Orstrilia Day ~ theatre notes

Friday, January 26, 2007

Orstrilia Day

This is not about theatre, but I am staggering in shock and dismay. Yes, I just read a poem by the inimitable (I hope) Patrick McCauley. It's the Australia Day Poem, prominently published to celebrate our national holiday in the Australian, our national broadsheet. It's written with the prosodical elan and metaphorical flair of a three-legged cat on crack cocaine, but that's not all: it's a document that, while dripping unpleasantly with self-pity, manages to combine racism, misogyny and homophobia into one glorious bile soup.

For example: "The skinny Aborigine," opines McCauley, "has grown big and fat / wandering native titles / in concrete cities with internet lines." (I beg your pardon?) Or try this one for size:

This is the underfathered
overmothered generation
of the addicted
the extended multiple
strangulation orgasm
the synthetic selection
the survival of the weakest.

...The domestic matriarchy guards the children
and the schools teach the boys
to become male lesbians.

And so it goes, for longer than you can believe possible. I feel like I've just been dipped in a bucket of catshit. Who the hell decided (a) that this was a poem and (b) to publish it? Aren't there any poets in this wide brown land?

Offshore, in New York - which suddenly seems a very desirable place to be - a much more fun time is to be had on TONY theatre editor David Cote's blog Histriomastix, where he has sparked some discussion on "critical distance", or the notion of objectivity in arts journalism. George Hunka buys in with some observations of his own at Superfluities, beginning with the provocative observation that "only shallow people do not judge by appearances".Depends what those appearances are, I guess. It appears today that Australians (and especially Australian poets) are fuckwits. Me, I like to think that's not entirely true.

PS: Perhaps I ought to have said that there is a history of dispute between Mr McCauley and myself. He attacked me (and all Australian woman poets) in a 2002 article in the right wing magazine Quadrant on performance poetry. I wrote a letter in response (as did others), which can be read here.

31 comments:

George Hunka said...

I think my favorite lines are:

the screaming engine
bleeding from the needle
babbling about rights

To which my only conceivable response is: Well! And that I can't conceive what "How to be Australian (3)" might consist of.

TimT said...

I think it's the same Patrick McCauley who had some grumpy articles published some years back about the Oz poetry scene (which I liked). I think it led to a stoush with the Oz's poetry editor at the time. Obviously if he's now being published in the Oz, things have changed a good deal. And doesn't he run performance poetry nights in Sydney?

Ah well, at least the Oz - pretty much alone among the major papers - has the guts to publish poetry these days.

nick said...

Alison,

The poet appropriates the term Uncle Tom and applies it to the Australian male. Uncle Tom is a pejorative for an African American who is perceived by others as behaving in a subservient manner to White America. So the poet is suggesting that the Australian male is behaving in a subservient manner to the Dominant Culture.

Crocodile Dundee attempts to define the “drought of fatherhunger.” Self pity, yes, and nothing extremely profound, but I miss the “racism, misogyny and homophobia” you read into it.

“prosodical elan and metaphorical flair of a three-legged cat on crack cocaine.” That’s a chuckler. I’ve never seen a cat on crack, but a two-legged cat probably hops along more like a “fuckwit” than the three-legged variety. So perhaps consider revising your own flamboyant metaphor.

I liked about half the poem, or maybe, I halfway liked it. But Alison, if you were my significant other, in introductions I would refer to you as “my better half”, and then smile with that smile that says I only halfway mean it.

Please think kindly of me, or at least split me in half, good and bad. Don’t think of me as a fuckwit, but as a halfwit fuck with a good heart. The yearning of a man to be a father can be a clumsy act.

Alison Croggon said...

Doesn't the Age still publish a poem in Saturdays?

I wouldn't call it poetry. There's not a line in it (if there is a single one that shows any poetic skill, point it out to me). I'm not sure if the style or the sentiments offend me most; maybe it's the gratuitous references to Merton and Eliot that are worst of all, as if by borrowing those feathers he can put on a little of their lustre. He couldn't write himself out of a paper bag if his life depended on it. I don't understand at all why the Australian has given this dufus such prominence: at least Pound, for all his objectionable opinions, had the ear of an angel.

And yes, he's said all sorts of things about the Australian poetry "scene", all either ill-supported or plain wrong. It's very easy to make bold statements if you don't know what you're talking about.

David Cote said...

Thanks for the shout-out Alison (and the numerous thoughtful comments) but a couple of factual things: It's Histriomastix and TONY, as in Time Out New York. Thanks

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks David (blush - I've said before I need a sub, and will duly fix). I fear I was cross-eyed with rage.

