Alan Wearne: These Things Are Real and as editor: With the Youngsters

These Things Are Real, Artarmon: Giramondo, 2017, 126pp.
With the Youngsters: Group Sestinas and Group Villanelles, Flinders Lane, Vic.: Grand Parade Poets, 2017, 90pp.

Here are two books which, put together, show Wearne in three of his most important poetic roles: as maker of the best verse narratives Australia has produced, and as satirist and as teacher. Perhaps this final role should be modified slightly since With the Youngsters is not a book about how to go about teaching the writing of poetry at university level but rather an anthology of what students and their teacher have, over the years, produced when faced with the task of writing something collectively in two of the most demanding fixed forms. If anything, then, it might be more accurate to speak of Wearne in his little-commented-on role of explorer of fixed poetic forms. The big verse-narratives – The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – never seem happy to operate entirely in Wearne’s distinctive blank verse and are always ready to rise to the challenge of one of the available forms.

At any rate, of the three roles the one I value most is the verse narrative. Wearne’s two earlier extended narratives are made up of monologues and third person narratives but in the case of The Nightmarkets these are extended pieces. The Lovemakers is rather more complex narratively speaking and interweaves an immense number of shorter narratives into an enormously complex whole documenting postwar Melbourne and Sydney and exploring the relationship between sex and politics, the media and drug cultures: a kind of postwar Australian Comédie Humaine. The shorter narratives in Wearne’s previous book, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, and the five that make up the first section of this book can be seen as either distillations of the longer ones or as examples of the kind of stories which could, imaginably, be woven into something ambitious and thematically wide-ranging, like The Lovemakers.

In These Things Are Real, the five narratives make up a section the size of a conventional book and though the satires, grouped together as “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre”, run to fifty pages, it’s hard not to see them as little more than a light addendum to the book’s narrative core. I’ll have more to say about “The Sarsaparilla Writer’s Centre” later, but, for the moment, I want to focus on the first part of the book which is where Wearne’s genius is to be found. Though they are in no way interlinked, they do have thematic and structural resonances. Two, for example, could be said to be about varieties of violence – domestic and drug-culture – while another two explore the way individuals born in one cultural environment are forced, as they age, to accommodate newer times and the judgements those times pass on the culture of the past: a pregnant theme which Wearne deals with brilliantly.

And then there is “They Came to Moorabbin”, which is placed first. I think it is the subtlest of them and contains a relationship (between Keith and Nance) which is very complex and quite challenging. The characters are born in the twenties (and thus presumably belong to Wearne’s parents’ generation) and inherit the postwar boom years. It’s a period we have met in The Nightmarkets when the narrative steps back from the immediate issue of politics and prostitution and looks at the parents of the politician, Jack McTaggart, in a long monologue in which his mother, Elise, recalls her life with his father, John, one of Menzies’ postwar, ex-military ministers. One way of looking at “They Came to Moorabbin” might be in the light of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier which is built on the relationships between two couples who form a friendship after bumping into each other at a spa: it’s just that in “They Came to Moorabbin”, one of the four is already dead. Iris, an AWAS cypher clerk, marries Keith, a soldier opinionated enough to have extensive, but ultimately limited plans for their postwar future. At Half-Moon Bay, a decade or so after the end of the war, she runs into Nance, whom she had known in the war, who married a major later to become a diplomat after the war (serving in Wellington, Edinburgh and then Cape Town). When he discovered he was dying, he bought a house for his future widow and four children in Moorabbin – Mars as Nance calls it. The core of the poem explores the relationships between Nance and Iris and Keith (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, between Nance and her dead husband). Keith constantly breezes in to Nance’s place doing her tax for her. He seems an embodiment of Australian littleness and the poem suggests that he perfectly represents one aspect of his period while Tony (the diplomat) represents a more ambitious, disciplined, outwardly focussed component of fifties Australia. At any rate it’s a non-love affair and when Nance breaks with Keith it is over his treatment of Iris who bears the brunt of his opinionated whining. Ultimately she isn’t prepared to sacrifice her friendship and stands by Iris in a kind of unspoken woman-to-woman loyalty. Intriguingly, the poem doesn’t stop at the moment that the relationship breaks down (though it is more a slow drifting apart than a melodramatic “scene”) but continues into the future. I don’t think that Wearne often does this: usually the future is suggested at the conclusion of his narratives, a vista, good or bad, predicated on the characters he has been dealing with. The end of “They Came to Moorabbin” is especially bleak: Iris dies, Keith absconds with “some ageing bowling club girlfriend / nobody guessed he had” and we last see Nance, a chain-smoker and drinker “tubed-up for emphysema, a granny in a granny flat, / out the back of her daughter’s”.

