The Chart: a reply to Jamie Grant
His faults, if they can be so called, were predicting national ruin on small provocation and believing all who differed from him politically to be the enemies of God and society.
— Wyndham Lewis and Lee on Southey in The Stuffed Owl
And I wish nothing more than to write poetry of some small merit.
— J.B. Grant in Australian Poetry Now, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1970
In 1968 John Scott and I invented two Aussie Rules teams: the Poets and the Composers. Boy, were there some mighty contests: Shakespeare, Milton and Pope as followers opposed Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn; whilst who could forget the dingdong stoush of Tennyson (full forward) against Tchaikovsky (full back)! True, few pundits were certain how the J.S. Bach / Lord Byron centre duel would turn out, though pundits now agree that they must have played wide of each other. Two years later, in much the same spirit, John and I made a chart: Australian poetry as we felt it to be, and where, as young men on the move, we ought to place ourselves and our friend Laurie Duggan. There on this chart were those La Mama poets we’d seen (bit too hippy La Mama) whilst over there was Professor Buckley and his Melbourne Uni colleagues (oldies!). There was Bruce Dawe, there was Judith Wright and there, due more to the exuberant puffs of Messrs Hall and Shapcott than his own work (which we considered at best effete musings), there was the mighty Dransfield. Ahh if only John and I had been a touch more avant garde, we should have realised this was a new verse form in our hands...the chart poem!
This object, this artefact, this jeu d’esprit of nearly 30 years ago, disappeared — disappeared, except that now it has been resurrected as one of the major pillars of Jamie Grant’s recent Southerly article ‘The Generation of ‘68 and me!’ ‘Like all revolutionary groups,’ Grant states, ‘their planning was meticulous — Wearne’s chart was their blueprint — and the self evident aim of the movement, set out in many published statements, in reviews, articles, poems and the introduction to anthologies was to suppress the publication of any poet not approved by the group.’
Wearne To Serve
No names are given, none of the statements, poems etc are quoted. John Scott had forgotten the chart’s existence! It was mid 1970, Jamie — John, Laurie and I had yet to meet Messrs Tranter, Adamson, Forbes, Roberts, Jones, Johnston and all the others who were to end up in our supposed cabal. If those who made it into Tranter’s 1979 anthology The New Australian Poetry could be termed the members of the Generation of ‘68 it would be close on a decade before we all got to actually know each other. And by then there were many more poets to meet and befriend: Eric Beach, Pi O, Robert Harris, Shelton Lea, Gig Ryan, Ken Bolton and endless et ceteras. Frankly we were having too much of a good time being poets to bother about coups, plots and the like. Besides, this crowd, although it may have been fun, was much too artistically disparate and geographically dispersed to be thought of as some kind of Aussie answer to the Beats, New York Schoolers, Black Mountaineers, let alone nouveau Angry Penguins or Jindiworobaks.
United by what we opposed we were, as I wrote in my John Forbes obituary, arrested at the same demo. And what did we oppose? In our raw way what Pope opposed in ‘The Dunciad’, and what still has to be opposed today: the cringing, the dull, the mediocre, in short the some small merit.
New York! New York! (an interlude)
Doubtless Grant has a fair knowledge of the ‘Martian’ poets, though when dealing with The New York School, however snidely, he should leave well alone. Of course I understand his feeling on first looking into Berrigan’s The Sonnets. Everyone associated with poetry (writers, readers, listeners) have had their similar heart-sinking moments of underwhelment. Mine occur when faced with the work of Heaney, Motion, Raine and Dove.
In any event he uses what little he knows of the New Yorkers as a sort of weak stick with which to slap his opponents. Of course anyone writing the kind of verse I do must pay their respects to Browning (and Clough and Meredith) but it doesn’t require too much imagination to leap into 20th (even 21st?) century. New York School poetry (from both its generations) did not represent some kind of automatic writing dashed off between joints, lovers or both, and traditional forms were often integral to their productions. Their sonnets (Denby, Koch and Berrigan) blank verse (Koch) pantoums (Ashbery) sestinas (Ashbery and Mathews) octava rima (Koch) and song lyrics (Denby and Elmslie) have meant as much to their Australian admirers as In Memory of My Feelings or Clepsydra.
