THE INCREDIBLE VANISHING POET / BONNY CASSIDY
You need only think back to the discrepancies between versions of classical myths, to notice the way that mythology tends to sprawl rather than contain itself or anything else. The thing about mythology is that it is unwieldy and uncontainable; conflicted and inconsistent. We create myths to give order to the world – its origins, its events, its future, our experiences and expectations – and yet they do precisely the opposite. Those myths took the shape of poems, and rightly: their quality of sprawl reflects the nature of poetry itself; the way it establishes forms of sequence and containment to hold questions, processes and meditations.
Any glance at mythologies in Australian poetry will exceed itself, its poets and poems. If you wanted to explore the theme further, you might also find yourself looking at any number of mythological categories: Australian poetry’s gender mythologies; the myth of the generation of ’68; myths of the city and the bush; appropriation and pastiche of myth; and so on. Does Australian poetry possess an especially rich tradition of mythologies? It’s possible; but maybe that’s an argument for another time. What interests me is the absence of the poet on this continent.
I don’t mean that the poets are missing; but that they are…away. Everyone under forty has studied our Gwen Harwood at some point; it’s practically become part of the citizenship exam. I say “our Gwen” because it conjours up a sense of possessive and affectionate feeling for a poet who, one gets the impression, might have done anything to elude that kind of response to herself and her writing. These days, the researching of Harwood’s life and publishing record has mostly been done for us; although it was as late as 2004 – almost a decade after her death - that yet another of Harwood’s many pseudonyms or pen-names was uncovered (See Kratzmann 2004). This discovery brought the total to ten false literary identities cooked up by the Brisbane-born, Hobart poet and mother of four. Are we still counting?
Knowing what we know, each of her major pseudonyms bore biographical details that reflect true parts of Harwood’s life and personality; and yet she resisted claiming them for herself. Timothy Kline, the Tasmanian drinker, tinkerer and conscientious objector, like Harwood, loved boating and had a deeply rebellious streak – yet Harwood never came out as a pacifist. Francis Geyer, Eastern European wanderer, was, like Harwood, a musical soul with a certain Germanic wistfulness – though Harwood never visited Europe. Miriam Stone, Sydney housewife, echoed Harwood’s claim that she was “eaten alive” by her children – but Harwood denied that she was a feminist. And Walter Lehmann told The Bulletin exactly what Harwood was thinking – but which she could never have managed to get published under the name of “Mrs Harwood”.
Harwood’s poetry itself is as much a journey through masks and characters as it is through memories and lyrical emotion. Dennis Douglas has written two articles linking the characters in some of Harwood’s poems to her own experiences: he calls them her “doppelgangers” or twins (See Douglas 1969; 1973). While I have said that Harwood created masks that bore some resemblance to herself, she nevertheless chose to falsify and imagine them as other faces, voices and lives. Harwood was acutely aware of how her appearance and biography betrayed the depths of her thought and the possibilities in her work. Its irony lies in the extent to which she played on that disconnect. She once said, “The ‘I’ that writes down the things on the page is certainly not the one who sits talking about writing the things on the page” (1996, p51). With what she called the look of an “aging choirboy”, Mrs William Harwood of Sandy Bay, Hobart, used the suspended, fictive possibilities of poetry to touch on raw nerves, particularly feminist sentiments. Harwood had had to wait until her children were grown and she was in her forties before she could publish; the early work she produced expressed the frustrations of domestic life, such as the overused “In the Park” published under the name of Miriam Stone. And yet she resisted identifying the difficulties of being a female writer, stating that, “I have never really felt I have a difficult relationship with anything”. She agreed that Miriam Stone was a “ferocious” feminist, yet added the paradox: “it’s not possible for me to think back now and really remember how little time I had to myself in those days with four children and a household to run”. She sent her rude acrostics to Vincent Buckley but denied that writing into a male literary culture “was ever a personal problem” (1996, pp47-51).
Whether or not Harwood was attacking that culture, her hoaxes added to an existing history of attacks on poetry editors. Harwood challenged the myth of the poetess – gendered, agenda’d, innocently inspired, earnest – by undermining the myth of the modern editor – critically impeccable, fostering of experiment and avant-gardism, distinguishing of fad from significant new form. In the same way, the figure of poetry editor was sabotaged by Ern Malley in 1944. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the poet dreamed up by James McAuley and Harold Stewart, is the way that he has become reality over the last sixty years.
A 1988 celebration of Ern Malley, Adelaide. Max Harris (centre) is flanked by actors Henry Salter as Ern and Emma Salter as Ethel Malley. Image: ernmalley.com
McAuley and Stewart tried to debunk the myth of the charlatan avant-garde poet, but Ern has taken on dimensions of his own. He has become accepted as a posthumously loved and respected member of twentieth century poetic tradition. Malley is now included in mainstream anthologies of Australian poetry. Not only local writers like Tranter, Peter Carey and John Kinsella have used the Malley poems as starting points for their own work, but internationally, John Ashbery, John Betjeman and Kenneth Koch have also underlined the genius of Ern. Sidney Nolan and Gary Shead have made portraits of Malley, and the Malley oeuvre itself has been compared to those of the American Outsider artist, Henry Darger. Just last year, the Sydney poet Adrian Wiggins named his baby son Malley.
