This book explores the author's contemporary poetics and pedagogy as it emerges from his reflections on his own writing and teaching, and on the work of other poets, particularly contemporary writers with whom he feels some affinity. At its heart is the author's attempt to elaborate his vision of a species of pastoral that is adequate to a globalised world (the author himself writes and teaches in the United States, the UK and his native Australia), and an environmentally and politically just poetry. The book has an autobiographical element, as the author explores the pulse of his poetic imagination through significant moments and passages of his life.
The essential purpose of my work is to challenge familiar topoi and normatives of poetic activity as they pertain to environmental, humanitarian and textual activism in ‘the world-at-large’: to show how ambiguity can be a generative force when it works from a basis of non-ambiguity of purpose. The ‘disambiguation’ is a major difference with all other critical works on generative ambiguities: I state there is a clear unambiguous position to have regarding issues of justice, but that from confirmed points, ambiguity can be an intense and useful activist tool. There is an undoing of an apparent paradox of text in terms of ‘in the real world’ activism. It becomes an issue of consequences arising from creative work and positioning. Whether in discussing a particular literary text or ‘event in the world’, I make use of creative texts at specific sites of a broader, intertextual and interconnected activism.
This book is concerned with the complexities of defining 'place', of observing and 'seeing' place, and how we might write a poetics of place. From Kathy Acker to indigenous Australian poet Jack Davis, the book touches on other writers and theorists, but in essence is a hands-on book of poetic practice. The work extends John Kinsella's theory of 'international regionalism' and posits new ways of reading the relationship between place and individual, between individual and the natural environment, and how place occupies the person as much as the person occupies place. It provides alternative readings of writers through place and space, especially Australian writers, but also non-Australian. Further, close consideration is given to being of 'famine-migrant' Irish heritage and the complexities of 'returning'. A close-up examination of 'belonging' and exclusion is made on a day-to-day basis. The book offers an approach to creating poems and literary texts constituted by experiencing multiple places, developing a model of polyvalent belonging known as 'polysituatedness'. It works as a companion volume to Kinsella's earlier Manchester University Press critical work, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape to Lyricism.
Traditionally, pastoral worked as a vehicle of empowerment for the educated classes through the idyllicising and, most often, the romanticising of the rural world. The pastoral is not really about nature, except insofar as it is about landscape, the mediation of nature through human interference and control. A critical language is deployed to discuss these issues, which in a sense becomes part of the pastoral construct itself, so that pastoral is about the language of presentation as much as about the language of place. Terms such as ‘pathetic fallacy’ become in this context a self-conscious critique of the anthropomorphising of place and nature, yet pathetic fallacy is itself one of the weapons of pastoral. Pastoral has always been about the tensions within morality, and a moral guidebook for behaviour. Another concern is gender – is the pastoral a patriarchal tool? The idyllicism of the pastoral juxtaposed to the loss of alternative idylls becomes a mirror of oppression, and potentially liberation. Parrots in Australian poetry have a bad reputation.
In this chapter, the author talks about spatial lyricism and linguistic disobedience. The lyric is the basis of all his poetry, but its signature is blurred and reconstituted. The difficulty for the lyric in conveying ‘emotional’ content is that it cannot be effective if the material is not carefully controlled. The looser this control, the less we can accept the genuineness of the emotions. Regardless of time and place, at the core of the poem is the object–subject relation. The author's politics and ethics and poetry are inseparable: his vegan anarchist pacifist beliefs inform everything he writes, and he uses language to unsettle a world in which centralisation has denied rights. Is violent language violence? Is this where context comes into its own? The lyric intent softens the aggression. Rhythm is not unique to poetry – and a piece of writing with rhythm is not necessarily poetry or even poetic – but the consistent and regulated control and deployment of rhythm is accepted as one of the foundation blocks of the ‘poem’.
Since the mid-1990s, the author has edited a number of special Australian issues of literary journals from Britain, Canada, and the United States. He has also edited an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry, Landbridge (1999a), and is currently completing a two-volume historical anthology. These projects were very different in orientation from the process of including Australian poetry (and prose) in the many ‘general’ issues of literary journals that he edited over the same period of time, and indeed over the last dozen or so years. Apart from the obvious agenda of representing place and culture – or especially with a continent-country as large and diverse as Australia, places and cultures – there is the constant undercurrent of bypassing or making connections between differences to create a broader context of identity. Australians are generally proud of their poetry, or the poetries of their particular cultures within the idea of Australia, and poetry has a great significance spiritually, as well as pragmatically, to the indigenous peoples.
The crumbling foundations were solid in the author's childhood. Reincarnated, he can expect another exposure in a different body. Ageing fuels visionary dreariness, but the spots in time are empty. Children are a great way of measuring one's concept of ageing. The author noted recently that his own childhood and school memories were being semi-deleted as his daughter grew older, and he is fascinated by the way ageing is treated in poetry anthologies. A poet of ageing, of the loss of the ability to love in ‘those’ ways, Thomas Hardy was the author's favourite poet at sixteen and seventeen. From his point of view, ageing involves a paradoxical relationship between the loss of some knowledge and ‘experience’, and the accumulation, increase or awareness of other knowledge and experience. The poetry of death of the young man and young woman reaches across gender divides, often to express a fear of ageing, and of its inevitable confrontation with mortality. Two words best sum up the shift in the author's poetics: mimetics and mnemonics.
The relationship between issues of ambiguity in creating and reading literary texts, and making use of those texts in environmental and ‘rights’ activism, can seem incongruous, and frequently even adversarial, but in this section I try to reconcile matters of clarity in commitment with evasiveness in textual slippage. The chapter begins with a poem of unambiguous pro-environment activist intent that, nonetheless, carries its own ‘internal’ ambiguities. This section considers the nature and implications of such apparent contradictions. From considerations of ambiguities which refuse ‘definition’ and lead us to ‘push beyond ambiguity’ in an attempt to maintain clarity of purpose and the generative slippages of understanding/misreading, we read text outside the investments of institutions (academic / schooling / government etc.); we encounter the question of how we use these texts for activist purposes. Considering the making of adaptations and versions out of Hölderlin’s poetry, and inflecting through Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’, I write, ‘I want textual analysis to lead to an articulation of defiance against forces of exclusion and oppression. The university might well have an official policy of supporting cultural, gender, ethnic, and even political diversity, but it will never support a position that resists the administrative bedrock upon which it is based.’ Concluding the section is ‘The truth should be in blurbs’, in which I argue that documents of support (blurbs, encomiums, reference letters etc.) should operate as an extension of textual activism and be documents of responsibility. I say: ‘All of the documents-of-support I have written over the last twenty-five years for others actually fit into a narrative of justice, environmentalism, and anti-aesthetics even when the work itself might seem far from these concerns.’ In this, one exchanges/interacts with the text – a sharing rather than a comment from an often (mis)perceived position of ‘authority’.
This book aims to develop textual and literary mechanisms – a poetics – for dialogue and exchange between different ‘communities’, in order to enhance positive communication and empathy, and lead to ‘conflict’ resolution, seeking ‘common ground’ for social and cultural interaction. This might be subtextual in most instances, but the suggestions are as relevant as the overt statements, and if this generates ambiguities, it also generates multiples points of departure from a status quo (of text, of reading, of context), from the nexus or tangled webbing of communications – it offers nodal points, zones of agglomeration and coalescence, moments beyond the ambiguities. The core principle here is the notion of exchange between communal and individual voices privileged in how they are received and heard outside their own communities, and those who are only (and often barely) heard within their own communities, struggling to be heard in a way that can implement positive change for themselves, their communities, and humanity as a whole.