Spatial Relationships

The potential of the avant-garde in poetry in Australia. No repetition but instigation: putting a poetics into practice. Australia as a ‘neutral’ territory for the publication and discussion of contemporary ideas in poetry.

Jan Appleton’s biological (read Darwinian) theory of landscape talks of the notion of ‘refuge’ – the need within all people to hide in the landscape, behind the structures of nature, so that we might be close to that which threatens; and ‘prospect’ – panning the horizon, the distance. In these terms Australia might be seen as a neutral ground from external perspectives, a poetic ‘prospect’. One could also argue that Australia is perceived as a neutral landscape from the inside. It is the qualification between the external ‘seen’ and internal ‘perceived’ that is important here. In Nature as landscape, von Maltzahn follows a notion of landscape that is derived from the Old High German of Grimm’s German Dictionary-the ‘landscaf’1. The land exists in itself, regardless of human involvement, and also as “the experiential space of everyday life which requires the presence not only of the actual land but also of ourself with our particular point of view.” This is the language of landscape imagery, of an artist’s perceptions of space within a single objective space-time framework. Such a framework is open to the play of the avant-garde. Within the Australian context where outsiders entered and ignored the spatiality of Aboriginal notions of time and place, such a framework was readily applied to explain the significance of occupation against seemingly endless expanse in terms of both time and space. If we consider ‘avant-garde’ in its original usage (as shock troops), then its ‘entry’ into this neutral space may be seen in terms of invasion.

The desire for resistance to this is obvious-though it’s a case of the original invaders refusing to recognize the structure of their own entry; namely, that explorers were the avant-garde of an aggressive culture that refused to accept responsibility. The poetic avant-garde sees the body of poetry as rotten and open to invasion; in fact, to clear the rot away is seen as a necessity. The avant-garde is aggressive, and there’s no avoiding it, though it perceives itself as being ethical and necessary.

In terms of the European and American avant-garde/s, the Australian poetic landscape is a determinate structure. The growth of language in Australia has been an ‘internal’ process, to the extent that Australian poetry has until very recently been almost unknown outside Australia. Australian English is one which both resists and allows colonization by other Englishes-especially the American, as conveyed through cinema, music, and television, and other mediums of popular culture. The resistance mainly comes in defining itself against its Anglo-Irish roots. Similarly, it resists the influence of immigration, retaining the classic idea of making English as a second language redundant, with new Australians’ Australian-ness measured by their ‘fluency’ in Australian English. This tyranny is very much the product of insecurity in self-worth. However, while possessing the fatal flaw of linguistic protectionism, Australian English sees itself as growing and flexible.

From the point of view of the avant-garde poet, this makes it an exciting English to work with, one full of potential, less laboured by the syntactical niceties and contrariness of Port Royale English. Though I should say, regarding the latter, that playing against pure orthodoxy often produces the most definitive kind of experimentation-that is, an extension of the classical, of the linear, of the canon.

When talking of conceptual neutral spaces it may prove worthwhile to consider the case of the C.C.C.P. in the United Kingdom. Each year (1996 being the eighth occasion), a gathering of poets known as the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry occurs. The defining characteristic of this conference is a concern with investigations of writing process, non-referentiality, the word as thing-in-itself, and generally the ‘non-mainstream’ approach. In many ways the conference is associated with dogma and a very particular polemic. However, dialogue is encouraged, and it is the potential of language which is being explored. It is an urban space, a ‘refuge’ within a hostile landscape (that is, conservative English poetry).

Probably the major “unifying” factor of the so-called Cambridge School is the poet J.H. Prynne. Superficially Prynne’s work seems to be a deviation from the traditions of English poetry through his apparent(!) absorption of American contemporary poetry, especially the more experimental schools such as the New York (John Ashbery and others) and Black Mountain schools. But this is a simplification of convenience, as his poetry is in fact an extension of the “traditions” of English poetry (especially through Wordsworth) that has introduced the element of the reader into the process. While maintaining a strong lyrical bent, Prynne’s work is dense, intense and intellectual; as Reeve and Kerridge note:


The apparent impossibility of achieving a complete reading of a Prynne poem, a reading which exhausts the poem’s otherness, suggests that the poetry is postmodern in its indeterminacy, its avoidance of totality and closure . . .2

The Conference is incredibly energetic and is not satisfied with mere reproduction or repetition, and seeks to define a poetics. Les Murray, who was this year’s Australian guest at the Conference (an interesting choice, but the Conference is nothing if not unpredictable!) called this the ‘cold reading’ in Cambridge, as opposed to the ‘warm reading’ which was held in front of students and academics at the English faculty. The ‘cold’ audience was full of theorists, critics and scrutineers who were looking for the slightest move toward an indulgent ‘lyrical eye’ or symptoms of traditional English poetry. But Les had them riveted. The landscape he was describing and the ‘strange Australian language’ he was using greatly appealed to their collective sense of ostranenie!