Since Keith’s treatment of Iris is a kind of low-level sniping that can conceivably be put under the umbrella of domestic violence, there is a thematic connection between “They Came to Moorabbin” and “Anger Management: A South Coast Tale” which chronicles the relationship between a single mother and an itinerant busker, a “burly, stubbly muso in his thirties”. Whereas the anticipated affair between Nance and Keith never happens, here the anticipated violent outbursts do and, as a result, this is a less subtle poem but still a ruthlessly forensic one:

This could’ve worked except he’s sick 
and stupid. Once is a shock,
twice you’re a failure, but three times
that’s a pattern and three times mate,
matey, sport and Sonny Jim you’re out . . .

“Mixed Business” where violence might be seen as a context seems like an addendum to the world of drug dealing which forms such an important part of The Lovemakers. Its central character is an ex-teacher with a habit and a divorce, living alone on a pension. His dealer, together with his pack, all of whom might be described in terms from Wearne’s earlier “The Vanity of Australian Wishes” as “lulus”, murders a thirteen-year old junior pusher and the central character, together with Bob, a friend from his teaching days, goes to witness the sentencing. The structure of the piece is designed to place the protagonist in between the two visions of the future that his world seems to offer him: a solid, trustworthy sobriety (the kind of person who “never let his parents down”) that part of him wants to access and the incipiently insane world of the user become pusher. Interestingly, whereas the other four narratives cover an extended period of time, so that we can watch the character’s developments or the developing relationship between their character and the rapidly changing one of their society, “Mixed Business” is compressed into three years. It could be because the drug user’s world simply operates at a more frenetic pace or it could be because this is a poem that wants to portray a pendulum-like stasis.

The other two narratives, “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” are portraits of two characters, a man and a woman, both of whom are gay. The first focusses on the character’s love life while the second focusses on the character’s activist history, shaken apart by an affair with a French girl, begun at school age and leading to her rejection when, rather like the central character of Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, she makes a pilgrimage to Europe to renew the relationship only to be snubbed by someone who has changed with the times:

. . . . . 
                            Shy, arrogant girls,
hadn’t we kept each other’s photographs
“Moi sur Les Barricades”, “Me and my Collective”?
Maybe. But what hers had hardly shown
was all the ground she’d filled, she’d travelled,
which wasn’t I knew mere breasts and a boyfriend.
Much worse she couldn’t, wouldn’t announce
Don’t you understand, we’re hardly like that now!
. . . . . 
     Then catching this right-through-me look of hers
I knew what she was seeing Here’s that Australiene again
(some place like that) a pest from my past . . .

Eventually she is rescued from pneumonia by the very forces of middle-class parental conservatism and care that her activism is opposed to. Wearne has a history of being fairly gentle with the activists he portrays and there is something more than merely contemptible about this character who finds that, though she feels free to reject whom she wants, she still has to suffer rejection herself. Times and activist targets change (she moves from a leftist anti-imperialist position to a feminist one as she ages) but so does love: it isn’t the central out-of-time experience that she took it for.

“Memoirs of a Ceb” follows the life of conventional character, Peter, from his adolescence – where he has his “Brokeback Mountain” moment – to a stable adult career (as engineer) and a stable adult relationship with Cameron. Interestingly the meaning of the acronym (a member of the Church of England Boy’s Association) is only explained late in the poem and thus acts as a kind of nagging reminder to the reader that we are dealing with different tempores and different mores. Also interestingly, Wearne chooses to take his narrative, which is structured as a row of decade spaced glimpses, into the near present (2006) when Cameron is waiting to die in a hospice. I think the reason for this is that Peter’s broad perspective on his own life is that it isn’t the discovery of his homosexuality which is the core event of his life but the framing, accepting and accommodating of this. And this is done when, as an adolescent, he meets another member of the congregation, a doctor, who recommends him to a counsellor he knows:

     “I’m Bev,” she announced. “I gather Bob Dalzeil
said how you would never change
and why should you?” Bob told correct . . .