In his terrific essay on the Malley hoax, “Poetry and the police”, Philip Mead suggests that, “We can now see clearly that 1944 was the beginning of literary postmodernity in Australia…The fact that Malley and his oeuvre are both fake seems to mean, paradoxically, they are extendable” because there is no individual, dead or alive, to limit their associations (2008, 88). Tranter has even collaborated with Malley, creating The Malley Variations using the Break Down computer program. As Mead writes, such projects “are all driven by the desire for more Malley poems or, the impulse to re-validate ‘Malley’ as a significant cultural figure rather than a spurious one” (2008, 90).
This idea of the “spurious” poet is interesting. After all, why are we bothered by inauthenticity; by the idea that, behind the poems we like, there is a faceless being? The contemporary project to validate a nobody such as Malley, is a modern project of reifying the poet. When we look back further into Australia’s poetic mythologies, however, we find that the poet-as-myth is perhaps the earliest poetic to have existed in this land. Indigenous song cycles not only undercut the myth that Australia was “unsung” at the time of European exploration, as McAuley’s own “Captain Quiros” suggests. They also do something more radical – they continue to throw the white and modern myth of poetic authorship and voice into question.
We could think about Indigenous songs, as we consider classical oral tradition, in relation to poetry: that is, one does not directly evolve into the other, but they are familiarly related. The ownership, transmission and function of songs differ amongst Indigenous languages and clans; and, of course, these songs are accessible to most Australians only in translation and in print – a long way from their original form. However they share reference to Dreaming, to create legends of mythic heroes and ancestors that are drawn into the present. As Penny van Toorn writes:
Oral songs and narratives are traditionally an embodied and emplaced form of knowledge. Information is stored in people’s minds in various narrative forms which, at the appropriate time, are transmitted from the mouths of the older generation to the ears of the young (2000, 19).
Mudrooroo (Colin Johnston), whose own Aboriginality has been challenged, explains that:
The translating of such an epic…would necessitate spending years in traveling the song line and exploring the verses…as well as getting to know the details of the land about which it sings…for these epics do not belong to a single community or clan, but pass on from clan country to clan country and from custodian to custodian (19-20).
From the 1930s to the 60s, the linguist, TGH Strehlow recorded, translated and interpreted a number of songs from the Aranda people of Central Australia. Strehlow’s gathering and deciphering of these songs has been both criticized and praised, which Barry Hill has charted this complex story in his excellent Broken Song: TGH Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. Strehlow was an initiated Aranda man, having been born and brought up in the language, culture and country, and yet he revealed secret-sacred material that was neither owned by him nor, arguably, intended for the audience of his book, Songs of Central Australia. Ultimately, it can be argued that Strehlow recorded a language that he believed would be lost – it has not been – and songs he anticipated would be subordinated to Christian missionary education.
At the same time, Songs of Central Australia is widely regarded as one of the most sympathetic interpretations of Indigenous secret-sacred material, with uniquely detailed explanations of the cultural framework that gives meaning to the songs. A significant part of that explication involves the mythic presence of the songs’ composers. In his characteristic past tense, Strehlow writes that, “the Central Australian natives believed that [their songs] were composed not by men but by the totemic ancestors themselves.” So, for example, “the greater part of the Ilbalintja Song was regarded as having been composed by the bandicoot ancestors”, as well as “the sun ancestor”, the “bandicoot-chief” and “the honey-suckle ancestor” (1970, 244-246). The song identifies an increase site for yams, a soak of colored sands during the wet season. The bandicoot ancestor, Karora, emerges from the soak later in the song.
Songs such as this contain the ancestors’ explanations of how they became “the immortal rocks or trees or tjurunga [sacred objects] that are still to be viewed” at the ceremonial site where the song may be sung (Strehlow 1970, 141).
Ruark Lewis, ‘Transcription of Aranda Love Charms, from T.G.H. Strehlow, Songs of Central Australia’, 1971 (1990), pencil and ink on paper, 28 x 17 cm. Copyright: Ruark Lewis. Image: Charles Nodrum Gallery
Because the original composers of the Aranda sacred verses are unknown, and believed to be the “totemic ancestors themselves”, the songs lack the dimension of artifice with which European culture mythologises human creativity and imagination:
There was hence no taint of human fabrication or of illusory poetic dreaminess associated with the sacred songs. To the natives their poetry was the absolute expression of both Truth and Beauty (Strehlow 1970, 244-46).
