Olympic City Tics
Personal Poetics in Sydney in the Year 2000
I crouch at a small desk in a modest back room on the ground floor of a terrace house. A sliver of reflected sunlight might enter the room for a few minutes on clear afternoons in late spring and in summer. In order to read here the halogen lamp is usually on. Outside, this row of houses is enclosed by buildings undergoing conversion from old wool storage and manufacturing to a medium-density mix of apartments and offices. Close to this room, concrete-mixing trucks waiting to pour floors, ceilings and driveways have lined up for hours every day and many nights for the last three years as building after building is gutted and redesigned or demolished and reconstructed. Residual sticky black dust from combined tyre rubber, building rubble and exhaust fumes is this district’s distressing and intolerable irritant. Unpredictable and yet constant noise prevents reliable sleep and destroys concentration. My job in a library elsewhere, which can sometimes tend towards drudgery, has become a kind of sanctuary.
Here, I can no longer write poems that don’t include some reference to this urban development nightmare. My daily life is conditioned by continuous low-level anxiety. Consequently I no longer seem to be writing many poems and those that are cranked out despite the odds are fairly brief. This mild anxiety certainly informs my perception and it’s possible that I have become a bit deranged. Browsing in the local bookshop I am suddenly overwhelmed by the title Pages of the Wound (1) - a book I bought and read months ago - today, I feel like weeping. And yet, in spite of these occasional emotional fits, I persist. I hunker down here attempting to comment on the state of something as unsociable as poetry. An art that in a normative social context is a marginalised activity, dependent as it is on the line-break. Recently, a friend asked me to explain lineation. I said that basically it is the main thing that distinguishes poetry from prose & that it is a device which slows the poem’s reception. But it’s more than that. As Wayne Koestenbaum contends, poetry’s marginalisation is partly because - "public discourse takes place in prose, as if the line break, terrifying and other, had the power to convert sensible democratic speech into anarchic blather."(2) For the sound poets of "The Machine For Making Sense" that would probably agreeably sum up a political aim - the critique of the language of power.
If political content is an intention then my method would involve making a synoptic record of the effects of the greed, shonkiness and short-term scheming of corporate development, against which, as an individual, I know I am impotent. To exist at all, that record/poem implies having some notion of a past - locally, a time before these wrecking & rebuilding disruptions. Writing poetry is also always informed by its past, its predecessors. In my pollutant-induced-delirium, lately I am confounded and annoyed by an increasing number of uninformed poetic arrivistes and naive wonders - "new" poets who do not seem to have read anything produced here in Australia or, really, from anywhere or by anyone else at any time. I even doubt that they read their peers. They glide along in a context-free zone, witlessly busy with proclaiming newness, pronouncing currency and complaining about lack of venue of all types. As far as I know, reading is the best way to write.
Then, in my nervosa, their opposites appear - the even more unsettling regurgitating canonical imitators with their truckloads of committee-awards and their utterly stodgy, epic, monumental poetry of resolutely heroic verbiage.The death investigators - deep song and all that. Grand gestures in the quests to unite - sons with fathers, man with nature and boats that don’t rock. My flip, polite persona masks a smouldering and wrathy incredulity as I learn that another revivalist is stepping up to accept officialdom’s accolade. Competition is the canonical mimic’s domain. In Sydney there’s even a competition called "The Poetry Olympics". I’m not one for entering any poetry competitions but I’m too wound-up, too stern and definitely too nervy for that one.
Apprehensively, I situate my own poetry & the poetry I like to read in mutable positions somewhere in between these emergent trends. As an opposition and an antidote, perhaps I should cultivate indolence in future poems. But to do that, I’ll have to quit this metropolitan olympic chaos for the serenity of the mountains. Maybe Blackheath is to Sydney as Connecticut is to New York.
1. John Berger, Pages of the Wound, Bloomsbury- Circle Press, (1996)
2. Wayne Koestenbaum, Epitaph on 23rd Street : The Poetics of James Schuyler, Parnassus 21, 1&2,(1996):33-57
This statement of poetics was written on request for a contribution to Southerly the journal of the English Department, University of Sydney.
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