A Shared Poetics

Michael Farrell


Note: The following is a talk – in the form of a verse essay – that I gave at the University of Washington in Seattle on 19 April 2016 at the invitation of Professor Brian Reed. It outlines my PhD project, as well as the postdoctoral work I’ve been doing. I brought the two together through the theme of sharing: in a literary sense, sharing a place in criticism, sharing the page. As such it is not a direct response to the theme of the issue, yet it does deal with the questions raised in relation to the colonial. I have thought of the colonial as being about ownership, particularly with regard to land. The decolonial would then mean turning back the property paradigm. The definition of “colonialism” given by my copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary is itself so colonial it made me laugh: “… alleged policy of exploitation of weak or backward peoples”. More usefully, it gives the origin of the word “colony”: Middle English, from the Latin “colonia,” derived from “colonus” (farmer) and “colere” cultivate. Two historical meanings given for the word are 1. Greek: “independent city founded by emigrants” and 2. Roman: “garrison settlement (usu. of veteran soldiers) in conquered territory”. These etymological fragments remind us that the word was itself a colonised term, a product of the Roman occupation of Britain; that the city of Sydney was a colony, but that ‘somehow’ the idea spread out to the whole continent; that the continuing colonising of Australia is the work of metaphorical veterans with a garrison mentality (centurion Abbott … ). From the point of view of my own history, and my own research, however, what seems most pertinent is the role of farming. That colonialism in Australia meant enforced farming, and the enforced culture of farming. It is farming ideology that drove British colonialism, taking on a whole new fervour in Australia: both de- and recultured; retheologised even. It is not possible, I think, to separate what aspects of the Australian contemporary are farming by other means (whether mining, sport, art, education or bureaucracy) from other histories, but my idea of the decolonial would start by questioning how and where (the thinking formed by) enforced farming takes place, and thinking of other possibilities at these sites. Perhaps sharing might be one of these possibilities. 



Rodney Harrison talks of a shared history, meaning

the history of Indigenous people and settlers – invaders

if you prefer – since settlement, and this is an idea that

has stuck with me. It doesn’t mean that the same traumas

or exploits are shared by everyone, but the history of

their effects and implications is shared by everyone

So it became one of the ideas behind what I’m calling

project 1: my PhD, which later became a book called

Writing Australian Unsettlement. If settlement belongs

to everyone, though again, I’m not suggesting that it

brings everyone benefits, or the same kinds of deficits

then so does unsettlement, the movement back upriver

or perhaps, even, the beginning of new streams. Poetics

though, who cares about that? Well, we all make the

nation, and we all affect the land that we walk on and

draw from for survival. So that’s a version of poetics

yet there is an emphasis in the term on making which

suggests it’s about human making, rather than humans

being made along with everything else. Francisco Gon-

zalez translates a quote from Jean Derrida that “the

soul of a human is not solely or simply human”, and

he continues, “the human is an act or project before

it is a genus or species, and as rational life it is perhaps

condemned to remain a problem, a paradox and even

an oxymoron. It is not given to us as something accom-

plished and it is not as such that we should seek it.“ A

human makes a poem in parallel with themselves, the

poem makes them, and the forces of the land, air and

other beings make the poem, too. If we are to retain the

term, then poetics is a parallel, or accompanying, act

or project of the human. This relates to conclusions I

had and had not reached by the end of project 1, so I

had better go back upriver or start a new stream of

thought here. I want to tell you about the writers in

the book without précis-ing the chapters, though that

would be to think as much as generalising is. I’m

changing the ‘z’s to ‘s’s as I go (i.e. not “generalizing”)

