Cultural Cohesion, p.20Clive James
Porter enjoys talking himself down: to the admiring observer, he never seemed to lack self-confidence when he set about occupying his world-ranking position. But viewed on the Australian scale, there is something to what he says. Sydney University is a hot spot. The thing to bear in mind is that in the 1940s it wasn’t that yet. The upcoming literary mandarins would help to make it so, but at the time they were not joining a new power structure. They were the misfit products of an old one. The working class and the lower middle class could not afford to send their children to university. (In an otherwise markedly egalitarian society, this was one of the few limitations that made it meaningful to talk about a class structure at all.) The student body was provided mainly by the entrenched bourgeoisie and the squattocracy, social strata united in their unbending conservatism. Any student with artistic ambitions was a conscious rebel against his own background, and that went double if it was her own background.
A clear instance was Judith Wright. In the year before her death an autobiography came out. Called Half a Lifetime, it confirmed the impression she had always liked to give, of a daughter of the landed gentry whose upbringing had given her a disturbing insight into how white civilization stole the black man’s country, and who had gone on to find her authenticity not just through her art but through a modest existence dedicated to living off the land without exploiting it any further. She had already, in the Homerically entitled The Generations of Men (1959), given an account of her family’s history on the land: unavoidably it was a good story, as the story of a dynasty perpetuating itself always is, but she left no doubt that she regarded the whole epic as an offence against natural law. Taken together, the volumes that record her family saga and the way she left it behind add up to a vital work—rather more vital, if the truth be told, than her later poetry—but what it leaves out is the turmoil of her personal transition from chrysalis to butterfly. The official biography, South of My Days, published two years before her death—it is pleasing to note that the great lady made her exit to the sound of trumpets—gives us some of the facts. Its author, Veronica Brady, doesn’t always seem to know what the facts signify, but her determination to leave nothing out pays off. Though an academic by profession, she is a nun by vocation, and is perhaps too pure to realize just how revolutionary her country girl turned out to be when she arrived in Sydney and opened her mind and heart to the freedoms of la vie de Bohème.
At the university, the young Judith radicalized her politics. As an unmatriculated student she was never in line for a degree, but her originality remains chastening even in retrospect. Twenty years later I sat listening to the same anthropology lectures she heard and it simply never occurred to me that the stuff about the Aboriginals was dynamite. Young Judith got the point from the jump. On that and every other social issue, she went left in a big way, although communism was too authoritarian to hold her: too authoritarian, and possibly too plebeian. Essentially a patrician proto-hippie, she would remain unique until the late 1960s made her look normal. But to be radical in politics was unremarkable: the Depression was not yet over. (In Australia the Depression and the war were continuous: fifteen years in a hard school.) Her really radical radicalism was in her love life.
Upstate, in the vast rural area where New South Wales has its own New England, in the territory of the grand families where the marriageability of daughters counted—it still does—she had been a hopeless case. In Sydney’s Kings Cross she found her context. Along with Darlinghurst and Paddington, Kings Cross has been romanticized in retrospect as a combination of the Left Bank, Schwabing, Greenwich Village and ancient Rome on a Saturday night. Actually, there was barely a square mile where unconventional behaviour could have been observed by an invisible man. Even in my day, the area’s resident succubus, Rosaleen Norton, got into the newspapers mainly for wearing green eyeshadow and staying up past her bedtime. Pre-war, it counted as devil worship to drink red wine out of a teacup. My father and mother shared a room in Darlinghurst but they were careful to get married first: somebody might have called the police. Yet Judith Wright took lovers. In the plural! Still amazing after sixty years, this news is set down by her biographer in a neutral tone, as if it were merely a defiant gesture, and not the equivalent of throwing a bomb at the Governor General. For once it is the lack of salacious details, and not their irrelevant plenitude, that drives the reader crazy. Who were these men?
They didn’t get into her poetry. Reading between the lines of her early poems, you can just about deduce that there might have been more than one Lothario on the scene, but not more than two, and they both sound the same. As the war got under way, some of her first love poems propelled their best lines into the collective memory. The opening stroke of “The Company of Lovers” rang a passing bell for an epoch:
We meet and part now all over the world.
We, the lost company.
But after that, the poem faded. As with any other subject, she turned passion into an abstraction. She could cantilever an extended line like nobody else: generations of schoolchildren, and not just the boys, have had good cause to remember “Your delicate dry breasts, country that built my heart.” She was the mistress of the stately measure. But too much of her poetry was unpeopled, undetailed and finally unrealized. Clearly she meant to speak for all women—her first two books rank high among the Australian poetry by women that leaves the men sounding Neanderthal—but she rarely did it with the same universal applicability that Gwen Harwood achieved by speaking for herself. Even early on, there were only a few poems by Wright that yielded to being remembered entire, and later she seemed bent on defeating the possibility, as her vocabulary moved beyond the abstract into a kind of profligate inertia. Flames danced, blood pulsed and crystals hummed in an unspecific dreamtime of ectoplasmic images that never swam into focus before they dissipated. In short, she lost it. But when Les Murray hinted that this might be so, he did not get lynched: a sure sign that Wright’s generation had produced, as an incidental benefit, a critical climate in which it would be possible to pass a limiting judgement on a totemic literary figure without seeming to bring the whole national achievement into question.
In her life as an environmental activist, Wright was a lioness. She took on whole conglomerates in open battle, and saved the Barrier Reef practically single-handed. But she would never have dared to say about Christopher Brennan what Murray said about her. Her nationalist commitment ruled that out. It would have been too true. The poets of the 1940s consolidated a national literary culture by writing to world standards. A nationalist impulse is never sufficient to do that: all it can guarantee is to produce a more self-conscious provincialism. But those same poets also felt compelled to act as critics, scholars, editors, archivists and anthologists, and in those roles they had to be nationalists, or else be seen to repudiate the literary heritage of their own country. A. D. Hope was well equipped to have done just that, had he wished. He was thoroughly acquainted with the main body of English literature back to Chaucer and beyond. He read easily in a dozen languages. (Late in life, when he was translating The Lusiads of Camões, he did it directly from the Portuguese, with no cribs.) His first collection of poems, The Wandering Islands, was delayed for years by the threat of censorship, but when, in 1955, he finally published it, the impact was enormous, and not just in Australia. Since it contained scarcely a single specifically Australian reference, the book travelled well. He could have set up shop anywhere in the English-speaking world. But he had already hung out his shingle as the curator of Australia’s national literature. First at Melbourne University after the war, and then during his long tenancy as professor of English at the Australian National University in Canberra, he gave Australian writing the same comprehensive attention that he gave to the rest of the world. The comprehensive attention did not include indulgence. The harsh things he said about Gerard Manley Hopkins (he was as wrong about Hopkins as he was right about Yeats) were a caress compared with what he did to Patrick White, who resented Hope
Judith Wright’s equivalent volume, Preoccupations in Australian Poetry (1965), worked the same strategy. She was a discriminating critic, but she wasn’t going to give Brennan away. Well capable of seeing that his World War I propaganda poetry was inexcusably awful, she still wanted to preserve a lyrical harbinger. It was a lie, of course: international Modernism was the harbinger, not Brennan, whose connection to his admired Mallarmé had been the same as the connection of the “Paris end” of Melbourne’s Collins Street to Paris. But it was a necessary lie, one that felt as if it ought to be true. Douglas Stewart’s critical collection The Broad Stream (1975) was in the same case. Stewart was illuminatingly enthusiastic about the balladeers. But he also managed to say approving things about Norman Lindsay’s novels. The Magic Pudding is still read by every Australian child whose parents buy books at all, and there were few male poets of the great generation, from Slessor onwards, who were not influenced by Lindsay’s unflagging labours as a sexual libertarian, a species of which pre-war Australia possessed few examples who were not in gaol. (As an artist with the female form for a stock in trade, Lindsay was surrounded by strapping models who looked as if they might like a young poet for breakfast—a dream come true.) But Lindsay was a hopelessly slapdash novelist, and for someone of Stewart’s fastidious taste to have pretended otherwise can have only a political explanation.
The politics worked. By conjuring up the foundations of a nationalist edifice from the past, the poets built an ideal world—Australian literature—in which they could confidently pursue their real work, which was to get on with their poetry without feeling flattened from the start by the weight of Britain’s example. And if some of the reputations they rescued from the cellar were fragile, others were well worth dusting off. The poet-critics made their best judgements when they edited active anthologies intended to show the line of succession since the days of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson. McAuley’s A Map of Australian Verse (1975) was particularly good. Sweating the luminaries down to a few strong poems each, he intercalated short critical articles to analyse their strengths—and, in the vexed case of Brennan, the weaknesses. Letting go of Brennan altogether was still out of the question, but McAuley was able to say that Shaw Neilson, who knew much less about English literature and nothing at all about any other literature, was the better poet. He simply wrote better poems.
Through their widespread critical activity and their tireless anthologizing—anthologies sold well, but they were hard work—the great generation had taken a long route to a goal they had scarcely glimpsed when they started out: but, aided by the unarguable quality of the poetry they themselves had produced, they finally got there. They had made a beginning on the essential job of switching the emphasis from the poetic career to the actual poems, and done it without abandoning the past, where even the failures could now be seen to have made a contribution, if only by marking the wrong tracks with their bleached bones. Australian poetry consisted of good poems written by Australians: and that was it. The way was open for the next generation to speak in an Australian voice, which could now, at last, be defined as a voice that had no need to worry if it did not sound British. There was no other definition it needed.
The next generation was in the enviable position of spending the money daddy made. Inevitably the results were not always edifying. Where poetry had once been a life sentence for the elect, it now became a lifestyle for the ambitious. Every kookaburra thought he was a songbird. But to a gratifying extent it has been the story of a nation achieving eloquence without just talking to itself. Luckily the critical tradition has been passed on. Les Murray, for example, has proved to be a critic as finely tuned as his masters, and even better as an anthologist. His A Working Forest (1997) is the first collection of essays to read about Australian literature, and The New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (augmented edition 1991) is a wonderland of a book that would be indispensable for its Aboriginal poetry alone—in a single bold gesture he pushed back the far boundary of Australia’s cultural past from 1788 all the way to the dreamtime. But a less striking boldness is the one that really counts: without fear or favour, he picked his way through the output of his predecessors as if they were contemporaries, and found the poems that live. The predecessors turned out to be mortal, and from that the contemporaries have taken courage. Now every aspirant realizes, or should realize, that it’s not the career that matters: it’s getting something said that will speak for itself. A measure of how the Australian poetic world has been enriched is that Murray does not dominate it, either as critic or as poet. Except for Porter, Murray makes incomparably more impact abroad than any other Australian national, but at home, though he is primus, he is definitely inter pares. Nobody would want to be without Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s critical views, which are as sharply focussed as his verse; or without the wild lyrical flights of Bruce Dawe, who was the first to remind Australia that it was the American voice, and not the British one, that threatened to drown us out. A typical Dawe poem has no more structure than an evening in the pub, but radiates a humane intelligence that makes you want to join him at the bar. When Bruce drinks, everybody drinks. We lost John Forbes too early, and his unique voice is rightly praised: but some of his uniqueness he got from Dawe. When Forbes started a poem with “Spent tracer flecks Baghdad’s/bright video game sky” he was developing a tone that Dawe discovered, principally by watching the television screen, through which the world’s griefs came to remind the lucky country that it had never been as isolated as it feared or fancied.
Once again, however, it is poems that matter, not reputations; and I can think of dozens of Australian poems I have read enthralled in the last few years whose authors I couldn’t name to save my life. Such profligacy of achievement is the surest sign of a culture in the ascendant, but the inescapable result of an outburst of energy in the present is that the past, even the near past, begins to look different. Of the first wave, Hope looks stronger than ever for the first two thirds of his career, but some of the later work, when he lost the tension of his line, is starting to sound garrulous. McAuley gets more interesting personally and less so poetically: a bad bargain. Wright, we can now see, paid a progressively more severe penalty for her lone stand against modern industrial society: she left out too much of its detail, and her timeless language has dated, as deliberately timeless language always does. Harwood, on the other hand, gets better all the time: the poems she wrote about her randy European music teachers are like chapters of a phantom novel that you wish existed. Rosemary Dobson, a secondary figure in the 1940s, has ascended to prominence now that the foreign travels she condensed into her verse have become the common experience of everyone who can afford to fly—which means practically everyone.
Australians feel better about wanting to see the world because they know now that the world wants to see Australia. After the Sydney Olympics, Australia’s long identity crisis is over at last, even for the dullards who never realized that no such thing ever really existed. (In the last year of the war, when Australia was coping with the cultural threat of American troops tipping too much for taxis, Stalin was wiping out the few aspects of Polish civilization that Hitler had missed. Poland had an identity crisis. Australia just had a problem.) No stable, liberal and prosperous democracy h
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