Stephen Harris reviews Southerly: The Political Imagination

Ali Alizadeh and Ann Vickery, eds, The Political Imagination: Postcolonialism and Diaspora in Contemporary Australian Poetry. Southerly vol. 73, no. 1, 2013

 

Stephen Harris

 

In her essay entitled “(Un)Belonging in Australia: Poetry and Nation”—one of several fine pieces in this issue of Southerly arranged under the title The Political Imagination—the scholar Lyn McCredden quotes at length from a poem by Ken Bolton, aptly named “Horizon”, in which he refers, by way of sardonic aside, to “history’s ironies, reversals/sarcasms so de rigeur” (47). Bolton’s rueful observation (from his 2006 collection At the Flash and at the Baci) gains a topical edge with regard to current political developments in the rapidly shifting realm of global geopolitics in 2014. According to recent reports, the beleaguered Portuguese government, struggling to contain further economic decline amidst mounting instability in Europe, has found itself dependent on its former colony, Angola, for financial security. The “ironies” and “reversals” in this instance point up the immediate political uncertainties (and, for many patriotic Portuguese, the confounding perversities) of the globalised economy in the twenty-first century, and, with a sharper emphasis, the wider and deeper complexities attending the constantly shifting notions of, claims to and ideals informing national identity in the present time.

Lyn McCredden’s excellent essay addresses the challenging subject of the political nature of poetry in contemporary Australia when, as the subtitle of this issue indicates, the “political” is viewed from the perspective of postcolonialism and diaspora. To discuss the relationship between poetry and nation is to consider the often-uneasy association between art and politics, uneasy for the compelling reason that for those advocating and practising art (very broadly conceived), the expectation or insistence that creative expression “be political” can only mean compromise of the presumed integrity of the artistic endeavour. To preserve art from the worldly demands of the state in this way is of course to rely on an idealised, perhaps otiose notion of artistic practice, as naïve in its romanticisation of the “saintly” artist as the insistence that all art is irreducibly political reductively simplifies the subtle nature of the interaction. As McCredden and her fellow contributors in this issue make clear, the effort to interpret and understand the dynamics informing the relationship between poetry and nation continues to generate as many questions as it does answers; or to paraphrase a comment the writer Daniela Kambaskovic reproduces in her lively and keenly thoughtful essay, “Breaching the social contract: the migrant poet and the politics of being apolitical”, the act of interpretation is and should be a “fight”.

The title The Political Imagination will itself raise immediate questions concerning the precise nature of allegedly “political” role and effect of the “imagination”. To talk, as several writers do in this issue, of “postcolonial poetry” is ambiguous at first glance: does this define and classify such poetry according to a shared postcolonialist politics—that is to say, a common identity determined by particular set of ideological convictions (a shared dogma or program)—or does it signify poetry written in the historical period known as the “postcolonial”? If the former, who indeed confirms and confers such an identity upon an otherwise varied, even disparate, collection of writers dedicated to honing distinctive and individual expressive voices? Critics might well be justified in making claims that poetry has the power to subvert powerful ideologies of the nation-state, but in actual practice, poetry is very unlikely to command the kinds of popular audience that cues up weekly to watch competitive cooking shows on mainstream television. This is to say, if to be political is to “bear witness”, then who is listening and to what actual effect? If the “political imagination” refers to someone other than the kind of person who is actively interested in the machinations of politics (whether for their own immediate ends or as a kind of anthropological subject of interest), then it must also be conceded that poetry in its very nature—that is, in its characteristic preoccupation with language in all its mutability and electrical intricacies, semantic nuances and expressive subtleties—is always to some extent at odds with the interests of an allegedly “political imagination”.

My selective use of Bolton’s poem in the above example illustrates the crux of the issue in terms of both the writing and reading of poetry. As poetry, Bolton’s observation is significant for its archly self-conscious unoriginality, which is to say that in the context of the poem he retails a cliché, albeit, a cliché smuggled into a kind of fractured soliloquy: “try to seize upon that greatness/which is available to me/ if it is available at all/(am I facing the right way?)/thru art./The view is/ quintessentially Australian, which is its/problem – for me – tho not classical/& with its history’s ironies, reversals/sarcasms so de rigeur” (47). This kind of “talk” becomes something of a comic contortion of self-deprecation, in which the poet answers himself (as it were) with a disarmingly rhetorical question: “I never wanted to be postcolonial/or colonial just modern which is/the joke on me – but who wants to be a category?” (47). Certainly, the theme of national and political (and politicised) identity is central in this statement, but the rhetorical question underscores the point in the most poignantly political terms: “who wants to be a category?”, indeed; and who presumes to design and impose such categories on another, poet or otherwise? Moreover, the poem also tacks across the subtly nuanced terrain of subjective consciousness and the intersecting modulations of performative voice and artistic persona, of perception and rhetorical “act”, and so resists the at-times narrowing political meaning the more insistent critic might wish to impose.

Such reservations are far less quibbles than important qualifications that to my mind confirm the strength and value of this issue of Southerly. Indeed, I think the editors David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (with guest editors Ann Vickery and Ali Alizadeh) have assembled a timely and engagingly varied selection of critical essays and creative works in this volume. Importantly, the essays offer complementary perspectives on the vexed question of identity in its many (often contentious) aspects and understandings. In particular, all make reference to, and several work very explicitly and deftly through, the problems pertaining to postcolonial critical theory itself and, by immediate association, the very value and purpose of criticism at large.

In their editorial, Ann Vickery and Ali Alizadeh identify the point on which the debate pivots: the diasporic experience—denoting as it does the diffusive modes of “selving” proliferating across social, cultural and political boundaries—continues to press against the imperatives of what might be called postcolonialism’s “official” program, the insistence on sustained resistance to the monologic and hegemonic. As Ali Alizadeh and Penelope Pitt-Alizadeh rightly assert in their illuminating essay “Metapolitics vs. Identity Politics: (Re-)Radicalising the Postcolonial”, developments in critical theory over the last two decades “have highlighted the problematics of postcolonial theory and the limitations of tropes such as Indigenous or diasporic cultural identity” (57). In other words, the politics of postcolonial literary criticism as praxis—the prescribed modes of interpretation—are themselves directly implicated in the question of the political imagination. In concert with Alizadeh and McCredden, Lucy Van and Michael Farrell take up the issue in ways that are illuminating and revealing (if, in Farrell’s case, also somewhat faltering as a result of an overly cautious positioning with regard to various theoretical perspectives), whereas Timothy Yu, Adam Aitken and Peter Minter offer more animated and refreshing approaches to the subject.

There is not space here to convey the full range of debate entertained in the essays comprising this volume. Suffice it to say they are of consistently good quality in their scholarly rigour, analytical depth and intellectual vigour. The selection of creative pieces arranged to complement the selection of essays, and the choice of book reviews that closes the collection as a whole, work to complete the volume in a fitting manner. In this respect, Southerly continues to honour and fulfil its role as both an important forum for intellectual and scholarly debate on issues of immediate relevance and importance to the community at large, and a vehicle for promoting the work of writers, poets and artists in Australia.

 

Stephen Harris is currently employed as a lecturer at the University of New England (Armidale, NSW) where he teaches across the field of literary studies, with a focus on American Literature and Australian Literature. As a member of the interdisciplinary research group WRaIN (Water Research and Innovation Network [UNE]), he is also collaborating on projects focusing on ecocritical themes and the relationship between literature and the environment.

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