Not so far in the future, suggests Ian McEwan in his novel The Child In Time, Britain hopes to be self-sufficient in wood. With his novel scarcely embarked on its career, McEwan’s wheeze about self-sufficiency in wood has already entered the vocabulary of political debate, as a paradigm case of supposed folly: Thatcherite economics reduced to, or revealed as, absurdity. The idea that Australia can be self-sufficient in poetry ought surely by now to have attained the same status, as an example of how not to think about the relationship of literature and nationhood. But the idea goes on looking more plausible instead of less.
In the first place, Australian poetry, regarded as a totality, becomes steadily more rich. Does it need British and American poetry in any more profound sense than Pat Cash needs opponents? In the second place, the British (forget the Americans: this argument has always been about the British) have shown no more understanding, or even simple tolerance, of the Australian achievement in poetry than they did before. Indeed they have shown less. When Evelyn Waugh thought that the very idea of an Australian wine expert was hilarious, Australian wines were already excellent. Now that Auberon Waugh concedes this, do their producers need to feel gratified, or even interested? The endorsement seems as otiose as the condemnation. So why worry about the international status of an Australian poet? Isn’t that the very clue to the proven vitality of the arts in Australia — that they have at last stopped caring about anything beyond a local reception?
The above train of thought is not one in which I fully believe, but I believe in its force, so I have tried to present it with some of the rhetorical pageantry which, say, an Australian broadcasting executive would employ if he were telling you why not only his television station but the public itself profits both materially and spiritually from commercials screened only five minutes apart. My own view, which I hope is a sane one and not just wishful thinking, is that Australian literature and the literature of the old world — the old world which, from the Australian viewpoint, includes most of what used to be called the new world — are bound in a permanent relationship, if only because the old world is a world elsewhere, and would have to be invoked even if Australia were truly isolated, or else what would it be isolated from?
But the relationship has not been, and never can be, based on understanding. Britain (because when we talk about the old world we are still talking principally, if not exclusively, of Britain) can’t be persuaded, even if it wanted to be, to appreciate Australian poetry in its full wealth. One of the reasons why Australian poetry has attained its full wealth is that it has learned to do without outside appreciation. So really it is vain to carp.
In the early Sixties, the late and much missed British poet-critic Francis Hope pronounced himself unimpressed with an anthology of recent Australian verse. Hope singled out Bruce Dawe for particular disapprobation. So seemingly casual a dismissal was greeted with bitter protests in Australia. As it happens, Hope could not have been more wrong about Dawe, whose originality and solidity should have been apparent to him, especially since Hope himself was an accomplished poet, and no mere onlooker. But suppose Hope had said the right thing: would that have helped Dawe? Isn’t it just as likely that such a clear sign of indifference helped arm Dawe for the long struggle — which he has pursued ever since — to please no critical taste except his own? So there is the first thing to say about the uncomprehending British: if an Australian poet truly believes that he is contributing to a self-sufficient national literature, then incomprehension from the British is just what he ought to welcome.
The second thing to say about the uncomprehending British is that they won’t be talked out of their indifference by offering them more evidence. As the Australian poets grow older, the British reviewers stay young, succeeding one another in brief generations. Thus there is always a new wave of implacable young critics ready to greet the ageing Australian poet’s collected works when a few copies of its latest, augmented version at last complete the long journey by ship, sent back as ballast in partial recompense for some huge consignment of novels by Margaret Drabble. More than twenty years after Francis Hope uncaringly enraged the Australian literary community, Christopher Reid in the Observer, reviewing yet another anthology of Australian verse, said, among other things less fatuous, that if the sample it contained of A. D. Hope’s poetry was typical, then he (the reviewer) was glad that he had not read any more of it.
At least one reader thought that this was the most clear-cut possible test case. Reid, already a distinguished poet and critic, was the very kind of young British disestablishmentarian writer who was going to be impressed by Australian poetry if anybody was. A. D. Hope was the poet who was going, if anybody was, to impress him. Among Australian writers of any age, sex or stamp, A. D. Hope was, and remains, the unchallenged heavyweight. We quarrel with him; we wonder why he dislikes Hopkins; some of us can’t credit that he finds Furphy amusing; but none of us doubts the magnitude of his achievement in poetry — the schooled yet spontaneous, mandarin yet demotic, vitality and variety of it. And Christopher Reid had never even heard of it. Well then, let’s call off the whole deal.
