Friday, November 23, 2012

The deracination of New England poetry

From time to time on this blog I have talked about New England poetry and poets.

There is a common view around about the death of poetry. Newsweek announced it in 2003. Now Newsweek, or at least the printed version, is on its deathbed too.

Is New England poetry dead?

No, not if measured by output. There are more New England poets or poets with New England connections than at any time in our history. And yet much New England poetry has become deracinated, pulled out by the roots from its native environment.

Some of our poets and especially those from the Armidale school are themselves deracinated, bought to Armidale by circumstance, removed from their original homes, rebels against society, not at home in their new environment. Their writing forms one theme in New England’s cultural history, part of that history but also part of the poets’ isolation from their previous world. The isolation was formed then; Armidale accentuated it.

Beyond them, there is a problem not unique to New England but part of a broader malaise in which poetry has become an element in social angst, statements about the poet’s perception of the universals of life. Beyond that still are two further problems: poets have become disconnected from their area, while those living in the area no longer have access to the poetry.

The greatest New England poets, Judith Wright and Les Murray come to mind, have a deep emotional connection to the area’s geography. In a broad sense, their poems survive because they are such good writers that someone without context can still enjoy them. In a narrower sense, their words have continuing power at a much more local level because they resonate in our guts.

One of our challenges, one that has been partly met by people such as Julian Croft and Michael Sharkey, lies in just knowing who our poets are and how they fit in our own literary tradition.

The poets themselves may not see themselves that way. George James Macdonald, the Commissioner of Crown Lands who named Armidale, wrote poetry for his own pleasure and to ease his loneliness. He did not see himself as a New England poet. The concept of New England that I use as a frame did not exist. Yet he is part of our cultural history.

Outside the work of people like Julian or Michael or, to a lesser extent myself, no mechanism exists to describe our poetry to those living in New England. We have become as deracinated as some of the Armidale poets, cut of from our past.

I think that’s a bit sad, for it means that we are cut off from the words and emotions that give context to our own areas and life. Our deeper roots have been removed.


Denis Wright pointed out in a comment that Kardoorair Press was still a going concern. They are indeed and long may they continue! Our joint blogging friend Neil Whitfield mentioned one of their recent books in his post Our River Days and the Croker Island kids.

The problem lies not in the content - there are more published writers in the broader New England that at any time in our history. The problems lie in access and the absence of a common frame. Access in that distribution channels for small run publications have decayed. A common frame in that the rising output is simply not seen in any context.

Kadoorair itself is part of the New England cultural and intellectual tradition. Again, who knows?  The Press's web site states:

Kardoorair's first publication, Loose Federation, was released in January 1980 and featured the work of Michael Sharkey and Julian Croft. Croft subsequently was a Commonwealth Poetry Prize winner and Sharkey a much published poet and respected literary critic. Kardoorair now has over 60 publications.

I mentioned Michael and Julian in the post. Living in Armidale, they and the other local poets including Anthony Bennett rebelled against what they saw as the dominance of the Balmain set. This is New England poetry and other writing, the need to assert against the dominance of perceived (and actual) small cliques who control key outlets and funding sources not because of quality, but of location.

Perhaps another post? 


Denis Wright said...

What about Kardoorair, Jim? I just checked and see they're still a going concern.

Jim Belshaw said...

Yes they are indeed, Denis; I bought some of theirs on my last trip for my New England collection. There are more books including poetry being published by New England writers than ever before. It's quite remarkable. Part of the problem is that nobody knows!