Photograph by Harrison Warne

A Note to Non-Indigenous Australian Poets

Photograph © Harrison Warne


A Note to Non-Indigenous Australian Poets

Judith Wright, (et al.) hit the shin with a sledge hammer when she said Australia is a landscape without echoes for the non-indigenous poet. [1]

If I present my love with a rose we both know the symbolism, we have inherited a cultural history of the array of possible meanings and circumstances to interpret my act. If, on the other had, I hand someone a waratah, what exactly the fuck are they supposed to think? Judith believed it is up to the ‘Australian’ poet to interpret these symbols, to embrace the native flora and fauna of this wild weird land, consult the first peoples about what the waratah symbolises (since way before ancient European poets began to proselytise our collective consciousness), and create our own. It is no easy task. Good luck with introducing new symbolism for the tired old rose, and why would you bother?

You might, however, become a great enough poet to anchor some new symbolism for the Xanthorrhoea in the English language poetry canon, that time-worn image of its grandeur standing like a boy with a spear against an endless blue needs a semiotic Maralinga; what about this strange endemic flowering plants other meanings or uses, traditional or invader, from binding stone tools to gramophone records. Or is it too late? Has the opportunity to contribute gone, like the Emu places beneath freeways and Bunnings carparks.

As a poet you need to ameliorate your images/sensoria for your reader. It is not good enough to simply have a curlew waltz into the poem while mentioning the perfume of lantana. 99% of people on earth, including 99% of the population of Australia wouldn’t know lantana from benzene, (give me simile!) and unless your curlew is doing or implying something other than having you praise it for its very presence, we are going to hit the reject button. Dazzling your reader with your genius for inventing new metaphor to describe the physical appearance of the goddamn curlew is all well and good, and this is why we are emphasising that this criticism is not disrespecting craft, intention, reputation or the length of your publication credits CV; we’ve got a .410 bore and we’re aiming at your subject matter.

We are saying enough already of random native birds entering scenes as a spectacle[2] Describing a bird, no matter how inventive, without meditating on what this bird means to you in this place here and now, is simply sentimental. This is a throw back to the pastoral romantics idealising the very breeze which ruffles the dove feather caught in the hedgerow which tendrils from the cracked amphora of metaphor so dead it’s carbon, and oil itself is now dead, its con to pro ratio outlived.

I see from the biographies of the poets who have submitted work in the past weeks the majority are city dwellers, like myself. I look out the window from my studio now and I see an entirely artificial, cultivated, fabricated, landscaped, shaped, urban scene. We get crows here in the inner city of Brisbane, and I saw a pheasant get her arse torn out by a murder of them recently. There’s a poem in that. I see clouds of flying foxes which come to feast on the sandpaper fig in my back yard, which my neighbour wants chopped down because it’s breaking the foundations of his house. The symbolism in that is a screaming chainsaw. Last time I saw a curlew was on Stradbroke Island and it attacked me in surprise as I ninjaed through the bush, then it did a dance like Margot Fontaine on GHB. I see dead pigeons all the time and hazard signs this time of year warning of magpies wanting brains for their young. I’m seventh generation born of the (they think) conquerors and I feel lost. History at high school was ancient Egypt and the world wars. No one told me the stories of this place. All my ibises are going under council bus wheels or decaying on power lines. I still see day-glo maintenance workers doing their best to train gums into oaks[3] for the past 230 years they’ve been at it, hacking, burning, damming, levelling the ancient with blueprints of Europe in their air conditioned caterpillar cabins, possums and echidnas mutilated in the excavator tracks. The apron strings here have always been chains. The descendants of the aristocracy are still the aristocracy, the rest are all subjects or are still fighting to be, at best, recognised as subjects.

By all means go glamping and write villanelles on all the life that happens out there where you’ll die of exposure if you aren’t prepared, and you are welcome to, just send them to Quadrant instead. We believe you, you’re in touch with nature, you appreciate the majestic refrains of Australia’s native birds and the seductive perfumes of roadkill, sorry, all the wonderful native flora, you want to sing in praise of this country . . . but, please, make it new. The moon isn’t pale, it’s obscured with filthy smog from combustion engines. The wedge tail might be a master of the blue sky mine but it wants a cute joey in its guts and it’ll have you too, when you run out of Gatorade and Musashi Performance Nutrition Energy Bars out in the never-never, away from the omnipresent gaze of CCTVs and Peter Dutton’s spies.

If your people were not here previous to 230 years ago you are an alien, you are out of sync, you’ve been living in a transplanted British rose garden among edifices of American free market capitalist ideology all built on top of a land that is ancient, beautiful, fading and will soon be lost. The souls that have sung the songs of country as they tended her sacred yards with hands and blood since before clocks, I see sitting alone at bus stops in West End, and they are watching. You are in their dream here. ‘Australia’ is not a place, it’s an idea, a spectre, a drawing on a map with a word stamped on it in bold over a thousand nations rubbed out with guns.

Deep down inside, my fellow poets of Terra Australis [4] you are smashed and aching. There are real cultural divides in this country which several eternities of commissioned studies by Governor Generals or professors of psychosocial theory will not solve. As creative artists we have a real responsibility to get all Evel Knievel on canyons, gullies, ravines . . . whole valleys and shit.

Right now, on ABC parliament question time the head of the SS in Australia is laughing at a man for wearing a cheaper suit than his own. This is the very kind of person who has convinced the majority of writers who I read that ‘voice’ is representative of a politic. It might be, but we won’t publish it if we’ve heard it before.

In the art of literature voice and style are indistinguishable; you need to be heard, and to be heard you need your own unique style, and to find your own unique style you need to speak your own language like a foreigner. You can write what you want, any agenda or thematic you believe or please, but you need to make it new, cause your readers (your editors and your publishers) to believe, experience, feel, hear and know what you are saying.

Stop submitting ‘Still Life with Bush Stone Curlew’ and write us some fucking poetry.

Think forward, answer back.

Dr Brentley Frazer
Bareknuckle Poet

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  1. Poetry In Australia – Judith Wright. (1963). National Film & Sound Archive. Retrieved 5 April 2018,
  2. Debord, G. (1970). The Society of the Spectacle. Retrieved 5 April 2018,
  3. Noonuccal, O. (1992). Assimilation – No! Australian Poetry Library. Retrieved 5 April 2018
  4. Terra Australis (Latin for South Land) is a hypothetical continent first posited in antiquity and which appeared on maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. The existence of Terra Australis was not based on any survey or direct observation, but rather on the idea that continental land in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the south. This theory of balancing land has been documented as early as the 5th century on maps by Macrobius, who uses the term Australis on his maps In the early 1800s, British explorer Matthew Flinders popularised the naming of Australia after Terra Australis, giving his rationale that there was “no probability” of finding any significant land mass anywhere more south than Australia. The continent that would come to be named Antarctica would be explored decades after Flinders’ 1814 book on Australia, which he had titled A Voyage to Terra Australis, and after his naming switch had gained popularity.

© Bareknuckle Poet ~ Journal of Letters & Individual Authors 2018. Edited by Dr Brentley Frazer, A. G. Pettet & Guests. All works published by Bareknuckle Poet ISSN 2204 – 0420 are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Published by Bareknuckle Books ABN 23 626 812 677  Brisbane, Australia. Est. ~ BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA 2014