Poetry in Our Time


I’ve been asked to write an essay about contemporary Australian poetry, but every time I’ve sat down to it I’ve found myself writing about other things. It’s hard to write about such a topic when there are so many preliminary questions about what poetry is, and where it is in our time. My principal point will be that one of the most important modes of poetry for this time – let’s call it, very vaguely to start with (but we will zero in), the poetry of nature and consolation – has become somewhat debased and unfashionable within it, at least amongst a self-styled avant-garde, and that although this is for quite understandable reasons, that avant-garde might reconsider some of its premises, from angles as yet untried.

But first things first.

There are only 384 readers of poetry in Australia, or so I used to joke, ten years ago, Maybe the number has grown a little, but that figure, or figures very like it, kept coming up in the lists of subscribers to poetry magazines, or on royalty statements, and my sense is that things haven’t changed very much. Yet there are almost a third that many collections of poetry published in Australia every year, and judging by submissions to Southerly alone there are well over a thousand poets out there who think their work good enough to be considered by the major magazines, and who knows how many less-self-confident poets beyond them. To judge by the bulk of the submissions, a major reason for their missing their mark is that many even of the people who write poetry don’t read it. It’s not that the poetry is all that bad – there is a lot of fairly proficient work out there – but the really good stuff, the brilliant stuff, that’s another matter.

I’m saying three things here: that poetry has a lot of writers and not many readers, that many of the writers themselves don’t read all that much, and that poetry is difficult, a lot of the time, very difficult indeed. It’s interesting and salutary, with regard to the latter, to reflect that even the greatest of poets, although they may have written hundreds of poems, are only really known or remembered, by anyone other than specialists, for a handful – three, four, five – and even then largely for a few passages, a few lines.

This is nothing to get depressed about. It’s just a demanding art, that’s all. I have found myself arguing more often than I care to remember, often to poets of considerable talent, even gifted ones, that if they want to give up, as many do, just because they aren’t getting attention or recognition enough, that if that’s really all they are writing it for, then they’ve either chosen the wrong profession or forgotten what it was all about in the first place, that surely they write poetry, or began writing it, because something in the art itself, in poems themselves, excited or enchanted them – that it all started out of love. What do they care for, after all: the art, or themselves?

Another thing that I’d like to tell almost anyone in any sort of profession like this, though the poets have usually told me to shut up by the time I get to this point, is that there is something else involved, a kind of act of faith: that ‘civilisation’, barbaric as this one seems so much of the time, is a very heavy weight to keep in the air, and that it takes all hands. If someone abdicates because they aren’t, personally, getting enough recognition for what they’re doing, then they’re acknowledging that everyone else has a right to give up also. That may or may not be the case, but where would we be if everyone took up that option? I’ve often reflected that poetry – art in general, but I think poetry in particular – gives us the reasons for being, or at least searches for them, or provides us with their simulacra, especially in an age when traditional modes of faith are so hard to maintain. But that in its turn is a hard task. Poets themselves very often reject it – the ‘religiophilosophical’ function – as something extraneous to the real nature of poetry, or as something which hampers their other right – and role – as artists, to play, experiment, create without conditions.

Poetry has an immense power. Once, supposedly, the poet was a treasured member of the tribe, responsible for the maintenance and transmission of its rituals, its history. But something has gone astray. Almost nobody is reading it now, including a large proportion of those who are writing it. The poets are complaining that they have no audience. Even students of literature tend to avoid the poetry in their courses, as somehow too difficult, too tricky to deal with. How can this have come about?

There are many reasons here, and many things to say. One of them is a simple matter of survival. Poetry doesn’t pay. Poets are to a certain extent dependent upon the public purse. Australia has long had an enlightened policy of funding its artists, albeit on a selective and rotational basis. But it’s a dilemma. Many of the active, ‘established’, which is also to say semi-professional poets, find themselves almost inevitably writing in such manners and to such schedules as increase their chances of a writer’s grant. The rule-of-thumb used to be that one should produce a book of poetry every two years, to keep oneself in the public eye and in that of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. Too many poems, with too little real reason for existing, and too little time spent on any one of them; proficiency without necessity, without entelechy.