But the deal was never on. The British — meaning those few, few even among the literati, who are really involved with poetry — nowadays have barely enough time to be concerned with their own poets. They had time to be concerned with Australian poetry only when there was far less of it. Now that Australia has acquired, if it has, a literature of its own as a going concern, the lingering desire to have the mother country sniff its nappy must perforce be given up. Giving up that desire was in fact a precondition of an indigenous culture emerging at all. Everyone realised that, even those who were worried that an Australian literature left to judge itself might prove short of critical talent. These foresaw a great burgeoning of the second-rate. The first-rate had always been there, its inner strength reinforced by scorn of the indifference from abroad. Douglas Stewart, A. D. Hope, James McAuley, Gwen Harwood and Judith Wright had accomplished something beyond the dreams of their great senior partner Kenneth Slessor. Slessor’s splendid isolation had ultimately ceased to be fruitful. For the lack of an Australian literary community, he had dried up — if that phrase fits someone who sought the same solace as his predecessor Christopher Brennan.
But the above-named poets who came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s not only created their own variously enduring verse, they created, irreversibly, an Australian literary community in which it might be cherished. A. D. Hope alone, even if the others had achieved nothing along those lines, would probably have done enough to make the study of Australian literature not just respectable but unchallengeably important. It is essential to note the fact (and to take in its implications) that A. D. Hope’s internationalism and cosmopolitanism gave his patriotic concerns their dignity, guaranteeing them against the merest taint of nationalistic fervour. Hope (and from here on, in this survey, the surname stands for the Australian patriarch, not the British prodigy) wasn’t just the Pushkin of the emergent Australian literary consciousness in modern times, he was the Belinsky: he was the poet-critic in his most benevolent manifestation. But even though Hope reigns supreme as a poet into old age, he no longer rules as a critic. The forces he helped to release were sure to take their own paths, and one of the paths they took was sure to be nationalistic. Rising with the Whitlam era but lingering long after, a broad school of Australian writing has based itself on the assumption that Australia not only has a history worth bothering about, but that all the history worth bothering about has happened in Australia.
It is only seemingly a paradox that this nationalistic school of writing seems ignorant of the poetic achievement of Hope, Stewart, McAuley, Harwood, Wright and all those other dedicated literary figures who paved the way for it. Nationalism is frequently unhistorical. Awkwardly for those finer spirits who would like to dismiss it in advance, it is also often energetic. Any dispassionate reader browsing along the poetry shelves of a good Australian bookshop at the present time (there is nowadays usually a whole set of shelves, half of them filled with the glossy output of the University of Queensland Press) will find himself jolted by the force of expression of political views which seem to have been written down just as they were felt, with no intervening period of being thought out or even pondered.
Dating as it does from Gough Whitlam’s fall, one would call this strain of verse reportage postlapsarian — if not for its innocence, which is prelapsarian, sometimes to the point that you can see the apple leave Eve’s hand and re-attach itself to the tree of knowledge. At the moment Alan Wearne is the most prominent exponent of the genre. His long verse novel Nightmarkets, first published in 1985, is now out in a large-format Penguin. No less a critic than Chris Wallace-Crabbe, himself the author of poems which have earned their permanent place in the anthologies, has hailed Wearne as a prodigy. Certainly he has a voracity for fact. It is easy to see why Wearne is so well in with the editors of Scripsi, who consider Nightmarkets a sure-fire bet to become a ‘classic of our literature’: its author is so solidly, or anyway heavily, in the tradition of Pound, Williams, Zukofsky, Olson and the yellow pages of the telephone directory. The doings of the author’s generation in the bleak years after Whitlam’s political demise are treated with a sweep and prolixity which will remind you of John dos Passos if you can forget Gavin Bantock. The urge to make the book poetic, however, has helped to ensure that it is not enough like prose, so as a novel it makes itself absurd, especially in the dialogue, which is stilted without being heightened. ‘Haven’t you had enough,’ Louise cried out, ‘from those nasty shrill petticoat prigs of Women Who Want To Be Women?’
