Share

Dear Muses? John Forbes and a classical heritage in contemporary Australian poetry

Does it make sense to invoke the Muses in Australia today? If you come across a reference to Calliope or her sisters in poetry of the last one hundred years it is likely to be ironic. Few of us believe our poems will be better for praying to a committee of stola-clad ladies sitting on a mountain in Greece. It is easy to parody this representation, and in doing so, to mark our distance from the world of Parnassus. Inspiration now takes other forms.

But is there a different way in which we can still invoke the Muses? When Dante summons these pagans in his Christian epic their presence cannot be fully explained through literary convention, or irony or a belief in pantheism. They have become a mouthpiece for the poet to acknowledge the continuing importance of a cultural heritage that radiates out from the Classical world and into the present day. In addressing the Muses we talk to that inheritance. We also take on the role of custodians, with a responsibility both to preserve it and to be aware of the ways we appropriate and transform it creatively.

Polyhymnia the Muse of sacred poetry

Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred poetry, sacred hymn and eloquence as well as agriculture and pantomime (detail). Francesco del Cossa, 1455-1460.

In the introduction to their anthology Contemporary Australian Poetry, the editors identify an underlying incredulity in the Australian psyche, a reluctance to believe wholeheartedly in affirmations of truth and belief. They go on to say, ‘we do not have the traditions, found in some European or Asian nations, which can operate as substitutes for belief’, but rather, we are a sort of natural postmodern country, ‘one that arrived at the groundlessness of postmodernism through cultural and geographic circumstances’. I’m not so sure. I think we have maintained strong ties to a range of traditions, and our poets have been instrumental in keeping them alive.

In this essay I want to argue for the continuing importance of a classical heritage and its later European manifestations in the evolving creation of an Australian poetic culture. Sometimes we present those traditions as a burden or even an obstacle. To show deference to them – with their deities and dainty tropes – has been thought a betrayal of the unique qualities of our here and now, and a perpetuation of our colonial yoke.  But in shaking off that yoke we need to be careful not to collapse the distinction between the British Empire and the Roman, between the Victorians and Virgil. I’m interested in poets who are engaged in a struggle with the past and seek to transform it into new forms of art. The tactics employed are ecumenical rather than insular, they seek to reanimate rather than ridicule the Muses.

I want to take that figure of the Muse, together with her cousin the Sibyl, as symbols of a Classical tradition and ask what place they may still have in contemporary Australian poetry. Is it possible to evoke them today without constraining ourselves within markers of disbelief? Can we sign a poem that takes up Aphrodite today ‘yours sincerely’? I will start and finish with a brief discussion of two poems of my own, but the core of the essay considers John Forbes. I don’t want to suggest the superiority of my work by bookending Forbes in this way. This essay began as an attempt at self-reflection. As I was writing, it seemed appropriate to turn as a point of contrast to one of our best poets to have engaged with these issues in ways I had imagined to be different to my own.

In ‘Volatiles’, a poem I published in The Yellow Gum’s Conversion, there is a reference to a Sibyl. The poem begins,

Strange for the season, but there it was,
a cold wind from the south. Dead or insect-
ravaged leaves were shaken off rivergums
and whirled hard across a tract where the Goulburn
opened the bush like a furrow. It pulled me up,
as if a Sibyl’s scattered forecasts
were there for the grabbing.
Each had turned to a hovering moment,
a way back to reckon the day’s alloy,
odd as a bowerbird’s hoard: bright trinket-words,
gut-wrenches, regrets.  …

Following publication I received a comment, given half in jest, to the effect that my classical reference was out of place in Australia today. The Sibyls were oracles said once to have inhabited holy sites in Greece and Italy such as Delphi and Cumae. Since the time of Virgil and his contemporaries they have also inhabited and loomed large in Western literature. It was at Cumae that the Sibyl famously wrote the answer to questions on a leaf and then summoned a wind to scatter the leaves, making the answer the supplicant required so close at hand and yet impossible to obtain. Dante reimagined the Sibyl of Cumae in the final canto of the Commedia, at the point when he is searching for similes to describe how difficult it is to formulate and hold onto the vision he has just witnessed,

Così la neve al sol si disigilla
così al vento ne le foglie levi
si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.

just as snow melts in the sun,
just as the oracles the Sibyl wrote on leaves
were scattered by the wind.

