A Turtleneck Poet at Wangaratta Ovalbook cover

Poetry review by RD Wood

The Subject of Feeling

Peter Rose
University of Western Australia Press, 2015
ISBN 1742586880, 9781742586885
88pp, $AU24.99

To be a poet in Australia is to accept that one’s central identification will not be enough to earn a living. Superstars in the ecosystem are tenured academics; but they get paid to teach and research rather than compose verse. Similarly, there are a handful of others who work in the literary bureaucratic establishment and survive as critics and editors. Taken together, both of them represent official verse culture. The term ‘official verse culture’, it will be recalled, was coined by Charles Bernstein in his 1983 piece ‘The Academy in Peril’. In that speech he identified the literary hegemony as being:

The New York Times, The Nation, American Poetry Review, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), Antaeus, Parnassus, Atheneum Press, all the major trade publishers, the poetry series of almost all of the major university presses.

Even if those institutions still operate, and regardless of Bernstein’s absorption into them, times (and, for ‘us’, places) have changed. We could though identify a type of ‘official verse culture’ operating in Australia today. These are the organs that may gather a large amount of funding from the Australia Council and/or receive institutional support (mainly from universities). They maintain standards, or in other words, police the boundaries at the level of form, content and style. To my mind they include, but are not limited to, Meanjin, Overland, Southerly, Westerly, Island, the Griffith Review, Australian Poetry Journal and Australian Book Review. One need only mention these periodicals rather than extend it to publishing houses and other formats.

Peter Rose has been editor of Australian Book Review since 2001, which is the publication that may receive the most amount of government funding of any that reviews and contains poetry (almost $1m since 2008). He is then an ambassador for contemporary Australian official verse culture and is firmly ensconced in the literary bureaucratic establishment. That this book – The Subject of Feeling – has been published by UWA Press, which is one of two university publishers who pay genuine attention to poetry, suggests that he is well placed, politically speaking. Given that style is never more than an extension of context, what are we to make of his writing however?

The Subject of Feeling is precise and observant, but it also borders on the uninteresting and dated. There is a certain Eurocentric high cultural conservatism (‘The Vendramin Family’) contrasted with an invisibly white agricultural nostalgia (‘The Elders’). It is more often a case of the subject matter doing the work rather than the poet. Matters that are serious such as death, loss, regret are made to perform the heavy lifting. One notices this when the gaze is turned to the everyday. Suddenly, it all seems flat rather than profound (‘Jape’ and ‘Patent’).

Throughout, there is the centrality of the ‘I’ (‘Gerrigong’ and ‘Mere Instances’), but it is not propulsive, more circumspect and self-involved. There is very little of the world out there in here; lots of telling but no showing. The only Political references are outdated (‘In the Bar’). There is, of course, nothing wrong with the quotidian (see Lyn Hejinian’s My Life or even Gwen Harwood), but surely the quotidian bumps against the structural more than in The Subject of Feeling if one is inclined to see? To avoid politics or ideology, to be silent, is to avoid, in some sense, a meaningful engagement with the world.

This is an observation of its form too. For the form is simply good prose with sensible line breaks, organised, you guessed it, left side ragged. Why this has become the norm for poetry is another question, whether it should be is another one altogether. But it is here unfailingly. This is not to say The Subject of Feeling is not enjoyable or even impressive because of it. But rather, the work demanded of the reader is minimal. And that may be what compels readers to pick it up – it is easy, which might be a hallmark of official verse culture now. For me however I simply wanted poetry that is more challenging, more autonomous, denser, allusive, worthy of re-reading. Consider ‘Beckett’s Cashmere’, which illustrates many of these points:

Saturday. Interminable.
Proofing done, I visit the park,
note the remnant grass
amid drought. Beyond
gangly cricket in tufts.
Fluent Indians hook ball
after ball. I sit with my book,
Antonia Fraser’s life of Pinter.
Every few chapters Beckett returns,
Ever more gnomic.
‘Won’t you stop talking?’
he says to a bolshie actress,
then plays Haydn at the party.
Someone once told me about
Sam’s stylish cashmere,
unexpected as the mutt
that approaches my bench,
sniffs and moves on.
Day almost done
though never quite twilight,
a philosophical slip takes
an astonishing catch in the dust.

At the level of content one notices the weekend pursuits of the pale male stale - the happy, easy silencing of women (anachronistically ‘bolshie’ too); the fetishisation of the Indian (I assume the poet approached them to confirm, or maybe even deny, their citizenship); the borrowing of cultural capital (threefold) from the metropole without a critical eye. It all smacks of something so colonial as to be embarrassingly antiquated. And it is not confined to this poem. For example, one reads in ‘Dux’: ‘I always thought of her as remote,/stately, oriental, though she was not,/but handsomely dark certainly,/languid too as she went on stage’ (italics mine). Cringe-worthy.

On the Readings website Vrasidas Karalis wrote that there are ‘unsettling gestures’ in The Subject of Feeling. But, what are gestures compared to such settled forms? What too of attending to Michael Farrell’s notion of unsettling – this work does not do that. In The Australian Peter Keneally makes a comment on Rose and loss, without seeking to understand the integrity of the whole at the level of style and consistency of voice. Peter Craven in The Sydney Morning Herald brings up the issue of authenticity and reality, but how can one maintain this? As Karl Krauss wrote: ‘the surface is the depth’. What of the politics of artifice and performance such as this? Asking this is suggestive not only of Rose’s work, but the discourse deemed appropriate around it – the official verse culture that operates ‘here and now’ in other words. And, to my mind, that discourse needs further interrogation. Rose is simply one starting point amid many.