Friday, January 26, 2007

The Australia Day Massacre: Poetry in Oz

"Paul, I'd love a perspective on how poetry is thought of in other countries/regions and whether that's bad or good" - Don Zirilli.

When I learned that there was a meeting of a Poetry club in a pub not too far from where I live, held the last Tuesday of every month, I thought this would be a great opportunity to combine two of my favourite obsessions: beer and poetry. I saw myself sitting, schooner of ale in one paw and scroll of Metaphysical poetry in the other, declaiming sonnets and discussing anapaests and tropes, odes and villanelles, and debating the works of A.D. Hope and Ern Malley.

Of course it wasn't like that at all. Instead it turned out to be a meeting of practitioners of Bush Poetry. Australian Bush poetry is a fairly popular performance art which is found not in the cities much but in the bush, at Country Music festivals (such as the Tamworth Festival), enjoyed between line-dancing marathons and crooning singers who sound more American than Australian.
Ahhh am, yewww ahhh
We ahhh
There is a deep schizophrenia in the "Country" culture, that just doesn't know whether it is American or Australian. More accurately, it seems to think that the two are the same thing.

The most Australian element of the whole culture, though, is the Bush Poetry. It is declaimed with the broadest possible Strine accent, and manifests such dominant Australian characteristics as sarcastic irony, self-deprecating humour, pessimism and sentimentality. It is firmly proletarian in tone and vision, honouring the Good Bloke and his Sheila, and the Battler. It is nearly always formal poetry in its use of rhyme (though these are often inexact and strained) and of regular meter, often anapaests. It is often dated in its use of old-fashioned diction and phrase, and of inversion, and heavily end-stopped, all of which are seen as being poetic and lofty. Here's an excerpt from one example of the genre by "Blue the Shearer":
It’s good for killing blowflies on the barbecue or stove,
And it’s great for crushing garlic. Just belt it on the clove,
And wipe the garlic laden thong on chicken, beef, or pork,
Inhale the pure aroma of that garlic when you walk.

A thong for early evening, to wear with hipster tights,
I can see the jingle in my mind, as though it were in lights.
Just a thong at twilight, when the tights are low.
With a string of diamantes, ’twined artistic round each toe.

A thong to wear to worship. I’d call it even thong,
The strap is very holy, and the soul, so very strong.
A thong to wear to football, to cricket, or the shops,
To shearing sheds, to factories. Steel capped thongs for cops.

I’d move away from footwear, create a new design,
For a chocolate coated thong, to give my valentine,
And way into the future, when the years have moved along,
She will show her grandkids, her love’s old sweet thong.

And when we go republic, and we’re looking for a song
To celebrate our Icon, let’s hear it for the thong.
Forget Waltzing Matilda, Advance Australia Fair,
A brand new National Anthem will be wafting through the air...

And here's the closing stanzas of "The Christmas Wish" by Kym Eitel:
...Mum says that even God himself can't cure my sister, Anne.
So Santa, here's my Christmas wish, please help me if you can.
I'll never ask for toys again, if just one thing you'll do
... give Annie one last Christmas please, before she's an angel too.

I found both of these poems by the proverbial quick google, and quoted from them because both are good examples of their genre. I find them both very successful at what they set out to do: Blue the Shearer's riff on thongs is funny, and would go down well as a pub song or an open-mic crowd-pleaser; Kym's poem is touching and poignant, and deploys the techniques of its genre very skilfully. It is a poem that people would simply respond too because of its humane values and compassion. Bush Poetry is truly a living art form that lots of people connect with: it has an audience who genuinely respond to it, a far greater audience than the sort of poetry I was after could ever hope to achieve. By the criteria of reaching a far wider audience and of having instant appeal, it is much more successful poetry. It is celebrated and validated by the mass media and the community at large. I salute Bush Poetry, which I have read and listened to since I was a kid in Condobolin. I especially admire its genuinely Australian character - it is not a grovelling imitation of American style and values as so much "Australian" Country Music is.

But where does that leave skulking oddballs like me? My visit to Tuesday Pub Poet's club might be seen as an emblem of the poetry scene in Australia. Poetry here is valued primarily as a nationalistic expression of "Old Aussie Values", now applied to the modern world. Tortured metaphysicians and sonneteers have no part in such a scene, and are soundly and roundly ignored by the population at large. Poetry of the type published in The Shit Creek Review and similar zines is just not on the radar of Australians in general. They study some at school, though, and when Don Zirilli and Michael Cantor become classics, students will doubtless chew the ends of their pens over their poems too, producing such critiques for the examiners as "Zirilli uses words and sentences in this poem to make his language flow smoothly, revealing his hidden meanings..."

Well, I listened at the pub to a few theatrically declaimed rousingly patriotic or wistfully ironic Bush poems, but to be honest with you, the Little Creatures Pale Ale I was drinking was by far the most interesting part of the evening. That is my limitation, and my curse.

Anyway, yous blokes and sheilas, ere's me own bash at a pome for Australia Day. It's about our beautiful Wide Brown Land's fantastic birdlife - the feathered variety of course. Hope yous all like it! Up a gum tree Sport! Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! oi! Oi!

The Song of the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Each night I'm enthralled by the barking owl's call
I have come to admire so well;
I awaken each day in the most pleasant way
to the plaint of the amorous koel.

But there's one lilting tune sends me over the moon,
no matter how oftentimes heard:
such a musical note as cascades from the throat
of a soulfully poetic bird.

Can you believe it? Can you conceive it?
I wish you could hear, as I do,
the ravishing song of the sweet sulphur-crested
delicate white cockatoo!

Image courtesy of Patricia Wallace Jones


Blogger RHE said...

"Tortured metaphysicians and sonneteers have no part in such a scene, and are soundly and roundly ignored by the population at large."

Unlike the country of ______, where tortured metaphysicans and sonneteers are highly valued, attended to, and prized above television presenters? (Fill in the blank with the name of that Unknown County.)



10:49 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...

Richard, it's a testament to my innocent optimism that I thought that the Tuesday pub poets group would include John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire and Gérard de Nerval, and that after we'd read a brace or two of meditations to each other we would all be given MBEs.

No - hang on. Maybe I was riffing off Posthumous's reference to "the disgraceful unpopularity of poetry in the United States", which he sees as a sign that the poets are, paradoxically, thus successful since poetry has resisted being made into "a comfortable, familiar experience." Heck, it's the same here in Oz, I seem to be thinking.


11:28 pm  
Anonymous Paraglider said...

Strangely enough, I wouldn't have expected an Aussie poetry reading to be any different from what you described. At least not one held in a pub. Still it was probably more fun than the kind of reading that takes place round a nice lady's kitchen table with only tea and biscuits on offer.


9:48 pm  
Blogger Caratacus said...

No, my expectations were entirely unrealistic. I don't think the nice-lady/tea-and-biscuits approach sounds very promising either. When I see "Absinthe, Hellfire and Damnation Poetry Night - Undead Welcome" advertised at the local Opium Den I might have more luck.


10:17 pm  
Blogger RHE said...

If de Nerval showed up, he'd have his lobster-on-a-leash, and you guys would eat it in seconds. You scarcely can blame him for staying away.



12:35 am  
Blogger Caratacus said...

Ted Hughes' pig was on the menu, spit roasted. Still, you'd expect that. What was more disturbing was the Paenang Curry of hammered-gold-and-gold-enamelling chicken, $6.95 a plate with salad.


5:46 am  

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