Drafts, Place, and All Possible Meanings

A version of this paper was given at the 1995 Perth Writers' Festival

Poetry, at least conceptually, should be eclectic, inquiring, and 'all encompassing': that is, a random and persistent sampling of sensation and knowledge, a priori and a posteriori, and, for that matter, synthetic a priori, that will be systemised into a form through both synthetic and analytic processes. The poem is a body of thought and experience that has a defined anatomy though internally changing properties. By this I mean a poem is written within a particular framework to evoke, or not evoke, certain responses in the reader. But these responses are dependent on how the reader reads the poem. The poem will contain a key or even set of keys that indicate how it should be read, or could be read, but these are reliant on the reader possessing a certain knowledge and awareness of appropriate sensations (one may read "emotions" here as a kind of parallel range of reactions). Without an awareness of this key or keys the reader will read "another" poem. Thus its properties change. The words are the same and the order unchanged, but their meaning is different.

It's possible for the writer to experiment with this notion by re-drafting poems through several versions. In my own work, in "The Jetty Poems", I've used the same notion, and even many of the same words, to write entirely different pieces. In a sense one's oeuvre is merely a process of redrafting in any case. Just as avant-garde poetry needs a canon to react against, so the poet needs to be "conscious" of the work that precedes the present draft. More often than not, this "consciousness" is suppressed in the name of "newness" and the poet conveniently forgets the same ground has been explored by the very same sensitivity before!

In my own case, all the poetry I have written stems from the influences of three or four poems that travelled with me through childhood, haunting and enticing me, inviting investigation and inculcating their rhythms. The links will be evident to anyone familiar with my work. There's Keats's "Ode To A Nightingale", Robert Frost's "Out, Out-", William Blake's "Tiger", and Shaw Neilson's "The Orange Tree". "Paradise Lost", "The Prelude"; and The Iliad and The Odyssey loomed large as well!

Particularly interesting is the working method of rewriting the same landscape poem in different landscapes. Some poems of mine, for example, were written in York, then in Perth, and then on the Cocos Islands. They are called "Islands", and are unpublished at present. There may be many other "drafts" before they are published. They'll probably form a sequence of the same poem over and over, but viewed from different angles, in different lights, in different climactic, cultural, and other conditions. What remains constant is the process of writing, the notion behind the work, and basic language. The theme or notion, in the case of these poems, concerns exile and 'claustrophobic' isolation; the salt around an island of grass in York, the welter of houses around an island flat in the city, and the vast nothingness of the Indian Ocean around the Cocos (Keeling) Atoll. The theme forms the mastercopy. It is similar to taking a musical composition into the studio and having it mixed. In this post-modern marketplace we can buy X number of "mixings" and "dubbings" of one particular recording; all are different, and valid as pieces of art in themselves, but all require a "knowledge" of the original mastercopy if their "codes" are to be fully understood.

In the same vein, all genres are interactive. Film and art have always influenced me (I also paint and work in mixed media). David Lynch films are one of these influences. Blue Velvet, a favourite, is interesting to me for two entirely separate reasons. One is in terms of itself, as a psychological thriller, as a parody, as the centre of referentiality, as another piece in the oeuvre of Lynch. But also, it interests me as a vehicle for Dennis Hopper. It seems to me that no other could play the role of Frank: it is Hopper's right, not only as American cinema's but as popular American culture's bête noire, to play this role. A grim archetype that constantly bites the hand that feeds it. Frank's fetish for blue velvet is the darkest side of a capitalism that can't call for Mom without feeling that it's missing an opportunity to cash in. It compulsively chokes itself on what it finds beautiful. It is aghast at its corrupt memories and fights them with variations on the same. It ritualises by default. It creates continuity in perversities. It's interesting to note that in Lynch's films there are numerous drafts being enacted simultaneously. The finished product is not so much a combination of these but a reaction to their concurrent natures. In a similar fashion, I see the poem in terms of the material that has come before that allows it to be written. Even the first poem one writes requires knowledge as well as experience; it must be informed by the continuum.

With Dennis Hopper, regardless of the role he plays or who directs him, there is this sense of a bête noire, of all those things associated with the character of Frank from Blue Velvet. Even in his more morally appealing hero-victim manifestation in the earlier Easy Rider (actually directed by Hopper), we see the classic outcast, albeit one who has cast himself out, so to speak. He is not "evil" in this film, rather the opposite, but he is an enigma to the capitalist fetishized society. He never fits into this mould. In a dark film like Paris Trout (Stephen Gyllenhaal), the 'midwest' American capitalist ethos is used as a vehicle for (Hopper) Paris's malice. This is what comes of false and deceptive conventions, of a hunger for power that evolves from the oppression of role play. Paris Trout has the "law" on his side... One is reminded of the voice that characterises the poet. Many readers of poetry claim they can identify the authentic poet from poem to poem by the "voice", regardless of subject matter. What is it that gives this voice? A sense of identity.

