Friday, January 28, 2011

In Praise of Ern

I know very little Australian poetry, beyond that stanza of Dorothea Mackellar's My Country. That's because, back in the mid 1960s, I got a traditionalist Australian education of the kind advocated by Dr Kevin Donnelly and other education conservatives. Australian literature - especially poetry - had only a token presence in the curriculum. I gather little had changed by the 1980s and I hope things have improved one hell of a lot since then. Maybe, finally, senior high school students are getting more than the token presence of one Australian book a year on their reading lists. You'd think that the number would have at least doubled by now.

There's one Australian poet who I reckon every Australian student should know about by the time they finish high school: our most internationally famous poet Ern Malley. Ern and the scandal he created would make a great case study for achieving the goals specified for the Literacy strand of the National English Curriculum in Years 11 & 12:

Students will better understand literary texts and discuss and debate the elements that make a text culturally valuable. Students engage in extensive analysis of literary texts, in terms of contextual aspects such as social impact, purpose and message. They also analyse literature texts for technical aspects such as language, plot and character development. (Students compare past and present texts in relation to themes, purposes or language features, in order to discuss issues of form, content, and structure). Students compose texts that show informed appreciation of plot and character development, effective language use, and representation and manipulation of ideas.
Ern's poetry definitely had a social impact and penetrated the Australian psyche. After that stanza from MacKellar's My Country the only other snatch of Australian poetry I readily remember is the phrase "black swan of trespass" from this Malley poem:
Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495

I had often, cowled in the slumberous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters —
Not knowing then that Dürer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.

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