But there is of course a wider context. Another, less local thing to say is that, if poetry was once so central to the tribe, it was also one of the only forms of entertainment, let alone of preservation and communication of information – indeed it got a number of its essential, mnemonic features (rhyme, rhythm, form) from this role – and that its role has waned as other forms of entertainment have emerged. It lost ground to the novel, for example, and then to radio, film, recorded music, television. How can we be surprised that in an age of DVDs and MP3s and the IPod it is barely visible at all?

A further thing to say is that at the present time poetry has some particular hurdles to face. One of them has to do with feelings, another has to do with what loosely we could refer to as the Poetic Function.

It seems to me sometimes that we live in an era in which we walk about like ghosts. As we are so frequently told, ours is a globalised, postmodern age, when not only the world around us but our very being has been reconfigured, when things that used to authenticate and ground us are no longer so readily available and have lost much of their power, when we are more likely to be constructing our identities from the barrage of images about us than to find it given us, as it used to be, by family or place or tradition, and yet these things, and a longing for these things, still haunt us. Philosophy, and that odd hybrid we were recently calling ‘theory’, have virtually argued away our old modes of subjectivity and authority – they have even taken the author out of the text (strange, to be a poet when one is theoretically dead, though we mustn’t be reductive in this regard: Barthes’ point was simple and valid enough[ii]) – and yet it isn’t as if we have all read the theory and said ‘Yes, that right, I’ll abandon all my old feelings now and get on with my postmodernness’. The old structure of our being took millennia to evolve, and a few new ideas aren’t going to get rid of it that quickly. So we walk around theoretically illegitimate, caught between two worlds, houses with postmodern façades, haunted by the past. Our feelings are lonely and unfashionable (think of Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘In Memory of my Feelings’). And although one could say that this is a situation in which poetry is particularly needed, poetry is experiencing some difficulty in negotiating it. Keeping up with the theory, trying to write a poetry that is consistent with it, some poets, in the self-styled avant-garde, write a kind of poetry that most of its (un)common readers find strange and hard to follow – hardly an unusual thing: the avant-garde is often like this – and poets writing in a more familiar manner find themselves somehow less and less fashionable in their own circles, criticized by the poeticians, strangely illegitimised, more and more diffident, not writing so well and so confidently, or even so clearly as they might.

I saw some of this from another angle when I recently re-thought my course on Major Movements in Contemporary Poetry. It’s in the nature of such a course to concentrate on revolutions, changes, developments and departures, rather than on continuities. I’ve had, in each of the first few years, sections on Imagism, Confessionalism, Projectivism, L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry and postmodernism, the New York School, Deep Image poetry, etc. This time I felt uncomfortable, as if something was missing. The schools that get least talked about in such courses are the ones that don’t change so much or so dramatically. It seemed, suddenly, that this oversight, this imbalance, was becoming more and more important as the contemporary was becoming more and more oppressive. Something was missing. There was something important that we were not talking about.

But before I try to do so something else needs to be said. Poetry is a big thing – so big that most poets resist its actual dimensions. And maybe, from a certain perspective, it’s not in trouble at all. If we don’t see poetry as exclusively a matter of discrete things called poems, written by people self-styled as poets, then maybe it’s there in other forms: popular song, advertising, movies. In a famous paper on ‘Linguistics and Poetics’[iii] Roman Jakobson once identified the seven functions of language, and one of these – language looking at itself, making itself up in the mirror – he called the Poetic Function, which he then demonstrated in lines of poetry, yes, but also in popular sayings, characteristic habits of phrasing, political slogans (‘I like Ike’), etc. That’s one of the ways of explaining the existence of poetry beyond its presumed borders, and I’ve argued for it frequently over the years. Just because Jakobson has defined the Poetic Function in a famous paper, however, doesn’t mean that that is the only explanation, the only poetic function that there is.

