Thursday, 16 October 2014

Australian Poetry and Spirituality

Philip Harvey

Michael McGirr and I gave the final session of Poetry for the Soul on Wednesday evening. This year’s subject was Australian Spirituality, so my approach was to find fifteen poems that spoke, in one way or another, of those large-meaning words: Australia, Poetry, Spirituality. My thought was to follow the air currents across the continent west-east, which is about as much structure as necessary. One could spend a whole day or lifetime following this method of reading Australian poetry, but the time limit was 50 minutes. In the end I only had time to read eleven of the fifteen poems, given there was commentary as well, still here is the sequence with three-sentence remarks on each poem.

Bound for South Australia
Traditional shanty
The vessels crossing the southern oceans in the 19th century carried with them the divided inheritance of European Christianity: Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others. They also carried the Enlightenment project, which was both hostile towards and questioning of that inheritance, materialist and blindly faithful to scientific worldviews. It is this rich mix of spiritualities that informs to this day even the most seemingly non-religious poetry written by the European Australians.

Philip Salom
His quote is Sigmund Freud (“The best remedy for the mind is love and work”) while the poem itself appears to argue for acceptance of the body and the mind. Is the life-force faith, or faith the life-force? While the image of the body as a hive fills up with life, the poems fills up with questions.

Archie Weller
We ask, by contrast with Salom’s world, what faith means in this picture of local Indigenous society, where young men are “drunken stumbling warriors.” Connection with the natural world of the “flashing silver king” happens at the same time as the reality of loss and dispossession. A busted old couch in the open serves as throne for the elder who knows he rules this challenging scene.

The Urumbula Song
Europeans love to play the game of Top Ten Everything, including Top Ten Poets, persisting in doing this against their own better nature. But who are the greatest Australian poets when we have no names before 1788? This awesome cosmic ritual song of fertility is a communal poem, known by all, with no special claims on its authorship.

The Song of Hungarrda
David Unaipon
It gives us heart to know we now have two poets on our bank notes. Unaipon felt it required to employ ‘thine’, ‘thy’ &c. for his magnificent poem about the “Bright, consuming Spirit”, which makes it sound fixed in Edwardian time while making effortful apostrophes to translate the untranslatable language of the Coorong original. We ponder with some wonder the magnitude of the original, however it may run.

Night Thoughts
Gwen Harwood
Humour is never far away in this poet’s writing, as here where she plays out the role of a psalmist trying to get at the meaning of hell. It is a curiously Tasmanian poem, locked into its sense of no escape while dealing with the tests of self and world. We can hear Harwood reciting this equally well with a theatrical malign cackle in her voice during playtime, or the very real pleading of a vestry member at the Sunday lectern.

Bruce Dawe
The cleverest aspect of this poem is how the poet takes for granted that his readers understand all the religious language upon which the humour and meaning of the poem rely. Melburnians enjoy calling their football religion, though I believe that football culture actually and more accurately reflects the commercial and mercantile changes of the city, especially given that the game is run by businessmen, not bishops. The undying allegiance to one club is highly reminiscent of bygone Melbourne faithfulness to a particular denomination, so that even though the Uniting Church has existed since 1977 there are still people today who will tell you they are first and last Methodists, even if they don’t go to church.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe
A poet of deceptive simplicity, whose main questions and concerns hover around the edges of his hymns of praise. Humanism will always come back into fashion while there are humans interested in humanness and in things that are more than skin-deep. Everything described in the poem, inside and outside the skin, is home for this poet, we are left sensing.

Emmaus Vic 3130
Aileen Kelly
While we shouldn’t expect Mary Magdalene to show up in Blackburn, another part of us asks, why not? Or rather, Blackburn is as good a place as any to meet the revelation unawares and be made thus fully aware. There is even something quirkily biblical about the bewildered way the poet says, “So maybe I’ll see you around?”  

My Mother’s God
Geoff Page
The hardness and determination in this portrait of a certain kind of Protestant reminds us of the concept of Australian old-fashioned values, such that we wonder if this is not where it all came from. A Judaic ethic and Calvinist belief in predestination go hand in hand with a severe materialism. We are almost grateful to move on into the community-minded happiness of the next poem.

Patrick Joseph Hartigan (‘John O’Brien’)
Said Hanrahan
This is a useful poem to analyse in the context of Australian attitudes toward climate change. While we laugh at the doomsayer at the church door, we each of us have some Hanrahan inside us and ponder if he is a pragmatist, a pessimist, or a real Cassandra. The poet’s detail and voice is masterful as he describes the movements of conversation and manners.

Robert Harris
The Cloud Passes Over
Somewhere in Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, somewhere. The poet builds up a subtle list of related landscapes only then at a crucial moment to put it all down to one thing. We listen attentively for the psalmist to claim the Lord’s attributes.

Our Lady’s Birthday
Francis Webb
By contrast, here is a poet who names out of the turmoil of his mind in language of painful analogy, the same difficult recognitions. The violence and energy of the experience exists in contrast to the calm of the library where, we are left to surmise, the poet is making up his poem. Intensity must find some release, whether in prayer or poem making, and here in both.

Poetry and Religion
Les Murray
This is not dogma, but the poet is very confident of the orthodoxy of his assertions. Poets can be known for a line or a word and this poet is remembered for ‘sprawl’, an excellent self-descriptive word with an ‘a’ to start with in the middle and everything else spreading out around it in all directions. This poem is the gentle rejoinder to fundamentalist secularists who want religion banned from the Earth, just because they don’t like it.

To Hafiz of Shiraz
Judith Wright
A hafiz is someone in Islam who can recite the entire Qu’ran, a thought worth considering during an evening of poetry reading from paper and in a world where jihadists would rather bomb Shiraz than learn anything from its Sufi poets. Imagine the poet sitting up on the mountain talking to this wonderful individual about the uniqueness of everything in our world. She talks about ‘everything’ in terms of its special existence, not its type or number, which is the lesson she is telling Hafiz that he has taught her, across centuries. 

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