The Pastoral and the Poltical Possibilities of Poetry


Gig Ryan once said to me that all poetry is political. I refuted this, arguing in favour of the pure, non-aligned lyric. But then, the world does not turn around the poem, no matter what the poet would like to think. And the world and the poem are not mutually exclusive. I've since decided that Gig was absolutely right. Even the "ego I" of the lyric is a political statement in terms of where the individual sits in relation to both Nature and Society. The imagist poet who sources the mysteries and wonders of nature must, certainly in Western social contexts, do so aware of society's assault on it. To ignore this, and describe an isolated, or indeed, idealized speck of Nature, is not to be idealistic or apolitical but either extremely ironic, highlighting humanity's ineptitudes by contrast, or to be a victim (or perpetrator) of Western propaganda - be it consciously or unconsciously. The ideal is always the depiction made by the converted. There is no Walden Pond possible now. Thoreau was right in recognizing the limitations and failings of civilization, but wrong in thinking such idealistic retreat was possible ("in Wildness is the preservation of the World") in what was, even in the 1840s in Maine, a rapidly shrinking wilderness. Still, his action was, of course, political.

All of this is not to say the lyric cannot remain as a thing-in-itself, but rather that it will - & must - be appropriated into the environmental debate. Furthermore, looking at agrarian or rural poetries, there has been a long tradition of appropriating the "purity", the "innocence", and "naivety", to give but a few of the patronizing labels given to the "rural", for the causes of revolution and political expediency. In idealizations of bucolic verse, it should of course be realized that all rural poetries post- the inception of the city-state are political. All are a recognition of an often more "NATURAL" life, alternative to that of the city.

Of course, within this there are the politics of landscape, that is altering the environment, and the State of Nature, the world as it was before intervention. The idea of scaping, or spiritually and artistically altering an environment to make it more in tune with some grand (human) purpose, has been a kind of propaganda to avoid politicizing intervention. As such, art and politics, have been separated where in fact they are as inseparable as sport and politics. In the latter, it is naive to think that the ultimate form of competition - demonstrating physical prowess - is not going to be appropriated by the "owners" (that is the Societies/environments that produce them); that they will not lay claim to this to boost their political stocks. It is worth considering how very much the Georgics were political. This is the country - harmonious, spiritual, complete - and not the corrupt, hungry and fallible city state.


In my "pastorals" - and I should say that I use this term ironically - there is the sense of there being no idyll possible now. This is not the world of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. And the Australian landscape, is not the European. If anything, it is really the Storm that belongs. Australia is a place of extremes. Furthermore, a sense of belonging to the land for a non Aborigine is marred by guilt, that the European rural is laid over the Aboriginal land, working hard to obscure or obliterate memories of the past. Having said this, it is also a matter of new generations of farmers having a genuine sense of belonging qua knowing no other "place". But it's a kind of negative identification.

Writing the pastoral now, here, one must be ironic, and (consequently) political. The eclogic conversations between shepherds have become those between motorbikes and tractors, helicopters and light planes. Even the climates are changing. Greenhouse Effect, ozone layer, etcetera. Nothing is consistent, and consistency is what the pastoral has always been about. That once "retrieved" from Wild Nature the landscape is shaped to remain for ever after - unlike the city, which is about progress and change, ad infinitum. The rural is the balance. It is interesting to note, however, that the very degradation of land by change has brought around a reassessment of the idyll. That only through preserving the land, through resorting to more "primitive" methods, can the rural (read production!) be maintained. The notion becomes commodified, fetishized, and "trendy". Rotating crops, natural fertilizing, retaining stands (or planting around salt country) of trees, will the rural be maintained.

In short, I try to instil not only intrinsic values and persuasions of the lyric but also to make a statement concerning the destruction of habitat, the exploitation of Nature by humans. But this cannot be done polemically, especially in a Western society where the expectations and "needs" of the individual are seen as paramount. Humour, irony, and non-intrusive observation provide their own answers. Take, for example, the poem "Why They Stripped The Last Trees From The Banks Of The Creek" from The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony.

They stripped the last trees

from the banks of this creek

twenty years ago. The old man

couldn't stand the thought

of bare paddocks with a creek

covered by trees slap bang

in the middle of them.

A kind of guilt I guess.

Anyway, he was old

and we humoured him -

chains, rabbit rippers,

chainsaws. We cleared

those banks until the water

ran a stale sort of red.

Until salt crept into

the surrounding soaks.

Furious he was - the salt

left lines on the bath,

the soap wouldn't lather.

In an earlier poem a statement of morality also becomes "political" in a way that would not have been "possible" once. The poem "The Butcher" from Full Fathom Five, has a politicized meaning, especially when read in a modern Western context, yet does not make an openly moral judgment.

This is because even the act of eating, and the fact of what we eat, are now political. Of course, it always has been; eating has always been full of taboos and associations. These poems are not so much about the rights and the wrongs of things (which doesn't mean they're not, either) but about the way we read a text in the light of our understanding of "right" and "wrong". But once again, it is not the polemic but the notion that drives my verse.

A Note On The Butcher

Removing his apron,

ambiguously striped

Prussian blue and zinc white,

the butcher opens the door

of a sky-blue car, interior

withered vermilion,

to be greeted by a tiger,

neck on a thread,

bobbing its striped head,

eyes lolling savagely.

