Poetics, Writing, Thought: Fragments from the Harrisonian Institute: against “priority” in Poetics, Writing, Thought

Jason Childs


Martin and I first spoke about launching a series of seminar-events at University of Technology Sydney, dealing with contemporary research on the relationship between creative and critical practice, back in early 2012. He’d had the idea in mind for some time. Indeed, he had already come up with the title we would end up using for the series: “Poetics, Writing, Thought”. On the evening of the first event, in his introductory comments, Martin recalled the moment he had thought up this Heideggerian-sounding phrase. What he had hoped to produce as a kind of logo for the series, as he put it, was a “mobile graphic, where each of those terms would sit on top of each other and each of them would actually become reversible”—a kind of animation in which those three terms would jostle with each other, such that there was “no priority” amongst them.

When we finally got around to organising the series in early 2014, the generative ambiguities in this title informed our approach to its programming. By this time Eddie Hopely and Brenton Lyle—like me, doctoral students under Martin’s supervision—had become involved as co-organisers. In Martin’s words, the four of us sought to create an “open shop”, “a space of crossovers” for different disciplines and methodologies and discussions, in which not only poets, literary writers, critics and theorists, but also visual artists, dancers, and makers of other stripes, as well as teachers and cultural organisers, could meet to explore the “latticework” of the contemporary as it registered across (and so carried them beyond the established boundaries of) their proper areas of concern. The series hoped to respond, as Martin put it, to the fact that “so many of the old distinctions” between domains of enquiry and praxis have “not only fallen away, but are meaningless”. It would respond to this crisis, not with any comprehensive programme or manifesto, not with an attempt to be conclusive or assert a new order, but rather in a spirit of open-endedness and curiosity. What, we would attempt to ask, is the meaing of poiesis at the present moment? What does it mean to think or write, to form materials or to make marks, in our own time?

The result has been a wonderfully diverse and engaging—and, as Martin had hoped, “multiple”—conversation. Each month, Poetics, Writing, Thought has invited two presenters to offer audiences a window into their work, and has encouraged those audiences to explore that work’s implications. The content of our presentations has ranged across, and articulated surprising connections between, new and in-progress work in, among others, literary and artistic practice, aesthetic and cultural theory, and critical and experimental pedagogy. The form of these presentations has also varied greatly: from traditional lectures and academic papers to experimental writing workshops to poetry readings and improvised performances. Although Brenton and Eddie have taken 2015 away from the series, I am proud to say that Poetics, Writing, Thought has not only continued through a second year, but has grown in popularity. It has benefited from the generosity of leading thinkers, both from Australia and overseas: Astrid Lorange, Anthony Uhlmann, Tom Lee, Deborah Bird Rose, John Mateer, Michael Farrell, Dalia Nassar, Alice Grundy, Rory Dufficy, Sam Twyford-Moore, Lachlan MacKenzie, Justin Wolfers, Kate Fagan, Rebecca Giggs, Amy Ireland and Baylee Brits, to name a few. Importantly—and as the preceding name-drop suggests—just as Poetics, Writing, Thought has sought to bring established theoretical and practical paradigms into conversation with emerging critical and creative vocabularies, it has attempted to place more established thinkers and practitioners alongside, and in open discourse with, their emerging colleagues. It has also benefited from a generous, thoughtful and engaged audience. All of this proves the merit, I think, of Martin’s impulse to bring such a discursive space into being.

It also, of course, speaks quite clearly of the Harrisonian sensibility—and indeed of the ethos of what has become colloquially known as the Harrisonian Institute (that large group of students and colleagues who developed in significant ways under Martin’s guidance). Martin is perhaps most widely celebrated as a “philosopher-poet”—that is, as a poet preoccupied with issues normally considered the purview of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, ethics. Yet a significant part of what lies ahead for us in the reception of his work is precisely, I believe, a questioning of any putative priority of such terms as philosopher and poet within it. I say this not only in view of the highly accomplished and challenging body of critical and theoretical work he produced on the nature of writing, meaning and experience—in the composition of which his own poetry and that of others served as a prompt and a probe—but also in light of the importance to both his poetic and critical-theoretical writings of undertakings often considered “outside” the work of writing proper. In particular, I am thinking of the arts of speaking and listening in which modern practices of both philosophical and poetic writing and reading hold their ancient roots. Martin held reservations about the term dialectic, but he was a master of the Socratic dialogue. Pedagogy, which went energetically hand-in-hand with performance, was not peripheral to Martin’s life as a thinker: it was at its centre. Or, perhaps more accurately, the metaphoric of centre-periphery, of planet-satellite, broke down in his case. Martin sought, with great style, to intimate an alternative cosmology, one in which the old distinctions and antinomies could be discarded. As with writing, thought and poetics in our series’ title, none of his activities—philosophising, poetising, writing, teaching, speaking, listening—yielded a “final” end or result. Only together did they make up the fabric, the latticework, of his oeuvre.

For those who never had the experience of being in a classroom with Martin, I hope these selections from Poetics, Writing, Thought will serve as a thought-provoking sample of some of these “extra-poetic” elements of his work. For those who had the good luck to be his students and colleagues, they may serve as a small piece of empirical evidence for the magic which anecdote so often attributes to him as a teacher and interlocutor. I have included snippets from three sessions: the first session, which featured Eddie Hopely and Sarah Schwartz; the fifth session, which featured Astrid Lorange and Tim Gregory; and the sixth session, which featured Martin himself, alongside his long-time friend and colleague Deborah Bird Rose—his final public appearance, recorded just hours before his death. The excerpts from the first session feature the introductory comments from which I have quoted above. Those from the fifth feature comments on pedagogy and pedagogical institutions that I think are of special interest when thinking about the nature of series. Those from the final session are the most important, however, and therefore more extensive represented. Here Martin speaks at length about his own poetic project, with particular emphasis on issues of ecology, and gives a beautiful reading—again, his last—of “White Tailed Deer”. Excerpted from the original recordings, elements of the context for Martin’s comments are inevitably lost. In a way, though, I think it’s fitting that these sound files are offered here in fragmentary form. There are various grounds one might offer for such a claim, but to me perhaps the strongest is to do with the phenomenology of the Harrisonian classroom: in conversation with Martin, I frequently had the feeling that I’d only glimpsed a small part of some larger structure. Of the traces of Romanticism in his thought, the notion of an always-withdrawing Absolute may be one of the most important: there was always more to see, more to say and hear. (Listeners are warmly invited to find the full recordings on the Poetics, Writing, Thought website.)

My deep thanks to Nick Keys, who provided invaluable assistance with technical matters throughout 2014, and did so much to help Martin attend these sessions even as his health failed, and to Juleigh Slater, who has frequently helped to organise facilities for the series and promote the events. I would also like to thank Stephanie King and Justin Wolfers for their committed support for the series. A grateful nod, too, to those who have been captured in these recordings: Astrid Lorange, Eddie Hopely, Deborah Bird Rose, Luke Johnson, Nick Keys, and Brenton Lyle.

Listen Now: Poetics,Writing, Thought: The Sound Files


Jason Childs is a writer and researcher. He has written for Seizure, The Conversation and Overland, among others. He is currently completing his doctorate in literary theory at University of Technology Sydney, where he also teaches cultural studies and philosophy. With Berndt Sellheim, he is producing and directing The Distribution of Voice, a documentary addressing Harrison’s life, work and influence (distributionofvoice.com).

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