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Being other poets

Just sometimes newly arrived books feel as if they are there but not-there. There is a place of read-and-considered, even public; not-there is invisible. Often the fate of poetry books and poets, so it's not a new feeling I have, far from it, but a decidely weird variation on the familiar. Two newly arrived books with names and 'realities' some may find hard to position.


Perhaps this is the face of the poet wondering.






Launch Speech for The Keeper of Fish and Keeping Carter



The following speech was attributed to Prof Ross but maybe he's a heteronym too.


I have a couple of apologies to announce. (Reading piece of paper) From um let's see.... Oh, it's Alan Fish... Fish has left a message which reads: I would love to be there but I'm here at my desk writing a review of The Keeper of Fish...  because Peter Rose won't.  And there's one more, it's from M A Carter. He says: I should be there, but it's my turn to wash the cats.

Fish has suggested Carter stand in for him. Curiously, Carter has suggested Fish stand in for him.

Well, bugger them for being ... standoffish. We won't be missing much. I'm going to launch their books regardless.

In fact, Philip Salom has suggested that the best way to think about these two poets is that they are: language masquerading as men. Of course, this is an old dodge, but a good one, like Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, which Pessoa established not as mere name changes but as the expression of different personalities. They are, and these two are. I happen to know Salom is a huge fan of Flann O'Brien, too, the man who says: Porter's your man. Or is that Brian O'Nolan, or Miles na Gopaleen...? etc. I can see Borges in this, too, and Italo Calvino is in there, too, with his novel The Non-Existent Knight, a knight in armour who is very eloquent, who has a real personality - but inside his armour, he is not there. As Rimbaud said: I is another. But who knows what he was taking at the time. All these literary quotations, it's very academic, isn't it? It's just as well I'm a Professor.

So, Salom doesn't believe that any one poet has only one sound to make. I don't know if any of you have ever studied Creative Writing ... or taught Creative Writing? Yes? There seems to be a lot of it about.... But when they teach it, teachers are always banging on about student poets having to find your own voice! Salom says, if there is one voice, then his voice in response to that is – and I think I've got this right – Phzzzzz! You can tell he's not very academic. I'm glad Melbourne University kicked him out.

One of the reviewers of Keepers, described the character who lives under each page, the man in the basement of the art school, Alan Fish that is, described Fish as an ornate failure of a man. Very perceptive of him, that, and what a lovely phrase, getting some crucial aspect of Fish right: Fish is as he says. But he is much else. Fish is a true literary character: he has escaped from Salom's book Keepers into his own poetry. Let me quote from his bio....

'For most of his life Alan Fish has lived in Melbourne and though he spent several years on a small orchard in rural Victoria he doesn't go in for the "I have two dogs and live on the coast in a corrugated-iron beach-shack" kind of bio. His poems have appeared in print but he isn't widely published in journals or on avant garde websites and he hasn't won numerous literary awards in obscure towns or at small agricultural shows. He does keep fish and realises this sounds silly.'

That reviewer, by the way, was Peter Kenneally, writing in The Age. Amazing - a reviewer who can write... and read! When he reads The Keeper of Fish he will realise how ornate Fish really is, how much Fish enjoys private, introverted pleasures, such as the Japanese board-game Go, and walking through the city like a post-modern flaneur. In the act of flanerie he is turned outwards, escaping himself; but Fish has private griefs, his lost lover, his lyrical intuitions; he lives more truly inwards, it is the inner country here... And so he is a lyric poet, this is his life we are reading. Even if his armour is empty. His poems are deeply emotional but carry a sharply observant kind of stillness. From his poem of a female window-cleaner abseiling on an office block, the people inside:

            They see her and feel dangerous with work


            out in the overcast air turned mother-of-pearl

            on the city. She drops out of sight her recurrence

            a floor lower, leaving her flourish there on their

            glass, signed to the right: a transparent cheque.

Sometimes Alan Fish is almost Zen-like, in a poem about ambition, or lack of it:

                            I am free of drive, I have no need


            of success and success’s sordid preparations.

            I am perhaps a kind of nun. A nun of kind.

This might even be poise. But he is all the time haunted by the memory of his late wife. His poems shift from the above, to this:a poem where he describes bleaching his wife's hair, as she had requested, in the weeks before she died of cancer, handling the powerful and painful bleaching cream:

                                                I was more than careful.


