Commentary

Belated recognition of Australian prose poetry

by Paul Hetherington and Cassandra Atherton
October 2020, no. 425

Until recently, Australian prose poetry hasn’t attracted much attention – we’re not sure why. Having written prose poetry for years, we’re both fascinated by the form, which can be loosely defined as poems written in paragraphs and sentences rather than in stanzas and lines.

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While on the campaign trail against Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump appeared to deviate from a scripted speech he was delivering in Dimondale, Michigan. What followed was remarkable: ‘At the end of four years, I guarantee you that I will get over ninety-five per cent of the African-American vote. I promise you.’ Undaunted by six decades of black voting behaviour and his own poor standing with African-Americans, not to mention the fact that he had yet to defeat Clinton, Trump promised a ‘new deal for black America’ that would spark a decisive black shift to the Republican Party. African-Americans had long been the nation’s most partisan racial group: since 1964, no Republican presidential candidate had won more than thirteen per cent of the black vote, and no Democrat less than eighty-two per cent. Yet Trump, a man with a long and divisive racial history, vowed that he would soon rival Barack Obama for electoral appeal among African-Americans.

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In early August, deep in the winter of Melbourne’s stage-four discontent, journalist Rachel Baxendale became the story. The Victorian political reporter for The Australian newspaper was attacked online for questioning Premier Daniel Andrews on his government’s hotel quarantine program, as an explosion of new coronavirus infections caused unprecedented economic shutdown and the curtailment of civil liberties. As thousands of people watched the premier’s live press briefings from their living rooms, Baxendale assiduously probed Andrews about the use of security guards instead of Australian Defence Force personnel to guard returned travellers.

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‘Healthy People Gather for Your Freedom.’ So read the sign held proudly aloft by a young woman at a protest against coronavirus restrictions on ‘Freedom Day’ in Melbourne. Drawn to the Shrine in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with those other ‘diggers’ who defended Australia against the threat of authoritarianism, she was part of a small crowd with a big message: ‘Freedom is under threat’. A bit like coronavirus itself, perhaps, ‘Freedom Day’ was an accident waiting to happen – not least of all in Victoria. No democratic government can expect to curtail freedoms without stirring up the civil libertarians (both the sane and the crazy), and the restrictions devised and enforced by the Andrews government have been more severe than most. If one is to believe former prime minister Tony Abbott, the premier of Victoria now heads up a ‘health dictatorship’ that holds five million Melburnians under ‘house arrest’. Daniel Andrews, though in truth a champion of social justice, has of late acquired the disagreeable moniker of ‘Dictator Dan’ for putting a plague city into lockdown.

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Those of us who work in classical music will be familiar with the accusation that our chosen art form lacks contemporary social relevance. It is one with a long pedigree. ‘Sonata, what do you want of me?’ asked an exasperated Fontenelle in 1751, according to Rousseau. But you will find no widespread or heightened disdain for worldly affairs among classical musicians on the whole. Rather, any apparent reticence they may have describing how their art connects with the world at large stems from the fact that it is notoriously difficult to do. As the well-known quip goes, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ This is not a love that dare not speak its name so much as one that struggles to be put into words at all.

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What we read at difficult times in our lives – plague, insurrection, divorce, major root canal work, etc. – is always telling. Carlyle, miserable and unwell at Kirkcaldy, read the whole of Gibbon straight through – twelve volumes in twelve days – with a kind of horrified fascination. I recall one friend who, at a time of ineffable tension, calmly read Les Misérables, one thousand pages long, in a single week. (I would have been incapable of reading a tabloid.) Another time, lovelorn in Siena, I stayed in my ghastly hotel room and read The Aunt’s Story right through while the handsome Sienese sunned themselves in the companionable Campo.

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An excuse first. This can only be a magpie’s look at a marriage – between poetry and music – that has a near-infinite history of complex living arrangements, recurrent divorces, remarriages and impromptu de facto cohabitations. I’ve chosen a few marital battles of particular interest to me, a writer for whom song is a sometime thing. I’d like to claim those battles as representative of some epochs and musical styles, at least within various Western traditions; they are certainly representative of my musical obsessions.

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There is a senior partner at my firm who famously harasses young women particularly when he has been drinking at social events. I was groped on two separate occasions. Nothing was done about it the first time I reported it. I did not report it the second time.

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It is curious the way certain books can insinuate themselves into your consciousness. I am not necessarily talking about favourite books, or formative ones that evoke a particular time and place, but those stray books that seem to have been acquired almost inadvertently (all bibliophiles possess such volumes, I’m sure), and taken up without any particular expectations, books that have something intriguing about them that keeps drawing you back.

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In 2007, Britain’s Royal Mint issued a £2 coin commemorating two hundred years since the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the zero in ‘1807’ appearing as if a broken link in a chain. While interrupting the notorious transatlantic trade, the Act did not end slavery itself – that was achieved, at least in parts of the British world, with further legislation in 1833 that outlawed enslavement in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape of Good Hope. Emphasis on the dramatic, if illusionary, chain-breaking moment in some bicentenary celebrations extended a tradition of dwelling on Britain’s role in slave emancipation.

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