issue 1 volume 1 2011
‘Beginning is not only a kind of action’, Edward Said remarks in his celebrated book on the subject, ‘it is also a frame of mind, a kind of work, an attitude, a consciousness’. To be alert to a beginning is to be aware of departures and entrances: to be filled with the promise of what is to come. But to ask where a poem begins is to encounter a series of questions. Does a poem begin, thinking concretely, with its first line? Does its beginning proliferate with its peritexts: title, epigraph, dedication, subtitle? Does a poem begin the moment a body sits down to write it, or is there some other secret point at which the thought that impels the poem first came into being? Did Paul Hetherington’s poem, ‘A Norse Greenlander, 1450’, for instance, begin as he sat (I’m guessing) at his desk in Canberra, or did its authentic beginning manifest in the arctic circle some 500 years ago when a cold-weary woman sharpened her scythe and contemplated another frozen harvest.
Perhaps, to take an airier view, a poem does not truly begin until a human mind hits upon it and permits language to animate its neurons. The poem as a cognitive act depends on a host to arouse it from the dormancy it slips into between readings. But what then do the anarchic practices of reading – rarely do we read books and authors in chronological order – do to a poem’s antecedent beginnings? Some readers will, for example, encounter Pauline Reeve’s ‘After Akhmatova’ before reading the Russian poet who inspired it. Alex Skovron’s ‘The Attic’ enters truly uncanny territory with his idea of a translation predating the original: the unacknowledged translator in Skovron’s poem stores manuscripts in the dusty corridors of his attic, never to consult them until ‘the original, in its first language, appears / in some quarter of the city’.
Stranger still, it’s conceivable – to consider Christian Bök’s Xenotext experiment – that a poem will enact an alternate beginning beyond the human field. Using a ‘chemical alphabet’ Bök’s project is to translate his poetry into sequences of DNA he will implant into the genome of Deinococcus radiodurans, an extremophile bacterium so resilient it can live on the surface of the moon. The protein the cell produces in response will form a second comprehensible poem. This marriage of language and microbiology is not without precedent: in 2003 scientists inserted a DNA translation of ‘It’s a Small World’ into D radiodurans to demonstrate that the bacterium could be used to store information in the event of a nuclear catastrophe.
No poem, however much it might deviate or even mutate, can stand completely outside a tradition. Yet not all antecedents to a poem, it must be said, are necessarily born of literature: Brenda Saunder’s ekphrastic ‘Art of Travel’ begins inside the paintings of Manet and de Hooch; Margaret Bradstock’s ‘Bali Hai’ pays tribute to the late Margaret Olley; and Michael Sharkey grounds his ‘Ancestors’ poem in the staged grammar of nineteenth-century photographs.
The proposition that a poem’s meaning is to be found in its antecedents has long been a topic for debate in literary criticism. In ‘Questions to Answers’, Bonny Cassidy considers news books by Elizabeth Campbell, Ali Alizadeh, and Libby Hart in context of their earlier works. David McCooey, in ‘You Can’t Be Serious’, traces Ken Bolton and joanne burns’s present-day poetics to a beginning in the fight and footle of 1968. And in ‘Re-entering Bloomland’, Martin Duwell assesses Harold Bloom’s reassessment of his theory of influence in which so-called ‘strong poets’ attempt to make space for themselves by emulating and corrupting their poetic parentage.
But this is not to suppose we can do without the concept of a beginning. Moments of becoming, as moments of departure, are crucial to the construction of meaning in our lives – though at times the two might appear difficult to differentiate. As TS Eliot says in ‘Four Quartets’: ‘What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from’. ‘Beginnings’ seemed a natural topic for the inaugural issue of the Australian Poetry Journal. It enters a pre-existing world, but there is no question that it has arrived.