Tuesday, 22 July 2008


The sonnet sequence ‘East’ that appears in the Reality Street anthology is one of the earliest poems I’ve continued to reprint. It was written early in 1971 when I was still at university. The poem is dedicated to ‘John & Margot Scott’ and (coincidentally) John’s poems appear just before mine in the anthology. We had both been at Monash University along with Alan Wearne, and the three of us had written sonnets. Our common influence was Ted Berrigan’s book which, though first printed in the early sixties, had only appeared in a mass-market edition (Grove Press) around 1967. Our interests in poetry were otherwise divergent: John read Yves Bonnefoy and both he and Alan had read many of the more obscure English sonneteers of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. My own interests around then centred on Pound, the Black Mountain poets, and Basil Bunting. My two friends were precocious but I was a slow starter. When I wrote ‘East’ I sensed that they had been waiting for me to do something like it.

On the surface it isn’t very much like Berrigan at all, other than in its patchwork feel with the lines seemingly scissored in and the eruptions of advertisements and news headlines. The time given in the first section – ‘8 p. m.’ – may be a small gesture of my indebtedness. The sections are all ‘traditional’ sonnet length: fourteen lines (so the section that is numbered ‘2 & 3’ and set out as a newspaper cutting, breaking off in mid sentence is, if you count all the lines including the headers, fourteen times two).

There are clearly other writers behind the poem. The most obvious one is Charles Olson, whom Berrigan would probably have found ponderous, eminently worthy of a fake interview (like the one he did with John Cage). One of Olson’s shorter sequences is called ‘West’, and it is this poem (plus ‘Buffalo Ode’) that generated my own poem and gave me the title. The movement of the sections backwards and forwards though time comes partly from Olson’s way of doing history where the evidences are presented as they unfold to the historian, not reshaped into a conventional historical argument. The time shifts also come from William Faulkner and the way he chose to tell a story (The Sound and the Fury) in a non-chronological manner.

Obviously my own memory and events in the history of my father’s family are central to the poem too. But these are placed against items from newspapers of the day whether trivial (‘CLERIC SPEAKS OUT AGAINST MIXED BATHING’) or momentous (such as the lines about the My Lai massacre that was before the courts as the poem was being written). In doing this I signal that my own experience is no more important than whatever else is going on. Within the poem there are lines that place it as a literary artefact (referring also to my own situation as a putative literary scholar) such as ‘Compare/contrast selected passages/with special reference to poetic qualities’.

It’s not a poem I have chosen to perform much over the years, partly because it is visually oriented. It is possible to ‘do’ the newspaper cutting from 1912 as a kind of radio piece, and to change voice for other sections but, on the whole, the direction my writing took was not a dramatic one and I mistrusted the more florid styles of performance. I’m happy just to see the words and phrases in this piece sit next to each other rather than hear them.

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