Tuesday, August 30, 2011

From Bad To Verse

IT IS ALL a matter of personal preference, but at the Billabong, when the mood demands bleak and alienated verse, it is Alan Ginsberg’s epic Howl that is hauled first off the bookshelf. On last night’s Q&A, which borrowed the sour cream of Australia’s literary establishment from the Melbourne Writers Festival, they dragged out Omar Musa, who treated ABC viewers to a performance of something called “slam poetry”. This involved the staccato spewing of angry couplets, some of which rhymed, and all delivered with an aggrieved surliness. By the time the show finished, if you had not already despaired for Australia’s grant-fed culture club, Musa would have sealed the deal. Read your Ginsberg, children, because even a fourth-rate imitation of the American master’s stream of cascading consciousness will be enough to get you lots of luvvie-fest invitations and close-ups on the telly.

With hope for the written and recited word all but expired, the letters page of this morning’s Australian brought unexpected consolation in the shape of a letter from a Mr Bruce Dawe, of Caloundra, Qld.

JAMES Dunstan (Letters, 29/8) is quite right. Julia Gillard has risen to her level of incomptence as Prime Minister. As a performer in the house she was impressive; as PM, disastrous.

Every organisation can point to similar examples of this paradox: a good teacher, for example, may become a lousy school principal, since the qualities called upon at one level are not necessarily transferred to the other level. And a principal whose only remaining principle appears to be to hold on to office at whatever cost to herself (and her country) makes one shudder for the profession. 

Bruce Dawe, Caloundra
Dawe is a bona fide poet, one whose perception of his native land and wary affection for its peculiar little ways goes some considerable distance beyond adolescent truculence. Here is his best-known work:

Life Cycle 
(For Big Jim Phelan)

When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in club-colours, laid in beribboned cots,
having already begaun a lifetime's barracking.

Carn, they cry, Carn … feebly at first
while paretns playfully tussle with them
for possession of a rusk: Ah, he's a little Tiger! (And they are …)

Hoisted shoulder-high at their first League game
they are like innocent monsters who have been years swimming
towards the daylight's roaring empyream

Until, now, hearts shrapnelled with rapture,
they break surface and are forever lost,
their minds rippling out like streamers

In the pure flood of sound, they are scarfed with light, a voice
like the voice of God booms from the stands
Ooohh you bludger and the covenant is sealed.

Hot pies and potato-crisps they will eat,
they will forswear the Demons, cling to the Saints
and behold their team going up the ladder into Heaven,

And the tides of life will be the tides of the home-team's fortunes
- the reckless proposal after the one-point win,
the wedding and honeymoon after the grand-final …

They will not grow old as those from the more northern States grow old,
for them it will always be three-quarter-time
with the scores level and the wind advantage in the final term,

That pattern persisting, like a race-memory, through the welter of seasons,
enabling old-timers by boundary fences to dream of resurgent lions
and centaur-figures from the past to replenish continually the present,

So that mythology may be perpetually renewed
and Chicken Smallhorn return like the maize-god
in a thousand shapes, the dancers changing

But the dance forever the same - the elderly still
loyally crying Carn … Carn … (if feebly) unto the very end,
having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation

 Is it any wonder we seldom hear of Dawe these days on their ABC?


  1. Actually the most normal cry is "BALLLLLLLLLLLL" ad infinitum. Other than that pretty much on the money. World War 3 could start but what about so and so's hammy or so and so's suspension......

  2. Musa's poetry was bad enough, but then they asked him to think on the spot. How did he describe Abbott? Wingnut? Wordsmith!

  3. PhillipGeorge(c)2011August 30, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    Anonymous, you are not wasting your time - unless you are certain already know what happened. Bay of Pigs is a largely exposed conspiracy. The collapse of the Alfred P. Murrah building is not. There are too many anomalies with many of the historical events of recent times to possibly be able to "know".

    Did Steven E. Jones, Professor of Physics at 30000-student Brigham Young University, Utah find forensic evidence of thermate or thermite created sphericals in dust at the WTC collapse? If he did, how did they get there?

    You might want to dismiss this all as "tea party" right wing nutter conspiracy theory - but if there is no theory there is no theory - just people asking forensic questions trying to explain physical realities in terms of acceptable cause and effect science.

    So how did "African" get written alongside "Race" in a 1961 US government document?

    Love to read intellectuals - and maybe you could surprise me.

  4. Bruce Dawe is referring to the Peter Principle:


    "The Peter Principle states that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence", meaning that employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position at which they cannot work competently."

    Keep the posts coming Professor. I'm enjoying them all.

  5. Dr Laurence J Peters: "noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it."


  6. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.August 30, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    These wimpy hot plastic shrivelled 'writers' high on government kick-backs serving mind-achingly pintucked prose aren't worth the electrons I'm wasting on them. Howl for the cauldron of language that flames hot and flares its votive consolation of words, words beyond speaking, sounds before hearing, begotten not created, man made and sundered, all under El, living, lasting, seeking, unfeeling, dying and rising, shrieking, screaming, calling, moaning, falling with Lucifer to the airplane crashed earth.

    In the beginning was the word. Howl.

  7. Timoshenko Aslanides has produced some deft work in words and verse. My favourite is from his book AnniVersaries in which he recounts how Ned Kelly gave the Jerilderie storekeeper's boy, Johnny Monash, a deener for holding his horse while Ned attended to bank business.

  8. I thought the prize for bleak and alienated verse went to Kevin Rudd's victory speech in his seat at the 2010 election, a monologue so mind-raping that even Red Kerry cut away from it.

  9. Omar Musa is the son of one Helen Musa, a former arts writer for the Canberra Times with no particular literary or intellectual talent but who regularly touted her son's alleged brilliance in her columns.

    So there's a Fairfax connection which, while it may not fully explain Musa'a rise from, er, 'Queanbeyan homie' to living national treasure, does give it some sort of politico-media context.