Poetry in Australia seems to be enjoying something of a boom. Mainstream Australian cultural agents, such as they are, pay scant attention to the work of the country’s contemporary poets—I can’t recall a book of poetry ever being discussed on ABC TV’s The Book Club—and the view of Australia as a relatively anti-intellectual, unliterary milieu persists, and yet thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people regularly participate in the writing, performance, publication and teaching of poetry in today’s Australia. Attempts at commercialising poetry have, for better or for worse, failed to turn this field into a tangible culture industry, but this failure has not dissuaded countless writers, readers, publishers, students and teachers from actively taking part in producing and propagating the most ancient of literary arts in our post-industrial, hyper-postmodern cultural scenes.
But maintaining the vibrancy of the art form in contemporary Australia is by no means an easy, uncomplicated matter. It is subject to a host of animosities and antagonisms that are constitutive of all other cultural arenas in a capitalist society. And in addition to these, Australian poetry is the site of a number of challenges specific to its non-mainstream, specialist mode of mental production. Despite the medium’s doggedness and obduracy in the face of commercial and societal pressures, it does not necessarily offer a safe and welcoming space for all literary practitioners. Ideological, personal, professional and tribal contests and aggressions characterise this zone. The Australian’s literary editor, Stephen Romei, has described the Australian poetry community, rather accurately, as ‘internecine’. Writer and critic Alison Croggon has lamented the ‘vicious brawls’ that bedevil contemporary Australian poetry.
That the bitter and rather sinister 1940s Ern Malley hoax—sometimes referred to as an ‘affair’—remains one of the founding episodes of the narrative of poetry in modern Australia is instructive. The plan by two young, devious poetic upstarts to discredit a relatively influential, pretentiously innovative literary periodical entailed the fabrication of a false authorial identity, and the falsehood was exposed once the editor of the publication had been duped into publishing poems by the fake author. The incident, however, has not been dismissed as a mere practical joke: it has come to signify for many an epic conflict between self-proclaimed defenders of proper, Romantic-inspired poetic aesthetics (as presented by the hoaxers) and the equally self-proclaimed harbingers of progressive, Symbolist-inspired modernism (as seen in the figure of the publication’s editor). And one may say that this Manichaean battle between classicism and experimentalism, between the champions of literary worth and ‘beauty’ and the propagandists of newness and ‘playfulness’ continues to haunt the apparatus of contemporary Australian poetry.
I have come to believe, however, that this apparent ‘poetry war’—which was revived in the 1970s once the youthful, American-inspired counterculturists of the so-called Generation of 68 joined the fray—is not really a poetic conflict. In the past, putative aesthetic dissimilarities have been cited to justify disagreements—between this ‘lyrical’ poet and that ‘experimental’ writer—but the current contestations are clearly ideological, in the precise Althusserian sense of the term. That is to say, the ‘vicious brawls’ occur in the space in which the modern mode of literary production is reproduced. Poets, as with other producers of a commodity with a rather vague use-value, are compelled to compete—not over the virtues of radically contradictory aesthetic regimes but over the capacity to assign the product of the labour of their mind an exchange-value. It is careerism and vocational antagonisms, and not theoretical or artistic struggles, that are expressed in the fetishism of poetry gangs and literary personalities. In short, poetry as such is the last thing on the minds of many contemporary poets.
Consider, for example, the poetry plagiarism scandal of 2013. What prompted a number of Australian poets to vociferously launch a crusade to expose the malfeasance of two plagiarist-poets was the fact that the plagiarists had received prizes and money for work presented as their own, and the ensuing discussions had nothing to do with the aesthetics of the poems. (In fact, in our age of postmodernist intertextuality and appropriation, many a ‘playful’ sophist could praise the practice of plagiarism as a sort of authenticity-busting ‘uncreative genius’ and so on.) The objections and the moral outrage were aimed not at the poetics of the work of the textual thieves but at the exchange-value assigned to these poems. Here the concept of originality appears as a properly fetishistic and, in Marx’s sense, magical quality: a ‘good’ poem can be instantaneously transformed into a ‘bad’ poem if it’s revealed that the poem is ‘stolen’; that is, the aesthetics of the poem are entirely distorted by this frankly bizarre operation. And note that the same overly fetishistic transmutation would not occur to a commodity with a clearer, more quantifiable use-value, e.g. a stolen microwave and a stolen sandwich are still ‘good’ as long as they’re functional and, in the sandwich’s case, eatable.
In my view the internecine quality of the contemporary Australian poetry scene, as seen in the sheer bitterness and the disconcerting vengefulness of the aforementioned anti-plagiarist paladins, is the attitude or practice of a scene that reproduces the commercial, professional conditions of its social—or perhaps anti-social?—relations of production. As such, I’d revise the existing views of the Ern Malley ‘affair’ by describing the incident not as a confrontation between ‘conservatives’ and ‘modernists’ but as an ideological struggle between younger poets desperately seeking publication and professional advancement (the hoaxers) and the older ‘gatekeepers’ seemingly dominating the poetry market (the publishers of the hoaxers’ source of derision, the fashionable literary and cultural journal Angry Penguins). The ‘vicious brawls’ occur when poets compete for money, publication and recognition, and not when aesthetic or political values are at stake.
In fact, it seems to me that aesthetic and political principles are very rarely ever a cause in the confrontations between contemporary Australian poets. Consider the online 2011 melee between the writers of a blog called So Long Bulletin and the defenders of the blogger’s subject of ridicule in a post titled ‘Beyond the Reading’. Here the blogger—herself a Melbourne poet—takes exception to another Melbourne poet’s ‘inability to present any clear theoretical or methodological basis of his work’ at a public reading. That she does not supplement this perceived deficiency with her own reading of the poet’s work strikes me as an indication of a basic lack of a readerly interest in the aesthetics of the subject’s poetry. She is instead taking aim at the poet’s problematic presentation of his work and his public persona. And, even more problematically, many of the online responses to her post—by members of the ridiculed poet’s clique—are intensely personal and frankly repugnant, calling her and her fellow bloggers ‘ignorant and utterly puerile’, ‘silly bourgeois guinea pigs’ and ‘low-iq fascist thugs’.
I suspect I shall receive a suitably odious email from the authors of the above-quoted phrases for having the temerity to quote them in a less-than-flattering light. Personal attacks, gossip, conspiracies and slander are rather ubiquitous in contemporary Australian poetry, and open debates about aesthetics, philosophy and politics are quite rare.
This is a shame, not only because I believe that art as such has a radical, emancipatory promise—and that this possibility is only accessible when art is engaged with at the level of aesthetics and not as an appendage to an artist’s personality or an appendix to the ideological dynamics of the social scenes through which artists’ works are represented—but also because I believe that, once we ignore the malicious and at times destructive hostilities of our poetry scene, we may very well be able to see that many contemporary Australian poets are in fact producing truly great works. I have had no problem finding poems to analyse as part of a book I’m currently writing on contemporary Australian poetry, with the working title of Poetry and Truth. It is my sincere hope that more poets produce artistic truths via the aesthetics of their work instead of submitting to the false consciousness of a superstructure that turns us into combatants in acts of futile, ideological, lateral thuggery.