I think it’s something to do with control. If you inherit

a form, then it is to some extent tamed: a body of forms

like British poetry circa 1788, might seem like a farm

yes, with rabbits to shoot, and poachers, and bad weather

and fences, and cows and sheep that act like cows and

sheep. It seems like wholeness but in a horse it means

brokenness. Never mind that in retrospect we see that

William Wordsworth had some funny ideas about or-

ganic farming methods and that Samuel Coleridge was

an early adaptor of German hydroponics. Writing a PhD

for me at least meant trying to make a floor, walls and

roof simultaneously while trying to pretend it’s in a

contemporary style. It’s only later you realise that the

beams spell out your mother’s name or your first pet’s

Or you dream that it does, or you dream you tell a room

full of people that it does. Everyone, no matter how sel-

fish they are, shares. Terms like focus, definition, and

even theorisation, can encourage us in a non-sharing di-

rection. The point of a shared poetics in project 1, was

not just to bring European settler and Indigenous Anglo-

phone poetics into the same study (I was lucky enough

to find a self-termed Chinese “nugget” also): but to o-

pen up Australian poetics beyond that of a British import

or inheritance, increasingly influenced by North American

modernism, with additional Chinese, Japanese and other

effects. The spray from across different oceans of formal

hegemonies and their clashes with a series of increasingly

radical modes (eg New York School, langpo, conceptual

poetry), the drops of which fall on our pages and make

critics think they’re emotional or that letters are becoming

grotesque. This was the disagreement that was meant to

constitute poetry. Was Australian poetry meant to just

try and catch up with what others were doing, using

kangaroos and boomerangs to attract attention? I wish

but mainly such Indigenous elements are thought of

by settler poets as kitsch. So, and I’m speculating a bit

here, the more that the poetries challenging poetries be-

gin to accumulate, and get taught in MFA programs, the

more pressure to justify the things that teachers want to

teach, as well as the need to clarify what’s going on that’s

not as simple as new readings of poems, or large historical

movements, and, perhaps the desire to preserve things as

well. I mean not throw out William Carlos Williams, or

the favourite of whoever you are reading or teaching or

is teaching you. I’m compacting histories both Australian

and North American, and indirectly leading to how I started

reading Marjorie Perloff and Charles Bernstein and how

their approaches became part of my critical vocabulary. Spe-

cifically, Perloff showed how, following Williams, the

page became a unit of reading; her notion of visual prosody

was also important. Perloff showed me how I could approach

anything, no matter how seemingly unliterary, and, in a

relatively conventional scholarly manner, conduct a close

reading of its poetics, and, not, or not just, what Veronica

Forrest-Thomson would refer to as its semantic levels)