            Sacs of chemo, tubes of bleach, too much can snap

            the hair. I was scared enough to brush bleach on


            and not risk foils, not risk the smallest break slip

            unnoticed past me, as it had before. My fingers


            whitened in the bleach but the pain was nothing

            I wouldn't take ten times of to defeat her death.


            Oh Death, you and I plucked hookfuls of her hair

            through the mad-cap. Love and work. Oh Death,


            here is thy sting.

So if that is his failure, then it's a universal one. As the blurb says: His work is seriously beautiful, or beautifully serious, in its imagery and shadows; he is in some ways lost, but he is no push-over. Another reviewer thought the moderate and leisurely pace of Keepers was best described as aheadlong rush - which is a rather grey opinion, and a very Canberra opinion. Perhaps he will enjoy The Keeper of Fish slightly more. Not that Fish ever wrote a poem with a reviewer in mind. And his title is after all a direct reference to Pessoa or should I say, to Alberto Caeiro, The Keeper of Sheep. But Fish likes fish, the small swimming variety, I mean, hence his punning self-referentiality, and he doesn't like sheep. To quote from one of his fish poems:

            But fish... Sink, and rise, and pole dance, cichlids

            bite out the sides of other fish. No, fish are very far


            from model citizens, like us, even if they’re named

            like pets: Midas, Adolfos, Rainbow, Oriental Spot.


            Thing-fish: hatchets, and bettas, and guppys and gold,

            there are angels and batfish and upside-down catfish.


            Fish make me smile. Po-faced, horse-faced, intricate,

            each moving by the merest of quaverings, coloured


            breves on miscible staves, they make a post-modern


And later on another tack, about playing the game Go, symbol of much, about the past, and his renunciation of the world, I'd say. He says:

            This stupid game I play in black and white,

            as nothing ever is. My head is full of colours.


            And so I love my little coloured fish: stunned

            by their exactness, their speed, their stillness.


Now, if Fish is in-spoken, Carter is out-spoken. Out-rageous. God knows what reviewers will make of Carter. Carter couldn't care less. He is even more ornate than Fish, but he is decorous and provocative. He is mannered and eccentric and indulgent.  Carter seems to be a very refined man but his humour tends towards the tasteless. He thinks the world is full of fools and ridiculous behaviours. He tries to be referential but he's no academic. I mean he has dared to written a line like this Another man's Lacan is a motorbike... Now what's that supposed to mean? He uses it twice! It's the last line of the book! The man's completely mad.

Before I became a Professor I used to write a bit of poetry. Yes, I did. The odd ditty or two..... But I would never have written a line like that. Nor would Salom. I was not the Head who sacked Alan Fish from Keepers and who, by doing so, turned him into a poet. But I would have sacked Carter.

Fish came from Keepers but Carter came from nowhere, he is the cuckoo in the nest. Carter's bio: 'MA Carter resides in Melbourne and has the upper floor of an apartment to himself. He and his sister Mary keep two cats who often sit, as he notes, "like apostrophes" on either side of him. His work has been read in public very occasionally and there is a very brief publication online, but he hasn't been published widely in journals, nor in haiku form all over the world, and nor has he been translated into twelve languages. This is his first major collection but won't be his last if he can help it.'

And of course, he includes in his book some very in-your-face haiku just to stir the reader, well, they are senryu in fact, to be academically correct... He is very tongue-in-cheek, it has to said. His humour (yes, he is funny) and his musical oddities and his repetitions, in particular, are striking. eg: from a poem about conservative publishers, readers and novels:

                                            A novel is a novel is an entertainment.

The woman who wrote of roses as roses and was a woman


who wrote of words of words of roses, and these common

words and common roses, are uncommon ways of writing


and now such writing seems to frighten the common sense

of common readers. A reviewer says (sadly) X's language


is too sophisticated for 'the reader'. They can read, can they?

In Europe can you Dear Reader imagine telling a writer that


their writing is too 'writerly', too inventive, too metaphoric

and oh ‘literary’ - what does that mean exactly? - you know it


would be as crazy as telling an architect their building is too

            architectural, bridge-makers too bridgey, sewage engineers too...

You can guess that he is not a sentimentalist and if you can't he says so anyway, and he says this of its poetry:

                                  ... those of you thirsty for love in love

            words, the beauty in beauty, face, let's face it, cliché.