At a poetry conference in Paris recently, someone asked me if it was as hard to teach poetry at universities in Australia as it was in France nowadays, and, if so, why I thought this might be. An answer suddenly occurred to me that hadn’t occurred to me before, though it now seems quite obvious. Poetry destabilizes everything it touches, everything that goes through it. Or at least it has the potential to do so. This is not a particularly aggressive function (if we can call it a function), indeed it needs to be activated in the poem, by a particular kind of reading, and few readers want to do this. A single reading, however close, is unlikely to achieve it. Nor will a passive reading. One needs to be looking, actively, for this mode, for a way to make this happen. The search for a poem’s message or meaning is only a part of it, ultimately a kind of irrelevance. If a poem were nothing more than its meaning then why on earth not write that meaning down in a simple sentence or two and stop wasting one’s own and one’s reader’s time. In a sense one wants to get beyond meaning, to the point where the poem begins to reveal or demonstrate, or where we begin to discover, things about meaning itself, or that we at least might begin to talk about in that way. But – to get back to my point – the more closely and actively one reads the more likely it is that this destabilizing function will be activated, and this I think is a part of the contemporary problem. We live in a time of considerable uncertainty and instability of values. One could understand if people were not so inclined to turn to something which might destabilize even further the few understandings and values they have. But there’s a paradox here, or something that might appear to be one – one could say, for example, that it’s through such destabilizations that deeper understandings and deeper values are eventually reached – and I’ll return to it later.

Poems – to approach this destabilizing function a little differently – move in and out of Poetry. It – ‘poetry’ – this mysterious element that is some part Jakobson’s Poetic Function, that is in some part this destabilizing function, and that is probably also in some part something else – is like a strong liquor or essence that poems have at their center. But it is not a property of poems alone. There is no telling where it will show, no rules about this. In some very good poems, for example, the liquor might not be very strong at all. In some popular songs it can be very strong indeed. Some advertisements can shock something in us with their touch of it, the glimpse they afford us of its dark fire – that quality, or something very like it, that Lorca tried to capture in his description of the duende.[iv]

That is a part of it, one of the ways that it appears, this liquor, this essence, but it would be wrong, unfair to suggest that it was all, or the only way. It has also, this thing which I call a liquor, to do with a feeling that we sometimes come into contact with the real meaning or nature of things (yes, ‘real’, ‘nature’: I use these terms under erasure, as Derrida would advise, but still use them), what they are like beyond or apart from the world of words: the real nature of things, emotions, feelings. That, perhaps, is why it is a linguistic phenomenon in the first place – that it has to do with the edges of language, with its limits and its nature and its borders, as much about things that language can’t do as what it can, as much about what it keeps us from as what it shows.

But now, at last, to what I have called, for want of better terms, the poetry of consolation (a far larger and more varied thing than it sounds) and the poetry of nature. The two, for reasons I hope to make fairly obvious, often go fairly closely together. They have been under attack, in recent years, for various reasons. To a certain extent these reasons seem quite plausible to me and I don’t mean to deride them. I mean only to put some arguments that might – probably won’t, but might – soften the doctrinaire hardness with which the criticism is so often put.

