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Poets Union
Representing Australian poets

2001 Judith Wright Lecture - Dorothy Porter

Lucidity: The Poetry of Making Sense.

By Dorothy Porter.

I would like to begin by reading one of my favourite poems of Judith Wright - Oppositions - from her last collection of poetry Phantom Dwelling. I am not reading this poem merely as homage to Judith Wright's memory but because it is a beautiful illustration of the kind of poetry I will be talking about.

Every time I read this poem, either silently to myself or aloud to someone else, I'm struck by it. Almost as if the lightning so lightly mentioned in the poem has jumped the page and made some of the ground under me smoke. And of course each time I read the poem I'm struck by the yellow frog. So much so that when I encountered a frog myself in a shower in Arnhem Land - bright green not yellow - both Wright's frog and poem came flooding back. Oppositions is not a difficult or in any way fiendishly challenging poem. But nor is it simple - as in one-dimensional, lacking in complexity, lazy, obvious or easy. I would instead call it lucid. Marvellously lucid. Both rich and clear. And indeed beautiful – with a crystalline and precise earthing in the tubby body of the frog . The images of the poem course through the nervous system much like the fondly mentioned wine courses warmly through the blood stream. But Wright doesn't patronise the reader by making something both familiar and wondrous strange into the cosy and mundane.
LUCID. What a lovely word. A word that forms a firm shape with the tongue right behind it - but feels full of light and expansion even as one speaks it - or writes it. Its meaning is multifarious - shining, bright, clear, transparent, rational, sane, leading to perception and understanding.

For me it also means a kind of carefully, even lovingly, chosen language where the light shines through - and in. An illumination. The Japanese haiku master poet, Basho, often evokes in his poems the fertile tranquillity of the clear mind. In this haiku about a monk sipping his morning tea - and of course tea is said in Zen to clear the mind - one is given a delicious sense of a clear-minded morning moment -

a monk sips
his morning tea, and it is quiet-
chrysanthemum flowers

It wasn't always thus for me. This lusting after the secret garden of the clear mind. Of course the word ‘lusting’ - the very Western blast of energy and frustration behind it - suggests how far, in a Zen sense, I have to go. When I first began writing poetry I yearned for the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's ‘derangement of the senses’. I longed to push the absinthe soaked surreal envelope as far as it would go. And then I fell for an even more daemonic muse, as I prayed for the wild and stinging and howling visitations of the duende - courtesy of the Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. I wanted to rattle my castanets to the blackest of flamenco tunes. My early poems blew dragon fire and wriggled with snakes tails. They were addictive to write and provided me with a nightmarish landscape that I relished - much like the Ghost Train at Luna Park. But these early poems of mine often didn't make much sense - even to me.

It was a short Yeats poem that provided the dowsing in cold clear water that I badly needed. Especially after I'd spent so much time with Yeats himself literally off with the Celtic fairies. In A Coat he brings himself back from fairyland with a harsh jolt - and this reader with him.

A Coat

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.

In one of Yeats' last poems, The Circus Animals Desertion, he embellishes this sentiment even more poignantly and creates one of the truest, most potent images of 20th Century poetry - ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. So it was under the tough tuition of Yeats I moved from the hallucinatory black heights of Rimbaud and Lorca to the challenge of the lonely stripped-down self working behind the counter at Steptoe and Son.

One of the most momentous decisions in the history of poetry, and not incidentally the history of the Italian language, was when Dante decided to write The Divine Comedy in what was then called ‘the vulgar tongue’, in other words his native tongue - the Tuscan dialect of Italian - rather than the language of scholars, the language of educated male readers - Latin. Later, Dante was to observe that it was in the vulgar tongue that ‘even women can exchange ideas. This sounds more offensively patronising than Dante would ever have intended. He also said, some time before he wrote The Divine Comedy:

...there are many people with excellent minds who, owing to the grievous decay of good custom in the world, are not educated in letters: princes, barons and knights, and many other gentlefolk, not only men but women, of which men and women alike there are many of this tongue, who can use the vernacular but have no Latin.

In other words Dante wrote for the common reader. He wrote to be understood. He wrote his lyrically dense but wonderfully lucid Italian, which even I can follow on the opposite page from a good translation, for souls in peril. Souls in peril, who need to understand, and be urged to keep reading, through the lurid sideshows of the Inferno to the ineffable celestial glories of Paradisio. Dante wrote with clear intentions to find and hold an audience.

