Saturday, March 08, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Australian indigenous poetry

In a piece I wrote earlier in the week, Australian History and the art of Herbert Badham, I referred to the conflicting perceptions of Bernard Smith and Robert Hughes on Australian art.

Smith focused on the evolution of Australian art as a visual expression of Australia, its identity and culture. Hughes looked at Australian art in a more global context. To Smith, Australian art just was. To Hughes, Australian art was essentially derivative and second class. Anybody who reads this blog will know that I belong to the Smith school.

I make this point because Neil Whitfield focused on indigenous poetry in his latest post in his Friday Australian poetry series.

Like Australian art, indigenous writing can be viewed at two levels - as an expression of evolving indigenous thought and culture or, like Robert Hughes, from a broader literary perspective. Again like Australian art, I am interested in the first.

I know far less than I should about Australian indigenous writing. Here I am using the term indigenous rather than Aboriginal to include Torres Strait Islanders.

My views are also complicated by my reactions to the way in which non-Aboriginal writers write about the Aborigines because they strike against my own perceptions, including my view that non-Aboriginal writings actually create a barrier to the understanding of the diversity of the Aboriginal experience.

Take, as an example, Judith Wright's poem Bora Ring. In my January 2007 post on the poem, I pointed to Judith's poignant description of a vanished race and the reality of a continuing Aboriginal tradition in the area that she was writing about. My work since then has extended this point in showing the continuity and complexity of Aboriginal experience in New England.

The poem by Kath Walker, a friend of Judith Wright, is the same type of poem, if written this time by an Aboriginal woman.

The problem for a non-Aboriginal person like myself is to break through the stereotypes including my own perceptions to the writing itself. This is very difficult.

Take, a further example, Adam Shoemaker's Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. This is a valuable introduction, one that I had not seen before Neil referred me to it. Yet it has major ideological overlays.

Shoemaker makes it clear that he is looking at "black" writing. He uses this term to cover not just Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writing, but extends it in some ways to cover all "blacks". He tries to fit Aboriginal writing into a fourth world perspective, the term used to describe original indigenous inhabitants around the world. And he points and counter-points between European and indigenous perspectives.

All this is valuable at one level, but still stands as a barrier between the reader and indigenous writing as indigenous writing.

I am interested in the way that certain Australian writers such as Roland Robinson, a poet who I like and should write about, have attempted to integrate the indigenous experience into their perspective of Australia. But, like Judith Wright, they write from a non-indigenous frame.

Their work is part of broader Australian cultural history, and has little to do with indigenous writing as such, except to the degree that it influences indigenous writing.

Quite a lot of indigenous writing, poetry in particular, is overtly political, formed out of the struggle for indigenous rights and advancement. Kevin Gilbert’s writing is an example.

Kill the legend

Butcher it

With your acute cyncicisms

Your paternal superfluities

With your unwise wisdom

Kill the legend

Obliterate it

With your atheism

Your fraternal hypocrisies

With your primal urge of miscegenation

Kill the legend

Devaluate it

With your sophistry

Your baseless rhetoric

Your lusting material concepts

Your groundless condescension

Kill it

Vitiate the seed

Crush the root-plant

All this

And more you must needs do

In order

To form a husk of a man

To the level and in your own image


This is angry poetry. Some Australian critics have criticised Gilbert's poetry on technical grounds. Yet while I do not agree with him - I actually turned off a TV program about him in protest - there is a raw power to his words. He is writing as he is.

Another issue is the English itself in some writing. There is not scope here to discuss what is now called Aboriginal English, an evolving English dialect that mixes together several very different streams and is in fact a modern media construct. However, we can get a feel for it by looking at another Gilbert poem:

Poor fellow

Simple fellow

Sweet fellow


Sittin’ in the desert

Singin’ desert song

Cryin’ countin’ chickens

Chickens made of lan’

Now in all this, and here I am returning to one of my constant themes, in looking at indigenous writing I want to understand what the writers say, not the external commentators. I also want to understand the variety in the writing, the way that it reflects different experiences across a complex group.


Anonymous said...

I agree Shoemaker is political, and as time goes by this does show; on the other hand his political commitment no doubt motivated what he would have seen as a rescue effort, and a mapping of territory mainstream literary studies had largely ignored -- though the Jindies back in the 50s -- and people like Roland Robinson -- are interesting. So of course is the Judith Wright/ Oodgeroo friendship. However, Shoemaker did us a real service in that book and he probably wouldn't or couldn't had he not been on a mission. Of course there is more to explore.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, I found Shoemaker's work remarkably interesting and am very grateful to you for referring me to it. So I absolutely agree with your point.

We need people on missions to point us to new things.

Time is just too short to allow us to explore the things that we want to. I hope that you will do more on indigenous writing. That way I get to comment!

Tikno said...

Enjoy reading your articles about indigenous Aborigin, especially from your point of view. These articles get my attraction. Thank you for sharing.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Tikno. You are certainly digging down into my posts!

If we put aside current Australian political and policy concerns, my argument here is that these act to conceal Aborigines as people, there is some interesting stuff. I am especially interested in art. A very good blog here is