Beautiful day in Sydney, what better to do than take the bus into town for a free event at the Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘The Young Appreciators‘ was part of the fourth floor exhibition, avoiding myth & message: Australian artists and the Literary world (capitalisation not mine!), which seems to be mainly about artists and literary folk from the late 1960s and on – that is to say, not so much Sidney Nolan–Ern Malley as Tim Burns–John Forbes.
Today is the first time I’ve realised that there is a group of Australian poets known as the 68ers, or perhaps the 69ers: John Forbes, Robert Adamson and John Tranter (whom those in the know refer to by second name only), and quite a few others who are sometimes hard to see because of the long shadows cast by those three. The three speakers at today’s event are younger than the 68/9ers: the oldest admitted to 39, and I’d guess the other two were quite a bit younger. That is to say, none of them had been born in those days when I used to go regularly to poetry readings to hear John Forbes, who I thought was a bit of a smart aleck and not as interesting as, say Martin Johnston (another 68/9er who doesn’t seem to cast such a long shadow).
Anyhow, it was fun. The first speaker spoke of Vicki Viidikas, beginning her talk by saying she hadn’t known much about her until after she’d accepted the invitation to talk. Since I’d heard the ABC radio programs that she based most of her talk on (with acknowledgement), I can’t say I was riveted. The second tackled John Forbes, mostly, as she said, in terms of marginalia and biography – mentions of herself she’d found in published Forbes letters, for example. It was in her talk that I became aware that those poets of my youth have since become the subject of academic attention. The third, the elegant poet Tim Wright, speaking softly and swiftly enough to be near to incomprehensible to me, talked about Pam Brown, visibly writhing with embarrassment at having the subject of his talk actually in the room.
I loved the moment during the brief question time when Kerry Leves, another of the apparently short-shadowed 68/9ers, admitted that when he’d seen a particular person’s work on a table in the exhibition, he’d said, ‘I don’t remember her!’ It’s a small world, the world of Australian poets and artists.
And I got a real hand in my understanding of Pam Brown’s poetry. I managed to hear Tim Wright say that her work was in many ways similar to Jennifer Maiden’s, but that whereas you tend to read one of Jennifer Maiden’s poems right through to the end, and when you do you feel you’ve learned something (a true statement), with Pam Brown’s work it’s not like that. You tend to stop and ponder a phrase, stare into space, let it sink in or just be distracted (he called her the master of the poetry of distraction, or something of the sort), then go back and read it again: it’s perfect for reading on public transport. I realised that my unexamined working assumption that reading is a linear process – you start at the beginning and go to the end and derive meaning on the way – has made quite a lot of poetry hard to enjoy. And I do read it while walking the dog — surely picking up a bag of dog poo or playing tug-of-war with a stick between lines should have put me in the perfect state of mind. I’ll try again, not so much harder, as with less resistance to the forces of distraction.