Nick, thinking kindly here - I got it - I have read James Baldwin - and I do own a three-legged cat (although I've never seen her on crack cocaine). Her rhythyms are very clunky indeed and she's still liable to fall off tables.

I don't know how you can miss the racism &c. I quoted a couple of egregious examples, but there are many more. I won't go into how badly I think fatherhood is served here, and how wrong he is about that. Talk about projecting the personal into the universal. But anyway, I've calmed down, and merely find it all depressing.

Kirsty said...

I agree that it's just awful, on so many levels.

And I've never understood why advocating fatherhood is so often premised on hating mothers. Why?

Erin said...

That is a truly bad piece of writing. For me it's not far from the realm of Bec Hewitt's wedding poem to Lleyton. Without the artistry of course.

Sylvia Drake said...

My goodness, that certainly is an appaling load of racist, misogynistic, homophobic garbage. (Judging by the excerpts you've posted, at least; I think I will assume those are representative samples and spare myself the rest of the "poem".)

I have little of help to offer but my sympathies--I too, living across the pond, am familiar with the experience of feeling at times that one lives in a country of fuckwits, and fuckwits who aim to define the essential values of the country by their own fuckwittery at that. . .

nick said...

Sylvia, don't bother putting the excerpts in context by actually reading the poem. Nothing would change your obvious prejudice here. And I wouldn’t dare challenge your opinion; I acknowledge your renowned expertise in fuckwittery.

This is a bad poem. So what? There are so many bad poems in the world; one more isn't going to sink us. We are all only reading it (and now rereading it) because it pissed Alison off. Soon it will disappear without a trace. His gratuitous references to Merton and Eliot won’t earn the poem entry into the literary canon. The was a poem in a newspaper not the Norton Anthology.

Of course I can see why “you girls” are so pissed here. The surface gleam of the poem reads as misogyny (by merely examining misogynistic, racist, or homophobic issues the man risks that he will be charged with the crimes himself). I have been reading the Australian-born Germaine Greer recently for some research I’m doing, specifically her short essay on Strindberg. She appreciates Strindberg (theatre’s most famously branded misogynist) and so she would also appreciate this poet’s attempt not to trivialize the problem of male-female hostility. Strindberg examined the conflict as archetype. Similarly this poet examines the conflict as engrained in the social and legal fabric of a nation. We need to be able to examine the ills of matriarchy same as we do patriarchy without being branded as mysogynist.

The poet doesn't hate the mother; he hates the momma's boy in himself. That potential part of himself that he (and society) has been unable to father and nuture into its full essence.

I always appreciate the effort at poetry. Failures, like this one, are still beautiful losers to me.

Sylvia Drake said...

. . .And here I had come back with the idea just of clarifying what my first comment might have implied--noting that I don't actually think Americans are fuckwits, or that Alison thinks Aussies are fuckwits, but just that the frustration of seeing appalling ideas presented as the authentic (insert nationality here) was something I could relate to.

All right, Nick, I subjected myself to the whole thing in the interest of intellectual rigor. My prejudices against racism, homophobia and misogyny remained intact and my distaste for the "poem" increased; how predictable, no? Just like a woman and a queer, to feel insulted when someone insults women and queers. Just like a liberal, to feel insulted even when someone insults groups to which one does not personally belong.

Your critical take on this charming work's authorial voice is inconsistent at best and disingenuous at worst, the fact that the "poem" appeared in the newspaper is in large part the point, and I've got work to do--see you around.

Alison Croggon said...

Wowee. Thanks Sylvia, for saying the things I would have said. Nick, Strindberg this ain't. Didn't you see the bits about how bad a piece of writing it is? Or can't you tell? The general reaction among poets (I do know a few, as well as being one myself - look me up), men and women, is dismay. One asked - seriously - if McCauley was being set up by the newspaper to make a fool of him and to trivialise poetry. Daniel Keene - no mean playwright himself, and one whose work has deeply concerned itself with male violence and has consequently sometimes been accused (wrongly) of misogyny - wrote to the Australian asking why they published such an awful piece of writing.

No one would be upset if it hadn't been the most prominently published poem I remember in the recent past. Mr McCauley has every right to write this stuff, however unpleasant it is; but somebody decided to give it this prominence.

Greer would loathe this poem. She has very classical tastes and, judging by her critical writing, expects a high standard of intelligence in literature. Except that it might give her some room to exercise her acerbic wit, and would neatly confirm all her snarky prejudices about Australia.

nick said...