Let’s look at the grounds of the attack. The first is that the poetry of consolation – inherently lyric poetry, centred about and addressing the first person, an ‘I’ – maintains an idea of the subject, that ‘I’, that is somehow naïf and misleading, belongs to the liberal humanist sense of subjectivity that structuralism and post-structuralism have eclipsed. The ‘I’, according to such thinking, does not exist in any separate and inherent form, but is an affect, an illusion, produced by its – the self’s – function as a synapse, a meeting- or crossing-place of systems. The self does not exist, is a product of the systems – language, economics, numerous biological imperatives, etc. – that flow through it. One of the crises that poetry has been experiencing, and that what I have been calling the avant-garde has been trying to address, but that has also to an extent been separating it from its potential audience and arguably distracting it from some of its core functions, is this crisis of the subject, this sense that the very core of lyric poetry, the ‘I’ – the subject – that speaks it, is somehow illegitimised, and that poetry needs to find or locate its voice elsewhere. One of the ways of dealing with this in the contemporary poem, and one of the things that most baffles its readers, is to have this ‘I’ function differently. Another way of dealing with this, equally disconcerting for the reader, has been to try to write poetry that avoids the use of the first person, the ‘I’, entirely. One might, in the face of the reader’s confusion, say that they will have to at some point begin to deal with this new understanding or condition of being, and that poetry is trying to help them do so, but one shouldn’t, at the same time, complain that readers don’t want to read one, and that they are seeking their poetry elsewhere.

Although I would stop shy of suggesting that it was a tenet of such work, much post-modern poetry is marked by this avoidance of the first person, and in as much as it does so it coincides with the thinking of another impetus in contemporary poetry – poetry with its eye on the environment – which sees this focus about the ‘I’ not only as naïf and outdated but also as delinquent, dangerous, anthropocentric in a world which can afford anthropocentrism no longer. Sometimes this is extended, pace Foucault[v] and, later, Deleuze and Guattari,[vi] into a sense of the integrity of the ‘I’ as a development of the enlightenment destined to become the secret fulcrum of capitalist consumerism, at once victimizing and oppressing the self and making that self a party to destruction of the environment.

An adjunct to this assault upon the central ‘I’ of lyric poetry involves an attack upon the poetic means by which it elaborates and establishes itself, principally the use of metaphor (which I take to include simile) as a means of colonizing – read invading, appropriating – the non-human world with human thought structures and imperatives, denying it its independent, non-human existence, overwhelming it with destructive humanness, not seeing it for what it is. A further adjunct, which has a particular sting when Australians employ it, since this country has become so urbanized, is to suggest that the poetry of the natural world is a fundamentally nostalgic poetry, failing to reflect the real circumstances in which we live: that poets who write this way are living in the past, and in the case of Australian poets writing this way are also maintaining a national identity built upon places and things and creatures – a natural world – most Australians never see.

Another of the crises that poetry faces is a crisis of language, arising at once from the structuralist tenet that language is a system of its own, unconnected in any essential way with the world beyond it (i.e. that the word ‘frog’ denotes what it does through convention and the patterns and available sounds of English, not from any need in the animal to be denoted by that word or vice-versa), and from the idea of the ‘Linguistic Metaphor’ that it gives rise to, by which language is seen as the System of Systems, the model or deep structure behind all other human systems. The long and the short of this (we don’t need lessons in Structural Linguistics[vii]) is that language is not a transparent thing, giving us direct access to the world, but an opaque phenomenon, with tricks and habits of its own, that distorts the world at the same time as it offers it to us: i.e. – and particularly if you apply this to all other systems of human thought – we are locked inside the human head and can never really see or know the world beyond it. This leaves us, as it seems to me, with a basic choice: either get depressed and angry about it, feel isolated from and deprived of something you never really had in the first place, or accept that this is the state of things and get on with it, figure that there was no real difference between having and not having in the first place. With or without the depression – the same tenets can be seen as a cause of celebration and exuberance, the beginnings of a whole new field of play – a good deal of postmodern poetry has followed the former, giving itself over to exploring, demonstrating, and working creatively with, the tricks and habits of language, often extrapolating to the other systems it sits amongst and for which it can be seen as a model. Hence the work of the L-a-n-g-u-a-g-e school, not a school really but a broad and loose grouping of poets working in similar modes and directions.

