Poet and Novelist
Australian Poet and Novelist Philip Salom - and Tigger
I will never become accustomed to the befuddling dimensions of time. More specifically, its passing. Like many people I feel quite unable to register ageing internally - and it's there, inside, where I'm feeling young, that mind tricks me and no doubt leads me to at least understand theories of duality. My consciousness does not refuse age, it does not resist age, it simply does not register age as a calibration of self. Its truth is that of a subtle 'body' resistant to the attrition and damage and the slow entropy of our physical bodies.
So the mental/emotional levels of consciousness that cross-reference me to create my assumptions of identity are quite unreliable - but they feel profoundly true! And while the somatic aspect of ageing is obvious its truth feels like a lie. Then what is consciousness? This question is now being studied, again, not by philosophers or psychiatrists, but by neurologists and biologists - it is a new, sexy field for them. Some of these studies are now referred to as The Hard Question. The perception of youth within the ageing human is one of the conundrums they will no doubt look at. Clearly, there is a basic, pragmatic advanatage to feeling young: it means not feeling old. The confidence and the focus this provides is obvious. The actual experience of it is less straightforward and may (for example) play out in equal parts attractive and delusionary, leading to behaviours that are bracing, and admirable, to others which are comic, tiresome or even dangerous. So be our follies.
I am as much the 23 year old sitting with his dog as I am the man writing this blog so many decades later. I can still feel the tactile satisfaction of rolling a cigarette and the bliss of resting in the company of Tigger, my cross-bred labrador/red cloud kelpie companion. (He would live for a further 13 years and we were almost never apart.) I am convinced that I could run around the block with him (in those days without a least)!
When the new Puncher & Wattmann website was launched I wrote four blog articles on the above themes and these can be read using the links provided. (Puncher & Wattmann Blog)
I have been slow to add new blog pieces to this section of my own website but like all site persons, I promise to fix this!
The topicality is sometimes obvious in these:
The thing about tables is to imagine who is on them and who is being inducted, tabled, and how, and why, and even if you (um, where you) feature in this account personally. Tables it is.
Soon after the system established tables the poets decided they too, like any snobbish private school boys, would decide who sat at table. And the table was boys, as we all know, or by now, remember. This was a serious and snooty business. They were the elite, they received the spoils and they alone pretty much decided who sat with them and who was accorded a table place and any spoils. At the table itself there was of course an inner table of tables and often one or two members who were top dogs at table.
The only way to establish membership in this group was to play up to sitting members, use flattery, the old bed-hug, and slavish adoration, duty, voluntary obsequiousness done with good research – know your betters' work very well indeed so your sucking up in terms of acts was intelligent, informed and essentially slavishly researched. Eventually you might be allowed a place. As on all good tables, there are manners, items are passed between the members, there is exchange. Everyone is reassured of their worth. It is ritual, manners and good economics. Nothing is wasted on anyone not at table.
Alternatively, if you did not or could not find a place at one table you and your friends made another table – in opposition to and openly, contemptuously critical of the main table. Your own table, but it needed numbers and an agenda, a poetic. Over time, and time matters in these matters, your table could even be seen as the more desirable table because it was set in opposition to the status quo (which is one way of both framing and reducing the main table) and so new wannabes would suck up to you and kiss your arses and... yes, all the same stuff as the other table so despised for doing just that. Hypocrisy and amnesia are necessary table-fellows.
In more time... the two tables come to seem much of a muchness, never accepting each other, and still dividing those who wished to sit at one table, or the other, or... but not finally different enough in worth to worry either group of members. From outside, from the cold place of not-belonging, both tables seemed equally powerful. They made reputations and they divided spoils. If a member was ever in public competition for a prize, a review, a... well, anything of gain, really, they received it automatically over anyone not a member. This is done arrogantly and blindly, the members never justifying or rationalising their favours because it is baffling to consider otherwise, it is self-evident: we are superior to them.
At some point those who scrutinise this table thing realise they have no chance whatsoever of belonging to the sitters because, apart from a few token members, a few girls, a few gays, a few other races... there is no acceptance of them for what they are, because of what they are. They are not white boys who belong at table. So they establish their own table. This is looked down upon by the main table players, especially the two big tables, who think this is mere table-making, this is merely and emptily political, not like them. Not in the slightest sense a table-set of genuine and superior worth. Like them and theirs.
Then come those who are not good enough (in any way) to belong at either of or any – by now there may be several – of these tables. What do they do? They become table-setters, they write about members and establish from the outside, without inner privileges, why the table members are superior. They promote. If they establish for themselves enough credibility and opinion-making power... they are invited to the lower level of table. Possibly on both tables, even all tables. Some table pleasers are so good at this their own manners are praised from within table and regardless of how ordinary their work is, and sometimes it is very ordinary, they are raised to a kind of privilege. With such weak and sometimes plainly dishonest fawning they often suffer ego expansion, which is always ugly. Having arrived by weak and disingenuous means they strut as if kings. It makes them cocky, these pretenders, because compared to original, authentic members, who think they have earned their setting, to achieve a place at table these new members simply bought it. A different exchange. Their membership is not earned, it is simply accepted because, in realistic terms, it is strategic.