Bernstein, more than anyone, showed me that not just

what was deemed poetry was up for grabs, but the way

poetics was practiced, as poetics, not just as a version of

literary criticism, was too. This probably waylaid me a bit

and I would have to say that ultimately my poetics research

and criticism – that is, reviewing – has veered to the fairly

straight in manner. But Bernstein’s proclamation of poetry’s

“aversion to conformity” and his notion of an“anti-absorp-

tive” poetics, following Bertolt Brecht whose aversion to

suspense had already influenced my poetry, were part

of the assemblage I needed to take on the rough, otherly

literate, homeless, exophonic (another useful term from

Perloff) poetics of the colonial archive. I wouldn’t have

written and be giving this talk in lines either if it weren’t

for Bernstein’s verse essays, though his are wilder on the

page, more flood-like than mine. Following the efforts of

the langpo poets there was, then, what seems to me to be

a poetics explosion in the U.S. Suddenly there were heaps

of books about contemporary poetry and its antics to read

What did they have to do with Australia, however? This is

a question. Poetics reading is something that poets share

with each other, and perhaps Australians as much with

British poets as much as North American poets. We use

our greater knowledges of North American poetry to com-

municate, knowing relatively little of each other’s. Some

of it, inevitably, gets into our own poetry and poetics. We

could resist it, it’s more resistable than the movies, TV

and pop music which we are probably legally bound to

consume due to some trade deal. But capitalism doesn’t

determine everything. Giving is important. What I read

is a gift to me, what I write is a gift to the dead. As if they

cared! Rather than fill your heads with names, I will fill

them instead with descriptions. My book begins with an

Irish convict’s son turned bushranger (or outlaw) wanted

for shooting four police and the letter he that he writes in

defence; there’s also a letter by the first (one of two) Abo-

riginals to go to England, enquiring after his former hosts

written in 1796, it’s the earliest text I discuss; then there’s

a diary written in English words and Cantonese syntax by

a Chinese goldminer seeking to be released from an insane

asylum; a coded diary by a wealthy young settler poet

who is having an affair with a married man; a letter replete

with questions regarding the treatment of Aboriginal people

in the 1920s; a prose poem by the son of convicts which

mimics being drunk, from 1850; a quoting game drawn

from memory; an 1897, handwritten, Mallarmé pastiche

with attendant collage of press notices; translations of Ab-

original stockman songs; a compositional exercise by a young

Aboriginal woman in a “Native Settlement” that describes

said settlement from 1930; two unpunctuated diaries by

settler women on the road looking for pasture and accom-

modation; the message texts by droving stockmen, carved

into trees and painted onto water tanks; the clubs of Wirad-

juri people, carved with serifed letters; and finally, the

drawings, incorporating words and letters, of an Aboriginal

stockman awaiting trial for murder of his overseer. These

texts range around the country, but are not from every

state. You could say they were un- or under-networked

texts, in terms of poetics. Some were – and generally this

too is a recent development – networked as historical texts

but I wanted to bring them into the poetics arena. To share

space with the bush ballads and the modernist hoaxes and

the Jindyworobaks (you can ask about any of this in question

time): when summed up in three phrases the known poetics

sound more interesting! I wanted to shift the paradigmatic

division of that between the conservation of English liter-

ature versus adaptation of northern hemisphere inno-

vation in or as poetry qua poetry. Because poetics was

no longer about verse, as, to give another example, some

of Susan Howe’s work demonstrates. It felt like a meta-

conceptual exercise. My mentor as a poet was another

Harrison, first name Martin, and his critical work stresses

the need for new terms for Australian poetics: of not simp-

ly borrowing from the U.S. or Europe. The term sharing

is of course not one, but unsettlement might be, negative

as it is. New terms can best be introduced subtly, over time

as I think no manifesto (that hoary European genre) or other

bout of rhetoric (ditto) will stick. The lack of other relevant

sources in Australian poetics – as they relate to poetry di-

rectly – means that I, and my peers, not only look internation-

ally, but perhaps more readily than we would otherwise

adapt ideas from other Australian sources, such as, for

example, the history of Paul Carter, the environmental

philosophy of Val Plumwood and Deborah Bird Rose

the ethnography of Stephen Muecke. Muecke was involved

in producing a model of shared poetics in the co-authored

book Reading the Country. The book features paintings by

Krim Benterrak, the transcribed talk of Gularabulu elder

Paddy Roe and the written commentary and photographs

of Muecke. The book is devoted to Roe’s country: around

Roebuck Plains, near Broome in Western Australia (or

W.A.). All contributors are credited equally as authors

The project enacts poetics comparativism, across mode

and culture. It is a modest and unique book; a symposium

which I attended celebrated its thirty-year anniversary in

2014. So, I have started giving you lists of names after all

Another one: the idea of my book, of unsettlement, comes

from a local poet and poetry critic, Philip Mead. In his

book Networked Language, which wrenches the canon in

a counter-direction, towards Indigenous poet Lionel Fog-

arty and Greek poet TTO, Mead writes of the breaking

up of settlement. Settlement is not just a euphemism for

the coming of the Europeans to Aboriginal country, eli-

ding the massacres and other destructions, but refers to

a set of policies established at Federation, that is, when

Australia was formed as a nation of states. These policies

included tariff protection and the White Australia policy

which discriminated against non-European migrants. Mead

notes that poetry was not innocent in its cheering the mod-

el that the new rulers had determined on. Poets also pro-

tested in different ways, but such protests and their shades

of radicalism, contradiction – or possibly hypocrisy, were

not what interested me. Rather, I was looking for writing

that, despite being in English, was not itself interested

in, was not participating in the glory of, English literature

(I like the word “glory”, which is associated with heaven-

ly light; according to its wiki, its use has steadily declined

since 1800, but, since around 2000, it is on the rise. Scary!)

But to go back to the Australian, human, inglorious: this

poetics is what I call unsettlement poetics. I’ve tried to

write a fresh version of this, without looking at my book

If you want a less general, more critical introduction, you

can read it for free on my book page on the Palgrave Mac-

millan website. Poetics starts today, but history also starts

today, and I, maybe we, need both. If you’re not satisfied

with what you have, then be ingenious or outrageous in

order to create it. I started a PhD at the age of forty-two

Christ couldn’t have done that. But now I’m trying for a

second miracle, a postdoctoral fellowship to write project

2. Perhaps I can’t be satisfied or perhaps I’m now addict-

ed to research. This project, which has begun in the form

of various papers, is also a shared one. But the emphasis

is not on the space of poetics in terms of the page, nor the

writer, but on species. In particular, Australian native an-

imal species, many of which are more famous than the Aus-

tralian writers I’ve mentioned. The kangaroo, for example

often stands in for Australia. What interests me most is

not the beauty of the kangaroo, suggested by the curve

of its back, nor the movement of the kangaroo, nor the

rhythm or sound of its  name as such, as new to English

as it is, but rather the way that kangaroos and other spe-

cies share space in poems. That means something about

their names of course and how they move. Do they interact?

How? What does this interaction consist of? How does

the human poet share this imaginary space of the poem?