The risk, of course, is that, while the poets may feel they are getting only further and further into ‘reality’ at last, that they are exploring and familiarizing themselves and their readers very necessarily with a new mode of being, it can seem to the readers as if the poetry is becoming only more and more abstract, more obscure, more detached from the world. Whether or not this is so – and it is a very interesting and useful question to debate – it is arguable that, if there is any truth in Ezra Pound’s advice as to how to approach and understand the elements of free verse, that instead of thinking about rhyme and meter and traditional form, we should be thinking about melopoeia (the music), phanopoeia (the image) and logopoeia (‘the dance of the intellect amongst words’),[viii] the poetry preoccupied with language and system in this manner risks getting a basic balance wrong, weighting itself toward  logopoeia at the expense other values – moving, strangely, and in a way I would find hard to describe without reiterating much of what I have said already, out of the territory of poetry. Whenever I have taught, as in read through, slowly and carefully, with students, poetry of this and related kinds (the poetry of Mallarmé, for example, is a related kind), I have observed the same intriguing phenomenon. However much they might be familiar with such writing, students will begin or focus their discussion upon or around the what I can only think of as the lyrical glimpses, the small pieces of image and story and emotion that they find in them, as if the postmodern fragmentation about them had only served to highlight them the more.    

But any such discussion is reductive. One needs volumes, not paragraphs. The point is that these – the crises of the subject and of language, and the ways poets respond to them – are the matters, and are serious matters. Perhaps, when it comes to poetics, the art of placing word beside word, there are none more serious. My first response, however, is to wonder whether there is not some real naivete in applying the theory so directly and simply to poetry, which is, after all, a different and, as I sometimes think, more intelligent thing. The removal of the ‘I’, for example, may be no removal at all, simply a displacement and ultimately a hiding of the subject that is if anything more destructive that its open use and appearance because kept from view and, ultimately, consciousness, allowing both writer and reader to develop a dangerous complacency. The removal of the ‘I’ on the grounds that it maintains a naïf integrity, moreover, and fails to admit or demonstrate that the ‘I’/subject is in fact an accident or phenomenon or synapse (choose which term you will) of the systems which flow through it, fails to consider the possibility that the poetic ‘I’ has always done this, or had the potential to do so – done so when it has worked at its best: that poetry, by its very function, situates the subject not as master/mistress within the scene or situation of the poem, but as synapse. (Metaphor – to take on the adjunct – always works both ways: it might seem as if, in employing metaphor, saying that one thing is or is like another, one is taking some thing over, appropriating, but one is also giving something over to that thing. The connections, the spread of association, occur on both sides of the event, that of the vehicle as well as that of the burden.)  Likewise – and leaving aside the obvious objection that night still happens to the city-dweller, and storms still happen, and wind still happens; that they can still see the stars, and the moon, that the non-human creatures do not all move out just because people have moved in – the idea of reference to the natural world as nostalgic. Of course it is, and I will come back to that.

One of the most common objections made to what I have referred to in my first paragraph as ‘the poetry of nature and consolation’ is that these poems, very personal poems much of the time (poems that appear to be very personal poems) are poems in which little more is happening than that the poets are feeling sorry for themselves. This is of course the essence of the lyric cry, and before we criticize it further it might be best to try to understand something more about it. Firstly, for example, I would want to say that such poems, when they are working well, when they are operating as consolation, are, whatever else they are, also rhetorical constructs, made, calculatedly, to achieve their desired effect, and in considering them and their effect we must learn to understand this aspect of them, the rationale of their construction – that although the poem appears to place an ‘I’ in a particular situation or position, feeling certain things, and that although the power of the first person (the use of the ‘I’) is such that we almost automatically assume that it is the poet referring to themselves, the ‘I’ and the situation and the feelings can just as well be contrived, fictional, not ‘real’ at all. Of course – and to be as honest as I can here – I must concede that the poems might have started out that way, started out as autobiographical, grown from some such kernel of experience, but in as much as the poet has been concerned one the one hand for the poem itself, as poem, and on the other for the role of the poem vis-à-vis its reader, its function as consolatio, they will have drifted or been pulled away from the personal, the autobiographical will have become distorted – exaggerated, let’s say, or reduced to its essence, or rendered in some way or another archetypal – by the cross-winds of the poem and the demands/nature/function of the genre. Secondly, and with perhaps closer reference to the criticism at hand, I want to say that there is a sense in which it is the poets’ business to feel sorry for themselves, by which I mean this feeling – this feeling sorry for ourselves – is one of the most common of all human emotions, and one of the reasons people turn to art in the first place, and that if the poet is not going to go through this process, go deeply into it, and work out how to get out of it, and bring this information back to us, then who else is going to do it?