Except for that half an hour which was Australian poetry’s answer to the O.K. Corral, circa 197_, what has been noticeable since has been the genuine regard so many from various one time ‘factions’ have for each others’ work. And it’s not just Grant approving of my narratives or me thinking that if he weren’t so diverted by the paranoia which drives his reviews and articles attention to his light verse talents could make him the Australian Chesterbelloc. Behold the remarkable alliances that occurred as we grew up. Bob Adamson and Kevin Hart became artistic, maybe philosophical, allies; and Laurie Duggan, who had once concocted the parody Parkville out of lines by Chris Wallace-Crabbe was employed by Wallace-Crabbe himself. Geoffrey Lehmann’s love of Nigel Robert’s work became quite public whilst I often went to bat for Lehmann’s Spring Forest (a grand gourmet barbeque of a work compared with which The Boys who Stole the Funeral and Fredy Neptune are as pieces of stale sponge). John Forbes, I might add, could understand my regard for Spring Forest though he did regard Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems as ‘Robert Graves meets Penthouse.’ Oh yes, and Gary Catalano loved a lot of Forbes’ poetry, knowing quite a bit of it by heart; and if it were possible for the one time formalist David Campbell to enjoy the work of both Martin Johnston and ‘The Canberra Poets’, so it was that John Scott could dedicate The Passing, At Boho to Alan Gould. Whilst need I mention all those one time ‘opponents’ who later made the Tranter-Mead anthology.
And then there was the occasion, as early as 1972 (that’s right 1972) when I arranged for Peter Skrzynecki to visit Melbourne for some suburban arts festival. He stayed Thursday through to Sunday and on Saturday afternoon Evan Jones and I took him to the footy, whilst in the evening Peter and I went with Phillip Martin to meet Chris Wallace-Crabbe and R.A. Simpson! Yes Jamie the shame still haunts me: I had betrayed The Chart! Had the news got out Colonel Tranter, Major Adamson and Sergeant-Major Roberts would have had me drummed out of the regiment, sah! (or, given a revolution was underway, delivered an infinitely severer punishment).
When any person in any field is proclaimed ‘the greatest living...’ please find me in the ‘says who?’ camp. Perhaps such scepticism will colour this section? Too bad, you’ve been warned.
We get closer to the hub of proceedings when Grant goes in to bat for his mentor and friend Les Murray. Now, since he draws a lot of fire, why is Murray such a target? It is not because of his many quite fine poems. (I for one have greatly relished, for example, The Police: Seven Voices and The Ballad of Jimmy Governor since they were first published.) Is it because of his ‘celeb’ status and as such is good copy, due to all those outrageous things he says (which of course has little to do with his verse)? Or is it because of his seemingly ceaseless role of national bard (which is thankfully tangential to his best work)? I’d suggest the main reason is because a lot of his work, particularly that which hits the polemical button, is very bad art. It is then that Murray gets pursued: the way that Southey was pursued by Byron. Indeed there just might be a decent minority report afoot to proclaim Murray the Australian Southey. Certainly he reminds me of the late James Dickey, laureate of the U.S. South, whether he wished to be or not; Dickey’s was a tragic case of initial talent sinking under hopper loads of bombast.
And if Laurie Duggan, for one, satirised and parodied Murray in his sequences The New Australian Poetry Now, The Great Tradition and The Epigrams of Martial , well join the club, Leslie, you were but one of the many lined up as a source for Duggan’s satire: they included many of his ‘68er colleagues, this writer amongst them. Like the chart (remember the chart, Jamie) it was a game; and as a reward for it being a game Duggan made it into The Flight of the Emu, Lehmann’s light verse anthology.