This project is about structure, and address, and agency

It does not assume that the characteristics which animals

(in a poem) possess – that resemble human characteris-

tics – even that of speaking English! – means that the an-

imals are really representing humans or that the poems

are anthropomorphic. All poems, like everything humans

make, will tend to resemble the human. But as Jean Der-

rida states: “the human is an act or project before it is a

genus or species … it is perhaps condemned to remain

a problem … It is not given to us as something accomp-

lished”. If the human is not yet finished then neither is

the poem, and if the human began by imitating the non-

human animal, then the poem is not then “purely human”

(cf the soul, Derrida again). Birds invented song (and dance)

for example, so if you think poetry begins in song, birds

in poems have a particular relation to the poems they ap-

pear in. Of course mentioning a bird in a poem is not the

same as putting a bird in a cage or setting one free. The

word “bird” is not a bird: not even the word flamingo is

but then neither are the words “Helen” or “Dr Zhivago”

humans. (A.H. Chisholm, the author of a book of amateur

ornithology, Mateship With Birds, writes that the robin’s

call is a “word”.) Regarding fantastic animals, or mons-

ters, Galvano Della Volpe says that “the ‘unreality’ or

‘ideality’ of … [creatures like] Ariosto’s hippogryph is

not ‘unreality’ or ‘ideality’ in absolute terms. [It] is con-

stituted by a rationale in the same way as any being in

the real world.” What I’m saying is if an animal seems

human, how do we know humans didn’t copy this ani-

mal and trademark its traits? Are we merely seeing the

human because we’re seeking human structures in every-

thing, perhaps it’s all we can recognise? (see Midgley)

If you think poetry comes from making marks that become

writing, you know animals do this too. That the marks

that became the alphabet often represented animals –

and in the case of Chinese characters (Hegel), tortoise shell

and animal bones were used in their development. And

if an animal’s speaking English or other human language

mightn’t this be more interestingly thought of as relating

perhaps to translation, or parody, rather than a poem’s

representation of humans camouflaged by word/name

substitution? Again, this is poetics, and so is the sentiment-

alisation of animals in poems or other literature. This is

some of the assumed background, not my argument. It’s

too early for an argument, and I think that 24/7, so don’t

wait for it to be later. I mentioned interaction: I am not

interested in animal portraiture as such, or the human

encounter with the animal other, but in poems which in-

clude at least two nonhuman species. Because then you

have more than one relation, and there are more interest-

ing decisions about how these relations are structured

both in writing and reading terms. Sharing too, becomes

an explicit issue. One of the obvious points of entry, then

into what is basically a comparativist project across Aus-

tralian poetry, is the ecological. What is the ecological

trajectory of Australian poetry? Is an ecological poem just

another version of pastoral with new animal names? What

is the human’s role in the poem? Do they have a footprint?

One of the modes of representing species, which recurs

throughout the history of Australian poetry (and the sub-

ject of the paper I gave at Berkeley a few days ago) is what

I refer to as the species catalogue poem, in which species

are listed. A list might seem like a simple structure, and

therefore a good one to start with. But the five I focused

on, from the early nineteenth to the early twenty-first cen-

turies, were all very different in terms of how they the

poem is shared. The first two were about kangaroos: that

is, the species listed, that constituted a catalogue, were

named in order to explain or indicate something about

the kangaroo – and Australia. This is the animal as idea

the kangaroo, not a kangaroo. Both poems (and you can

find them online), “The Kangaroo” by Barron Field and

“Kangaroo” by DH Lawrence, are concerned with the

kangaroo in its signification (and non-signification) of

Australia. Both poems try to explain the kangaroo, using

other animals to do so. In his book on Kafka’s “Zurau

aphorisms,” Paul North writes on what he calls “snake-

work”. North opposes Nietzsche’s ideas of the snake with

Kafka’s. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche proffers two

snake scenarios: one in which the snake is in a visionary

figure’s throat, and Zarathustra cries out for them to bite

the snake’s head off. In a later scene, the snake circles end-

lessly, biting itself. Relating “snake-work” to North’s o-

verall thesis of “yielding”, he suggests that Kafka’s snake

“seduce[s] us away from seduction”, and that Kafka “hopes

to render the snake’s bite harmless, pleasant even”. North’s

remarkable reading is useful, I think, in getting away from

the relations of the animal-as-human idea, and that of the

poem attempting animal mimesis. His reading, rather

presents, the snake with so much agency that it appears

as a twofold animal and idea [Blanchot] and, further, a

snake in conspiracy with the human and the human idea

a fourfold relation at least. It interests me, then, in attempt-

ing to theorise further animal work. What is kangaroo

work? What is lyrebird work? What critical work is required

to make such work look like work? (Using the snake, per-

haps the most overworked species in the business, as a

yardstick.) What of species catalogues? Can animal spe-

cies do group work? Menagerie work? Social work? I have-

n’t written or read about this before. A shared poetics does-

n’t mean that I give you a rehash of the same readings

and ideas I talked about in Berkeley: so what follows is

also new. In Astrid Lorange’s poem “Wolves are Swarms”

