Being caught dead

Ever shall my fame increase,
renewed by the praises of posterity.

– Horace

According to Bob Dylan, ‘death is not the end’. Although the line comes from a terrible song, there’s no better summation of the age-old gamble of art – that you can survive your own death. This isn’t a religious ambition, but a materialist problem that has always proven fundamental for poets: how to compose something that, by its own mere affective powers alone, will continue to be read or recited by persons the poet personally could never know and whose mode of life may not even be able to be imagined? So Horace fantasises of having ‘erected a monument more durable than bronze’; Catullus prays that his little book might somehow last over one hundred years.1 The true end of the poem is not to end.

Technical studies of verse tend to bear out this general principle at every level of the poem’s construction and address. As Timothy Bahti has it, ‘Lyric poems begin and end, but by their end they have inverted the end into its opposite, a nonend.’2 The poet desires above all that his or her poems be unkillable revenants, memorable words that keep returning or even repeating on you, like a bad hangover or hotdog. Even being indigestible can be a legitimate tactic for a poet, just so long as the poem sticks.

Fair enough, really. Nobody wants to die, or perhaps, as Sigmund Freud put it, nobody believes that they actually will die. What’s clear about poetry today, however, is that you’d have to be pretty mad to believe that your words are going to be read in your own lifetime, let alone anytime thereafter. Sophie Cunningham, telling me of the headaches she had with poets as Meanjin editor – they tend to be more prolix, abusive and megalomaniacal than other scriptural supplicants – also cited several reputable psychological studies that showed poets were indeed the most mentally unstable of all writers. This isn’t a condemnation or constraint, just a descriptive remark.

If the ancient Greeks needed Homer or Simonides or Pindar to preserve the epic deeds of their mythical forebears and Olympic athletes for posterity, these days anybody with a camcorder can upload the merest quotidian deeds of their lives to YouTube.3 Not only is it no longer possible to make a substantial posthumous living out of a beautiful (or ugly) early death – John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron or Arthur Rimbaud – but what’s at risk now is not just the poet’s personage or persona, but the very genre itself. No-one reads poetry anymore, there being not enough time and more exciting entertainments out there. The teaching of poetry has massively declined in schools, because the new era of techno-economics determines that the key to education is teaching children how to work the terminals they’ll have to use as the proles of our brave new media world. The unity of languages has not only been put into question, but also their stability and continuation: the number of languages that are ‘going extinct’ every year a fortiori entails that their poetry will also be gone for good. As for global languages such as English, it’s clear that they are themselves no longer really languages in any traditional sense, being so large, diverse, idiomatically and accentually promiscuous that they lack any true centre or order. No poet can seriously claim to speak to or for ‘the people’ today (whoever they might be); even more scarily, it’s not clear a poet can still even speak for or to him or herself.

In terms of a market, poetry is undoubtedly the least commercially viable creative practice on earth. You can at least sell woven baskets in op-shops.

If the poem began with the aim of never-ending, these days a poem ends before it’s even begun. The media, educational and commercial system of today’s global capitalism militantly assaults everything that poetry has ever relied on or stood for. If WH Auden could still write that poetry ‘survives/ In the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper’, he wasn’t writing in an age that threatens environmental catastrophe.

The problem is not production, for ‘poetry’ (or what George Papaellinas might call a ‘reasonable facsimile’ of poetry) will always be produced – even over-produced – in obscene quantities. The problem is reception. These days, everybody writes poetry, but nobody reads it.

A contemporary poet must face off against an unprecedented, impersonal experience: the collision of poetry’s desire for immortality with the recognition of its absolute impossibility. Or, to put this another way, a contemporary poet writes poetry as if the impossibility of its survival were the key to its survival. This is a problem, not a program: it doesn’t determine the form of contemporary poetry (which can take any form), but its essential matter (the primum mobile of the struggle to become what one is).

To be a contemporary poet is to seek to invent a new audience for one’s work, because nothing in the world is less assured. Poetry is threatened, like the honey bees of our world, with what’s known as ‘colony collapse disorder’: the mysterious, terrifying disappearance of workers from hives. Since bees are absolutely crucial for the pollination of plants – their heterogeneric sex organs, if you like – such disappearances forebode more general environmental disaster.