[Paradiso 33, 61-63]

I liked the idea of imagining a Sibyl in a landscape which was typical of the Goulburn Valley in north-central Victoria. It seemed to enrich the long tradition of evoking such classical figures in Western poetry by imagining them in a radically new context, but it also allowed me to affirm these places, the floodplains of river red gums along the Broken and Goulburn rivers, places I had long thought I needed to escape from, as worthy of poetry.

That juxtaposition pleased me because it embodied the uneasy way as a poet my allegiances lie with my language as much as they do with the places in which I dwell. In the case of English, the languages and stories of the Greeks and the Latins underpin a portion of our cultural heritage. It seemed right to continue to explore those stories and etymologies, even in the antipodes, however antediluvian they might appear. Wasn’t this reimagining of a pagan figure in a Christian context, for example, what Dante had done in the culminating final canto of his epic, right at the point in which he is struggling to find a way to retell his vision of God? Milton does something similar at the opening of Book 7 of Paradise Lost:

Descend from Heav’n, Urania, by that name
If rightly thou art call’d whose voice divine
Following, above th’ Olympain Hill I soare,
Above the flight of Pegasean wing.
The meaning, not the Name I call: for thou…
Nor of the Muses nine, nor on the top
Of old Olympus dwell’st, but heav’nly-borne
Before the Hills appeerd, or Fountain flowd,
Thou with Eternal Wisdom didst converse.

It wasn’t subservience to a tradition, then, but an attempt to keep the two, the old and the new, in a working and vital relationship. I wanted to find a way to transform that inheritance into a work of art that might be faithful to our own age, while paying homage to our ancestors.

Perhaps what I had not adequately done was to signal a distrust of those traditions in the poem itself. One method often employed to signal distrust of received ideas or mythologies is the use of irony. Indeed what my local critic specifically found missing in ‘Volatiles’ was an ironic stance. Irony would allow my poem to signal its awareness of the complex tradition of invoking a sibyl and its limitations as myth, but at the same time assert its own independence and autochthonous interests. Irony might be a way of distinguishing my own aestheticising of the landscape from that of a nineteenth-century poet like Barron Field, who wrote in ‘Kangaroo’,

Kangaroo, Kangaroo!
Thou Spirit of Australia,
That redeems from utter failure,
From perfect desolation,
And warrants the creation
Of this fifth part of the Earth,
Which would seem an after-birth,
Not conceiv’d in the Beginning
(For GOD bless’d His work at first,
And saw that it was good),
But emerg’d at the first sinning,
When the ground was therefore curst; —
And hence this barren wood!

Here, of course, the retelling of the Genesis myth to incorporate ‘this fifth part of the Earth’ evokes biblical rather than classical traditions in its dismissive vision of the colonists’ new environment. However, the epigraph to this poem, ‘mixtumque genus, prolesque biformis’, comes from a description of the Minotaur in Book VI of the Aeneid. In Field’s poem there is a clear subservience to the ‘imported’ tradition and its values to which the new landscape fails to adhere. That failure, that lack of known tropes, would allow the landscape to be cleared and settled imaginatively in such poems, just as it was physically by the axe and bullock team. There is in such fawning to tradition as model, and in such little regard for the actuality of the new context in which Field finds himself, a pretension and a disjunct which I do not look kindly on. I liked to imagine my own piece had found a better balance, in which old and new were in dialogue. I didn’t feel the need to place the sibyl in quotation marks, because the reference was not a pretension of knowledge of a classical tradition that somehow validated the poem’s colonisation and naming of the Goulburn river. Rather, it threw them together on equal footing. Just as I felt the two ideas vied equally for attention in myself – the landscape which I had trod since birth, and the language I had uttered in time to that walking. Furthermore, I felt the colloquial opening, ‘Strange for the season’, together with words like ‘reckon’, and phrases like ‘odd as a bowerbird’ and ‘gut-wrenches’, all obviated in their own small way any pretensions to self-importance and deference to the past which might be associated with the evocation of a sibyl.

The editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry also identify the way distrust often manifests locally in the colloquial tenor of Australian speech. ‘The colloquial is, among other things, the speech of the abrasive testing of one’s peers, of the persistent challenge to unfounded statements’. The colloquial is a powerful challenge to the pretensions of importance when they manifest in language. The politician’s weasel words, the theorist’s abstractions, the poet’s tired rhetoric and tropes are all cut down to size by colloquial speech. Some of our best poets, Les Murray foremost among them, have been masters of this use of language. At times the colloquial has been tied to a nationalist agenda. But the link is not set in stone. The colloquial is plain speech, and hence, parochial in the good sense of that word. It exists everywhere, with its own personality, in each family or group where verbal communication is vibrant and essential to life.

Dwelling on Nature’s Nothing

The classical Greek word from which our own term irony derives is εἰρωνεία. In Greek comedy the Eiron was the underdog who regularly triumphed over the boastful poser, the Alazon, thanks to his wit. If the editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry are correct, then perhaps Eiron could be adopted as a typically Australian character, for irony is an expression of the speaker’s reluctance to believe. For Socrates the word irony was closely associated with the idea of dissimulation affected to provoke or confound an antagonist. Socrates would profess to know nothing, but then proceeded to show that his adversary knew even less. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle placed εἰρωνεία at one pole whose opposite was false pretention. Here εἰρωνεία seems to have been closer in meaning to what we would term ‘understatement’. Roger Crisp in his translation of the Nicomachean Ethics uses the term ‘self depreciation’, which makes sense in that context, since Aristotle is discussing individual virtues. But it can be useful to extend Aristotle’s dichotomy and consider irony as a powerful corrective against pretensions of knowledge and self-importance, whether it be directed at ourselves or at others.

We still need irony today. It is difficult, however, to generalize about irony since it has more shades of colour than a paint shop, and is harder to pin down than tone of voice. It’s worth recalling the more extreme end of Socratic irony, one which has been to the fore in the last century or two and remains with us today. This is where irony is employed not as a corrective, but as an end in itself, as an expression of negativity. At this point it is hard to distinguish irony from hopelessness. John Donne captured something of this in ‘A Litany’ when he tells us to take care

that wit born apt high good to doe,
by dwelling lazily
on Nature’s nothing, be not nothing too.

Wit is a close relative of irony. In both we find quick intelligence gets to the heart of things, cutting through the bombast to reveal a barer but truer vision. Originally wit meant mental capacity, knowledge, understanding. Donne is enunciating an important warning, however. Wit has the capacity to do great good, to challenge unfounded pretensions and false sincerities, but it needs to be kept in check.

The Italian word for wit is ingegno, which can also cover the idea of genius. For Dante, wit is a gift from God and must be used wisely to help bring man closer to the divine. In Dante’s portrait of Ulysses, that Greek hero has the gift of genius and a tongue of flame that can dance with eloquence and stir up passions in a crowd. He also has a passion to understand the world in all its facets. He is driven by a desire for knowledge. And yet for Dante there was something flawed in Ulysses’ character. We encounter it when wit and irony exceed their remit as a tool to dismantle the pretensions of an adversary. Instead they destroy all common ground, even that of language. We might call it irony as modus vivendi, as expression of nihilism.

‘O Palpitations, go away!’

