[27 May 2023: This was originally posted to my old blog on 1 November 2007, and not retrieved when I moved to the WordPress platform. I’m republishing it now because Bill McKibben’s name came up at the 2023 Writers’ Festival, and this blog post is where I made a note of my first impressions of his Deep Economy.]
Charles Firth, American Hoax (2nd edition, Picador 2007)
William Carlos WIlliams, Selected Poems (edited by Charles Tomlinson, New Directions 1985)
Yukio Mishima, The sailor who fell from grace with the sea (translated John Nathan 1965, Vintage 1994)
Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The wealth of communities and the durable future (Henry Holt 2007)
John Tranter, editor, The Best Australian Poetry 2007 (UQP 2007)
Caroline Overington, Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board scandal (Allen & Unwin 2007)
Geoffrey McSkimming, Cairo Jim and the Astragals of Angkor (Hachette Children’s Books 2007)
Charles Firth invented five commentators, basing their opinions on top hits on Google, and set out as an experiment to see if they could make it in US public debate. One of them got a lazy, plagiarised, largely nonsensical article attacking Cindy Sheehan published, and others had moderate success in being taken seriously in Internet conversation. It’s a disturbing and intelligent book, but undermined by the author’s apparent commitment to his comedian identity. Clive James objects to being classified as a humorist. He wants his wit and humour to be elements of his essays rather than their purpose: the essays, he says, are serious attempts to communicate ideas. I’d like to see Charles and Clive get together for a quiet chat some time, and Charles come out from behind his relentlessly Chaserian persona.
Having acquired a BA (Hons) in the 1970s majoring in Eng Lit without ever reading any William Carlos Williams, I thought it wouldn’t be a crime now to read more than ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and ‘This is just to say’ … And indeed the book is an education and a joy. I did go hunting for learned commentary so as to deepen my appreciation of the poetry, and had the perverse pleasure of deciding that in some cases I would trust my own reading over that of the scholar. For instance, in an article on WCW’s most anthologised poem – essentially unparaphraseable eight short lines noting the existence of a red wheelbarrow and some white chickens – I found this:
This is a poem about the tension between regularity and irregularity, and it invokes irregularity on many levels: metrical, sexual, racial. Mouth/vulva, this ‘colored’ object beckons ‘white chickens’, which like the satyrs on Keats’s urn, approach but never touch, except in the palpable rhythms and vowels of the lines, which rise – but then fall again. After the phallic assertion of the emphatic iamb ‘upon’, the poem shifts to falling rhythms, and as the speaker and his Lucy roll forward like the wheel of the barrow (a tumulus or mound over a grave) in the twelve months/feet of the year with its four regular seasons/stanzas in their ‘diurnal course’, the speaker stammers in the long i’s of the final stanza: I . . . I . . . chicken out.
I would have solemnly, if disappointedly, accepted the Freudian reading of the wheelbarrow as a female symbol, but really: ‘upon’ as a phallic assertion! ‘barrow’ as tumulus! racial tension! the fantastical invocation of Keats and Wordsworth! I’m glad I don’t have to earn a living writing things like that. In fact the way I read the poem it’s pretty much a dismissal of that kind of discourse.
I came to The sailor who fell from grace with the sea with quite a lot of baggage. Yukio Mishima committed ritual suicide when I was 23. This, along with his extreme right-wing politics and his reported preoccupation with body-building put me off. How could someone who was acclaimed as a great writer, a runner-up for the Nobel Prize for Literature, get things so bizarrely wrong? (I was 23, OK?). This is his one novel that I know about without looking, and from its perch on my Reproach Shelf (where it has sat unread with War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice) it exuded a kind of sulphurous glamour.
Without all that foreknowledge I might have thought this was a finely executed exercise in genre horror. It’s certainly well written, capturing beautifully the way people – adults and children, men and women – misunderstand each other’s silences. But it’s not an exercise: in this narrative the writer is fairly evidently struggling with his membership of a death-cult of one: mad, repulsive, deeply horrible, but in the end (for him, apparently) irresistible. It strikes me as being an adult version of the drawings young Mary Bell did in the days before she murdered that little boy: a cry for help. Like Mary’s, it went unheard.
Don’t be put off by the title of Deep Economy. It’s a tremendously readable journey through the hope and terror of our times (not Terror with a capital as in suicide bombs, but lower-case terror as in the world going to hell in a handbasket). Someone once told me of a rule of thumb for comic writers that you need at least three laughs a page to keep up the momentum (a rule which – see above – I wish Charles Firth would ignore). Bill McKibben seems to work to a three-striking-bits-of-information-a-page rule. It was only great self-restraint that stopped me from constantly regaling (or should that be assailing?) companions or passers-by with tidbits.
The subtitle more or less says what the book is about: it challenges the single minded preoccupation with growth as the supreme indicator of economic success, and the ‘hyper individualism’ that that preoccupation involves; and advocates for a durable future as opposed to the likely outcome if things keep moving in the current direction with the current impetus. It’s a passionate, research-based argument for renewed – or brand new – attention to the local: in food production and consumption, and in all other economic activity. It piles up examples of the loss in human terms caused by the ruthless pursuit of economic ‘efficiency’ but it also accumulates a persuasive number of counter-examples, of people forgoing large profits for the sake of the common good.