These paradoxes are determining in the present context, where it is a matter of reviewing several contemporary Australian poets, including Dorothy Porter and Peter Porter (hereafter ‘DP’ and ‘PP’ respectively), both recently deceased. Despite their shared surname, they were not related, although DP was indeed the niece of Hal Porter, author of the celebrated high school staple Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony. As for Dorothy Hewett (DH), she surely needs no introduction, being one of Australia’s all-time compelling literary personalities. All three are major poets; all, moreover, have become so in the different ways they tried to resist poetry-readers-depopulation-syndrome (PRDS).

Of the two Porters, DP is by far the more adventurous and risky. Whereas PP did what so many of the strong Australian writers of his generation also did – head for the great imperial centres, preferably Britain, and for its oldest, most prestigious academic literary institutions – DP took a more ancient and perhaps more admirable track. That is, the unauthorised, or rather self-authorised, meanderings of the bard or troubadour, who wanders from place to place in search of a paying audience, and who lives from the strength of her song alone. As such, DP’s work depends on the singular powers of her poetic persona to recreate an audience, and DP was clearly ready and able to exploit the symbolic capital available to her. As a woman, a lesbian, a populist, DP injected into the late-twentieth century celebrations of ‘queerness’ an extraordinary concoction of her own. As Akhenaten testifies, DP’s boggling ambition enabled her to identify with the ancient Egyptian pharaoh of that name, whose own sexual and political perversity saw him replace traditional Egyptian religion with a new heliocentric monotheism of his own devising. With his death, his religion was obliterated and his own statues programmatically defaced; he survived thereafter only in enigmatic ruins.4 As The Monkey’s Mask shows, DP was also able to repurpose popular prose genres – notably noir detective fiction – according to ingeniously conceived sequences, which, despite their accessibility, don’t give way on narrative drive, psychological subtlety or poetic inventiveness. The Monkey’s Mask was so successful that it was even adapted as a tolerably watchable film – a phenomenal, improbable fate for a book of poetry of any era.5

DP’s geographical, historical, narrative and conceptual range is staggering, as is her ability to script short, deceptively simple lyrics whose initial apparent fatuousness lets them slip irritatingly into memory, whereupon they extrude iridescent flagella and begin to thrash. Even if her most recent volume, Bee Hut, doesn’t quite generate the same heat as some of her other work, DP remained mistress of her characteristic powers. Allusions to other poets are everywhere, most noticeably Sylvia Plath – who herself published a number of poems about bees, including ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’– but also to more unexpected figures, such as TS Eliot (‘the sapient sutlers of the Lord’). The title de facto is DP’s own posthumous metaphor for the poem, a rude shelter for the fleeting buzzing and swarming of being. You can be entranced from outside by the hut’s hypnotic rhythms, but poke your nose into it looking for honey and you risk being badly stung. A bee hut is not a hive, but a lure: a small box intended to seduce bees back to the garden, and hence to encourage greater pollination of the local plants. You, dear reader, are one of the bees DP would encourage back into the bee huts of her verse; let a thousand flowers be pollinated and bloom by the honey-gathering of your reading!

This selection of ‘love poems’ draws on all these volumes and more, distilling a kind of mellifluous Sapphic essence from DP’s work. Punchy, saucy, metamorphic, the very brevity of these lyrics – stripped of their framing narratives – directs attention to little syntagms and phrasings. ‘Finding a vein/ I find you’ or ‘What voice of dirty ice/ is talking in my head?’; or ‘Instead of picking at myself/ like an old scab’ – DP writes love as the clash of gulping, sagging, decaying bodies, thrashing around in accordance with the affective physics of ‘delicious slime’. On the one hand, it’s possible to find DP’s guiding metaphors hackneyed and lame, and her bluntness tiresome; on the other, she somehow transubstantiates this baseness into an elemental part of her power and her verse can stick and fester in surprising ways.

