole' this line from me, god rest his soul, he didn't buy it, but by stealing it, he demonstrates the complete truth of his proposition that no one owns language. In a sense, my line was rentable and we felt very comfortable using it - that book we both agreed was true. His book and mine could be true that like all propositions, especially poetic propositions -but they will fade - that their meaning depends utterly on the agreement or contract that readers and writers make: the contract that is built on the faith that what the writer writes and the reader reads is true, but only for a given moment, not forever.
And for the poetically minded reader and writer, it is this space of agreement in the poem, that is most interesting, much more interesting, I have begun to feel, than the space of disagreement and discord that occupies the rest of worldly discourse. It is this space of informed agreement which is becoming more rare - I don't mean the knee-jerk affirmation of pre-packaged versions of the truth that so often passes for truth these days. I mean a hard won agreement -
'Please say yes - it would be the best thing that has happened to me for days.'
While saying this, however, I am aware how transcendental this may sound. I am not advocating a retreat into harmonious lyrics about the beauty of the world.
John Forbes again
The blue in Sydney
Has nothing to do
With yachts or ideal
Ways of life, it's
Built in like
A modern appliance
This is not very far from the idea that Martin Harrison argues, that
Bad art - I know this - is log jammed in the past:
Cradle, vestment, void, for instance, or blossom,
Tomb, warriors - a confluence of over-collected
words. All of them deny verbs.
This confirms my own suspicion of the way poetry that ignores the movement in the contemporary world begins to function as an index of a moribund culture, as a surrogate museum. But the stuff of that world out there is ours to steal, borrow, adapt, parody ridicule. That's our job. What I am trying to describe is the process I go through to use the chaotic material so that it might coalesce into orderly vectors and orbits.
Something moves from A to B. How random should this movement be? I like to go on my nerve, but my nerves aren't too good at the moment.
A thrown-in fortune cookie reads
'You will travel widely both business and pleasure'.
The woman and boy wonder where.
If you asked their eyes would tell you
The pleasure of coming in from the cold.
Lucy Dougan 'Hush (or fortune cookie)
Does TV help me come in from the cold, or does it bring me into the cold? A stimulating source of my culture is my TV. Martin Harrison writes
'No need for TV'
which I cannot agree with, for as I am habituated to it, Martin's line is false in my world, but I know that TV is full of lies. The problem is that TV seldom admits this.
In her poem 'testament' Geraldine McKenzie writes:
'When does a lie become true'
This focuses on every poet's concern that the material of poetry is already unreliable and by addressing this unreliable world in a poem, it becomes more unreliable, less sanctioned by dominant discourses - the media, the politics of spin, Imams and priests, and other institutionalized authorities. The message in poetry should never allow itself to become publicly taken-for-granted as true, as obvious. I am suspicious of poetry which aspires to the status of the immediately consumable commodity.
This constitutes the danger of being too committed in poetry to an agenda.
Peter Minter writes of the act of observing a flying object (a bird perhaps)
'the winter it came here, he looked up. Leaves pixilate
because we know this is it, the sky.
'we know this is it' is probably the most direct and convinced statement of belief Peter would ever write. If Peter makes a statement of certainty, it must always be qualified by a statement about the context in which his perceptions occur, and if we agree with the physicists that all perception is theoretically subject to uncertainty principles, there is always that condition of doubt, that 'invisibility' in-built in the digitized atomism of the visual field.
That's why Peter can write, in a poem called Lust
If only people knew
what was going on
in my mind
Then provide a non-closure with
'the cork flows on and on'
John Mateer, a South African Australian attuned to the incommensurability of cultures and languages, can write of the power of the word, as it is translated and crosses the boundaries the separate the powerful from the powerless
As I write this line it is in a foreign language.
'beware of those bearing grief in comprehensible words.
Beware of your mouths
('Dark horse', Barefoot Speech, p.39)
Mateer allows the possibility that the foreign is not the threat - the danger is the 'comprehensible' - the meanings in message that are too easily expressed digested, and consumed. We have to think about what we mean by 'the target of our message.' We have to be careful when we accuse other poets of failing to 'communicate in plain English.' I ask you, where is plain English today? What is it? Who speaks it? What of the many millions of people who can never speak like us? Where are they in the loop? Shall we claim to speak for them? As if we knew their every aspiration? The shortest distance between two points, in terms of poetic meanings, in terms of communication, is not always the most desirable. What might be more beautiful and politically kinder and more democratic, is indirectness.