At first glance John Forbes would seem to be a poet who throws off the past in order to write a poetry that is faithful to the present. In her Foreword to Forbes’ Collected Poems, Gig Ryan celebrates the ‘faultlessly contemporary and anti-nostalgic’ voice of Forbes. Collected Poems offers a number of references to the past in just this light. Take, for example, ‘the way to beat inflation is to live in the past’, and ‘I want to believe the beautiful lies / the past spreads out like a feast’. In each case Forbes collapses an important distinction between living in and relating to the past. ‘Why not forget everything / Patrick White ever wrote?’ he provokes in ‘Sydney’. This is a poetry that beautifully captures the spirit of scepticism and self-confidence of a group of poets who found their voice in the seventies. As he writes in the opening of ‘Rocket to Rome’, which is subtitled ‘Homage to the Ramones’

Read about the Goliard Poets
so long dead & so like you –

sile philomela pro tempore
surge cantilena de pectore

and think how little you deserve
the kisses of the Muse you serve,

play rock’n’roll for hours
until the neighbours cower …

The Goliard poets are fitting precursors to Forbes with that motto ‘keep quiet, nightingale, and let me sing!’ The nightingale might easily stand in for tradition. Throw it off in favour of self expression and rock’n’roll. This is poetry that has learnt from Frank O’Hara to go on its nerve.

And yet Forbes is often a more complex poet than he at first appears. ‘Rocket to Rome’ is typical in its continual interrogation of what sort of heritage we might expect from Rome. The poem seeks alternative forebears in the Goliards and Joey Ramone, but it doesn’t dismiss the past outright. Similarly, that line about forgetting Patrick White in the poem ‘Sydney’ is followed by a quote from Christopher Brennan, ‘My days of azure have forgotten me’. Sampled for its incongruousness? Perhaps. But perhaps not, given that the narrator (addressing himself in the second person singular) then talks of ‘… cerulean music / coming out of your head’. It’s absurd and slightly tongue-in-check – but only slightly. Brennan and White with their status in the canon persist to challenge Forbes. The end of the poem makes this very clear, for it picks up the well-worn trope that says literature can outlast death:

others have armchairs
& opinions about things

but you sing a song like
the clinking of schooners

the city’s still hearing
when they’re dead & gone

White, Brennan, and Forbes himself all seem to have booked their places in a common pantheon. Forbes satirizes the tradition, but in doing so he reveals his own investment in it. He is struggling against rather than ignoring his forerunners.

There is a restless and unceasing need to compare the here and now in Australia with the elsewhere and former in Forbes, from early on in pieces like ‘Four Heads & how to do them’, to a poem like ‘Anzac Day’. In this last piece, while other nations earnestly and self-deludingly assigned significance to sacrifice for one’s country, Australian soldiers were different: ‘unamused, unimpressed / they went over the top like men clocking on’. Forbes might be the most patriotic poet we have produced, and the one who expresses the most confidence in being Australian. In these comparisons he is irreverent rather than deferential as he challenges Europe and its traditions to live up to the hype. Take for example, ‘Admonition’, quoted whole:

Be still, my beating heart, & you, body
Don’t go banging into that tree—
The one the girl turned into, back
When the gods were like they are
In the Collected Poems of A.D. Hope.
& arms stop waving and legs don’t dance
As if an invisible band was playing
A Fitzroy version of ‘Picture This’.
Consider instead this cool Melbourne
Morning & the iconic self it suggests;
The laundromat, the review you haven’t
Written yet, or choosing 5 dead certs
For an all-up bet (& when they win
You blow the lot on bills and rent!)
That’s Grace enough this mild autumn day, so
Like I say, Oh palpitations, go away!

‘When the gods were like they are / in the Collected Poems of A D Hope’, he writes with considerable sarcasm. The bluntness of the address, and the playful questioning of the disjunct between imported tradition and local environment, seem typically Australian in character, and contrast with the patrician tone of much of Hope’s poetry.

