Postmodernity

I discussed Australian poetry post-1968 in Parnassus Mad Ward where, however, I made little direct reference to postmodernity. The revolution which ushered in the so-called generation of '68 and which overtook New Impulses as the war overtook Brennan's Poems 1913, seems to me to mark the postmodern moment in Australia. Postmodernism, triggered by the communications revolution theorized by Baudrillard and by the late consumer capitalism identified by Jameson, brought affluence, advertising, television, then computer, virtuality. Its utopian phase, linked to drugs, pop culture and Vietnam protests and, more fundamentally, to the postcolonial emergence of the Third World, barely outlived the early seventies. Its economic-rationalist, greed-is-good phase continues vigorously to this day. Whether utopian or reactionary, this generated quite new discursive formations. In Australia its globalizing capitalism, as well as its well-meaning French-left gurus, spelled the death of nationalism. The sixties generation took their Australianness, and their internationalism, for granted. There simply was no issue left to discuss, after the agonizing of the consciousness-phase myth-makers. Or if there was, it had little to do with being in Australia, or anywhere else, since virtual place had no specificity.

Three anthologies, Shapcott's Australian Poetry Now (1970), the Melbourne Applestealers (1974), edited by Robert Kenny and C. Talbot, and Sydney's The New Australian Poetry (1979), edited by John Tranter, established the fact of a generation of '68. Broadly it followed international, in particular, American trends, those of Donald Allen's The New American Poetry. It also coincided with renewed cultural vitality in and following the sixties spring: a new Australian drama, the painting of Brett Whiteley, the resurgence of the local film industry. Overseas poetic mentors could vary, though the Beats, the New York school and Black Mountain played prominent roles. Older Australian mentors included Ken Taylor in Melbourne, whose 'At Valentine's' provided a new model, and Bruce Beaver in Sydney (in particular the Beaver of Letters to Live Poets, 1969). The effect, as many commentators have noted, was to make substantial difference to the writing of older poets, both the generation of McAuley and that of Wallace-Crabbe. There was a massive explosion in readings and publication; readings in Balmain and Carlton (at La Mama with Kris Hemensley presiding), at Monash (with the poets Laurie Duggan, Alan Wearne and John Scott); publications in a rush of little underground magazines. But the underground also affected established publishing: Hemensley became poetry editor of Meanjin in the mid-to-late seventies, and Robert Adamson led a coup which took over Poetry Magazine, subsequently New Poetry.

In Parnassus Mad Ward I divided '68 poetry into three poetics strands: one in which the subject and language function transparently; one in which subjectivity is mediated by language; one in which subjectivity dies in the play of linguistic signifiers. In each case, however, I noted a new immediacy in the verse and an easy stance towards the subject-I quite different from the ironist, self-conscious distancing of subjectivity in fifties verse. Michael Dransfield, Nigel Roberts and Vicki Viidikas exemplified the poetic of transparency; John Forbes and Tranter that of hard-edge play of signifiers; Hemensley tended to shift between a Beat (Children of Albion) transparency and a field poetics, a projectivism of sorts (in The Poem of the Clear Eye, 1975); as did the Adelaide poet Richard Tipping, from Soft Riots (1972) to Domestic Hardcore (1975); Adamson moved between the most straightforwardly autobiographical verse (Where I Come From, 1979) to a Duncanesque projectivism in 'The Rumour'. Others, like Charles Buckmaster, Jennifer Maiden, Jan Harry, Susan Hampton or the next generation of '68 poets (Pi O, Steve Kelen, Gig Ryan) worked out further variations. Two of the promising stars of the generation, Dransfield and Buckmaster, died very early deaths. Dransfield, a major figure in Australian writing, scribbled carelessly and sometimes brilliantly in the midst of addiction, combining the easy nonchalance of the times with biting ironies and sensitive intelligence, a delicacy reminiscent of, but more spontaneous than, Slessor's — perhaps most memorably in his Courland Penders poems, his drug verse ('Fix', 'Bums' Rush', 'Miss Havisham') and his M Ward Canberra poems. The self-taught, Dylan-driven Adamson managed a kinetic verse that could project something of his hard life and his survival-of-the-fittest experiences on the Hawkesbury river. Tranter experimented with self-referentiality to the point of (highly readable) degree zero in 'The Alphabet Murders' and his Crying in Early Infancy sonnets.

Post-'68 did not belong to a single group of poets, even one as diverse as the above. Many older poets continued to write and young poets unconnected with the New Poetry emerged. Hall and Shapcott turned to the novel; Malouf concentrated, though not exclusively, on prose; Dorothy Hewett wrote verse and plays; Roger McDonald, editor of the timely Paperback Poets series, also wrote prose; Judith Rodriguez, Antigone Kefala, Rhyll McMaster, Geoff Page, Fay Zwicky and many others simply wrote. The attack on the New Poetry, which I have termed a Battle of the Books and characterized as a clash between a poetic of praxis and the 'reflective' mode, was headed by Robert Gray and Lehmann in their 1983 anthology The Younger Australian Poets. Rivalries continued when both Tranter (with Philip Mead) and Gray and Lehmann issued antagonistic anthologies in 1991. But no one could continue by-now jaded traditions in the seventies and eighties. Gray, like Dransfield and Whiteley, sought Asian inspiration; Lehmann developed to the reflections of Ross's Poems. There were also younger followers of talent such as Philip Hodgins. Above all, there was the larger-than-life Les Murray. Murray defended hillbilly Boeotia against Peter Porter's suave Athens; he asserted a visionary Catholicism; committed imitations of Aboriginal oral songs; foolishly involved himself in the reactionary attack on the left-wing historian Manning Clark; suffered existentially; generated a 'vernacular republic' of poetry with experimental verve that the generation of '68 might envy. Gradually, he received the praise of a conservative academy still withheld from the poets of '68.

