Neither Here nor There: Suburban Voices in Australian Poetry

By McCooey, David | Australian Literary Studies, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Neither Here nor There: Suburban Voices in Australian Poetry


McCooey, David, Australian Literary Studies


In a 1996 interview Chris Wallace-Crabbe observed: `There was a stage when those of us who wrote about the scorned suburbs were looked down on by scions of the squattocratic gentry, like Judith Wright and Geoff Dutton. Subconsciously, they treated us as lower middle-class -- terribly politely, of course! One reacted against that, and against the restrictions of academic language' (`Interview' 379). Perhaps Wallace-Crabbe had these words by Wright in mind:

   poets writing so-called `city' poetry in Australia have generally tended
   ... to write rather a `family and suburb' poetry, and even if the suburb is
   a natural milieu it is not easy to avoid sounding rather bourgeois when
   introducing motor-mowers. Bruce Dawe has written `suburban' verse once or
   twice very well, once in a love-poem about milk bottles and orange peel;
   but his subject was really love, and his background was transformed by
   that. You can write love-poetry with any background at all, however banal.
   (132-33)

While indicating the status of suburbia in cultural discourse at the time (1971), Wright's comments also say something about representation. If Dawe's `subject was really love' then it wasn't really suburbia, suggesting that if there is no such thing as an inherently poetic subject then it is because `poetic' subject matter is smuggled into the apparently `anti-poetic'.

Can, then, suburbia in poetry be spoken about? Does suburbia have a voice? If the title of Les Murray's `The Quality of Sprawl' suggests suburbia, it does so misleadingly. The poem is, as Paul Kane suggests, an apologia for Murray's poetics (193), as well as an apologia for his country: sprawl is `An image of my country. And would that it were more so' (184). It is curious, then, that the suburbs are absent in the poem, given that `sprawl' is the condition most commonly associated with them. The poem seems to expropriate suburbia's key aspect, leaving it featureless, and voiceless.

Despite over three decades of critical discourse on Australian suburbia, Australian poetry on the subject seems strangely under-represented. Television and tupperware, not terza rima, are supposedly found in suburbs. We know what the suburbs look like, but how do they sound? Does the musique concrete of radio and bird song, sighing trees and power tools find stylized expression? Does suburbia voice itself? Perhaps poetry's apparent lack here mirrors its general minority status. Suburbia has been central in recent prose fiction, television and film (in guises as different as Muriel's Wedding, Floating World and The Boys). In theoretical literature the suburban imaginary emanates from electronic media: film, television and music (with the secondary forms being magazines, novels and plays). Beasts of Suburbia, for instance, concentrates on visual arts and film, not literature. When Diane Powell's Out West moves beyond sociological data it uses film, television and novels to chart the cultural representations of Sydney's western suburbs. If poetry is displaced perhaps it is because this minority art form is not part of a politics of `consumption and display', as Alan Silverstone puts it (20). Indeed, contemporary lyric poetry has become conspicuously un-consumed. Is it pay-back time from a space commonly ignored or derided by high modernist cultural theory? Perhaps the displacement reflects other media's greater ability to combine the quotidian with satisfying (but open-ended) narrative structures: soap opera, `current affairs', and the suburban sit-com.

This non-consumption of poetry, however, is paradoxical if we believe the complaints that everybody writes poetry, but nobody reads it. Media stories on the death of a suburban teenager often include lines of poetry, sometimes with a facsimile of the page, proclaiming authenticity. This connection of the suburban teenager with a subjectivity based on the confessional lyric implies poetry to be the accepted mode of self-expression in that suburb of the life cycle: adolescence. …

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