In ‘Admonition’ the narrator tries to ignore what the body is saying. He tries to convince himself of the absurdity of continuing to make use of a tradition of love poetry with its tropes of heart palpitations, the body-mind disjunct, and metamorphosis. After all, these tropes are perpetuated out of laziness rather than suitability to Melbourne in the 1990s. And yet there is something futile in that final imperative to go away. The beauty of the poem lies in the fact that the palpitations won’t leave, and won’t be convinced by argument, because they are as irrational as love itself. The narrator is compelled to undergo the litany of clichés associated with unrequited love, and the poet is compelled to write about them.

It is surprising just how many of Forbes’ poems are unrequited love poems. Like the narrator of ‘Admonition’, many poems mock not so much the traditional tropes associated with love, but rather the poet’s inability to get beyond them.

Your feelings return
like duped insurgents, clogging
the streets with their tears.

This is from ‘Holy Week’. There is also this from ‘The Harbour Bride’:

                                   Her barge is bedecked
with bales of yellow $50 notes
                                   & you can't believe it
as she disappears towards Vaucluse –
your suntanned Aphrodite,
                                                    waving
almost reluctantly,
goodbye to you

In ‘Love Poem’ the Iraq war becomes an objective correlative for the poet’s morose love-sickness. The poem is saved from bathos by the self irony of lines like, ‘as I curl up with the war / in lieu of you’. But if the irony creates some distance from the initial sentiment, we’re talking millimetres rather than miles. In ‘Rocket to Rome’ he had written:

and think how little you deserve
the kisses of the Muse you serve.

Ultimately, Forbes is forced to admit that, despite his love for the Ramones, despite the urge to throw off the past, he too has been faithful to the Muse.

Finally, I turn to ‘On Tiepolo’s Banquet of Cleopatra’, a poem which uses the eighteenth-century Venetian painting housed in the National Gallery of Victoria as a mirror for looking at our own world. Here is the first half of the poem:

Any frayed waiting room copy of Who
could catch this scene: flash Euro-
trash surveys a sulky round faced
überBabe who’s got the lot – what else
could this painting mean, except that
superstars can will their luck, or
just how little raw envy’s hidden by
contempt, so words like ‘Wow! Great
Tits!’ or ‘Comic Opera Wop’ sum up
the observer, not Anthony and Cleopatra,
attached to pets & entourages – our
contemporaries minus coke and sunglasses.

I find the narrative voice difficult to interpret in this poem. I am struck by that phrase, ‘what else could this painting mean’. I can’t help hearing it as a reductive assertion, rather than a proffered challenge to the reader, as if the poem might boil down to the thought, ‘Who needs Tiepolo, or the classical heroes he represents in his paintings, when we have the same thing in contemporary Australian culture’? I sense that same bravura attitude in the use of the word ‘minus’ in the last line. But then the poem turns to address the reader directly. Or is it Forbes who interrogates himself? He asks, is our contempt for Tiepolo’s scene, which expresses itself in the vulgar colloquialisms, really a ploy to conceal our envy? Envy of what? Of the lavish lifestyle of ephemeral celebrities, sure, but also the longevity and lavishness of our European heritage. It is this durability of Antony and Cleopatra – the fact that painters and writers have built up accretions of meaning around their names for 2000 years – that distinguishes them from our contemporaries. In this regard they are minus nothing, and harder to dimiss than the latest gossip magazine.

Aletheia

In A Defence of Ardor, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski describes how in our world, contrary to the classical world, irony has come to express a disillusionment ‘with the collapse of utopian expectations, an ideological crisis provoked by the erosion and discrediting of those visions that hoped to replace the traditional metaphysics of religious faith with eschatological political theories’. Zagajewski suggests we don’t need to abandon irony, but rather to recognise that it is not a primary building block of art. ‘Only ardour is a primary building block in our literary constructions. Irony is, of course, indispensable, but it comes later, … it is more like the windows and doors without which our buildings would be solid monuments, not habitable spaces.’ Zagajewski is coy about what exactly ardour looks like. But we might imagine that in the case of the poet, it will include a love of language, and the effort to speak sincerely through such a medium. This in turn requires a cherishing of the stories and etymologies that each word stores within itself like a tabernacle.