Some outsiders seduce as many members of as many tables as possible, then invent their own, and make such a manic public show of themselves that others, even – shockingly – those on the first two tables, go strolling over to see how they can be associated with this new strutting, sprawling, somewhat addictive new table set. What this table-maker, far more than a table-setter does, is establish secondary tables on public display and offer everyone they see on any other table, as table-guard, a place. They do something highly irregular but very effective: instead of receiving the fawning payments, they offer it for a place. They buy members who are gate (well table) keepers on other tables or – and this is very important not to miss – at the public places and venues and media pockets (which are like shadow versions of tables) where table members meet or where judgments of any kind are made. And in time, after all this buying has been unseen, or forgotten or –very importantly – suppressed, they are untouchable table dons themselves and they become beyond criticism. No one in table land, no one on any other table says a bad thing about them. In public, that is. In private these new faux table-riche are despised and their work is laughed at. But no one ever dares speak badly of them.
Over time, of course, the work done by anyone on any table is considered superior to anyone not on that table, not on another table and not on ... any table. This swirl of constructed values and unreason continues even if years may pass before any new tables form. In this time the lone wannabes are the dangerous players, naturally, they are hungry, they are the rats, who will bite anyone and anything to get near any of the tables for the crumbs left on them, and they lie and cheat and spread disease, even more disease than the already diseased members of the tables, diseased in their blind opinion, that is. The rats pretend to like one table and listen to complaints made about them then turn these complainers in and smirk and hope for crumbs. This is smart, rats are smart, because they can turn such complainers in to the table complained about for a certain result, and to other tables who delight to hear of such complaints but despise anyone who made them, unless they already sit, of course, of course, beside them. In which case the complaints are the purest and unbiased reason. The actual complainers are dead meat but the rats are still rats. Sometimes, occasionally, rats become bigger and bigger after so many stale crumbs and get more important and join one or other of the tables and then it seems as if they always belonged.
Sometimes membership is accidental. Amazing, but true. Someone is tootling along in a position which table members come increasingly to admire, or desire or – and far more like it – seek to neutralise in their own favour. So they put their arm around the shoulder (near the throat) of said person and lead them to a place. This is the most anomolous case of all table manners. The newly inducted is surprised and in the table-world of poetry probably hugely flattered by this 'warmth'. But then what to do? Pressure is applied to give special services to members – what else? there is always exchange – and now the deal is clear.
There are some people who do not wish to belong to any table. These individuals have made a bit of a fetish about individuality, they despise this table game in poetry or in anything. They stand outside. These people are heretics and have lank looks. They are punished for their surly outsider opinions, naturally, by all members of all tables, everyone has a piece of them, so there is always a price to pay by not belonging. These players dream of ideal tables, tables where merit alone matters, even though they know full well that merit is a poetic as well as an accomplishment and table merits/and poetics must necessarily differ from table to table – it is after all how the members shaped their table manners in the first place – but still the deluded non-joiners, heroic fools that they are, imagine such a table of troublesome perhaps but rigorous meritocracy. It will never happen. Such tables don't exist.
I have been discussing one of my poems with an alert school student and it began as a maybe/maybe not moment that relaxed into a small pleasure. The poem is an oldie so re-visiting it was interesting – returning as a reader, feeling my way back into the poem enough to articulate some of the meanings and devices used. It is also a lyric poem, and therefore reminds me of the smaller percentage of my poems that carry that character of habitation. For years I have not exactly resisted the lyric – I must written a hundred lyric poems – but preferred to warp the I into various masquerades and othernesses, or simply write without it. There are traps in the lyric which many poets slip into and for all my wariness I must have too : the too-easy self-posturing, abstract propositions never argued into authority, the automatic assumption therefore of 'authenticity' and even the plain and (ever undead) gothic sentimentality... So even though the lyric dominates Australian poetry, and accounts for many successes, there are endlessly more poems of sop or phoniness. Poems that assume the 'I' but use it without rigour or perhaps even with intention in poems that are full of claims to insight which are in fact rhetorical gestures ... poems of I leaning on the assumption of a greater truth because of it, and a false belief of integrity in the poet and poem seeming to speak together of lived experience. When the rhetorical reach is high, and wildly over-wrought, readers can be fooled, convinced they are perceiving astute flights of feeling (in the recent success of poems by Luke Davies, for example) when the flight is just more empty gesturing and the abstract hollowness I've referred to. Waffle that sounds impressive but is more often than not bearing the worst aspects of the portentous. The lyric is too often used unthinkingly and carelessly – I felt this, I write about it, the poem must be 'valid'. This is another error of 'entitlement'. There too many unthinking attempts at the style and in use of this device of the speaking I.
And the lyric can be restrictive. It need not be. Anyway, with all this in mind, I have obviously been considering the lyric, and a return to a more varied and complex exploration of it. This school exercise of reading and writing about a lyric poem has been strangely rewarding. The particular poem the student chose enacts an epiphany of sorts and this return has released another and different kind of epiphany in me – one to do with style and the latent elements of style which we carry with us through many experiments and innovations. And have perhaps forgotten the value of.