The initial meeting with Dalzeil is brilliantly done – Peter finds him dancing in a conga-line of little kids on his daughter’s eighth birthday – and reminds us how good a conventional story-teller Wearne is, but the point of the entire poem, I think, is that the meeting with Dalziel is more important than the meeting with the first lover (a bodgie met on an “Outreach” mission). When, at the end, a friend asks what would have happened if he hadn’t gone, he says, “I’d have got married, had children, cruised / and spent a life sensing there was something . . . incorrect”.

One feature which “Memoirs of a Ceb” and “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” share is the incorporation of some verse in Wearne’s comic mode. In the former it is the acerbic Cameron who at a holiday house with mutual friends disappears to produce a set of couplets about lesbian Catholic schoolgirls. More importantly, “Waitin’ for the Viet Cong” concludes with a comic piece –

. . . . . 
Some played Dylan, some played Ochs,
     And others Cheech and Chong.
Whilst some just played at (said their folks)
     Waitin’ for the Viet Cong . . . 

It’s a very odd thing to do but is probably a healthy antidote to my tendency to see these narratives as luminous, extremely subtle portraits of people defined by time and place. It’s a kind of sophisticated doggerel – if that’s a tenable oxymoron – and it may be an important feature of Wearne’s style, telling us that there are other ways of looking at this material. It’s worth remembering that something similar happens near the end of The Lovemakers where the otherwise very serious relationship between Neil and Barb finishes up as a set of quatrains full of excruciating rhymes on “Tullamarine”.

This makes a serendipitous segues to the second part of the These Things Are Real, “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre”, because the satirical pieces there are full of “sophisticated doggerel”. As its title suggests the targets are mainly fellow poets though there are political (and religious) attacks later on. There are also some very genial ballades: one addressed to Alan Gould and celebrating the Christian name they share and another celebrating Chris Wallace-Crabbe’s reaching his eightieth year. And there are also some wonderful, gently satirical prose dreams: I especially like the one in which Alvaro de Campos (speaking with a Scots accent) claims that Pessoa is one of his heteronyms rather than the reverse: “Since he has spent time in Glasgow I ask him his opinion of Robbie Burns. I am told that Burns too is one of his heteronyms”.

Someday someone will write about the satirical element in Wearne’s poetry, beginning, perhaps, with especially important ones like “The Vanity of Australian Wishes”. It’s a complicated issue. The conventional definition – that satire is the ridiculing of human vices and follies – is fine as far as it goes but it forces us to ask: who decides whether something is a vice or a failing to be pitied? What right does a poet have to set him- or herself up as a judge of such matters and whom does the poet represent? This is a twenty-first century Australian question, perhaps, rather than second century Roman or eighteenth century English or French one. Under this spotlight, the least equivocal vices and follies are those which contain some inherent contradiction – such as hypocrisy – since there the failing is independent of any viewer’s judgement: it’s a mathematical issue rather than a morally determined one. But even hypocrisy could, conceivably, be judged more sympathetically as a frightened, willed blindness.

There is a very interesting essay by David Foster on satire which, though I’m not sure I agree with it, has stayed in the back of my mind since I first read it in his collection Studs and Nogs more than a dozen years ago. He divides satirists up into two classes: the “toothless” – those “willing to wound yet afraid to strike” – and the “biting” who, in Foster’s terms, are the true satirists, the desperate wounded fighters. Fair enough, but the intriguing element is the recognition that the latter are damaged and that the satire arises out of a personal wound. It’s an interesting position because, in a single step, it renders the question, “What gives anyone the right to set themselves up as an arbiter of acceptable behaviour?” irrelevant. It establishes, for the writer, a stake in the issue.

Wearne, in the light of this essay, wouldn’t appear to be a satirist at all. Partly because there’s often a kind of loving intimacy, born of curiosity, between him and his more extreme characters taken from the media, sporting and drug worlds (there’s not much room for curiosity in Foster’s sense of an extreme satirist) and partly because many of the poems in “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre” come into the category of sharp epigrams (Martial gets excluded from being a satirist in Foster’s classification). But one couplet might well come out of the kind of wounded outrage that Foster requires. A couplet about the 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize for poetry says: “What you see is what you get: / Runner-up to Lily Brett”.

