Introduction to Hell and After

The following introduction to Hell and After: Four early English-language poets of Australia (2005) is published here in full, at the poet's request.

Poems from Hell and After



Ten years ago, I published a book of selections from the work of five Australian poets (Fivefathers, Carcanet 1994) from the era of the 1930s to the 1960s, the period just before Australian literary studies became firmly estab­lished at home and abroad. These five, together with two or three others who already had collections in print in Britain, were the prime figures in the finest period our poetry has yet seen, and I wanted to display their work to readers abroad who had missed it in its time or later because of the insularity of older British Empire attitudes. Also, it, was a gesture against the narrow national protectionisms which still impede much poetry in English from reaching its natural public across the whole Anglophone.world. To complete this project, I have now made selections from four of the best Australian poets from before that magical era. These are pioneer voices, but of much more than merely historical interest. They come from the century and a half in which poetry began to be written in Australia, in English, and poets began to have names.

I have written elsewhere that for the first sixty or more thousand years of human culture in our country, poetry ruled everything; prose only arrived with the First Fleet in 1788. The sacred law of the Aboriginal people was deeply poetic in concept and expression. It was unwritten, and carried in the memory of initiated people down the generations. None of the myriad sacred songs of the land were attributed to known human authors. They were made by the ancestral creator spirits themselves, and formed part of the very body of such spirits, as did the natural sites in which the holy ones dwelt, the dances that honoured and expressed their stories, the paintings at the site and on participants' bodies, and even the devotees themselves during cere­monies. Incarnation is everywhere in Aboriginal religion, and it is by no means wholly a thing of the past. A lesser category of poetry, secular songs composed for enjoyment or comment, is still also practised wherever the tribal languages survive. It is usually known in Aboriginal English as 'rubbish' poetry or 'playabout' poetry, terms more affectionate and less derogatory than they sound. In line with the strict ban on naming the dead, at least for many years after they have passed on, most of these songs and their authors used to vanish from memory after a lifetime, but now some examples and their poets do get remembered, at least in Balanda (European) publications. The Honey Ant Men's Love Song edited by R.M.W. Dixon and Martin Duwell (University of Queensland Press 1990) is a particularly inter­esting sampler of such poetry, from groups all over Australia. Balanda readers will have realised that all Western poetry outside of holy scripture is 'rubbish' verse in Aboriginal terms. Sacred ritual texts can be sampled, but are best approached in standard books of reference in which the native mate­rial has been printed with the formal approval of tribal authorities. And even then it may not be intended for showing to uninitiated Aboriginal people, or to members of the opposite sex.

All Aboriginal poetry is sung; spoken verse arrived in Australia in 1788 along with the means of writing it down. For convicts, which is the term we use for victims of that strange marriage of hard Puritanism and early welfare, names were a fraught matter too, though in a different way. Many gave false names to the authorities every time they could, so as to confuse the records and maybe slip into a lesser category of punishment. Thus Francis McNamara sometimes appears in the records as Francis Goddard, and gets confused with a non-poet prisoner of that surname who had a different history. And then there is the famous Crow, or epigram of self-introduction, printed in this book, and its shorter ideogram form Frank the Poet, his claim on renown and on authorial credit. From his use of the term 'convict' – they preferred to call themselves 'prisoners' – we can tell that he meant his work to go beyond the penal barracks and reach the general public, which only knew the official term. Very little of it ever did so in his lifetime, though, and when the bits which emerged from the memory of fellow prisoners as relics of the penal period were collected, they were slow to be firmly attributed to their author – and it might have been much worse if he had not written out a holograph text for posterity.

The remaining three poets here were born in the second half of the nine­teenth century, well after the convict era though within the old age of many who had suffered in it. Their use of names is essentially modern, though the two women poets still used their married surnames, as they would not do now. Patterns of publication were like those of today, except that more poetry was published in newspapers, with less of a class divide between vernacular balladry and more complex poetic forms. Class snobbery was provided then by exclusive schools which taught disdain of all 'colonial' art as against imported and Classical works. Then, as now, poetry depended on a self­selected small public of those who loved it, plus those they could recruit to their ranks. The first individual poetry collection in Australia, a book by Henry Kendall, was published in 1865, the year of Mary Gilmore's birth, and sold 3,000 copies. Readings as we know them would have been rare, but poetry would have been recited commonly at all sorts of social events, and a few colonial poets would have benefited from the custom of carrying books of verse on long journeys in the wilds because poetry was more succinct than prose and gave more mental nourishment per pound weight. All such books I've seen, though, were either Shakespeare or the Latin classics, plus one Scots Gaelic book. All three of our later poets here would have published in the defiantly Australian Bulletin weekly, more levelling than actually socialist; certainly John Shaw Neilson only rarely published anywhere else. The mystery, to me, of whether he might ever have heard the German Lieder which some of his poems resemble, is deepened by the fact that he would never normally have been invited to the refined soirees at which such music would be sung, and anyway he had no knowledge of German or other languages. Open concerts of good music would have been available to him only in Melbourne in the last years of his life. So the likeness I detect must be a parallelism of the sort common in art. By the time all three of my non­convict poets were at the height of their careers the great post-Tennyson slump in public acceptance of poetry would have been far advanced, with the stereotype of the alienated artist doing its work on artists and the wider community alike – just in time for the cinema to take the wider public away from us.

In the ten years since Fivefathers, penetration of the wider poetry market by Australians has increased to a degree. It's no longer all Les Murray, among non-expatriates. Now it's probably Les Murray plus John Kinsella, and that's all to the good! Not least because too much exposure abroad has long been a punishable offence in some circles at home. More overseas poetry, especially contemporary work, is available in Australian bookshops, and not all of it is now British, so colonial patterns of distribution are weakening. If the Australian-American Free Trade Agreement for which our country was dragged into the Iraq war passes our parliament and the American Congress, it will see a large increase in American books in our shops, which I applaud, though on top of the great damage to book buying done here by government refusal to exempt books from the GST (read VAT) when that came in six or seven years ago, poetry publishing in this country may disappear. The collapse of backlists and the refusal of most bookshops to carry titles for more than a year or so has had disastrous effects, as always suffered first by poetry, in its role as the mine-canary of culture. Moves are afoot to make the Internet the great centralised backlist for all poetry books, with provision for creating facsimiles of any which people want for their shelves. My suggestion was that such facsimiles be sold always at the price charged for them when they first came out. That would still give fair royalties to living writers and a marvellous advantage to the dead, who deserve any break they can get.

As in my earlier volume of epitomes, I have provided a brief, mainly biographical introduction to each of the four poets here. I have kept to my rule of avoiding much critical discussion of their work, letting my judgement of each individual be shown by my selections. In the two cases where it – was relevant, I have mentioned the areas of their poeting which I passed over as less successful, but in all cases I have supplied a few details about the condi­tions under which they worked.

Les Murray
Bunyah, NSW
March 2004

 




© Copyright 2017 Les Murray. All rights reserved.<http://www.lesmurray.org>