Another Polish writer, Czesław Miłosz, finds in his poetry a balance between the constructive, ecstatic, positive platonic desires in us which we might associate with Zagajewski’s ardour, and the down to earth scepticism of our current culture. He frequently adopts irony, but as with Forbes’ love poems, it is most often directed at himself, and counterbalanced by what he calls ‘a passionate search for the real’. Miłosz’ poetry is both affirmation and negation; exuberant celebration of the world and self critical mockery of one’s own desires. Take for example the poem ‘Magpiety’:

The same and not quite the same, I walked through oak forests
Amazed that my Muse, Mnemosyne,
Has in no way diminished my amazement.
A magpie was screeching and I said: Magpiety?
What is magpiety? I shall never achieve
A magpie heart, a hairy nostril over the beak, a flight
That always renews just when coming down,
And so I shall never comprehend magpiety.
If however magpiety does not exist
My nature does not exist either.
Who would have guessed that, centuries later,
I would invent the question of universals?
[translation by Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott]

In Aristotle’s use of the term εἰρωνεία in the Nichomachean Ethics there was a middle point or golden mean between alazoneia (boastfulness) and eironeia. We swing between a pretence of knowledge spurred on by earnestness and self importance; and at the other extreme, the despair of hopelessness and doubt which push us to an attitude of irony and sarcasm. But at the mid-point, difficult to hold, like trying to walk a tightrope above an abyss, Aristotle placed aletheia, truthfulness, sincerity. I like this idea because it reminds us that irony is an important tool to keep the ego from over-inflating, while recognising that there’s something harder to seek out as well.

In a recent poem I took up some of these ideas, which I would like to end with now. It is called ‘A Twenty-First-Century Poet Timidly Addresses the Muse’.

Dear Muse, I know a man who has vowed to wink
whenever he invokes you. His poems gauge
the tightness of the lips that make a smile
hover between a sneer and dispassionate play.
Some have played the role of Socrates
so well their wit has hardened into zeal.
Although they have demeaned their enemies
the price is our shared vision of what’s real.
I don’t know if you wear a swimming costume,
flaunting your features and eternal youth,
or, dressed in a stola, you control the tribune,
or yearn like the Sibyl in her cave for death.
Rather I think of world-old anima mundi,
and know where I find my words in unison
it was miracle not acumen of mine
that took the lead, some timely intuition
that cuts across the nihilistic bars
we hold before the world. I think of how
you sanction song that calls the moon and stars.
Stand by me, Muse. Without you we would howl.

Way back in Imperial Rome Horace happily invokes a pantheon of gods he didn’t seem to believe in. The only explanation I can imagine for this is that it was a way to acknowledge the Greek tradition to which he was beholden. Like the poets of recent generations in Australia, Horace and his contemporaries must have been keenly aware of the disjunct between imported tradition and local environment. Yet this ‘sucking at the dugs of Greece’, as Yeats’ described it, this faith in tradition, came to be considered something Latin authors were eager to maintain and adapt to their own cultural environment.

How do we relate to the complexities of our literary tradition? I have the feeling that Dante’s call to the Muses is more urgent in a place like contemporary Australia. Such is our distance from Europe and the living signs of its past, that we can more easily represent its various manifestations, including those Muses, as a caricature that highlights our differences better than it draws out affinities. If that assertion of contrast has been a strength of our poetic culture, it can also be a limit in moments when our confidence in the uniqueness of the Australian landscape, for example, is undercut by awareness of environmental degradation; of when the search for an autochthonous poetry is stymied by colonial guilt. We are like the Romans looking to the Greeks, yet proudly ourselves, and riddled with doubt due to our colonial predicament.