Which brings us to John Forbes and his fervour towards so much of Murray’s work: a fervour which, to many of us, was a plain embarrassment. Now John got by via a great deal of social bluff, and if he were wounded he could either internalise the pain, or laugh it off with self-deprecation. Grant, though, may well recall the time some smart reviewer announced that he, Forbes, considered himself a better, a greater, poet than Murray. This was a cheap lie and a deep lie and John tackled it the best way the circumstances demanded: by singling-out this reviewer at a party and giving him a sock in the teeth. Now perhaps John should have done the good Augustan thing and composed an eighties update to Pope’s ‘Atticus’. Well too bad, for this reviewer was making a noise about himself with many such unsubstantiated claims, ludicrous assertions and put downs. You’d almost think he was asking for punishment. Doubtless he’d been hit so often at Grammar it was in his nature to invite similar behaviour as an adult. Mind you it wasn’t just the ‘68ers (Rae Desmond Jones comes to mind) who were in this reviewer’s sights — even someone as removed from the imagined lit-wars as Dimitris Tsaloumas received a once-over. ‘Don’t worry,’ I wrote to Tsaloumas, ‘no-one’s going to translate him into Greek!’
Let there be no further sook-talk about poor poor Murray, the bullied, the defenceless: for years the man has been giving as good as he takes. Here he is on my verse novel The Nightmarkets.: ‘Tedious rubbish of interminable length about cockroach-like people.’ Then (and you can almost hear the giggling): ‘Ooops, you’ve conned me into being indiscreet!’ This, from an interview in New Zealand’s Landfall, came at a time when Murray and I were sparring over The Liberated Plague, a particularly nasty piece of Aids-inspired poofter bashing doggerel he’d published in the London Review of Books.. Half this story was told in the recently pulped Murray biography: how I tried to link gluttony, obesity and death (which, as ought to have been clear to anyone, was paralleling Murray on lust , Aids and death); and how, after Murray proclaimed both innocence and wounds, one John Fletcher of the University of Warwick weighed in with his belief that, sorry, The Liberated Plague really was about homosexuals and Aids. What has since been buried (though it’s all there in the letters pages of the LRB ) is that Murray, after ‘sleepless nights’ decided the poem needed a new title, The Fall of Aphrodite Street, and a rewriting. Perhaps the judgement of an English department academic in England was just too much. His letter announcing this change concluded: ‘If the poem becomes the more effective through the stripping away of an irrelevance that has sheltered its proper target it remains my perhaps fond hope that it may just save a life or two.’ Poetry as preventative medicine? Not even Southey did that.
In a strange though entertaining way the Grant article builds to a crescendo aimed not at the Generation of Blah Blah but at a person we can only term Anon, a contemporary Australian poet with a penchant for careerism gone mad, yea to the point of hubris; though all his successes are achieved not by abuse, as in the old days, but by flattery (some might call it greasing or sucking). Now I’m tending to agree with the direction this part of Grant’s writing takes (and I’m sure a few of my colleagues would too), but surely, Jamie, since you have at least the technical wherewithal to be our Aussie Chesterbelloc, such a target would be better (and let’s hope more wittily) disposed of through a ballade, a villanelle, an epigrammatic couplet, even a limerick. Wouldn’t you like to see such a work in an anthology one day?
Shall We Join the Ladies?
Do women poets go through all this nonsense or do they just consider themselves part of one big chummy sorority? Happily of course standards are maintained. For instance, it is a pleasure to know of two very fine Melbourne poets (they just happen to be female) who get a certain perverse fun by occasionally reading the work of our leading lady poetaster. ‘It can’t get this bad again, can it?’ they wail. Possibly not, although I do recall looking through a recent large anthology of modern American women poets. And guess what? No Waldman, no Mayer, no Guest, no Notley. Ho ho, I thought, even in the wonderful world of Sisterhood USA when it comes to the short term mediocrity will more often be the first to the surface.
The Generation of ’98
But I digress. Apart from that masochistic glee with which Grant as target presented himself his sour rewrite of literary history deserved at least one footnote. This reply is it, I suppose — and does it matter? For I can imagine an early-twenties verse tyro exclaiming after reading these exchanges between two men in their fifties: ‘My God, if this is what poetry does to people, let’s all become merchant bankers!’ And he or she would have my sympathy.
Pub: Southerly, vol 60, no 1, 2000, p 151