This is a mouthful for Louise to cry out. Saddled with the belief that ‘credence’ and ‘credibility’ mean the same thing, Wearne is not as well equipped as he might be for the precision he aspires to, but he deserves some points for seeing a gap in the market. Australian writing might not have actually needed a Hugh McDiarmid, but after the Dismissal crisis — which did for the Australian intelligentsia roughly what Culloden did for the Scots — there was room for one: all he had to do was set up shop. Wearne’s earlier verse novel Out Here (first published in 1976, but now released in Britain as a paperback from Bloodaxe) is really far preferable to Nightmarkets, if only for being so much shorter. By expanding his scope without increasing the compression of his language, Wearne has lowered the temperature of his work to the level where putative poetry stands revealed as cold rice pudding.
As a chronicle of events, however, Nightmarkets is of some interest. The author’s urge to mythologise his friends should not be allowed to put the reader off. After all, Les Murray, in a surprising number of his excellent poems, mythologises such crepuscular acquaintances as Bob Ellis, who looms in Murray’s work as if he, Ellis, were Marlowe to Murray’s Shakespeare. Avowedly pursuing failure with the same determination other men expend on the trail of success, not even Ellis, whose flakily confessional memoirs, Letters to the Future, have recently been published in Australia, is quite capable of being entirely uninteresting when recalling the salad days of the poets of his generation. The salads in those days were terrible, and something of their flavour — the lettuce moistened by nothing but beetroot juice, the onions with the same half-life as plutonium — has lingered in Ellis’s untreated prose ever since. He has made a career out of complaining about his own capacity to fritter away his talent. Those who have good cause to doubt whether this latter entity actually exists might be apt to dismiss his memoirs sight unseen, but they should be advised that they might in this one case entertain the possibility that Ellis might entertain them. Ellis’s prose is so hit-and-miss that he can’t even beat his breast without hitting himself in the eye, but his reminiscences are — this reviewer can vouch for it — pungently evocative of an epoch, now thirty years gone, when nobody even dreamed of government subsidy, and to declare himself a writer was a serious commitment, even for a clown.
It should hardly need saying that merely to mention Les Murray is to heighten the tone of the conversation. When he is propagandising for an Australian republic, Murray can be as postlapsarian as anybody — he has written poems about the demise of the British Empire which could have come out of the first draft of the script of Gallipoli — but usually his language is too scrupulous to allow for anything less than a fully considered view, especially when it is a view about language itself. Murray when young discovered within himself, and without prompting, a sympathy for other languages. Diligent cultivation of this sympathy gave him the right and the wherewithal to argue powerfully, in his maturity, for the autonomy of the Australian vernacular. Murray’s views on the subject are put at length in his book of essays Persistence in Folly and they are too subtle to be fairly summarised here, but broadly it can be said that he makes a self-possessed national stance plausible without denying — which, of course, most of the postlapsarians emphatically do deny — an intimate and inexorable connection with the outside world.
It is a great relief, while recommending Murray’s prose, not to feel obliged any longer to recommend his poetry, for which the battle for international recognition may now be considered won. Probably it could not have been lost. The craze for Martian poetry in Britain might have been specifically calculated to prepare for the advent of an Australian poet who finds that kind of stuff as natural as breathing. Murray’s new collection The Daylight Moon is about to be published in Australia. No doubt, at the proper time, it will be reviewed at length in these pages, but without jumping the gun it should be permissible to say that an already mature talent now shows signs of maturing further, into the mastery that can leave an effect understated. In ‘Bats Ultrasound’ the first four lines of the opening stanza are of a Martian bravura that might almost be called routine. The really astonishing effect is in the unastonishing last line.
Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-deft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bare to sing.
‘Fine teeth’, already a standard phrase in conversation, is quietly brought back to full life. The whole book is alight with Murray’s usual dazzle but there is a new depth underneath.
