Notebook

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at peternicholson.com.au  and at the NLA.

The following is excerpted from Notebook, first published in A Dwelling Place, 1997, 49-60

If you’d really disordered all the senses, rationally or not—no Rimbaud.

Australia’s pitiless light—made for surrealist rites of spring.

If Goethe had workshopped Faust after holidaying in Silicon Valley, utilising interactive media technology, we still wouldn’t have a more relevant, finished or truer poem than the one we were left with.

The art of the first half of the twentieth century did not need to have its affective architecture stripped away by artists such as Tapiès and Xenakis. It remains a dynamic culture from which we still have an enormous amount to leam.

The word ‘poetic’ associates the enormity of existence with the grandeur of civilisation, that instinctive reach at the mutabilities of experience. Technique will never domesticate it and poets can’t really explain it.

A King Ludwig or a Kahnweiler will back horses others would run away from or have put down.

Prefer the blue jeans and Whitman to McDonald’s and Pound.

No need to feel queasy if rhetoric opens you up to the wound of existence. And no need to distrust that rhetoric either, the agency of eloquence out of which you try to perfect whatever you can of life and work.

The multiplicity of metaphoric imagery in poetry—paralleling the complexities revealed by quantum physics and Chaos Theory?

Celebrate, exult and mourn instead of recycling the tail-ends of modernism.

If paint is sometimes manipulated too easily, words can always be relied on to put up a fight.

There is arrhythmia in the heartbeat of patient poetry. The surgeon is preparing to graft on some emergency what?—traditional form? dismembered line? iambic pentameter? Prognosis?

To prefer Webern to Puccini, rather than the reverse, can also be seen as a failure of sensibility, whatever the Ensemble InterContemporain might think.

Perhaps traditional genres can no longer contain the Apollonian slippages and Dionysian spillages about us; yet poetry has always been able to accommodate any biological mess or technological marvel that came its way.

Read a good poem and you should find there the seeds of a Theory of Everything.

‘Wrong from the start’: who?

We don’t need any more virtual reality than that offered by a Lucian Freud painting, a history of the KKK or the view from our window.

If poetry spent a large part of its time in the twentieth century teaching people how to talk to themselves, then part of the function of poetry in the twenty-first century will be discovering ways in which we can talk with one another as well as to the other, whatever that other may be.

Not a nostalgia for world culture so much as a demand for it. Nationalism is the last refuge for writers who are content to manufacture cliches that make their readers self-satisfied and uncritical.

Is it amusing or alarming to watch rafts of people browbeaten by accusations of provincialism into thinking they’re antediluvian if they don’t get ecstatic about the junk culture churned out by our gorge and puke economies?

Pressure on the selectors, time in the blood bin, come in spinner—sporting analogies bring their own truth to Australian cultural endeavours.

Simplistic categorisations of sexuality, ethnicity or whatever—all you get out of that kind of force-feeding is a bad case of emperor’s clothes.

Poetry aspiring to the state of music? Surely not. Poetry aspires to its own expressive power, language heightened to a state of eloquence and memorability. Utilise ‘fizz, swish, gabble and verbiage’, but if that is all it reflects can your work be anything more than fashionable?

In the end, poetic raids on the inarticulate have to be articulated. Some poetry fails to make the crossover.

Though the moral viewpoint underpinning satire can be offputting, being acerbic and sardonic is another way of showing hope for and love of peoples and nations.

Palaeontologists on the lookout for fossils and bones tend to think that culture is a product predetermined by social factors. Talk about the sacred is so much mumbo jumbo for them. And this ratiocinative approach has crept into literary criticism. Any decent artist won’t be drinking from that poisoned well.

‘Two roads diverged’: memoir, biography, performance; poem, painting, composition.

Surfing the super-information highway—you will eventually be dumped. In that bruised place reach for some poetry to save you from technological intransigence.

Hip-hop, heavy metal, Bob Dylan—the poetry there coming from the sound of words and music together, not from words alone.

While poets trying to flesh out part of the immensity and strangeness of life must expect to be misunderstood, readers shouldn’t interpret their work too literally since poetry intuits experience irrationally. Somewhere down the literary pathway writers’ and readers’ expectations eventually meet.

Poetry brings into metaphoric resonance a different kind of reality. Its dissociations leave you harvesting forms and feelings beyond the Q.E.D. world of Euclidean theorem, nearer a transcendent cyberspace.

Artists make things while critics and intellectuals interpret the things made, activities largely incompatible. Apart from writers like Coleridge and Baudelaire, very few poets are capable of pulling off that double act convincingly.

Part of life in the you beaut country is spent pretending that existence is all sunshine and roses, culture splashing about in shallows, never losing its footing.

Beckett thought Hölderlin got better when he dropped the ‘spurious magnificence’. But surely every artist should have some of that magnificence in their work.

Does being grown up mean accepting a world without absolutes? Even in the apparent dead-ends of our time there is a spiritual poetry you can give voice to, a poetry that differentiates between good and evil, that is either well or badly achieved and that doesn’t distrust language.

Strange to see people getting worked up about novels and poems published ages ago but not giving a damn about lakes of bodies, starvation and genocide.

To feel things deeply is often painful and therefore it is not surprising to find some contemporary art avoiding anything essential, where one does not have to feel much at all, merely empathise with theories and techniques, sound and fury, anaesthetised by culture rather than awakened to new perceptions.

A point on a sphere is neither ‘down under’ nor ‘up over’. ‘Down under’ is a cliched reference to Australia that has outlived its usefulness for both Eurocentrics and nationalists.

Aspirations beyond the mundane, in which one may seek to name truth, beauty or hope, will seem old hat and pretentious to those residents of Grub Street who have tried to reduce poetry to the status of a language game. There are more open-minded and perceptive readers with interested members of the general public. And, after all, doesn’t a poet want to be read by this public, those people who are the poet’s shadow-self, the so-called common readers who feel and think without theoretical blinkers attached, and whose instinct is for art that embraces the sunlight as well as the shadow.

All that contradictory sea spray and desert heat, blue sky optimism and convict-originated cynicism in the land of the Dreamtime, has made some Australians either brightened with sensibility or as forlorn as a cow’s whitened carcass, as unforgiving as an existentialist at a Maquis reunion.

Of all artists, a poet must believe in the blessings of words. Words are the centrepiece of civilisation and the poet is therefore an essential member of civilised society. And words, used well, loved well, contain within them the tragic and spiritual emblems of a divinity we sometimes rise to, beyond the denominator of the profit margin and the limitations we set on our humanity.

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