Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — <i>ABR</i> 300 |
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ABR 300

The Australian Book Review, commonly called the ABR, asked for messages from contributors
to celebrate its 300th issue in April 2008. This was mine.

In Australia, one of the penalties for having survived long enough as some kind of literary figure is to be asked, in one’s senior years, to write a chapter in the latest distinguished volume devoted to the history of Australian literature. Such requests, though flattering, oblige the victim to write a story from which he must leave himself out. My powers of self-abnegation stop well short of that, so I always say no. Why should I leave myself out when I have so many contemporaries to do it for me?

But if I were forced at gun-point to write such a chapter, I would begin by saying that the growing prominence of the independent literary magazines in recent years has helped to create an inhabitable Australian literary world, and that the ABR has been in the vanguard of this development. Long wished for, an Australian literary world was slow to arrive, partly because it was so keenly awaited: the pot grew nervous from being watched. Especially in the field of poetry, the pre-modern era was dependent on the newspapers, with the Bulletin counting as a kind of amplified newspaper. The requirements of popularity had some strong results. (Les Murray has always been right to stress the importance of what he was first to call the ‘newspaper poem’, and, gratifyingly often, he still writes it.) Looking back to my own beginnings, I remember the magazines as being few, thin and hard to find unless you were attached to the same university as they were.

Actually this memory is inaccurate: it was always worthwhile to keep a file of Meanjin, for example, and when James McAuley started Quadrant he raised the stakes for everyone. But when I sailed for England in the early 1960s, that was the way the Australian picture looked to me. From here on, my brief account gets personal. Peter Porter, I suspect, has a more informative story about what it meant to become an expatriate Australian poet. He had more reason to think about what was involved, because poetry was his whole endeavour, and the problem of maintaining a spiritual presence in the homeland he had physically left would be a matter of life and death to him. I could never claim that kind of thoughtfulness. Working more by instinct than by strategy, and always more by luck than judgment, I had a big enough task establishing and maintaining a poetic reputation in Britain, where my other reputation as a professional entertainer seemed determined to get in the way. Get caught on screen with your arms around Margarita Pracatan and see what it does to your status as a lyric poet.

But precisely because Britain was in possession of a fully developed literary world, it had room for someone who broke its rules of dignity. In Britain, everyone is aware, even if they hate the idea, that the poet who doesn’t fit the picture might be part of the picture. One could be given the cold shoulder — any number of cold shoulders — yet not be frozen out. Even my poems about Australia found space in the literary pages of London. Eventually I found myself writing more and more such poems, and Australian editors — who were still keeping their eye, as always, on the British and American magazines — began asking to reprint them. I was glad to comply, although I hasten to insist that I had no plans for making a reconquista. It had long been apparent to me that the expatriate, should he wish for a return, was up against the same difficulties as a space traveller making a re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere: unless he got the angle exactly right, he would burn up, with the implacable Australian press waiting on the ground to interview the fragments. But really my poetry was proof that I had never been away.

It had already proved that to me. Any decent poem begins in feelings so deep that we might as well call them instinctive, and what I had been discovering was the nature of my instinct, which had been formed in Australia and never forgotten it, whatever my conscious mind might have thought. With a whole heart, I can thank the Australian magazine editors for having spotted this almost before I did. At the head of these editors was Peter Rose, who generously made space available in the ABR for poems I had published in Britain and America but which might also appeal to Australian readers who had no easy access to the periodicals they first appeared in. Later on there were other editors, and there were poems which had their first publication in Australia, but the ABR continued to provide me with my most welcoming landing strip for things I was sending in, or bringing back, from abroad: it was my Edwards Air Force Base. The ABR even ran the full text of the address I gave when I received, in Mildura, the Philip Hodgins memorial medal, which remains my sole big literary prize, and the only one I will ever need.

When I published that address as a chapter in a book, I gave the book the same title as the chapter, The Meaning of Recognition. Self-dramatising is what I do for a living — everything I write, in whatever form, is an unreliable memoir — but the drama, I would like to think, is not always entirely about me. In writing about the magnificent but cruelly abbreviated achievement of Philip Hodgins, I was an expatriate trying to fulfil what I think of as part of the expatriate’s duty: to help give Australia to the world, and to bring a world view to the task of clarifying Australia’s position to itself. Laid out as an argument, the full story of how I view that duty would take a book all on its own, but I would be surprised if my work had not been telling the story by implication for these many years. The ABR has played a crucial part in helping me to tell it, so I have a personal reason for being grateful for the magazine’s existence, and I am sure there has been many a contributor, over the course of its three hundred issues, who could say the same. Finally it comes down to the importance of having a forum in which the concept of intellectual freedom trumps all other political standpoints: a forum in which, wrapped in our separate togas, we can speak our minds to each other without being knifed on the way home. No literary magazine is worthy of its title if it doesn’t provide that. The ABR does.