            Who, Auden said, woo from love the love of poetry,

            fibbing to make their art. I can think of many who.

            If only the obvious was homeopathic, so much less

            of it would do.

And this more approving nudge from a poem about a fellow complainer, Joan Rivers, the comedian:

            I'm half in love with her bull-frog cheeks

            and the sheer nerve of her changing looks

            whole streets away from her daughter's eyes

            she's unrecognisable. In the Who's Who

            she is both Whos. The owls of her face.

Carter's blurb says: Carter is mordant, immoderate, opinionated and likely to offend. He writes in a style that is distinctly musical and even lyrical but his observations stray wildly and eccentrically from the expected. His poems don't mind being rude, or chauvinistic, even a bit scary. He admits this will not make him popular or admired, but he doesn't care for popular or admired.'

But here is Carter waxing lyrical – and he has another poem about waxing, literally, I mean, one of those senyru - but to quote from the beginning of this poem...

            Tennis: Love and Deuce

            It is not looking, it is the flesh looking.

            It's tennis, with cleavage: 40 love to deuce

            in a room of women: their breasts turn to

            us, then turn away, then turn to us again.

            And she has the nicest deuce in town.

            I meet her afterwards, and she mees me

            for what she at least calls making love.

            She is reserved, but she knows her mind,

            and I know this: between her legs is her

            parenthesis. And I incline towards it.

Carter is naughty, rude, bizarre. Both poets are strange. But enough! There are heteronyms and ghosts everywhere. Language masquerading as men... I don't know what I am, a stand-in, a heteronym, someone having an masquerading-crisis? Who wrote me? Did they get paid? Who knows. But I do know this: these two dubious poets are launched. 



Knowledge as a Problem in Style

This something that used to bother me, is bothering me again. (And this sentence could be the first line of a new M A Carter poem.) I'm referring to my discomfort with over-showing, over-researched novels. Novels packed with 'knowledge' by writers who seem to have no direct line to that knowing by nature of time, lifestyle, experience, era, etc. And this following sentence is simply one kind of example, a description of how the child character (Claire) tries to stop her horse rearing and bucking:

'She carries plastic bags of water with her and leans forward and smashes them onto his neck so the animal believes it is his own blood and will calm for a minute.'

Really? She couldn't talk to the horse, reassure it by touch, tone and manner; she couldn't train the behaviour out? No, she carries bags of water with her while riding. Not an easy or comfortable thing to do when riding. Water is heavy and bags of it would be cumbersome. How many fiddly bags of water does she carry? How big are they? Where does she carry them? What happens when this difficult horse of hers, minute by minute, bag after bag, realises the trick - or otherwise imagines it has bled to death? The horse is called... no, nothing obvious surely, and so... Territorial.

The quote is from Divisadero by Michael Ondaatjie. It's about 400 words into Claire's chapter, which is the first of the book. This startling kind of 'knowledge' and detail is a mannerism found in all of Ondaatjie's novels. It is very 'Ondaatjie' in feel and kind. The character is a loner or is given such private focalisation they become focused into a bubble of being – and their particular knowledge has to be odd, strikingly unusual so you remember it, usually vividly physical, usually esoteric or unique in feel, heightening and possibly 'poetic' in its strangeness ... and therefore it immediately 'makes strange' the character, of Claire in this momentary example. Knowledge as motif. As a reader you are led to think no one else but Claire seems to know this bag-of-blood trick. Has anyone actually used this technique? Has Ondaatjie discovered the information by research and willfully applied it? Does he ride horses and is he attracted to the possible idea of it ... or does he ride and 'know' it? Or did he just make it up? And all the thousands of like descriptions found everywhere throughout his novels, researched by the author and his researchers.

Nor is this a post-modern naivety on my part: prioritising lived experience over researched, the 'real' vs knowledge used to construct a simulacrum of period or purpose, ie: not 'real' and never real. So, regardless, a device of writing/reading; but no, what gets me about the 'researched' knowledge in this case is not its informing presence but the rhetorical next step: in Ondaatjie's books this knowledge is not so merged within the overall narrative (though of course it is there) as foregrounded within each character, and there the knowledge is foregrounded as knowledge. A big difference. It feels like a sleight of hand whereby research is demonstrated into knowledge.