Murray’s verse has been published in America and is by now so well known in serious British poetry magazines that his presence rivals that of Peter Porter, except that Murray works the trick without giving up his absence. Speaking, however, as one who participated, if only marginally, in the campaign to get Murray reviewed decently abroad, I feel free to voice a doubt as to whether this victory, any more than any other, escapes the law of unintended consequences. It only takes one Australian poet making it abroad to revive the idea, both at home and abroad, that making it abroad is the thing to do. While growing no less ready to insist that a British audience will find much to enjoy in Murray’s poetry, one should acknowledge a sharpening, perhaps atavistic, urge to point out that he gets a lot of his strength from being so involved with what happens in Australia, and that other poets who have not attained escape velocity have not necessarily failed to do so because they lacked the power. It could be that they just liked the gravity.
The question of what precisely the Australian writers have lost or gained by being or not being expatriates has been often discussed without really being debated. Most of the writers followed their feet. Even the brightest ones only followed their noses. In retrospect, however, the truly startling news — never news at the time because it broke so slowly — was about how most of the poets stayed where they were. But nothing should be allowed to detract from Peter Porter’s achievement. His poetry is the embodiment of what drives, or ought to drive, the Australian expatriate writer — a centripetal force which pulls the world together. The Australian expatriate critic need not feel guilty about pointing to Porter’s Collected Poems as the best, as well as the most conveniently available, example of what Australian poetry has to offer the world. Yet the critic is bound to feel guilty about what he doesn’t point to. Bruce Dawe is of an age with Peter Porter. His poetry is published only in Australia, and then only in his off-puttingly entitled compendium Sometimes Gladness, Collected Poems 1954-1982. If the title sounds like Rod McKuen talking, nothing in the book sounds quite like anyone else on earth. Without leaving home, Dawe made a journey into the American language. I remember in the 1950s coming across a poem he wrote about a wrestler called Drop-kick Joe Savoldi. It was clear that Dawe liked the American lilt of that name. It was equally clear that he was not ashamed of liking it. There was no need, Dawe had realised, to go in quest of the golden fleece. The golden fleece would come to him. But it would be made of nylon. Dawe was the first Australian poet to take the measure of the junk media and find the poetry in their pathos. He wrote better about the Vietnam war than any other poet, including American poets; and he could do so because he wrote better about television.
Say, are those plumed shadows
Flying Horsemen of the First Air Cavalry Division,
or Hittites bringing the gospel of iron
to confound the Egyptians?
What are we up to now?
Above all, Dawe had the originality to admit the fact — which should have been obvious, but wasn’t until he articulated it — that the saturating, penetrating impact on Australian culture wasn’t British, it was American. The British influence is mainly political, and can be outgrown, although the wise will be tactful enough to outgrow it gratefully. The American influence, however, must either be dealt with or succumbed to. Dawe dealt with it. His sense of humour helped. His poetry sounds easy — truly funny things always sound easy, and never are — but it represents a feat of strength, because the Australian language was so much smaller than the American that for the first to absorb the second was like a snake swallowing a donkey. Dawe consciously assimilated an alien idiom. Younger poets have been able to assimilate the world entire, sometimes without using their brains at all. The sons and daughters of the immigrants have grown up with a houseful of connections to the old world, which cheap air travel has put less than twenty-four hours away. Where Australian poetry was once faced with the dilemma of either being parochial if it defended itself or of losing its identity if it went international, the problem has now disappeared, leaving only the threat of drowning in its solution. The University of Queensland Press seems willing to print any poet in Australia who can’t find a commercial publisher. By no coincidence, the UQP poets vary wildly in quality. Richard Kelly Tipping, in the preface to his collection Nearer By Far, tells us that its contents have been ‘chosen from the high pile of certified verbal artefacts resulting from my 24 to 34th years to heaven.’ The allusion to Dylan Thomas might not be enough to persuade the reader that Tipping, born in 1949, is impelled by a similar bardic gift, or any other kind of gift except unembarrassable enthusiasm.