PP is an entirely different kettle of bees. His conatus drives him towards established modes and means. PP’s extraordinary erudition, mastery of traditional forms and evident taste for, as WB Yeats puts it, what’s ‘accustomed, ceremonious’, have seen him rightly celebrated by the conventional organs of institutional literary taste. Crisp, clean, witty, self-deprecating – ‘urbane’ is the word reviewers and journalists prefer to use – you can still sense an abiding sense of colonial and pedagogical inferiority in the near-pathological proliferation of allusions to high-European classics in many languages (including Latin, French, Italian, German and Dutch). In this, PP is more like the low-born Keats (who strewed classical motifs around as if he had had the education that he hadn’t) than the Auden he more obviously resembles. This erudition is dissimulating symbolic compensation for real economic and social exclusions.

Hence PP’s verses are self-consciously clever and memorable in a way that is more easily recognisable than DP’s as ‘good poetry’; as the title of one of his collections puts it, he is indeed Preaching to the Converted. He works a tradition, by traditional means, although he is also concerned to show himself self-consciously aware of modern times. I couldn’t imagine DP chummily rambling over the alleged peak experiences of European literary history as PP did with Clive James (another famous expatriate and friend of PP’s, who also provides a personal epilogue to this volume) in the oft-repeated ABC Radio National series. Unlike James, however, whose toadying appreciation of received Oxbridge opinions about ‘great writers’ impels him to spend his dotage promulgating obscurantist puffery, PP wasn’t an ideologue: he really did operate at an elevated, even rarefied, level of verse and thought. And this verse was at once directed to and against the decaying Oxbridge imperium that eventually welcomed him as one of their own (though he wasn’t).6

This selection plunders PP’s oeuvre for its scintillating gems, many of them frequently anthologised classics in the hallowed annals of Australian verse. I rediscovered the provenance of lines I feel I’ve known forever: ‘The doctor holds my testicles/ While the room fills with the zyklon B I cough’; ‘I met a man had three shits/ A day in honour of the Trinity’; ‘back to back, tonight and every night’. Then there’s the famous ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod’, with its immortal lines: ‘Like a Taree smallholder splitting logs/ And philosophising on his dangling billies./ The poet mixes hard agrarian instances/ With sour sucks to his brother …’ Take that Les Murray, you curdled Boeotian yahoo!

Imitations and ekphrases, translations and centos, PP’s steady voice sounds throughout. Yet there’s always the anticipated apotheosis of death lingering like a promise you’re going to have to keep:

Not just naming death again to stoke fires,
       but thinking of suicide
       because life or art won’t work
and words trying to help, Mallarmé like,
       undefine themselves and say
things out of the New Physics: self-destruct!

That exclamation mark is entirely characteristic of PP’s contained ironised enthusiasms, which join and enjoin at once.

As for DH, her life and work evince a vibrancy and joie de vivre that far exceed that of either Porter. Her sexual politics and her political sexuality – which were also linked to assaulting the occluded or evasive inequalities of literary establishments – make her a unique figure in Australian literary history. The introduction by her daughter, Kate Lilley, gives a real sense of DH’s rigorous vivacity. Lilley speaks of her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’, of her literary range and political commitments (DH was a member of the Communist Party of Australia for a quarter of a century, before resigning in 1968), of her sometimes-turbulent private and public altercations. Lilley includes here the joyfully declarative ‘My Party Is the Party of Aragon’ (a reference to Louis Aragon, the great French communist surrealist poet), a poem excluded from DH’s book Windmill Country (which was, not coincidentally, published by Overland): ‘I am not alone, in the beating of my heart/ Are the voices singing, singing on the high wind/ And my Party is the Party of Aragon.’ Mixing manifesto with love lyric, happy melancholic rumination with disabused social realism, bush ballads with prison letters, domestic intimacy with historical world events, DH’s poems contribute to a kind of Aussie transcendentalism, in which ‘the pine trees crackle with frost’ and Wormland Alice can be found ‘favouring her arthritic knee’. Even with all the disjunction, disappointment, decay and death that fills these poems, a kind of chant of life swells ever from below. Take this extract from ‘The Mandelstam Letters’:

I stroll in my imagination round the Baptistry in Florence,
I have just been on a secret trip to the Crimea,
I draw strength from autumn and the bitter cold of winter,
these things cannot be taken away.
My key poems are like tuning forks, bright nostalgic journeys,
this is also a journey       death      my coffin
in a wooden overcoat carried through the streets of Moscow …

Despite all their differences – DP’s queer populism, PP’s Europhiliac elitism, DH’s energetic romanticism – what they share is a particular discursive practice of poetry. That is, their poetry presents itself as descriptive of states of mind or states of affairs, as personae and voice. They are therefore not in that experimental line of Australian verse whose peak experience remains Ern Malley, continued today by poets such as Pam Brown and Ken Bolton, and which is almost inevitably much less popular due to its often-caustic undoings of sense. The limited exception here is DH’s ‘Sydney Postscript’, with its disjunctive triple columns crawling with ‘Mayakovsky’s bedbugs’ and blazing ‘cataract eyes’.

Yet these collections indeed present contemporary poetry, in the sense that I have tried to give it here: the attempt to continue to write poetry in the consciousness of the impossibility of its continuation, to conjure new kinds of readers from the segmented and administered world of the present. DP, in particular, is a poet who dedicated herself to being caught dead in an extraordinary way; PP, also a biothanatophiliac of comparable intensity, was so in a less risky, more colonially inflected fashion; as for DH, she’d have died to be caught dead, given her hyperbolic Nietzschean directives for ‘living dangerously’. Yet here they all are: caught dead, still going. If, as DH says, ‘Death has the last word,’ at least it’s a word. Or, as DP puts it in ‘Hot Date’:

You’ll never be faithful.
I’ll never be true.

Because, Death,
       I’m not simple

and neither are you.
  1. Sidney Alexander (ed.), The Complete Odes and Satires of Horace, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1999, p. 150; Catullus, ‘may it [‘my pretty new book’], O Virgin my patroness, live and last for more than one century’, GP Goold (ed.), Catullus/Tibullus/Pervigilium Veneris, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995, p. 3.
  2. Timothy Bahti, Ends of the Lyric: Direction and Consequence in Western Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996, p. 13. For more about the desire of poetry ‘not-to-end,’ as well as its constant reinvention of techniques to this end, see also Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1999; Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1968.
  3. The extraordinary Boris Groys notes that, before the invention of modern media, ‘the warrior and artist were mutually dependent. The artist needed the warrior as a topic for art. But the warrior needed the artist even more. After all, the artist could always find another, more peaceful topic for his or her work. But only an artist was able to bestow fame on the warrior and to secure this fame for generations to come … in our time the situation has changed drastically: The contemporary warrior no longer needs an artist to acquire fame and inscribe his feats into the universal memory. By pushing a button that explodes a bomb a contemporary warrior or terrorist pushes a button that starts the media machine’, Art Power, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2008, p. 121. As Groys continues, artists just can’t compete with this technological transformation; even worse, ‘beyond this, the terrorists and warriors themselves are beginning to act as artists. Video art especially has become the medium of choice for contemporary warriors’, p. 122.
  4. For more on this book in particular, and Australian poetry more generally, see my own essay ‘Holespeak,’ Five Bells, vol. 15, no. 4; vol. 16, no. 1, 2008–09, pp. 82–96.
  5. The only other book of Australian poetry that I could imagine as a half-decent film would be Les Murray’s staggering Fredy Neptune.
  6. It’s worth footnoting that the Allen & Unwin production of PP’s book is, on the face of it, a much higher-end proposition than the paperbacks from Black Inc. and UWA: it’s twice the size, hardcover and the poems themselves are sandwiched between encomia by the aforementioned luminaries Malouf and James. Yet the editing of the volume is quite poor. The book is bespattered with misspellings and typos, such as Derek Wallcott [sic]. Titles such as The Rest on the Flight and Collected Poems are also, for some reason, not italicised.

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