In recent times there has been a debate centred on the Conference as to whether or not there is actually such a thing as a Cambridge School of Poetry. If there is, it is perceived as being something that is in opposition to, both antagonistic to and receiving antagonism from, the more traditional London School of poets. This is not to say that London does not have its avant-gardists, but that ‘London’ represents tradition and centrality. Andrew Duncan describes the respective prejudices about Cambridge and London thus:


The prejudices about Cambridge: elitist, supercilious, cliquey, neo-pastoral, torpid, referential, too attached to traditional linguistic structures, incomprehensible, literary. Prejudices about London: a deeply invested tendency to think “Oh it’s not evenly printed on white paper and it makes a terrible racket and lacks gravitas and it’s not written in proper sentences and anyway it’s by no-one we’ve ever heard of.” 3

No such definitive split exists in Australian poetry at present. 4 This is not to say there aren’t splits of a kind, but they tend to be more personality-based than political, or in the cases where there’s the kind of Quadrant-Overland dichotomy, it’s more of an extension of a previous generation’s conflicts. Speaking purely in terms of writing poetry in Australia today, particularly as a post-Generation of ’68 poet, I look out onto a strangely apolitical and unmotivated landscape. I look for energy and vitality. Pockets exist, of course, as they do in any neutral zone, but these are seen by the mainstream as no more than nuisances, getting away from the real task of being an unadulterated pure practitioner who is entirely devoid of ego, if not character. And of course, the human propensity to react to perceived personal slights is as strong as ever, so what we in fact end up with is a cauldron of easily offended sensibilities.

It may seem that I am hoping for an ‘invasion’ by the avant-garde, for external forces to work on this neutral space. But it’s more a case of generating something within that would make such ‘occupation’ unnecessary. Invite the ambassadors if you like, learn their tricks. If there is a polemical debate current today, it concerns the validity of ‘on-the-page’ poetry and the relevance of ‘performance’. In terms of the canon, the poet ‘reads’, does not ‘perform’ a work. Performance in Australia is associated with the left (Pi O, Nigel Roberts, Amanda Stewart, Chris Mann, and so on)-though ‘the left’ is a loose term that has more to do with content than mode of delivery.

For me, these zones of politicized verse and experimentation represent a potential for dialogue and investigation of poetic process. Poets who are looking to create new languages, such as Lionel Fogarty, give one hope, as do recent experimentalists who are utilizing the techniques of the American language school: such as Alison Georgeson or Peter Kenneally with his Bicycle poems. And feminism, in all its manifestations, has generally been a vitalizing force within poetry both conceptually and textually, as women writers seek to define a poetics outside the patriarchal modes of expression.

So the pockets are there, but they are isolated, and often when a group of like-minded practitioners get together, they prove self-defeating through rivalry and a general lack of collective vision. The trick involves instigation and not repetition. To be conscious of an environment but seek to move in a different way through it. language Poetry is an American phenomenon, not an Australian one. Explore its possibilities, adopt its methodologies, embrace its investigations of language post- the horror of Auschwitz, but translate it into the appropriate context. And in terms of appropriation being the conversion of resources into property, appropriate it rather than allow it to appropriate.

A product of postmodernity is the willingness of the reader to absorb many different viewpoints in a process of reader synthesis, and synthesising. In terms of poetry, the strongest associations are with the language of architecture. In The power of place we read:


In contrast to the isotropic space of modernism, postmodern space aims to be historically specific, rooted in cultural,often vernacular, style conventions, and often unpredictable in the relation of parts to the whole. In reaction to the large scale of the modern movement it attempts to create smaller units, seeks to break down a corporate society to urban villages, and maintain historical associations through renovation and recycling. 5

In defence of regionalism within poetry, one could transpose this view. Modernity works conceptually within the notion of an international community, the avant-garde acting as the shock troops of this internationale. Postmodernity ÔacceptsÕ the component parts, a kind of organic whole. Australian poetry has always been considered regional; in the most extreme and negative sense, a regional framework in which aspects of English and American poetry were rewritten. One could ask whether this makes it neutral or vulnerable ground?

With the diversity in poetic practice that we find in Australian poetry in the nineties, the balance seems in favour of the neutrality concept. The avant-garde is aware that language has become a commodity. The danger of allowing external experimentalism, this international avant-garde, to occupy the Australian neutral zone, is that it may supplant what was interesting in the original. If external experimentation proves useful in the Australian context, local experimentation will then feed into the avant-garde ‘processes’ going on elsewhere.

The avant-garde must be truly international-and that means the collectivization of many regional entities into new poetic/linguistic/conceptual grounds. Let us read writers against and with each other, as opposed to many different writers being read as entirely separate individuals. Thus the American John Ashbery will be read against the Australian John Tranter, the English Grace Lake, and so on. The practitioner of end rhyme and scannable lines will be read against the Artaud-influenced ideas of Urs Jaeggi, rendered in a bizarre Beckettian German, if such a thing is imaginable; the possibilities are endless. Of course, such a dynamic existing between reader and writer can only stimulate the willingness of Australian poets to experiment. If they know they will be read contextually, they should-at least in theory-be willing to step away from their normal practice. And, in a sense, this is really all experimentation is.


1 Kraft E. von Maltzahn. Nature as landscape. McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.

2 N.H. Reeve & Richard Kerridge. Nearly too much: the poetry of J.H. Prynne.

3 ‘The blood-soaked Royston perimeter.’ Angel Exhaust, 8 (1992)

4 I am, of course, talking here of the generation that follows the antagonisms of the formalists (as represented by the Lehmann-Gray anthologies) and postmodernists (most recently characterized by the Tranter-Mead Penguin anthology). While these debates continue with a vengeance, they are not as relevant to the newer poets. [As a postscript to this it may be worth noting that new tensions and divisions are evolving but they have yet to ÒdeclareÓ themselves. (JK, 1998)]

5 John A Agnew and James S. Duncan (eds). The power of place. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.