Pam Brown on Philip Mead's book about Australian Poetry

from Jacket #37 (early 2009)

Philip Mead, Melbourne, 2008 [photo by John Tranter]

Refuting Critical Bewilderment in Twentieth Century Australian Poetries

Philip Mead’s Networked Language: Culture & History in Australian Poetry is a much needed, dynamic ingression in the tiny field of Australian poetics. Critical writing on poetry in Australia is incredibly scant considering the sizeable publication (and associated activities) of poetry. However, as tiresome as it is to note once more, in spite of its volume and vigour, poetry itself remains marginal to Australian culture.

Practising poets need to read poetics. My own bookshelves house many books of essays on poetry by contemporary North American poets and critics, some European and some from the UK, yet relatively few books on Australian poetics. Strategically, Australian poet-editors use their introductions to infrequent anthologies to gesture towards a poetics. So, Philip Mead is working in a disappointingly small world. In his introduction Mead discusses the dearth of critical writings on poetry and, in fact, of Australian literary theory in general. He says

… in the Australian context the critical discourse on poetry lags seriously behind, or is out of sync with, the formal innovativeness and linguistic range of historical and contemporary poetry production. It’s as if literary theory and criticism can’t envisage ways forward. In response to this scenario, the essays that follow are experiments in the theory and practice of a kind of contextual reading, in trying to articulate some of the ways in which poetic language is networked with culture and history.

The phrase “culture and history,” from the book’s subtitle, suggests that these essays are sociologically motivated. The essays are not narrowly ‘Australian’, rather they are links, nodes or points of connectivity in a ‘networked language’, a concept perhaps influenced by the notion of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic mode of knowledge. Mead’s research and approach acknowledges the contribution to literary criticism by theorists from fields other than literature whilst noting the rare use of poetic writings within literary cultural studies. In part, he blames the use (and publication) of poetic texts for teaching purposes and, historically, the reading of these texts as part of the quest for a national identity of this so-recently white-settled country. The identity quest informed the construction of institutional curricula concerning Australian literary studies and its component courses, journals and so on. Mead speculates on how a critical discourse limited by these and other factors led to misinterpretations of some poets’ writings that he re-reads and re-contexualises here.

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