Foreword: australian poetry journal 3.2 #concrete

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 10.05.39 amIn everyday scale, a letter of the alphabet is usually no bigger than a freckle or an iris, and a word is not much wider than a thumbnail. The tiny components of written language are rendered almost invisible to us in our race to extract all-important ‘meaning’. But in concrete poetry, language stands in our way: letters and words fight – through scale or arrangement – for visibility. As Roberto Simanowski puts it: ‘concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words’. It is visual, he says, because it ‘adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning’. As a consequence, concrete poems ask readers to look simultaneously ‘at’ and ‘through’ language.

Some poems make a performance of typography. John Warwicker’s design for ‘In the Belly of Saint Paul’ – replete with stylish ornaments, discretionary ligatures and mimetic kerning – would seem to validate psychologist Kevin Larson’s 2006 finding that an aesthetic typeface can elevate our mood (it can also increase creativity and cognitive focus for a period after viewing). Jordanian calligraphic artist Ibrahim Abu Touq depicts a poem by 12th century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi; while the late Cornelis Vleeskens (whose work has rarely appeared in editions greater than a handful) appears to reference Japanese calligraphy, though the spill of Roman letters doesn’t quite add up to a word. Extracted from his series of concrete anagrams, Christian Bök’s ‘Odalisque 02’ employs the 21 components of letterforms – serifs, spurs, ascenders and so on – as brushstrokes to evoke the female figure within a fractured alphabet; while Ken Kempson’s ‘Saint Poet Quoted’ uses the single inverted-comma to illustrate a field of infinite quotation.

Chris Edwards, Toby Fitch and Pascalle Burton reveal that quotation is frequently the stuff of concrete poems. Edwards’s After Naptime, an extract from a 12-scene ante-narrative about a trip to a haunted lighthouse, retains traces of Dickens’s David Copperfield and Bleak House and Dennis Cooper’s ‘The Anal-Retentive Line Editor’ and snips images from Ward, Lock & Co.’s Great Inventors and Lawrence Lessing’s DNA: At the Core of Life Itself. Fitch’s ‘Missing Scène(s)’ presents as a redacted poem but is, the author says, a mistranslated inversion of Rimbaud’s ‘Scènes’. In contrast, Burton’s poème trouvé makes no mystery of its source: the physical object of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon.

Not surprisingly several of the poets here are also practitioners in the visual and plastic arts. The original artwork for Angela Gardner’s ‘A Quiet Voice’ is a watercolour on Chinese concertina-folded paper, and Nancy Campbell’s ‘How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic’ is made from hand-printed pochoir and letterpress. Campbell’s full sequence comprises 12 words: one for each letter of the Greenlandic alphabet, although here we present only six. (In case you are wondering, ‘asavakkit’ is how Greenlanders declare their love.) Visual poems by pete spence and Eryk Wenziak explore a zone of indeterminacy but retain an affiliation with language that prevents their work from stepping over into objects. Elsewhere Cecilia White and John Selenitsch eschew ink and paper to sculpt poems out of marble, wood and Perspex for the gallery floor.

In criticism, π.o. shines the spotlight on legendary performance-poet Jas H. Duke – a big-boned fan of rounded sound, who reportedly once ate a page of Yeats while reciting a poem, and whom π.o. says is Australia’s only Dadaist poet of any note. Alison Clifton looks at recent poetry collections to flirt with text and image: Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies, Jessica Wilkinson’s biography of silver-screen siren Marion Davies, and Fitch’s Rawshock, accompanied by homonymic Rorschach inkblots. Selenitsch gives a fascinating run-down of the development of concrete poetry from an Antipodean perspective and identifies Alan Riddell – Townsville-born poet and editor of the classic anthology Typewriter Art – as a precursor to the art form in Australia. To accompany his essay we offer a selection of classic Australian concrete poems, courtesy of the 2013 Born to Concrete exhibition (which inspired this special issue) curated by the Heide Museum of Modern Art and University of Queensland Art Museum. In ‘Heartheart’ poet and installation artist Richard Tipping contributes an essay that chronicles his 40-year fascination with circle poems and poem squares, while Martin Duwell rounds out the issue with a look at Clive James’s new translation of Dante, paying his respects to the Inferno’s resplendent architecture and dramatic portraits and noting that the sign above the Gates of Hell has been changed.

Order

Foreword: The Best Australian Poetry 2009

The guest editor of this year’s Best Australian Poetry selection is probably best known for his huge verse novel, The Lovemakers, and for his recent collection of short poems largely inspired by local popular songs. He is, as I have said elsewhere, a master of the infinite complexity of Australian social life. He is endlessly inquisitive (in a way that used to be expected of novelists) about the details of an individual’s public and inner life, where the character derives from and how it expresses itself in details. The Lovemakers was not only a study of individuals but also of entrepreneurialism in business (and its counterpart, the drug trade), of Australian sport, and of the legal system, to name only the most important.