Looking for an audience. Wanting to be understood by an audience. Was Dante in danger of being shipwrecked on the reef of populist vulgarity? Many of the male Latin scholars of his own day were very dismissive of Dante's writing poetry in the vulgar tongue. Why would any great poet, they argued, care if ordinary people, too stupid or too uneducated or too plain simply DAUNTED, couldn't read his poetry?

Doesn’t this ring a few modern bells for us in the contemporary poetry community? Do we care if we're read or not? Are we content, like the Latin scholars of medieval squabbling Italy, to write within the confines of an exclusive club just for each other? Are we too writing in a ‘dead’ language?

Lucidity does not mean the reams of docile looking-out-the-window poetry that seems to be a staple of the Australian poetry diet; the ‘I am a poet and I will write a poem today’ school.

Lucidity can write with a tongue of fire. Often it's a sense of urgency, a sense of dire times that can make a poem searingly lucid. It wasn't only Dante's soul that was in peril - so was his very life. His political enemies warned him that a return to his native Florence would forfeit not only his own life - by public burning at the stake - but also that of his son. Dante had a sense of very real flames that could lick around him as he wrote of the stinking fire of Hell and the purifying fire of Purgatory. Sometimes the line in poetry between metaphor and reality can be very uncomfortably blurred.

The urge to make sense in poetry is frequently best driven by the urgency of what must be said or what is not dared to be said. Like the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova's response to the woman who stood behind her in one of the terrible prison lines of Leningrad under Stalin, a line that Akhmatova herself had been standing in, unrecognised, daily for two years. The woman through bluish lips whispered ‘Can you describe this?’ and Akhmatova answered her with an heroic self confidence ‘Yes, I can.’ And she wrote Requiem - a poem literally written on whispered air to trusted friends, who had to memorise it, as the poem was too dangerous to be written down. Akhmatova, as she said in another poem, became not the poet of the ‘lover’s lyre’ but the poet of the ‘leper’s rattle’.

How many of us write with this sense of urgency? Can poetry become flaccid and obscure and irrelevant in a comfy democracy? Does it degenerate into sophisticated but sterile word games?

A poetry remarkable for its lucidity, wit, and by necessity, cunning, developed in Eastern Europe during and after the Second World War. Poets wrote under extraordinary personal threat and political pressure. It could be said that it was Hitler who first declared war on writers by the brutal and effective offensive of public book burnings. It's interesting how addicted the fanatics of Europe have historically been to the ritual of burning, whether heretics, witches, Jews, books - or poets.

I'll read a short allegorical poem by the German poet, Bertolt Brecht, on book burning. [Read The Burning of the Books.]

I love the aggrieved, albeit recklessly brave, writer's sense of insult in this poem. How dare they not burn his books! How many collections of modern poetry would be worth burning? How much harm is in a book that makes no sense? There is nothing more apolitical than a book that can only be read by a select and small coterie. Indeed Auden's famous quote, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ could be the coterie's club motto.

I'll now read a longer poem by the Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska. A poem of remarkable lucidity, which is almost a personal signature with her poetry, but also a poem of exquisite subtlety and cunning. The title is quite a hook - it is called A Contribution on Pornography.

Both the Brecht and the Szymborska poems come from a terrific anthology - The Poetry of Survival. I'll talk later about the more locally grown poetry of survival. But now I'd like to look at, picking up on the Szymborska title with a very different spin, one poet's contribution to pornography.

Erotic poetry has a long and lustrously lucid history. Poetry is often twinned with music, but I believe it can just as truly be twinned with eroticism. The diction, the images, the rhythms of poetry can be pure ‘jouissance’. It's a cliché to say that poetry doesn't have to be about sex to be sexy. Another cliché says that erotic poetry isn't explicit. In a minute I will ignore those clichés and instead read you a very sexually explicit take-no-prisoners poem, which if written in prose might very well not transcend the simply pornographic. If you think I'm dragging this out - teasing you in - you're right. And as there is not much foreplay in the poem you are about to hear I feel it incumbent on me to begin with at least some flowers, chocolates, flirting and promises to respect you in the morning. I am also trying to psych myself up. This is a very tricky poem for a woman to read. It was not written for a woman's voice. As you will soon discover.

But this is in so many ways an amazing poem - it is - even in Sin City Sydney in the twenty-first century - a genuinely shocking poem. And I marvel that words - just words - written in a particularly powerful rhythm - can still shock. And shock this poem can - and does.