& i am a tender sirloin, bleeding in a tray
in the refrigerated window of time —
Both in name and style, Tipping sounds as if Osbert Lancaster made him up, but the inexhaustible Thomas Shapcott — the Michael Horovitz of the South Pacific — assures us that ‘Tipping is witty’. No such fatal endorsement disfigures the cover of John Blight’s Holiday Sea Sonnets. Blight was born in 1913 and has spent a lifetime lying so low he has hardly been heard of — an approach to poetry that recalls Ian Fairweather’s approach to painting. But if Peter Porter’s admiration for Blight sounds excessive, the merest glance at any poem in the book will instantly prove that it is not misplaced. Here is a stranded raft
A snap decision of the waves
has tossed it at high tide across
Punning on a whole phrase is a trick for which Geoffrey Hill has been applauded and the Martians elevated to the status of magicians. It is a crowd-pleasing thing for poetry to do, but for a long time Blight has been doing it far from any crowds at all, and one might almost say that such a knack was fundamental to Australian poetry. One says ‘almost’ because in Australia, as elsewhere, most of the poets have no verbal characteristics whatsoever. Thomas Shapcott, the demiurge of the UQP phalanx, can’t, I think, be said to write poetry in any way that distinguishes it from prose chopped up. But his range of artistic reference is fully extended into space and time, as if Michael Kustow had met Dr Who. Shapcott’s latest collection Travel Dice reveals, among many other things, that he has been in Belgrade; that he has stood in awe of Piero di Cosimo, Titian and Goya; and that he can’t spell Davy Crockett but is willing to try. Like all the UQP poets rolled together only more so, he sees nothing wrong with trying to get it all in. To that end, of course, lack of a specific poetic talent can be a positive help, and if there is no particular gift for prose either then the pen can just fly along, because while not everything looks like a prose sentence, anything can pass for a line of verse.
Time spat a capsule of saliva.
It was a plane shining in rare atmosphere.
Now it has landed.
The UQP enterprise is doing its considerable best to put poetry on an industrial basis, rather like Faber in the UK, and so far with a similar exemption from the sceptical heckle. On the whole it is probably better for poets to think of themselves as industrialists than as artists — it is better for them to think of themselves as almost anything than as artists — but when the hard-nosed, high-productivity, Stakhanovite attitude towards grinding the stuff out is accompanied with vociferous claims to a government grant. The resulting picture of subsidised careerism is not attractive. Reminders that Australian poets once had to look after themselves, and profited from the solitude, are always useful.
Such aids to memory can be found in the anthologies, where poets not generally acclaimed can be found to have done excellent particular things — i.e., poems. First the poems, and then, in the course of time, the poet: that is the desirable order, which ambition will always try to reverse. In Australian Poetry 1986, edited by the invaluable Vivian Smith, Philip Hodgins has a Martians-move-over poem about a dam.
Two ibises stand on the rim like taps.
Mr Hodgins sounds like the sort of poet who is content to wait, both for the right idea and for eventual fame.
In The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets Gwen Harwood is the outstanding example of a poet who has gradually attained the first magnitude in her art without ever having had a perceptible career. She has been a miracle of self-effacement: compared with Harwood, Judith Wright is Anna Akhmatova. In the long term, however, intensity must out. Edited with a lethally po-faced feminist introduction by Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn, this anthology is nevertheless a gold mine, mainly because so many intelligent Australian women have written good poems without having had time to be poets. Such, indeed, is one of Harwood’s continuing themes, which she discovered early in her precociously accomplished prentice years, and has gone on elaborating into old age. She was a feminist of the new school while the old school was still current. She never needed, however, to raise her voice, which has always deployed itself in the quiet, effortlessly attention-getting range between Blossom Dearie seated at the piano and Mary Stuart kneeling at the block.
Baby, I’m sick to death,
But I can’t die. You do
the songs, you’ve got the breath.
Give them the old soft shoe.
Put on a lovely show.
Put on your wig and go.