We assume, because it makes a certain kind of intuitive sense, that industrialised farming is the most productive farming. I mean, if I sit on my porch whittling toothpicks with my Swiss Army knife, I can produce a hundred in a day. If I install a toothpick-whittling machine, I can produce a thousand in an hour. By analogy, a vast Mid-western field filled with high-tech equipment ought to produce more food than someone with a hoe in a small garden. As it turns out, however, this simply isn’t true. If all you are worried about is the greatest yield per acre, then smaller farms produce more food. Which, if you think about it some more, makes sense. If you are one guy on a tractor responsible for thousands of acres, you grow your corn and that’s all you can do: one pass after another with the gargantuan machines across your sea of crop. But if you’re working on ten acres, then you have time to really know the land, and to make it work harder. You can intercrop all kinds of plants: their roots will go to different depths, or they’ll thrive in each other’s shade, or they’ll make use of different nutrients in the soil. You can also walk your fields, over and over, noticing. … Does this sound like hippie nonsense? According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories or dollars.
It’s very much a US book, and I don’t know how much of the specifics is true of Australia (far too much, I expect); but it also looks at the global picture. It has felt like a lifeline as both major party leaders in the current federal election campaign bang on about upward pressure on interest rates in what is fairly blatantly baby-talk economics. Intuitively, to this uneducated mind the prevailing view that permanent growth is the only way forward looks like a recipe for disaster. Here is a substantial, reasoned, systematic move towards an alternative way of thinking about these things. Not that Bill McKibben is trying to pass himself off as a brilliant innovator; his brilliance lies not only in his throng of memorable stories to flesh out his argument, but also in the mass of telling quotes from an army of researchers, experimenters and thinkers.
I confess that with The Best Australian Poetry 2007 and me it was irritation at first sight. What does it mean to publish ‘best of 2007’ book in September? A quick look up the back of the book reveals that a couple of its poems were first published in 2005 and the rest in 2006.
Ok, that’s my first nitpick out of the way. Then I looked at the list on page 98 of ‘Journals Where the Poems First Appeared’ (the book is subtitled ‘a selection of the best poems from Australia’s literary journals’), and was a bit surprised to see that Quadrant didn’t get a guernsey. But it turns out that there are poems from that venerable right-wing rag, and from the equally venerable left-wing, though less well funded, rag Overland, which also doesn’t rate a mention on page 98.
And there’s more substantial cause for irritation: more than 40 of the book’s 120 pages are devoted to commentary: introductory material by and about the guest editor and the series editors, and then notes from the contributing poets about the poems, which reminded me inevitably of William Carlos Williams’s remark: ‘You should never explain a poem but it sometimes helps nevertheless.’ Some of the poets’ own commentaries here are witty, some are illuminating, but most are plain dull – this is not a criticism of the poets, since the poems themselves are presumably what they wanted to say.
My mounting irritation didn’t put me in a mood to enjoy the forty poems, some of which, it turns out, are very good. Some, of course, left me cold and uncomprehending. Perhaps all the bumph is meant to deal with the all-to-frequent failure of a lot of post-modern poetry to grab the lay reader; sadly, it only adds to the alienation for this one.
Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have picked up Kickback or Leigh Sales’s Detainee 002 (which I read in September). I’d read enough about both scandals in the newspapers as they were unfolding. But some members of our book club (really a Book Swap) do relish that sort of thing, and recommended these books strongly at our last meeting. I somehow came away with both of them. Caroline Overington’s epigraph, which turns out to be her punchline as well, is a found poem from the utterances of Alexander Downer, who I hope will soon be relieved of the burden of producing such gems:
What you don’t know, you don’t know.
And you can’t get to the heart
Of what you don’t know.
This is a book about last year’s headlines, but it contains a lot of the news that stays news. It’s largely a blow-by-blow account of shonky dealings – Iraq’s corruption of the UN’s Oil-for-Food program as aided and abetted by a highly reputable Australian company and the subsequent cover-up – involving hundreds of millions of dollars: illegal, immoral, carefully ignored for as long as possible by lily-white John Howard and shameless Alexander Downer (who seem to have people on staff whose job is to make sure they never actually see faxes, emails, cables and other inconvenient communications). This was an excellent follow-up to Deep Economy (which I intend to urge on my co-Book-Clubbers), as an extended case study of collateral damage from a single-minded pursuit of profit. I found myself drawing morals from the story:
- For those who sup with the devil, no spoon-handle is long enough
- If you have a conflict of interest with the USA, make sure you’re squeaky clean
- When top members of your organisation go by nicknames like ‘Slug’, don’t let your guard down
- Government organisations that are privatised may not be nastier than long-established capitalist enterprises, they may just be more likely to get caught
- Too many Australian journalists take the government at its word too much of the time
- Page 2 of the newspaper may contain gems
- Not only ladies do protest too much
- Seekers after the truth sometimes have vile motives
- Seekers after the truth can expect to have vile motives attributed to them
- Suppressors of truth sometimes have good intentions
- Under the Howard government, the public service tradition of frank and fearless advice has taken a battering.
I read Cairo Jim and the Astragals of Angkor in a day, just after the final episode of The Sopranos was screened here, while Tony Abbott was impersonating an arrogant callus in his final days in office. As a finale, Astragals offers less closure but more certainty than the former, and inspires more hope and more sorrow than the latter.
In Cairo Jim’s world words like ‘flabbergast’ are part of normal speech, alliteration runs as wild as jungle creepers, similes (all more original than any I’m offering here) sprout like hairs in a mole, evil never wins the day but life would be much less interesting if it didn’t try. I think Geoffrey McSkimming may be the one who told me the rule about frequency of laughs I referred to above: and sure enough, even though this is a chase story with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, it’s the laugh lines that provide the momentum. These books have captured and sustained a loyal and ever-expanding following among their intended readership with no boost from awards and little notice in the press – quite an achievement.
Oh, I did enjoy that analysis of The Red Wheelbarrow!
I recently discussed it with a friend much more erudite than me, the gist of which was that I thought it was just a poem about a wheelbarrow and some chickens and I couldn’t see why anyone thought otherwise. My friend was unable to enlighten me, but *chuckle* now I know!
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