And it's as relentless as a fetish. All of Ondaatjie's main characters (nearly all minor characters, too) know and perform amazingly (ridiculously?) diverse but very distinctive activities which are delineated in very specific, slow-motion, consciously presented sensory detail -  representations created by the author in order to individualise the characterisation. It seems he cannot admit to his fiction any 'person' who is like most people – just averagely endowed with knowledge and or skills. That is, having nothing especially unusual or developed as a practice. After a short time of reading it starts to drive me crazy. Especially as each uniquely gifted character then runs into erotic encounter with another and their love blows up into uniquely detailed sensuality, is written as poetically and 'romantically' specific (but also therefore, paradoxically, cliched... he can surely be parodied for all these fetishes) and then, often (more tragedy) is thwarted in some way. Still, they have their talent to fall back on.

The talents, the knowledge: gunslinging history of the 'wild west' century in the US, and the usage and details of six-shooters, rifles, shooting and riding and town and brothel life, illness and the desert and thirst (Billy the Kid); cornet players and the esoterics of jazz and its improvisations, trumpet and sax playing and also the involved techniques of daguerreotypes and photography and the chemistry of film development, and brothel life and black southern states' town history (Coming Through Slaughter); large span steel-bridge construction involving 19th Century engineering techniques as used in Canada, and the extraordinary abseiling techniques of construction workers (of course) (In the Skin of the Lion); bomb construction and dismantling, dis-arming and the vast array of army-intensive sapper skills generally, abseiling again (re-use from above) and the history of espionage in Europe during the war and WWI aeroplanes and flight techniques (The English Patient); medicine and archeology and civil war history in Sri Lanka (Anil's Ghost); horse-riding, card-cheat and card-gambling tricks and gambling systems and casino protocols, and more guns, and European and Roma music and cultural history, European herb gardening, agriculture, carpentry and roof-tiling.... He might be good to have on a quiz night table.

And yet... The portrait of the French writer in this sequence of narratives is extraordinary in many ways and the passion and depth - of inner commitment as against outer skill-performance - is a telling reminder of where the novelist's own skills are perhaps best developed and given. Not in showing off special effects. When Ondaatjie's writing gets in that close I am entranced and moved. His sadder and tragic love affairs cease to be so formulaic and more emotionally and perceptively 'known'. His poetry lifts above his tricks. It does not abseil.

I haven't mentioned other writers who re-create entire scenarios and eras from words stated to be the relevant research. It is a weakness in much historical writing, too, such as Kate Grenville's The Secret River. Though her information is applied to the narrative, as it were, not to the individual characters and is thereby more flexible and subtle. Perhaps I have a thing about comfortable, middle-class, full-time novelists sitting at home writing books which claim such broad authority. Yes. These people are not Shakespeare – I must prefer writers who make the work live through psychological insight, whose authority is within the character rather than as large-scale (and financially successful) representation of that which the writer has little or absolutely no hands-on feel for. I can read Ondaatjie because he is fascinating in many aspects of his made-worlds, and I can almost ignore his stylistic directness Vs nostalgia trick (having your cake and eating it) (too much and they both feel sentimental) and I admire those passages where he allows his characters their bodies to breathe and feel (rather than do, perform) as sharply as insight. I don't care for writers who are prone to such exotica: the masquerade of wow-ish effects as claims to being. And to woo the reader.

Just noted details from a review of his new The Cat's Cradle:  a mute tailor, a retired ship dismantler, a pianist who has “hit the skids,” a botanist and a lady who hides pigeons in the pockets of her jacket.  And so - here we go again....Brilliant, often, but so bloody unconvincing. 

Tagore: an Amazing Life

If the dates are correct, Rabindranath Tagore – whose 150th birthday has just passed - lived a life as brilliantly symmetrical as he was brilliantly talented: born on May 7 in 1861 and dying on August 7, 1941. In the west he is usually considered a great poet (for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1913) but throughout his remarkable 80 years he proved himself the most extraordinary person of the ‘Indian Renaissance’, publishing 30 or so collections of poetry, eight novels, four novellas, ten books of essays, several collections of critical writings and speeches on the culturally central subjects of literature, history, politics and religion. He wrote possibly as many as 2000 songs, including the music, and a large number of dramas, many of them also ‘musicals’. Just for variety, towards the end of his life he took up painting and print-making. But there was more...


