On the Couch: Three Australian Poems

I don’t normally read poetry for two reasons.  At its worst it’s soft-headed greeting card mush, while at its best it’s so metaphorically rich I feel like I do after Christmas lunch – stuffed full enough for days.

And yet here I am writing on three Australian poems.  Why?  Well … I read a lot of novels and non-fiction (often histories of colonialism) and I’m bored, especially with novels.  Increasingly they’re resembling the kinds of products you find in a supermarket aisle, their blurbs reading like nutritional tables and people needing to know what’s in them before they buy.  Page after page of so many contemporary novels seemingly containing ‘healthy’ ingredients and the eliminating of all those additives that are supposedly bad for you.

I want another kind of nourishment, one that is what it is but also isn’t what it is, something more complex, daring, artful and inspiring than your run-of-the-mill fiction, which always seems to be in for a prize as the next new delectable dish or is otherwise screaming out, “Please film me.”  Uninspired, losing enthusiasm for literature, I’ve turned to poetry.  It’s a briefly passing phase.  So why not capitalise on it?

I’m going to look at three short Australian poems.  Despite each of them being about something or having a readily identifiable subject matter (a train journey, middle age, a trip away to an old estate), I’ll look at them for how they can give us insight into the nature of artistic inspiration and creativity or the process leading to the poem’s creation. Of course, every strong poem is probably its own record of the inspiration and creativity that brought it into being.  But how?

‘The Night-Ride’, by Kenneth Slessor

In ‘The Night-Ride’ the poet is travelling at night by train across the Australian continent and has just arrived at a station town.

Gas flaring on the yellow platform; voices running up and down;

Milk-tins in cold dented silver; half-awake I stare,

Pull up the blind, blink out — all sounds are drugged;

The slow blowing of passengers asleep;

Engines yawning; water in heavy drips;

Black, sinister travellers, lumbering up the station,

One moment in the window, hooked over bags;

Hurrying, unknown faces — boxes with strange labels —

All groping clumsily to mysterious ends,

Out of the gaslight, dragged by private Fates.

Their echoes die.  The dark train shakes and plunges;

Bells cry out; the night-ride starts again.

Soon I shall look out into nothing but blackness,

Pale, windy fields.  The old roar and knock of the rails

Melts in dull fury.  Pull down the blind, Sleep.  Sleep.

Nothing but grey, rushing rivers of bush outside.

Gaslight and milk-cans.  Of Rapptown I recall nothing else.

Slessor’s poem is a simile for artistic inspiration.  A poem comes like a journey by train at night when you wake suddenly at the station and see through the window for a brief moment on the platform certain figures and objects in the gaslight.  And to take this idea further, the figures and objects are like the words, or the language, that come to you in a moment of poetic revelation.  But then the train begins again and the station, or the moment of insight, is gone.  There is nothing but grey emptiness, and you recall little of the artistry that had so intensely possessed you. 

Critics have read ‘The Night-Ride’ as one of Slessor’s statements on city versus bush.  Slessor had a disdain for the emptiness outside of cities, especially outside of Sydney.  For Slessor, Sydney was full of poetry and the world outside it was not.  There was a certain charm and magic about Sydney and his poems are full of images of the city.  In ‘The Night-Ride’, moving out of the station into the emptiness of the bush is certainly depicted as a move away from civilisation and into tedium and barrenness.  Critics have also noted the imagery of darkness and light that pervades the poem: the light of the station; the darkness of the outback, or the bush.  I think, however, that this is Slessor’s great poem on the inner life, on how poems get made out of the interaction between that inner life and the poet’s observations of the ‘outside’ world.  Indeed, if there is any point to the oppositions which critics have noted in the poem, apart from establishing poetic contraries, then it is surely the interaction between them which takes place within the observer, the poet observer.

In Canto XIV of Don Juan, Byron writes:

                                    a bard must meet

     All difficulties, whether great or small,

          To spoil his undertaking or complete,

     And work away like spirit upon matter,

     Embarrass’d somewhat both with fire and water

Great and small; spirit and matter; fire and water; spoiled or complete; pride and embarrassment — all of Byron’s pairs of opposites are in Slessor’s poem, either explicitly or implicitly.  (Pride could be the poet’s pride of completion: ‘It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from / when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty’, writes Czeslaw Milosz in ‘Ars Poetica’; embarrassment for not being able to recall anything of significance of Rapptown; sleep being spoiled, and so on.  The other opposites are of course more obvious.)  But after the grand fact of inspiration they seem mere elements of composition.  It’s as though the objects of the ‘outside’ world are nothing other than the inner consciousness of the poet, as though the poem is trying to show how what one sees is contained within one’s consciousness — that while these objects and people and events may have a material existence independent from oneself, they are at the same time inseparable from one’s consciousness and active awareness of them.  I am thus reminded here of Pablo Neruda’s poem ‘A Dream of Trains’: ‘I was in my seat and the train / was running through my body, / breaking down my frontiers.’  And Slessor’s punctuation seems to embody these shifting states of consciousness.  The first half of the poem is a catalogue of observations punctuated by semi-colons and long dashes, which echo the long pauses or breaks in the observer’s half-awake state; while the second half is mostly commas, signalling a more fluid awareness ruminating on what has suddenly appeared.

But the key experience underpinning this poem is the fleeting nature of poetic consciousness.  There is a revelatory breach in awareness at the station — there is an illumination.  But when ‘the night-ride starts again’ it’s as though time had stopped and life has suddenly resumed (the station thus becomes a metaphor for time standing still, at least according to the poet’s consciousness).  The poem therefore seeks a kind of philosophy on the spontaneous or instantaneous moment, which for the poet is also one of creative inspiration.  ‘The Night-Ride’ is about the pure products of the imagination as they emerge seemingly out of an illumination to possess the poet before taking their leave, before their echoes die, after which the observer is then left to recall and compose.  Indeed, the last words of the poem — ‘Of Rapptown I recall nothing else’ — are a kind of admission that one cannot remember how a poem came into being.  Perhaps one or two objects (a few words at most) are remembered for getting what might become a poem going, but afterwards, the initial experience is a blur and composition must then necessarily turn to motifs of darkness and light, city and country, ‘mysterious ends’ and ‘private fates’ in order to record the inspiration and give it poetic form.

‘Middle Age’, by John Forbes

‘a frozen turquoise statue of options’

                                    sits on the shelf

                           almost invisible now

under the sand blasted pretence

of your day-to-day routines, its only use

to keep those bits of paper

that arrive through the mail

from getting lost or blowing away.

Where’s the present tense

                           now that we really need it?

Where’s the jungle?  You are as sane

as absolutely crystal clear TV reception

can make you, as if Sisyphus

exchanged his rock for a frisbee

& had to learn

all sorts of hand signals overnight

                           each one meaning

a different thing had gone wrong somewhere

& turquoise was just

the colour of the morning sky

                           you barely glimpse

as he rushes out to play.

What time is more ironical than that of middle age, when life may not have turned out as you had once expected, or would have liked?  Certainly not old age, which is too close to death; nor youth, when you’re too busy doing all the things you think you should be doing.  Middle age is when true reflection kicks in, when you begin to look back on your life.

In ‘Middle Age’ there is a sense of what has been.  When Forbes writes, somewhat perplexingly, ‘Where’s the jungle?’, we may well ask, What the hell does that mean?  In an earlier poem from the 1970s called ‘Admonitions’ (‘Middle Age’ was written in the 1990s) we read, ‘When you’re raining in my heart it’s gorillas’.  The jungle in the later poem might then refer to the wild (indeed, romantic) feelings of the heart which are no longer alive or teeming within.

And yet before all this we encounter the line, ‘Where’s the present tense / now that we really need it?’  In middle age the past tense is too much with you, is too domineering, and as the poem seems to suggest, you begin to feel the weighty Sisyphean struggles of life, the daily toil.  The ‘boulder’ now feels heavier than it ever did; or you simply become aware for the first time that that is what you’re doing, and have been doing for quite some time now. 

But in the poem, Sisyphus exchanges his rock for a frisbee.  We can read this as Forbes saying that life can change from one state to another quite quickly and dramatically.  But this is also, I think, a statement about the kind of poem that wants to say something about life, the kind of poem Forbes doesn’t want to write, and perhaps (thankfully) cannot write.  It’s as though, on the one hand, there’s a type of poem that is like (or about) pushing the boulder — a heavy, weighty, ‘grown-up’ metaphysical thing that discloses personal struggle; while on the other hand, there’s a poem that’s like abandoning the rock (if that’s possible, yet Forbes’s poem rather whimsically implies that it is, at least in poetry) to become something much lighter, inconsequential and playful, where certain tricks and signals can be learned for different gestures of flight.  So ‘Middle Age’ suggests that one source of poetic creativity and inspiration is a moving away from heavy, weighty, earnest kinds of poems to a more ironic and playful style of writing. 

For Forbes, the writing of poetry is an act of vacating or decamping from your own fraught situation as you see it.  Creating a poem is a letting go: a letting go of the idea that your writing should lay claim to a greater stake of your life.  Instead, you should rush out to play — or go on your nerve, as the New York poet Frank O’Hara famously described his method of composition — and grab what you can along the way.  And like Slessor, this is very much a form of spontaneity, without which, we may surmise, there is no poetry.

‘Shore Acres’, by Sarah Holland-Batt

August, driving from North Bend,

from Empire, we saw how the waves gut

the bluffs until they are pocked, whole

scoops of rock being pawed out by water.

But this year nothing moves at Shore Acres;

the water is static as land, and stripes

of foam bone its slate like a corset.

We are here for the end of movement.

You stay to watch the ocean.  I go back

to the Japanese garden.  I only want to see

stillness where I expect it, the sombre willow,

the colossal Monterey pine; I sit,

making myself limestone and basalt,

on the grounds of what was once the summer

house of a pioneer shipbuilder.  Now it is nobody’s

private estate, but the home of a gardener

who pulls yellow roses through the mist

in hedged circles.  I think I am stone

as the arrowheads of pines vanish

into the understory of cloud.  I have stopped

longing for whatever it was I desired

and have given in to the body’s basic need

for rest.  Bare feet, bare face, I wait

at what I imagine to be a shrine’s gate

gathering the kind of force required

to stop loving, as only stone can.

There is a listless mood throughout this poem, a loss of feeling.  There is exhaustion and unease.  A couple is on a trip away to an old estate.  We can surmise theirs has been a busy time prior to this little vacation — ‘We are here for the end of movement’; giving in to ‘the body’s basic need / for rest’.  In fact, the exhaustion is so complete, so total (and this is indeed a poem of totalities) there is no real energy left to desire.  All wants are off the table.  And in a place of peace, beauty and leisure, where one might actually expect wild passionate freedom, there is only a sense of standstill and restraint: ‘the water is static as land, and stripes / of foam bone its slate like a corset’.  It is as though, this poem seems to suggest, there will be no expansion, no more going outwards, but only constriction and a turning inward.

As a figure for loss of feeling, stone is a cliche.  But Holland-Batt gives the trope a naturalistic bent.  The speaker is not only stone but limestone and basalt, so there is indeed something sedimentary going on here.  The poet is wanting to get to the understory, the sedimentary level of what the problem is, of why she feels nothing.  And perhaps one way of doing this is to go as far as possible into the problem.  In other words, become it entirely, go further in feeling nothing so that there is nothing left of yourself (‘gathering the kind of force required / to stop loving’). 

Obviously, inspiration is not forthcoming for the speaker.  And there is degradation, or a scaling down of expectations: what was once a private estate is now home to a gardener.  But what, then, was the inspiration for this poem?  Was it the sombreness, the listlessness, the exhaustion?  Was it the body’s basic need for rest (an epiphany of sorts)?   Was it loss of feeling?  I think this is a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration and how that is so powerfully inseparable from our emotional lives (especially more so for a poet).  The fact that the poet can write a beautifully inspiring poem on the loss of inspiration testifies to poetry as a renewal of life and a record of Being.  Wittgenstein once said, ‘It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.’  Holland-Batt’s poem may or may not be mystical — though, there is a need in the poem to relinquish all devotional feeling — yet it does present a problem of caught between the how and the simple fact of is.  And it seeks to give inspiration (not to mention loss of inspiration, and the despair that comes from that) some ontological importance.

In a poem by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, a similar problem is presented.  The poem is ‘In the Middle of the Road’.

In the middle of the road there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

there was a stone

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event

in the life of my fatigued retinas.

Never should I forget that in the middle of the road

there was a stone

there was a stone in the middle of the road

in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget that moment when my poetic powers, when inspiration and creativity, failed me, for words cannot relate what I see in this stone on the road, which is, of course, not only a stone on the road but myself, my whole life tumbling about inside me unable to be expressed, or put into words, the right words.  The poem is only what is right before me.  Nothing more.  And yet, ‘In the Middle of the Road’ strives for some kind of philosophical resonance, some kind of ontological significance, like ‘Shore Acres’ does.

The work of the poet is then to imagine, to imagine a shrine’s gate where there isn’t one, to imagine you are a stone while knowing you are not, to imagine yourself limestone and basalt when obviously you aren’t and never can be (and indeed in this poem the mind or the imagination and the body want to go their own ways, not unlike the couple in the poem).  And yet, these are all instances of becoming something it is impossible to be.  These are, in other words, grossly unrealistic expectations and mere fancies that don’t hold up to rational thought.  Like poetry might be in the mind of the writer who is struggling with writing and wondering what it is all for and whether it is worth it, whether the fancies — the flights of imagining things it is impossible to be — are worth it.  When so much poetry has been written, and continues to be written, sometimes you have to go to the places where you expect the silence, where you might expect the poetry to come.  And yet to do so means no experimentation (though every poem is perhaps a trying out of new ideas and method) and perhaps as well no inspiration, no surprise, nothing unexpected.  But being uninspired (the idea of it at least) may be inspiration enough.  For a writer, loss of inspiration and looking or waiting for inspiration is always the understory of the life, the sedimentary aspect of Being.  And while loss of inspiration may not be what you want to say or what you want to be, this  wonderful poem reveals that it’s probably something worth putting into words after all.