To put this another way, and to bring these two points together, it is very possible – we must, when we encounter the ‘I’ in the poem, consider the possibility – that the ‘I’/first person is used because we so readily mis-identify with it, because we either assume that it is the poet speaking about themselves, or because the ‘I’ is, after all, the way we most often think about ourselves: the possibility that it is used, that is to say, in order to create some intimacy, some commonality of being, with the reader. It is much more intimate than the use of the second person, which is more aggressive, sometimes almost bullying, and which only encourages us, when it seems to be telling us what we are doing, what we are feeling, to say back to it in somewhere in our own minds No, I am not feeling that! I am not the ‘you’ you are talking about here! And it is clearly far more intimate than the use of the third person. And it is the ‘I’ in the heart, the center of the poem, that, as the poem builds around it, holds the poem together, becomes its eye, unifies, integrates, processes the various elements that the poem/poet presents to it, that relates these things to each other, even if only through the act of ‘seeing’ them. And this is arguably a vital function for the poem – as it is for art more generally – to perform at a time of postmodern fragmentation, when the most prevalent cause of depression and anxiety is a sense of alienation or disconnection from the world and the things about us. The poem, this is to say, can be, if used in this way, integrative, restorative, consoling.

Of course, and as already foreshadowed, this kind of argument is immediately vulnerable to the accusation of being nostalgic, anachronistic, even cruelly misleading. The world is no longer like this – the ‘I’ is no longer like this – and to pretend that it is otherwise is (paradoxically) inauthentic, a kind of bad faith. But is this really so? On the one hand, if the ‘I’ is an artifact in the first place, then how can it be that art cannot be allowed the capacity to influence or recreate it? And, on the other, who is really to say that this world is meaningless and fragmented, and that this is our only possible response to it? If poets – artists – are to speak only out of what is already known and understood – out of the current understanding – then is not that to say they are not to be poets in the first place, or that, since poetry itself is to add nothing, to do nothing other than to transmit current understandings of the is, that poetry itself is nothing different and therefore nothing? Can we send a scout ahead over the next set of mountains and then deny his/her report? What point, what intelligence in that? By all of which I do not wish to seem mystical or to be suggesting (nor denying) that poetry might present a new wisdom, things as yet unknown to us, only to suggest that it can keep alive, help us by teaching us, a way of being or seeing that we mourn or are in other ways in need of. We cannot, let us say, argue that poetry is nothing more than a re-presenting in a more beautiful or more polished form what is already known and thought – that classic neo-classical position (‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’) – without accepting that it can do this also with our seeing, our being.

At this point rhetoric advises that one should present an example of the poetry of which one has been speaking, but I am only too well aware of the dangers of this: one or two choices would be too personal and I do not wish to destabilize all that I have said by making the wrong ones. Short of presenting an extensive anthology, which even then may not do the job, the best course would seem to be a tangential one, to close by demonstrating some further points of argument by way of a couple of very modest poems indeed, neither of which is intended to serve as a particularly striking example of the genre of which I have been writing. The first is from the T’ang dynasty poet Meng Hao-jan (689-740)[ix]:

Anchored Off Hsün-yang in Evening Light,
I Gaze at Thatch-Hut Mountain’s Incense-Burner Peak

Our sail up full, thousands of miles pass
without meeting mountains of renown,

then anchored here outside Hsün-yang,
I’m suddenly gazing at Incense-Burner.