Alison,

This is a bad poem!!! How many times do I need to I say that before it's acknowledged that I have said it!!! What kind of fuckwitteryism allows you to continue to write to me as if I did not say “this a bad poem.”

And of course Germaine Greer would also find this a bad poem. But she also would not find any misogyny in it. Quite the opposite.

I am ONLY defending the poem against the your charge of “racism, misogyny and homophobia.”

And no, I am not going to look up your poet badge, even if were relevant. (And just in case there are still any fuckwits or three-legged cats on crack following this exchange who haven’t heard me say it yet: “this a bad poem!”)

Now, after I have invested all this time in reading and rereading this fuckwit poem, I would be interested in what Keene said about it beyond “this is a bad poem.” Duh. Do you have the url for letter?

Alison Croggon said...

Daniel Keene wrote his letter - something he rarely does - because he thought the poem was as offensive about men as it is about women. He told me that he thought it important that men protested, since the complaints of women might to be too easily dismissed as those of whinging feminist slags. I don't think it has been published.

(And why is my being a poet of no relevance? My love for the art, as a practitioner, is a major reason why I wrote this post in the first place. If you did some basic research into what I have actually published, as a poet and editor, you might not write such patronising posts.)

I suggest that you go and read Greer again. She may be - especially recently - sometimes wilfully eccentric, but she knows woman-hatred when she sees it. There is a huge difference between misogynistic writing - which this poem expresses, with its fear and hatred of a suffocating female sexuality, its claims of castrating women, its racist fears of the white race being outbred by darkies, etc etc - and writing ABOUT misogyny. Or, God help me, about the problems within masculinity. One major difference exists in a writer's style, a function of his/her intelligence and, as Handke claims, ethics. I can't see any sign of a meta-consciousness that demonstrates any self-insight: it's all self-pity (another classic symptom of misogyny). But I am tried of this argument, and have work to do.

nick said...

“There has come into existence… a breed of men who claim to be feminists. They imagine that they have understood “what women want” and that they are capable of giving it to them. They help with the dishes at home and make their own coffee in the office, basking the while in the refulgent consciousness of virtue. . . . Such men are apt to think of the true male feminists as utterly chauvinistic… Strindberg understood that that expression of radical enmity between men and women in social and political action would have appalling consequences…. he embodied his vision of internecine sexual war in archetypes so simple that they could appear preposterous or simply perverse.” from Eternal War: Strindberg’s View of Sex –Germaine Greer

Obviously this poet Patrick McCauley is not on par with Strindberg’s genius. But what he does clumsily attempt to show is how many legal and social conditions are denying children their “real” fathers. He blames a pervasive domestic matriarchy for this.

Alison said, “If you did some basic research into what I have actually published, as a poet and editor, you might not write such patronising posts.”

Typical Brit "fuckwit", she misspells patronizing.

Alison Croggon said...

Nick, I will tell you now that personal abuse is not welcome here, and that any such posts will be deleted. And you are coming perilously close to trolling here.

Over here, it's you Americans who misspell "patronising". Some of us think it a rather infantile misspelling, like mispronouncing the letter "zed" as "zee", but we're tolerant and put up with it. And I'm Australian, not British.

If you can't tell the difference between Strindberg and McCauley, God help you. Certainly Ms Greer can't.

Alison Croggon said...

By which I mean, Ms Greer can't help you. She is quite capable, of course, of making very clear distinctions.

Jana said...

I didn't think I would leave a comment, having nothing more insightful to say than that I am appalled, and so is my boyfriend: together we barely managed to read that rant of self-pity and hatred. But now I am worried about the lack of published response to it; I was expecting an outrage. The 'poem' is enormously similar to 'poems' I've seen published - again in newspapers, occasionally in books - in Croatia in the early 1990s and even some recently, pushing the virtually identical thesis of, say, all men have become homosexual now due to strangling matriarchy, or those other people multiply like animals while our women take contraceptives thus we shall be outnumbered in a decade. Virtually identical. The difference was that it was Croatia at the height of war hysteria, that there was, even when delayed a few years, an enormous backlash against it, and that, in major cities in Croatia these days, anyone seen with the national flag in hand, on the wall, on the car, on the shirt, would be considered dangerous, not just a zealot.

But having been told so many times how unbelievably modest and bloody self-deprecating Australians were, I expected someone would react. Particularly in what is still the only national newspaper. The absence of an articulated response makes me very worried. But then, when I seriously proposed to my boyfriend to write a letter to The Australian, he didn't take me seriously for a second.

nick said...