I have spent a lot of time travelling and have often been asked if this has much direct bearing on my writing. As a poet with a strong sense of place (namely the wheatbelt and southern regions of Western Australia) I actually find myself closer, more able to break the surface of the scape, from a distance. As Lao-tzu said: "The further you move away the closer you get." Distance brings clarity, as do the juxtapositions an entirely different environment provides. For example, severe cold, mountains, and snow, work as useful comparisons to the burning salt- pans of outback Western Australia, generating what one would hope is rich and evocative imagery ("the hot snow of salt"). A clear and concise, almost semi-epistolary poem like "For Those At Wheatlands" - actually written in London during a period when I was otherwise obsessed with linguistic experimentation - reaches under the brilliant surfaces of rural life more decidedly than a rich and deeply imagistic poem like "Old Hands/New Tricks" from Eschatologies.

For Those At Wheatlands

You only realize

that the stars

over the low

florescent crops

are particular

to the frame

of Wheatlands,

that the canvas


against the salt

is a photo-

sensitive plate

that might take


to expose

(below, another waits!).

And that family


are the size

that will hold

souls, stars, and soil

in place.

This does not make the latter poem less meaningful, but rather makes us consider how distance presents a different draft. It is worthwhile comparing "For Those At Wheatlands" with "The Myth of The Grave" which was composed in part on the farm at York where it is set, part on a farm near Dryandra forest in the South-west, and redrafted and completed in the city. This poem is the realisation of the drafting process, as well as of notions of place, possession and exile.

In writing poems from a distance, language often absorbs the characteristics of its environment. Thus you get hybridised images that refer to things outside those being referenced. There's a kind of subtext going on, poem beneath poem, layers of possibility, implication, and potential meaning—draft layered on draft. This also happens in reverse, of course. The poem "Warhol At Wheatlands", originally published in Scripsi, is an example. This poem looks at a notion of popular mid-twentieth-century American culture, of popular culture as it affects "us" here and now, and places the point of "seeing" in a seemingly incompatible Western Australian wheatbelt farming context, as is shown in the following extract:

Deadlocks & hardened glass make him feel

comfortable, though being locked inside

with Winchester rifles has him tinfoiling

his bedroom - he asks one of us but we're

getting ready for seeding & cant spare a moment.

Ring-necked parrots sit in the fruit trees

& he asks if they're famous. But he

doesn't talk much (really). Asked about Marilyn

he shuffles uncomfortably - outside, in the

spaces between parrots & fruit trees

the stubble rots & the day fails

to sparkle.

The poem as a whole demonstrates how distance clarifies, how images are created from discordant sources to enrich, how a number of drafts pertaining to the same concept can exist in the one piece. I have written a number of other “Warhol”-rural poems that deal with the same themes, but these are quite different, being exhibited in different lights, viewed from different angles.

Also pertinent here is my poem, "Skeleton Weed: Generative Grammar", as it is a kind of essay on all that I'm discussing, a small ars poetica possibly. It links the visual, the sense of place (and loss of place), of the interactiveness of language, and the sequestering of language, of form, to meaning. It is dedicated to Noam Chomsky. Strangely enough, the poem is essentially a pastoral. The "discussion" is between the workers who search for the dangerous skeleton weed, and the idea of the farmer, who employs them. Of course, the farmer represents power, centralised power in this case. He doesn't actually occur as a physical entity in the poem, but rather as a concept. The "chat" occurs between the labourers, who are kind of post-modern shepherds:

One year the farmer asked us if we

felt guilty for missing one & hence ruining

his would-have-been bumper crop.

Quarantined the following year. Losing

his unseeded would-be bumper crop.

Ruining his credit rating. His marriage.

His son's and daughter's places

at their exclusive city (respective) boarding

schools. His problem with alcohol.

His subsequent breakdown

& hospitalization. (?) We remained

& still remain passive. We still remain

& remained passive. Still we remained

& remain passive. But we [look(ed)] deeply,

collectively & independently

into our SELVES. Our silence

was an utterance of a loud inner speech.

A loud inner speech was an utterance

of our silence. Speaking for myself,

I've included in my lexicon of guilt

the following: what I feel today

will I feel tomorrow? And those tight

yellow flowers: so beautiful on the wiry

structures they call "skeleton weed".

But this is also a poem about the way language informs and appropriates. It is about an infinite number of possible readings, about how we read a text. There are certain codes we can use that make a particular meaning more specific, more able to be realised, given that the reader recognize the codes. It correlates to pitch in music, to sustain, to the sharps and the flats. What one reader may see as a series of meaningless brackets, another familiar with a particular grammatical "language" can translate. But then, as a writer/composer, the poet must allow for both readings, and others. All are valid. This is why I consider that the purely polemical poem is the least poetic: it allows least for alternative readings. In a sense, the more varied and rich the objective correlatives, the more "poetic" the poem. There are new meanings that don't necessarily exist in the original theme, that were not part of the poet's plan. Chomsky's theories indicate that it is possible, "by the application of a finite number of rewrite rules, to predict ("generate") the infinite number of sentences in a language and specify their structure. (The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought). Poetry can create its own meanings.