Tagore (Thakur) was born into a high caste Brahmin family and began writing from an early age. He was educated in Bengal, and later England, where he attended public schools and University but he left greatly disillusioned with an education system based, as he saw it, on military discipline. This was sadly consistent, in his view, with the dynamics of British colonisation in India and Africa. The same obsession with control was behind Britain’s domination of nature through resource-mining world-wide, with industry and over-reaching commerce. This abuse of nature by force and self-interest was something Tagore was deeply against, so he would now look very much the environmentalist in his overall philosophy. He eventually completed his university education in India.


But his travels left him with a passion to see India as a world nation, as a continually growing culture to be understood on equal terms with western culture, not reduced by empirical condescension to being “oriental’, and ‘Eastern’; these paradigms of definition all too often meant exotic, brooding, playful, magical, and superficial, a presence full of colour and surface and brilliantly fascinating – but not to be taken quite seriously compared to Western achievements.  This was what eventually happened to Tagore’s own profile in the West: taken up suddenly with the first translation into English of his poems in Gitanjali, lauded by WB Yeats and Ezra Pound, made famous as a major world poet by major world poets, awarded the Nobel Prize; and then in a few years came a quite rapid re-evaluation of him as not so important after all. England ‘orientalised’ him.


How rare he was. This man used his Nobel Prize money to establish an ‘alternative’ secondary school and an Agricultural Bank. The former was free, and accepted boys and girls studying the same curriculum; and the latter was a banking system devised to allow peasant farmers to pay off their debts to their landlords and become self-reliant. This rural reconstruction work was opposed to Gandhi’s notion of Swaraj, a rejection of the state as epitomised by British rule. Tagore did not want India to become a traditionalist state but one that took the best of the West and applied it, freely, in agriculture as elsewhere. Tagore taught in the school (Santiniketan) and later travelled extensively throughout Bengal to raise funds for its continuation; the students travelled also, performing plays and musical works – often written by Tagore for this purpose. Students studied each morning and balanced intellectual work with afternoon involvement in community activities, music, sport and physical work, making up a diverse and socially-integrated curriculum. It must have been a fascinating school. Later he added a World University (Vivsa Bharati ) with international lecturers and students and even more travels by himself, internationally, to generate funding and interest.



Tagore was an educationalist, administrator, critic, humanist, lifelong commentator on politics, friend of Gandhi and famous figures like Einstein, a man who lectured throughout the US and Europe and Japan, someone never afraid of being open but also critical of his and these other major cultures. He supported Gandhi’s ideas of Satygraha but was troubled by the divisions he saw Gandhi’s politics were creating between Hindu and Muslim, and Gandhi later admitted Tagore had been prescient in this criticism. Tagore also wished to see the Untouchables integrated into the social system.
When the British massacred up to 1500 unarmed people at a political gathering in Jallianwala Bagh he returned his earlier-awarded Knighthood. During his life he lost his wife early (she was only 29), then his father, his daughter, his mother and two of his sons. Grief underlies many of his poems, regardless of the celebration of nature and humanity found everywhere in them. No champion of the privileged, his poems and fiction works focus on ordinary people, especially women, and trace deep chords of loss and loneliness within their music. He often cast Untouchables as heroes in his writings.
One early influence on his poetic was the ancient Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, a great figure in the tradition of a poetry that is suffused with philosophy and religion, who is said to have lived in the 4th Century, and a later influence came in the works of the Bakhti Sufi poet Kabir. Sufism and poetry have a strong history and Tagore was greatly impressed by this achievement even though he was not a Sufi and really can’t be called a philosopher. He was an accessible poet whose songs were extremely popular and whose poems and stories were familiar nationally. Tagore was himself was a strikingly flexible poet, using strict and loose forms, prose poems, poems of philosophy alongside intense lyrics and broader, descriptive poems. In the 30s he also took on a more Western Modernism and experimented with various of its styles, especially a narrative-based, vernacular and ‘low’ literature approach.
During the 20C he became a towering influence, not only in India, but throughout Asia, all the way down to Indonesia, where the Hindu people of Bali venerated him.
Happy 150th Birthday, Rabindranath.
read Tagore: An amazing life .. Philip Salom- June 10, 2011
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