Guest Editor: Alan Wearne

Guest editor: Alan Wearne
Series editors: Bronwyn Lea and Martin Duwell

The guest editor of this year’s Best Australian Poetry selection is probably best known for his huge verse novel, The Lovemakers, and for his recent collection of short poems largely inspired by local popular songs. He is, as I have said elsewhere, a master of the infinite complexity of Australian social life. He is endlessly inquisitive (in a way that used to be expected of novelists) about the details of an individual’s public and inner life, where the character derives from and how it expresses itself in details. The Lovemakers was not only a study of individuals but also of entrepreneurialism in business (and its counterpart, the drug trade), of Australian sport, and of the legal system, to name only the most important. The earlier verse novel, The Nightmarkets, looked at the relationships between people, especially in political life, but, just as big business was counterbalanced by the drug trade in The Lovemakers, so the sex trade counterbalanced politics in The Nightmarkets. The ambition, the extraordinary sensitivity to telling detail in an individual’s life, and a command of the complex, larger structures in which these lives are lived, mean that Wearne’s work always makes me think of Dickens, the Dickens of Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Dombey and Son. I think I am right in saying that this is the first time he has been involved in editing – in the sense of making a selection of poems. He is better known, perhaps, as a teacher of writing; but teaching and editing are not dissimilar processes.

It is an overused commonplace that poetry is double-faced in that it can look inwards towards itself, its own material – language – and its own craft, and, at the same time, look outwards to the social world. Some of the collections in our series have clearly favoured the latter view, sometimes emphasising the drama of lives, sometimes the process of living. Alan Wearne’s selection is one which might be considered rich in portraiture, indeed it might almost seem as though its function was to remind us that there are many radically different ways in which poems can portray lives. And when Wearne writes, in his introduction, of the surprises in the poems that he read for this volume, one cannot help but think that often this resulted from an expert being introduced to new possible ways of doing what he does habitually.

At one end of the spectrum are poems like John West’s ‘Chelsea Women’ and John Carey’s ‘Fidel’s Children’ which work by aggregating quick sketches into a portrait of a larger whole. Each poet’s feeling for the extraordinariness of the lives they capture dominates their poem and it is difficult not to feel that the individual lives are more significant than the social structure in which they occur, though to deal with questions like this – something poetry is perfectly entitled to do – is to enter a very conflicted corner of intellectual questioning. At the other end, so to speak, are poems which portray their writer in a way that we are used to in lyric poetry. The haiku series of Rosemary Dobson and Graham Nunn describe the self by rendering impressions. The poems by Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne and Katherine Heneghan portray the poet’s self by focusing on something tangentially but importantly relevant. Peter Steele’s ‘Mending Gloves at Anglesea’ is also a gentle self-portrait facing the large question of poetry’s function in the world of power and deciding that, though lightweights ‘in the contest for chief lout’, poets have their own function. Geoffrey Lehmann describes his marvellous, extended poem of travels in Peru as a contribution to the new and ‘suspect’ genre of Baedeker poems but, like all good travel literature, it, too, is a portrait of the self, made slightly ridiculous, slightly insignificant but hyper-sensitive in an alien environment, in the way of much good travel writing.

Other poems are straightforward portraits. In Ali Alizadeh’s cleverly titled ‘The Suspect’, in Kate Lilley’s ‘Pet’ and L.K. Holt’s ‘Menis’ we are given clear studies and suffer the important frustration of all readers in not knowing what the author’s relationship to the portrait is. And then there is Maria Takolander’s ‘Witch’, which seems to be a portrait of a hypothetical person constructed out of a set of prejudices, and Geoff Page’s ‘Dining with the Pure Merinos’, which is a generalised, witty and not too cruel portrait of an entire class.

The act of looking at this volume as a kind of anatomy of portraiture draws attention to those poems which are overtly about the issues of the portrait. Peter Porter’s ‘We Do Not Write What We Are’ focuses on the question of poetry as self-portrait, wondering which self – the self of dreams or the self of the ordinary daylight world – appears in poems. Geoff Goodfellow’s ‘Finding Myself’, which seems, initially, to be a poem about the self recovering from very serious surgery, finishes with an image of the razor scraping away all that separates him from being a clone of his father. In this respect, purely accidentally, Tom Shapcott’s ‘Sestina’ places itself at the centre of the stage since it worries – in that obsessive way that sestinas do — about how much our prized individuality is a result of a determinist genetic heritage; as the poem says:

We do not start with a blank sheet, our genes
See to that. There is an itch somewhere in the shadows.

It would not be possible to write about Australian poetry in this year without visiting the sad fact of the death of Dorothy Porter. Her passing, late last year, at such an early age has taken from the community of Australian writers and readers one of our most loved poets. Remarkably, and almost uniquely for an Australian poet, her death attracted obituaries in overseas newspapers. She is most admired, at the moment, for a series of verse narratives beginning with Akhenaten and climaxing in The Monkey’s Mask. Good as these are, I suspect that they draw attention away from books like Driving too Fast and, especially, Crete – which remains my favourite of all her works. She was, pre-eminently, a poet of passion and, though the verse novels dealt with this theme in larger contexts, I can’t help feeling that its natural mode is the explosive lyric. She was a master – or mistress – of such poetry. Poems like ‘Why I Love Your Body’ and ‘My At-last Lover’ are hard to forget, genuine contributions to poetry’s most fully stocked, and hence most competitive, shelf. I love her comment, in an interview, about poetry and the -isms which bedevil intellectual life: ‘I don’t hold an ideological brief when I explore love or passion, I just go in and see what happens’.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

The Best Australian Poetry forewords
Australian Poetry Journal forewords