Alan Wearne

I work for an outfit called Narrative Verse in English, our company founder being a man called Geoff, Geoff Chaucer. After him it’s up for grabs, though given what I write, Pope, Byron, Browning. Clough, Meredith, Frost, and Kenneth Koch rate very highly ...

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Alan Wearne’s work over the past thirty years or so – dense, demanding, unique, rewarding – is like the oeuvre of a cinematic auteur: one that never quite got onto the syllabus, or brought out the crowds at Cinémathèque. Technique above all, most of the time, but allied with real if unfamiliar emotion, even if the narrative needed the reader to have the right ...

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Having spent two decades or more writing massive verse novels – The Nightmarkets (1986) and The Lovemakers (2001, 2004) – it may seem that Alan Wearne, with his latest book of poetry, The Australian Popular Songbook, has finally returned to smaller forms and, as suggested by the title, a more lyrical idiom. But, as always with Wearne’s work, things aren’t that simple. The smaller forms were already present in the verse novels in the form of sonnets, villanelles and other verse forms buried in the sprawling architecture of the works’ narratives. The ‘lyrical idiom’ of The Australian Popular Songbook is ambiguous at best, offset as it is by Wearne’s characteristic attraction to the dramatic monologue, satire, vernacular culture and wrenched syntax.

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Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers is a book about overdoing it. Its characters have unwise love affairs, dream foolish dreams, drink too much, engage in criminal activity, amass (and lose) vast wealth, and talk incessantly (usually about themselves). Wearne’s characters usually deal with obsession and with the places you get to in life if you overdo things. Few characters in this second part of Wearne’s epic verse novel age gracefully, and some don’t get to age at all. But The Lovemakers isn’t just about over-doing it: it performs overdoing it. Wearne’s aesthetic is one of excess, of conspicuous idiosyncrasy. Part of its excessiveness and oddity is its oxymoronic status. Wearne’s books are simultaneously poetic and prosy, realistic and outré, stylistically heterogeneous and tonally homogenous.

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A Geelong psychiatrist once asked someone very like me, ‘What’s the opposite of love?’ It was a bit like a question in a tutorial (psychiatrists and academics do have a thing or two in common). The answer, of course, couldn’t be so obvious as ‘hate’. It was ‘indifference’.

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The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin

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February–March 1994, no. 158

Every adventurous reader of fiction ought to have a private hoard of novelists, preferably from a non-English writing background, who have escaped the appalling nonsense of Booker-style PR hype. Luckily, publishers like Collins Harvill set about promoting such writers; unluckily for Australia, though, our major literary pages often neglect to review the bulk of such output. You will have your favourites in such a category, but let this reviewer recommend the following: Jose Donoso, Etienne Leroux, Jose Saramago, Eduardo Mendoza, Saiichi Maruya, and Haruki Murakami.

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The Fitzroy Poems by Π.Ο. & Night flowers by Thalía

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August 1989, no. 113

Con the Fruiterer bears the same relation to Australia’s Greek community as the Melbourne Moomba procession does the Eight-Hour Day. Doubtless, there are Hellenic-Australians who relish the performance of whatever WASP funny-man plays him; some Australians are known to approve lovingly of Sir Les Patterson, but at least Barry Humphries always belongs to the nationality he portrays. What really propels Con is that Aussies feel he talks (and therefore thinks and probably acts) funny. It’s all an Edwardian ‘Coon Show’, with Mr Bones and Mr Interlocutor, 1980s style. The kind of society which tolerates this phenomenon with yawn-inspiring regularity (and terms it comedy) might be the subject for any number of sociology essays. Let’s hope that poets never attain the status of Con and his kind, though it’s a fair bet that poets find people far funnier than any comedian.

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In the early seventies, the rock band Skyhooks asked ‘Whatever happened to the revolution?’ They answered themselves in the next line: ‘We all got stoned and it drifted away.’

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‘If you can’t say something nice,’ my mother always said, ‘don’t say anything at all.’ (I pinch this opening gambit, shamelessly, from Kate Grenville’s Self-Portrait in the last ABR, and hope she does not mind; imitation is the sincerest form etc.) Apropos of parental expectations regarding niceness-or-silence, however, I am reminded of a remark of Elizabeth Jolley’s: ‘I think my mother wanted a princess, and she got me instead.’

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