Literary Reputation and the Australian Canon

I didn’t submit my first full-length manuscript of poems to my subsequent publisher – my mother did. I had, at that stage, no intention of offering it (eventually Night Parrots) to anyone. It existed purely for its own sake. But she did, and the publishers wrote back asking for my permission to consider it for their list. After a month or two, I decided it made sense to go with this. My mother’s motives were probably mixed, and as they are not really at issue IÕll leave them with her. But it is necessary to say that at the time I was disconnected from not only the Australian literary community but the Australian community in general. It was to be this that created some kind of reputation for me as much as anything else.

I suppose, cynically, one might call it a kind of “enigmatic quality” created by rumour. But if it were this that led to my work talked about beyond the normal realm of reviews – for poetry books (unless you win a National award) are often lifeless things in themselves – then the same reputation would also “limit” me a couple of books down the track. That is, people would read a book expecting to find something unusual. Textually, of course, it is a positive process for a reader to expect (and to find!) the “unusual” but if the process is more to do with personality than text then it is negative.

Maybe this is why much of my more “experimental” work has been concerned with the “lyrical eye”, with a rejection of the narcissism of the authorial voice. Fortunately, over the years (and maybe this does come with the authenticity and perceived authority that comes from winning awards) the reputation based on rumour and personalities – in short, the mythologising of the poet – seems to have vanished. Maybe it also comes with sobriety…?

How this reflects on the Australian literary community as distinct from literary communities at large, is hard to say. The cult of the poet is universal. It is interesting, however, that it was my book The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony that gained me a broader “reputation”. Despite the fact that it is “anti-pastoral” in intent, it has become aligned with the Australian pastoral, with perceptions of the bush as the soul and machinery of the Australian body and soul. My work, even if it acts as some kind of nominal endgame, fits into a tradition. I have a place.

This is, of course, how national canons are made – they are as much about furthering an understanding of the geographic specific as they are about evolution of methodology and investigation of the human condition. The Silo works within and against the Australian vernacular, but then, so does my experimental work Syzygy, which is better known in the USA and UK than it is in Australia. Maybe it’s because it looks at evolution and dissolution within language per se, rather than merely in terms of an ideolectic Australian English. It is a poem about reterritorialising language process – a meta-text that concerns itself with the values of its own production. Such internal questioning of external processes does not seem to sit comfortably with the current evocation of an Australian literary reputation or establishment of a canon.