Vulgarity in Australian Poetry

Vagabond Press Rare Objects book launch, Sydney 2013

One of the best things about talking to people in real life is that they will sometimes say things that can affect you in unpredictable ways. Comments deemed disposable on Twitter or Facebook turn out to have an almost spooky resonance when delivered in person. Conversely, the unexpected turn can take on the hue of the foreseen as Sydney poet Toby Fitch discovered at the launch of Vagabond’s new triptych of ‘rare objects’ chapbooks by John Tranter, Kate Lilley and a. j. carruthers. Vagabond’s chapbooks come in numbered and signed editions of 100 and Fitch, an avid sports fan, almost asked for an alternative when he randomly chose the 87th copy of Tranter’s Ten Sonnets. In Australian cricket, the number 87 is ‘the devil’s number’ because of its 13-run proximity to the sought-after century. If I were to mention via Twitter or Facebook that Fitch decided to live with the omen and that his next randomly selected chapbook – The Tulip Beds by a. j. carruthers – was numbered 13 you might be given to dismiss the entire episode as mere coincidence.

But poets and numbers follow each other around as the first poem in Kate Lilley’s Realia demonstrates. Realia are ‘Real things or actual facts, esp. as distinct from theories about or reactions to them’ and though Lilley’s “GG” is ostensibly a list poem that presents ‘Select items of Property from the Estate’ of Greta Garbo it can be said to work as a compact treatise on the difference between accounting and mathematics. The listing, with its emphasis on the detriti of everyday life elevated through association with the famous actress, rigorously invokes the Real. What is a ‘Stim-U-Lax Jnr Hand-Held’ you want to ask and why did Garbo have one? A ‘yoga onesie matching headband’ discarded by you or I would more likely see out its ends of days in the bin of unsaleables at the local St Vincent de Paul but along with ‘troll dolls’, ‘knit heads’, ‘horsehair toque’ and ‘smoking cessation kit’, the onesie signals here the invention of a new kind of poetic object. As Clemens has noted, for Alain Badiou, ‘mathematics represents nothing – to speak Lacanese, its terms are Real, not Imaginary or Symbolic; furthermore, mathematics is the only possible basis of a rupture of common sense, and is hence genuinely egalitarian and aristocratic at the same time.’

Following the chapbook readings – which included Tranter’s memorable rhyming of babies with rabies and a series of generically engineered metaphors from Carruthers ‘in which a fossilized species deserving of the name Problematica is poeticized by a scientist, who found in the three lines of a stave an image worthy of the poetry of nature’ – I spotted the poet and Forbes scholar Sam Moginie and another man talking to a woman I recognized from her Twitter photo as the poet and editor Elena Gomez. Conversation quickly turned to the escapades of a mutual friend who had once been in a band named after a Rothko painting. By now weary of the rolling fortune of coincidences we almost didn’t notice we were standing in front of a calendar of Rothko reproductions. Gomez’s companion who I failed to recognize as the poet Rory Dufficy even though we’ve exchanged Facebook messages and I’m a fan of his poems remarked via T. J. Clark on the vulgarity of highfalutin ideas in art.

As I later discovered, Clark introduces his notion of vulgarity as a way of evading or as he might have it ‘passing through’ the impasse that rises up out of Hegel’s notoriously pessimistic figuration of art as ‘a thing of the past’. In what at first appears to be an optimistic assessment, Clark remarks that Hegel ‘could never have guessed that the disenchantment of the world would take so long’. What he didn’t account for, according to Clark, was the possibility that ‘the inability to go on giving Idea and World sensuous immediacy … would itself prove a persistent, maybe sufficient subject’ for art. From this perspective, the role of Modernism comes to be that which makes the ‘endlessness of the ending’ bearable through its persistent restaging. As Clark succinctly has it, ‘Every modernism has to have its own proximate Black Square.’

But Clark’s apparent positivism turns out to be doing a kind of double or even triple-duty melancholia through which he not only joins Hegel in mourning the end of art but goes on to accompany multiple modernisms on their touristic adventures to the various sites of the trauma. Which doesn’t change anything for art and, indeed, only makes things worse by re-enchanting the world ‘With a magic no more and no less powerful … than that of the general conjuror of depth and desirability back into the world we presently inhabit.’ Clark is lamenting the insistence of art as glittering commodity and the abandonment of one of the things that Hegel’s myth made possible – ‘the maintenance of some kind of difference between art’s sensuous immediacy and that of other (stronger) claimants to the same power.’

If Clark doesn’t go as far as someone like, say Badiou, whose “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art” urges artists to resist the ‘absolute desire for new forms’ that for him amounts to the ongoing synthesis of formalism and Romanticism, then he is at least on the same unguided tour when he writes ‘I find it hard to believe that the present myth of post-ness will sustain itself much past the year 2000.’ Clark’s way out of the impasse ‘comes from proposing another set of possible descriptions that the paintings in question might “come under”. The idea of ‘vulgarity’ is positioned as a way of thinking again about Abstract Expressionist paintings. One of the advantages of this move, as he writes, is that ‘discursively it points two ways: to the object itself, to some abjectness or absurdity in its very make-up (some tell-tale blemish, some atrociously visual quality which the object will never stop betraying however hard it tries); and the object’s existence in a particular social world, for a set of tastes and styles of individuality which have still to be defined, but are somehow there, in … the possibility of seeing at last, and even being able to describe, the ways they take part in a particular triumph and disaster of the petty bourgeoisie.’

In Handbook of Inaesthetics Badiou remarks that ‘we must above all not conclude that it is philosophy’s task to think art. Instead, a configuration thinks itself in the works that compose it.’ I suspect that Clark’s proposal risks functioning as a philosophical task in this sense. What is vulgarity but an ascription that arises out of morality rather than ethics? Back in Melbourne, I think about Dufficy’s remarks on vulgarity when encountering “Mother with Broom” by
J. S. Harry:

a young mad woman
with a post-natal belly
dances nude
in great slow circles
to an audience of one: a dead child:

and Rrose Selavy by John Forbes which, published in 1981, can be read through the terms of Clark’s assessment as a spectacular loving list of the desired object’s attributes and/or a lament for the seemingly unavoidable commodification of love and art. At once aristocratic and egalitarian, the poem makes me think of that moment at the end of the Vagabond launch when the Gleebooks staff were gathering the empty wine glasses and Dufficy, Moginie and Gomez were getting ready to leave. Gomez, staring at the ground, said ‘I’m going to be thinking about this conversation for a long time.’ If I’d had more time to prepare I would have replied ‘Julie the hand-made spine of rare first editions sunburns / under the Eiffel Tower’.