Whatever distress may or may not be hidden behind Wearne’s satires, With the Youngsters is a celebration, a celebration of collective verse-making. It collects twenty-three sestinas and twenty-two villanelles made by writing students mainly at the University of Wollongong as part of Wearne’s poetry classes. Wearne’s “Afterword” describes how the sestina exercise was set up. Each student provides three words, the words are collected and then an outsider is roped in to draw six of them from a bag. This six, in the order drawn, will form the last words of the first stanza. The remaining stanzas can have their last words laid out in the correct sestina pattern and then each sub-group within the class is given the task of writing one stanza. It sounds a lot of fun, especially as the emphasis is on playing with and bending the rules: none of the resulting poems are at all solemn accomplishments.

One’s immediate impression is that Wearne’s method of eliciting the final words – “From you I’ll have a colour, a piece of fruit and something associated with your home . . . from you a verb ending in ing, a movie star and an adverb . . .” – isn’t designed to make a difficult form any easier. Pound, speaking as a war-hungry Bertran de Born in “Sestina: Altaforte”, could choose “peace”, “music”, “clash”, “opposing”, “crimson” and “rejoicing” which doesn’t pose any insuperable problems, but you feel sorry for the class that were stuck with “taa”, “inoculate”, “seventeen”, “wallowing”, “reckon” and “Nazism or for those who got “Bryan Cranston”, “eating”, “bracelet”, “android”, “starry night” and “blimp”. Still, presumably the difficulty is part of the fun. You get an interesting result in a poem like “Marilyn Sestina” where five of the words chosen are reasonably easy to accommodate into what might have been a perfectly conventional poem (“Monroe”, “jumper”, “blues”, “net” and “Rio Bravo”) but one, “water polo”, is extremely resistant and brings a necessary surreal touch to the finished poem.

The villanelle exercise is a little different but allows students to choose lines from other student poems which they think might survive the constant repetitions of that form. I think the results are not quite as satisfying as the sestina exercises. It may be that I’m prejudiced against the villanelle with its oh-so-obvious syntactic variations to accommodate its repetitions but I think it’s a little more significant than this. The villanelle has always seemed a closed form. Its repeated lines are separated by a single line at the beginning but appear together at the end. This gives a sense of it spiralling inwards towards its conclusion. It’s good in that it always provides a sense of an ending but limiting in that it always feels the same. The sestina, despite its rigid rules, seems much more open: it spins out into meanings but always touches base with the form at the beginning of each stanza which has to repeat the word at the end of the previous stanza (surely the most difficult issue of both these forms is to bring that off without drawing attention to it). To lapse into metaphor for a moment: if a villanelle is like a (usually blunt) arrowhead, the sestina is like an unpredictable balloon, ready to set off in unusual directions and only held back by its six repeated words which come together to make a kind of provisional knot in the final three line stanza.

At any rate, With the Youngsters is the kind of book that will be important when criticism finally begins to come to grips with the issues involved in the professional teaching of the act of writing poetry at tertiary level. It is a tribute (or a slightly quirky monument) to Wearne’s impressive achievements in the field. But it also has a profounder connection with Wearne’s own poetry because he has always been an explorer of fixed forms. There are Meredithian sonnets and syllabic count poems in The Nightmarkets and both sestinas and villanelles in The Lovemakers. The villanelles are brilliant in that book because they are spoken by a defence counsel and thus the dramatic situation supports the repetitive nature of the form. The sestinas in the “Making the World Revolve” section of The Lovemakers are brilliant and brilliantly daring in the way they play with the form: dividing it in half, assigning the final three lines to be the opening of a new poem, and so on.

With the Youngsters and both sections of These Things Are Real are prefaced by a large number of quotations. The result isn’t pompous since many of these are whimsical but my favourite is the comment made by Shostakovich to his (then) student, the serialist Sofia Gubaidulina, at his retirement party: “I wish you to continue on your mistaken path”. It would be a good motto to have inscribed on buildings where Creative Writing is taught.