I am not writing to the crude and humorless reader here. I assume a subtle reader able to discern ironies. So as rich as it is in it’s own irony, I’ll allow this statement of Alison’s to stand without comment:

“It's you Americans who misspell "patronising". Some of us think it a rather infantile misspelling.”

Alison, please tell me exactly how close am I to being branded a troll? I will alter my behavior accordingly. As both judge and jury of this domain, you would know how close to peril I am. Of course this domain is not the whole of Australia. Again, most readers will recognize the irony in your threat to “delete me” and how it directly relates to subject we are addressing.

Who does the troll most closely resemble: the misogynist, the racist, or the homophobe?

I was raised in the USA so I saw the word “fuckwit” for the first time yesterday. I discovered fuckwit in an Australian blog so I figured it an Aussie term. I was wrong; it’s Brit.

Noun: fuckwit
Usage: Brit, vulgar, offensive

I have been informed here that Australians (and especially Australian poets) are fuckwits. I like to think that's not entirely true. But I also have been informed here that the Aussies have a more mature relationship to the Mother Tongue than the infantile Americans do.

So perhaps I really do need to move out of this domain to where I am better understood, or at the very least, not threatened with deletion.

See you all. This beastie boy is headed back to Brooklyn where he’s licensed to ill.

George Hunka said...

Ironies need to be capable of discernment to be recognized, Nick, and I don't really think that's the case here. Nor do I think you meant to be ironic at all, regardless of this rhetorical back-tracking. Your quasi-romantic characterization of such a clearly vindictive, bigoted (not to say tone-deaf) poem, such as it is, as a "beautiful loser" and your comparison of it to Strindberg's exploration of archetypes is granting it more significance than it deserves.

And your comments have been personally directed as ad hominem attacks against Alison since your first. (That nonsense about "significant other" is certainly arrogant and condescending enough, there was nothing ironic about it.) Certainly she's within her rights to delete them upon the grounds she's quite clearly laid out. It relates to your own behavior, not at all to "the subject we are addressing."

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, George. Nick, I ran a listserv for 10 years, still run a message board, and have been a member of many others, and I've seen all this before. Your behaviour is recognisable to the point of cliche, and it is classic trolling. If you don't believe me, google some psychology papers on behaviour in cyberspace. And yes, this is my blog. It is a place for argument, even robust argument, but not time-wasting abuse. Most people here observe the basic courtesies of debate.

Jana, thanks for that fascinating (if somewhat depressing) post.

Rachel said...

So glad it's not just me who read that "poem" and thought, "What the ...?" I don't pretend to be an expert on poetry but that offering was mind-bogglingly, gut-wrenchingly awful. Most of it makes no sense: eg. We apply homosexual moralities to heterosexual families - the what now? The only reason I wasn't as offended as I otherwise would have been had the sentiments been expressed more articulately is because the work was barely readable. I felt like I was wading through some sort of primordial sludge. Ugh.

But it's true, once you wade through the sheer diabolical ghastliness of the writing, the underlying sentiments are certainly truly disturbing. McCauley seems to be one very miserable individual. I'm also at a loss as to why The Australian would even publish it.

On a more pleasant note, I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, by the way Alison. This is the first time I've posted, but I always find the discussions interesting and thought-provoking, even if at times I don't agree with all that's being said.

gabriele said...

Alison, I think that may have been my post you removed yesterday. In case, if it's because I was anonymous, here it is again (below). Or is it because it's critical of you? In any case, I'm glad to see you formulated a "more considered response" to Patrick McCauley at Sarsaparilla. Why not let my comment here go up and respond by owning up to the inappropriateness of calling a peer a fuckwit?:

Alison, from where I sit, I'm wondering... Have you ever looked up the definition of patroni(z)(s)ing? Do yourself a favor; look it up and then reread your last few comments. Start with your original post in which you call someone a fuckwit. Then go to the comment in which you get all cranky because someone throws the word back at you. Or maybe just skip straight to your last comment where you tell someone a) how much experience you've had b) that they're cliched c) that they should read “psychological papers on behavior in cyberspace.” Honey, you're patronizing as all get-out. (And yes, George, that want meant ironically. Let me add a little smiley face to help you out :-)

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, Gabriele, I removed your last comment. Now you've taken off your cloak of invisibility, I still can't see what you're offering to this argument. There is a difference between attacking an argument and ad hominem attack. I see no reason why I should put up with the latter.

I don't think the appellation "fuckwit" is in the least inappropriate, given its context and what precedes it. Crude, maybe, but that's another question.

