It should come as no surprise that Wordsworth, one of the key purveyors of historical Romanticism, makes appearances in The Simplified World – The Prelude is quoted in White’s ‘Ode to Coleridge’, and the English poet is also the protagonist of her ‘Second Ode’. In the former, he is portrayed as a mystic on a holy pilgrimage climbing a mountain to reach spiritual enlightenment. The language of this poem contains rich, ornate phrases that could have been written by Wordsworth himself:
grimly, grimily out of primordial self,
bearing what can’t be left,
skull’s cargo, hellbent thoughts.
What does he want?
To survive, a wandering human,
by some ‘fit converse with the spiritual world.’
It is instructive that it is Wordsworth who should provide the unambiguous link between White’s contemporary reworking of Romanticism and the movement’s history and mythology. By avoiding the radical, iconoclastic Romantics (such as, most obviously, the Shelleys), it could be argued that White declares her allegiance not only with a general literary ethos but also with a certain view of the discursive, ideological dimensions of poetry. Without at all intending to make assumptions about White’s political views and the like, it can be said that, on the basis of some of the more conventionally lyrical poems in this volume, White’s poetic landscape is not only an innocently and blissfully simplified world, it is also a deeply traditionalist one.
White’s treatment of the natural world, for example, is clearly mimetic and landscapist, and adheres to the tenets of traditional nature poetry. In opposition to postmodernist and/or avant-gardist ecopoets who view nature as an autonomous, non-human entity that evades and disrupts linguistic representation, White presents her gaze as an entirely reliable medium for reflecting the perceived beauty of natural environments. In ‘Frames’, for example, her view of the land from an airplane assumes the form of a picturesque description:
The unmatched spines of hills
spread like cattle.
You unpick the bones
of a stream, then a river,
opening into larger blues, layered in
an immensity of air.
The repetition of ‘blue’ – as a plural noun after the initial adverb – is rather intriguing. It may be intended to signify the overwhelming presence of the colour blue in this particular scenery, but it can also be seen as a tautological oversaturation that masks a void in place of the signified. In other words, the speaker, upon realising that the word ‘blue’ does not do justice to the ‘immensity’ of the image unfolding before her eyes, has resorted to repeating the word, albeit in a different form, in order to conceal the very inability of any word – not least of all a rather simplistic primary colour – to adequately represent the ineffable natural universe. Although in the first line of the quoted stanza she acknowledges that nature is an ‘unmatched’ thing, she then proceeds to precisely match what she sees with motifs of the human anatomy – ‘hills’ with ‘spines’, bodies of water with ‘bones’ – to transform nature into something fit for human comprehension and consumption. Hers is, in short, an almost entirely anthropocentric view of nature.
Some may find the above reading of White’s poem critical, but it is not intended as such. In my view White is a skilful writer whose poems follow the conventions of lyric poetry almost to the letter, and I am most fascinated by this strand of poetry being resurrected – and, as mentioned previously, highly praised and rewarded – in the Australian literary scene. Although I notice something reactionary, and at times tendentious, in White’s devotion to Romanticism – and in her obvious rejection of more recent, radical developments such as ecopoetry – I do not find the staunch traditionalism of her work entirely unnecessary or misdirected. The existence of different schools and approaches of writing is precisely what is needed for keeping Australian poetry alive and vibrant, and I must admit to finding something refreshing, if not personally inspiring, in younger poets such as White swearing loyalty to very old poetic values.
Nevertheless, as someone with certain political and ethical convictions, I found at least one of the poems in the book rather objectionable. ‘Spring’ begins as a witty mock-ode in which, instead of the conventional signifiers associated with the season such as the flora and fauna one may find in Thomas Gray’s ‘Ode on the Spring’, White invokes ‘Miu Miu silk loungewear’, ‘Gucci’s rockabilly frock’ and ‘Vuitton’s sky-blue hotpants’; so far, so clever, even postmodernist. However, instead of performing a subversive semantic operation – such as, say, a Marxian analysis of the fetishisation of commodities and status symbols in late-Capitalist society – White decides to eulogise and, in the precise sense of the word, naturalise the named consumer products by associating them with the very source of Romantic spirituality and mysticism, Nature – ‘cocoon skirts’, for example, house ‘ageing butterflies’; ‘bejewelled styles’ evoke ‘days of azure’; the ‘hotpants’ are ‘sky-blue’ – before concluding, in the poem’s final words, that the items listed in the poem ‘all have springtime joy.’
It is quite possible that this poem, read on its own and outside of this book’s context, could be seen as ironic; but coming from a poet with ostensible Romantic sensibilities, the phrase ‘springtime joy’ can only be taken very seriously, even solemnly. This can be viewed as a vindication of bourgeois consumerism and a hymn to the propaganda of the fashion industry. This poem does not only ruffle the feathers of this reader’s anti-Capitalist concerns, it also betrays the anti-materialistic, anti-industrial ethos of Romanticism proper. It is, from a Marxist and as well as a Romantic perspective, an unwarranted exploitation of ‘springtime’.
All in all, it’s quite likely that The Simplified World will appeal to some readers’ sense of nostalgia for and appreciation of Romantic ideals and imagos; and it also participates in the debates which have pitted lyric poets against academic poets, readable poets against intellectual poets, accessible poets against difficult poets, and so on. White’s poetics celebrates, in the words of the book’s first poem, ‘the simplified world, on either side, green / fields and red houses’; and such a celebration of the simple and the harmonious, while not devoid of many charms and pleasures, is also aesthetically conservative and at times overtly old fashioned and anti-modernist. If I am right to observe that one of the key elements of the survival of poetry in contemporary Australia had been the (in my view, unfortunate) marginalisation of avant-gardism as such – in favour of what David McCooey has aptly termed ‘new lyricism’ or, in the case of White and some of her fellow John Leonard Press poets, rather old lyricism – then The Simplified World is likely to be received very well indeed. Tegretol