All of Harwood’s poetry moves and sings with that deceptively simple formal elegance. Younger poets — and I do not exclude Les Murray, who has so forgotten his early stanzaic neatness that when he now attempts Burnsian metres they limp as if shot — would do well to wonder how she does it. A. D. Hope has always praised Harwood as an equal. Some of us have been too slow to realise the rightness of that judgment, dazzled as we were by her lack of fame. Getting the measure of a talent like hers is made easier by Angus & Robertson’s Modern Poets series, which first devoted one of its Penguin-sized paperbacks to her selected poems in 1975. These little volumes are the best available introduction to Australian poetry, which has so expanded as a field of study that the visitor, with the best will in the world, might be honestly puzzled about how to find a way in. One wouldn’t want to suggest that all of this critical busywork, even at its most painfully academic, is a waste of time. Some of the not-so-modern poets whose lifetime achievements added up to something too slim for an A & R Modern Poets volume are still well worth studying, both for their works and for the implications of their careers, which were often difficult and sometimes heroic. There Was A Crooked Man, edited by Richard Appleton and Alex Galloway, is an indispensable volume for anyone who admired Lex Banning’s poetry when it was coming out in Sydney in the Fifties. Banning was a spastic, so cruelly stricken that it took him an age to get out a sentence, but when he was holding court in Lorenzini’s wine bar he was never heard to say anything that was not worth the long wait. ‘Your poem has a sort of irrational logic,’ a critic once said to him, adding: ‘I suppose that’s a bad way of describing it.’ Banning’s answer took almost a minute to emerge. ‘It’s a bad way of describing logic.’
Banning was condemned to bohemianism but wanted a normal life. His acutely intelligent verse, little though there is of it, raises all the questions about how urbanity in Australian poetry had to be brought about by an act of will. But there is no use supposing that Banning will be considered more than a minor figure by the outsider who is trying to take a general view of Australian poetry. Larger claims can and have been made for David Campbell. A collection of essays, A Tribute to David Campbell, has just come out. Well edited by Harry Heseltine, if vilely set on what must have been a hand press once dropped, with unnecessary violence, to partisans in Yugoslavia, this posthumous Festschrift leaves no room for doubt that Campbell’s attempt to remain obscure was doomed to failure. He was widely admired, and from his A & R Selected volume you can see why, although it is hard to suppress the suspicion that in his case a small pocketable volume is just the right size, because he was repetitive, and too often content to be dilute. He was a gentleman and an amateur.
The Australian old masters have traditionally been more serious than that. What the old masters now need, and have not got, is a form of publication befitting their stature. To adopt the verb current in French literary circles, they should be Pléiadised. Kenneth Slessor’s A & R Modern Poets paperback, for example, gives his essence, but everything it leaves out is essential too. Slessor needs a single-volume Pléiade-style thin-paper Collected Works which would contain his poetry, his light verse, his critical prose and his war diaries. These last are currently available as a single volume (The War Diaries of Kenneth Slessor, edited by Clement Semmler) but it is a hefty, overblown production whose insane initial price ensured its arrival in the remainder shops by the direct route from the warehouse. A properly organised national publishing venture would resolve such anomalies.
Who should be Pléiadised, and who not, would be a question guaranteed to arouse heated answers, as it does in France. But the line would not be hard to draw. Everyone knows who the old masters are. Douglas Stewart and James McAuley both wrote criticism which belongs beside their poetry in the same book or a companion volume. The only good reason for not putting out A. D. Hope or Judith Wright in a standard set straight away is that they are still productive. That early lonely slog, when the only support they ever got was from each other, made the Australian poets of their generation hard to stop with anything less than armour-piercing ammunition. Ordinary small-arms fire just bounced off.
Judith Wright’s A & R Selected Poems, while not to be foregone, is so far from representing the culmination of her achievement that it might with more truth be said to mark the end of her first phase. She has brought out several volumes since, and the fate of the latest one, Phantom Dwelling, exemplifies the condition of the major Australian poets in the twentieth century. It was published in Britain in 1985 and sank like a stone, with scarcely a single review, even an unfavourable one. For things to have been otherwise, there would have had to be justice. But as with any other product, there is no innate justice in the marketing and consumption of poetry, where the exporter is without power unless he has a distribution system on the ground. The point was put more simply by Talleyrand: he who is absent is wrong. There were too many home-grown Martians for an offshore Martian to get a look in, even with an idea like this
Two women find the square root of a sheet.
That is an ancient dance.