Auden once wrote that, ‘art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible’. I like that image. It evokes the idea of sharing and mutual respect, of fellowship. It also recalls that the gift of language has been passed down to us from our forebears to be cared for in a relationship of custodianship. It is not a tool to use and abuse. It hints at the attempt to speak with Aristotle’s truthfulness; while being aware of the difficulty of so doing.

The Muses are a good example of this bread-breaking because as we evoke them they become our interlocutors. They put us in contact with a river of poetry that has followed for thousands of years. Of course the Muse comes with cultural baggage. Historically the Muses have been gendered as female, symbols of irrational poetic power to be harnessed and controlled by the male poet. We should be wary of these dynamics. But as creative writers we have the choice between dismissal on the one hand, and recuperation and adaptation on the other. To my mind something vital and necessary persisted in the Muse. It did not have to be a worn-out trope, redolent of sexual dichotomies Germaine Greer takes aim at in her book Slip-Shod Sibyls. I liked to think the Muse might continue as an embodiment of the idea that poetry does not exist in a vacuum, and does not arise exclusively from the genius or angst of the individual. Much of the grind of existence works against poetry. In those brief moments when we find an openness to the world, and the stars and our disparate thoughts align, a poem may germinate. When it does its arrival is something of a miracle, Muse-given.

I mentioned a river of poetry in the previous paragraph, and perhaps it requires further elucidation. There has long been a connection between rivers and poetry. Horace in Ode IV 2 famously described Pindar as a river in flood, rushing down a mountainside

monte decurrens velut amnis, imbres
quem super notas aluere ripas,
fervet immensusque ruit profundo
Pindarus ore.

Like a river rushing down a mountainside, swollen by rains above its normal banks, Pindar boils and surges immeasurably on with his deep booming voice [translation Niall Rudd].

Dante takes up the image to describe Virgil when they first meet in the opening canto of his Commedia. However, he transforms the river into something more than a symbol of impetuous verbal power. Virgil embodies a spiritual and linguistic fecundity that has nourished future readers and writers,

Or se’ tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?

So are you Virgil, that source of speech
that grows into a wide river?

Knowledge as a stream works well because it maintains the fluid nature of our understanding. It recalls another image with which I would like to end – that of the Greek meander pattern. The meander is a continuous line symbolising unity and infinity. Unlike our use of the verb meander, it does not suggest wandering aimlessly. It has forwards impetus, and yet that impetus is checked by a curving backwards, like a series of waves. In this way our desire to move forwards is balanced and enriched by keeping one eye on the past.

This essay grew out of a talk given by Simon West on classical influences in his poetry for the ACIS conference in Prato, Italy, 2017.

Works Cited:

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated and edited by Roger Crisp, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, 2000.
W H Auden, ‘ Prose Volume VI 1969-1973, ed. Edward Mendelson, Princeton University Press, 2015.
John Donne, The Divine Poems, edited by Helen Gardner, Second Ed., Oxford University Press, 1978.
John Forbes, Collected Poems, 1970–1998, Foreword by Gig Ryan, Brandl & Schlesinger, Rose Bay NSW, 2001.
Germaine Greer, Slip-Shod Sibyls, Penguin, London, 1996.
Horace, Odes, edited and translated by Niall Rudd, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2004.
Rex Ingamells, Conditional Culture, F. W. Preece, Adelaide, 1938.
Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave (eds.), Contemporary Australian Poetry, Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe, 2016.
Czeslaw Miłosz, New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001, Ecco, New York, 2001.
John Milton, The Poetical Works of John Milton, edited by Helen Darbishire, OUP, London, 1958.
Simon West, The Yellow Gum’s Conversion, Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe, 2011.
Adam Zagajewski, A Defence of Ardor, trans. from Polish by Clare Cavanagh, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2004.