Though some of its shock effect - I confess - depends on my nerve in following - without fudging - its sexual music.

This poem makes me appreciate why Plato would have banned poets from his ideal republic. A poem of this kind can indeed make words hit under the belt, can indeed frighten the horses. Especially if the poem is so lucid - so cuts-to-the-chase that the language doesn't seem to be bothering with taking the corners at all.

The poem is by one of the most famous - and one of the bravest - American poets of the twentieth century. I have talked previously about the challenge of writing with guts and urgency in a democracy. This poet - and of course no prizes for guessing it's Allen Ginsberg - had no difficulty in discovering where American democracy drew its limits, where American democracy was viciously unjust and hypocritical, where a poem could take risks and take the consequences. Under Reagan's presidency radio stations were banned from playing Ginsberg's most famous - and notorious - poem Howl. I wonder what Reagan would have made of this poem (and George W. for that matter). Because at least by the banning of Howl Ginsberg was paid the compliment - as Stalin paid his poets in even more deadly style - the compliment of being taken seriously. And to be taken really seriously, to be truly shocking a poem has to be understood.

Now's the time to leave if you are offended by Adult Themes i.e. sexually explicit language and homosexual sex. [Read Please Master by Allen Ginsberg.]

Judith Wright was the first white Australian poet to name publicly and probe the atrocity cankering the heart of this country’s history. The genocide of its indigenous people.

It is easy to overlook how tremendously significant Wright's work was in a raw political sense. The undeclared war and consequent slaughter of the Aboriginal people in the settlement of white Australia was simply not talked about - or acknowledged. Generations of white Australians, including Wright's own family, prospered on bloody soil.

It could be said that every grand pastoral property was really Bluebeard's Castle - with its own locked room. Wright was the first white writer with the ethical courage and nerve to approach and unlock that room. In doing so she wrote some of the most lucidly unflinching political poetry ever written in this country. Her poetry deserves to be read with the best of the Eastern European poets fighting and exposing the horrors of the Holocaust and Stalinism.

Of course Wright was not taught as the great and uncompromising political poet she is in Australian schools. Australian schools, certainly in my day, were terrified of poetry that said something nasty. No wonder most of my generation were turned off poetry for life and turned instead to poetry's younger, more groovy sister, the hyper-charged lyrics of rock music.

Judith Wright was taught as a lyrical lady poet, who wrote lovely harmless poems about the bush and her pioneering-days childhood, with an occasional sad poem, about something we in the city could all safely feel sorry for, like a dying dingo. We certainly didn't study and talk about poems like this one. [Read Nigger Leap.]

Wright published this poem in her first collection The Moving Image in 1946. The poem was inspired by a ‘long-hidden’ almost forgotten story her father told her, quite surprisingly for a pastoralist of his generation, about a group of local aboriginal people being driven over a cliff near Wright's own home. Many of us, particularly those of Jewish extraction, know the stories of the Holocaust almost off by heart. Auschwitz is one of the most toxic - and best known - words of the twentieth century. But what about Myall or Nigger's Leap? Or Finders Island or Oyster Cove?

Like other great political poets, like Dante, like Anna Akhmatova, Wright's poetry tells, and tells lucidly, stories and truths that only poetry can really tell so they sear into the soul and can never be untold.

But I won't end with Judith Wright. And I'm sure she wouldn't want me to.

I would like to finish by acknowledging the poetry of survival in our own country - the poetry of indigenous poets. And one poet in particular, Lionel Fogarty, who might seem at first glance to subvert the core argument of this lecture.

Fogarty doesn't write nice well-behaved poetry for white fellas. Like the Jewish poet, Paul Celan, writing in German, the language of the nation that murdered his parents, Fogarty is consciously writing in the language of the oppressor. And like Celan he declares his own passionate guerrilla war on that language and crushes it and distorts it in any way possible to wrest his own meaning, his own ‘dreaming’ out of it. As in Celan's last poems where the German seemed to become almost another language under Celan's throttling pen, Fogarty forces English into places it doesn’t want to go and welds it with indigenous words and changes its form and expression mightily. But Fogarty's poems are on their own fierce terms lucid. They make dark and terrible sense. [Read I am Black, I am Both You and I, Truganini.]

Lionel Fogarty is one poet who would never need to bleat BURN ME to the book burners.

*For copyright reasons readers are referred to their own texts of the poems mentioned in this paper. (Eds.)