Robert Lukins’ argument is redolent with over-sentimental symbolism, jargon of motivational speaking, discourse of self-help culture and PR clichés; it’s also devoid of almost any substance with which to engage. From the bizarrely extraneous, mawkish image of a weeping teenager at the start, to comically hyperbolic statements such as ‘poetry will make [the teenager’s] life some way better’ at the end, his piece strikes me as a melodramatic monologue instead of an attempt at a persuasive thesis.
Yet his approach is in itself instructive. It hints at AP’s belief in the undebatable, self-evident goodness of their work, a belief that is sadly unfounded. Lukins willingly misreads, for example, the fact that ‘a Google search for “Australian poetry” yields [AP’s] site as the highest ranked result’ as an indication of AP’s achievements. To most people, however, it should be clear that this search result is not necessarily a sign of the organisation’s brilliance but the outcome of AP’s shrewd choice of the combination of a wide-ranging adjective (‘Australian’) with a general noun (‘poetry’) for its name.
I must admit to being disappointed that, instead of bravely acknowledging and then arguing for the benefits of commercialising poetry, Lukins’ piece smothered me with a confluence of unbearably saccharine statements – for example, ‘a life with poetry, with everything that brings, is a better life’ – in true propagandist fashion. In the interest of debate, however, I shall extract from it something like an argument to counter.
In his celebration of AP’s Cafe Poet Program, Lukins describes the ‘relationship between writers and their community’ as an ‘unfussy transaction’. I emphatically believe that there’s nothing whatsoever ‘unfussy’ about the relationship between artists and their social environments. I could provide a very long list of poets whose relationship with their communities could be described as anything but easy or harmonious – including exiles such as Ovid and Dante, outcasts such as Rimbaud and Viidikas, alienated suicides such as Plath and Sexton, poets put on trial for offending social mores such as Baudelaire and ‘Ern Malley’, and those eliminated by members of their communities for speaking the unspoken, such as Lorca and the brave Afghan feminist activist and poet Meena Keshwar Kamal – but I’ll instead cite philosopher Alain Badiou for whom ‘the victory of the poem’ resides not in an ‘unfussy’ interaction with, say, baristas and latte drinkers, but in a radical detachment from anything resembling a community:
This victory consists in the fact that the word, that is to say the poem, which is a total expansion of the letter, can finally be born ‘for the scrolls of eternity’. It must – and this is the poem’s philosophical lesson – be won by separation and isolation, extracted from the tenacious allusion (that is doxa itself) of the bond, of the relation, of familiarity, of resemblance, of the near.
Doxa is a Greek word meaning socially accepted or dominant or, in our parlance, mainstream opinion (the root of ‘orthodoxy’). For Badiou, only a poetry that breaks with the illusions of doxa can be properly defined as successful. Such a radical evaluation of poetic success may bother AP and some of their Cafe Poet recruits who, in the words of Lukins, apparently assess their success in terms of ‘garnering regular media and public attention’. Although towards the end of his piece Lukins does acknowledge that there exists poets who ‘do not share a desire to address a wider audience’, he’s quick to associate such poets with ‘stuffiness and pretentiousness’ and, even ‘scarier’, with the horror of ‘simply not [being] considered at all’ by the general public.
I, for one, do not find the absence of a wide audience for my poetry frightening. (In fact, I find it quite liberating.) What does scare me is the potentially exploitative direction taken by AP in their zeal for commodifying poetry. Among Lukins’ more problematic plans is the use of ‘asylum seeker children and kids in out-of-reach home care’ whose stories are to be poeticised by, yes, AP recruits. Also worrying is AP’s education program that ‘sends poets into schools to influence lifelong opinions as they are being formed’. I find the fact that children – especially some of the most vulnerable, for example, refugee children – have been deemed fair game by AP’s agents rather unsettling. The thought of my son’s ‘lifelong opinions’ being manipulated by an attention-seeking AP performance poet is nothing short of terrifying.
It is precisely such implications of AP’s work – in educational, social, cultural and certainly literary contexts – that have compelled me to present the negative argument in this debate, and nothing I’ve read in Lukins’ affirmative piece has made me rethink my position. If anything, his words have made me much more wary of AP’s agendas and operations.
Ali Alizadeh’s collections of poetry include Ashes in the Air (UQP, 2011), short-listed for the Wesley Michel Wright Prize, Evental (Vagabond, 2011) and Eyes in Times of War (Salt, 2006). He also writes creative non-fiction, drama, fiction and criticism. He holds a PhD from Deakin University where he currently teaches.
© Ali Alizadeh
Overland 205-summer 2011, p. 69–70
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