Laurie Duggan

a poem is a house into which / words are inserted // permeable, vapour or rain / altering the light outside ...

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Laurie Duggan’s study of ‘imagined space’ in Australian visual culture arrived on my desk, with a certain synchronicity, the day after I saw the film Memento. In their distinctive ways, both these works seem indicative of our age, offering unstable and fractured accounts of space and time at a moment when virtual reality seems to be untying our formerly fixed Western notions of these concepts.

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I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to a number of older poets, many of whom are no longer with us. I count myself fortunate to have met poets such as Carl Rakosi, Gael Turnbull, Ed Dorn, Jonathan Williams, Lee Harwood, and Tom Raworth. If I could use a time machine, I’d like to talk to William Carlos Williams, especially about the radical work he produced in the 1920s.

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In all of his books, Laurie Duggan has tended to avoid the ‘well-formed poem’. His poems are not of the kind that unroll like carpets: replete with interconnected images, sonic patterning, argument. A large part of his poetic approach emerges from an attempt to not speak over what is already there, or, as he writes in one poem, to ‘not neutralise / the effect of atmosphere’. This might be described as permitting the incidental, letting things in, but it’s also – Duggan being a self-described minimalist – much to do with omission. The model his oeuvre provides is one that prioritises listening (and looking) over speaking, and in that sense it is anti-bardic. ‘The poem’ as a discrete object is often, and almost entirely within this collection, given over to the series, allowing Duggan to retain qualities of the short lyric while building long-form structures whose rhythms become apparent over years or, in the case of ‘Blue Hills’, over decades.

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In The Resistance to Poetry (2004), James Longenbach claims that ‘Distrust of poetry (its potential for inconsequence, its pretensions to consequence) is the stuff of poetry.’ The Australian poet Laurie Duggan has based a career on a creative distrust of poetry, or at least a certain kind of attitude to ...

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1

Camperdown’s for dogs,
Friday evening in the park off Church Street

a barefoot man
carries a plank:

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When I started publishing my poems back in the early 1970s, I did so amidst a concern that Australian poetry was being Americanised: Coca-Cola, the pizza parlour, and the rock and rollers’ preoccupation with that thing called ‘lurve’ had swept all that was pure and true into the trashcan of history, and we with our Olsons, O’Haras, and Berrigans were unwitting accomplices to this annulling of our own birthright. My defence at the time would have been, ‘well, we’re taking aboard all that’s repulsive in American culture: their military and economic theses, their particular variety of consumerism, and no-one is protesting much about this – so why do they get so upset when we pick up on something of value from that culture?’ American artists themselves had absorbed things from other cultures without anyone there worrying about it. A great deal of the motivation behind the ‘New York School’ came from the French surrealists, though in translation surrealism had its more harebrained ideological aspects removed painlessly. In fact this ‘translation’ was a model of cultural appropriation, showing what a sea-change (and a change of tongue) can do to some seemingly immutable items.

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A few years ago I found myself grouped with some other poets and given a label: ‘Generation of ‘68’. Like most tags it became after a while more a source of irritation than anything else. The description had been given by John Tranter to the inmates of his 1979 anthology, The New Australian Poetry, but before long had become a term of collective abuse as such labels tend to. One of the identified failings of this group of writers was their propensity for ‘game-playing’. So when Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray included poems by one of the ‘sixty-eighters’ in their anthology, The Younger Australian Poets, they prefaced Tranter’s pieces saying they had chosen things which, unlike most of his work, were not purely ‘language-game’ poems.

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This collection of poetry is similarly accommodating. It is shaped by four quite different tonal movements: ‘All Blues’ (eight lyrics closely observing the ‘still life’ within season, art-work, society and self), ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (a travelogue of past times and places where conscious reflection momentarily counters the movement and cross-currents of historical process), ‘Dogs’ (where Diogenes’ cynicism is invoked to ‘lower the tone’, reminding me of the blues singer’s injunction to ‘laugh just to keep from crying’) and ‘More Blues’ (where episodic vistas of ‘blue hills’ unfold from Tailem Bend to Mount Segur). The collection ends with a nine-part retrospective called ‘The Front’ which is partly about the art of making poetry or music in the face of ‘prevailing imagery’. Here a littoral between performance and reputation is reached as today’s determined play with a language is set against inherited ‘fixed ideas’.

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Would it surprise you to know that a number of our well-known writers write to please themselves? Probably not. If there’s no pleasure, or challenge, or stimulus, the outcome would probably not be worth the effort. If this effort is writing, it seems especially unlikely that someone would engage in the activity without enjoying the chance to be their own audience.

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