Introduction: Stick in a Thumb and Pull Out a Plum: Poetry and Consumption

Michael Farrell

 

In the interest of being frugal and saving energy, I am recycling the poetry call out for this introduction. The focus on consumption was partly motivated, however, from the cultural emphasis on recycling which suggests we really are doing our bit if we put our mountains of garbage in the right bins. Do we need to produce so much garbage, and so much of it non-biodegradable?

 

The Moneypower Continuum – Francis X. Healy Jr

 

Rationing Earth – Herb Bentz

 

Global Social Policy: Themes, Issues and Actors – Kepa Artaraz, Michael Hill

 

Are we, collectively, any more advanced than Little Jack Horner,[i] the nursery rhyme plum-thumber of the title above? Don’t we see this attitude in parliament daily? If I can adapt G.F.W. Hegel’s concept of “bad infinity”, and its characterisation by Walter Benjamin as the bourgeois signature: “there is always something more”, a bad infinity is how the right view the earth (or is a part-definition of what right-wing means). It is hard of course to imagine using up the earth itself. It’s hard to imagine sharing for a lot of people, too.

I go to one café regularly to have lunch and see hundreds of people come in and buy takeaway in plastic containers, when they could sit down for fifteen minutes instead. Or, in another café, most of the customers obtain their lunch via Foodora, Deliveroo or Uber Eats couriers: the latter, at least, adding more carbon to the meal’s production. Eating plastic and petrol (and the things that those things eat, like rainforests) is hard to avoid, but we can try not to maximise this process.

Writing consumes, clothing consumes, recycling consumes. Once it seemed the solution to decreasing consumption was decreasing the population, but technological innovation solved conceptual poverty (and everything else, in theory), and, presumably, one rich person can consume more than several poor villages. How do we write about this?

For Judith Wright, fire was a potent figure. She writes about fire in a number of poems, and cites the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Herakleitos, as an epigraph to her book The Two Fires (1955), saying that the world itself is fire. In the title poem, she writes, melodramatically enough, “time has caught on fire”. What does she mean? We might find out through attending to the predominantly metaphorical use of fire in her poems, such as “Two Fires”, “Flame Tree in a Quarry”, “Wonga Vine”, “Midnight” and others. Wright seems fascinated by fire as a simultaneous signifier of life and death, and its relation to air, or breath. We don’t have to accept Herakleitos, or Wright, of course. Is everything burning up? Or merely burning out?

What about our time, sixty-three years after Wright’s book? There is a philosophical, and practical, movement known as “voluntary simplicity” which cuts down on consumption through living more simply and sparely. This notion, of “voluntary simplicity”, challenges the usefulness of the term “sustainability” which, in its function as a buzzword, encourages consumption. Many poets live a life of involuntary simplicity, at least relative to their earning peers. But how do we think this through in poetry, poetics? The spare lyric may appeal to some, but do we all want to write like every word that comes out of our world-destroying laptops is precious, and should be scratched on a bone in a field and praised in the New York Times? (if you count sales as praise). It sounds like a recipe for kitsch: the opposite of necessary (unless you’re a kitsch fetishist). The earth is not spare. Fire, for one thing, is more baroque.

Reading the poems submitted for this issue, occasionally I’d stop and think, hang on, does this fit the theme? They always did, of course. Consumption runs through everything. My selection offers, I think, not just difference but variety. And if I might refer to parliament again, not just variety of opinion. Please read on.


[i] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46973/little-jack-horner-56d2271c5917a. For a speculative history, see http://www.rhymes.org.uk/little_jack_horner.htm.

 

 

 

Michael Farrell is from Bombala, NSW and lives in Melbourne. His recent books include I Love Poetry (Giramondo 2017) and Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo 2015) and Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945 (Palgrave Macmillan 2015). He edits Flash Cove (flashcovemag@gmail.com).

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