For her, such radiant imagery was second nature. She had been at it for fifty years. Judith Wright, like Gwen Harwood, has lived out the full life of the woman poet, which more notorious international names have either cut short by suicide or replaced by a succession of notes threatening that very outcome. It is good for Australia’s literature, and for its life in general, that there can be no serious argument about the role of women, which in poetry is at least equal to that of men and can plausibly be thought of as supreme. (Not even Hope has ever brought in a line with the sweet rhythm of Harwood, who can go past you like a gull: you don’t hear her until she’s gone.) Australian poetry, in this way and in many others, is a very satisfactory field of creativity. Whether the world should be told, however, is an open question. Perhaps the world should be left to find out for itself. Australian civilization might do better to retain the element of surprise, so that the visitor who walks off the plane in Sydney hoping to clap eyes on Crocodile Dundee will be appropriately stunned to find that Pavarotti is singing at the Opera House.
There is also the consideration that the Australian expatriate, once the secret is all the way out, will lose his privileged status as a barbarian. It has always been a rewarding role to play. Cavafy evoked an ancient Rome dying of impatience because the barbarians were late. If anything, he understated the case. At present, an Australian expatriate in London or New York has only to mention Proust or Rilke and he is greeted as an avatar, as if Paracelsus had come to town. When Australia is correctly regarded as a nation artistically fertile like any other, and more so than any other nation its size — which it ought to be, considering how free and rich it is — the law of rising expectations will make the expatriate’s tent-show a bit less of a sure-fire smash hit. There would also be the grim possibility that the British scholars, critics and reviewers finally would start taking Australian poetry seriously, with all the grief, rage, academic apparatus and undignified jockeying for position which that would entail.
A possibility is all it is. By now, achievement can be relied upon to outrun understanding — an order of events which is practically the definition of a living culture. Like the Australian cities, where the place to go and the thing to do are nowadays always in the next edition of the guide book, Australian poetry is currently running miles ahead of anybody’s ability to sum it up. The young are in one another’s arms. They are in one another’s books. The A & R Modern Poets series has done well to include some of the younger talents, among whom it is not absurd to count David Malouf, who is in his early fifties but so obviously only half-embarked on his prodigious career that he ranks as a beginner. In Malouf’s poems the whole complex theme of Australia’s position in regard to the world which supplied its modern population is, if not wrapped up, at least raised up and illuminated.
The nineteen tongues of Europe
migrate to fill a silence,
we’re digging in for the long wait.
Malouf like Josef Brodsky, is a culture-vulture with the range and cruising altitude of a condor. They are both men with a mission. Brodsky’s mission is to represent his country in exile. Malouf’s is to help build a new country by pouring his background into its foundations. These are very different tasks, but theirs are not very different talents. They share the seductive gift of being able to objectify, in a passing phrase, that feeling which Osip Mandelstam called nostalgia for a world culture.
Nostalgia it must remain. To the extent that a world culture can actually exist, it can only be banal. It wears a J. R. Ewing T-shirt. As nations acquire individuality, they must become less knowable. To grow up is to grow apart. Adults are strangers to one another. The best that Australia can do, with regard to Britain and all the other European nations still less lucky — the best that it can do even with regard to America, which sounds so close but is really further away than anywhere — is to welcome the necessary disjunction, to construct strong and airy bridges, to make light of it.
The Australian poets of today may legitimately complain about the world and their country’s place in it, but they can no longer complain about their place in their country. The days when they were not taken seriously are over. Now, in a land gone mad about art, they are taken so seriously that they should beware. Australia is in danger of producing an artistic class. In the nineteenth century, the ideal of an Australian art-form was one which did not leave the people out. The poets wrote ballads not because they couldn’t do otherwise, but because they sought democracy. With high culture in Australia increasingly well taken care of, not to say pampered, nevertheless the old challenge still nags. This year, as in any other year, the publishing event in Australian poetry is the latest, umpteenth edition of C. J. Dennis’s Sentimental Bloke. When an Australian poet writes something as genuinely popular as that again, the critics at home will at last have something to write abroad about.
(TLS, 27 November - 3 December, 1987)