This statement explodes the Western ‘problem’ of art as summed up by Keats: “Truth is Beauty, and Beauty is Truth”. Modern and Romantic anxieties about the gap between the real and the ideal, are dispelled by the absent-yet-present voice of the Aranda ancestors. Consequently, definition of “artistic enjoyment” as an abstract set of aesthetic values is non-existent within Aranda tradition: “‘Poetry for Poetry’s sake’” is meaningless (Strehlow 1970, 244-46). If Strehlow’s understanding is correct, the Aranda songs flood any boundaries we may have set up between reality and the poetic work; whereby notions of an insurmountable, irreconcilable absence between language and things/language and thought, seem but flimsy myths.
And yet, the songs are clearly defined, enriched and driven by Dreaming mythologies. Who, then, possesses the voice of the songline? It remains a manifestation of “the doctrine of reincarnation”, and of “a personal link with supernatural beings” which might be compared with the power of “royal birth” in Europe. Only certain individuals may receive and sing the songline, but that is not because those individuals are poetically inspired: rather, the song’s “magic” is contained in the singer. As Strehlow puts it: “Poetry then was not something unreal or remote or unpractical to the Central Australian tribesmen: it was rather the finest, most useful, most personal heritage”:
It follows that the native love of sacred verse was not based primarily on an appreciation of its special poetic forms or ornamental devices. The whole attitude towards art was dominated by religious ideas and thoughts of magical virtue. The concept that art must be practical and instructive, that it must deal with realities and not with the empty fancies of a poetical imagination (to a native such fancies would only have appeared as ‘lies’), was always present in all native discussions on the good and bad qualities of such objects or forms of art as they possessed.
By composing various couplets in a single series, the ancestors left behind a collection of independent namings “loosely associated by time, space, and story”. This, Strehlow suggests, “explains the disjointedness that characterizes the structure of every native song. Each couplet is independent of its fellows, since it is a separate ‘name’ coined for a single occasion”. Singing these fragments is a collective voice that represents more than one perspective. The descendents of an ancestor see as “sacrilegious” that they should “reveal their own features while impersonating supernatural beings” (1970, 244-46).
One of the other major collections of Indigenous song cycle translations into English and verse form was by Catherine and Ronald Berndt. They worked particularly in northern Arnhem Land, where the song cycles are especially epic in length. The observations made by Strehlow may be applied to the ancestral presence in their transcription and translation of the “Moon-bone song” from the Wonguri language group of the Mandjigai tribe in north-east Arnhem Land. The song has been made famous to white audiences via Les Murray’s appropriation for his “Bulladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle”. He used a similarly anonymous, collective voice; the incantatory listing or parataxis; and referenced the ritual travel of suburban Australians to holidays on the north coast of NSW. But it was still Les Murray, inescapably and obviously. Mudrooroo suggests of the Arnhem Land epic song that, because of its divine origin, it has kept to its form and content, “in that to change a song or verse, in effect, is to render it ineffective and false” (19-20). In fact, the performative and subjective self is negated by the act of these songs; a difficult idea for Western poets to come to terms with. Similarly, in Central Australian song there is “virtually no verse giving expression to personal emotion, and accordingly no body of true lyric verse”. This phenomenon is due to the lack of emotional ascription to totemic ancestors – they seem to act, observe and name but not to self-reflect – and to the presence of a vision which sees verse not as “a vehicle for the expression of the poet’s own sentiments” (Strehlow 1970, 657-59).
In a strange way, this impersonality takes us back to the chance techniques of Dada and Surrealism that were unwittingly undertaken by McAuley and Stewart in writing Ern Malley. There, the absent-yet-present Uncle Malley appeared from a collage of university textbooks. It is hardly surprising to recall that lead Dadaist Tristan Tzara appeared at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, singing Aranda songs from Strehlow’s translations into the German. Tzara had no interest in the provenance of the songs or their original significance; as Ann Stephen writes, “The idea of authenticity was meaningless to the inventor of sound poems with no specific cultural source” (2009, 154). It is odd, indeed, to consider that both the Aranda songs and Dada’s appropriation of them achieve the affect of demythologizing the subject of the poet. And yet, in their essential mythological function – and in the fundamental usefulness – the Aranda songs undercut Tzara’s efforts to expel meaning from poetry. At the same time, as soon as Tzara removed the songs from Strehlow’s careful contextualization, he punctured the myth of ancestral continuity and, arguably, reclaimed the performance of authorial genius.
Tristan Tzara (b. Samuel or Samy Rozenstock, also known by the pen-names S. Samyro, Tristan, Tristan Ruia, Tristan Ţara, Tr. Tzara).
In turn, the dissemination of Indigenous songs has generated new myths about the accessibility of Indigenous culture, such as the forgetting of where and who belong to certain songs, the ignoring or confusing of who has the authority to dictate, edit and publish them, and indeed the ignorance of who has the right to consume them. The reader must become a sort of editor, and the poet a figment of the imagination. The poem, as always, is an act of belief.
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the Vices of the Intellect”, ALS 6.3, pp77-82.
—-. 1969. “Gwen Harwood – Poet as Doppelganger”, Quadrant, March 1969, pp15-
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