Postmodern fragmentation brought about the demise of class as much as of nation. What remained was 'pluralpolitics', that of gender or the environment. It was a sign of the change that women's and minority writing began to gain recognition. The first women's anthology, Mother I'm Rooted, was edited in 1975 by Kate Jennings, to be followed by Susan Hampton's and Kate Llewellyn's The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets in 1986. Pi O's 1985 Off the Record anthology contained twenty-three women to thirty men and a substantial non-Anglo presence. It also showed that much of the populist revolution of the New Poetry and the sixties Happening had been channelled into Performance Poetry, a vogue thus far preserved from academic appropriation. At the same time, Aboriginal politics had been active since the sixties and a large cultural flowering (best known for its visual arts achievement but extending to every field) had established itself. Kath Walker (Oodgeroo) wrote her groundbreaking We Are Going in 1964 and there have been many who followed the example, including Jack Davis, Kevin Gilbert, Archie Weller, Lionel Fogarty and Lisa Bellear. Gilbert's 1988 Inside Black Australia brought most of these together. Likewise, oral traditions have continued and recent collections of translations include The Honey-Ant Men's Love Song and Little Eva at Moonlight Creek.

It is customary to conclude an essay like this one on a note of open-ended pluralism, given the difficulty of attempting any totalization of the present. In this case it seems to me plurality is structurally historical and one of the legacies of postmodernity. I myself have not sought to evade synthesis, to present a mere catalogue of Australian poetry, though cataloguing has been necessary to a degree. Rather, focus has been on three historically successive discursive formations, those of national consolidation, questioning self-consciousness and, finally, the postmodern retirement of the question. In a recently colonized country the question is inescapably one of ownership, belonging, identity. All else, including this century's modernization, must be interpreted in its light. Australian poetry in the first three decades of the century celebrates conquest, either overtly or covertly. From the thirties to the sixties it seeks the ultimate conquest: to gain by loss, query, doubt, to escape historical-geographical contingency by entertaining and so overcoming the idea of it. By the seventies the entire project is made meaningless by globalization. The question ceases, though it has not been answered. In Tranter's poetry the death of the question is matter for congratulation, in Drans-field's it is a problematical fact to be lived out and to die by. At any rate just this crisis precipitated by postmodernity shakes the foundations of the present essay. Why 'poetry'? Why 'Australian'? How 'history of'?

Bibliography

Histories

Dutton, G. (ed.) (1964). The Literature of Australia. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Hergenhan, L. (ed.) (1988). The Penguin New Literary History of Australia. Ringwood: Penguin.

Kramer, L. (ed.) (1981). The Oxford History of Australian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilde, W. H., Hooton, J. and Andrews, B. (eds) (1995). The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Anthologies

Campbell, D. (ed.) (1970). Modern Australian Poetry. Melbourne: Sun Books.

Duwell, M. and Dixon, R. M. W. (eds) (1990). The Honey-Ant Men's Love Song and Other Aboriginal Song Poems. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Duwell, M. and Dixon, R. M. W. (eds) (1994). Little Eva at Moonlight Creek and Other Aboriginal Song Poems. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Gilbert, K. (ed.) (1988). Inside Black Australia: An Anthology of Aboriginal Poetry. Ringwood: Penguin.

Gray, R. and Lehmann, G. (eds) (1983). The Younger Australian Poets. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger.

Gray, R. and Lehmann, G. (eds) (1991). Australian Poetry in the Twentieth Century. Melbourne: Heinemann.

Hall, R. and Shapcott, T. W. (eds) (1968). New Impulses in Australian Poetry. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Hampton, S. and Llewellyn, K. (eds) (1986). The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets. Ringwood: Penguin.

Heseltine, H. (ed.) (1981). The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Verse. Ringwood: Penguin.

McDonald, R. (ed.) (1974). The First Paperback Poets Anthology. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Pi O (ed.) (1985). Off the Record. Ringwood: Penguin.

Shapcott, T. W. (ed.) (1970). Australian Poetry Now. Melbourne: Sun Books.

Tranter, J. (ed.) (1979). The New Australian Poetry. St Lucia: Makar Press.

Tranter, J. and Mead, P. (eds) (1991). The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry. Ringwood: Penguin.

Criticism

Brooks, D. and Walker, B. (eds) (1989). Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women's Poetry and Poetics. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Buckley, V. (1957). Essays in Poetry, Mainly Australian. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Dobrez, L. A. C. (1990). Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press. Duwell, M. (ed.) (1982). A Possible Contemporary Poetry. St Lucia: Makar Press.

Kirkby, J. (ed.) (1982). The American Model: Influence and Independence in Australian Poetry. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger.

Taylor, A. (1987). Reading Australian Poetry. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Wright, J. (1965). Preoccupations in Australian Poetry. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment