The Simplified World

It would no longer be hyperbolic or wishful to say that, against all apparent odds, Australian poetry has survived and flourished over the last two decades. During the mid-late 1990s, as epitomised by Penguin Books Australia’s dramatic decision to terminate their poetry list, the future of Australian poetry looked rather grim; yet a number of crucial developments during and since that time have sustained and expanded poetry across the country. These can be exemplified in the appearance of many new small presses dedicated to publishing poetry; growth in the popularity of the so-called spoken word scene and the proliferation of online outlets. These advances have not only kept poetry alive, they have also – perhaps most importantly – provided the platform for the emergence of a great number of new and acclaimed younger voices, such as Petra White, whose second collection is under review here.

White’s first collection, The Incoming Tide (2009), was received very well indeed. It was dubbed a ‘superb debut’ by Martin Duwell, and ‘original and memorable’ by Geoff Page; it was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Prize and the ACT Poetry Prize. What most of the book’s reviewers seem to have agreed on was White’s keen attention to detail, her ability to depict her poems’ subject matters and themes with, according to one competition judge’s report, ‘acute observation’. Interestingly, the competition judge also praised the book for ‘eschew[ing] the seductions of self-referentiality and language games’; and, writing in Australian Book Review, Andrew Sant commended White for writing what ‘is not [an] attention-seeking poetry that endeavours to collar the reader’.

White’s second collection, The Simplified World, contains many instances of an incisive engagement with personal, biographical and physical images; and it also continues and intensifies the opposition to ‘language games’ that, supposedly, ‘collar the reader’. The book’s title immediately asserts the poet’s affinity with a discourse that yearns to be seen as the other of the complex and/or complicated worlds – of, say, the ‘attention-seeking’ ‘seductions of self-referentiality’ – associated with avant-gardism, experimentalism, etc. White’s insistent, and at times abundant, application of an avowedly Romantic poetics strikes this reviewer as her book’s dominant feature. Hers is an openly expressive lyric poetry that acts as a paean to a milieu in which, in the words of one of her most obvious influences, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’.

The book’s strengths reside, as per White’s previous collection, with the poems in which her sharp authorial gaze is turned toward the familial and the sociological. Here, a rather traditional belief in the possibility and desirability of representing one’s reality in a stylistically refined language is put to good use. ‘Trampolining’, for example, represents a memory of the poet’s childhood as a humorous satire of growing up in a religious lower middle class family in suburbia during the 1980s:

The grown-ups stamped their thonged

and sandalled feet on the carpet;

the mortgages and what they worked for,

the chip pan bubbling every night at six,

the hand-me-downs all forced to fit:

oh take it Satan, it’s all yours

Any day we’d be whooshed up to heaven;

and the kids at school, their parents,

cousins, dogs,

sucked up and funnelled

into hell’s gated suburb, far out

where no public transport would travel.

This merging of the mundane and the cosmological is seamless and, in its own subtle way, poignant, thanks to the poet’s application of time-honoured, Romantic tropes. The speaker of this poem is an inspired individual who has direct, uninterrupted access to the spirit of the past, and she also possesses the craft to capture and reanimate her childhood innocence – her and her brother’s casual urge to condemn the grown-ups, their classmates, and their classmates’ parents (as well as their pets) to eternal damnation – in a more or less versified language (as can be seen in, for example, assonance and internal rhyme in the first line of the quoted passage, or the somewhat regular application of half-rhymes throughout) that appears, nevertheless, naturalistic and pleasantly unadorned.

This approach is even more likeable in another one of the book’s autobiographical poems, ‘Imagination’, in which White revisits her childhood to once again gently mock and, at the same time, bring to life and commemorate the world of her childhood with its almost irrational religious convictions:

My family were new recruits (I was seven)

snapped from a life of sin to cancel beer

and swim in the crowd of converts

who called each other ‘Brother’

and ‘Sister’, ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’

– their lie kept me spellbound.

What distinguishes this poem from a more modernist, ironic and/or deconstructionist criticism of religious belief and indoctrination is that its sardonic tone has been tempered by an affirmative thesis about the possibility of quasi-miraculous healing. As the poem’s first line informs the reader, in the poet’s childhood, ‘[t]he air was cramped with miracles’; and although, by the poem’s end, no ostentatiously supernatural force has been summoned by the worshippers to succour the speaker’s childhood friend Sarah who had a leg amputated due to ‘a cancer that was stronger / than faith’, Sarah’s ‘scarcely imaginable childhood bravery’ and her ‘imagining / how she’d learn to walk again’ ultimately transformed the sick girl into a ‘jaunty jagged figure in brazen health.’ In short, alongside and within White’s critique of organised religion, one can readily discern a classically Romantic belief in the Sublime powers of childhood innocence and, as this poem’s title would have it, imagination.

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13 Responses to The Simplified World

  1. Elizabeth Campbell says:

    I really don’t know where to start on this review. It seems to be very very keen to present P White as a staunch conservative, whatever that is, but an enemy to ‘complexity’? Every single fragment poem quoted in this review will convince readers that White’s world is the opposite of ‘simplified’.

    The bizarre reading of White’s poetics in this review seem the product of a willful misreading, and a curiously low estimation of White’s intelligence, to suggest she could write in some kind of edenic innocence of the discourses around and in poetry.

    As for the poem ‘Spring,’ it beggars belief that anyone could read this poem as other than ironic. Ambivalent, yes, wistful, yes, but ironic, not ‘solemn’.

    As for being received well, the avant garde will be sad to hear that this is only its second review. My god! Marginalised! She must be experimental after all.

    Wow.

    EC

  2. Ali Alizadeh says:

    Many thanks for the comment, Elizabeth.

    I could respond to your accusing my review of being a “bizarre” “misreading” by emphasising that all my points are based precisely on what’s found in the actual poems, that I have not at any point misquoted these poems, and so on. But I’m not sure if such a defence is either necessary or even interesting. Each reader is entitled to his/her reading, etc.

    A more interesting point you’ve raised is your belief that I may have a “low estimation” of White’s intelligence as, according to you, I have assumed that she is ignorant of “the discourses around and in poetry”. I most certainly do not have a “low estimation” of her intelligence – and would not have written a 2,000 word review had that been the case – and in my view she certainly takes a definite position apropos of “discourses around and in poetry”. I therefore find it odd that you would take issue with my presenting White’s poetry as “stanch[ly] conservative”. Are you then suggesting that her poetry is some kind of radical/revolutionary writing, or perhaps something challenging, experimental, avant-garde, or, say, ecopoetic?

    I believe that there is an undeniably conservative ideological dimension to this poet’s work. Such a reading is, I admit, possibly polarising – aren’t we all meant to simply write ‘good’ poetry, get along, etc? – but it is, in my view, a fact of artistic life that some of us lean to the left, and some to the right. It was trendy in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War to assume that the days of antagonism and opposition in political and cultural spheres were over, that we could all just live happily ever after in some kind of pluralist utopia of perpetual mutual backslapping. But I strongly disagree with such a view. The tensions that existed in Australian poetry in the past (as discussed in Philip Mead’s wonderful Networked Language) are alive and well today, albeit seemingly denied by people such as your good self.

    Not all poets practice a mimetic, expressive or lyrical poetics. Some of us are openly challenging – or doing our best to challenge – the symbolic order. I stand by my view that many contemporary Australian poets, including the one reviewed here, are happy with the world as it is. The question is will you accept that some of us are not?

    Best wishes,

    Ali

  3. Elizabeth Campbell says:

    Hi Ali,

    I have never bought the simple polarities of left=avant-garde/experimental (whatever that is) versus right=traditional lyric (whatever that is, it’s certainly not Petra White, in politics or in poetry).

    I don’t think many readers buy that binary either.

    If only the world was so simple that we/she/he could save it by destabil(i)sing the lyric ‘I’.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this.

    Best of luck

    Elizabeth

  4. I agree with Elizabeth, for many years I thought differently, these days however, the more poetry I read the more the critical boundaries dissolve, the good poems stand out because they are memorable. Petra White writes memorable poetry, therefore many of her poems will live on in my mind.

  5. andy_jackson says:

    I’m featuring both Ali and Petra at La Mama Poetica this year, but I’ll try not to make this come out excessively vanilla. ;)

    First, what I assume we’re talking about here is NOT a poet’s personal politics, overt literary allegiances, or any kind of “binary”. What we’re talking about is what a book of poems does, how it affects the reader(s), what position it takes in the world.

    I know Ali and his writing well enough to know that a “wilful misreading” is out of the question. Ali’s review seems to me to state very clearly that there are many strands of lyricism and romanticism, some of them radical. And it’s his belief that this book is “aesthetically conservative”. He may be right. Again, this is a critique not of Petra, but of the poems, a reading of them.

    Now, having heard “Spring”, I think it’s hard to argue it’s not ironic in some way (a found poem, I suspect). I have my doubts about irony, how it can often unwittingly smuggle in its own celebrations, but I think Ali overstates his case on this poem.

    I’d certainly be interested in hearing others’ opinions too. I haven’t read this book myself yet, but much of Petra’s last book to me was subtly unsettling and certainly humane and engaged. Feeling some affinity with her use of language, this review raises some important questions about my own poetics.

    So, this to me feels like just the start of a long conversation, perhaps not so much about this book, but about what poetry does in this world, and how.

  6. Alison Croggon says:

    Hi all – interesting discussion here. It’s good to read a review that takes careful issue with a poetry and which assumes that poetry means something important, and I found Ali’s analysis a heartening read. I don’t agree, Elizabeth, that he has mischaracterised Petra’s work, and it doesn’t strike me as disrespectful. Nor do I think he has wilfully misread the book: it’s Ali’s reading of it, after all, which won’t necessarily be the same as yours or mine. He is however quite correct in identifying a stream of work which looks back to (a version of) Wordsworth and which is aesthetically conservative, and I think he is correct to place Petra’s book there. Many of the same points can be made about Philip Larkin’s work, for instance, and it does seem to be a particularly Anglo take. And it’s a stream that has been very hostile to much of the inheritance of modernism. I agree that it’s stupid to erect a simplistic binary, but the fact remains that there are many traditions of poetry: Petra’s book bears very little resemblance to, say, Sean Bonney’s work. Should it? As Ali points out, diversity is important in any healthy poetic ecology.

    Where I’d take issue is in Ali’s trenchant couching of romanticism or lyric poetry in purely conservative terms: when you think of poets such as Rilke, HD, Lorca, Neruda, Mayakovsky, Rukeyser, Bachmann, Carson and countless others, it is clearly obvious that these things are much more complex. There is a radical energy running through contemporary poetry that still looks back to romanticism as a problematic but influential ancestor. There was a reason, say, why Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg opened their massive anthology Poems For The Millennium with the work of William Blake.

  7. kmaccarter says:

    Re: ‘Happy with the world as it is’

    A terrific debate/discussion going on here. Albeit somewhat tangential to this thread, I think it’s important to keep in mind that all arts – poetry inclusive – undulate through trends, developments, extrapolations and reactions of ‘what was going’ before and in reaction to current state of the poetry landscape. The 1960s and 1970s had a large spike in confessionalist poetry; Vicki Viidikas as example, American poet Richard Hugo as another from that time, even Kiwi James K Baxter’s work from those years have a goodly dose of confessionalism. Confessionalist poetry hasn’t wondered permanently into the wilderness, but it’s not at the fore right now. Will it come raging back?

    Thom Gunn started his writing career in The Movement period … and one can argue it, too, had a conservative aesthetic. Gunn was lauded as a tremendous, unstoppable new force in UK poetry. The he moved to San Francisco. There, his sonnets, metre, forms, all that which he made his name with originally, morphed into free and experimental forms. Throughout the course of this change, he was ridiculed and mocked by his erstwhile peers (refer to August Kleinzahler’s terrific introduction to Gunn’s Selected Poems from 2009). Why?

    The diversity of Australian poetry being written now, words which will be written tomorrow, next year and 15 Guy Fawkes days into the future is astonishing, healthy, a fact to be celebrated. Memorable poems will stand out, no matter what form. There are always terrific examples of exception to any claim, but right now in 2011, I’m not sure experimental forms – while not at their nadir – are not in any apogee of embracement. But are those endpoints ever truly knowable?

  8. John Leonard says:

    Ali Alizadeh’s opinion that some of John Leonard Press’ books of contemporary poetry are ‘old lyric’ under the Romantic caption is one that he’s entitled to. I should put on record my disagreement. Our choice of books to publish is exclusively from among a large variety of contemporary modernist styles and stances – which, generically, are eclectically motivated. Petra White’s book is right in there. I find it mind-boggling any serious poet could be thought, in these postmodern days, to be swearing ‘loyalty’ and ‘devotion’ to a circumscribed poetic.
    ‘Postmodern’ has lost some of its vogue, but I find it perfect to apply to a certain confidence in the midst of multiplicity, which has gelled generally in society in the last decade or so. White, Holt, Campbell, and some other young poets – Sarah Holland-Batt, Simon West and Graeme Miles among others – are of a generation that grew up culturally at home with the fact of instant communications and the creative Babel of cultures, without a need to shout about it. I mention names, but this is a generation, not a ‘group’. Their poetry keeps to the eclecticism and provisionality connatural to much of twentieth-century modernism: what it adds to this, to my mind, is a persistent nimbleness of movement, a specific ease with multiple materials. This poetry, if you listen, is multi-layered without having carpentered a special ‘postmodern’ style as some of their elders felt they needed to do. What this portends for the future of poetry is very much up for grabs. One thing I’ll note: many in that generation keep to the millennia-old idea of language as being physical, untempted by the occasional contemporary too-easiness of trotting unrhythmical, conceptual ellipses.

    Terms have to be bandied it seems – ‘modernism’, ‘romanticism’. What is ‘aesthetically conservative’? – Alison’s term and probably what Ali is worried about. The aesthetics of Shakespeare and Blake? Yes, both, probably, from our vantage. But they in fact took in ‘strains’ (an excellent Croggon word) from their wide reading to make what they did. So did the Romantics. So does Petra White. To some today, possibly including Ali, a conservative poetics shows up when it presents as if, as he puts it, ‘the speaker of the poem is an inspired individual who has direct, uninterrupted access to the spirit of the past’. Even Wordsworth took memory to be the catalyst for a making that was other. Again, the ‘classical Romantic belief in the Sublime powers of childhood innocence’ would have them scratching their heads. The Sublime had nothing to do with children. Even Wordsworth’s speculation about the child’s nearness to divinity (utterly different) is not Romantic, it’s just his. The idea of the Sublime itself was taken seriously (and differently) by Wordsworth and Shelley, and pretty well ignored by Coleridge and Keats. On the subject of childhood innocence, all four were much like ourselves: it’s precious, and has no privilege in poetics. (Might White’s ‘Trampolining’ not be so much about innocence as about childhood confusion, misapprehension and strategy? – the layered points of view in this poem are deft.)

    The four Englishmen, and their affiliates, had disparate poetics; they produced few ‘Romantic tropes’ in common, and they didn’t call themselves Romantic. I have a postmodern bias that says they didn’t exist, not as such. ‘Romanticism’ validly links them, though, as sharing one thing: each was strong on a unity of sorts between mind and environment, or universe. (They picked up an old word, ‘imagination’ as a hold-all for this.) While valuing simplicity in its proper place, their thought about this was complex. American decontructionists of long ago, such as J. Hillis Miller and Geoffrey H. Hartman have the best say on this – showing how poems in the Romantic tradition persistently and exuberantly deconstructed their own proceeding. A mound of further critical scholarship builds on this. But, from whatever critical vantage, Romantic poetry and poetics are highly reflexive and among the least simplifying of traditions.

    Concerning The Simplifed World, I commissioned the book, so I’ll comment only lightly. The title is self-referential to the genre of pastoral to which the opening poem belongs. If it can be read as pertaining to a poetics does it perhaps do so with a sophisticated irony? The poem’s reference to ‘sadness’ quietly opens the book’s strong theme of the too-simple and too-unsimple world of private mental disturbance and fragility. The second poem takes Hopkins to heart, abruptly and deliberately, but little else in the book reminds of the nineteenth century (see, eg, the eighteenth-century style opening stanza of ‘Hawthornden’) except Ode to Coleridge which supports Coleridge’s sobreness about depression in ‘Dejection, an Ode’, against Wordsworth’s Sublime.

    White’s irony, strong eclecticism and unsettling (thanks Andy) swiftness of mind might or might not belong with an ‘aesthetically conservative’ strain. It won’t help or hinder Tony Abbott. Perhaps at this point the tendrils between aesthetically conservative and politically conservative should be laid out on the table.

  9. Alison Croggon says:

    Hi John – thanks for your thoughtful response. Aesthetic conservatism is such a problematic term: it so entirely depends on the cultural context – what’s considered conservative in Russia is entirely different from the West, for example, because of their different political history: and formalism in Russian modernism means very nearly the opposite of what it generally refers to in English poetry today. Though I will say that neither Shakespeare nor Blake strike me as aesthetically conservative in any way: they are too bold in their risk taking, even now, to sit comfortably in any convention. Which maybe is the nub of what we’re talking about

    I found this interesting:

    White, Holt, Campbell, and some other young poets – Sarah Holland-Batt, Simon West and Graeme Miles among others – are of a generation that grew up culturally at home with the fact of instant communications and the creative Babel of cultures, without a need to shout about it. I mention names, but this is a generation, not a ‘group’. Their poetry keeps to the eclecticism and provisionality connatural to much of twentieth-century modernism: what it adds to this, to my mind, is a persistent nimbleness of movement, a specific ease with multiple materials. This poetry, if you listen, is multi-layered without having carpentered a special ‘postmodern’ style as some of their elders felt they needed to do.

    Maybe it taps something with which I do feel unease, and which I think Ali touched on in his review: that “ease”, that quietness. It’s not ease and supple irony that makes me sit up, and which makes me still read Blake and Shakespeare with exhilaration: it’s the boldness of their gestures, which is not the same as being declamatory (although neither are afraid of that, either). In connection with a project, I’ve been reading a lot of Mayakovsky lately, and tangentially his peers – Khlebnikov, Jackobson, Shklovsky, Meyerhold, Serge, and so on – and although I’m handicapped by not reading Russian (and so still don’t quite grasp why Mayakovsky’s use of rhyme was considered so radical, although his thoughts about what it is are very interesting) all these writings remind me bracingly of an energy which I miss in so much contemporary poetry.

    This does connect with a political energy, a will toward freedom, if you like, although much more tangentially and much more radically than those good Stalinists who described Mayakovsky as a social realist poet (!) would allow. It’s difficult to pin down or define, largely because it has very little to do with the forms any poet chooses to make, but rather with the energy within it: but there is certainly nothing of ease in it. Yes, of course history was happening about those Russians’ ears (but isn’t it happening about ours too?): what’s exciting in the work of these writers is the intellectual vigour it expresses, the sense that what they’re doing matters immensely, that arguments about literature encompass the whole world. Here it sometimes seem to me that poetry culture seems to exist in a small room with the windows shut.

    Well, I’m not sure that I’ve been clear at all. But, fwiw…

  10. Ali Alizadeh says:

    Fascinating comments. Thanks Alison and Andy for clarifying that the argument of this review concerns the poet’s aesthetic traditionalism/conservatism, and not her politics as such. Perhaps my own point re: a left vs. right binary was clumsily made, and led to unnecessary misinterpretation. So, to state the obvious, yes, some of the most poetically radical/progressive have been amongst the most politically conservative/chauvinistic (e.g. Pound) and also the other way around.

    Yet I think Alison’s citation of Mayakovsky, and the pathetic Stalinist misrepresentations of his work (the opposite of Trotsky’s very acute appreciation of the poet) does remind one that if not always then at certain points poetic progress and political – or perhaps more accurately, as philosopher Alain Badiou might have it, ‘metapolitical’ – progress have gone hand in hand. But I repeat that this observation has NOTHING whatsoever to do with the left/right binary in Australian politics, so the comment about Tony Abbott is, at best, amusing. See, for example, Kristin Ross’s stunning book on Rimbaud and the Paris Commune (the Emergence of Social Space).

    Ali

  11. John Leonard says:

    I agree with Alison’s ideas on what is to be looked for. It’s worth saying that boldness, as she delineates it, is a widely accepted criterion – modernism virtually canonised it, Blake took his seat and Shakespeare was confirmed. With this, for a large enough portion of readers, went the readiness that Alison speaks of, to be reminded ‘bracingly of an energy which . . . does connect with a political energy, a will toward freedom’. I’ve memorised this. These ideas become conventional sponsors unless we rethink them with each poem – and are prepared to reformulate and to strike new territory (such as the Russians). Alison Croggon always shows that reading is risky.

    Much could be said about ‘nimbleness of movement’ (of word, of thought) in modern Australian poetry, Murray and Forbes notably. I press the term once more because to me, at least, it specifies an energy that can be brought to bear powerfully. In mentioning it with regard to six young poets, stating how its use is eased by postmodern habits, I didn’t mean to signify that their poems are quiet, or easy with their world. This is not the case if you read them – though obviously others may disagree with me, including possibly Alison. Any energetic poem includes some quiet moves; however, I’m too old, mad and blind, to waste precious time knowingly on whole poems of ‘quietness’ and ‘supple irony’. In fact I’ve always run a mile. Regarding ‘The Simplified World’, I do think it’s a remarkably bold book – a ‘livre compose’ that plays seriously around the subject of depression, and is still outward to a large world.

    Thanks for patience, and thanks Ali for the review.

    John Leonard

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