Neither do I see anything patronising in advising people who clearly don't know what they're talking about to get informed, or in referring to things outside this blog that back up my own arguments. I take the trouble to remedy my own ignorances; why shouldn't Nick? It's not like it's difficult.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Thanks Rachel - incomprehension and bafflement seem to be general responses. It sure does poetry no good. I ought to make clear that obviously the Australian's poetry editor, Barry Hill, had nothing to do with it; it was on the news page, not the literary pages. If I were him, I'd be furious.

Lauren said...

That was truly disturbing... I wasn't aware that so much of Australia in 2006 was about a struggle for masculinity! How entirely feminine of me.. sigh, I guess us women are just the cancer that is eatting at the heart of Australia. Well, women and the working class who are now rich, oh, and the Aboriginals.

You have to wonder what kind of Australia is Patrick McCauley longing for? I am sending this poem to every expat I know, to cure any home sickness they may have had on Australia Day.

Alison Croggon said...

I wonder what poetry you read? I don't think Yeats or Rilke or Pound or Rimbaud or Hill or Lorca or doing bowls of fruit.

Like any art, poetry has its craft. This fails on even the most basic levels of poetic craft. It happens to be my art, so broad as my tastes are, perhaps I find that more excruciating than others might. But maybe in the end I agree with Eliot; more than anything else, poetry has to be intelligent. Intelligence covers lots of faculties, including prosodical and emotional intelligences.

It's perfectly legal to like bad poetry in the US, and even in Australia. Even poetry which expresses these kinds of sentiments. There seems to be quite a lot of it about. But it's not only the sentiments, nutty though they are (perhaps you ought to join the Goodluck Club, Jens, and avail yourself of that vasectomy) that makes this poem appalling.

Kim W. said...

Jens, for the love of God, rethink the vasectomy.

Alison Croggon said...

It's Patrick McCauley who offers the free vasectomy, Jens. And feminism is only castrating in the minds of some paranoid men who don't seem to understand what "equal" or "difference" mean.

Alison Croggon said...

You should get out more, Jens. Such things as couples who are equal exist; out in the real world, it's not just men from mars and women from venus. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to step outside the roles determined by others and work out better ways to relate. And yes, I have two sons and a husband, none of whom feel in the least emasculated. Though it might be better to ask them about it, since you wouldn't believe me.

What has been worse for men than capitalist hierarchical society, which exploits men as work and war fodder, and then tosses them out to dry at the end of it all when they're no longer any use? No wonder they go home and take it out on their wives and sons and daughters, who then plot in their powerlessness ways to get their revenge, causing the whole horrible cycle to go on and on. Men die earlier, and kill themselves, because of the crushing contradictions of what it means to be "masculine": having to assert their alleged power all the time, while all the time being powerless, being afraid and angry all the time without knowing why, destroying everything they love because they don't know how to keep it, constantly scrabbling to be the top of the pile, because that's where the real privilege is, but where's the top? Who's coming up from underneath to take away your precious rung on the ladder? How is that good for men? Why hang onto those illusory privileges that are actually the badges of your own victimhood? (the privilege to beat your wife and hate your son and be afraid of other men? Jesus).

Blaming either men or women for that situation is ridiculous; feminism (at least, the feminism I find interesting, and which might be better called gender politics) doesn't in fact do either, but rather looks at the ways in which gender roles - as opposed to sex, which is, like race, a much more fluid thing than many people in their fear of difference like to think - are used to control and limit people. Men and women.

And, er, what female domination? When I read the news, the people making the big political and social and financial decisions are, almost without exception, male. What is this perception that sees one woman in a position of power and then hysterically claims that women are "taking over"?

Poor Blake. He'd be spinning in his grave at the thought that you're using his poem to name a play about men castrating themselves. That's against everything he believed in: he was for unbounded delight and sexual joy. Crazy as he was, it's also how he lived.

Alison Croggon said...

This is really a waste of time. But I'm in procrastination mode, so what the hell.

You know, Jens, I know there's a school of paranoid criticism, and I'm loathe to say a reading of a poem is plain wrong: but sometimes a tyger is just a tyger. If you're going to go all sexual about it - always a distinct possibility with Blake - this poem is, if anything, a celebration of masculine sexual potency, and a paean to the power of the God who made such violent and dangerous beauty as well as the delicate and fragile ("Did he who made the Lamb make thee?")

But to consider your bizarre interpretation for a moment: how the hell does a penis "frame" a vagina? Not very phallic of it, no? Wouldn't it make more sense read the other way: the tyger as a cock, the cunt - as Bataille characterises it in fact - as an eye or, in its grasping, a hand? Is your self-emasculation to extend to Blake as well? Disturbing thought.



Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?