I’ve always read Hui Yüan’s teachings,
traced his pure path beyond the dust,

and now his East-Forest home is so near.
It is dusk. A bell sounds, and it’s empty.

and the second from the American poet James Wright (1927-1980)[x]:

Depressed By A Book Of Bad Poetry, I Walk Toward An Unused Pasture And Invite The Insects To Join Me

Relieved, I let the book fall behind a stone.
I climb a slight rise of grass.
I do not want to disturb the ants
Who are walking single file up the fence post,
Carrying small white petals,
Casting shadows so frail that I can see through them.
I close my eyes for a moment and listen.
The old grasshoppers
Are tired, they leap heavily now,
Their thighs are burdened.
I want to hear them, they have clear sounds to make.
Then lovely, far off, a dark cricket begins
In the maple trees.

It’s not an unfoxed comparison, of course. Although the original of Meng’s poem might have been written in the early eighth century, it was translated much more recently by an American who has almost certainly read the poetry of James Wright, and, as the structure and length of his title suggest, and as other of his poems confirm (‘As I Step Over A Puddle At The End Of Winter, I Think Of An Ancient Chinese Governor’, based upon a poem by Po chu-i), James Wright himself was strongly influenced by his own encounter with early Chinese poetry, probably in translations by Kenneth Rexroth. I present this example chiefly in the interests of economy, because, foxed as it may be, it is also clear enough, and I can leave the reader to identify and contemplate for themselves the similarities of situation, rhetoric, image, affect. The point – the comparison – holds for T’ang poetry and a vast proportion of the modern lyric generally. It would be almost as easy to take one of Pound’s translations of Li Po, for example, and compare it with a poem of Judith Wright’s, and then, based on such preliminary exercises, move on into any century of English poetry one chose.

The point, a fairly simple one, is that the similarity in these poems, over a period of more than twelve hundred years, and regardless of the textual foxing just admitted, seems to reinforce my earlier argument that the human heart – well, ‘heart’ is a metaphor, but so is anything else one could use – has been built, been conditioned, over many many millennia, and that the small crust that a century or so of urban dwelling might have left upon it (for most of us it’s more like a generation, a decade or so) has done little or nothing to alter its deep structure, or to quell that structure’s need to be recognised. Even if we have rarely if ever seen a mountain, or snow, a rushing river, reeds, or heard strange animal cries in the night, such things, or their echo-scape, are still deep within us, and, as image-fields, have a profound conjuring and consoling power. The point is that the first person, the ‘I’, is there, amongst rocks, stones, trees, serving as a conduit, a medium, between the reader and the things and spaces which have most deeply structured their consciousness, reminding them of this place, connecting or re-connecting them with it.

[i]        This essay was commissioned for and first published in issue 3, 2005 of metaphor, the journal of the English Teachers’ Association of New South Wales (pp. 28-33).

[ii]        Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ (essay, 1968), published in English in Image, Music, Text (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977).

[iii]       Roman Jakobson, ‘Linguistics and Poetics: Closing Statement’, in Thomas Sebeok, ed., Style in Language (Cambridge: Massachesetts Institute of Technology, 1960).

[iv]       Federico Garcia Lorca, ‘The Duende: Theory and Divertissement’ (1930), in Allen & Tallman, eds, The Poetics of the New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1974).

[v]       See, for example,his 1968 essay ‘What is an Author?’, available, as are so many key pieces of recent theory, in The Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory, ed. V.B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

[vi]       See their Anti-Oedipus (1972: English translation by Robert Hurley in 1977).

[vii]       Those who would like a useful introduction, however, can get it in such books as Terence Hawkes’ Structuralism and Semiotics (London: Methuen, 1977), or Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983).

[viii]       Described in his ABC of Reading (1934; published by New Directions [New York], 1960).

[ix]       From Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, selected and translated by David Hinton (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 2004).

[x]       From James Wright, The Branch Will Not Break (Ohio: Wesleyan University Press, 1963).