In "Night Seeding & Notions of Property" from Erratum/Frame(d) I've written against the appropriation of the idyllic idealizations of an urban culture. And by extension against the western notion of agrarian innocence, and of the rural's political expediency. This is not to reduce things to a city/country dichotomy, to buy into the literary politics of contemporary Australia, but to place people and environment on a common ground. "Night Seeding . . . " is also a poem about how language can be used to manipulate popular sensibilities. But furthermore, it is a poem in which words should exist as things in themselves. Does this mean that in their "purity" they become things de-politicized? As every action has an equal and opposite reaction so too has any investment of meaning. By affording words their uniqueness you are setting up chains of possible reactions. This is a political process.

Night Seeding & Notions of Property

Dizzy with figure-eighting

the corners of his fields, the drills

filled with seed & super

and closed over under

the tattooed rash of night,

foxes' muffling barks

& fighting to cover tracks

with a starpicket the axis

of a compass whose North

is wire-guided & lethal: silver

tennis balls exploding in their spiralled

swing on totem-tennis poles

for here stillness shivers & moves

like frost moves the shattered

flesh of quartz

over the wasted plots. A clear

dawn is soluble anyway

& the tractor gnaws,

its queasy stomach

turning slowly & coldly

with winter:


the farmer moans - a sudden downpour

shaves his precious topsoil.

The ghosts clamour about the microwave

& television set, the stove broods

in this sauna of politeness.

City people are expecting billy tea

& damper & the sheep to bleat

in unison. Nous regrettons parler.

There wasn't a kangaroo to be seen.

Night-seeding, the tractor's floodlights

are blood-red & ovarian -

nurturing the cloddish soil, & always

the farmer working the wheel, hands

gnarled & frostbitten & large.


Poetry is political in self-analysis. If we are part of the continuum of Western verse (many of course are not), and accept this, then we must be aware of how it has "allowed" us to write as we do. Against it, or in collusion. Unconsciously. I have written elsewhere of the position of the American Language Poets in this "post-Auschwitz" world on these questions.1 I have also argued, with others, that "Language Poetry" is a particularly American phenomenon that borrows from European traditions and theories. But one can draw on their methodologies. What I find particularly fascinating is the displacement of the lyrical "I" with the externalized, supposedly non-referential "I". That is, the self that owns only itself and exists no more exclusively in the realm of language than any other individual word.

If anything, it is the avant garde amongst the English poets that interest me at the moment. Particularly the Cambridge Poets. J.H. Prynne, Rod Mengham, Peter Riley, the late Veronica Forrest-Thompson and many others. As I see it, the link between the small "p" political and the large "A" Aesthetic is indivisible, and there is constant play against the heritage of the English Pastoral. The voice of Shepherds has been not so much displaced as "hybrided". And in my own mixing of the aesthetic and political, the exploration of notion (or as Hejinian has said, "the theme of theme itself", and interest in language as a thing-in-itself), I naturally feel close to these poets. Of course, in Australia, "displacement" is so massive that the hybrid is particularly obscure and dangerously infertile.

In the last poem I am going to read (the first stanza of), "Every now & then thoughts of Bombay enter the heads of those in Bangalore", I apply a Western cultural vernacular to an Eastern cultural conflict, that between the Americanized Bombay and the comparatively self-determining Bangalore in India. A post-colonial view of a post-colonial and also internally colonized nation within a greater umbrella nation. The point is not statement but juxtaposition, the words not telling but suggesting, making associations. I actually had a particularly strange sense of déjà vu in Bangalore earlier this year. I was visiting a professor at Bangalore University and he said, pointing at the eucalypts out of the window, arcing between a deep blue sky, "You could almost be in Australia, couldn't you?"

pre-dawn road-sulking in the garden city

some strolling or waking up or perishing in Cubbon Park -

why go elsewhere(?) - Chaturvedi Badrinath

of The Times [printed in Bombay] says the foundation

of human freedom & night in Dharma & Jainism

are radically different from those

that are provided in the western political

& legal philosophy of modern times. >> this place

is pure(ly) structure's lists of the unbuilt & un-

finished like languages evolving

with social predicaments so new stories are added

well & truly lived in

satellite dishes like cribs of images

beggar bowls aimed to heaven -

becoming clearer

they neglect groundswell(s)

of opportunity (in Bombay

the stock-exchange is thriving!)

as Ta Ta trucks ARE their own trend

passing luminescent (but) smog-washed[?] BUT glowing

boulevards of optimism, the script

as clichéd as eucalypts

around Bangalore University - fluoro tubes

& whitewash and Hamlet prowling

or maybe skulking in the heat, dark eagles

shadowed Möbius against the skyline


1 FAR, August/September 1995 - "Communicating an ad-hoc introduction to American Language Poetry . . . ". See also in the same issue Lyn Hejinian's "a mouthful of lawn . . . ": "Adorno's comment to the effect that "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism" has to be taken as simultaneously true in two ways, one nihilistic and the other creative . . . ". It is also interesting to consider Gunter Eich's poem "Inventory" in the light of Theodor Adorno's comments. Rita Dove, in the poet's world (Library of Congress, Washington, 1995) has looked at this piece in this context.