a kind of swarm work is being done; or perhaps, rather

catalogue work is presented as swarm work. Lorange takes

Stein’s mode in “Tender Buttons” and adds aliveness –

or hyperaliveness. Jean-Luc Nancy writes about the art

catalogue, and how it is an appendix to the actual list of

an artist’s works in existence. But an artwork’s plaque in

a museum has its own little catalogue of media; so, cata-

logues on catalogues. (Think of the dictionary as catalogue …)

Lorange writes: “The lion’s mane swarms with fleas, a

wolf a symbol./Cosmic egg. GIANT MOLECULE. teeth

fingernail. a rope./sperm, a few sunbeams. catapults. teeth

making a full body./the way we can stimulate a crowd

to riot. ants. ants up skirts.” This stanza is a kind of mixed

description, resembling ingredients for a recipe. It could

be ekphrastic but in the materialist sense of listing elements

of an installation. Verbs support the key term of swarm

while humour derails it. How many species or things are

swarming here? What species does the egg, the GIANT

MOLECULE, the sperm and teeth belong to? Swarm work

is perhaps just that: swarming, keeping possibility alive

A bit later comes this:

  1. the parasite [wolf] doesn’t stop yelling or burping
  2. the parasite [wolf, lion, fingernail] laps swelling waters
  3. the parasite [sheepdog, bee] is a bit free
  4. the parasite [wolf, actor, orbit] is a swarm around a synthesiser
  5. the parasite [a king, knee-deep in silt] is a chain of living beings
  6. the parasite [grub] wastes time talking about tablecloths

The wolf, as parasite, appears three times. Parasite work

(Serres) is non-work, is appropriation of another’s work

It is non-making, non-poetics. It derails aesthetics also

Here parasitism is a form, an excuse, a description, a para-

phrase. The wolf acts but doesn’t insist on itself. Lorange

is not merely making language seem active, but rather

networking writing, or kinds of writing. She is not deny-

ing the humdrum, nor falling into the trap of a hyper-en-

ergised style that would quickly become exhausting. This

is an ecology of writing that both continually reminds it-

self of nonhuman species and things, and that it is a pract-

ice of writing, not of representation. It is a citation of sen-

sation that knows aliveness is qualified. Repetition can

imply sharing: a parasite for every species in the room or

hole. “And the wombat comes out of its hole with its hands

up.” This line, from Corey Wakeling’s poem, “Success”

inaugurates a catalogue of species surrender. Following

the wombat, and repeating the same syntactic formula

are: a fox, a rabbit, a bilby, a brown snake, a platypus, a

wolf, spider, an opossum, a fruit bat and a Bombala. “The

bloodhounds responsible are the poem.” The work of blood-

hounds in the poem is not unambiguously of looking for

criminals; nor are those animals who come out of their

holes unambiguously afraid. Each is given hands in order

to gesture, don’t shoot. Lacan writes that gesture “is cer-

tainly something that is done in order to be arrested and

suspended. It is this very special temporality, which I have

defined by the term arrest and which creates its signification

behind it, that makes the distinction between the gesture

and the act.” This quote, which conveniently puns on the

notion of arrest, makes the gestural pun more apparent

between seizing and stopping. Stop being a bloodhound

(stop being parasited upon by the human) stop being a

success … perhaps, but it seems that those unafraid (in

Wakeling’s poem) are rewarded, and the catalogue returns

in a new, cinematic, form, as the species form pageants

on Brunswick Road. Wakeling’s cinematic gesture allows

a new sharing out of the inner north of Melbourne. Wake-

ling’s non-bloodhound species perform poetics as dance

as gesture. He and Lorange propose new ideas of what

nonhuman animals are and can do (in poems). They are

not excuses for mirrors with their hands up saying we sur-

render to the greatness of humanity, who need bloodhound

technology in order to be a parasite. If anything they are

too busy swarming and interacting with each other to no-

tice humanity. In and out of poems, animals make, share

and transform space: and perhaps model a shared poetics





Benterrak, Krim with Stephen Muecke and Paddy Roe. Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre P, 1996.

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Michael Farrell edited an Australian feature for ecopoetics journal in 2009. More recently he has published an article on poetic craft in an Australian context (in Wasafiri), and is also working on an animal species project. Books include Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo) and Writing Australian Unsettlement (Palgrave Macmillan).

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